French Neoclassicism

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French Neoclassicism The 17th century in France, the age of the sun-king LOUIS XIV, witnessed the rise of the neoclassical ideal and, with it, France's three greatest masters of the drama: Corneille, Racine, and Moliere. Following the decline of religious drama in the mid-16th century, the French theater had been slow to develop. The French Renaissance began in 1630 and ended in 1700. It was Pierre Corneille's enormously popular tragedy Le Cid (1636) and the controversy it aroused that set the standards for the rest of the century's dramatic development. Although today it appears thoroughly classical--a drama of a hero, his lover, and their struggle with claims of honor--to the newly formed Academie Fracaise, French Academy, it violated certain Aristotelian precepts. Despite this adverse judgment, Corneille went on to create a string of tragedies--among them Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1642)--that are still mainstays of the French repertoire. Although Cornielle did write comedies, he is primarily remembered for his tragedies. In 1637 and organization called the French Academy was formed. The academy was patterned after the Italian academies, and limited to “forty men of letters.” The guiding force behind the Academy was Cardinal Richelieu (1586- 1642). It was formed to study and codify the French language and literary, including dramatic style. Jean Racine experienced his first success with the tragedy Andromaque in 1667. Three years later, when his Berenice proved more popular than Corneille's dramatization of the same story, his success eclipsed that of the master. Whether his settings were Greek, as with Phedre (1677), Roman, as in Britannicus (1669), or Oriental, as in Bajazet (1672), his major tragedies all touch beneath the classical surface to probe the irrational, fierce, sometimes uncontrollable emotions occasioned by the onset of love. Racine was noted to adapt Greek tragedies, primarily the works of Euripides. He is also noted as France’s most important tragic playwright. Jean Baptiste Poquelin, who took the stage name of Moliere to spare his family embarrassment when he became the manager and leading actor of a struggling theatrical troupe, began his career by adapting Italian farces for the French stage, imitating the improvisational style and character types of the commedia dell'arte. When finally he branched out from farce to write his own comic satires, he both delighted and scandalized his Parisian audiences. His satire was by no means tender; Tartuffe (1664) attacked false religiosity, and the darkly philosophical Don Juan (1665) provoked a number of powerful enemies.

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