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The golden age of the theater
XVIe-XVIIe centuries
© Hachette Multimédia/Hachette Livre

Illustration of the scene of the “actors” in Hamlet

Illustration of Daniel Maclise

The Elizabethan theater

Around 1580 the great time of the English theater starts and its glare survives the reign of Elizabeth. Beside the open spectacles and especially of medieval origin, and celebrations of the Corpus Christi, one saw flowering at the court of the ballets of Italian importation whose booklets were of John Lily and George Peele. Shakespeare did not hesitate to use these pastoral gallant (Endimion de Lily, 1588, and especially the Judgment of Pâris, of Peele, 1584) concerning the humanistic culture and of the topics of the Rebirth. But, if England inaugurates the golden age of the theater, it is especially thanks to the drama and with the comedy.

 

In the Elizabethan theater, the role of the clown holds the place of the ancient chorus. The actors were exclusively male and strutted about in front of a noisy public which followed the action in the manner of a match of boxing. The feminine roles were held by disguised men and the roof of refinement was to use the double transvestite: a woman disguised as a man, i.e. a man equipped as a man. The public of the Elizabethan theater awaited various adventures: duels, duets, violent scenes, and their appearance was greeted by ovations. The topics are, on the one hand reappearing paganism, skepticism and individualism, on the other hand, frenzy panics, the madness, the destruction, the crime and blood. The Elizabethan tragedy celebrates the power of living which, paradoxically, continues through a disproportionate and violent suffering.

 

One can distinguish during this long period from three quarter centuries, three generations of dramatic authors, having each one their own genius:

 

Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) who opens this period with the bloody melodrama: Spanish tragedy (1586), and Arden de Feversham where one finds already all the ethics of the Elizabethan drama putting in scene the furious madness.

 

Christopher Marlowe (death in 1593) whose dramas contributed to give birth to the tragedies from Shakespeare. Tamerlan the Large one, represented around 1587, is the first historical drama where one puts in scene the interior and social collapse of the conquest. Tragic history of Doctor Faust (1592?) in scene the topic of Faust, topic of the thirst for knowledge puts and tragic symbol of the man of the Rebirth. The work of Marlowe contributed to highlight the essential phenomenon of all this theater: frenzy and the murder, the aggravation of ego.

 

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is incontestably the most fertile playwright and most important of this time. Like its contemporaries, but with more force, Shakespeare treated all the topics of its time, the comedy and the ballet Italianizing with the wildest drama and darkest.

 

Around him revolve of the playwrights as Cyril Tourneur who gives “black dramas”: the Tragedy of the atheist (published in 1611) whose outrageous character touches sometimes with the grotesque one. Let us note that he is perhaps the only playwright who dared to carry to the scene sadism and the necrophilia, making of a murder and jumble of horrors without precedent either a realistic representation but a kind of great ceremonial of the impulses and morbid and obscure instincts of the man. After John Webster, George Chapman, the tragic Elizabethan theater degrades himself but guard still an extraordinary direction of the dynamism and scenic effect. John Ford is the last large playwright Elizabethan. Its Dommage tragedy that it is a whore did of him one of the precursors, according to Antonin Artaud, of the “theater of cruelty”.

 

As for the comedy, it gives masterpieces with Ben Jonson. Humanistic very scholar and very active, his style, less bombastic and more elutriated than that of his contemporaries, return it near to the classicism. Its satirical liveliness and an acute sense of the dramatic effect makes its comedies of the parts where the action always is very well taken and where criticisms which he addresses to the company and the power never do not seem to be the fact of their author, but belongs to the internal dynamics of the comedy. For this period, one also sees flowering a multiplicity of playwrights who write parts in collaboration, whose existence can be explained by the importance of the requests. Using all the topics of their time, they have a dramatic low value. Let us quote only Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher whose feuilletonesques parts have a dramatic technique which saves them flatness. After the death of Shakespeare, rhetoric takes the place of passion. The historical vicissitudes and the puritan current slow down the dramatic production. The edict of the Parliament which issues the closing of the theaters (September 2nd, 1642) completes the brilliance rise of the Elizabethan drama.


The Spanish theater

In 1499, in Salamanque the Tragi-comedy of Calixte and Mélibée appears, of Fernando de Rojas. More known under the name of Célestine, this work, celebrates not only in Spain but in Europe where it was translated at once, all the Spanish theater of the Century of gold influenced considerably. It introduced with the theater the daily life, with its most worrying aspects, in a rather raw portrayal of manners.

