Sadly, French playwrights are often overlooked in comparison to the greats of Anglophone and Greek theatre like Sophocles and Shakespeare. Perhaps with the exception of Molière, most can’t name a single French playwright. To try and right this wrong, I’ve made a list of seven of my favourite acclaimed French dramatists, along with an introduction to their style and most famous plays.
These playwrights were all pioneers of their time, and span the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. I’ve selected only pre-WW2 authors, so you can rest assured that these greats have well and truly stood the test of time.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are plenty of other great French playwrights put there. It’s also worth noting that many on this list, like Victor Hugo for example, didn’t just write plays, but also produced essays, novels, and poetry.
Undoubtedly France’s most well-known playwright, Molière is also generally acknowledged to be the greatest comic dramatist of the West. His comedies were full of social commentary, both analysing and ridiculing different sorts of people, such as the pedant, the social climber, and the misanthrope. This satire often caused a stir among those on the receiving end of the joke, who were regularly members of high society and the upper classes.
Perhaps the biggest controversy of Molière’s career was that caused by Tartuffe, a play that satirises religious hypocrites and various elements of the Roman Catholic Church. After it was first performed in 1664, Tartuffe was denounced by many for its supposed attack on religion and public performance of it was banned for five years.
Among Molière’s inspiration for his work was the Italian commedia dell’arte, which was flourishing in Europe at the time as commedia troupes toured the continent. Nevertheless, Molière’s characters were quintessentially French and rooted in astute observations of social behaviour.
Alongside Tartuffe, Molière’s other great successes include L’Avare (The Miser), Dom Juan, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) and Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). It was during a performance of the latter, when Molière was playing the title role, that he collapsed and died later that day.
Jean Racine (1639-1699)
Also writing during the long reign of Louis XIV, Jean Racine is often considered the French tragic playwright par excellence. His most famous plays frequently draw from the classics, in which he had gained a great understanding during his education at the Port-Royal des Champs.
Phèdre, generally acknowledged to be his greatest work, is based on Hippolytus, an ancient Greek tragedy that was written by the playwright Euripides. Racine and Euripides both address the same story from Greek mythology, but whilst the ancient playwright focused on Hippolytus himself, Racine choose to focus on his stepmother Phaedra (Phèdre).
Jean Racine also borrowed from Roman history, such as in Brittanicus, a noble tragedy which concerns the emperor Nero. As well as these two works, other celebrated Racine plays include Andromaque, Bajazet, Athalie, and Bérénice.
Jean Racine plays are often praised for their poetic use of language, which many believe cannot be translated, or at least not without capturing its elegance and intensity. Nevertheless, since the 1670s, many English translations of his work have appeared.
Despite his talent, Racine retired from the stage at the peak of his career and gained the prestigious position of royal historiographer in Louis’s court alongside his friend Nicholas Boileau. He did return to playwriting though with two Biblical plays (Athalie and Ester) that were created following requests from Louis XIV’s wife, Madame de Maintenon. She asked Racine for plays that could be performed by the girls at the school in Saint-Cyr that she had co-founded, and where she also taught.
Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)
Along with Molière and Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille is acknowledged as one of the three great French playwrights of the 17th century. He is considered to be the father of French classical tragedy, and is best known for his four tragedies Le Cid (1637), Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643), which are collectively known as Corneille’s “classical tetralogy”.
Le Cid, often regarded as his best work, was based on the play by the Spanish playwright Guillén de Castro y Bellvís (1569-31) titled Las mocedades del Cid, which itself was based on the legend of El Cid.
Horace was based on the Roman historian Livy’s account of legendary battle between the Horatii and Curiatii brothers, which was also to be the inspiration for Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Oath of the Horatii.
Cinna was concerned with an assassination plot against Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and Polyeucte told the story of a Christian convert who choses to die a martyr instead of renouncing his faith. (Polyeucte was set at a time when the Roman Empire persecuted Christians.)
The acclaim for Corneille’s “classical tetralogy” has often overshadowed his other great accomplishments, including his contribution to comedy in French theatre. Le Menteur (The Liar, 1643) is the most renowned of his comic plays, and made as great a contribution to French classical comedy as Le Cid did to French classical tragedy. Indeed, Molière later acknowledged Le Menteur as having influenced him, and acknowledged Pierre Corneille himself as the master dramatist.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Although Victor Hugo is most famous in the Anglophone world as a novelist (Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), he also gained recognition for his work as a playwright, in which he continued to champion Romanticism. Indeed, the preface to his first play, Cromwell, proposed the tenants of Romanticism and subsequently became the manifesto for French Romantic dramatists.
Preface to Cromwell is certainly more famous than the play itself, which focuses on Olivier Cromwell, and was only staged for the first time in 1956 in an outdoor production at the Louvre.
The first of Hugo’s most famous plays came in 1830 with Hernani, a five-act tragedy set in 16th century Spain. For its departure from classical traditions, what became known as the “battle of Hernani” broke out on the first night of performance. The young Romantics in the audience were enthusiastic towards the play, whilst the spectators who favoured Classical drama were outraged by Hugo’s mixing of comedy and tragedy, his disregard for the unities of time and place, and his use of “common” language.
