By D. R. Gayton
One of the most pressing questions for any playwright is, what makes a play successful? To answer this question thousands of books and theoretical treaties have been written since the time of the ancients. Of these, perhaps the most famous is Aristotle’s Poetics. Written more than two thousands years ago, few philosophical treatises on the dramatic arts have had as much influence as this one. Responding either directly or indirectly to the arguments set by Aristotle in his Poetics, writers from every stripe have managed to augment through out the centuries the critical discussion set by the ancients and enrich thereby the literary and theoretical landscape. One such writer was Pierre Corneille. Born into the ebullient world of renaissance France, Corneille in his literary treatises, or discours, turns to Aristotle and the ancients not only to justify some of his own literary techniques, but also to expand the precepts found among the ancients and bring them forth onto the modern stage. In doing so Corneille managed to help expand the possibilities of the stage as well as to clarify and elucidate through his discours some of the points that were left unanswered by Aristotle in his Poetics.
One of the very first things one notices while reading Corneille’s Discours de l’utilité et de parties du poème, is the amount of space dedicated to providing examples to his ideas directly from his own plays. Of course, Corneille sites Horace and Aristotle repeatedly and makes ample references to the great classical poets (playwrights), however, it is within the examples extracted from his own plays that the purpose and message of the discours is clarified. For as he himself states at the beginning of this essay, when he says, “[j]e hasarderai quelque chose sur cinquante ans de travail pour la scène,” Corneille is stating that he is speaking more as professional playwright with many years of experience of work upon a stage than as a philosopher. Therefore, when he afterwards says, “et [j’]en dirai mes pensées tout simplement, sans esprit de contestation qui m’engage à les soutenir,” it becomes evident that his thoughts are not completely free of that contestation he is claiming to be avoiding. Taking Aristotle’s main structural points on “l’unité d’action, de lieu, et de jour,” as a starting point, in this work Corneille is seeking to invigorate the theater of this day by demonstrating how classical poetic principals can be applied to the modern stage. To do so, one of the very first things Corneille addresses, after addressing the fallacious notion of characterization, is the role of l’utile in tragedy.
As a professional playwright who made his living off the success of his plays, Corneille approaches l’utile, as he does many other aspects of a play, by considering the inclusiveness of the pleasure the audience must derive therein. It is under this awareness of the plurality of his audience that Corneille says “les amateurs de la vertu, s’y ennuieront, s’ils n’y trouvent rien à profiter.” By linking hereby l’utile to les amateurs de la vertu, Corneille manages to exalt l’utile not by uniting it to virtue, but by linking it to the dignity of those who claim to be lovers of virtue. Having done this Corneille proceeds to delineate the place l’utile must have within a tragedy. One of the advantages of l’utile Corneille further states, is its to ability to provide “sentences et instructions morales qu’on y peut semer presque partout.” Of course, by inserting presque, Corneille proceeds to enumerate the restrictions of such an approach. For Corneille, as for Aristotle before him, believed that at the heart of a play, the action (although morals formed and essential aspect of their work), must take center stage above all else. Consequently, any artificial element that may mar or halt the sequence of events is to be avoided.
Notwithstanding this view however, by stating “[t]ous mes poèmes demeureraient bien estropiés, si on en retranchait ce que j’y en ai mêlé,” Corneille sustains the need for the moral aspect within play. For going back to Aristotle’s precepts on effective characterization, Corneille, like his predecessor, believed that the moral, being part of character, was a fundamental element in the development of action. For action being guided by an agent (or a personage), must rely on the character, the mores, or the values of that agent in order to move forward. It is for this reason that Corneille becomes puzzled by Aristotle’s assertion that a tragedy can be had without characters but not without action. After all, Corneille seems to be reminding Aristotle and his fans of his own statements when he says,
[S]elon lui-même [Aristotle], c’est par les mœurs qu’un homme est méchant ou homme de bien, spirituel ou stupide, timide ou hardi, constant ou irrésolu, bon ou mauvais politique, et qu’il est impossible qu’on en mette aucun sur le théâtre qui ne soit bon ou méchant, et qui n’ait quelqu’une de ces autres qualités. (Corneille Kindle Edition)
For as Aristotle states on the sixth book of Poetics,
[A]ction involves agents, who must necessarily have their distinctive qualities both of character and thought, [1450a1] since it is from these that we ascribe certain qualities to their actions, and in virtue of these that they all succeed or fail. (Aristotle, 2320)
Accordingly, allowing for Aristotle’s logic, and internalizing it in turn, Corneille reasons that in fact, “les mœurs ne sont pas seulement le principe des actions, mais aussi du raisonnement.”
