Previous page Page 6 of 8 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Greece and Rome
Middle Ages
16th - 18th century
17th century
     Ben Jonson
     Italian scenery
     Spread of the Italian style
     Corneille and Racine

18th century
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Ben Jonson: 1606-1616

Ben Jonson, almost as prolific in his works for the stage as Shakespeare, achieves his most distinctive voice in two satirical comedies based on an interplay of characters seen as types. In the earlier of the two, Volpone (1606), the characters are even given the Italian names of animals to point up their supposed natures.

Volpone (the fox) pretends to be dying so as to extract gifts from people expecting an inheritance. Mosca (the fly) acts as his accomplice. A lawyer, Voltore (the vulture), hovers around the supposed death bed. A feeble old man, Corbaccio (the crow), is willing to disinherit his son for his own benefit. And a self-righteous Corvino (the raven) offers his wife to satisfy Volpone's lust.


Tricks played on the gullible also provide the comedy in The Alchemist (1610). Subtle, a confidence trickster pretending to be an alchemist, promises his victims whatever they most desire.

A grossly self-indulgent hedonist, Sir Epicure Mammon, and two fanatical puritans, Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, turn out to share the same longing - to possess the philosopher's stone, with which they will turn base metal into gold. By contrast a simple tobacconist, Drugger, wants nothing more than a design for his shop that will bring in customers. Kastril, an oaf up from the country, is mainly interested in discovering the fashionable way of being quarrelsome.


These two plays succeed partly because of the farcical opportunities available as the tricksters struggle to keep their various victims separate and happy. But they also benefit from the vividly realistic detail which gives life to Jonson's verse.

His sharp eye for the everyday scene, and for the amusing quirks of people's behaviour, even enables him to make a viable play out of Bartholomew Fair (1614). It has little to hold it together except the context of the famous fair itself. The plot consists only of the adventures and mishaps which befall different groups of visitors.


While writing his comedies for the public theatres, Jonson also provides masques for amateur performance at the court of James I. His first, The Masque of Blackness in 1605, is specifically written to accomodate the longing of James's queen, Anne of Denmark, to appear in the role of a black African.

A quarrelsome and touchy man, frequently in trouble with the authorities, Jonson is unusual for his time in insisting on the dignity of the craft of playwright. Whereas Shakespeare shows little interest in the survival of the text of his plays, Jonson arranges for his own works to be published in a splendid folio edition of 1616. Three years later, as if taking the point, Oxford university honours him with a degree as master of arts.


The Italian stage and scenery: 17th - 18th century

Italy, home of spectacular court entertainments and the birthplace of opera, also provides the system of stage and scenery which becomes the standard arrangement in European theatres.

It is soon realized that the attractive scenery provided for princely intermezzi will look even better if viewed within an attractive frame (behind which candles and lamps needed for the lighting can be concealed), and that the scenes will be more impressive if they can be rapidly changed. The breakthrough in both respects is credited to the architect Giovanni Battista Aleotti, who builds the Teatro Farnese in Parma in 1618.


The Teatro Farnese is the first theatre to be equpped with a permanent proscenium arch, separating the audience from the scenery. Aleotti's other profoundly influential innovation, dating from some time early in the 17th century, is the painting of scenery on a succession of parallel wings receding from the audience on either side of the stage.

Perspective skills enable scene painters to create a convincing three-dimensional illusion on these flat canvases. Admittedly the illusion is only perfect from a single viewing point. But the system is introduced first in court theatres. That single perfect place is where the prince sits. There is no problem.


Flat wings make possible a rapid change of scenery. The wings for an entirely different setting can be placed just behind the ones at present jutting forward into sight. When the change of scenery is called for, the front wings are pulled out and the rear ones pushed in - achieving an immediate and magical transformation.

Each wing at first has its own stage hand, until the public theatres in Venice discover a solution for this costly overmanning. When the Teatro Novissimo ('very newest theatre') opens in 1741, it lives up to its name. Slots are cut in the stage so that the flats can rest on linked trolleys below. When a counterweight is released, every pair of wings moves in or out in perfect unison.


This miraculous effect is the invention of one of Italy's greatest stage designers, Giacomo Torelli. His skill with machinery (causing rumours in his own time that he is in league with the devil) inspires similar ingenuity and ever more spectacular effects in Europe's theatres during the next two centuries.

