Day Six


The Neoclassical Form and Ideals
     Neoclassicism was a movement involving all forms of art (theatre, literature, and architecture) in which the artist drew upon Classic Greek and Roman models as examples of perfection. Neoclassical theatre observed a strict adherence to the unity of time, place, and action and also placed importance on decorum and verisimilitude (true to life) in playwriting. During the 16th and 17th centuries civil wars and unrest interrupted the development of French theatre. It was not until the mid 17th century that stability returned and French theatre was able to progress. Most French theatre during the 16th century was tied to its medieval heritage of mystery and morality plays but the humanist movement and the access to ancient writers such as Seneca, Euripides, and Aristophanes enabled French theatre to progress. Neoclassical theatre became associated with grandiosity; costumes, scenery and stages were altered to fit with these new ideals. Cardinal Richelieu, Louix XIII’s Prime Minister advocated the adoption of proscenium stages and attempted to establish some standards for French literature, many of his ideas came from Italy. The French neoclassicists recognized only two genres of drama, tragedy and comedy and the two forms could never be mixed. Verisimilitude in playwriting meant that the supernatural was forbidden on stage and the goal of drama was to teach. Neoclassical productions often had special effects and sound effects with elaborate staging. At the end of the 16th century various forms of performance from Italy were also shown on the stages of France including Commedia dell’arte and pastorals.

Workshop: Commedia dell’arte and Stock Character Creation
History of Commedia dell’arte

     Commedia dell’arte was a form of theatre that began in Italy in the 15th century. The use of character masks and improvisation characterized this form of theatre and it was often performed by travelling companies of actors. Commedia dell’arte was also notable in that the female roles were played by women, which was often thought to be unacceptable in most countries.
     The character masks were one of the most important aspects of this type of theatre and each mask carried specific character traits with it. The characters often had a specific dialect and costume that could not be separated from the mask. The subject of improvisation although not set in stone, followed some sort of scenario. Scenarios often depicted were stories of adultery, love, and old age but could be manipulated to include current events or local scandals. Performers also made use of lazzi or a rehearsed joke in the stories as well as music and dance. Commedia dell’arte was later performed in France and influenced the comedies of Moliere.



Arlecchino (Harlequin)
One of the most popular stock characters. The nimble, acrobatic, trick servant. Sometimes childlike and not too bright but usually wins in the end.
Mask: sly, cat-like with short nose
Costume: tight-fitting tunic and pants with multi-colored diamond patches



Brighella (Brawler)
Arlecchino’s companion or crony. Cruel, driven by lust, cynically witty and does anything for money. Tough guy, a good liar, and a schemer.
Mask: hooked nose with moustache and greedy expression
Costume: loose-fitting servant’s uniform, may carry a dagger



A wealthy, miserly old man, possibly lecherous. Usually portrayed as a Venetian.
Mask: large hooked nose, with bushy eyebrows and a scraggly beard
Costume: sometimes tight-fitting red suit and black coat; sometimes baggy red pants



Il Dottore (the Doctor)
Smug, know-it-all professor, who usually knew nothing. Either Pantalone’s friend or rival. Often tricked by others.
Mask: stubby, pig-like nose, chubby cheeks
Costume: black academic robes and graduation cap



Il Capitano (the Captain)
Boasting, bragging macho soldier, who is often a coward underneath. Sometimes awkward or embarrassing, an unwanted suitor for young women. Usually has an absurdly long name and shrieks in a high voice when frightened.
Mask: long nose, wide eyes and usually exaggerated handlebar moustache
Costume: fancy exaggerated military uniform, plumed hat, sword



Either a servant or a merchant. Mixture of foolishness, villany, wit and dullness. May pretend to be stupid as means of defense.
Mask: simple with extremely long, hooked nose
Costume: humpback, servant clothing, long hat



Versatile character, can be clever or stupid. Boastful clown or Robin Hood type figure.
Mask: similar to Il Capitano’s, no moustache, sometimes white
Costume: black



Columbina (Little Dove)
Wise-cracking maid, usually the smartest character. Flirtatious and playful, sometimes Arlecchino’s girlfriend or mistress.
Mask: small half mask or none at all
Costume: low-cut maid’s uniform



Innamorati (Young Lovers)
Young, graceful, and attractive, these characters did not wear masks. Slightly vain and not necessarily bright.
Masks: none
Costumes: fashionable, contemporary clothing

    1. Choose your stock character.
    2. What is you character’s relationship to the other characters?
    3. Does your character have a mask? What does it look like?
    4. What clothing does your character wear?
    5. What are the characteristics of your character?
    6. If playing Il Capitano, what is your name? (ex. Generalissimo Antonio Mateo Terrifico the Third)
    7. Dress up like your character!
Commedia dell’arte Improv for Two Characters

What is the relationship between the characters?
     complete strangers
     waiter and food critic
     boss and employee

Choose the location in which the characters meet…
     Grocery store

Choose the conflict…
(Play along with your partner, always say ‘yes’. Saying ‘no’ stops the action from progressing.)

One character wants or needs…
     a job…
     to buy something from the other…
     to find out a secret…
     the food the other character has…

But he or she…
     laughs at the wrong time…
     isn’t wearing glasses and can’t see anything…
     keeps calling the other character by the wrong name…
     keeps tripping over things…
     has unstoppable hiccups…

Ready, Set, Go!

