Education and Grandeur

The finest baroque compositions (if we exclude Milton’s Paradise Lost as belonging to the late Renaissance) were the tragedies. In this field three playwrights stand out for their consistent achievement: Pierre Corneille (producing from 1635-1674) and Jean Racine (producing 1644-1677) from France; and John Dryden (producing from 1664-1694) from England. There are a few other singularly stand-out works – John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Joseph Addison’s Cato, and Samuel Johnson’s Irene are all commendable, as are much of Metastasio’s operatic dramas. It was also an age for much mediocrity, Voltaire’s cheap tragedies chief among them. Overall, Baroque tragedy was what Oswald Spengler calls a pseudo-morphosis: the re-creation in one culture of a form or activity created by another culture distant in time or space. That culture was evidently the Graeco-Roman.

The playwrights of the age were, by-and-large, better read in the classics than their Renaissance equivalents, certainly more so than Shakespeare. But minds more learned does not equate to work more worthy, and it has a distinct effect of alienating the mass audience, to whose feeling Shakespeare was so adept. The Baroque tragedians would not be the last artists for whom the adoption of classical influences led to the adoption of artistic standards too high for a contemporary audience.

Corneille was Jesuit educated, Racine was Jansenist educated at Port-Royal.  Corneille was proud, simple, and rather inarticulate. Racine was sensitive, thoughtful, and complex. We hear of Racine roaming the woods of Port-Royal alone with his Euripides, and learning Heliodorus’ Aethiopica off by heart. Corneille was the Roman, Racine the Greek. Seneca was shrinking as an influence on the stage, the Baroque tragedians finally following the source back to the Greeks. Corneille would write Medée (1635), Racine Iphigénie (1674) and Phedre (1677). The Euripidean influences are obvious.

RAcine Corneille
Racine (left) and Corneille(right): The Two Tragedians of French Baroque

The only poet of the period who knew and assimilated all three of the Greek tragedians was the evergreen John Milton. The hero of his sole tragedy, Samson Agonistes (1671), was much like Milton himself – a blind man surrounded by Philistines. The drama is not quite at the level of the Greeks – Samson’s subordinate characters do not match those of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, and it lacks the subtlety of Sophocles. Nevertheless Milton was an extraordinary literary figure – we have mentioned him in association with Renaissance Epic (Paradise Lost), Pastoral and Romance (Lycidas), and Lyric Poetry (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity), among others. But in baroque drama the baton would pass to his fellow countrymen – Dyrden, Johnson, and Addison. Samuel Johnson and Joseph Addison were both well educated. Johnson as an undergraduate had turned Pope’s The Messiah into Latin verse, while Addison was a frequent translator of Virgil. Like his French counterparts, Dryden was also supremely well-educated, first at Westminster School, then Trinity College, Cambridge. He successfully adapted a translation of Oedipus to the seventeenth century stage, but his best dramatic work was non-classical: his operatic King Arthur, for which he collaborated with Purcell.

Oedipus And The Sphinx Painting Oedipus And The Sphinx Painting | Francois Xavier Fabre Oil Paintings
Oedipus and the Sphinx: Baroque Tragedians would struggle to match the subtlety of Sophocles

Dryden and would not have felt compelled to work on strictly non-classical themes with Purcell, for the musicians would be classically educated as well – Metastasio translated the Iliad into Italian verse at the age of twelve and wrote an original tragedy in the manner of Seneca at fourteen. Rather the choice of Arthur was to test the broadening intellectual scope of both Dryden and Purcell. In this same vein of broadening and deepening intellectualism, often as alienating as it can be engaging, there issued from the tragedians of the age numerous prose works of note – Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic Poesy, Corneille’s Trois discours sur le poème dramatique, and Milton’s Areopagitica to name some of the best.

