The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

French neoclassicism

BEFORE

1637 Pierre Corneille’s “tragicomedy” Le Cid is performed in Paris to popular acclaim, but criticized by the Académie française for not observing the classical unities.

1653 Earliest performance of The Rivals, the first of Philippe Quinault’s prolific output of comedies, tragicomedies, and lesser known tragedies.

AFTER

1668 Jean de la Fontaine adapts his collection of Fables from classical sources, including Aesop and Phaedrus, stretching the metrical verse of the time.

1671 Molière, Corneille, and Quinault collaborate on Psyché, a tragicomic ballet.

1677 Phèdre continues Jean Racine’s series of tragedies on Greek mythological themes.

A fascination with all things classical overtook Europe during the Enlightenment period (1650–1800). The ancient Greek ideals of form, clarity, and elegance inspired a neoclassical movement in all the arts, with France leading the way in the field of literature. The classical influence was most apparent in French drama, which during the 17th century adopted a reinterpretation of the conventions of Greek theatre, as described in Aristotle’s Poetics.

This stylized drama in verse frequently took the form of tragedies, which often reflected Greek mythological themes (a notable source of inspiration for Jean Racine), but there was a growing public demand for comedy, which was met by the witty plays of Molière (1622–1673).

A comedy of manners

Molière’s major contribution was the “comedy of manners”, satirizing the mores of the time with larger-than-life characters such as Alceste, the protagonist of The Misanthrope, whose cantankerous rejection of politesse (superficial, insincere politeness) is challenged when he falls for a society girl, Célimène. Fooled by her flirting, he begins to act in exactly the manner he despises in others, but reverts to his usual character when criticizing the sentimental poem of a nobleman. This gets him into legal trouble, and loses him friends, so he seeks solace (in vain) with the flighty Célimène. While poking fun at Alceste’s misanthropy, Molière also exposes the hypocrisy of 17th-century courtly manners, in the spirit of the comedies of the Greek dramatist Aristophanes.

The success of Molière’s comedies, including The School for WivesTartuffe, and The Miser, marked the beginning of an era of elegant, witty theatre that continued through the 18th century. The genre caught on in England, inspiring a line of work that can be traced from Restoration comedy, through Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (and novelists such as Jane Austen), to Oscar Wilde.

See also: Oedipus the King • Candide • Le Cid • Phèdre • Pride and Prejudice • The Picture of Dorian Gray