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Major Playwrights

Sophocles | William Shakespeare | Molière | Jean Racine |
Chikamatsu Monzameon | Carlo Goldoni | Friedrich Schiller | Henrik Ibsen |
Anton Chekhov | Luigi Pirandello | Bertolt Brecht | Samuel Beckett |

Sophocles (496 – 406 BC)

Sophocles, as represented by a statue from the Hellenistic age.

Sophocles is one of classical Athens' three great tragic playwrights, along with Aeschylus and Euripides. Of his 123 dramas, only seven survive in their entirety, but they have forever marked the human imagination: literature, theatre, film and television would not be the same without such plays as Oedipus Rex (c. 425), Antigone (c. 441) and Electra (c. 415).  A skilled athlete and musician in his youth, Sophocles served as a treasurer of the Greek city- states and commander of its armed forces. He was a friend of Pericles, the statesman who made Athens the supreme city-state and centre of literature and art, and also of Herodotus, regarded as the father of history. Sophocles’ plays, which are models of construction and dramatic intensity, depict the pain and suffering caused when an individual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation.

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

William Shakespeare, in a print made seven years after his death by Marin Droeshout, on the front page of the first edition of the author’s complete works of theatre.

The art of writing for the theatre goes back some 2,500 years, and over the course of these twenty-five centuries, one writer has remained unsurpassed in this art: William Shakespeare. Born in England in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare left for London to try his luck as an actor at a time when both theatre and the English language were enjoying unprecedented growth. For his company, in which he also acted, he wrote in a variety of genres: comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew (1593), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594) and As You Like It (1599); tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet (1594), Hamlet (1600), King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606); and histories of British monarchs, including Richard III (1592), Richard II (1595) and Henri V (1598). Each of his thirty-seven plays contains scenes of great dramatic power and clarity, providing staggering insights into the human condition. Although written in a strict metre (iambic pentameter), his language nonetheless freely combines high and low registers, prose and verse, according to the dictates of the action. Shakespeare’s plays can be considered monumental theatrical poems, whose structure, profundity and vision are the touchstones of dramatic art.

 

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Molière (1622-1673)

© Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS
Molière playing Ceasar in La Mort de Pompéi by Henri Thiriat. Print by Nicolas Mignard from the 19th century.

Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, Molière adopted his stage name at the age of 22. As an actor, author, company manager and organizer of special events, he devoted himself entirely to theatre for the next thirty years; more than other playwright, with the exception of the Latin author Plautus, Molière influenced the course of comic theatre with his thirty-two plays, especially Don Juan (1665), The Misanthrope (1666), The Miser (1668), Tartuffe (1664-1669), The Would-be Gentleman (1670) and The Imaginary Invalid (1673). The idea of comedy as we know it today owes much to the Molière model: a comedy that is only incidentally funny, based on a constant double vision of wise and foolish, right and wrong; where humour is founded on the psychological flaws of the characters or the morals of the time. The School for Wives (1662), to cite but one example, masterfully satirizes the manner in which young girls were educated. As the first comic playwright to incorporate serious social issues, Molière would be viciously attacked his entire career by the ruling elites.

On Molière:

  • Website: http://www.toutmoliere.net/ (website content in French)
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    Jean Racine (1639-1699)

    © Gallica-BNF
    Portrait of Jean Racine by his eldest son, Jean-Baptiste (1678-1747).

    Racine is considered the greatest writer of French classical tragedy. The beauty of his eleven tragedies stems from a variety of factors: the richness of his dramatic situations, the psychological depth and nobility of his characters, the evocative power and musicality of his verse, the masterful construction of his plots. Together, they serve to express Racine’s view of a humanity consumed by feelings of incompleteness, and by a drive for acceptance in a world of passionate self-interest. Orphaned at an early age, Racine was educated at the rigorously moralistic convent at Port-Royal. In 1664, Racine’s career was launched when Molière’s company performed his tragedy La Thébaïde, and Alexandre le Grand the following year. The latter play was so well received that Racine negotiated with the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a rival troupe more skilled at performing tragedy, to present a "second premiere." The break with Molière was irrevocable; from this point on, all of Racine’s plays would be presented by the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Molière would harbour resentment for the rest of his life. With Andromaque (1667), Racine created his first masterpiece; in the eyes of the public he had now surpassed Corneille. Britannicus was presented in 1668, followed by Bérénice (1672)—featuring the celebrated actress la Champmeslé—and Bajazet (1672). After Phèdre (1677), he retired from the theatre to accept the post of royal historiographer for Louis XIV. In response to requests from Louis XIV's consort Madame de Maintenon, Racine returned to the stage to write two religious plays for the convent girls at Saint-Cyr: Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691).

