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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 6 - 17th & 18th Century Works 


The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

The scientific and intellectual advances of the Enlightenment led many to boast that humanity had irrevocably been set on a road that would lead inevitably toward greater and greater progress. This view, espoused by those who self-consciously thought of themselves as the Moderns, was challenged by the so-called Ancients, who discounted such "progress" as mere technology. The Ancients, who tended to be humanists rather than scientists, thought that in the truly important areas of life, abilities had declined. Rather than prophesy a glorious future, they looked to the world of classical antiquity for sustenance.

The rebirth of classicism in the Renaissance, spurred by the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent growing acquaintance with Greek literature in the original language (see Chapter 5, Historical Background), inspired the Ancients. By and large, however, they took Rome as their primary model, especially after the excavations of Herculaneum, systematically undertaken in 1738, and of Pompeii, beginning in 1748, which revealed the splendor of these ancient Roman cities buried intact under lava when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.

Visual Arts and Architecture

Starting in the Renaissance, young gentlemen completed their educations by taking what became known as the Grand Tour. Generally this meant that wealthy French, English, and German travelers went south, looking for natural beauties in foreign landscapes and cultural sophistication in foreign towns. Switzerland and Italy were their prime destinations, where more and more fledgling writers and artists had first-hand contact with the monuments that the conquering Romans had left behind. The resulting taste for classical proportions in art and architecture complemented the admiration for Republican values that these gentlemen had formed when they studied Roman history at home. Neoclassicism made an indelible mark, for example, on the founders of the United States, whose view of government owes much to the Roman ideal and is mirrored across this country in post offices, railroad stations, and a host of other public buildings that imitate the architecture of ancient Rome. While serving as the American Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson saw and admired classical architecture in areas of Southern France that the ancient Romans had colonized. When he returned to the United States, he modeled the Virginia state capitol on one of these Roman temples and set a style that dominates institutional building to this day.(1)

Other factors beyond direct exposure to classical models made classicism popular in the eighteenth century. The tendency of classical art to generalize, normalize, and idealize proved congenial, for examples, to the era's visual artists. Preserving personal likenesses signifies an interest in the worth of individuals that had been steadily growing in Western Europe from the twelfth century on, and in the early modern period that interest reached a high point, yielding one of the great ages of portraiture in the West. Yet the most successful artists were those who could capture personality on canvas or in marble at the same time as they obligingly regularized features. Wealthy patrons, who naturally preferred to look as noble as possible in their portraits, appreciated having their physical deformities smoothed over by tactful neoclassical artists.(2)

Neoclassical Literature and Drama

Theoretical rather than tactical concerns led the writers of the period to avoid overparticularizing details. The wise Imlac in Samuel Johnson's philosophic tale, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) offers the classic statement of this classical belief: "The business of a poet . . . is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest" (Chapter 10). The neoclassical playwrights, discussed below, consciously adhered to classical literary theory, preferring to portray characters as types rather than as specific individuals.

Satire and Irony as Expressions of a Classical Temperament

Roman classicism probably influenced the writers of the eighteenth century most profoundly by the many examples it provided of satire and irony (see Chapter 3, Roman Classicism), literary approaches that rely on indirection as a means to criticize social, political, and moral evil. Although we often think of criticism of the prevailing norm as a mark of rebellion, satire frequently bespeaks an essentially conservative temperament, as the stance taken by the Ancients against the Moderns indicates. Classicism values ideals of order and beauty not only in aesthetic categories but in behavioral and intellectual areas as well. The rebel is equally, if not more, idealistic, and like the classicist, infuriated by violations of the ideal. Perhaps the fundamental difference between the two temperaments is that the classicist believes that the ideal already exists and has been willfully ignored, while the rebel (like the Romantics who are the subject of the next unit) thinks the ideal is yet to be invented or defined. Thus classicists typically look back to a previous time, when they claim the ideal held sway; Romantics look to the future, when they hope the ideal will be born.

