The “father of French tragedy,” Pierre Corneille was born on June 6, 1606 in Rouen. His father was a prominent lawyer and Pierre was supposed to follow in his footsteps. Fortunately for French theatre, Corneille was a disaster as a lawyer. His first plays were warmly received, so he moved to Paris to pursue his calling. His greatest play is considered to be Le Cid. Corneille broke new ground with what he called a “tragicomedy.” The innovation ran afoul of Cardinal Richelieu and his newly founded Académie Française. Corneille rounded on his critics with a poem in which he praised his own genius and attacked the lineage of his opponents. The great dramatic crime? Corneille broke the rule of the Three Unities: all of the action has to take place in a single day, be about a single conflict, and happen in a single place. The Académie declared Le Cid to be unworthy of serious consideration.
A discouraged Corneille returned to Rouen to lick his wounds. He dedicated his next play, Horace, to Richelieu and decided to pay more attention to the Unities. He even re-worked Le Cid to make it less objectionable to the purists and started publishing it as a “tragedy.” Corneille didn’t entirely give in to his critics, however; he published Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry in which he argued that, while the Unities were important, they shouldn’t be adhered to so rigidly that all creativity was stifled.
One of the most famous lines from Corneille’s most famous play is “ma plus douce espérence est de perdre l’espoir” (mah ploo doose es-pair-anse eh duh perdruh lespwar), which means “my sweetest hope is to lose hope.” Corneille didn’t lose hope despite the opposition from Richelieu. He wrote almost 40 major works over his career, but none achieved the enduring fame of Le Cid. The Académie Française elected him to a seat in 1647, which I suppose is a sign of forgiveness. Corneille died on October 1, 1684.