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Corneille--Of the Three Unities

        Corneille takes a pragmatic stance much like that of Horace. He is a dramatist writing about the structure of drama. the question is, how is great drama put together?
        First he addresses the unity of action: "the term unity of action does not mean that tragedy should show only one action on the stage . . . . there must be only one complete action . . . but that action can become complete only through several others which are less perfect." Subplots are needed to drive the main action along, but should never begin to upstage or compete with the main action.
        He addresses the Aristotelian dictum that events in a drama should be causally connected by affirming it. A poet should not, however, be required to show "all the particular actions which bring about the principle one; he must choose to show those which are the most advantageous." Ultimately though, the principle is "only a beauty and not a rule."
        The action of a drama has two parts: the complication and the resolution (this is familiar Aristotelian territory). The complication has only the rule of probability attached top it, though Corneille recommends that the poet deal as minimally as possible (preferably not at all) with events which predate the time presented in the play. a for the resolution, he abhors two things: "change of intention," and "the machine." Change of intention is a sudden and unexplained change in the motivation of a character, a change which helps resolve the plot in an improbable yet convenient manner. The machine is the now-infamous Deus ex machina associated primarily--or at least originally--with Euripides: this is the kind of plot resolution in which a god--unintroduced previously in the play--or some sudden display of magic power on the part of one of the play's main characters--a power unmentioned and undisplayed earlier in the drama (Medea would not come in for this criticism because the title character was known from the beginning to have magic powers)--imposes some convenient settlement.
        Actors should enter and exit the stage for a good reason, but it is OK to bend this rule in the first scene of each act. A poet should indicate in the margin that which should not go into the lines: this helps a reader experience the drama in a way that simulates the experience of seeing it performed.
        As for the unity of time, Corneille would prefer that action on stage correspond to real world time. A two-hour performance would ideally reflect two hours of action. At any rate, the action should not "go much beyond twenty-four" hours, although the fifth (final) act may be exempted from the strict unity of time because "the spectator is by then impatient to see the end."
        Corneille is willing to stretch the unity of place to the territory of an entire city, but no further.
        He points out (and this is something I think modern MLA types may have forgotten) that "the pleasure [spectators/readers] take in [drama] is the reason they do not seek out its imperfections lest they lose their taste for it." This should be emblazoned on every publication which comes out of the MLA and the NCTE. Perhaps the sublimest thing Corneille says is: "It is easy for critics to be severe; but if they were to give ten or a dozen plays to the public, they might perhaps slacken the rules more than I do." Amen.