Rules, Rule-Breaking, and French Neoclassicism: Crash Course Theater #20

Rules, Rule-Breaking, and French Neoclassicism: Crash Course Theater #20

Everyone knows, you need a bunch of rules to make good theater. That’s what the French thought in the 17th century, anyway. The French Neoclassical revival had a BUNCH of French playwrights following a bunch of rules. Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting plays of the era broke those rules. Today, we’ll talk about the rules, and we’ll talk about Racine (who followed them), and Corneille (who was not so much a rules guy).

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Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course
Theater, and today’s episode will take place in one location, in one revolution of the
sun, and involve only one plot. Because we’re in early modern France. And if there’s one thing the French love,
it’s raw milk cheese, and rules. [[YORICK DROPS IN WEARING A PROFOUNDLY AHISTORICAL
BERET]] OH, right, and fashion. Good one, Cue Ball. Today we’ll be looking at the French embrace
of neoclassicism, the playwrights who rocked it, and Le Cid, the play that scandalized
France by following neoclassical rules in weird, absurd and possibly immoral ways. Allons-y! INTRO
The Renaissance arrived pretty late in France. After political upheaval and religious wars,
the country finally settled down in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries
with the help of the boy kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV alongside their ministers, Cardinal
Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. All were enthusiastic proponents of the theater. Yay! Still, French playwriting had a slow start. Editions of Terence appeared late in the fifteenth
century, followed by translations of Greek tragedies and Aristotle’s Poetics. A few playwrights tried out some Latin dialogues,
and a couple of Seneca adaptations began to circulate. Turns out, authors and intellectuals needed
about a century to think about Classical Drama before they began writing Neoclassical drama. And the result of all that thinking? That’s right: rules. The French framework for neo-classical drama
first arose around 1550, when a group of seven French authors called Le Pleiade set up some
rules for writing. Many of their ideas were absorbed by the Academie
Francaise, founded in 1636, which created more rules. Following Le Cid—which we’ll talk about
in a moment—the Academy standardized their system, and articulated five main rules for
plays, allegedly based on classical models. Here are your neoclassical must-haves:
Number One: Verisimilitude. This means that the action onstage must be
believable. No gods cruising through to solve everything,
no ghosts, no monsters, or satyrs with enormous phalli. And Yorick, I hate to break this to you, but
no soliloquies. Breaking the fourth wall and talking directly
to the audience? That is UNBELIEVABLE. So instead we start getting a lot of friends
and maids as sounding boards. Plays are still in verse, though and still
depict some pretty outrageous situations. But they don’t violate spectators’ sense
of what should happen. Which brings us to NUMBER TWO, Decorum. From Horace, the Academy takes the idea that
drama has to teach and please. And not from Horace, that plays should uphold
and promulgate French morals. Good people have to be rewarded. Bad people have to be punished. No defaming people a la Aristophanes. And no violence. It’s tacky. NUMBER THREE: No mixing of dramatic styles. Comedies are funny. Tragedies are sad. That’s that. No fools for comic relief. No somber moments in the middle of some celebration. Shakespeare: I’m looking at you. Serious plays have to be about serious people,
which basically means: the nobility. And comedies about unserious middle class
and lower class people falling in love. Just stay in your lanes, everybody. NUMBER FOUR: Unities. The French rulemakers decided that what was
good enough for Aristotle was good enough for France. So plays had to embrace the three unities:
Unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Plays had to take place in one revolution
of the sun. In a single location. And follow only one plot. To be clear, though, Aristotle only makes
a big deal about unity of action. He does say in the Poetics that when compared
to the epic, “tragedy tends to fall within a single revolution of the sun or slightly
to exceed that,” but he’s just making an observation. And unity of place, he doesn’t mention that
one at all. The French were out-Aristotling Aristotle! But in a country that finally had a strong
centralized monarchy after a long stretch of ugly religious wars, it isn’t hard to
imagine why unity was attractive. And Number FIVE: Five acts. Each drama had to follow a five-act structure. Why? Because that’s how Seneca did it. And do you know better than Seneca? Didn’t think so. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, there were
some popular plays—early attempts at secular tragedies and a lot of nymphy, shepherdessy
pastoral comedies—but no truly great works. Maybe the mystery play and medieval farces
were still strong influences; maybe playwrights didn’t have the hang of neoclassicism yet. Maybe all those rules make playwriting a little
weird and unwieldy. But by the middle of seventeenth century,
two men had done it: Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille. Also Molière, but we’re going to get to
him next time. Let’s start with Racine, because he follows
the rules scrupulously and elegantly. He was born in 1639, orphaned young, and educated
by Jansenists who taught him a lot of Greek and Latin. Like most classical French playwrights, Racine
wrote in a metrical line called an alexandrine, a twelve-syllable line of iambic hexameter. That’s a dodecasyllabic line if you’re
feeling fancy. And I mean, this is French theater so you
probably are. The line has a pause, called a caesura, right
in the middle. So a perfect twelve-syllable line is composed
of linked six-syllable thoughts. As lines of verse go, the alexandrine is just
two syllables longer than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but it’s a lot less hurtling. It feels… stately. But, a genius like Racine can harness that
stateliness and turn it into something awesome, and pure and furious. Racine’s diction is formal and his vocabulary
much narrower than Shakespeare’s, but this gives his plays a feeling of concentration
