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French Drama

Reading the plays of another country gives you a good idea of what styles, what genres, and what humor was popular during different times in a nation’s history.  Plays are a good way to delve into what makes a culture tick.

Edmond Rostand (April 1, 1868 – December 2, 1918) was a French poet and playwright who is associated with the neo-romanticism style. Romanticism is art/writing that began in the late 1700s and looked at everything in a positive way, emphasizing intense emotion, assigning great worth to “heroic” achievements (including in the arts), and the freedom that comes from imagination.  The Romantics believed that these ideas would improve society.  Neo-romantics re-popularized the style (neo means new) about a hundred years later.

Rostand is best know for two plays, Cyrano de Bergerac (click to find Cyrano for your e-reader or to read online) and Les Romanesques.  His work was quite different from most theatre in the late 1800s, but it brought another wave of the Romantic style.  Later, Les Romanesques, was adapted to the musical comedy, The Fantasticks, a popular 1960s musical.

Molière – Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622–1673), known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who widely thought to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in literature. Molière’s best-known works are The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Bourgeois Gentleman.

Molière was part of many important theatre troupes, serving as a director, actor, and playwright. He became incredibly popular, because he was a keen observer of people, writing comedies that satirized the world around him and writing for the regular folks.  This is probably why his plays have outlasted all the other French playwrights from his time period.  He was smart enough to use popular comedy traditions and styles (like the popular Italian commedia dell’arte) and combine them with a more refined French style.  He created a unique style of theatre to showcase his brilliant comedy and farce, holding a mirror up to society, unafraid of critiquing anyone and everyone.

You can find English translations of many of his plays online, Tartuffe being the most popular.

Eugène Ionesco (November 26, 1909 – March 28, 1994) was a Romanian playwright who wrote mostly in French.  He is usually thought of as a writer of the Theatre of the Absurd.  Absurdist theatre was a style that evolved in Europe in the late 1950s.  The plays expresses what happens when human existence has no meaning or purpose, therefore all communication breaks down.  Features of an Absurdist play might include broad comedy mixed with tragic or horrific images, characters caught in hopeless/repetitive/meaningless situations, dialogue intentionally full of cliches, wordplay and puns, nonsense, and/or cyclical plots.  Bottom line, the Theatre of the Absurd is odd, weird, strange, and other words that mean different – it’s also incredibly innovative, unique, and fun.

Ionesco’s most popular play is The Bald Soprano.  If you look hard enough, you may be able to find it online, but it’s also available as a very cheap used book.

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