Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thoughts on Corneille

            By the time Cardinal Richelieu chartered the French Academy, Pierre Corneille had already become a successful playwright. His first play, the comedy Melite, was a success when it was performed in 1629. Corneille continued to churn out a series of plays, mostly comedies, for several years. Most notable was The Theatrical Illusion, a meta-theatrical comedy in which a man seeks out the aid of a magician to find his lost son. In a series of illusions, the magician shows the man scenes from his son's life. The scenes become increasingly disturbing to the man until he finds out that his son is actually an actor and the scenes he has been watching come from plays. In the twentieth century, Tony Kushner successfully adapted the play as The Illusion.
            In 1636, Corneille began working on a new play, The Cid, based on a legendary figure from medieval Spain. His immediate source was a Spanish play that did not conform to the unities of time and place that had become increasingly important for the French stage. Undaunted, Corneille compressed events that took place across Spain over a period of years into a single town in a single day. The play features duels, invading armies, and star-crossed lovers. Confined within strict neoclassical rules, the play virtually bursts at the seams. At the end, the play's heroine Chimene agrees to marry the hero in spite of the fact that he killed her father in a dual earlier that day. Audiences were thrilled, but critics were not amused.
            Attacks on The Cid were so virulent that it became a national issue. Seeing a chance to use his new Academy to assert central authority, Richelieu asked the scholars he had chartered to give a definitive ruling on the merits of the play. Corneille agreed. The Academy gave its ruling in 1638, and the results were devastating.
            The Academy gave Corneille credit for at least nominally adhering to the unities of time and place, but it attacked him for choosing a subject in which he could not plausibly comply with those unities. The ruling found that The Cid contained no true unity of action. Even worse, it impugned not only the play's believability, but also its morality in having Chimene marry the hero on the same day he had killed her father. Playwrights should make dramas compatible with the rules of decorum, even if it is at the expense of historical truth, the Academy found.
            In some ways, what the Academy decided was not as important as the fact that it had ruled at all. In France, a government-chartered society was now responsible for deciding the artistic merits of a work of drama. This went far beyond censoring politically and religiously offensive plays, which happened everywhere. This was a challenge to the very notion that a writer knew what was best for his own play. The fact that The Cid was a hit with audiences didn't matter. The Academy had spoken, and the French establishment would now hold the play in contempt no matter how loud the applause might be in the theatre.
            After his humiliation by the Academy, Corneille abandoned drama for a while, but in 1640 he wrote two classical dramas, Horace and Cinna, both of which conformed to the neoclassical rules espoused by the Academy. Though not as exciting as The Cid, these plays still managed to contain the tremendous passion and dramatic reversals characteristic of Corneille. In Cinna, for instance, conspirators plotting the assassination of Emperor Augustus constantly shift tactics and radically alter their rhetoric, keeping the play interesting in spite of the fact that there is little on-stage action. Though Corneille called the play a tragedy, a nearly unbelievable clemency from Augustus resolves the play happily, making Cinna, like The Cid, more of a tragicomedy.
            Corneille continued to write dramas off and on into the 1670s. One notable play, the tragedy Polyeucte, which premiered in 1643, tells the story of an early Christian martyr whose death inspires his pagan wife and father-in-law to convert to Christianity. Two years later saw the first performance of Rodogune, a tragedy set in the Hellenistic period. Rodogune maintains the unities so precious to the Academy, but lays bare adulteries, poisonings, and Machiavellian political maneuverings. It culminates in a terrifying mother bringing down curses upon her one remaining son. This time, the academy did not reproach Corneille for his lack of decorum. He had proven he could play by the rules, and his tragedies would now be accepted.
            In 1647, the Academy elected Corneille to join them, a final mark of his acceptance by the establishment. Corneille's younger brother Thomas also wrote numerous plays and became one of the most successful playwrights of the 1670s. After the elder Corneille died in 1684, the Academy selected Thomas Corneille to take his brother's seat on what was now the greatest artistic fraternity in Europe.