The Unities and Neo-Classical Drama


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french neo-classical tragedy could not be more out of sync with contemporary tastes and practices. Most of the successful neo-classical French plays were written with scrupulous respect for the so-called Three Unities, Unity of Plot, Unity of Place and Unity of Time. The first meant that everything had to be concentrated on the main action, so no sub-plot and no interesting minor characters; the second meant that all the action had to take place at a single spot, for example the corridor of a palace as in Racine’s Britannicus, and the third meant that the action should ideally take place in ‘real time’ (the time of  the actual performance), or at least not exceed the duration of a single day. As if this were not enough, two further principles, that of vraisemblance, or ‘credibility’, and bienséance, or ‘propriety’, excluded miraculous and fantastic events, and meant that all violence and lovemaking (including kissing) had to take place offstage. It is hardly surprising that French neo-classical tragedy, contrasting as it does so flagrantly with Shakespeare and Elizabethan tragedy generally, has never been popular in this country and these days is even put on less and less in its country of origin.

            Although it is fair to say that the seventeenth century French critics, especially Chapelain and Boileau, did go somewhat further than Aristotle, it is quite untrue  to claim, as many contemporary literary critics do, that ‘neo-classicism’ was a post-Renaissance French invention that has little connection with the theory and practice of the ancients. The vast majority of extant Greek tragedies do take place either in real time or within the space of a single day or night, and the action is almost always restricted to a single spot. And in Greek drama there can be  no question of a subplot since even extending the number of characters on stage at any one time to three was, at the time, viewed as a ‘modern’ innovation  — though admittedly there is the Chorus. As for bienséance, violent actions like Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon invariably take place offstage and there can be no question of Hollywood clinches, since, amazingly, there are no love scenes at all in any extant Greek tragedies. Aristotle does mention credibility and criticises severely plays which rely on improbable or miraculous interventions — though the fact that he needs to say this shows that there were certain plays that violated the rule.  All in all, French neo-classical theory is simply a tightening up of rules and principles that were very much in existence in the classical era. (Comedy and the Roman theatre are another matter.)    

            In my youth I shared this lack of interest in French Neo-classical Drama  and, during all the years I spent in Paris in the Sixties, never went once to the Comédie Française to see a single play by Racine or Corneille. We are today so used to seeing plays and films which take place in any number of completely different locations, have subplots and minor characters that are often more engaging than the protagonist and main plot, not to speak of the present-day appetite for completely unnecessary explicit sex and violence, that adhering to the Unities and Proprieties of 17th century French theatre seems almost suicidal.

            But when I came to write a full length tragedy of my own, The Chosen One (see the website www.brimstonepress.co.uk), I found to my surprise that, without meaning to, I had written a play which scrupulously observed the Three Unities and, on top of that, the Principles of Credibility and Propriety — since the violent end takes place offstage.

            In the right hands and with the right subject, the unities give a claustrophobic intensity to the action which Shakespearian theatre and contemporary cinema cannot rival. Othello, a domestic tragedy with few characters, is the nearest Shakespeare ever got to writing a neo-classical  drama. It is, however, weakened by having the First Act take place in Venice, rather than Cyprus (where the rest of the play is situated), and by giving too much  importance to  the opposition of Desdemona’s father to her marriage, since this is neither here nor there from the point of view of the main plot.  

            Casting my eyes over the shelf in my library devoted to plays, I come across several  modern plays which adhere more or less to the unities, probably without intending to. The action of  Journey’s End, by R.C. Sherriff, about the only World War I drama ever put on today, all takes place in a dugout on the Western front between Tuesday and Thursday morning. There are no female characters, no subplot, and almost everything turns around the relationship between Stanhope, the Commanding Officer, and the young recruit, Raleigh, who knew him at public school and idolises him. A contemporary Hollywood film would almost certainly miss the brooding intensity of this disturbing play, by interspersing the scenes in the dugout with gory bayonet charges and idyllic periods of leave at home, or, more likely, visits to French prostitutes between two spells at the front. This play is about the nearest one can get to ancient Greek tragedy since there is a frightful sense of fatality throughout : the real central character of the play, as someone said, is not Stanhope or Raleigh but the war itself whose presence is always felt —  and for most of the time heard as well in the form of interminable gunfire — just as the Trojan war is the main protagonist in tragedies such as Ajax, or indeed the Iliad itself.   

            Also, I find on the same shelf, Dangerous Corner, by J.B. Priestley, one of his best plays which, like the better known An Inspector Calls, takes place in the drawing room of a house after dinner during the space of a single evening. Although there is a death, it happened some time previously and the play consists entirely of increasingly angry arguments amongst the middle-class people who knew the dead man and which, bit by bit, reveal a whole lot of things that were originally utterly submerged. Without either fighting or lovemaking, the play is gripping, even intolerably so. 

            Again, coming across a copy of the remarkable and unjustly forgotten play, Das Heilige Experiment (English title The Strong Are Lonely), by Fritz Hochwalder, I see that the action takes place during a single day, July 16, 1767, at the College of the Jesuit Fathers, Buenos Aires. The compression is all the more striking since not only does this single day decide the fate of the leading characters but that of the 150,000 Indian inhabitants of an entire country, present-day Paraguay. The same historical event, the deliberate dismantling of the Jesuit South American utopia by the Spanish authorities, is the basis of the film, The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons, though in the film it is the Portuguese, and not the Spanish, who are made responsible. Though I would not want to miss the magnificent scenery of the film and the harrowing ending, the moral dilemma of the Jesuit leader is much more acute, and in consequence much more moving, in the play, precisely because everything is concentrated on it. There is also, unlike the film, no love interest or subplot.


            To let slip the opportunities of flashback, spectacular scenery and contrasting settings would seem perverse in the case of cinema. I cannot offhand think of a film which obeys the unities completely but the black-and-white films of the Thirties and Fifties came much closer than films do today. Dispersion, not intensity, is currently the order of the day and the action drama cum thriller, which of necessity flouts all the neo-classical rules, has for a long time been the dominant genre in cinema. Odd Man Out comes close to the neo-classical ideal since all the action  takes place during a single night in Belfast and everything is concentrated on the predicament of the wounded IRA leader, brilliantly played  by James Mason, wandering about the dismal streets trying vainly to escape the police on his heels. Training Day, starring Denzil Washington, takes place during a single day. A good three-quarters of Casablanca takes place in Rick’s Bar, and there are doubtless one or two other examples.    

            French 17th century tragedy is closer to opera than present-day theatre. Audiences of the time obviously enjoyed the lengthy and, to our ears, thoroughly undramatic monologues delivered by virtually immobile actors and actresses in much the same way as we enjoy arias by Pavarotti and Domingo. They also quite clearly responded favourably to the extremely elevated moral tone of most of the tragedies : virtue (of a certain type) actually excited the audiences of the time, ‘turned them on’, if you like, in much the same way as sexual scenes and violence excite contemporary viewers. A typical theme of neo-classical drama is the conflict between honour and personal desire, duty and natural inclination. We are all inheritors of the Romantics who dictated, once and for all, that emotion is always right and that law and order, inasmuch as it goes against instinct, is always wrong. But the characters of French neo-classical drama generally choose duty and honour : even when they transgress social rules and customs, as  Phaedra does, they do so unwillingly. They invariably  prefer death to dishonour. E.M. Forster famously wrote, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. But, is this really a good principle?  I think not. Many people in France during the German Occupation were precisely faced with this very dilemma and the issue has become contemporary once more because of  terrorism. Society collapses into chaos without a moral code of some sort and all moral codes involve self-sacrifice.

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