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Kingdom of Disorder:  The Theory of Tragedy in Classical France

John D. Lyons

We often think that the major French tragedies of the seventeenth century were written in conformity with a widely accepted, uniform, and coherent "classical doctrine" of poetics. In this stimulating and controversial reassessment of important but neglected treatises of dramatic art, John Lyons argues that there was no such uniform doctrine. Yet, at the same time, the theories of tragedy show exceptional creativity, independently of their impact on the actual writing of the important contemporary plays. Lyons guides readers to surprising discoveries in the polemics surrounding this great dramatic genre. In the opening chapter, he presents a revisionist view of the "rules," the basic units of seventeenth-century poetic theory, and shows the consequences of the post-Aristotelian fragmentation of aesthetics into small and often incompatible precepts. Then he studies in succession the conflicting theories of the tragic story, tragic emotion and audience response, and the celebrated but misunderstood "three unities." Throughout this account, seventeenth-century theorists are seen struggling to create a "good" modern, Christian, monarchical tragedy in opposition to the "bad" pagan and democratic tragedy of Antiquity.

This stimulating and controversial reassessment of French classical ideas about tragedy will be valuable to students and scholars of French literature, drama, and cultural history.

"The very idea of this book presents a challenge....Who then better than John Lyons to take up such a challenge? ...Lyons is at his best when gently puncturing some of the more persistent myths that surround this subject. He reminds us that the so-called 'classic' doctrine...did not exist as such in the seventeenth century.... [His] previous critical works have made one come to expect erudition, insight and common sense, expressed with warmth and wit. The very least one can say, at the end of this invigorating reappraisal, is that our expectations are not disappointed." —John Campbell, French Studies. For the complete review, see French Studies 55.2 (Apr. 2001): 242-43.

"The topics [Lyons] treats are essential for understanding the literature, philosophy, and culture of the seventeenth-century, and Lyons's contributions to our understanding of these topics, no less than brilliant." —Michael Vincent, author of Figures of the Text: Reading and Writing (in) La Fontaine

"A clearer historical and socio-political framework would have considerably clarified this penetrating and otherwise clearly-written account of the variety and interest of texts which, in the prehistory of literary criticism and theory, were influential early illustrations of a peculiarly modern form of literary activity." —David Clarke, Modern Language Review. For the complete review, see Modern Language Review 96.2 (2001): 496-97.

"Sur la théorie de la tragédie classique, on pouvait en effet croire que tout avait été dit; mais John D. Lyons démontre de manière concluante, dans une étude qui se veut 'révisionniste,' que l'on vient pas toujours trop tard, et que la nature de ce que l'Ecole définit comme 'le classicisme' depuis plus de deux siècles n'a pas encore livré tous ses secrets....Sougneusement documenté, rigoureusement argumenté, rédigé avec précision et concision, cet ouvrage décape efficacement un sujet qui méritait d'être revu sur des bases saines, et qui souffrait d'être enfoui sous de nombreuses gloses tendancieuses, impressionnistes, voire fantaisistes....Kingdom of Disorder est à lire d'urgence par quiconque s'intéresse non seulement à la tragédie ou au théâtre du XVIIe siècle, mais plus généralement à l'histoire culturelle française et à l'invention de la modernité' dont la théorie dramatique dite 'classique' constitue l'un des fondements." —Guy Spielmann, Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature. For the complete review, see PFSCL 28.55 (2001): 539-41.

Other reviews:

French Review 75.1 (Oct. 2001): 163-65 (by Eléonore M. Zimmermann).
37 (Mar. 2000): 1305 (by C.E. Campbell).
Reference & Research Book News 1 Nov. 1999.

John D. Lyons, University of Virginia, has written several books on seventeenth-century French literature, including Exemplum and The Tragedy of Origins.

1999. PSRL 18. xvi, 251 pp. Cloth $29.95 PRICE REDUCED