Classical Theatre

In the first half of the 17th century, tragi-comedies with romantic plots and complex settings were popular. As the century progressed, particularly under the influence of theorists, the plots were simplified and the settings were stripped down to what we now call classical theatre.

Classical Unities

The Abbé d'Aubignac played an important role, for in La Pratique du théâtrenote 4 in 1657 he analysed ancient and contemporary theatre and drew up principles that formed the basis of classical theatre as he formulated a set of rules inspired by ancient theatre. Initially tacit, these rules, known as the rules of the three units, were formulated explicitly by the Abbé d'Aubignac and before him by the Italian scholar Julius Caesar Scaliger, and were advocated in 1630 in the Lettre sur l'art dramatique by Jean Chapelain, adviser to Cardinal Richelieu1. They governed much of the theatrical language of the time and are characteristic of what was later called classical theatre. They were introduced in 1634 in Jean de Mairet's masterpiece, Sophonisbe. This reflection on the theatre was fed throughout the century by scholars and playwrights. In his Art poétique in 1674, Boileau simply reiterated and summarised Boileau, in L'Art poétique (Canto 3, verses 45-46), in 1674, these constraints in effective verse:

"Let in one day, let in one place, one fact be accomplished
Keep the theatre full to the end.

These two lines by Boileau summarise the famous rule of the three unities, also knwon as the three unit rule, the classical unities, or the Aristotelian unities. The three unities are:

1) In one day: the unity of time
The action should not exceed one "revolution of the sun" according to Aristotle and from 12 to 30 hours according to theorists. The ideal of classical theatre is that the time of the action should correspond to the time of the performance. Racine came closest to this in Athalie. Eugène Ionesco also did this in The Bald Cantatrice; although the author sees it as an anti-piece, it paradoxically respects the unity of time.

2) In one place: unity of location
All the action must take place in the same place (a palace setting for a tragedy, for example, or a bourgeois interior for a comedy). This rule evolved towards greater rigour after 1645. Previously, the action could take place in different locations within the same overall setting, such as a city. Subsequently, the unity of place was tightened around a single location represented by the stage.

3) One fact: unity of action
All events must be linked and necessary, from the exposition to the denouement of the play. The main action must be developed in this way from the beginning to the end of the play, and the incidental actions must contribute to the main action and cannot be suppressed without making it lose its meaning.

These rules have two main purposes. On the one hand, the aim is to make the theatrical action plausible, as the settings do not need to change and the action takes place in a time that could be the time of the performance. On the other hand, the action is easier to follow, as complicated plots involving many characters are outlawed in favour of linear plots centred on a few characters. These rules have led to a form of internalisation of actions. Indeed, the spoken word was developed to the detriment of the spectacular, and classical plays gave a lot of space to the expression of feelings and to psychological analysis.

The rule of propriety obliges one to represent on stage only what will not shock the audience. Physical violence is discarded, but also physical intimacy. Violent scenes must therefore be narrated by a character. There are some notable exceptions, such as the death of Phaedra in Racine's play of the same name, the death of Dom Juan in Molière's play and the madness of the character Orestes in Racine's Andromache.


Tragedy did not exist during the French Middle Ages. It was reborn in the 16th century following the re-reading of the ancient tragedies. It was transformed throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. At first it evolved into what was called tragi-comedy, feeding on increasingly romantic plots. But scholars and dramatists advocated a return to a model more in keeping with the ancient canons, and it finally became the great genre of the classical period. This is why the rules set out above apply primarily to tragedy.

Tragedy is defined first and foremost by its subject and its characters. A tragic play must have a mythical or historical subject. Its characters are heroes, kings or at least characters of the highest nobility. The style adopted must be in keeping with the height of those who speak the text. Most tragedies are written in alexandrines and always respect a high style. Tragedy has often been equated with an unhappy ending. Although it is true that the majority of tragedies end badly, this is not a defining criterion, as some tragedies end well.

As in the ancient theatre, tragedy has a moral end. It should enable the audience to improve themselves morally by fighting some of their passions. Following Aristotle, tragedy is considered to inspire "terror and pity" when faced with the fate of heroes crushed by the consequences of their mistakes. These two feelings should enable the audience to disassociate themselves from the passions that drove the heroes to act and thus not to reproduce them themselves. Furthermore, classical theorists took over from Aristotle the notion of catharsis, which means approximately the purgation of passions. The idea is that by seeing characters driven by violent passions, the audience will somehow fulfil their own passions and free themselves from them.

The great classical tragedian is Jean Racine. He wrote tragedies in which the heroes are condemned by fate, locked in a destiny that reveals the absurdity of their existence and can only lead them to death.

Portrait of Jean Racine
Portrait of Jean Racine

Corneille evolved during his career from the baroque to the classical. In his tragedies, the hero is much more highly valued and, although he is often condemned to a fatal outcome, he actually becomes a hero in his plays. Corneille was also able to propose identification with the hero as a possible means of edification for the spectator.

In addition, lyrical tragedies developed in the classical period. This genre was represented in particular by Philippe Quinault who worked in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Lully. It led to the creation of French opera.


Comedy in the classical period is very strongly dominated by the figure of Molière, even though there were many comic authorsnote. Comedy is much less regulated by explicit rules than tragedy because it is considered a minor genre and is of little interest to theorists. Moreover, we do not have the part of the Poetics that Aristotle would have devoted to comic worksnote.

Nevertheless, an author like Molière tried to give comedy a form of nobility and was inspired by the rules of classical theatre. Although unity of action is rarely respected, unity of place and time is often respected. Above all, following Corneille, he worked on the comedy of intrigue inspired by the Latin comedies of Terence and Plautenote. He was thus inspired by the Ancients. But he also moved away from farce to contribute to the development of new comedies. They are based on complex plots and can be performed in three or five acts. Their characters may not belong to the great nobility, but they often belong to the bourgeoisie or the petty nobility. As a result, although the language is commonplace and sometimes even colloquial, the style is not necessarily very lowbrow. Some comedies are even written in alexandrines. Molière uses the rather crude comic effects inherited from farce and commedia dell'arte (beatings, misunderstandings, etc.), but his comedies seek a balance that is not unrelated to classical good taste.

The moral dimension present in tragedy is also present in comedy. Comedies make fun of people's faults. The audience should be able to distance itself from the faults portrayed by laughing at the ridicule of the characters. When Molière ridiculed the hypocrisy of the false devotees in Tartuffe, he hoped to combat this hypocrisy. The well-known phrase "castigat ridendo mores" is of uncertain origin, but it was taken up by Molière. It expresses an idea developed by Horace in his poetic art and sums up this desire to use laughter as a means of instruction. Molière's theatre is both classical and baroque.


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Andrea Palladio
Classical Antiquity
Classical Period
Dutch Classicism
Literary Classicism


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This page was last changed on 2021-09-21.