and force. Most of Racine’s plays are simple stories
focused on tormented women. They include long, wrenching speeches where
women explain to their maids just how tortured they are. And not much else happens: they’re about
intensely observed feelings that overwhelm the characters. Racine’s characters feel compelled to act
on their feelings even when they know better. They can’t escape their emotions or their
fates. Other playwrights twist themselves into knots
trying to observe the unities, but Racine makes it look easy. He sets his plays right before an emotional
crisis and most of his conflicts are internal, so upholding the unities of time, place and
action isn’t a struggle. Voltaire called him “indisputably our best
tragic poet, the one who alone spoke to the heart and to reason, who alone was truly sublime
without being overdone.” Man these guys REALLY knew how to compliment
one another. Racine’s most famous play is the five-act
tragedy Phèdre, from 1677, based on the Greek myth of, well, Phaedra. Phaedra is married to the great hero Theseus. But while Theseus is away, she develops an
overpowering passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. She would rather die than act on it, but when
she gets word that Theseus is dead, she confesses her love. Hippolytus is freaked out, because duh, but
also in love with another woman. So he rejects her. Phaedra wants to die. She wants to die even more when it turns out
Theseus is alive and almost home. Trying to save Phaedra’s life, her maid
makes up a story that Hippolytus tried to rape Phaedra. Theseus banishes Hippolytus and curses him. He dies, offstage, with some help from a sea
monster. Phaedra’s maid kills herself. Phaedra confesses everything and then kills
herself. Theseus adopts the woman that Hippolytus loved. So maybe that seems like a lot–because it
is–but in Racine’s hands, the compressed action works, and actually doesn’t seem
ridiculous. The unities of time and place feel like natural
choices. Racine has an incredible gift for entering
into extreme psychological states. And Phaedra’s long speeches about her passion,
horror and self-disgust are breathtaking. But when Phèdre first premiered, it wasn’t
a success. Probably because audiences were so hyped up
about Racine’s rival Corneille. Born in 1606, he trained as a lawyer before
moving on to playwriting. Corneille had his first successes with comedies
before moving into tragedies. While he was aware of the neoclassical rules,
Corneille never adhered to them as carefully, or as elegantly, as Racine did. And sometimes that got him into trouble. Corneille’s most famous play is the 1636
tragicomedy Le Cid. Remember how Racine is sublime but not overdone? Well, Corneille has overdone on lock. Le Cid is based on the youthful adventures
of a medieval Spanish military figure, and hoooo boy did it cause some controversy. Before it pops off, let’s take a look at
the action in the Thoughtbubble: Chimene, a noblewoman in medieval Seville,
likes Rodrigue. Rodrigue likes Chimene. Unfortunately, their fathers quarrel: one
slaps the other, and Rodrigue is forced to duel Chimene’s father. Rodrigue kills him. WHOOPS. Chimene is understandably upset. Oh, and also: the Moorish navy is about to
attack. There’s a lot going on. Crushed, Rodrigue goes to Chimene’s house
and tells Chimene’s maid, Elvire, that he wants Chimene to kill him. Elvire tells him to chill out, and he hides
while Chimene confesses that she both loves and hates him. Her plan: Kill him and then kill herself. French neoclassical drama is real big on suicide. Rodrigue reveals himself and is like, great
plan, here’s my sword. But Chimene can’t do it, and Rodrigue has
to leave to go defeat the Moors. Which he does. Offstage. Very quickly. Even the Moors are impressed, naming him Le
Cid, or the Lord. But Chimene’s like—hey, great, way to
save Spain, but hello? We both still have to kill ourselves? The other nobles are like, nuh-uh, and they
set up another duel—have they learned nothing!—and force Chimene to agree to marry the winner. Rodrigue tells her he’s not even going to
try to win. But Chimene’s like, I know I keep saying
you have to die, but I really don’t want to marry the other guy, so make it happen
my dude. The other guy comes back all bloody, and Chimene
believes that Rodrigue is dead. She tries to become a nun, but it turns out
that he’s alive! And now she can marry the man who killed her
dad! After he kills some more Moors. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So all of that supposedly happens in twenty-four
hours! That is one busy day. Right away we can see how Corneille is different
from Racine. Corneille focuses on men with free will; Racine
is interested in women doomed by fate. Racine likes simple plots and complex characters,
and Corneille is the other way around. Le Cid was an immediate success and an immediate
scandal, launching a thousand angry pamphlets—the seventeenth-century equivalent of a tweetstorm. “This play betrays the unities!!!!”, the
cranky pamphlets said. The battle is too short, they griped. There are multiple locations in Seville, they
groused. It’s mostly about Rodrigue and Chimene,
but other action happens! It ends happily! A woman can’t marry the man who killed her
dad! French intellectuals were in a pamphleteering
uproar. So Cardinal Richelieu turned to the newly
created Academie Francaise and asked them for a verdict. The Academy said look, we know people really
like this play, but it violates pretty much all of our rules. It’s implausible, it’s immoral, it takes
a bunch of shortcuts with the unities. But Corneille was like, also look: I’ve
created awesome, virtuous characters and I made the audience feel pity and fear just
like Aristotle wanted, so back off, Academy. Mic drop. But then he stopped writing plays for four
years, and, when he returned, he followed the rules pretty closely. So I guess… mic pick back up. Neoclassicism in France held sway for more
than a century, and its austere style helped make France the dominant European cultural
center of the day. Neoclassicism is persnickety, and it’s hard
to adhere to. But when it’s done well, the plays are incredibly
forceful. And if all you’re reading from this period
are the plays of Racine and Corneille, you’d be forgiven for thinking the French Renaissance
had no sense of humor. But, ah ha mon cher, you’d be mistaken as
well.. Next time: jokes, but French. Until then… curtain.

