Pierre Corneille

Definition

Theater

  • (1606 - 84) French poet and playwright, considered thefather of French classical tragedy. His reputation earned him theinformal title le grand Corneille in his own lifetime.

    Born into a family of lawyers, Corneille worked from 1628to 1650 as crown counsel in a local government office in Rouen. Thesuccess of his first play, the farce Mélite (1629),encouraged him to concentrate on comedy for the next six years. Inthe 1630s he became one of a team of playwrights employed by CardinalRichelieu, but the two men fell out in 1635, apparently because Corneilledemanded an increased share of the takings. The same year saw theproduction of Médée, his first experiment intragedy.

    Corneille's great tragicomedy Le Cid achieved instantsuccess at the Théâtre du Marais in 1637. Ironically,the play that is now considered to have founded the French classicaltheater was denounced by critics for disregarding the unities.Following a critical report by the Académie Française(under Richelieu), the play was suppressed.

    Le Cid was followed by a series of tragedies in thenew classical style, the most notable being Horace (1640),Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643), a story of Christianmartyrdom. The plays, written mainly in rhyming Alexandrines,are remarkable for their formal symmetry and stylized rhetoric. Thereis little external action, the main emphasis falling on the moraldilemmas of the heroic protagonists.

    Despite his reputation as a tragedian, Corneille continuedto write in other genres. His finest comedy, Le Menteur, wasproduced in 1643 with Floridor in the lead, while the spectacle playAndromède (1650) gave a starring role to GiacomoTorelli's stage machinery at the Salle du Petit-Bourbon.Psyché, a comédie-ballet producedin 1671, was written in collaboration with Molière.

    After the failure of Pertharite in 1651 Corneille wrotenothing for the stage for seven years. In the 1660s he found himselfrivalled by the young Jean Racine, who gradually overtookhim in public estimation. He died in comparative poverty.

    Even in his declining days, however, Corneille knew the powerof his reputation. When Molière and the actor Michel Baronadmitted during rehearsals for Titus and Bérénice(1670) they did not understand a passage, Corneille confessed thatneither did he. "Just say the lines as written," he shrugged."There will be some in the audience who won't understand yetwill deeply admire them."

    Corneille is to Shakespeare...as a clipped hedge isto a forest.
    Samuel Johnson
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