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Paris in the 17th century: discourses, spectacles and propaganda

Class at Faculty of Arts |


This course explores the 17th century doctrine of neo-classical drama and the relevance of its rules to playwriting. We will contextualize the reform in order to grasp its political nature, and the relation between literary norms and soft propaganda.  

PART 1: DISCOURSES on the neoclassical doctrine   1- General introduction

Presentation of the course and list of topics for student presentations. 

General definition of neo-classical drama, and authors representing neo-classical aesthetics: d’Aubignac, La Mesnardière, Chapelain. What was their background and on what was their authority grounded?   2- General lines of the neo-classical doctrine

Immorality of theatres: condemnation by the church and the purists. Moral and religious reasoning behind the ban. Reform of theatres as a means of rehabilitation. Neoclassical doctrine applied to certain genres and theatre companies only: the birth of a State-sponsored theatre.

Presentation: Corneille, Racine and Molière.    3- Cartesian doctrine in arts and in science

Doctrine versus observation:  political choices behind representations of the world.

Visual translation of neo-classical doctrine: perspectives in urban planning and gardens. Maps versus detailed scenes: How do these choices translate in playwriting?  

PART 2: DOCTRINE IN CONTEXT   4- Political context and status of the writer

Richelieu and the problem of circulating pamphlets. Domestication of literature. System of gratification and financial dependency.

Presentation: Alain Viala, The birth of the writer   5- Literary life in 17th-century in Paris

On literary salons, academies theatres and church sermons. Staging of power and aristocracy

Presentation: an Englishman in 17th-century Paris   6- Life in Parisian playhouses 1: the stage configuration and material reality of the théâtre de Bourgogne. 

Reading: Mémoires de Mahelot, an inventory of the théatre de Bourgogne’s decorations. Comparison with publicity engravings and descriptions.

Presentation: film Molière, from Ariane Mnouchkine   7- Life in Parisian playhouses 2: the room

Comedians, public of the pit, scholars and aristocrats: organization of space and dynamics at work. Police records of the time: an atmosphere of chaos and crime.

Reading: plays from d’Aubignac in context, description by the author of a public humiliation  


Misunderstandings on the definition of decorum. Introducing politics through entertainment. The concept of golden chains.    9- Representation of history 

Building a national identity, modeling collective memory through national myths. 

Presentation: La Pucelle d’Orléans - Johan of Arc and the concept of martyrdom   10- Touching the soul through storytelling

Molding the collective mind through emotions: imitation, emulation, desire and fear. 

Presentation: Corneille and the figure of tragic hero   11 –Neoclassical doctrine, then and now

How was the doctrine presented during the following centuries? How is it perceived today, and what motivates ‘anti-classical’ readings?

Presentation: Roland Barthes and the deconstruction of a doctrine    12- Neoclassical dogma and Hollywood movies

Commonplaces of the neoclassical dogma found in classical Hollywood movies: on structure and morals. 

Presentation: the death of a hero in Hollywood movies.    11- GENERAL CONCLUSION

On the social and political aspect of the neo-classical doctrine. Understanding plays in their context.Discussion: the relative truth of universal art.      

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