Tag Archives: parallel motion tragedy

Cinna and the Complex Plot (Corneille)

Within the genre of tragedy there are three sub-genres, one of which is the tragedy in parallel motion. Full details on the other two sub-genres in a future blog, so keep tuning in, diligent readers! What gives away the tragedy in parallel motion is that, in this type of play, many tragedies are all happening simultaneously, or, happening in parallel motion, as it were. Hamlet is a tragedy in parallel motion. There.s the main tragedy, that of Hamlet. And then there.s the stories of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, and Laertes which play out in parallel to the main event. King Lear is also of this type where the tragedy of Gloucester plays out alongside Lear.s downfall. Cinna, by Pierre Corneille, is an exceptionally fine example of tragedy in parallel motion because, unlike Lear and Hamlet, Corneille gives each of the four main characters (Augustus, Cinna, Emilia, and Maximus) equal weight. In this sense, they are like four planets of equal mass revolving in parallel motion around a common centre of gravity. In the other examples, the motions are more lopsided than parallel as Hamlet and Lear have much more mass than the shadow tragedies playing in the proximate background.

As usual, I.m reading from a mighty Penguin edition with a detail from The Knight and his Page translated by super duper John Cairncross:


Here.s the back blurb with shout line and author introduction:

‘You suffer by the death of such a man. Avenge it by another’s, blood for blood’

The three plays in this volume demonstrate the full range of Corneille’s dramatic genius, from tragi-comedy and political drama to exuberant fantasy. The Cid (1636), his masterpiece set in medieval Spain, depicts a young knight torn between his duty to avenge his wronged father and his love for the daughter of a sworn enemy. Portraying a Roman nobleman’s plot to kill the tyrannical Emperor Augustus, Cinna (1640) reflect events in seventeenth-century France as Cardinal Richelieu moved to establish Louis XIII as its absolute ruler. And in the highly unusual comedy, The Theatrical Illusion (1636), a magician reassures a despairing father that his long-lost son is still alive–and proceeds to conjure up the young man’s amorous adventures in an elaborate play within a play.

John Cairncross’s clear, vibrant translation is accompanied by an introduction discussing the ways in which Corneille explored concepts of free will and inner conflict in his works. This edition also includes a bibliography, notes and separate prefaces and summaries for each play.

If The Cid ‘bursts but once upon the world / And their first blow displays their mastery’, Cinna, produced four years after The Cid, makes up in form, structure, and polish what The Cid had in elemental force. Dismayed at the reaction of Cardinal Richelieu and the French Academy’s criticism of the structure of The Cid, Corneille composed Cinna in response. Cinna is more perfect in the same way as corporate rock bands in the 70s were ‘more perfect’ than the 60s experiments in sound. I.m thinking of bands like Boston and Journey: heavily produced, formulaic songs, and catchy tunes meant for the radio. Not that these are bad things. Between you and me, I think Journey is the best (who doesn.t sing along to Wheel in the Sky, Don.t Stop Believing or Faithfully?). Listening to them always reminds me of dimly lit bars with the smell of smoke and cheap perfume in the air. For the same reason Cinna is good in the way corporate rock can be good, Cinna can also be criticized for being lacking the same way corporate rock is lacking: ie that last iota of creativity.

What I want to share with you today, however, is just how professionally Cinna is put together. It.s creativity is hidden in its structure, in how it all meshes together. While the characters aren.t as memorable as the Cid, the structure is put together with the finest joinery. There are four main characters: Augustus, Cinna, Emilia, and Maximus. As if to demonstrate the futility of expectation, they are only allowed to misjudge one another’s motives. Accordingly, the play jumps from one unintended consequence to the next, ultimately demanding the most unintended of all consequences to bring the freight train of chance judgments to standstill. Augustus is mistaken about his adopted daughter. He thinks by heaping gifts on Emilia, she will forgive him for the loss of her father (whom he had proscribed). He is mistaken. She retains Cinna to avenge her father. He is mistaken about Livia. He believes his wife loves the crown and not the man. He is mistaken about his trusted lieutenants. By heaping honours upon them, he thinks to secure their loyalty. Far from gratitude, Cinna and Maximus plot treason. That he gives means to those who would bring about his fall and cannot listen to those who care for him are the unintended consequences of Augustus’ actions.

