La Mort d'agrippine
La Mort d'Agrippine is a mix of a revenge story and political intrigue. It seems to me to be a bridge between the political dramas of Corneille and the emotional tragedies of Racine. Agrippine is a fascinating female protagonist in that she is first and foremost a political figure who unashamedly asserts her political power. Although she is searching for vengeance for her husband and reassertion of her son's right to power, she refuses to submit to the emperor. She addresses him in the "tu" form as well as refuses his authority. In comparison to other female protagonists of the period, she is quite unique.
Le Berger Extravagant
The pastoral as a genre dates back to the beginnings of French theatre with Le Jeu d'Adam, and continued to be popular with the upper classes. This play itself is about upper class people dressing up as and playing shepherds and nymphes, which reflects a sort of fantasy of the upper classes for the simplicity of peasant life. This fantasy would be played out a century later by Marie Antoinette when she constructed an entire fake peasant town at Versailles, complete with perfumed sheep. What I found myself thinking about while reading this play was the genre of the pastoral. Comedy and tragedy are easier to define, even with their subcategories of tragicomedy or heroic tragedy or historical drama, etc. The progression of the tragic drama through the ages is fairly easy to track, while comedy is often simply a caricaturized reflection of society. I would argue that the pastoral is an early version of what we today would recognize as the fantasy genre. For a modern audience, the fantasy genre comes in many forms, but high fantasy typically portrays pre-modern agricultural societies, interactions with divine or semi-divine beings, and a sense of moral clarity where good and evil are easily defined. While the line between the pastoral and Tolkein's writing is not as clear as the similarities between Oedipus Rex and Death of a Salesman for example, I think that the pastoral is engaging with this desire for escape into a world which is not our own, a world of magic and gods and pretend for lack of a better term. The characters of this play are quite literally acting out that fantasy by dressing up as different deities and personnages all for a little diversion.
This play includes a prologue in which the sun and the dramatic muse discuss the glory of Louis the 14th's reign, who at the time of the performance, would have been around 13 years old, and 8 years into his reign. Two things strike me as interesting about the play, the first being the almost flagrant pandering to the 13 year old king. The play includes sumptuous details of decoration, with each act requiring different scenery. Multiple characters, gods for the most part, fly in from above. The play ends with almost a complete pantheon of Roman gods flying in on suspended thrones to give their blessing to the marriage. In Act III, Perseus flies in on his Pegasus to defeat the sea monster in battle onstage. This is all a sharp contrast from the other types of drama that Corneille would write, that focused on politics, clemency, the role of the monarchy, etc. All topics that wouldn't be as interesting to a thirteen year old boy as a flying sea monster battle. The moral of the story also seems to be that because Perseus is descended from gods, he therefore deserves whatever he wants, which in keeping with the ideas of divine right to rule, would be a desirable moral for the boy king.
The second striking aspect of the play is the amount of liberty that Corneille took in altering the original plot. To our contemporary eyes, changing a classic story for dramatic purposes is quite common, but this choice will contrast with Racine's writing in which he insists on how little of the original plot he changes. The prevailing idea of the neoclassicists (which Corneille often differed opinions with) was that one should take the forms and the concepts of antiquity and render them palatable for a contemporary Catholic audience. Racine would insist that his plays were little more than translations, despite the many changes that he made to the plotlines to accommodate the Catholic faith. All this is to say that this play is unique amongst its contemporaries, and reads more like a contemporary Avengers film than a neoclassical drama.
LA JALOUSIE DU BARBOUILLÉ
La Jalousie de Barbouille is one of Moliere's early pieces that conforms closely to the Commedia dell'Arte improvisational farces of Italy. The characters are easily identifiable Commedia stock characters: the Doctor is Dottore, Barbouille is Pantalone, Angelique and Valere are the innamorati, etc. The reliance on stock characters makes sense when one thinks about the structure of a French theatre troupe of the period, where typecasting was an essential part of the performance. What Moliere does here is a mixture of Italian influence in the structure of the play - the characters, the lazzi, etc. - while drawing on the history of French farces for the situational comedy. The plot concerns a young wife, Angelique, and her attempts to fool her husband Barbouille while she runs off with her lover or to balls. The themes of infidelity, cuckholding, and marital disputes were extremely popular in the French farces of a century earlier, Moliere has simply taken those farces and developed their plot and length into a longer form play. While this play is nowhere near the length of its contemporary tragedies, it is much longer and more developed than its farce predecessors. This play can be read as an experiment for Moliere, trying out both Italian and French styles while he seeks to develop his own comedic voice.
Don Sanche D'aragon
Like many of Corneille's other plays, this play deals with the role of the king and his relationship to his subjects. This is one of the first plays in which there are multiple female characters with a modicum of power. Leonor, Isabelle, and Elvire. I don't want to be too critical of a 17th century play's portrayal of women, but I constantly found myself confused as to which woman was speaking and how to differentiate them. Obviously in performance the visual markers could differentiate them, but it was also difficult to discern their motives. If they were merely side characters, this wouldn't be an issue, but the play gives the impression that the women are at the center of the story in terms of their political importance. With this in mind, the lack of identification of the political significance of each woman seems to detract from the political intrigue that the play is trying to engage with.
M.A. French Literature Florida State University