The marvels of this kind of stage effect, with all the necessary equipment still in working order, can be seen in a remarkable survival - the 18th-century court theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden. By the time this theatre is built, in the 1760s, the Italian example has prevailed everywhere.


Spread of the Italian style: 17th - 18th century

Italian designers are much in demand in foreign courts, once word spreads of the magic they can achieve with their stage perspective and machinery. Torelli himself spends seventeen years in Paris. Corneille writes spectacular scenes in his play Andromède in 1650 specifically to show off what the Italian magician can achieve in terms of stage effects.

But the Italian style is also carried abroad by foreign enthusiasts bringing it back to their own countries. One such is Inigo Jones. His two visits to Italy not only introduce the Palladian style to British architecture. They also bring Italian scenery, through Jones's designs for the court masques of James I.


Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson together provide masques for the court from 1605. Jones makes his own experiments within the Italian style, and to some extent finds his own way forward. By the late 1630s (before the innovation of flats descending through the stage in Venice) Jones has evolved an effective system of wings sliding in grooves set in the stage floor. This remains, until the 19th century, the standard system in ordinary English theatres.

Lavish Italian spectacle soon becomes restricted to opera rather than straight theatre. The inevitable clash between stage effects and words leads to a famous rift between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, whom Jonson accuses of 'making painting and carpentry the soul of masque'.


Corneille and Racine: 1637-1677

In a remarkable forty years, from 1637 to 1677, the French theatre enjoys a succession of powerful tragedies from two playwrights, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. Both write within tight restrictions which are considered an essential part of the dignity of their art.

The three Unities of action, time and place are carefully observed (the plot must have a logical consistency and must be completed within a span of twenty-four hours in a single location). The text is entirely in rhyming couplets of twelve-syllable alexandrines, and there are other clearly defined rules. Violent events can only happen offstage. The vocabulary is limited, with frequently repeated poetic phrases - and definitely no vulgarity.


The first play in this style to be a huge success with the Parisian public is Corneille's Le Cid in 1637. The dramatic conflict concerns the love between Chimène, a high-born Spanish lady, and the youthful El Cid of legendary fame. Unfortunately a social slight offered by Chimène's father to El Cid's father makes El Cid honour-bound to seek satisfaction. He challenges Chimène's father and kills him.

The rest of the play, developing a theme characteristic of all Corneille's subsequent tragedies, hinges on the conflict between duty and love. Chimène's duty to her father demands El Cid's death. Her love makes her yearn for him to live.


The ending of Le Cid is ambiguous. Our hero is called away to fight the Moors and there is a hope that time may solve the conflict. Usually in Corneille honour wins more convincingly, making his plays less sympathetic to modern audiences than those of his younger rival Racine.

Racine's first runaway success, Andromaque, follows thirty years after Le Cid, in 1667. The framework and the rules of tragedy are still the same, but the ingredients have drastically altered. In Andromaque honour and duty hardly feature. Instead there is an insoluble quadrangle of unrequited love in the aftermath of the Trojan War.


Orestes loves Hermione who loves Pyrrhus who loves Andromaque, whose only concern is the safety of her young son whom Orestes is attempting to take into captivity and to almost certain death.

This tangle offers as much opportunity for emotional bargain and blackmail as any late 20th-century play of sexual intrigue. Racine guides the relationships towards a tragic outcome in a series of brilliantly developed confrontations, often just between two characters - one of whose positions has usually shifted since the previous encounter.


Over the next ten years Racine produces a succession of powerful tragedies, often with female central characters who are overwhelmed by their emotions. This is true above all of the last of the series, Phèdre (1677), in which the heroine is consumed with lust for her stepson, Hippolyte.

The raw drama of Phèdre, albeit within the classical convention, is too much for some in Racine's audience. But the mixed response to the play is probably not the reason for his retirement at this time from the theatre. More likely it is due to his marriage in 1677 and a new appointment as the king's official historian. But his ten main years as a playwright have produced an extraordinarily intense and finely honed body of work.


Molière: 1658-1673

One October afternoon in 1658 a small theatre company, headed by Molière, performs a Corneille tragedy for the 20-year-old Louis XIV and his brother Philippe, two years younger. The players follow the tragedy with a farce, written by Molière, about an amorous doctor. It greatly appeals to the two young men. The company is granted the patronage of Philippe, who two years later becomes the duke of Orlèans.

