Is Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) the most underrated playwright in dramatic literature? Prolific, poetically gifted and instinctively experimental, he architected neoclassical drama while subtly coloring inside and outside the lines. As Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences know, The Liar (1643) is a masterpiece, the most important French comedy before Molière. And Horace (1641) remains a brilliant tragedy, codifying the Racinian playbook while painting an equivocal portrait of the dawning French imperium.
In 1637, Corneille had already taken Paris by storm with Le Cid, an unorthodox, Spanish-inspired tragicomedy which suggested the Shakespearean dimensions of his talent. Looking forward to the heroes of Friedrich Schiller, Corneille’s Rodrigue is prototypically romantic, a great man torn between the irrational demands of the heart and the austere commands of reason. The play begins with him killing his future father-in-law in a duel, an act which shocked and horrified Cardinal Richelieu, who commissioned a series of pamphlets condemning the play, outlined “rules” of dramatic composition, and pulled it from the stage.
Horace was Corneille’s response. Published with a warm dedication to his aristocratic patron, Corneille follows Richelieu’s mandate, taking his subject matter from Roman history. In the original story, two sets of three brothers—the Roman Horatii and the Curiatii from nearby Alba—fight to the death, with the battle spreading to Horace’s household. Making ingenious use of the dramatic unities of time and place, Corneille sets the entire action in the domestic interior, pushing the battle offstage and refracting the play’s increasingly mortal stakes through the eyes of its women.
In a crowning touch, Corneille adds the figure of Sabine, her name recalling “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” Livy’s account of Rome’s founding, synonymous with a savage sex crime. Sister to Curiace and wife to Horace, Sabine serves as a foil to Camille, sister to Horace and wife to Curiace. Constructing an intricately symmetrical structure, Corneille contrasts the sympathetic Albans (Sabine and Curiace), whose un-Roman compassion manifests as weakness, with the comparatively austere Romans (Horace, Camille, Old Horace), who pair an admirable adherence to principle with a strict militarism. Tied together by bonds of family and marriage, each character finds him- or herself divided between the central dichotomy of heart and mind first explored in Le Cid. Thus Corneille’s seemingly archetypal neoclassical tragedy constitutes a darkly subversive answer to Richelieu’s dictates. Rather than swearing off the moral ambiguities hinted at in his previous work, Corneille had quadrupled them.
More significantly, in its refusal to choose sides Horace obliquely calls into question Richelieu’s “policy of glory,” his imperial designs on continental power, which at the time of writing saw France involved in the financially ruinous, morally ugly imbroglio of the Thirty Years’ War. (Richelieu would die the next year, before the war began to turn, and Corneille was firsthand witness to revolts led by the exceedingly taxed peasantry, which Richelieu suppressed with characteristic brutality.) Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, another anti-heroic tragedy drawn from Livy, Corneille refuses to offer us a purely admirable character to smooth out the play’s moral universe, nor does he resolve the thematic ambiguities at the end of the play. We are left to ponder this resonant portrait of the inhuman ideals of the state and the all-too-human costs of the will to power.
Trained as a lawyer, Corneille’s characters tend to “argue both sides of the case,” exchanging prosecutorial speeches impressive both in their rhetoric and reasoning. “Corneille […] gives us back man in all his complexity, in his complete reality,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in the post-apocalyptic year of 1946, pointing to the method in which he used the stage as a moral tribunal. Rather than depicting man’s problems in isolation from the world, Corneille presents them as ineluctably political dilemmas, tragedies born out of the clash of competing rights. His virtues are perhaps easily overlooked in a dramaturgical landscape governed by psychology, one where primitive outbursts bear the mark of authenticity. But he is a classical playwright in the original, deepest sense, as well as one for our times. We ignore him at our own peril.
– Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Manager