Some Renaissance Sources of Neoclassical Comedy

Neoclassical art sees itself as a new classicism. Especially in the theatre, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists refined their classical inheritance. Like so many other art forms that diverged from their medieval shapes in fifteenth-century Italy, Renaissance drama begins with the recovery of classical models. Written texts which scholars memorized and recited, known as the commedia erudita, and improvised performances given by singers and acrobats, called the commedia dell' arte, shared the common heritage of ancient Roman comedy, a genre which, not surprisingly, was particularly influential in the country of its origin.

The plots of both erudite and improvised Italian comedies derive from Roman (and their earlier Greek) sources and have influenced all subsequent playwriting in the West. These plays, the first situation comedies, gave the West a permanent roster of comic prototypes such as young lovers battling tyrannical fathers, helped by clever servants, and surrounded by a colorful group of braggarts, hypocrites, and fools. Commedia dell' arte performances were basically improvisations, often quite lewd, and yet the actors (whom the generic label acknowledged as artists) were respected as professionals. In fact, the sixteenth-century Italian companies were the first to present women on stage not as loose-living entertainers but as serious and talented actors.

The commedia dell' arte revived the ancient practice of actors wearing masks. Thus a stock character type appearing on stage triggered instant recognition. Along with the mask went a distinctive costume. The witty Harlequin, for example, wears a costume of multi-colored diamond-shaped patches with a black half mask covering his face. The put-upon Pantaloon, an older man, usually credulous and easily fooled, gave his name to his traditional baggy-pants costume. Actors spent their entire professional lives playing one character type, honing their skills to the highest levels of virtuosity.

So popular did these characters become that touring Italian companies spread out over Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, delighting audiences in cities and towns where no Italian was spoken but where the timeless antics of the commedia dell' arte were well understood. One such company impressed a Parisian teen-ager whose father, Jean Poquelin, was the official upholsterer to the young French king, Louix XIV. Rather than continue in this secure and respectable royal employment, Poquelin's son (1622-1673) took a stage name, Molière, and began to practice as an actor and eventually as a playwright. Borrowing dramatic ideas and situations from the brilliant Italian troupes, he wrote scripts for a group of friends who organized their own theatrical group in 1643 and left Paris to travel through French provincial towns, where audiences presumably were less demanding than those in the capital.

In 1658, having heard of the success of Molière's troupe, Louis XIV invited the company to perform before his court on a temporary stage set up in the Louvre Palace. The results so delighted this most sophisticated of audiences that Molière's company received a royal subsidy and a permanent theatrical space in Paris. (Initially, his troupe had to share a theatre with a group of Italian comedians.) Here the synthesis Molière had wrought in combining a Renaissance improvisational style with a more formal literary inheritance achieved perfection in a series of comic masterworks, of which Tartuffe is the most frequently performed, even today. The play's two leading roles have clear roots in the old comedy. Tartuffe himself, obviously modeled on the stock figure of the Hypocrite, may ultimately be a distant relative of the Harlequin, now figuratively rather than literally masked, while Orgon is much more directly a dramatic descendent of the Pantaloon.

Classical Theory and The Neoclassical Stage

The Renaissance rediscovery of classical literature had more direct impact on drama in France than in any other European country. Pierre Corneille (1606-84) and Jean Racine (1639-99) were the masters of tragedy, as Molière was the master of comedy. Significantly, French playwrights of this era rarely wrote both types of plays or mixed comedy and tragedy within a single play, as the English playwrights who adopted the style of the medieval rather than the classical drama habitually did. The so-called Unities of Time, Place, and Action, which did not permit such disregard of conventional boundaries, were zealously promoted by the Academie Francaise, founded in 1629 to further the cause of the Ancients and restore the primacy of classical forms. Corneille's best known work, Le Cid (1636), based on an old Spanish play about the medieval epic hero (see Chapter 4, Backgrounds of Medieval Literature), was attacked by the arch conservative Cardinal Richelieu who referred it to the Academie. Criticized by the academicians for violations of classical decorum, Le Cid was banned by Richelieu (who had private reasons for disliking Corneille).