This is a turning point in Molière's career. For the past thirteen years he and his company have led a difficult existence touring the provinces. But the experiences of those years enable Molière, as both actor-manager and author, to make the most of the new opportunities in Paris.


Until his death Moliére writes on average two or three plays each year for his company, with leading roles for himself. Since his central theme is ridicule of the pretensions and falsities of contemporary society, the plays involve him in almost permanent controversy.

The first play to cause both delight and offence (a promising blend in any period) is Les Précieuses Ridicules in 1659. A modern translation of the title might be 'Ridiculous Trendies'. The play makes fun of two provincial ladies, arriving in Paris, who are so delighted by the affected manners of the capital that they lose all sense of reality.


Tartuffe (1664) is even more controversial, featuring a religious hypocrite who by an oily display of mock piety persuades a nobleman to entrust him with both his daughter and his property. The play is first performed before the king at Versailles, but opposition from the establishment delays the first public performance by several years.

To some extent Molière's comedy depends on breathing new life into stock comic characters such as L'Avare ('The Miser', 1668, based on a play of Plautus) or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) about a man so eager to climh in society that he falls prey to every charlatan offering to help him. But Molière's dramatic skill makes the character, Monsieur Jourdain, sympathetic as well as ridiculous.


From 1666 Molière becomes increasingly ill, and his experience of doctors provides him with a new vein of comedy. In that year Le médicin malgré lui ('The doctor in spite of himself') features a character who is forced by the plot to masquerade as a doctor and then finds that he likes the role.

Sganarelle, the amateur medic, has perhaps the most famous line in the whole of Molière. Holding forth about the heart, and its position on the right side of a patient's body, he receives a mild note of dissent from someone who thought it was supposed to be on the left. 'Yes,' he replies, 'but we've changed all that'.


In February 1673 Molière plays the central role in the first performance of Le malade imaginaire. Because Argan imagines himself to be ill, he is willing to submit to all the outrageous treatments proposed by his doctors - providing ample scope for satire on the medical profession. But during the fourth performance, a week later, illusion and reality become tragically blurred. Molière falls ill on the stage and dies later that night.

All his life Molière has written words to be acted rather than read. He shows little concern for the publication of his plays. But their texts (some in prose, some in verse) guarantee him a place, with Corneille and Racine, in France's great trio of classic dramatists.


Kabuki: from the 17th century

The origins of kabuki, Japan's popular theatre, lie in the ukiyo-e or floating world of the cities. In about 1600 a young Shinto priestess, O-Kuni, forms a troupe in Kyoto to perform dances and mimes. She is so successful that the city's courtesans follow her example, as a way of displaying themselves to potential customers. Their performances are indiscreet, and the response of their admirers violently enthusiastic. As a result a decree, in about 1629, bans all female performers from the stage.

The prohibition lasts more than two centuries, until the Meiji period. But male performers, adopting the No tradition of taking the female parts themselves, step in to satisfy the new audience's appetite for theatre.


During the 17th and 18th centuries kabuki (from ka singing, bu dancing, ki art) develops into an immensely successful form of café entertainment. Actors perform in spectacular costumes, among stylized scraps of scenery, on a stage surrounded on three sides by a convivial audience. The spectators sit in small box-like compartments where food and drink can be served.

The new form of theatre at first borrows plots and scripts from Japan's already thriving puppet theatre (known as 'joruri'). But soon plays are being specially written for the kabuki theatre. Many become lasting favourites, continually in demand from audiences through the centuries.


An outstanding example is Chushingura, a play of 1748 based on a dramatic real-life incident of some forty years earlier. Forty-seven loyal retainers (or ronin) are outraged when their lord is slighted by another. They plot a careful revenge which ends in the offending noble's death. The shogun sympathises with this honourable vendetta, but in 1703 orders all forty-seven to commit Hara-kiri. The event causes a sensation in Japan, and the actors have the skill to make it sensational on their stages.

The kabuki actors acquire devoted fans. And Japan has the printing skills to satisfy the demand for coloured images of the stars in their roles.


Previous page Page 6 of 8 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF THEATRE