What is French Classical

In France, the "siècle classique" (classic century) is the name given to the 17th century, when art and culture were in impressive bloom. The court of Louis XIV (1638-1715), who liked to see himself as the Sun King and descendant of the ancient Roman rulers, enjoyed a high reputation throughout Europe and was considered worthy of imitation. It owed its enormous political and cultural influence above all to the early unification of the nation-states. The cardinals Richelieu (1585-1642) and Mazarin (1602-1661), who were responsible for Louis XIII. and who until 1661 directed the affairs of state, Louis XIV, paved the way for a centrally organized (and monitored) absolute monarchy. In addition to eliminating their enemies by suppressing the so-called parliamentary and aristocratic revolts ("Fronde"), art and especially the theater played an important role at least for Richelieu.

He saw the stage as a medium of propaganda that had to establish and maintain an ideology of order with its plays. For this reason, he even legally repealed the long state-sanctioned social discrimination of the acting profession. Clarity in expression and unambiguity in effect were the declared goals of this art policy.

The norms summarized as "doctrine classique" (classical art theory) are exemplary in Nicolas Boileau's work Art poétique gathered by 1674. These poetry rules, derived from antiquity, prescribe the famous three units of time, place and action for the drama (of which Aristotle only finds that of time). The act depicted has the laws of "vraisemblance", the probability of satisfying and imitating nature - admittedly a nature that has been purified of everything ugly and ignoble and thus stylized. The language should also correspond to the so-called "good usage" codified as "bon usage". Behind the requirement of the "bienséance" hides the demand for a presentation of what court society in particular in the 17th century felt to be appropriate and "decent". Together with the upper middle class - merchants, traders, civil servants and scholars - the nobility, politically domesticated by the monarch, formed the audience for this art ("le cour et la ville": the court and the city). Above all, the desired effect was important: enjoyment of the portrayed and being touched by the fate they had experienced should bring about a moral improvement and transform the theater into a school of "honnêteté" (righteousness, decency).

All in all, it is an extremely restrictive poetics of rules that also followed a political calculation. Nevertheless, the French writer Paul Valéry is absolutely right if he wants to see something positive in these regulations. The essential thing about the rule, says Valéry, is its resistance. It was the productive friction at this resistance that gave rise to the works of Corneille, Racine and Molière and made them the French classics of the 17th century.

Secondary literature

  • F. Nies, K. Stierle (ed.): French Classic. Theory. Literature. Painting, Munich 1985.
  • R. Bray: La formation de la doctrine classique en France, Paris 1983. (first 1927)