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Reviewed by:
  • Les Décors de Molière 1658–1674 par Philippe Cornuaille
  • Michael Hawcroft
Les Décors de Molière 1658–1674. Par Philippe Cornuaille. (Theatrum mundi.) Paris: Presses de l’université Paris-Sorbonne, 2015. 352 pp., ill.

We know very much less about Molière’s original scenery than we should like to know, and few people can have thought the topic would fill a long, large-format book such as this. Yet Philippe Cornuaille has patiently assembled the fragmentary evidence that remains, readily acknowledging all the gaps and nonetheless offering what is likely to remain the fullest overview for many years to come. His book is solidly and sensibly constructed. The first part presents the background evidence, summing up what is known about other seventeenth-century Parisian theatres and their use of decor, as well as drawing on the latest research to present a picture of the Palais-Royal stage where Molière mostly performed during his Paris years. The second and third parts focus on the plays themselves, each treated discretely. The second part examines plays written for a town audience, firstly those with outdoor settings, then those with indoors settings, and finally those involving more than one setting (Dom Juan and Le Médecin malgré lui). The third part explores plays written for a court audience (essentially the so-called comédies-ballets), firstly those actually performed outdoors in gardens, then those performed indoors, and finally those involving changes of set. It makes sense for Cornuaille to treat L’Impromptu de Versailles in the second part and Le Malade imaginaire in the third part, even though each strictly belongs in the other part. Cornuaille’s evidence is a combination of what can be known about the stages on which the plays were performed, such financial and legal documents as have survived, the later evidence of the Mémoire de Mahelot, and above all the texts of the plays themselves. Sometimes the whole of this evidence adds up to very little. There is not much at all to be said about the set of Les Fourberies de Scapin. Sometimes, however, by historical fluke, there is a great deal of evidence. Cornuaille painstakingly reviews all the evidence for the experimental and spectacular set designs for Dom Juan, and includes drawings of his own that help readers to envisage more easily how, for instance, Dom Juan descended into the flames of hell. The most thrilling aspect of this book is Cornuaille’s patient, yet robust, demolition of beliefs about Molière’s original scenery that have been tenaciously held for nearly forty years and that are based, quite unjustifiably, on a conviction that the original illustrations by François Chauveau and Pierre [End Page 596] Brissart depict actual stage sets. Cornuaille’s book makes it impossible to hold such beliefs any longer.

Michael Hawcroft
Keble College, Oxford


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pp. 596-597
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