The History of Theater

French theater has a history dating all the way back to the 12th century when the idea of dramatic performances for entertainment, not just for religious education, was starting to emerge.

Granted, most of it was written and performed in Latin but it was a start.

The origins of farce and comic theater are also a little fuzzy - some historians think it came from pagans and folk festivals whereas the more pious amongst them would believe that comedic theater was invented by the Church (unlikely). Believe what you will.

Whilst French theater was around in the Middle Ages, it really came into its own in the Renaissance and most specifically under the reign of King Louis XIV.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age

During his 72 year reign, the Sun King transformed France into the most powerful nation in Europe and he did this not just by winning more land in battle or making alliances but by making Paris the cultural center of the continent. A wealth of French literature was created in the 17th century, thanks in part to Louis' patronage, and this golden age literature still forms the basis of French education today.

In 1635, the formidable Cardinal Richelieu created the Académie Française with the aim of regulating language and literary expression. The theatrical conflict that was as old as time was still waging: baroque, tending towards greater freedom and classicism, meaning the acceptance of literary rules, classicism.

By 1660 the intellectuals had called a cease fire and resolved in favor of classicism. Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux cemented the new rules in his 1674 publication in which it was decided that reason, proportion, and harmony were the go-to literary values.


Jean Racine was the most popular guy in the French literary circles of the 1660s. His realistic characters and more simple writing style captured the hearts of every audience.

His tragedies - inspired by Greek myths - focused on a small group of nobles as they struggled with duty and passion. The tangled tales of love and honor (for example Phedre's love for her stepson) conveyed a world of fiery passions hidden under a façade of pleasant poetry.

However audiences were beginning to tire of heart-wrenching tragedy, so in enters Molière.



Molière became the king of comedy - a master of farce and slapstick his output was large and varied. He had the knack of turning a farce into a sharp exploration of social, psychological, and metaphysical questions meaning that his plays as fresh and relevant today as they ever did.

Tartuffe (1664) was one of his masterpieces but as it derives the comedy from religious hypocrisy it brought Molière much criticism from the Church and was only performed thanks to the intervention of the king.

Many of Molière's comedies, like Tartuffe, Don Juan and the other great work Le Misanthrope could end up treading on serious drama territory. This duality kept the audience on their toes, always guessing about the ending (despite appearances the endings of Don Juan and the Misanthrope are far from being purely comic).

18th Century

In the 18th century French theatre plays by authors like Pierre de Marivaux became the flavor of the moment and even inspired the term marivaudage which implies a subtlety of writing reflecting the sensitivity and sophistication of the era.

Hidden behind the humor were subtle political messages satirizing the already unpopular aristocracy (it was 1778 after all) that some have claimed contributed to the start of the French Revolution.

As the 19th century was ushered, in the theaters there was a revival of classicism, often unashamedly promoting patriotic heroism or demonstrating a national sacrifice (all in keeping with the Revolution you see).

Victor Hugo's Hernani in 1830 marked the single most important event in French, even European, theater in the 19th century - the triumph of Romanticism.

Romanticism vs Classicism

Victor Hugo's previous play Marion Delorme (about a famous French courtesan) had been banned by the censors so he set about writing Hernani.

Victor Hugo

A play inspired by Spanish tragedies as well as his passionate love for his wife, even the actors were uncomfortable with this new kind of drama; the tone of language, the unbridled emotion. These days the play itself is largely forgotten but what is remembered is the furore that it caused.

On opening night the auditorium turned battlefield not unlike the storming of the Bastille -- the young versus the old. Victor Hugo had drafted in Romantic supporters to drown out the hisses on opening night and it worked. The play ran every night for two weeks. Not a single performance went uninterrupted.

The shackles were off and playwrights could let their imaginations run riot.

By the middle of the century, theater began to lean more and more towards realism. The fin de siècle literature, such as the poetry of Baudelaire, was often labelled as "decadent" for their moral vision but soon the word "symbolism" was found to describe it.

Avant-garde theater was the big tread after World War 1 which was then replaced with the "theater of the absurd" (think Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett).