This article was originally
published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher
Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 170-2.
PIERRE Corneille's first works were comedies, and none too good; but when, at the age of thirty-one, he produced the Cid, there was erected an important landmark in the history of drama. The Cid, it will be remembered, was a Spanish hero of the twelfth century. His deeds were celebrated in many ballads and poems, and had been made the subject of a play by the Spanish Guillén de Castro. Corneille, conscious of the classic bent of French taste, adhered pretty closely to the so-called Aristotelian rules, yet contrived to produce a tragedy which, in depth of passion, poetic fervor and vigor, far surpassed anything that had so far been seen on the Parisian stage. Thus the first important French tragedy had for its subject a medieval though foreign fable, and was a compromise between the romantic and classic schools. Its spontaneousness and boldness were romantic in character; while the conduct of the struggle of the hero between love and duty, with the subordination of all other incidents, was decidedly in the classic spirit. The play was in many respects technically faulty; yet it stood, and still stands, the one practical test of a good play: it acts well.
In 1635, two years before the appearance of the Cid, a group of literary friends, accustomed to meet regularly for the purpose of discussion, had been officially recognized by Cardinal Richelieu and elevated into a national institution under the name of the French Academy. This body of men, inspired by the great Cardinal, reproached Corneille for too close an observance of the classic rules; for "sinning against nature in his anxiety not to sin against the rules of art." This oddity in historic criticism could not have crushed Corneille completely, however, for the Cid had a great success. It had been put on in the theater in the Marais, which was filled; and seats were placed on the stage after the English custom. The merits of the play were the subject of much discussion, and its author almost immediately acquired the position, which he occupied for many years, of the leading dramatist of his country.
French drama is indebted to Corneille not only for its first important tragedy, but also for its first important comedy, The Liar (Le Menteur). Although as a writer of comedy he exhibited undoubted genius, yet his greatest work, both in bulk and in quality, was in tragedy. He wrote thirty plays, choosing a great many historical subjects, several of which had often been used before, such as Sofonisba, Attila, Oedipus. He avowed his allegiance to the so-called classical rules, and for a part of the time he adhered to them. His theory was that the subject of a tragedy should be remote and improbable, with as many striking and extraordinary situations as were compatible with unity of action. His plays succeeded in spite of his theories. As an artist he had boldness, spontaneity, and a love of the marvellous. He was impatient of the austere restraints which the classic spirit imposes upon its followers, and his complicated plots did not easily fall into the mould required by the unities. But he was anxious for the favor of the literary circles, especially for that of the précieuses, and was almost forced to submit to the fashion for classic styles.
Corneille carried on the work, begun by Hardy, of purifying and refining the stage. He claimed with pride that women need no longer be offended by the vulgar license of former times. He was fond of political plays, but made little of the passion of love. When he used that theme, he was apt to become frigid and artificial. He reigned on the French stage like an autocrat, though not without criticism and opposition. Sixteen years before his death the work of the younger poet Racine displaced that of Corneille, whose decline was as rapid as his rise. Fontenelle, his nephew, wrote: "The fall of the great Corneille may be reckoned as among the most remarkable examples of the vicissitudes of human affairs; even that of Belisarius asking alms is not more striking." Nevertheless, Corneille justly ranks as a great figure of French drama. He had much skill in unfolding an intricate plot; and, as a poet, his verse is marked by imaginative power and tenderness.