A definition

Neoclassical theatre developed in France in the sixteenth century and had a great effect on writing, scenic design, and production. It emerged with the study of Latin and Greek plays, and advanced to plays written in French that followed certain "unities". Plays were judged based on: unity of time, action, and place, along with verisimilitude and decorum to determine if a play was a neoclassical piece. Comedies of this time period are identified by the use of farce and the presence of the ideals of the Commédia dell’Arte . Tragedies followed the "unities", and had a tendency to look back on Greek or Latin plays as references or models.

History behind the movement

First, one must look at the historical background out of which neoclassical theatre developed. In order to do so, one must examine the religious uproar in France at the time, the roles of Cathérine de Médicis and Henry II, and neoclassicism under Louis XIV. These three influences helped to shape the neoclassic theatre works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Neoclassicism emerged during turbulent times in France, in the early sixteenth century. Religious attacks between Catholics and Huguenots (i.e. Protestants) began, and continued intermittently for sixty years. Church plays were banned in 1548 by Henri II, most likely because of the huge religious uproar during this period. The ban on religious plays dealt a painful blow to French theatre, but its prohibition allowed secular theatre to develop. Also in 1548, Henri married Cathérine de Médicis, who was a member of an influential family of Italian merchant princes. She was a strong supporter of the arts, and encouraged performances at court. She also played a powerful role in how Italian influences would affect French theatre. Her children held the throne on two occasions, and they also influenced French theatre with Italian ideals.

Louis XIV, Le Roi-Soleil came to the throne in 1643, and his power was absolute. He believed himself the "living image of God," and his power in France seemed to extend to the heavens. He was the head of the courts, and he had the final say in all legal matters. Another reason his power was absolute was that a capitalist economy was booming in France, and the guilds were decreasing. During his reign, the sense of French nationalism was rising. Huge amounts of money were being put into military budgets, and a more sophisticated tax system was emerging.

Louis lived in Versailles, an ornate palace that became its own, self-sustaining world. Being a strong supporter of the arts, Louis encouraged court productions, parties, and balls. The popular types of art in the seventeenth century were: ballet, baroque opéra, baroque music, perspective painting, and theatre. Versailles was a huge outlet of cultural events during Louis’ reign.

Cardinal Richelieu, who served under Louis, formed l’Académie Française in 1636, which enforced the unity of time, action, and place, along with verisimilitude and decorum to determine if a play was a neoclassical piece. These criteria were the standards all plays were held up against after 1636.

Emergence of neoclassical theatre

New writings in the neoclassical style began to emerge in the early 1500’s. For example, Ravius Textor wrote many Latin Dialogi, which were performed by students at the University of Paris between 1501 and 1524. These writings looked back at the literary influences of the past, and utilized them in that time period.

One playwright, Roilletus, published three Latin tragedies in 1536, which also looked back to the Classics. These were performed by college students. At the College of Guinne in Bordeaux, Latin plays by George Buchanan and Muretus were produced between 1539-1545.

Around this time period, an author named DuBellay wrote a book defending the French language entitled, Défense et Illustration de la langue française (Defense and Illustration of the French Language) . This text encouraged authors to write in French, and to appreciate their language. Around 1540, historical plays (like Oedipus and Antigone ) and critical texts (such as Aristotle’s works) began to be translated into French. Also, authors began to write in French.

Another transition in French neoclassical theatre was began by a group called the Pléiades . They were, according to History of the Theatre, Second Edition, "an association of writers and critics who sought to develop French as the medium for a literature based on classical works" (189). The Pléiades was the association that became l’Académie Française in 1639. Its members developed rules for grammar and prose, enriched language, and published their ideals in their works.

