French literature: What is Decorum in Theater?

French literature: What is Decorum in Theater?

Classicism in the 17th century was a literary movement that adheres to precise rules, particularly in theater, and especially tragedy. Verisimilitude must be respected, but also decorum, or decencies.

Decorum refers to the conduct, social behavior that is appropriate for a particular time, society, and environment. Decencies are therefore the expected customs and protocols to avoid offending. The play’s action must therefore avoid offending the aristocratic spectators of the 17th century.

We can identify three main pitfalls to avoid in a performance. First, violence on stage is prohibited. Bloodshed or death cannot be shown. They take place backstage, or are transcribed through a character’s speech. In Racine’s « Phèdre, » the violent death of Hyppolite is told by Theramene, it is not staged. Similarly, certain subjects or actions that are not noble are banned, such as eating, discussing sexuality, or work (nobles do not work…).

Secondly, in the society of the three orders of the 17th century, it is inconceivable that social status would be challenged: a servant remains a servant, a bourgeois remains a bourgeois, and they remain inferior to a noble. This permanence of status is necessary to preserve social order. Similarly, one cannot criticize or attack the Church, religion, a pillar of the Ancien Regime society. Dom Juan’s atheism resulted in the quick censorship of Molière’s play.

Finally, in tragedy especially, a high level of language is expected. Vulgarity has no place in the mouth of characters above the common people, princes, queens, and legendary heroes. That’s why the language register is elevated, and words such as « coeur » replace « courage, » or « courroux » for anger. The main use of Alexandrine also serves to enhance the language’s aesthetics. In this regard, comedy is obviously freer. In many of Molière’s plays, we find words in regional languages or even oaths (Morbleu…).

Links to articles : French literature: What is verisimilitude? French literary movement: Classicism.

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