The most prestigious branch of French literature has been dominated by Molière, Corneille, and Racine since the Seventeenth Century itself, yet at the height of its glory, classical theatre was actively cultivated by women. Female dramatists fell victim to hostility and offensive comments; their works were often attributed to men, or completely ignored. Although faced with an ideology opposed to female creativity in a genre considered to be male territory, and where ancient tradition is at the heart of the aesthetic, early modern women playwrights were often pioneering and innovating both in genre and aesthetic. They were the first to write for the professional scene in France, having their plays published, and performed by professional troupes and at the Court.
Aims and research questions
This thesis aims to re-examine the canon: to look at why women playwrights have been ignored and perfoached by their contemporaries and by criticism, both past and present. It seeks to discover the lost female tradition in early modern French theatre, and to examine women’s engagement with the development of the dynamic dramaturgical rules over time. The following research questions will be addressed:
1) Why have early modern women playwrights been neglected from the canon for so long?
2) Why is this phenomenon particular to France, and particular to theatre as a genre?
3) To what extent, and in what ways, did women playwrights engage with the shifting aesthetic rules across the period?
The period for the thesis – 1650-1750 – is specifically chosen, because this is aesthetically the most important time for women writers in the theatre: from the first playwrights to have their plays published and professionally performed, to a gradual acceptance of the status of female playwright, gradual relaxing of the rules, and move away from the strictly defined genre boundaries of the Seventeenth Century of the comic and the serious towards the introduction of the drame.
This project is very clear in its methodology: it is primarily an “étude esthétique” of women’s theatre in the Early Modern period. Given the fundamental importance of the aesthetic rules of Early Modern theatre, especially during the Seventeenth Century, it is impossible to dissociate any work from this dramaturgical context, whether male or female playwrights. Whilst modern literary theory may be dubious in relation to Seventeenth-Century theatre, ancient literary theory is fundamental for an understanding of how it works: notably the works of Aristotle and Horace. The aesthetic rules as developed throughout the Seventeenth-Century (most notably in the wake of the Querelle du Cid in 1637) are essential in any reading, and how female playwrights position themselves in relation to – what are essentially man-made – rules will be the primary area of investigation. Second, the analysis of the plays is to remain at all times aware of its own hermeneutic status for two main reasons: the genre and the period. As Molière insisted:
On sait bien que les comédies ne sont faites que pour être jouées ; et je ne conseille de lire celle-ci [L’Amour médecin] qu’aux personnes qui ont des yeux pour découvrir dans la lecture tout le jeu du théâtre.
Given that theatre is an ephemeral art form, we need to be aware of the performance side of it, which makes up 50% of theatre: the dramatic text and the production. As can be seen from the Molière quotation, this emphasis was made during the Seventeenth Century, by the leading playwright of the time. Whilst this reinforces the argument for the proposed methodology in the sense that we are being respectful to Early Modern practice, it also exacerbates the need for such hermeneutic awareness by highlighting that we are dealing with performances (where this was the case) that took place under very different material and aesthetic circumstances than performances from later periods. It is therefore crucial whilst dealing with the theatre genre in the Early Modern period to be aware of the multiple perspectives of interpretation, yet at the same time delimiting a semantic free-for-all, which would be incompatible with Early Modern aesthetic conditions (the rules) – a point which is balanced by the aesthetic half of the methodology.
 Molière, Œuvres complètes, edited by Georges Forestier and Claude Bourqui, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), p. 603.