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THOMAS CORNEILLE (1625-1709)

FRENCH dramatist Thomas Corneille was born at Rouen on the 20th of August 1625, being nearly twenty years younger than his brother, the great Corneille. His skill in verse-making seems to have shown itself early, as at the age of fifteen he composed a piece in Latin which was represented by his fellow-pupils at the Jesuits' college of Rouen. His first French play, Les Engagements du hasard, was acted in 1647. Le Feint Astrologue, imitated from the Spanish, and imitated by Dryden, came next year. At his brother's death he succeeded to his vacant chair in the Academy. He then turned his attention to philology, producing a new edition of the Remarques of C.F. Vaugelas in 1687, and in 1694 a dictionary of technical terms, intended to supplement that of the Academy. A complete translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (he had published six books with the Heroic Epistles some years previously) followed in 1697. In 1704 he lost his sight and was constituted a "veteran," a dignity which preserved to him the privileges, while it exempted him from the duties, of an academician. But he did not allow his misfortune to put a stop to his work, and in 1708 produced a large Dictionnaire universel géographique et historique in three volumes folio. This was his last labour. He died at Les Andelys on the 8th of December 1709, aged eighty-four. It has been the custom to speak of Thomas Corneille as of one who, but for the name he bore, would merit no notice. This is by no means the case; on the contrary, he is rather to be commiserated for his connection with his brother who outshone him as he would have outshone almost anyone. But the two were strongly attached to one another, and practically lived in common. Of his forty-two plays (this is the utmost number assigned to him) the last edition of his complete works contains only thirty-two, but he wrote several in conjunction with other authors. Two are usually reprinted as his masterpieces at the end of his brother's selected works. These are Ariane (1672) and the Comte d' Essex, in the former of which Rachel attained success. But of Laodice, Camma, Stilico and some other pieces, Pierre Corneille himself said that "he wished he had written them," and he was not wont to speak lightly. Camma (1661, on the same story as Tennyson's Cup) especially deserves notice. Thomas Corneille is in many ways remarkable in the literary gossip-history of his time. His Timocrate boasted of the longest run (80 nights) recorded of any play in the century. For La Devineresse he and his coadjutor de Visé (1638-1710, founder of the Mercure galant, to which Thomas contributed) received above 6000 livres, the largest sum known to have been paid. Lastly, one of his pieces (Le Baron des Fondrières) contests the honor of being the first which was hissed off the stage.

This article was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition. Cambridge: University Press, 1911.

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