Pierre Corneille, French Playwright

Painting of Pierre Corneille by an unknown artist
Painting of Pierre Corneille by an unknown artist

Pierre Corneille was a writer of French tragedies and is considered one of the three great seventeenth century French dramatists along with Molière and Racine. He has been called the “founder of French tragedy” and was the producer of plays for almost forty years.

Corneille was born on June 6, 1606 in Rouen, France. His father, also named Pierre, was a prominent lawyer. His mother was named Marthe le Pesant de Boisguilbert. He had a younger brother Thomas who also became a playwright. Pierre was given a thorough education at the Jesuit Collège de Bourbon, now known as the Lycée Pierre Corneille (since 1872). When he was eighteen he began his studies in law. His law career began in Rouen in 1624. His father secured a position for him as king’s advocate in 1628. Corneille would perform his duties as king’s advocate for many years but his real interest lay in literature. It was during this time, between 1625 and 1629 he wrote his first play, “Mélite” which was a comedy.

Although Corneille is considered the founder of French tragedy, six of his first eight plays are comedies. Corneille offered “Mélite” to a troupe of travelling actors and it was presented in Paris in 1629. It was considered a success so Corneille moved to Paris, began writing and became one of the leading playwrights of the French stage. He produced his first bona fide tragedy in 1635, called “Médée.

Portrait of Jean du Plessis Armand, Cardinal Richlieu by Philippe de Champaigne
Portrait of Jean du Plessis Armand, Cardinal Richlieu by Philippe de Champaigne

In 1634, French minister Cardinal Richelieu made a visit to Rouen and Corneille was chosen to write verses in his honor. The Cardinal was impressed with Corneille’s work and chose him to be among a group of writers he called “The Five Authors”. The others were Guillaume Colletet, Boisrobert, Jean Rotrou and Claude de L’Estoile. Richelieu had a vision where drama would be written with an emphasis on virtue. The Cardinal planned to present his ideas to the writers and they would write the plays. Corneille was an innovator and found the rules restrictive. When his initial contract with Richelieu expired, Corneille returned to Rouen.

After his break with Richelieu, Corneille wrote what is probably his finest play “Le Cid”, based on the legendary medieval Spanish military figure. The play was produced in 1637 and created a firestorm of criticism which turned into what is called “The Quarrel of Le Cid”. Playwriting at this time was based on theatrical precepts as espoused by Aristotle. The general rules included the famous principle of three unities of time, place and action. The play had to present a single comprehensible story taking place all in one day in one single palace or city. The events in the story must be believable and high standards of good taste had to be followed in order not to shock the audience.

Cardinal Richelieu had recently formed the Académie française which had state control over cultural activities. Its mission was to standardize French language but Richelieu ordered an analysis of Corneille’s “El Cid”. The Académie agreed the play was a success but found it was defective because it didn’t meet the standards and rules of theater of the time. There was even a pamphlet campaign accusing the play of immorality. Corneille was overwhelmed by the controversy and withdrew from public life. This would become a pattern with Corneille when his plays were criticized.

Corneille returned to the theater in 1640, writing plays that more closely observed the traditional dramatic rules. His next plays were classical tragedies: “Horace” written in 1640 and dedicated to Richelieu, “Cinna” written in 1642 and “Polyeucte” written in 1643. He also made many revisions to “Le Cid” trying to make it resemble the conventions of classical tragedy. Corneille was gaining popularity and published his first collection of plays. He married Marie de Lampérière in 1641. They were to have seven children. In the mid 1640’s he wrote a series of four more tragedies and a comedy.

When his play “Pertharite” was not critically well received in 1652, Corneille decided he would quit the theater and focus on writing a translation of the poem “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis. After almost eight years he was persuaded to return to the theater. He produced “Oedipe” which was favorably received by King Louis XIV. He also wrote what is considered his response to “The Quarrel of Le Cid” where he defended his writing and asked that dramatic rules not be so restrictive that they stifle innovation and creativity.

Drawing of the house where Pierre Corneille died from the "Works - Maty-Laveaux"
Drawing of the house where Pierre Corneille died from the “Works – Maty-Laveaux”

Corneille wrote a play a year, mostly tragedies, after his return to the stage but they were not as successful as his earlier works. Other playwrights were becoming popular such as Racine and Molière. Corneille composed at least one comedy with Molière called “Psyché” in 1671. He wrote his final tragedy in 1674 and then retired from producing for the final time. He died at his home in Paris in 1684 and was buried in the Église Saint-Roch. A monument was added to his grave in 1821.

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