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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last Update: November 16, 2007


Neoclassicism in France

From 1550 to 1570


France was beset by civil strife and wars until the 1620 (this is after the death of Shakespeare in 1616). Therefore, adoption of Italian standards and conventions was delayed.

Not many professional companies, theatre were rented and fees charged, and medieval mansions were still used. Improvised farces became popular (France became known for the farce), and many farce actors were famous (such as Gros-Guillaume – "Big William").

In 1625, Cardinal Richelieu became Chief Minister of France. Under his leadership, religious squabbles were squelched, and with peace came more theatre developing.

In 1635, Richelieu established the French Academy – a prestigious literary academy to maintain purity of the French language and literature.

In 1645, Giacomo Torelli is hired to redesign the court theatres. After this, there were always at least two professional theatre companies in Paris, and often more.

With the decline of religious strife and the establishment of the Academy, educated men began to write plays.

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

Le Cid – 1636 – based on a Spanish play. – a tragedy.

Tries to be more Neoclassical – brought into question many elements of the Neoclassical ideal:

Richelieu got the French Academy to judge Le Cid: they praised it whenever it stuck to the neoclassical ideals, but condemned it when it didn’t.

The Academy’s conclusion: Le Cid was not a good neoclassical tragedy.

--The unities were observed; it took place in a single town.

--There was unity of action – no sub-plots.

--Unity of time was observed, but stretched verisimilitude: too much happened in 24 hours (the original story took several years).

--Decorum was violated: the heroine agrees to marry the man who killed her father. No respectable woman of her class would do that, they claimed. Thus decorum is strained.

Le Cid was a popular success, but the Academy’s ruling made the public aware of neoclassical ideals. Corneille eventually accepted the verdict and tried thereafter to adhere to the principles.

THUS: Neoclassicism took over France for 100 years after 1636 and even into the 1800’s.

Jean Racine (1639-1699)

The peak of French neoclassical tragedy.

Phaedra – 1677 – usually considered to be the best of French neoclassical tragedies. Based on Greek.


Molière (or here)– Real Name: Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673)

An actor – playwright.

Headed his own theatrical troupe by 1660.

Wrote most of the plays the troupe did.

Established his troupe at the court of Louis XIV (14th).

Influenced by commedia and by Roman comedies and French farces – he used these forms to ridicule social and moral pretensions.

Less witty that English restoration – more farcical and "slapstick-y".

Clever verbal elegance and wit overshadowed by farcical business (like commedia’s lazzi) and visual gags.

People came expecting to see the bits.

School for Wives 1662

The Miser 1668

Tartuffe 1669

Imaginary Invalid 1673 – he was playing the lead in this play, had convulsions, and died a few hours later. Denied rites by the church – as an actor – but Louis XIV intervened and granted him a Christian burial. (*There are various disputed accounts of his death and burial.)

By 1680, the great period of French Playwriting was over; Corneille and Racine stopped writing, Molière’s company merged with the Marais Theatre to form the Comèdie Française, the first (and still existing) national theatre.


So conservatism wins out. Dominated France.

People tried to copy Molière, Corneille, and Racine.

Neoclassicism wins out IN STAGING AND PLAYWRITING.

Acting is highly oratorical / declamatory.

By 1750, French theatre is tradition-bound.

Actors probably supplied their own contemporary costumes.

Tho’ there were still some illegal theatres for non-mainstream theatre.


You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...

Restoration Theatre in England



This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

Page last updated : November 16, 2007