The literary star in Richelieu’s firmament was Pierre Corneille, for with him French drama became literature, and French literature, for a century, became predominantly drama.

Many experiments had prepared for him. Étienne Jodelle had staged the first French tragedy in 1552. Similar imitations of Seneca followed, all based on the Senecan scheme of tales of violence, psychological studies, and bursts of rhetoric, shorn of the classic chorus, but cramped into the supposedly Aristotelian unities of one action represented as occurring in one place in one day’s time. Aristotle (as we have seen in discussing the Elizabethan drama) had required unity of action or plot; he had not asked for unity of place, he had not insisted on unity of time. But the Poetices libriseptem (1561) of the learned Julius Caesar Scaliger required of all dramatists adherence to Greek and Latin forms; Jean Chapelain repeated the demand in 1630; the arguments that in England had fallen before the wild genius of a man who had small Latin and less Greek won a complete victory in a France inheriting the Latin language and culture; and after 1640 the Senecan form of three unities held the French tragic stage through Corneille and Racine, through Voltaire and the eighteenth century, through the Revolution, the Empire, and the Restoration, till in Hugo’s Hernani (1830) the romantic drama won its historic, tardy victory.

The French drama had no regular home in the sixteenth century, but had to nurse itself in colleges and had to wander from court to court, from hall to hall. In 1598 the first permanent French theater was established at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in the Rue Mauconseil, and in 1600 the Théâtre des Marais was opened in the present Rue Vieille du Temple. In both cases the form was a long central parterre, or pit, where the less opulent classes stood, ate, drank, gambled, quarreled, and watched the performance and their purses; while along the walls ran two tiers of boxes, in which the moneyed gentry sat. Before the reign of Richelieu only a few women with nothing to lose attended the plays. The stage, raised at one end of the rectangle, was so far from half the audience that the representation of thought or feeling by facial expression was almost useless to the actors, and a premium was placed upon rhetoric that could reach the farthest ear. Performances were given in the afternoon, usually from five to seven; the law required them to end before dark, for both theaters were in dangerous quarters of the town. The actors, before Molière, were generally imported from Italy and Spain. Female parts were taken by women, and in the comedies the need for revenue laid a bold emphasis on sex. Church and Parlement tried in vain to cleanse or suppress the comic theater. Richelieu raised the moral level of the French drama by taking some of the dramatists under his patronage and surveillance, by attending performances himself, and by collaborating with Rotrou, Scarron, and others in the composition of plays. Gradually, under his all-seeing eye, the predecessors of Corneille—Gamier, Hardy, and Rotrou—prepared the way for the epochal success of Le Cid.

Corneille had the usual vicissitudes en route to mastery. Born in Rouen (1606), he had the handicap of growing up in a provincial capital distant from the literary stimulations and opportunities of Paris; but his father was a distinguished magistrate able to give Pierre the best available education in the local college of the Jesuits. These zealous educators used drama as a tool of instruction; the students were taught to act in Latin, classical and other plays, and this Jesuit practice influenced the French drama in theme, technique and style. Of course no one intended Pierre to become a dramatist; he was trained for the law, and he practiced it for a time; and the art and habit of forensic eloquence may have shared in molding the oratory that resounds in his tragedies.

At twenty-one, almost simultaneously, he fell into love and poetry: the lady rejected him, and he found refuge in rhymes. Wounded into lasting melancholy and timidity, he acted in ink the dramas forbidden to his blood. Eleven years passed before he found a wife (1640)—and then only through Richelieu’s aid; but meanwhile he conceived a dozen tragedies or comedies of amorous or heroic gallantry. In 1629 he took to Paris his first piece, Mélite; it was performed at the Hôtel de Bourgogne; it was an absurd quadrangle of love and intrigue, but its lively dialogue carried it to success, and Corneille warmed himself before a blaze of fame. Richelieu engaged him, along with four others, to write plays on topics and lines suggested by the Cardinal. Corneille transformed too independently a sketch so submitted to him; his Red Eminence frowned; Corneille withdrew in a huff to Rouen, but continued to receive from Richelieu a pension of five hundred crowns a year.

Stirred and piqued by the success of Mairet’s tragedy Sophonisbe, he abandoned comedy, studied Seneca, and took to Paris in 1635 his Médée. Here for the first time appeared his basic qualities—power of thought and nobility of speech. Henceforth, with some lapses, he would people his stage with men and women of high station, dower them with lofty sentiments, and express these in splendid language and forceful reasoning. The contemporary English poet Waller, hearing Médée, hailed a new master. “The others,” he said, “make … verses, but Corneille is the only one who can think.”132—the highest art is art impregnated with philosophy. From the heroic drama of Rome and Greece, from his Jesuit teachers, from his own somber and solitary meditations—stately Alexandrines marching in his dreams—Corneille achieved a plane of thought and style never before known in French drama, and seldom since.