The enduring power of classical dramaturgy in France may be discerned in the practice of Voltaire. Although we think of him today as the leading figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire considered writing plays his true vocation and felt slighted by his tragedies' lack of success.(3) Like most French tragedians, Voltaire chose many of his subjects from classical antiquity. One of his most important tragedies was his version of the Oedipus story, and in a preface to the 1730 edition of Oedipe, he attributes the superiority of the French dramatic style to its classicism:

. . . the French were the first among modern nations to revive these wise Rules of the stage. . . . All nations are beginning to regard as barbarous the time when this practice was ignored by the greatest geniuses, such as Don Lope de Vega [the great Spanish dramatist, who lived from 1562 to 1635] and Shakespeare. . . .(4)

Voltaire further illuminates the neoclassicists' view of Nature as the source of these rigid Rules, seen in the following paragraph:

What is a stage play? The representation of an action. Why of one and not of two or three? Because the human mind cannot embrace several objects at once; because interest that is divided soon vanishes; because we are disturbed to see two happenings, even in a picture; finally, because Nature itself suggests this precept to us; which ought to be as invariable as Nature itself.

Like most literary critics of his time, Voltaire here interprets Aristotle's Poetics (see Chapter 3, Classical Drama), which described the practice of the Athenian playwrights, and most especially of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, as a prescription, rather than a description.

The Neoclassical Stage

In fact, the characteristics of the French neoclassical playing spaces enforced the Unities by physical necessity as well as by theoretical preference. Most of the stages on which the plays of Racine, Molière, and their colleagues were performed originally were not designed for the purpose they served. A craze for tennis in Renaissance Paris, for example, had led to the construction of more than two hundred large indoor tennis courts; when the fad for the sport waned, one of these buildings was turned into a theatre.(5) Another theatre was created in the ballroom of a decaying Paris mansion built centuries earlier, for the dukes of Burgundy, who were nearly as powerful as the kings of France. The plays written for these makeshift theatres were tailored to fit the limitations of these buildings. New theatres subsequently built for these plays perpetuated the oddities of those early stages, precisely because they suited the existing repertory.

The old improvised platforms cramped the actors on and off stage, allowing little room for set storage or the free movement of actors. Following their model, the new theatres of neoclassical France similarly made little provision for technical innovation or personal comfort. The typical neoclassical stages were small raised platforms set against the wall at one end of a long, narrow room. Without a curtain in front of the stage, scene-shifting was nearly impossible. When the new theatres were built, the stages were fitted with the picture-book proscenium arch which marked off the stage on three sides as a special acting area. While this demarcation encouraged the use of realistic backdrops painted in deep perspective, a practice begun in Renaissance Italy, scenic description remained general such as a park, a palace, a courtroom, rather than a specific setting indicating which park, palace, or courtroom.

Similarly, little was attempted in the way of lighting effects to depict a specific time or place. Avant-garde lighting techniques in indoor theatres were in fact possible by the seventeenth century, as special theatrical spectacles in the royal courts of Europe demonstrated. Significantly, theatrical forms that appeal to the senses dominated the productions created for the luxurious court theatre that Louis XIV had built in his opulent palace in Versailles,(6) a suburb of Paris. Indeed, opera and ballet, art forms nourished in the court of Louis XIV, until very recently have been considered entertainments for the wealthy and high placed, not for the masses. To this day, the class consciousness of Louis XIV's court may be deduced from French neoclassical theatre. Tragedies happen only to kings, queens, and warriors, grand figures out of legend and myth, not to ordinary people, and even comedies, which traditionally treat domestic concerns, take place in the drawing rooms of the wealthy.

The professional Parisian theatres did not attempt to rival the splendors of Versailles. Rather than experiment with dramatic plays of light, actors relied on illumination provided by chandeliers (in their original meaning, candles' holders) and a row of candles in front of the stage. These limitations of scenery, lighting, and stage space made it all the easier to follow the Unities: one generic painted backdrop indicated the place of the action, one lighting scheme indicated the time of the action, and both generally remained constant throughout the performance.

