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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Pierre Corneille (1606–1684)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frederick Morris Warren (1859–1931)
 
CORNEILLE’S life, apart from the performance and publication of his works, is but imperfectly known, owing to the lack of contemporaneous records and allusions. He was born at Rouen, capital of the old province of Normandy, on June 6th, 1606. At his christening on June 9th he received the name of Pierre, after his father and godfather. He was educated in the Jesuit college (academy) at Rouen, and obtained in 1620 a prize for excellence. Choosing his father’s profession, he studied law, and was admitted to the bar on June 18th, 1624. The office of attorney-general in the department of waters and forests was purchased by him on December 16th, 1628. The year following, Mondory, who with a company of actors was probably playing at Rouen, persuaded him to give his (Mondory’s) troupe a comedy he had already written; and the season of 1629–30 saw the play produced in Paris, at the newly established Marais Theatre.  1
  The success of this comedy, ‘Mélite,’ confirmed Corneille in his purpose of writing for the stage and led him to study the principles of dramatic art. While he continued to discharge his legal duties at Rouen, he would frequently visit Paris in order to offer some new play to Mondory, or mingle in the literary society of the capital. So ‘Mélite,’ made up entirely of conversations where nothing happened, was followed by ‘Clitandre,’ a tragicomedy of the popular type, full of bloody episodes. Like ‘Mélite,’ it was in twelve-syllable verse (Alexandrine) and contained five acts. It also showed Corneille’s first attempt to observe unity of time. When it was published in March 1632, a selection of Corneille’s poetry, a part of which antedated ‘Mélite,’ was put with it.  2
  The next two years saw the publication of occasional poems by him in French, and some Latin verse in honor of the King and Richelieu. Before March 1634 he also composed four more comedies: ‘The Widow,’ a character study, noticeable for the attempt to compromise on unity of time by allowing a day to each act; ‘The Gallery of the Palace,’ where the action takes place in the fashionable shops of the day, and in which the modern character of the soubrette displaces the traditional nurse of Renaissance comedy, taken by a man in disguise; ‘The Lady’s Maid,’ a study of this successful substitute, where finally Corneille observes both the unities of time and place, and makes his five acts equal, line for line; and ‘The Palais Royal,’ another topical comedy for Parisians. These four plays are much like their predecessors in lack of action and superfluity of complimentary talk. The same may be said of Corneille’s collaboration on Richelieu’s ‘Comedy of The Tuileries’ (1635). His superiority to his colleagues at this time consisted mainly in his poetic talent and common-sense.  3
  In the season of 1634–35 he tried a tragedy, ‘Medea,’ patterned after Seneca’s Latin drama of that name. It shows an advance on his previous efforts, yet did not come up to his high standard; and he sought a diversion for his disappointment by eulogizing the theatrical profession in a play within a play, ‘The Dramatic Illusion,’ which he gave to the actors of the Hôtel of Burgundy, probably in 1635.  4
  About this time Corneille’s attention was drawn to the Spanish drama, then at its highest point. The storied deeds of Spain’s national hero especially appealed to his temperament, and he selected Guillen de Castro’s ‘First Exploits of the Cid’ as a model for his imitation. A year or more he may have been busy in adapting its complexity of scene and character to the orderly, simple requirements of the French stage. For it was not till the last days of 1636, after unusual preparations in rehearsals and costuming, that Mondory’s company brought out ‘The Cid.’ Its success was instantaneous. The theatre was crowded for many nights. The stage even was filled in with seats for the nobility, to the great annoyance of the actors and the detriment of the scenery. And sixteen years later, Pellisson, the historian of the Academy, could still write:—“It is difficult to conceive the approbation with which this play was received by the Court and public. People never tired of going to it; you could hear nothing else talked about; everybody knew some part of it by heart; children were made to learn it, and in several places in France it gave rise to the proverb, ‘That is as beautiful as The Cid.’”  5
  The history of modern French drama dates from the first performance of ‘The Cid.’ The theme here selected became the typical one. It shows the struggle between love and honor on the part of the hero, love and duty on the part of the heroine. Jimena’s father has insulted Rodrigo’s, enfeebled by his advanced years. He calls upon his son to avenge his honor. In spite of his love for Jimena, Rodrigo shows no hesitation. He challenges the Count and kills him. In the lovers’ interview which follows, Jimena is more distracted from her duty by her love than Rodrigo was, but yet resolves on vengeance. She demands a champion of the king, who objects that Rodrigo should be pardoned, having just saved the city from the invading Moors. Jimena insists: a champion appears, is overthrown, and is spared by Rodrigo, whereupon the king intervenes and orders the betrothal of the lovers.  6