Day Seven


Pierre Corneille
     Pierre Corneille was born in 1606 and began writing plays in the 1620s during the golden age of French literature. Corneille underwent a rigorous Jesuit upbringing and went on to study law. During his time working in Rouen he wrote his first play, a comedy called Melite. After its success in Paris he bagan to write on a regular basis. Around 1634 Corneille came into contact with Cardinal Richelieu but did not like the restrictive quality that he was forced to write under. Pierre Corneille first play in 1637 was also one of his finest. Le Cid was described as a tragicomedy, which violated the neoclassic ideal of the time. The play was a popular success but was harshly criticized by other writers and Corneille returned to Rouen.
     In 1640, Corneille returned again to the stage with various tragedies that reflected more attention to the neoclassical ideals, most likely in reaction to the controversy he suffered after Le Cid. He also later revised Le Cid to make it more of a tragedy. Corneille continued to produce plays until 1674 and also wrote a discourse about dramatic poetry. Known as a sort of founder of French tragedy, Corneille would later be eclipsed by Jean Racine and Moliere.
     The most unique aspect of Pierre Corneille’s plays is the basic psychology of his characters. The heroes of his tragedies are involved in political dilemmas and the problems often get enmeshed in family conflict and relations. His characters have a desire for distinction, to be exceptional and this intense desire often is the driving force behind their acts of courage and brutality. Corneille’s retired from the stage after 1674 and died in 1684.


le Cid


     le Cid


Jean Racine
     Jean Racine was born in 1639 in the Valois region of France. His family was of modest means and status but he was raised by his relatives due to the premature deaths of his parents. Taken in by his grandmother, Racine received the opportunity –rare for a child of modest social status- to attend a school that taught the classics of Latin and Greek literature. The school was run by the Jansenists, an Austere Augustinian sect that was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. He then went to the College of Harcourt in Paris to study law. It was here that Racine began to write verse and some tragedies. Through his various contacts in Paris he eventually came into contact with Moliere who took a chance on the young dramatist and produced his play La Thebaide in 1664. Not long after the premiere of his second play, one of his former teachers published a letter accusing Racine of having ‘no more redeeming virtues than a public poisoner.’ (18)
     In his attempts to win over the court, the public, and the critics (who were mostly friends of his rival, Pierre Corneille), Racine often chose topics that had a prevailing contemporary interest to his audience. His first rousing success came in 1667 with Andromaque. The play depicted the story of a circular chain of lovers (A loves B, who loves C, who loves A) and was written like a pastoral drama. Andromaque won over both the public and th court and earned Racine a fame that would rival Corneille’s Le Cid. Jean Racine began to write tragedies and found his greatest competitor in the form of Pierre Corneille. In 1670 Racine and Corneille both began work on plays constructed around the character Titus, who was raised in the court of Nero. Racine’s play Berenice was superior to that of Corneille’s and Racine eclipsed his tragic rival.
     One of Racine greatest accomplishment was his use of alexandrine poetic line, which gave his plays harmony and elegance in their language. His poetry allowed for expression of the depths of feeling and the creation of a passion that elicited powerful reactions from the spectators. Racine’s characters represented the limitations of human beings as the lesson of the tragedy through their sense of loss and their incompleteness. Racine died at Port-Royal from liver cancer in 1699 but was later re-interred at the Parisian church of Saint-Etienne de Mont.




     La Thebaide


Moliere and the Neoclassical Comedy
     Moliere was born Janurary15, 1622 in Paris under the name of Jean Baptiste Poquelin. He studied at the Jesuit College de Clermont and then followed his families wishes to work in the family business until 1643. It was then that he abandoned his bourgeois social class and began to pursue a career on stage. With Madeline Bejart and eight other actors, Moliere began the Illustre Theatre and he also changed his name at this time. Theatre was not considered an acceptable career path and the name changed saved his family from embarrassment.
     The Illustre Theatre did not have much success in Paris and as a result the troupe traveled the provinces of France for the next 13 years. They performed tragedies, comedies, and also performed Commedia dell’arte routines. In 1658, the troupe returned to Paris and received the opportunity to perform Le Docteur Amoreux for King Louis XIV’s court. Moliere gained the favor of the King and was allowed to settle in Paris. The King also supported Moliere for the rest of his career, even though some of his plays were controversial. Moliere directed most of his plays and would also often play lead characters in the performance.
     Many of Moliere’s plays combined multiple elements of theatre. He performed farce that was written in verse and often combined music, dance, and text into unique forms of performance. Moliere gravitated toward comedy, which was more flexible than tragedy. Tragedy by the 17th century had been codified with neoclassical ideal by Corneille and Racine and comedy lent itself to more innovation. Moliere used his plays as ‘public mirrors’ (5) and attempted to use natural movement, gestures and diction.
     Two of Moliere’s greatest works, L’Ecole des femmes and Tartuffe plunged him into controversy that lasted for six years. In 1664, Tartuffe was banned for depicting the upper and dominant classes as hypocrites and its argument that supported open, tolerant morals. The King lifted the ban in 1669 after which the play became a huge success. Under the patronage of the King, Moliere also wrote comedies-ballets for the court and was one of , if not the sole provider of the King’s entertainment. Of the 21 plays that Moliere wrote, 15 were for the King and his court. While performing his play Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) in 1673, Moliere collapsed and later died. He did not renounce his profession on his deathbed (actors could not be buried on sacred ground) or receive his last rites but the king intervened and Moliere was ‘buried hastily, and at night.’ (5)


Le Misanthrope


     Le Doctor amoreux
     L’Ecole des femmes
     Le Misanthrope
     Le Malade imaginaire

Tartuffe at Versailles, France