There was another dramatic literature that drew and formed him. He could derive little from the Elizabethan stage, for that was too negligent of classic rules to fit a classic mold. But Spain, in this age, was mad with theater, showering honors upon Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina and Calderón de la Barca as the only worthy heirs of Sophocles and Euripides, Terence and Seneca. And in the Spanish drama Corneille found a naturally dramatic theme—that code of honor which required a death for every insult or seduction. He learned Spanish, read Guillen de Castro’s Las mocedades del Cid (1599?), borrowed the plot with no more apology than Shakespeare, and wrote the most famous play in French literature.V

Le Cid was performed in 1636. The audience felt that nothing so powerful as this had yet appeared on Gallic boards. “It is so fine,” said a contemporary, “that it has inspired even the coldest ladies with love, so that their passion has sometimes broken out in the public theater. People have been seen in the boxes who seldom leave their gilded halls and fleur-de-lis-covered armchairs.”133 Not many knew that the plot had been borrowed, though Corneille frankly confessed it; all marveled at its entangled subtlety. Highborn Chimène and noble Rodrigue are tremblingly in love. But Chimène’s father, Don Gomès, quarrels with and insults Rodrigue’s old and ailing father, Don Diègue. Rodrigue feels bound in honor to avenge his father; he challenges Gomès and kills him. Chimène, still loving Rodrigue, feels bound in honor to beg King Fernand to behead or banish him; the conflict in her between the “point of honor” and the call of the mate gives the story and her divergent passions an extraordinary force and intensity. Rodrigue offers Chimène his sword and invites her to kill him, but she cannot make up her mind. He goes off to fight the Moors, returns to Seville trailing captured kings and clouds of glory; all Seville sings his name, but Chimène still demands his death. As Fernand refuses, she pledges her hand to anyone who will challenge and kill the man she loves. Sancho takes the task. Rodrigue proposes to let Sancho kill him. Chimène repents of her revenge, begs him to defend himself; he overcomes Sancho, but spares him; at last the code of honor is satisfied; Chimène accepts her lover, and all is well.

For half a season Paris celebrated the beauty and debated the sanity of Chimène. Political overtones were heard. Richelieu had forbidden duels, and in this play duels seemed part of the highest law. The nobles, hating Richelieu, gloried in the representation of an aristocracy that still took the law into its own hands. Nor was the Cardinal quite pleased with the success of one who had balked at receiving his literary directives. He asked his newborn Academy to issue a judicial critique of the play, and hardly concealed his hope that the judgment would be adverse. The Academy prolonged its discussions to let tempers cool; finally, after five months, it published its “Sentiments.” All in all, the verdict was moderate and just. It objected to the apparent exaltation of romantic love, it thought the denouement lacking in verisimilitude, and it saw something indecent and absurdly vain in Chimène’s final words to Rodrigue as he went to fight Sancho, “Sors vainqueur d’un combat dont Chimène est le prix” (Come victor from a combat of which Chimène is the prize). This criticism was handsomely salved with the Academy’s conclusion

that even learned men must grant some indulgence to the irregularities of a work which would not have had the good fortune to please the community so much if it had not possessed uncommon beauties … and that the naturalness and vehemence of its passions, the force and delicacy of many of its thoughts, and the indescribable charm which mingles with all of its defects, have gained for it a high rank among French poems of the same character.134

The Academy never again assumed the office of literary judge. Corneille eased the situation by dedicating the published Cid to the Cardinal’s beloved niece, and to the Cardinal himself his next masterpiece, Horace (1640). Livy135 had told the legend in hisHistory. On the same day, in separate cities, twin sisters gave birth to male triplets—one set fathered by Horatius at Rome, the other by Curiatus at Alba Longa. A generation later the two families were further allied by the marriage of Sabina, daughter of Curiatus, to Horace, a son of Horatius, and by the love of Camilla, daughter of Horatius, for one of the Curiati triplets. But then the two cities stumble into war; their armies come face to face; Sabina and Camilla tremble in the Roman camp, and Sabina sets the feminine theme of the composition:

Je suis Romaine, hélas! puisque Horace est Romain;

Pen ai reçu le titre en recevant sa main;

Mais ce nœud me tiendrait en éclave enchainée

S’il m’empêchait de voir en quel lieux je suis née.

Albe, où j’ai commencé de respirer le jour,

Albe, mon cher pays, et mon premier amour;

Lorsqu’entre nous et toi je vois la guerre ouverte,

Je crains notre victoire autant que notre perte.

Rome, si tu te plains que c’est là te trahir,

Fais-toi des ennemis que je puisse haïr.

Quand je vois de tes murs leur armée et la nôtre,

Mes trois frères dans l’une, et mon mari dans l’autre,

Puis-je former des vœux, et sans impiété

Importuner le ciel pour ta félicité?VI136

So Corneille displays as his subject no mere battle of arms and men, but the conflict of passionate loyalties, the tragedy of right contending with right; and thus inspired, his pen strikes off phrases of compact power, and lines that march with martial step and resounding harmonies.

