Neoclassical theatre (also spelled theater) refers to a period from the mid-seventeenth to the early-eighteenth centuries when the theatrical arts were influenced the ideas and styles of ancient Greek and Roman societies. Decorum, or dignified behavior, and realism were highly valued at the time, and people believed that the primary purposes of a play were to entertain and teach a lesson. The movement was defined grand, intricate scenery, elaborate drama, and a strict adherence to the classics, with most productions employing five acts, few performances, and a high level of improvisation. The movement started in France and spread quickly throughout Europe and beyond.
The Era’s guiding principle
During the Neoclassical era, the general philosophy was that previous periods had been far too lax, focusing excessively on emotions and the individual. As a result, people at the time believed it was necessary to exercise some restraint and focus more on what each individual could contribute to society as a whole. They sought inspiration for how to do this in the cultures of the original classicists, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and attempted to return to the way those peoples handled life and the arts.
The Five Principles
The Neoclassicists’ attitude toward excess and individuality led them to create a set of strict guidelines for what was appropriate in the theatre. Five basic rules were established: form purity, five acts, verisimilitude or realism, decorum, and purpose. Scripts or productions that did not meet these criteria were usually rejected playhouses.
Only two types of plays were officially recognized Neoclassical playwrights and actors: comedy and tragedy. They never mixed the two, and as a result of this restriction, the now-famous pair of happy and sad masks that represent the theatrical arts were created. In addition, each genre of play had its own set of rules governing the subject matter and characters that could appear. Comedies, whether satires or comedies of manners, tended to focus on the lower classes, whereas tragedies depicted the complicated and fateful lives of the upper classes and royals. Deviating from these class boundaries went against the order of the classics, and adhering to these genres was critical to a play’s success.
The idea that a play should be structured with exactly five acts is related to Aristotle’s three principles, or unities. As a philosopher and analyst, he believed that good, realistic theatre required unity of action, place, and time, which he defined as a plot with few subplots, limited shifts in location or geography, and a plot timeline of no more than 24 hours. Playwrights who shifted to different formats were frequently chastised. In addition to the five-act limit, most serious productions received only one or a few performances because those involved wanted to avoid creating spectacles and appeal to society’s elite or learned, resulting in much smaller audiences.
People in this era also expected actors to be as realistic as possible, portraying their characters as they would have acted in real life. Actors were known for being overly dramatic or acting outside their class or role in other styles of theatre, but neoclassicism demanded strict adherence to class, social status, temperament, and gender. Because they did not represent real-world experience or behavior, fantastic or supernatural elements, as well as soliloquies and choruses, were usually not included.
Decorum demanded that scripts reflect fairness in the portrayal and evaluation of characters on stage. It also meant that justice would be served when it was necessary, so there were no surprise endings in Neoclassical theatre in the sense that characters who made good moral decisions were always rewarded, while those who made bad or evil decisions were punished. At the end of the day, productions were supposed to entertain as well as teach a moral lesson.
The Sets, Costumes, and the Stage
Neoclassical theater had dramatic, elaborate, and rich sets. They were created to give each scene a lush backdrop and to help the audience become immersed in the drama. Another goal was to create a realistic depth and perception illusion. During this time, stage designs were redesigned to include dramatic arches to highlight scenes and multiple entry points onto the stage. With the invention of pulley systems that allowed parts to move more quickly across the stage, the idea of changing scenery and backdrops became more prominent. Each scene’s mood and message were enhanced lighting and sound effects, adding to the dramatic experience.
Drab outfits would have been out of place in the context of these new sets and stage designs, to say the least. Although the costumes maintained a sense of realism, they were still brightly colored, with lace and other embellishments frequently used to enhance their appeal. In keeping with the commedia dell’arte style, the actors in the play wore masks at times.
In many cases, playwrights would only provide a skeleton of a plot, and actors were expected to fill in the blanks. Because putting on a performance was often a spontaneous decision that did not always allow for a lot of time for writing or rehearsing, this was more common with comedies, but it happened in both forms. People in some troupes specialized in playing a small number of characters in order to better capture personas on the fly, and a few actors devoted their entire careers to playing the same roles.
Only men were allowed on the stage for hundreds of years. The general consensus was that women should not be involved in public spectacles or given a higher profile, and some people believed that women were too preoccupied with other things to remember and deliver lines properly. As a result, prepubescent boys or men who could manipulate their voices were cast in female roles. Women were allowed to be shareholders in theatre companies and participate in productions during the Neoclassical period, resulting in some of the first professional paid actresses.
Playwrights of Note
While there were many successful playwrights during the Neoclassical movement, three playwrights in particular rose to prominence. Pierre Cornielle (1606–1684) is regarded as the “Father of French Tragedy,” having written plays for over four decades. Molière (1622–1673), better known as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, is best known for his comedies. Jean Racine (1639–1699), a tragicomedy writer, was known for his straightforward approach to action as well as the linguistic rhythms and effects he achieved. All three of these men were able to take elements from classical Greek and Roman literature and adapt them to Neoclassical standards of decorum, time, and space in their plays.