The implication behind this observation is, as Corneille himself continues to explain, that the character of an agent is the element that precipitates the actions that allows tragedy to exist. For taking the pursuit of honor in Le Cid as an example, Corneille demonstrates how, character or moral values can drive the actions of a play forward. Consequently, Corneille concludes as if to finish Aristotle’s thoughts by saying,“nous pouvons dire que quand il [Aristote] parle d’une tragédie sans mœurs, il entend une tragédie où les acteurs énoncent simplement leurs sentiments, ou ne les appuient que sur des raisonnements tirés du fait” (Kindle file). Therefore, understanding within this plexus of ideas the centrality of character to plot and action, Corneille proceeds to link Aristotle’s precepts on characterization to his own in order to compare and expand his own art. For disagreeing with Aristotle’s first point of characterization that says that “[f]irst and foremost…[characters] shall be good” (2327), Corneille points out to the reader that a character can in fact be wicked, or otherwise flawed and still remain effective as a personage. To draw examples Corneille revisits Rodogune, and Le Menteur; both works where obviously flawed personages manage to grasp the interest of the spectator.
Corneille affirms in Rodegune the antagonist Queen Cleopatra, who will go to any criminal lengths to maintain her throne, remains a successful and accomplished character because, “tous ses crimes sont accompagnés d’une grandeur d’âme qui a quelque chose de si haut, qu’en même temps qu’on déteste ses actions, on admire la source dont elles partent.” Similarly, Corneille continues, in Le Menteur the somewhat eponymous character that leads the plot, although despicable for his deceptions, is nonetheless a successful character because, “il débite ses menteries avec une telle présence d’esprit et tant de vivacité, que cette imperfection a bonne grâce en sa personne, et fait confesser aux spectateurs que le talent de mentir ainsi est un vice dont les sots ne sont point capables ” (Corneille).
However, irrespective of this view, and the novel implications to characterization this approach could have had on the theater, Corneille notes that while in fact these are compelling characters, Cleopatra on the one hand is an antagonist not a protagonist, and on the other Le Menteur is a comedy. Conceding then with Castelvetro that perhaps Aristotle’s precept is meant to reflect the protagonist of a tragedy, because this personage, unlike those that persecute him, must always make himself liked, “et par conséquent être vertex.” Corneille then moves over to consider the other aspects of characterization discussed by Aristotle. For perhaps having misread or having completely ignored Aristotle’s fragmented assertion in the Poetics that “[t]he poet…in portraying men quick or slow to anger, or with similar infirmities of character, must know how to represent them as such, and at the same time as good men . . .” (2327), Corneille completely refocuses on Aristotle’s claim that the actions that the imitator must represent are the actions of agents who are “either good men or bad” (Aristotle 2317).
As such, although the main character must follow the tragic pattern, the essential element of characterization, ultimately for both Aristotle and Corneille, is that the character and the actions of the agent remain consistent with each other. Any action that goes beyond the perimeters set by character must be avoided, as are any other actions that are unnecessary to the natural development of the events within a tragedy. That is to say, any dramatic element that does not meet these requirements is either improbable, or simply depraved as Aristotle says of “Euripides’ Aegeus and the baseness of Menelaus in Orestes” (2339).