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  1. Just to be clear, iambs are not a thing in French. The stress always falls on the last syllable of a word and such stress patterns are completely disregarded in poetry; only the number of syllables is calculated.

    An Alexandrin is then a twelve syllable line cut in half by a logical pause (as you had described).

    Also, feminine (ending with "e") and masculine (not ending with "e") rhymes have to be altered repeatedly and singulars (not ending with an "s") have to rhyme with singulars, and plurals with plurals (although singular and plural rhymes needn't alter repeatedly).

    I'd also like to add that hiatuses (vowels following vowels) are forbidden except at the logical pause.

    It's way harder to write alexandrins than iambic pentameter.

  2. French lit song writing etc is alot about lexico-grammatical gymnastics. One's being apt at expressing his or her thought and emotions wilst practicing said calisthenics, is perceived as smarter and more competent inspite of empirical evidence to the contrary. I love it! ALLEZ LES BLEUS! ALLEZ LES BLEU! First i was affraid, i was petrified. Couldn't imagine all my life without you by my side…..

  3. Ah, Racine <3 I love his adaptations of Euripides and Greek myth, like Andromache/Andromaque. All the vigor and tragic force of the original dramatic poets with that extra French flair for despair lol

  4. Some of the French neoclassical remind me a little bit of some aspects of the Comics Code Authority. It’s weird to imagine having to write plays under such strict rules, but it’s even weirder to think about the fact that restricted storytelling happened in a different medium not all that long ago.

  5. The "Alas, poor Yorick" speech is not properly a soliloquy in the sense forbidden by the French Academy. The next words are, after all, "I knew him, Horatio." Hamlet's not talking directly to the audience.

  6. I d'd like to know where you've seen that French Renaissance came late, after the religious wars.

    The peak of French Renaissance was during François the First's reign. Born in 1494, he reigned from 1515 to 1547. The Renaissance is considered to have ended with the religious wars around 1600. Corneille was born in 1606 and Racine decades later in 1639.

  7. I know you’re kidding but “Do you know better than Seneca” is a very while Jocular also wrong and illogical answer. Teach us why, don’t answer leading questions with dead end jokes. And if you don’t know the answer don’t mention anything at all, get a better team of writers. You cheapen your product and discredit yourselves when you do otherwise. Ijs, don’t @ me

  8. as someone who's learnt all of this in french since high school, its so cool to see you explain it so well and in such a fun way! im so excited for the moliere video, his pieces were hilarious!!

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