26 November 2008


Picture of Corneille
Time to start the Corneille thread. Pierre Corneille, 1606 - 1684, was a classical French dramatist, a very close contemporary of the better known Jean Racine. Both lived and wrote in an age when Cardinal Richelieu was promoting a strong centralised state, when all aspects of culture had to support the idea of royal power. This manifested itself in some ways that seem more akin to Soviet cultural life in the 20th century: questions of form took on an ideological significance, and deviation from the prescribed rules of narrative or dramatic form could be seen as political opposition, and could be dangerous for the writer.

I studied Corneille many years ago at school, and hated him. It seemed to me he was a blind stooge of the imperial drive to power. But as time's gone on, I've begun to wonder if that was true, if it can be true. A blind stooge does not write powerful plays that are remembered and performed 300 years later. So my quest, which I began a couple of months ago, is to revisit his plays and examine if there is any trace of subversiveness in them. My happy initial report is that I think there is.

Why bother, though? A fair question. Corneille is unbelievably unpopular in Britain and I'll never sell this idea as a book. It's ages since I've taken part in any critical procedure and the terms of discourse may well have changed. Don't care. I feel this is getting back to what I really like doing, and if all that results is a website of discussion that a few people read and if maybe that leads our theatres to reconsider Corneille's plays, I'll be happy.

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