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    Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724)

    Unfamiliar to Western audiences, Chikamatsu Monzaemon is widely regarded as the greatest Japanese dramatist. Owing to the scope, diversity and depth of his oeuvre—he is credited with some 130 plays—he is often compared with William Shakespeare. Born into a samurai family, he received a solid literary education at the court in Kyoto before beginning to write for a kabuki troupe. He quickly established a reputation for the style known as wagoto, which had pronounced comical and romantic elements; the plot often turned on a nobleman in love with a prostitute who his rejected by his family. In 1705 Monzaemon joined the Takemoto Theatre in Osaka, where he wrote for the bunraku (puppet theatre). He was the first bunraku author to create works that not only allowed the puppet operator to display his skill, but were of considerable literary merit. He remained with this theatre until his death, writing close to one hundred plays. His scripts fall into two categories: historical epics, such as The Battles of Coxinga (1715), and domestic tragedies depicting forbidden romance, as in Double Suicide at Amijima (1720).

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    Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793)

    Carlo Goldoni, period portrait.

    “Papa” Goldoni, as he was nicknamed by his fellow Venetians, is considered the founder of modern Italian comedy; he wrote over one hundred comic plays, as well as fifteen tragi-comedies and numerous librettos and musical divertissements. When he began his career, the commedia dell’arte—a partly improvised theatre with stock characters in traditional masks and costumes, such as Arlequin and Pantalon—had existed for two centuries, and the satirized characters had long disappeared from the public’s daily reality. Goldoni renovated the well-established form by replacing its stock figures with more realistic characters, its loosely structured and often repetitive action with tightly constructed plots, and its predictable farce with a new spirit of moral satire, exemplified in Servant of Two Masters (1745) and La putra honorata (1749). Goldoni was the first comic playwright to focus on the details of everyday life: vacationing mishaps in The Holiday Trilogy (1761), or the romantic foibles of an innkeeper in La Locandiera (1753). In 1762 Goldoni left Venice to direct the Comédie-Italienne in Paris, where he wrote one of his finest plays in French: L’Éventail (The Fan). After the French Revolution his pension was cancelled, and he died in dire poverty.

    © Yves Renaud
    La Locandiera by Carlo Goldoni, Théâtre Nouveau Monde production, 1993, directed by Martine Beaulne. Photo: Sylvie Drapeau.

    Title: La Locandiera

    Playwright: Carlo Goldoni

    Translation: Marco Micone

    Production: Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, 1993

    Director: Martine Beaulne

    Costumes: Jean-Yves Cadieux

    Set design: Claude Goyette

    Lighting: Michel Beaulieu.

     

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    Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

    © Josée Lambert
    Marie Stuart by Friedrich von Schiller, NCT, 1995. Photo: Marthe Turgeon, Philippe Cousineau, Paul Latreille, Jean-Guy Viau.

    Title: Marie Stuart

    Playwright: Friedrich von Schiller

    Translation: Normand Chaurette

    Production: Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale, 1994-1995 season

    Director: Alice Ronfard

    Costumes: François Barbeau

    Set: Raymond-Marius Boucher

    Music: Jean Sauvageau and Marcel Brunet

    Lighting: Michel Beaulieu.

    Schiller is generally considered, alongside Goethe, the greatest dramatist in the history of German theatre.  At a young age, despite or because of his strict education, he developed an interest in the revolutionary ideals of his time: equality, fraternity and liberty. In his first play, Die Raüber (1781, The Robbers), a young man turns brigand and defies all established authority at the head of a band of outlaws as a protest against stifling convention and corruption in high places. In 1795, after years of artistic and financial difficulties, and upon the recommendation of Goethe, Schiller was offered a history professorship at the University of Jena. His research there provided him with the material for his masterpiece, Wallenstein, considered one of the greatest historical dramas in world literature. Through Goethe’s influence, Schiller settled permanently in Weimar, where he completed several plays in quick succession, including Maria Stuart (1800), The Maid of Orleans (1801), Die Braut von Messina (The Bride from Messina, 1803) and William Tell (1804). Both he and Goethe were convinced that theatre had a social purpose, that it should provoke ideological debate. For Schiller, it was a means of attacking political oppression and the tyranny of social convention.

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    Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

    Portrait of Henrik Ibsen. Anonymus print from Les Revenants, Tresse and Stock, Paris, 1890.

    Owing to his realistic depictions of psychological and social problems, Henrik Ibsen has been called the father of modern drama. Early in his career, the Norwegian dramatist looked outward, towards Europe; escaping an insular world he found hollow and pretentious, he left his homeland for Italy in 1864. For the next 27 years he lived abroad, mainly in Rome, Dresden, and Munich, returning to Norway only for short visits. Initially under the sway of Romanticism, he delved into the folklore of his homeland to create Peer Gynt (1867), an allegorical and fantastical story of a charming opportunist who grapples with his own identity. His social realism, reflected in such works as Pillars of Society (1877) and An Enemy of the People (1882), in which a doctor is persecuted after he reports a problem of industrial pollution, introduced a new order of moral analysis to the world stage. Ibsen wrote psychologically intricate plays that shocked contemporary audiences by touching on controversial issues, such as women’s rights in A Doll’s House (1879) and sexually transmitted diseases in Ghosts (1881). Like many great authors, Ibsen concentrated more on character than plot, creating memorable roles in all his plays, including his masterpiece Hedda Gabler (1890).

