Roman tragedies of Thomas Corneille
Gossip, Christopher J.
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Apart from an eighty-year old French thesis and a recent American survey, Thomas Corneille's theatre has so far received minimal critical attention. While his comedies, derivative though they are, are not widely condemned, his tragedies are said to be complicated and over-sentimental, badly constructed and poorly versified. This thesis attempts to present a truer picture, taking as its basis Thomas' six Roman tragedies, from La Mort de l'empereur Commode (1657) to La Fort d'Annibal (1669) and relating these to his non-Roman plays and to other major tragedies of the period. Study of Timocrate (1656) and comparison with contemporary plays and an earlier tragi-comedy show even this so-called "tragedy" to be coherent and skilfully constructed, despite the presence of mistaken identity. With the progressive disappearance of physical disguise and its replacement by hidden feeling, Thomas Corneille can concentrate on simplifying his plots, making them more truly dramatic and allowing time, as in Stilicon, for a tragic realisation of guilt. In all these fields, he noticeably alters his probable historical sources, toning down certain elements but adding new relationships and even characters to the fairly unknown ones he has chosen to treat as his major figures. With Persee et Demetrius and Pyrrhus. less successful plays, Thomas Corneille will concentrate on and refine still further his dramatic technique, largely ignoring, as Racine does in La Thebaide the following year, the power of amourpassion. Indeed as late as Laodice, the year after Andromaque. he will depict an ambitious grande criminelle, rational to the end, while La Mort d'Annibal. though introducing love, does so to achieve primarily dramatic ends. Progression, activity despite dependence, humanity, even love, despite ambitions these are features of virtually all the Roman tragedies studied and, together with increasing plot simplification, they make Thomas Corneille a very important precursor of Racine. His greatest skill lies in what the freres Parfaict call "la marche du theatre" - his plays, tense, logically constructed, well-balanced, are both tragic and truly dramatic.