Neoclassical Audiences

In the professional theatres, boxes containing armchairs were arranged in balconies around the room, but the area in front of the stage held no permanent seating. When members of the royal family attended performances, special seats were raised for their use in the center of the theatre and all the actors directed their efforts to the front. Indeed, in theatres with a stage set up at one end of the room, only those with center seats could really see the whole, a marked contrast to the easier audience access to performances in ancient Greek amphitheatres, medieval town pageants, and Elizabethan theatre-in-the-round.

It became common for the wealthiest members of the audience to call attention to their presence at sold-out performances by having extra seating created for them on the stage itself. Thus even if there had been efforts to use elaborate scenery and stage furniture, it would have been difficult to make authentic locations seem convincing.

Neoclassical Performance Style

Actors wore their own expensive, contemporary clothing, not costumes appropriate to the characters they impersonated. The detailed portrayal of unique individuals was unimportant to the neoclassical creed, which stipulated that all human nature obeyed the same general laws. There was no need to create an illusion of a specific reality of place or person or time, since where or when events took place had no impact on the behavior that the playwright portrayed.

With their bodily movements hampered by a small stage space and often hemmed in further by stage seats, actors learned to embody character through their voices. Psychologically persuasive utterance was not attempted; instead, great performers expressed permanent truths in long and splendid speeches composed in elegant rhymed couplets. One measure of the economy of the French neoclassical approach to the theatre is the strict decorum of the tragedians' verbal means. Racine, who knew Greek and Latin well, brought French neoclassical tragedy to its highest point. His classical predilections led him to rely on refined abstractions rather than specific images; meaning evolved through nuance rather than through metaphoric density. The contrast to Shakespeare's hoard of words, rich in puns and punctuated by lower-class locutions, could not be more marked; studies of the two playwrights show that Shakespeare, whom the neoclassicists criticized for his wide-ranging diction, has a vocabulary more than ten times larger than Racine's.

Alexander Pope's famous statement of the artist's aim in his Essay on Criticism (1711) defines the neoclassical goal; what is sought is not to be original or particular, but to reinforce the understanding of the audience.

True Wit is Nature to Advantage dressed:
What oft was Thought but ne'er so well Exprest,
whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind.


(1) Reading buildings as texts tells us a great deal about the beliefs of their builders. In a recent debate that took note of the cultural implications of architectural styles, one participant, Jon Pareles asked, "Why is the Capital not shaped like a tepee?" Another, John Kaliski, responded, "If you look at the details of the Capital -- the emblems of tobacco, the corn columns -- they are based on concepts of Native American provenance" (Harper's Magazine, September 1989, p. 49.) An important change in contemporary cultural attitudes is marked by the most frequently visited site in today's Washington, the Vietnam Memorial designed by a young Asian-American woman, Maya Yang Lin.

(2) Neoclassical art and architecture bear such vivid witness to the luxury of the privileged classes that it is hard to remember how rampant disease was and, in the context of portaiture, how damaging to personal appearance were the effects of tooth decay, smallpox, and syphilis. Even the wealthiest people were, to put it starkly, filthy beneath their silks and brocades. Lacking indoor plumbing and other twentieth-century marvels of medicine and hygiene, people disguised their scars by the lavish applications of cosmetics and their body odors by dousing themselves with perfume. It is no wonder, therefore, that is early modern European satire, "painting" -- putting on makeup -- is an important symbol of hypocrisy and corruption.

(3) In fact, after the initial publication of Candide, Voltaire added the unusually long twenty-second chapter set in Paris, which deplores the state of the French theatre of his day.

(4) This translation, as published in Dramatic Essays of the Neoclassic Age, ed. Henry Hitch Adams and Baxter Hathaway (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950), is drawn from Voltaire's Ouevres complètes, ed. Louis Moland, and published in Paris between 1877-83.

(5) When the young Molière and his newly formed theatre group first tried paris, they rented and converted anothe of these unused buildings; at ths point, however, they did not prosper, and, as we have seen, left Paris for a period of years.

(6) Early in his reign, when he was a very young man, Louis had been challenged by some members of the French aristocracy. To minimize their influence, and to move away fron the Paris mob which his enemies might seek to turn against him, Louis established a new center of power in Versailles. When Dorine refers to "the late troubles" in the beginning of Richard Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe, she is alluding to this episode.