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  • The Style of the State in French Theater, 1630–1660: Neoclassicism and Government
  • Julia Prest
The Style of the State in French Theater, 1630–1660: Neoclassicism and Government. By Katherine Ibbett. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. vii + 176 pp. Hb £55.00.

The relationship between seventeenth-century French drama and the French state is a well-worn subject, but that is not to say that it has been exhausted. The particular originality of Ibbett’s contribution to the corpus lies in, to cite the subtitle of her introduction, the ‘curious perspectives’ that she adopts. The word ‘curious’ is well chosen, invoking both the inquisitive stance assumed and its slightly unusual nature. For Ibbett’s aim is to set aside the canonical familiarity that is all too often brought to bear on the century, to step back, and to include alongside her reading of some very canonical works other sources, several of which are deliberately ‘curious’ choices. These include French schoolbooks of the Third Republic (to a large degree responsible for the particular brand of canonization that Ibbett seeks to eschew), paintings by Terbrugghen and La Tour, and Italian pamphlets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Similarly, some of the critical approaches that are put into effect on the material are more unusual than others: though certainly not a unique occurrence, Corneille is seldom read alongside Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin and in the context of France’s colonial imperatives in the Americas. Here Ibbett does all three, and more. If the results are sometimes a bit scattered, they are always thoughtful and thought-provoking, and combine to form a book that offers many new and suggestive insights into the seventeenth century. Ibbett’s main protagonist is the author of Le Cid, [End Page 344] or, more precisely, of Théodore, which she reads on an equal footing alongside Polyeucte, rather than as its decidedly less successful cousin, as is customarily the case. Although it is impossible to set aside all preconceptions about the material under scrutiny, Ibbett’s calculated move in this direction bears much good fruit. Her account of Corneille’s contribution to the genre of the martyr play is particularly interesting, set in the context of a new emphasis on staging the collective, exemplary (and often female) response to martyrdom at a time when it was not bienséant to show the act of martyrdom itself. Meanwhile, her insistence on the Frenchness ascribed to Corneille being grounded in specifically anti-Italian sentiment, itself dating back to Machiavelli and the Wars of Religion, is persuasive, and her overview of the uses to which Corneille was put in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is fascinating. But what of the state? Ibbett’s findings are set against the backdrop of what she maintains are overlapping views about raison d’état discernible in Corneille’s theoretical writings and in the Maximes d’Estat, ou Testament politique (thought to be Richelieu’s reflections on his experiences as the king’s minister). Which, of course, brings us back to Machiavelli, to whom, Ibbett argues, Corneille is closer in spirit than many of us would like to admit.

Julia Prest
University of St Andrews


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pp. 344-345
Launched on MUSE
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