Corneille, Pierre

Assigned: Corneille, Pierre. “Of the Three Unities of Action, Time and Place” (295-306). Also read the editors’ introduction (291-94).

“Of the Three Unities of Action, Time and Place” (1660)

1. On 295-96 (“The two preceding discourses and…”), consider Corneille’s comments about “unity of action.” How does he deal with the fact that, as he says, any play will have one complete action, but also several dependent actions and even additional sub-actions that depend on those? What must the dramatist understand about how a play’s actions should relate to one another? As for the principle of selection, what guidance does Corneille offer the dramatist with regard to the actions that “he must choose to show…” (296) and those that may safely be left out or, optionally, simply referred to by narration? How do the twin principles of connectedness and causality drive Corneille’s prescriptions for what should and should not be represented on stage?

2. On 297-98 (“The linking of the scenes which…”), what does Corneille suggest about the linking-together by various means of the scenes within a particular act of a play? If it isn’t strictly required, why, nonetheless, has it become a rule in Corneille’s own time? To what extent does the demand for such linkages on the part of the audience rest at the dramatists’ own doorstep? Finally, why does Corneille apparently favor “linkings” between an act’s scenes on the basis of “presence and speech” (297) rather than simple presence without speech?

3. On 298-99 (“Although the action of the dramatic poem…”), how does Corneille describe proper dramatic structure in relation to the play’s “complication”? First of all, how does Aristotle, whom Corneille of course relies on here, define what constitutes the complication? (see Leitch for Aristotle’s Poetics 99-127; in particular examine 114-15) Although Corneille says it is impossible to lay down any strict rules about this matter, aside from the basic Aristotelian insistence that playwrights ought to arrange “all things according to probability or necessity” (298), what additional counsel does he nonetheless offer? Why, that is, should a playwright avoid referring to events that occurred before the play’s opening act? (298) Finally, how does the neoclassical theorist Corneille show in the present passage (and indeed throughout the selection) how intensely his advice and rule-giving depend on a sound understanding of audience psychology and expectations?

4. On 299-300 (“In the resolution I find two things…”), with respect to the “resolution” of plays, Corneille suggests that two things should be avoided: “the mere change of intention and the machine” (299). By “machine,” he means the deus ex machina custom, whereby an actor representing some divine personage is “miraculously” lowered down in some contraption from the heavens, and promptly wraps up the play’s action. What reasons does Corneille give for disliking these two things? All the same, why does he disagree somewhat on page 299 with Aristotle’s remarks in Poetics about a specific use of the deus ex machina device? (For Aristotle’s remarks, see Leitch 112, the paragraph beginning, “In the characters and the plot construction….”)

5. On 300-301 (“From the action I turn to the acts…”), Corneille turns to considerations involving the number and quality of a play’s acts. Is there any set number of acts or scenes that would be optimal? Furthermore, what audience psychology-related grounds does Corneille have for preferring the modern custom of separating acts with a brief orchestral performance, rather than the ancients’ supposed demarcation of them by choral chants?

6. On 301 (“Aristotle wishes the well-made tragedy…”), what Aristotelian principle about how to guide one’s audience does Corneille cite in justification of his own favorable view of marginal notes and similar helps in printed copies of plays? Refer to Aristotle’s Poetics 1450b (Leitch 105, the paragraph beginning, “The fourth element is Language”). What point does Aristotle make in that paragraph when he writes, “For tragedy fulfills its function even without a public performance and actors…” (105 middle)? In responding, consider Aristotle’s statement that “the first principle and, as it were, the soul of tragedy is the plot…” (Leitch 105 top). By implication, what essential process or goal is Corneille trying to facilitate by sparing spectators or readers any unnecessary mental effort while they watch the action unfold, or read the play as text? If they become thus disturbed or perplexed, how will that hinder the achievement of what Aristotle calls catharsis, the proper emotional impact of tragic plays? (For the significance of the term catharsis,see Leitch 103 bottom – 104 top, and footnote 4 on 103 bottom.)

7. On 301-04 (“The rule of the unity of time…”), Corneille discusses the unity of time—why isn’t it a good idea, according to him, either to insist rigidly on this rule or to dismiss it out of hand as “tyrannical” (302), as some critics and playwrights do? On what basis does Corneille attest to the soundness of observing at least a modified version of the unity of time? What species of “common sense” (302) does he say should guide playwrights in suiting their representations to the period of time being spanned? How does Corneille’s comparison of dramatic imitation to the painting of a portrait (302) help him make his point about observing mimetic (imitative) accuracy? How much does narrating larger spans of time help, and what advice does Corneille pass along regarding how to narrow down one’s choice of events so as to make overextending the on-stage representation unnecessary? Finally, why, in Corneille’s view, is it acceptable to speed up the action in a play’s final act—what audience psychology consideration makes that a reasonable strategy? (303)

8. On 304-06 (“As for the unity of place…”), Corneille examines the demand for unity of place, and rejects the notion that Aristotle ever prescribed it as a rule. Even so, to what extent does Corneille himself recommend at least a flexible or “compromise” (305 middle) version of this unity? What advice does he offer regarding the need to curb any unnecessary “excess” of freedom in the representation of multiple locations on stage? (305)

9. On 306 (“Many of my plays will be at fault…”), how does Corneille finally judge his attempt as a theorist and playwright in observing “the ancient rules” in a manner that accommodates “modern pleasures”? In what sense does his judgment rely upon promoting a spirit of compromise? How does he remind his readers of what can be lost in the experience of art when audiences, playwrights, and critics insist on observing the rules too rigidly?

10. General question: Based on your reading of Corneille’s “Of the Three Unities of Action, Time and Place,” try to arrive at a sense of what you believe to be that author’s ideal spectator: what assumptions does this ideal spectator bring to the theater? What most delights or disgusts such a spectator, and to what extent does the moral fiber of the play enter into his or her consideration?

11. General question: Pierre Corneille is among the most respected of the French neoclassical critics. One criticism that is often leveled against neoclassical critics is that they are great believers in the rigid application of “rules” governing what can and cannot be represented, in what manner it is to be represented, how the unities of action, time and place are to be adhered to , and so forth. No doubt there is some truth to this criticism, but just as obviously, it would not be fair to apply it equally to all neoclassical critics. Dr. Samuel Johnson (see Leitch 383-408), for instance, is renowned for his willingness to judge a piece of art on qualities other than strict adherence to moral and formal strictures. How do you read Corneille on this issue of flexibility and sound common sense when it comes to assessing a play? At what points in “Of the Three Unities of Action, Time and Place” do we find him softening the judgments of other neoclassical critics, or pointing out that we need not apply Aristotle’s words as if they were absolute prescriptions, etc.? Find a few instances of this flexibility in our selection from Corneille and discuss them.

12. General question: We moderns seldom, if ever, protest when a contemporary dramatist treats space and time in ways that would have outraged most neoclassical critics and audience members, people like those for whom Pierre Corneille wrote “Of the Three Unities of Action, Time and Place.” We just don’t share those expectations with our late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors. All the same, are we as rigid (or almost so) as they were in certain other regards? Do we, too, come to the theater or cinema with expectations that it would annoy us not to see fulfilled? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake