Is Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) the most underrated playwright in dramatic literature? Prolific, poetically gifted and instinctively experimental, he architected neoclassicism while coloring inside and outside the lines. As STC audiences know, The Liar (1643) is the most important French comedy before Molière. And Horatius (1641) remains a brilliant tragedy, an equivocal portrait of the dawning French imperium.
In 1637, Corneille had taken Paris by storm with Le Cid, an unorthodox, Spanish-inspired tragicomedy which suggested the dimensions of his talent. Looking forward to the heroes of Friedrich Schiller, Corneille’s Rodrigue is prototypically romantic, a heroic figure torn between the irrational demands of the heart and the austere commands of reason. The play begins with him killing his 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.
Horatius was Corneille’s response. Published with a warm dedication to Richelieu, Corneille follows his 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 Horatius’ 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 tragic stakes through the eyes of its women.
In a crowning touch, Corneille adds the figure of Sabina, her name recalling “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” Livy’s account of Rome’s founding, synonymous with a savage sex crime. Sister to Curiatius and wife to Horatius, Sabina foils Camilla, sister to Horatius and wife to Curiatius. Within this symmetrical structure, Corneille contrasts the sympathetic Albans (Sabina and Curiatius), whose un-Roman compassion manifests as weakness, with the Romans (Horatius, Camilla, Old Horatius), who pair an admirable adherence to principle with a strict militarism. Tied together by bonds of love and family, each character finds themselves divided between the central dichotomy of heart and mind first explored in Le Cid. Thus Corneille answers Richelieu’s dictates with surprising subversion. Rather than swearing off the moral ambiguities hinted at in his previous work, Corneille had quadrupled them.
More significantly, by refusing to choose sides, Corneille obliquely calls into question Richelieu’s “policy of glory,” his imperial designs on continental power, which at the time 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 bore first-hand witness to revolts led by the exceedingly taxed peasantry, which were 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-war year of 1946. That is, rather than depicting man’s problems in isolation from the world, Corneille presents them as ineluctably political dilemmas, tragedies birthed by 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.