Pierre Corneille — The French Bard
By Kathryn Neves
We’re coming to the end of the season here at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, but there’s still a couple more weeks to come and see The Liar! It’s a hilarious farce that you definitely don’t want to miss; with twins, mistaken identities, and hilarious misunderstandings, the play is almost Shakespearean! But The Liar isn’t a Shakespeare play— no, this is a Corneille.
Before seeing a play, it can be interesting to learn more about the playwright. Who was Pierre Corneille? What was his life like? What were his inspirations for writing such amazing plays? There are many interesting things to learn about Corneille and his play The Liar (or Le Menteur, as he would have called it).
The Liar is an absolutely hysterical comedy, which is why it may come as a surprise that Pierre Corneille was far more known for his tragedies than his comedies. A lot of writers have called him one of the fathers of the French tragedy! Corneille began his life in Rouen, France, as the son of a lawyer. As he grew up, he studied law. Corneille was in the legal profession for quite a few years and wrote in his spare time, almost as a hobby. And as luck would have it, he showed his first play, Mélite, to a group of traveling actors who fell in love with it. The play became a huge success in Paris, and Corneille started his career as a prominent playwright.
Right from the start, his plays were different, especially his comedies. He described his style as “une peinture de la conversation des honnêtes gens,” or “a painting of the conversation of the gentry.” His characters imitated the lofty language and mannerisms of fashionable Parisians, instead of the more lowbrow humor that was common in French farce at the time. And finally, in 1635, he wrote his first tragedy: Médée. The play’s success spurred him on to write more tragic plays.
As Corneille grew more popular, one powerful person in particular started to notice him: Cardinal Richelieu (the villain of last season’s The Three Musketeers, interestingly enough). Richelieu was putting together a program of sorts for writers, called Les Cinq Auteurs, or The Five Poets. With this group, Richelieu wanted to promote his own ideals and virtues through literature and drama. And because Corneille was becoming very successful, Richelieu hired him as part of this group. However, after only a short time, Corneille started to fight with Richelieu. He felt that the cardinal’s rules and restrictions for the group were stifling. Corneille couldn’t write his best work in the group, no matter how influential and powerful Richelieu was. So when his contract ran out, Corneille quit.
Right after leaving the group, Corneille published Le Cid (or The Lord). Most people today agree that this is his best play. It was very different from anything France had seen before; it broke all the rules— especially Richelieu’s rules. The play was extremely popular with audiences, but it sparked an enormous controversy that would come to be known as Querelle du Cid. Many critics, Cardinal Richelieu included, felt that the play was bad because it broke the rules. Among those rules were Aristotle’s classical unities of drama. In a nutshell, critics were upset because Corneille had broken the Unity of Time (the play should take place in twenty-four hours or less), the Unity of Place (it should have only one setting) and the Unity of Action (there should only be one problem or conflict). The heated debate went on for such a long time, and with such ferocity, that Corneille temporarily quit the theatre.
In the 1640s, Corneille finally decided that he could come back and write more plays. These were a little more traditional: clearly, he was affected by all of that criticism about Le Cid. He only wrote one comedy during this period: Le Menteur, or The Liar. These new plays were decently popular, and he did well for quite some time. He married and had several children, and in the early 1650s wrote another widely detested play: Pertharite. It was so unpopular with both audiences and critics that Corneille quit the theatre for a second time.
He came back to the theatre after several years and published Trois Discours Sur le Poème Dramatique (Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry), which was essentially a defense of his writing style— especially when it came to the earlier controversy over Le Cid. He argued that the Aristotelian Unities had a lot of value, but if they were too strict, they would stifle progress and innovation.
Corneille went on to write a few more plays, but they were less and less successful— though, at this time, he did collaborate with Molière (the playwright of Scapin, produced here at the Festival in our 2012 season) to write Psyché. And in the mid 1670s, after another flop, he retired permanently from the theatre and died ten years later.
He was an influential writer from the very beginning of his career; later writers, most notably Voltaire, admired him greatly and cited him as an influence in their own writings. His legacy in the world of theatre can still be seen to this day. That is why, even in our own time, we see new, modern translations and adaptations— especially this season’s The Liar by the brilliant David Ives— that ring just as funny and true today as they did in 1644.
So now that you know a little bit about Pierre Corneille, be sure to see The Liar before it ends on October 13. You’ll find yourself laughing all the way through it— and you might find a new appreciation for classic French theatre along the way.