 

At the dawn of the XVI E century, Juan del Encina writes eclogues for the theater and the Gil Vicente Portuguese of the short and skilful parts which do of him one of the precursors of what one called later the Spanish comedia. It is advisable to specify this term of comedia. It is by no means of comedy to the French direction, but about dramatic action, whether it is comic or tragic. Generally divided into three days cut of interludes or pasos, sometimes preceded by an explanatory prolog, the comedia, with an acute sense of the movement and emotion, contains within the framework of the scene all the types of the daily life. It interferes lyricism court with popular lyricism and watch at which point traditional Spanish poetry uses the popular speech, the village songs, because undoubtedly of the meter and the rhythm employed.

 

The theater becomes in Spain the object of a true idolatry. The Church tries to curb this vice, but that is all the more difficult for him as it uses, to fight against the heresies and the Reform, the car sacramental (act played in honor of Blessed Sacrament). Around 1520, Bartolomé de Torres Naharro renews, while taking as a starting point the Célestine, the personnel of the Latin comedy by introducing typically Spanish characters.

 

Wimp of Rueda, actor, author and director of troop at the same time, written between 1550 and 1565, its pasos or interludes, short tables of manners which, into a sharp and tightened dialog, introduce the types of the Spanish comedy (the doctor, the Jew, the bachelor, the student); its pasos opens the way with the entremeses of Cervantès. Juan of Cueva incorporates in the comedia the national feeling, putting in scene historical episodes (Comedia of the libertad of España por Bernardo del Carpio), and appears the precursor of the comedia of cape and expensive sword with Lope of Vega.

 

Miguel de Cervantes writes entremeses which, by their sharp dialogs and prickles, are closer to us than its comedias. Destruction of Numance (1581?) keep a great measurement, tries never not to make burst the duration, avoids the changes of places. Beside the patriotic long discourses, and political sentences which remain debatable, the direction of the dialog, the vocabulary and the dramatic effect keep their seduction.

 

It is with the appearance of the first works of Wimp of Vega that the Spanish theater acquires its final form strictly speaking and tries to make scene a total art where dance, music, mimes and poetry are supplemented. Guillén of Castro gives with mow Mocedades del Cid (Childhoods of Cid) an epic part which was a very great success in Europe. Corneille, in her Cid, adapted it in French.

 

Pedro Calderón of Barca, of inspiration much less popular, is the genius baroque par excellence. Its metaphysical intelligence pushes it to put in scene the dramas of the heart and to release from the action a philosophical reflection. It makes mythological drama a total theater, introducing the tests of the Italian school there camerata, thus creating the first Spanish opera. After the death of Calderón, the Spanish theater, which had given so much to the French classicism, took as a starting point the comedies of Corneille and of Molière and did not give anything any more really original.


The commedia dell' arte

During the Middle Ages and the Rebirth, the theater remains in the street. Troops traverse the campaigns, pursued by the Church which however yields to them, in the mysteries, the role of the devils. Of these flames of the hell, Arlequin will keep the pug nose, the decorated black mask of a magnifying glass. Receipts later in the palate of the princes, they will constitute schools from where will be born the commedia dell' arte or popolare and the commedia erudita.

 

The history of the Italian theater, to the XVI E and XVII E centuries, is that of the commedia dell' arte. In 1568, Massimo Trojana and Roland de Lassus give a musical improvised in one day, where all the imbroglios are found, gibes, songs and characters of what will be the commedia dell' arte. The name of popolare (popular) which is used to indicate this kind, shows well that it is above all a spectacle the street; the names of commedia dell' arte or commedia has sogetto (with groundwork) or all' improviso, says more exactly than it is.

 

This kind has as a base the groundwork or the scenario. We know, thanks to the collection of Gherardi, a half-thousand of groundwork. The subjects of these groundworks are drawn from the funds already very elaborate of pastoral, the novel, the tale; the register goes from the buffoon to the horrific one; the structure in general presents three acts preceded by a prolog which has nothing to do with the part; about ten characters, plus the extras, are the actors; one dazing intrigue faggot of stage businesses unrolls, on a bottom of true carnival, brawls, drubbings, continuations and removals. The gibes are “purple passages” of which the goal is to emphasize the actor. The groundwork is more and more pretext with number of actor; satire, observation of manners are left with its only imagination.

