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  Philologica 6 (1999/2000)  
   
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B. I. IARXO

THE COMEDIES AND TRAGEDIES OF CORNEILLE
(A Study in the Theory of Genre)

Edited, preparation of the text, and notes by M. V. Akimova

 
 
 



 

Summary

The publication of the monograph devoted to the problem of the formal differentiation between comedy and tragedy in the oeuvre of the leading French playwright of early classicism, is the next in the series of publications from Boris Isaakovich Iarxo’s (1889—1942) scholarly archive, which began in the previous issues of Philologica. Iarxo dated his monograph 17 July 1937, but it was conceived as early as the late 1920s, when he was head of the subsection of theoretical poetics in the State Academy of Artistic Sciences (Gosudarstvennaia akademiia xudozhestvennyx nauk, GAXN).

In his study of Corneille, the scholar first and foremost seeks a quantitative expression of the “primary” and “secondary” features of genre. The former are understood as the complex of features which were thought of as specifically pertaining to comedy or tragedy by the playwright himself; the latter are the complex of features which constituted the subconscious sense of the genre. Furthermore, Iarxo seeks to clarify whether there exists a mutual relationship between the various genre features in the comedy and the tragedy. He found the methodological and terminological pattern for such a description in the biological description of sexual characteristics.

Among the essential characteristics of the tragedy Corneille listed 1) intérêt d’État (State interest); 2) dignité des personnages (the presence of characters from the upper echelons of society); 3) péril de vie (life-threatening conditions). The essential characteristics of comedy were, for him, 1) intrigues d’amour (love intrigues), 2) fourberies (the motif of deception) and 3) événement heureux (a happy ending). As Iarxo notes, however, one cannot differentiate between genres according to these indicators, for Corneille wrote tragedies without “State interest” (Clitandre) and “heroic comedies”, in which noble characters act for the benefit of the State. In all the tragedies a love affair is present, there are tragedies with happy endings (Clitandre, Le Cid, Cinna, Nicomède, Héraclius, Pertharite, Attila) and tragedies which are full of false denunciations or unscrupulous advice (Cinna, Pompée, Théodore, Rodogune, Héraclius). At the same time, the comedy La Place Royale has a sad ending, and in many comedies the characters find themselves in life-threatening circumstances. In this way, Corneille’s comedies and tragedies form a more complex combination of features than the playwright himself thought; a combination in which the lack of one property is balanced by the presence of others.

According to Iarxo’s definition drama is a narrative work written in the form of dialogue and representing the characters in action. That is why the scholar consistently examines genre features which define a) the construction of the dialogue, b) the cast of the characters and c) the movement of the plot. Taking into account the theoretical declarations of Corneille and his contemporaries, Iarxo pays attention to such indicators as the number of characters in a scene and in the entire play, the accumulation of characters from one act to another, the functions of the characters in a play, the possibility of a character reappearing during an act, the emotions of the characters, the division between primary and secondary characters, types of exposition, the use of sententia and apostrophe. The plays of Thomas Corneille, Racine and Voltaire are taken as comparative material.

The transgression coefficient is used as an indicator of divergence between the genres. It characterizes the degree of coincidence in value, which this or that feature has in the comedies and tragedies. If the transgression coefficient equals 0, we may fix the qualitative difference between the genres; if it is less than 50%, then the given feature is a distinctive one, and if it is more than 50%, then the search for a distinctive property should be continued by means of further and detailed elaboration of the material.

The following distinctions between comedies and tragedies are established in Iarxo’s study (they are listed below in order of decreasing significance).

1) In tragedies, all important events take place off-stage; in comedies, off-stage action is very rare.

2) There are four times as many “dumb” characters in tragedy.

3) “Cruel” characters, including avengers and murderers, brave men prepared for self-sacrifice and characters with civic virtue are typical of the tragedy. Characters on the throne appear only in tragedies, while servants, as a rule, appear here as raisonneurs, executors or figurants.

4) In tragedy, there are more characters who are simply present on the stage, but do not speak in a given scene.

5) In tragedies, the exposition is longer than in comedy (this may in part be explained by the historical plots of tragedies).

6) Lovers, deceivers and comic characters are typical of the comedy. Here servants can have a larger part and perform more functions.

7) In comedy, characters gesticulate more than in tragedy.

8) In comedies, speeches are shorter and dialogues are more vivid.

9) In comedies, characters more often re-enter the stage during a given act.

10) A comic character is more active than a tragic one.

11) In comedies, there are more characters acting in their own interests.

12) In comedies, the action is more mobile: the cast of characters on stage changes more often.

13) A comic character is more mobile than a tragic one: the former re-enters the stage more often than the latter.

14) In comedies there are more “peripeteias” (that is actions which change the relationships between the characters).

15) In comedies, speeches are more often linked by rhyme, while poetic lines are more often divided between speeches.

For reason of lack of material this “differentiation set” did not include a considerable number of indicators which differentiate the comedy from the tragedy (in Iarxo’s monograph they are considered in less detail).

In this or that play, different distinguishing features can be manifested to varying extents; this fact shows their relative independence. Nevertheless, some of them are more closely linked than others: for instance, a) the more lively the dialogue, the more continuous its phonics; b) the more active and mobile the characters, the more vivid their conversation; c) the more dramatis personae with comic psychology, the more active their participation in the dialogue; d) the more active the characters on the stage, the less frequent the off-stage action; e) the more vivid the action, the quicker the plot unfolds; and so on. As the whole, a genre is an optional combination of elements taken in a certain proportion.

 



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