  Since ‘The Cid’ ends happily, so far as the hero and heroine are concerned, Corneille first called it a tragicomedy, but later substituted the title of tragedy. Its general structure is the same as that of his other plays,—five fairly equal acts, subdivided into scenes, with rhymed Alexandrine couplets, excepting in a few lyric strophes. The time of the action is limited to twenty-four hours, but the scene of the action is restricted only by the boundaries of the town (Seville), the different places being marked by a fixed scenery, which presented several localities to the audience at the same time.  7
  His dramatic form and stage properties Corneille had obtained from his French predecessors of the classical school. The mediæval Miracle Plays had practically fallen out of favor nearly a century before ‘Mélite,’ and had been prohibited in Paris in 1548. But the Fraternity of the Passion still occupied the only theatre in the city, and had a monopoly of all the performances in the city and suburbs. Into its theatre of the Hôtel of Burgundy it had put as much of its old multiplex scenery as it could fit into the new and narrow stage. And while it could no longer act the old Mysteries, still it clung to dramatic stories which knew neither unity of time, place, nor even action.  8
  Outside of these playwrights, however, the Renaissance had created a set of men who looked towards classical antiquity for their literary standards. In 1552 Jodelle and his friends of the Pléiade had appealed to this class by acting in Boncourt College a tragedy modeled on Seneca’s Latin dramas. This example was subsequently followed by many writers, who however rarely got their pieces acted, and therefore fell into the way of writing without having the necessities of stage effects in view. Consequently for nearly half a century the best dramatists of France were strangers to the public of the Hôtel of Burgundy, and were drifting more and more from a dramatic conception of the theatre into a lyric one. Long declamatory monologues, acts varying greatly in length and separated by elaborate choruses, were the chief features of this school. Nothing happened on the stage; all was told by messengers.  9
  Yet these dramas, by their very lack of action and scenery, were suited to the limited means of strolling companies of actors; and modifications of them were being played more and more to provincial audiences. Finally in 1599 one of these companies came to Paris, leased the Hôtel of Burgundy from the Fraternity, now tired of its avocation, and laid there the foundations of modern French drama. The purveyor to this troupe was Alexandre Hardy, a man of some education, of considerable theatrical endowments, but lacking in literary taste. True to his classical models so far as the unlettered public of the Hôtel and its scenery would allow, he managed by cutting down the monologues, equalizing the acts, restricting or suppressing the choruses, and leading the dialogue to some climax visible to his audience, to effect a compromise between the partisans of the two schools and educate a new body of theatre-goers. His scenery he could not change, and it still remained a constant temptation to diversity of place and multiplication of episodes. Hardy labored for more than thirty years. It is to his dramatic form, audience, and stage that Corneille succeeded, continuing his work while avoiding his excesses. And aided by the growing taste and intelligence of his public, Corneille could further simplify and refine the style of play in vogue.  10
  Now De Castro’s ‘Cid’ had enjoyed the freedom of the Miracle Plays. It numbered three acts, divided into fifty-three scenes. Its episodes, many of them purely digressive, occupied nearly two years of time and were bounded in place only by the frontiers of Spain. In order to reduce this epic exuberance to the severity of the classical mold, Corneille had to eliminate the digressive episodes, cut down and combine the essential ones, connect the places where the action took place, and lessen the time of its duration. In the French ‘Cid,’ Rodrigo kills Jimena’s father and is betrothed to her in less than twenty-four hours.  11
  This instance alone illustrates the effort Corneille made on himself. It caught also the eye of his rivals and critics. ‘The Cid’ was fiercely assailed for its “inhumanity” and “improbability,” and with the connivance of Richelieu the newly organized Academy was called upon to condemn it. While the opinion of this body was not indeed unfavorable, yet the dispute had so irritated Corneille that he retired to Rouen and for a time renounced his art. When he reappeared, it was as a dramatizer of classical subjects, that dealt with but one episode to a play. But the romantic side still survived in the love affair invariably interwoven with his nobler, sterner theme.  12