    © Pierre Desjardins
    Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, TNM, 1996. Photo: Sylvie Drapeau and Denis Bernard.

    Title: Hedda Gabler

    Playwright: Henrik Ibsen

    Production: Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, 1995-1996 season

    Director: Lorraine Pintal

    Costumes: François Barbeau

    Set design: Raymond-Marius Boucher

    Lighting: Guy Simard

    Music: Catherine Gadouas

    Props: Michèle Gagnon.

     

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    Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

    Tchekhov in 1890.

    Among modern theatre aficionados, Chekhov is perhaps the most popular playwright. His four masterpieces—The Seagull (1895), Uncle Vanya (1900), The Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904)—influenced not only 20th-century theatre, but our view of the world. Born into a poor Russian family, Chekhov began writing stories and sketches to support his family while he studied medicine. Although interested in theatre from a young age, he did not find dramatic success until the final years of his short life. This success was due largely to the noted director Constantin Stanislavski, who understood the radically new dimension of Chekhov’s theatre: its probing beneath the surface of life, laying bare the secret motives of his characters. One of Chekhov’s innovations was replacing the hero with a group of characters, whose relationships unfold or unravel before our eyes. These characters, of little social or political importance, do not accomplish anything exceptional; we observe them in a chain of small, apparently insignificant events—but which reveal all the same the depth and complexity of human life.

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    Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936)

    © Louise Oligny
    Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, Moscow Art Theatre School production, 1989. Photo: Oleg Belkin.

    Title: Six Characters in Search of an Author (presented during the 3rd edition of the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques)

    Playwright: Luigi Pirandello

    Production: Moscow Art Theatre School, 1989

    Director: Anatoli Vassiliev.

    Imagine a dramatic situation in which truth is something very different for each of the characters. Imagine a character who criticizes the actor for playing him in the wrong way. Imagine a theatre which blurs the boundary between reality and fiction. Luigi Pirandello, in such plays as Right You Are (If You Think You Are) (1917), Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Henri IV (1922) and Tonight We Improvise! (1930) does all of these things and more. In Pirandello’s world, everything is uncertain, open-ended, unresolved. Previously, our assumption was that theatre would show us the entire truth of an event: it was simply a matter of finding “the right angle.” Pirandello shows us that life is prismatic, that there are several truths or realities, and that art must choose one form to represent them; no matter how skillful, a play will thus never be able to represent the multiple dimensions of a character or situation. In play after play, Pirandello shows us that appearances are even more deceptive than we imagined. Even more important, he portrays his characters with a psychological depth and excruciating accuracy that few dramatists have matched.

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    Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

    © André Degaine in Histoire du théâtre dessinée, Nizet, 1992
    Sketch of Bertolt Brecht.

    How does one create a theatrical form in which the social world of humans can be observed, while at the same time providing the tools to change this world? A theatrical form that will answer the question, "How can one be good in a world that is not?" These are some of the questions that preoccupied the revolutionary German author and director Bertolt Brecht. In the 1920s, first in Munich and later in Berlin, Brecht made an impact with his singular personality, his innovative poetry and… the abject failure of his early works. His luck changed with The Threepenny Opera, which triumphed in 1928. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, however, Brecht was forced to flee the country. During his fifteen years in exile, he wrote his greatest works, among which Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Life of Galileo (1938-1947), The Good Woman of Szechwan, (1938-1942) and The Chalk Circle (1944-1945). In 1948, he returned to Berlin after East German authorities invited him to direct a theatre: his productions with the Berliner Ensemble would revolutionize theatre with their stark clarity of vision, with their stripping away of all theatrical illusion. Both a practitioner  and a theoretician, Brecht wrote numerous treatises and essays which continue to influence the world of theatre today.

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    Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

    © Robert Etcheverry
    En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) by Samuel Beckett, TNM, 1992. Photo: Rémy Girard and Normand Chouinard.

    Title: En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot)

    Playwright: Samuel Beckett

    Production: Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, 1992

    Director: André Brassard

    Set design: Stéphane Roy

    Costumes: Luc J. Béland

    Lighting: Michel Beaulieu

    Props: Lucie Thériault

    Music: Michel Smith.

    Imagine the following scenario: two tramps beside a leafless tree are killing time as best they can, waiting for the arrival of Godot, with whom they believe they have an appointment. At the end of the scene a boy arrives to tell them that Godot will not be coming that day, "but surely tomorrow." In the second act, almost identical to the first, the two tramps are not sure whether they’re really in the same place, or whether it’s the next day. The same messenger (who claims to be his brother) arrives with the same message… After its production in a small theatre in Paris in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot enthralled many people, but perplexed and disturbed even more. For many artists, however, this work is the most important play of the 20th century; it is a radical depiction of contemporary man, whose signposts have become hazy, who absurdly waits for a saviour who never arrives. With such works as Endgame (1958), Play (1963), Not I (1973) and Berceuse (1981), Beckett pushed the boundaries further and further, locating the human identity in the realm of physical suffering, and employing a language that became more and more laconic, condensed, enigmatic.

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