December 7, 2021

This article deals with the rules that govern French classical theater. The theater of the second half of the 17th century is often called classical theater (different from Baroque theater) because it follows a set of rules inspired by ancient theater. At first unspoken, these rules, known as the rules of the three units, were formulated explicitly by the abbot of Aubignac and before him by the Italian scholar Julius Caesar Scaliger and were advocated in 1630 in the Letter on the dramatic art by Jean Chapelain, advisor to Cardinal Richelieu. Governing much of the theatrical language of the time, they are characteristic of what was later called classical theater. They were introduced in 1634 in Jean de Mairet's masterpiece, Sophonisbe. Boileau, in L'Art poétique (chant 3, vers 45-46), in 1674, sums up these constraints in verse:

The rule of three units

In a day: the unit of time

The action should not exceed one "revolution of the sun" according to Aristotle and 12 to 30 hours according to theorists. The ideal of classical theater is that the time of the action corresponds to the time of the performance. It was Racine who came closest to it, in Athalie. Eugène Ionesco also did it in La Cantatrice chauve; even if it is seen by the author as an anti-play, it paradoxically respects its unity of time.

In one place: the unit of place

All the action must take place in the same place (a palace setting for example for a tragedy or a bourgeois interior for a comedy). This rule underwent an evolution towards a greater rigor after 1645. Previously, the action could take place in different places of the same place together, a city for example. Subsequently, the unity of place tightened around a single place represented by the scene.

One fact: unity of action

All events must be linked and necessary, from the exhibition to the ending of the play. The main action must be developed in this way from the beginning to the end of the play, and the accessory actions must contribute to the main action and cannot be suppressed without making it lose its meaning.

Roles of the rule of three units

This rule aims not to scatter the viewer's attention with details such as place or date, allowing them to focus on the plot to better touch and edify it. It allows both to respect decorum (and thus not to shock the spectator) and to give a plausibility to the represented facts and thus, to satisfy the spectator of the XVIIth century. Unit of action: (also called unit of peril) The play features only one main action. There may be subplots but they must be resolved at the same time as the main action at the latest. Once escaped from the danger which threatens him, the hero must not face a new danger which is not a direct consequence of the first. Unit of time: (also called unit of day or the 24-hour rule) All the action represented is supposed to take place in a single day. Racine wanted to bring the duration of the performance as close as possible to the duration of the story (i.e. about three hours) but Corneille saw the question in a broader way and admitted that some of his pieces were slightly longer than 24 hours. time. Unity of place: All the action represented takes place in one place. You cannot show a battlefield and then the interior of a palace. For tragedy, we usually choose a common room inside a palace, but Corneille believed that we could represent different rooms in the same palace. The comedy prefers a room in a

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