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02.08.2021 Anna Livesey
Pierre Corneille Pierre Corneille

He is widely considered the founding father of French tragedy but many outside of France will never have heard of Pierre Corneille. Penning a whopping total of 32 plays in 55 years, this prolific 17th century writer was among the finest of his era, trumped in notoriety only by Molière and Racine. Corneille’s penchant for classical tragedy earned him his nickname, French Sophocles, and also triggered a literary furore that would change the course of his country’s theatrical history. Here’s all you need to know about this lesser-known giant of the early French stage…

Born in Rouen to a well-off but not wealthy, middle rather than upper class family of lawyers, there was little in Corneille’s background to hint at the illustrious prospects ahead of him. Having completed his studies with flying colours, the young Frenchman followed in the footsteps of his father, uncle, and grandfather before him, becoming a lawyer. But throughout a mediocre legal career that, ultimately, lasted many years, Corneille’s real love for literature was never far from the background. In 1969, at the ripe age of 23, the budding playwright put aside his lawyer’s garb and turned his talents momentarily to writing.

This was the year that, much to his own surprise, Corneille’s first comedy was accepted by a travelling theatre troupe. The witty dialogue and subtle parody of Mélite, reputedly inspired by its young author’s own early misadventures in love, were worlds apart from the cruder farces that dominated comedy of the time. The play proved a roaring success with audiences in Paris and, on the back of this break-through, Corneille began to write regularly.
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