To this latter point, Corneille further adds, that rather than goodness being the ultimate trait of all characters, what is essential for playwrights is the portrayal of characters which should remain virtuous for as long as it is possible, while limiting the appearance on stage of the vicious and criminal. In this manner, while speaking of the second useful point of the dramatic poem, Corneille stresses the idea that characters in a play must be so well delineated that traits such as vice and virtue may be easily identified. To this Corneille adds, as if forming an explanation, that the virtuous must be portrayed to be liked, although unfortunate, while the vicious must be portrayed to be hated, although triumphant. The implication behind this view is that by demarcating the characters into distinguishable traits, Corneille is speaking as a playwright who understands his audience. For while perfectly aware of Aristotle’s dictums on the folly of succumbing to the audience wishes, Corneille remarks that although outside of the precepts of art, one is satisfied with a dramatic ending when the wicked are punished and the good rewarded because of our attachment to the virtuous. For as he states,
mais quand l’événement remplit nos souhaits, et que la vertu y est couronnée, nous sortons avec pleine joie, et remportons une entière satisfaction et de l’ouvrage, et de ceux qui l’ont représenté. Le succès heureux de la vertu, en dépit des traverses et des périls, nous excite a l’embrasser ; et le succès funeste du crime ou de l’injustice est capable de nous en augmenter l’horreur naturelle, par l’appréhension d’un pareil malheur. (Corneille)
Corneille is at once praising virtue and echoing Aristotle’s words on the effect of fear; which although not expounded by Corneille, for obvious argumentative reasons, is meant to be just as effective as a “happy” ending—although not at all as pleasing to the paying audience. The double benefit to this sort of ending is that not only does the audience’s desire to see virtue rewarded is satisfied, but more importantly, such dramatic structures foment in the spectator that sort of character Aristotle spoke of in relation to the good life when in Book VIII Chapter 5 of his Politics he says, “[s]ince music belongs to the category of pleasures, and since goodness consists in feeling delight where one should, and loving and hating aright we may draw some conclusions” (309).
By such conclusions Aristotle was of course referring to his idea that music, or dramatic poetry, as Corneille understood it, had the capability of giving pleasure and in doing so of bringing forth the goodness of character required in order to live a good life. For, comparing goodness to a skill, Aristotle says, “every capacity, and every form of art, requires as a condition of its exercise some measure of previous training and some amount of preliminary habituation, so the same must clearly go for acts embodying goodness of character” (298). One method of attaining this goodness then is to seek music for its ability to move one closer, as a trainer would, to the good and finer things in life.
Indisputably then, amongst those characteristics that belong to the good life is virtue. For it is for the sake of virtue that both Aristotle and Corneille agree (even when presented with other possibilities) that one of the fundamental characteristics of a protagonist in a tragedy should be his fundamental goodness. In other words, both Corneille and Aristotle make it clear through their writings that having a virtuous protagonist is essential to a tragedy not only because such personages are beneficial for the moral life of the public, but because in fact (and what is of greater importance to the playwright), having a virtuous protagonist in a tragedy is essential for its proper execution. In doing so, both Corneille and Aristotle manage to link values and morality to dramatic characterization and in doing so convert moral values into aesthetic values. By utilizing moral values as indispensable aspects of the success of a dramatic representation, the use of those selfsame values which are used throughout a play or dramatic poem cease to have any real meaning outside of the literary context in which they are employed. Therefore any questions of moral values within a literary or artistic context are questions that must be answered either solely through the context under which they are being presented, or through an aesthetic context where questions between right and wrong become questions between suitable and unsuitable. That is, although very concerned with values and the life of the public, by aestheticizing moral values, both Aristotle and Corneille in fact managed to disengage themselves from them.
Aristotle. The Politics (Oxford World’s Classics). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Digital Edition Bollingen Series. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Corneille, Pierre. Corneille : Œuvres complètes et annexes. Ed. Lohéac, Guy. Arvensa Editions. Kindle Edition
 Var. (édit. de 1660 et de 1663) : trente ans ; — (édit. de 1664) plus de trente ans ; — (édit. de 1668) : quarante ans. (Lohéac, Guy)