In the decade or so after Hernani, Victor Hugo went on to write numerous more plays. He used these works to express his own ideas on politics, but also to create roles for Juliette Drouet, a young actress who he had first begun to have an affair with in 1833. She soon gave up performing, but would remain a faithful companion to Hugo for the rest of her life, performing tasks such as copying manuscripts and managing his correspondences.
Perhaps the most famous play that came after Hernani was Ruy Blas (1838), a five-act tragedy that was also set in the Spanish court, this time telling the story of how an embittered nobleman plots revenge by sending his servant into court, disguised as an aristocrat, to seduce the Queen. However, after his 1843 play Les Burgraves was a failure, Victor Hugo largely withdrew from playwriting, instead focusing on poetry and novels.
Georges Feydeau (1862-1921)
Georges Feydeau was a playwright of the Belle Époque – the period of relative peace and prosperity in French history between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the beginning of the First World War in 1914. During this time, his farces were much enjoyed by Parisian audiences at the Comédie-Française, where they are still performed to this day.
Georges Feydeau made masterful use of the conventional devices and themes of the farce, including highly unlikely situations, mistaken identity, the unfaithful spouse, and misunderstanding. He also relied on highly exaggerated and age-old stereotypes of the cuckold (a man who is unknowingly being cheated on by his wife), the foolish wife, the foreigner, the elderly man or woman, and the handicapped.
Equally though, whilst Feydeau by no means made any serious social commentary, he also ridiculed new fashions and trends. He also made use of elaborate stage design and complex mechanical props to a larger extent than his predecessors.
Of the thirty-nine plays that Georges Feydeau wrote between 1881 and 1916, perhaps the most famous is La Puce à l’oreiile (English Title: A Flea in her Ear), which was first performed in 1907. Drawing from Feydeau’s favourite themes, the play tells the story of a suspicious wife, Raymonde Chanebise, who creates an ill-fated ploy to try to test the fidelity of her husband. The farce features doppelgangers, revolving beds that fling the characters from one room to another, a character with an absurd speech impediment, and numerous mix-ups and misunderstandings.
Some of the other particularly successful plays by Feydeau include L’Hôtel du libre échange (1894), La Dame de chez Maxim (1899), and Occupe-toi d’Amélie (1908).
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732 – 1799)
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was a French playwright and musician (among other things), whose literary fame rests on his comedies Le Barbier de Séville, (performed in 1775) and its sequel Le Mariage de Figaro (performed in 1784). These plays feature the iconic character Figaro, a deft, cunning, and insubordinate hero.
In the first play, known as The Barber of Séville in English, Figaro is the barber of antagonist Dr Bartholo, a bad-tempered physician who keeps his ward Rosine locked in her room because he intends to marry her, even though she detests him. Figaro helps Count Almaviva, an aristocrat who does love Rosine, to win her affection and eventually marry her. In the second play, known as The Marriage of Figaro in English, Figaro tries to keep his future wife Suzanne from the arms of Count Almaviva, who shows himself to a womanizing villain in this sequel.
These two plays by Beaumarchais have been adapted for the opera numerous times: notably, The Barber of Séville was set as an opera by the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (Il barbiere di Siviglia, 1816), whilst Mozart wrote an opera (Le nozze di Figaro, 1786) based on The Marriage of Figaro. Beaumarchais did write a second sequel called La Mère coupable (first performed in 1792), which also featured Figaro. However, this third play is very rarely revived, and the operas that were adapted from it are also seldom performed.
Pierre de Marivaux (1688 – 1763)
Excluding Molière, the comedies of Pierre de Marivaux have been performed more than any other playwright in French theatre. He wrote some 30 comedies in his career, most of which have romantic themes. Typically, his protagonists are sophisticated young women who find themselves falling in love with a man despite themselves, often to their own confusion or even despair.
The romances in his plays often encounter social barriers related to status and wealth. Indeed, Marivaux’s plays are sometimes noted for their realist elements as well as their comic elements: his servants are three-dimensional characters, and the social milieu of his plays are accurately represented.
Probably his most famous play by Pierre de Marivaux, which includes these features, is Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (Game of Love and Chance, 1730), a romantic comedy in the commedia dell’arte tradition. In the play, a young lady, Silvia, receives a visit from her fiancé, Dorante, who she is yet to meet. To gain a better insight into his character, she swaps places with her servant, Lisette. However, she doesn’t realise that Dorante has done the same, and has swapped places with his valet, Arlequin. She soon finds herself falling in love with Dorante disguised as a valet, much to her disconcertment.
Pierre de Marivaux didn’t receive a huge deal of acclaim during his lifetime, but is now considered a great classic of French theatre. Indeed, the term marivaudage was initially coined by his critics to mean a style of dialogue that was excessively precious and overly sentimental, but later began to be used in admiration of his dialogue, which is superbly subtle, full of wordplay, and reflects both the refinement and sensitivity of his époque.
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