In their concentrated circle of sophisticated scholarship, baroque tragedians cared little about declining mass support. Grandeur, not popular appeal, was the ideal of Baroque Europe. Many saw themselves a Virgil to their monarch’ Augustus. This sense of grandeur is encapsulated in the architecture of the age – the palaces of Versailles and Blenheim, the evermore elaborate royal gardens and vast parks. It is in the décor of both society and the stage. In music, grandeur would be best portrayed through the genius of Bach with his intricate counterpoint and fixation on numerical symmetry.

The Failure of Baroque Tragedy

It can be difficult to perceive that with all these learned minds and all these exuberant displays of purported aggrandisement that Baroque tragedy as an art still fell below the standards displayed by the Greeks some two thousand years prior. Two main reason can be ascribed to this ultimate failure of baroque tragedy:

  1. Social and Cultural: The social implications of creating too narrow an audience was a particular barrier. The best of tragedies can remain fundamentally aristocratic in tone while still engaging a wider populace. It is a challenge, not a chore, to make the masses (or at least the burgeoning middle-classes) to fixate on high tragedy. Baroque tragedians did not so much as attempt it. Aristotle claims that only great men should be made the subject of tragedies, but that does not mean his tragedy should be limited to the close circles of high society. Classical Greatness is defined by a man’s ability to galvanise all the ranks of his subjects. This is the danger of when Racine’s Iphigénie deals with the classic story of whether Agamemnon is to sacrifice his own daughter as part of a political and military operation. It was written in the wake of Louis XIV’s victories in Franche-Comte. But Franche-Comte was no Troy, and Louis was no Agamemnon. The significance of the sacrifice, in the setting of Baroque grandeur, seemed diluted. In some senses the monarchs were more at home with the tales of tyrannical regimes from the east, with all their courtly intrigue – as showcased by Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe, a play on the power-politics in the Mogul court. Opulence creates a difficult setting for immersive tragedy. This is why the lyrical dramas of Philippe Quinault or the romantic Timocrate of Thomas Corneille remained far more popular than the great Pierre Corneille or the subtle Jean Racine.
  2. Aesthetic: Despising the Renaissance for its vulgarity and buffoonery. Baroque tragedians sought instead les bienséances, or the aristocratic code of respect. ‘Low’ words were particularly to be avoided. Dr Johnson went so far as to criticise Shakespeare for having Lady Macbeth use a knife as a tool in her crimes – the knife was ‘an instrument used by butchers and cooks in the meanest employments’.

The metre of baroque tragedy was also limited – its virtues was tautness and tension, its pitfalls was the obfuscation of the rich continuous speech, with its emotional surge, that so captures audiences of Shakespeare today. English tragedians remains more fluid than their French counterparts, but are more restricted than the Renaissance on the whole.

18th century theatre
18th Century Theatre: Both Stage and Cage for the art of les bienséances

The final aesthetical error was the interpretation of Aristotle’s Unities, as outlined in his Poetics, as laws. In Ancient Greece these were merely customs, in baroque they were obeyed as divinely writ. Aristotle states that a play must have unity of action, but unity of time and place are recommendations so long as they fit the drama.

Louis XIV had prided himself on creating in Paris the greatest cultural capital in all of Europe. In the architecture with which he surrounded himself, in the wars he fought, and in the drama he wished to be produced he hoped to emulate and exceed the Greeks and Romans which haunted his vision. His court was the benchmark for the high art of the time. Yet his true tragedy is that the drama of Corneille and Racine would not match that of Aeschylus or Sophocles. His tragedians were not even the best dramatist under his reign. When the king asked Boileau who he thought was the greatest contemporary French poet, Boileau gave him a shocking answer.

‘Really? I should never have believed it!’ was Louis’ reply. But Boileau was not the type to poke fun at kings’ questions on fine arts. His answer was earnest. The greatest French poet of the age was not a tragedian but rather a comic – Moliere. Racine would have thought this outcome of events a tragedy. Moliere would no doubt have found it comical.