Plays and Playwrights

The first neoclassical plays came out of the Pléiades. In 1552, Étienne Jodelle wrote both the first neoclassical tragedy and neoclassical comedy. They were entitled Cléopâtre captive and Eugène respectively. Eugène followed a Roman farcical style, again, looking back to the past to write in the present. Cléopâtre captive was performed before the king, with Jodelle in the lead role. This established neoclassical ideas in the minds of all. By 1572, Jean de Taille published a preference for the rules, and by that time, most authors were using neoclassical ideals.

Many other neoclassical playwrights became popular during the sixteenth century, as well as one theatrical manager. Robert Garnier wrote eight tragedies between 1568-1583. Most of his tragedies were adapted from Euripides or Seneca, but his most well-know (and least characteristic) play was Bradamante , which he wrote in 1582.

Another noteworthy playwright of this period was Alexandre Hardy, who wrote over 500 plays. Only 34 have been preserved, and they were tragi-comedies and pastorals. Pastorals were developed in Renaissance Italy in the 1400’s. They were created out of interest in satyr plays of antiquity. The main topic of these pastorals was the triumph of love. They first appeared in 1471, and reached their peak of popularity in the late 16th century. From Hardy’s 34 preserved pieces, one can see that neoclassical ideas were very prominent. according to History of the Theatre, Second Edition, he employed the five-act structure, used poetic dialogue, ghosts, messengers, and the chorus to enhance his plays. Although he adhered to many neoclassical structures, he did ignore verisimilitude and decorum. He placed even the most violent scenes on stage. Although he did ignore some of the criteria, he successfully paved the way for future tragedies with his tragi-comedies, and for future comedies with his pastorals. Hardy wrote for one of the most influential theatre managers in the neoclassical period, Valleran LeComte.

Valleran LeComte was the first important theatre manager because he was the first to attempt to provide high-quality theatre to a paying audience. He headed a troupe called "The King’s Players," which was a title honoring that they had performed before the king. Between 1598-1612, Valleran’s troupe was the most influential in Paris.

The three most popular neoclassical playwrights were Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière. They all had different styles of writing, which distinguished each of them. These three competed in Paris during the same time period for audiences, allowing the public to enjoy each style.

Pierre Corneille was the first to begin writing, and the first to cause a huge controversy over the criteria that Richelieu and the Académie Française had created. His play, Le Cid , written in 1637, caused a huge uproar for not following the rules the Académie had established: unity of time, action, and place, along with verisimilitude and decorum. His play did not follow all of the rules, and it was raked over the coals. This is perhaps the reason why it became the first popular tragi-comedy of its time. It did not hold up against the neoclassical model, but yet it is still recognized among neoclassical theatre pieces.

While Corneille broke the rules, Jean Racine adhered as strictly as possible to them. The discipline he applied to his writing was most likely a result of his strict Jansenist upbringing. His tragedies, especially Andromache (1664) and Bérénice (1670) were very popular with the public, but they were also popular with Louis XIV. Louis showed Racine his favor, and his troupe played in Paris. According to Oscar G. Brockett, in History of the Theatre, Second Edition, Racine had a talent at creating "dramatic tension through concentration and characterization." (235) Racine used Greek influences to create his plays, and utilized the idea of predestination that came from his Jansenist background. Each of his characters that had a fatal flaw that eventually caused their own downfall. After Phèdre failed in 1677, Racine left the theatre and became a histographer for Louis XIV. He wrote two more religious pieces before he died in 1684. His plays were very popular, and still are anthologized today.

Molière was the king of farce. He was the most influential playwright of the neoclassical period, and had the largest impact on playwrights after his time. He freely admitted to depicting the failings of humans truthfully. He used farcical characters to depict true character-types of the time period, and was persecuted for attacking human weakness. The characters Molière created were from the family of Commedía dell’Arte's stock characters. Some examples provided by History of the Theatre, Second Edition include: the stupid, cuckolded husbands/fathers, the sassy maid, and the young lovers.