The Alban commander reminds the Romans that they and the Albans (did Corneille have Catholics and Huguenots in mind?) are of one blood and land, and that it is criminal to dismember Italy (France?) with civil strife; and he proposes to settle the war by a combat of three Albans and three Romans. The offer is accepted, and the women have an hour of fearful happiness. But the Alban chief chooses the Curiati triplets, the Roman chooses the Horatii. The women mourn, and the heroes are for a moment softened by their tears; but Horatius the father, sounding the masculine theme, reproves them for wasting time with women while honor calls:

Faites votre devoir, et laissez faire aux dieux.

Do your duty, and leave the rest to the gods.137

The gods fumble. The three Curiati are slain; Horace alone of the Horatii survives. His sister, Camilla, reproves him for killing her betrothed and denounces Rome and its code of honor and war. Still drunk with battle, he slays her as unworthy to be a Roman. His wife, Sabina, upbraids his cruelty, laments her lost brothers, and invites Horace to kill her too. He tries to persuade her that patriotism is higher than love.

The plot, of course, is incredible, but hardly more so than in Shakespeare. The dramatic is by definition exceptional; dramas would be ruined if they impartially described reality; they rise to art if, by ignoring the irrelevant and selecting the significant, they can deepen us with a fuller understanding of life. Corneille inherited the Renaissance exaltation of ancient Rome; he upheld the stoic conception of duty against those laxities of love that had dominated the French stage before him; his heroes were to be not lovers primarily, but patriots or saints.

He took a saint from the Catholic calendar to dominate a still stronger play. “All the world knows Polyeucte, knows it by heart,” said Sainte-Beuve.138 Here the construction is severely classical, accepting all the unities, yet building within them a complex tragedy of concentrated power. Only the eloquence of the play reaches us in our studies today; we must hear it rolling from the tongues of French actors moving in stately figures over the stage, or under the stars in the court of the Invalides or the Louvre; and even then we must have the French language and French souls, and we must reclothe ourselves in our youthful faith. The plot centers around the resolve of Polyeucte, a proud and cultured Roman newly converted to Christianity, to smash the altar of the pagan gods. The time is the Decian persecution (249–51 A.D.); the place is Melitene, a Roman outpost in Armenia; the scene of the entire drama is the palace of Felix, the Roman governor. All Christians, on pain of death, have been ordered to join in an Empire-wide prayer and sacrifice to the ancient deities for divine support of Roman arms against the invading, encompassing barbarians. Burning with a convert’s zeal, Polyeucte desires by some dramatic action to encourage Christian resistance to the Imperial edict. He is held back by love for his wife, Pauline, daughter of the governor, but, like a true Corneillean hero, he sacrifices love to duty. In the presence of Felix himself he and a friend interrupt the pagan rites; they appeal to the worshipers to turn from the adulterous Jupiter to the God of the Christians, the one and “absolute monarch of earth and sky”; and to expose the “impotent monsters” of the Roman pantheon they mount the altar and dash to the ground the ritual vessels and the statue of Jove. Felix has the violators arrested. Pauline pleads with Polyeucte to repent his sacrilege; instead, he challenges her to join in his new faith. She appeals to her father to pardon him; he refuses; she announces her conversion and prepares to accompany her husband to death. Felix is so impressed that he resigns his office and becomes a Christian. Suddenly the persecution ends; Felix is reappointed, but meanwhile Polyeucte has suffered martyrdom.

All but the martyrdom and the desecration of the altar is Corneille’s embellishment of history; his, too, are the proud insolence of the saint and the violence of the deed. When the author read the play at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, several auditors, including a bishop, condemned Polyeucte as unnecessarily harsh and extreme. Corneille for a time thought of suppressing the play. Its success on the stage brought him to the zenith of his career (1643). He still had forty-one years of life left him, which we shall see him spending in rivalry with Racine; but he could not know that he had already written his three greatest plays—some would say the best in all the history of the French stage. They are so different from the “romantic” drama of Elizabethan England or nineteenth-century France that imagination must aid history to explain their hold upon their time and the theater today. There is romance too in Corneille, as much as in Shakespeare, and passions studied with more than the care and subtletly of Descartes; but, following the classic ideals of the age, the passions, though vigorously expressed, are subjected to “reason”—or to argument. Superabundance of argument is the ballast of these plays, so that they rarely reach the flights so numerous in Racine. Action is kept off the boards; there all is narration, exhortation, eloquence; in Corneille every character is an accomplished raisonneur. For Frenchmen these faults disappear in the splendor of the style and the majesty of the themes. If, in any work of art, we seek nobility, some thought or feeling to lift us above ourselves and the day, we shall find it frequently in Corneille. He wrote as if for statesmen and philosophers; he molded his lines as if composing music; he carved phrases that still haunt the memory of France. Now the classic and aristocratic spirit—of reason checking passion, of form dominating matter—merged with Stoic self-control, Spanish honor, and French intelligence to produce a theater all the world apart from the Elizabethan, and yet, with Racine and Molière, as precious and brilliant in the legacy of mankind.

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