 

The actor entirely does not improvise his text and, except the unforeseen ones, it prepares its effects carefully. It finds its inspiration in collections of witty remarks, of concetti, songs, comparisons and of monologs. Concurrently to these collections, which proliferate to the XVII E century, the actor has recourse to already tested effects, secrecies of the trade which pass from Master to pupil. But, which is very important, it is the disciplined unit of the troop which makes it possible to articulate the play, an actor being erased to leave with the another care to make its effect. The speech is not the essential component with this kind of theater; it is not that a reinforcement, a support for the various numbers; what counts especially, it is mimes it, the production and the use of the mask (forsaken everywhere else).

 

The characters are fixed types: Zane, the large Jean, the lout; Pedrolino and Arlecchino knew a great fortune in Europe and France, under the name of Pierrot and Harlequin. Arlecchino is a poor servant with the service of a miserly Master: its patched up costume of all the colors of the rainbow shows its origin. It carries a black leather mask to large moustache; Pulcinella, of Neapolitan origin, is interfered policy and has airs of puppet; Pants, lecherous old screw and deceive eternal, must much in Maccus of the atellane; Capitan Fracasso, Matamoro or Rinoceronte, are the Spanish coward, terror of the good people; It dottore (the doctor) incarnates the forgery knowledge. In addition to these characters, much of others decorate the commedia: Scaramouche, Truffaldin, Tabarin, Burattino, etc, all cheating, lying, drinkers, pigs, cowards, but nimble, untiring punsters.

 

The commedia dell' arte is at the origin of this shape of theater where the feeling counts less than the action, where the scenic movement is paramount, where the actor is essential. One can say that the comedy of intrigue, the melodrama, the light comedy, the comedy ballet, the Opéra Comique, the operetta, opera-puffs out it, the large spectacle, the production and the circus owes him much.


The theater in France

With the Rebirth, the theater remains popular. Under the influence of the graeco-latin culture, playwrights like Jodelle, the Size, Grevin produce imitated tragedies of Sénèque. In 1583, Robert Garnier with the Jewish ones gives to this kind a new dash but, in spite of a certain dramatic rhythm, its work remains close to that of Sénèque. The passion for the Spanish parts and the great vogue of Italian poetry give birth to the ballet. It is through the tragi-comedy that playwrights like Montchrestien with Sophonisbe (1601), Mairet and Tristan the Hermit with Marianne (1636), try to francize the Spanish comedia.

 

Richelieu makes build a scene in the Cardinal palate. The Academy is impassioned at once and slack its “fury of reason”, wanting to regulate, codify and arbitrate the dramatic art, according to simple remarks of Horace and Aristote which it sets up in true dogmas. At this point in time is born the rule from the three units. One is wrong to say that these rules were imposed by the Academy because they were also born from the need to simplify the technique and to make possible the representation in spite of the scenic lack of space. Time (24 hours) avoided making night scenes which posed problems of lighting; the place removed the changes of scenery, thus avoiding the technical interruptions and blunders; the action, finally, where any adventure was relegated in the slide, gave an importance without equal to the speech. Nevertheless, the taste of the baroque keeps its strength with Rotrou and Thomas Corneille, the ballet with Italian and the opera having for Quinault scenario writer.

 

Pierre Corneille has the merit to have given to a theater which had too tendency to introspection not only one dash of youth, promptness and poetry but a real dramatic force by the direction of the movement, on the language and this side baroque that it did not cease cherishing. It is perhaps the only French playwright of its time to be itself tested with all the kinds. By its scenic lucky finds, its taste of the effect, one can regard it as the precursor of the romantic drama.

 

The romantic one continues to impassion the public of 1650; greatest success was Timocrate (1656) of Thomas Corneille. The comedy, leaving the joke to Tabarin which played on the Neuf bridge, takes a turn more squeaking and, it should well be said less, “comic” with works of Tristan, Desmarets, Scarron and especially Cyrano of Bergerac whose played Pedant inspired Molière more once. The years which preceded the majority by Louis XIV especially saw the apogee of the ballet and, under the impulse of Mazarin, of the Italian opera.

 

Molière worked out the major principle of the various theatrical doctrines: to paint according to nature. At his place, the action as the intrigue, led with an infallible technical virtuosity, are not an aim in itself, not more than the word games or the stage businesses; they are used to paint the human one. It is the first to have given to the comedy a dignity similar to that of the tragedy and, after him, the theater known as “serious” will learn how to draw from the life and either from the imaginary one.

 

With the tragedy of Jean Root, we attend the appearance on stage of the spirit, the conscience as an inexorable judge and a torturer. From there a rigorous and pure dramatic construction (abstracted place, duration of a few hours, action reduced to only one crisis forces) that the verbal music learnedly, moderately hidden, transforms little by little into a kind of liturgy.



 
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