He utilized the criteria of the Académie, as well as neoclassical language (he often used rhymed couplets). Another characteristic of neoclassical theatre that is often apparent in his plays is deus ex machina . In two of his most popular plays, Tartuffe and The Would-Be Gentleman, the conflict is resolved in the end with a letter arriving from the king solving all the problems and providing closure to the story.

Molière also had his own theatre troupe, and their theatre was called the Palais Royal. In 1665, Louis XIV made Molière’s troupe "The King’s Men." He died in 1673 while acting in The Imaginary Invalid . Because he was associated with the theatre, he was refused a Church burial. Louis became upset and, in the end, Molière was buried at night in a small parish. Not long after his death, in 1680, Louis consolidated the Molière-Marais group, which was entitled the Comédie Française.

Producing the shows

Around 1650, actors signed two-three year contracts. They ran on a profit-sharing basis, which meant they split up the profits made after a performance. Troupes usually consisted of eight to twelve members, plus hired men and apprentices. By 1607, women were allowed to play in troupes. The people holding shares in the troupe were called sociétaires, and the people contracted to play minor roles were called pensionnaires.

Little time was spent on rehearsals, which were supervised by the playwright and/or a leading actor of the troupe. Each troupe had a huge repertoire of plays, and they were expected to revive a play on short notice because the play bills changed daily. Also, actors were expected to provide their own costumes, which in some cases provided modern costumes against a historically influenced set.

The actual theatre space

Looking at these theatres, one would see a long, rectangular building from the outside. That is because many of them were converted from indoor tennis courts into theatres. Inside, there was a proscenium arch, with a back wall like an amphitheater, with bleacher-like seating. The stage was 5’-6’ high, and had a small upper platform, at about 13’ above the stage, probably for special effects. There were boxes forming a picture around the stage, and a pit as well.

In 1640, Giacomo Torelli was brought to Paris to design scenery and to install scene-changing equipment. He built a new theatre, the Petit Bourbon, which utilized a pole-and-chariot system, as well as a proscenium arch stage. He also installed the pole-and-chariot system in the Palais Royale. His designs and scene-shifting machines fully established Italian scenic design in France.

Other theatres were operating in France during the time of the strong influence of Italian scenic design. By 1673, there were five governmentally funded theatres: l’Opéra, Commédia dell’Arte , the Hôtel de Bourgogne, the Théâtre du Marais, and Molière’s troupe. During the 1640’s, the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Théâtre du Marias converted to proscenium arch stages as well. The Palais Royal was the first proscenium arch in France, and the first to use the Italian scene-shifting (pole-and-chariot) machinery.

The schedule

With such large theatres, one has to consider the audience that is expected to fill some of the seats. Also, looking at frequency of performance and house percentages gives us a clearer picture today of what theatres were like in neoclassical France.

Before the Comédie Française, troupes performed three shows per week, to smaller houses. If a theatre can seat up to 1,200 people, it would be very difficult (especially in this time period) to sell out a show. According to History of the Theatre, Second Edition,

even Molière’s troupe only brought in about a 20% house each performance. It was rare to produce a play for an extended run of nights. Admission got higher and higher throughout the 1600’s, which began to limit the theatre to only the upper class. This also made the house percentages smaller.

The end of neoclassicism

Neoclassicism began to come to an end when there were only two theatres left in Paris, l’Académie Française and l’Opéra. French politics became more and more conservative. Two examples of the lean towards conservatism both deal with Louis XIV. In 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes (which guaranteed Protestants and Catholics religious equality). Over 200,000 Protestants were forced to leave. Another conservative decision Louis made was to expel the Comédie Italienne for performing a political satire in 1697. Dramatists began to look back to other sources for inspiration instead of looking ahead to new developments, and by 1700, France was deep into conservatism.


Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, Second Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1974.

Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, Third Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977, 1974, 1968.

Goldfarb, Alvin and Wilson, Edwin. Living Theatre A History. McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1994.

Thanks go to Stavr0 for helping with accent/spelling errors.

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