  So ‘Horace’ (1640) treated of the fight of the Horatii and the Curatii, and the immolation of a woman’s love to the Roman fatherland. ‘Cinna’ (1640–41) narrated a conspiracy against Augustus, which was undertaken through love for the heroine, but was pardoned by the Emperor’s magnanimity. ‘Polyeuctus’ (1643) showed how a steadfast Christian husband could preserve his wife’s fidelity against the memory of a first love, and how his martyrdom could result in her conversion. ‘Pompey’ (1643–44) recited the death of that leader and the devotion of Cornelia, his wife, to his memory. These four plays, tragedies all, represent in their eloquence, their diction, nobility of thought, and lofty aspiration, the highest development of Corneille’s dramatic genius.  13
  After this period of serious composition Corneille sought relaxation in comedy, and produced from Spanish models ‘The Liar’ (1644) and ‘The Sequel to the Liar’ (1645). Both are superior in dialogue, action, and verse to his earlier plays, and the first remained the best comedy of the new school up to the appearance of Molière. Towards the end of 1645 ‘Rodogune’ was acted, a tragedy to which Corneille was ever partial on account of its highly wrought, exciting solution. ‘Théodore’ (1646), the fate of another Christian martyr, and ‘Heraclius’ (1646–47), preceded their author’s election to the Academy (January 22d, 1647). The Fronde then intervened, and it was not till 1649 that Corneille’s best tragicomedy, ‘Don Sancho,’ was performed. A spectacular play or opera, ‘Andromeda’ (1650), closely followed it. ‘Nicomedes’ (1651) was a successful tragedy, ‘Pertharite’ (1652) a failure. Consequently for the next few years Corneille devoted himself to religious poetry and a verse translation of the ‘Imitation of Christ.’  14
  But the visit of Molière’s company to Rouen in 1658 incited him to write again for the stage. ‘Œdipus’ (1659), ‘Sertorius’ (1662), ‘Sophonisba’ (1663), ‘Otho’ (1664), ‘Agesilas’ (1666), and ‘Attila’ (1667), all tragedies, were the result. Some were successful, but others were not. Molière was now in full career, and Racine was beginning. Corneille’s defects were growing. His plays were too much alike, and gallant talk supplied in them the place of deeds. In 1660 a second spectacular drama, ‘The Golden Fleece,’ had been performed; and the same year he had edited a general edition of his plays, with a critical preface to each play and three essays on the laws and theories of the drama. All this time he had not neglected society and religious verse, and probably in 1662 he had moved from Rouen to Paris.  15
  A retirement of three years followed ‘Attila.’ Then in 1670 Corneille reappeared with the tragedy ‘Titus and Berenice,’ neglected by the public for Racine’s ‘Berenice.’ In 1671 he collaborated with Molière and Quinault on a comedy-ballet, ‘Psyche.’ In 1672 he wrote ‘Pulcheria,’ a tragicomedy, and in 1674 gave his last play, the tragedy of ‘Surena,’ to the stage. Henceforth only supplicatory poems addressed to the King reminded the Parisians of Corneille’s existence. In 1682 he published the final revision of his dramas, and in 1684, on the night of September 30th, he passed away. He had married in 1641. Four children survived him.  16
  Corneille’s contemporaries complain of his slovenliness, his timidity, quick temper, and wearying conversation. He could never read his own plays successfully, and is even said to have spoken French incorrectly. He was reputed avaricious, but was continually lamenting his poverty, and seems to have died in want. He was quite tall, well set, with large eyes and strongly marked features.  17
  Besides his services to French comedy, Corneille may be said to have established the higher comedy in verse, with its decent manners and self-respecting characters. In this departure he undoubtedly owed much to Plautus and Terence, but probably more to Hardy’s tragi-comedies and lighter plays. The chief merit of his style was fine diction, eloquence, and harmony of phrase. His thought was high and noble. As a dramatist he excelled in the invention and variety of his situations. His defects were the reverse of these qualities: rhetoric, subtle sentiment, stiff characters.  18
  The best complete edition of Corneille is Marty-Laveaux’s in the Hachette series of ‘Les Grands Écrivains de la France’ (Great Writers of France), 12 volumes, 1862–68. This edition contains a biographical notice. The most complete bibliography is E. Picot’s ‘Bibliographie Cornélienne’ (Paris, 1865). J. Taschereau’s ‘Histoire de la Vie et des Œuvres de Corneille’ (History of the Life and Works of Corneille) is the best biography (published Paris, 1829: 3d edition, 1869). F. Guizot’s ‘Corneille and His Times’ is the only life that has been translated into English (London, 1857). Of the separate plays, ‘The Cid,’ ‘Horace,’ and ‘Polyeuctus’ have been rendered into English blank verse by W. F. Nokes (Hachette and Company), and these three, together with ‘Cinna,’ have been literally translated by R. Mongan and D. McRae (London: 1878–86.)  19
 
 
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