Next is Cinna. He trusts Maximus, his friend and fellow conspirator. He is mistaken. When Maximus discovers Cinna is romancing Emilia, he betrays the conspiracy in a jealous fit to do away with his rival. Regarding Emilia, Cinna is doubly mistaken, once before the conspiracy is exposed and again afterwards. Before the conspiracy is exposed, Augustus summons Cinna and asks him whether he should restore the republican government. Surprised that the question should come up at this time, Cinna advises him to hold onto empire, putting himself into an ethical quandary as he advocates the very thing that justifies the conspirators. His position baffles Maximus–why risk the assassination attempt when Augustus is ready to stand down? What Maximus does not know–not yet, at least–is that Emilia has bound Cinna by an oath to bring Augustus down; the conspiracy is merely a pretext for revenge. As the ethical quandary gives Cinna second thought about the attempt, he goes to Emilia seeking understanding. Instead of understanding, he finds her heart hardened against him. After the conspiracy is exposed, Emilia once again baffles expectations. Having discovered the plot, Augustus passes sentence on Cinna. Cinna is prepared to die. Though a capital crime, the tradition of restoring republican governments was honoured in the hearts of Roman patriots. He would die with honour. At the last second, however, Emilia storms in, revealing that he had done it all to win her hand. Her revelation takes away the argument that his actions were borne out of a moral duty to Rome. That he loses himself and all he holds dear in the pursuit of happiness is the unintended consequence of Cinna’s actions.

Then there is Maximus.  He trusts that Cinna has led them into a dangerous undertaking in the name of liberty.  He is mistaken.  The conspiracy was formed so that Emilia could avenge her father.  He is also mistaken when it comes to Emilia.  Having found out the underlying reason why Cinna wanted to assassinate Augustus, he comes up with a plan: by feigning his death and exposing the conspiracy to Augustus, he could do away with Cinna and whisk Emilia away in safety.  He could not foresee, however, that Emilia would prefer to die with honour than to live in shame.  That he reveals himself to be a jealous imbecile is the unintended consequence of Maximus’ actions.

Finally there is Emilia.  She is the spoiler, more erred against the erring.  But even she could not foresee the clemency of Augustus.  In revealing her role in fomenting treason, she had anticipated a capital sentence from her stepfather.  The failure to anticipate the clemency of Augustus is a miscalculation she shares with Cinna and Maximus.  But her miscalculation is the play’s keystone.  While Augustus was more than ready to sentence Cinna and Maximus according to expectation, his stepdaughter’s confession stops him in his tracks.  That Augustus restores Maximus, raises Cinna, and blesses Emilia and Cinna’s marriage is the unintended consequence of Emilia’s actions.  With the clemency of Augustus, there are no more unintended consequences as the enigmatic portrait of empire is complete. Empire is a form of state wherein absolute clemency buys absolute power. The beauty of Cinna is that each of the unintended consequences propels the play towards the most unintended of all consequences: that treason would be rewarded with clemency. The human face of empire.

There you have it diligent readers! And if you made it to the end of the blog you really are a diligent reader! One surprising thing about the wonderful Greater Victoria Public Library (GVPL) that I learned today. I was finishing parts of today.s blog there and needed to sneak a peak at Cinna. Easy, right?–I.m at the main branch. That.s true, I found a copy. But did you know that in the whole library there.s only one copy of a translation of Corneille? I would have thought there would have been multiple copies, you know, maybe not a copy at each of the regional branches but there would be more than one copy for all the, what, seven or eight branches of the GVPL! Perhaps a sign that not everyone these days is into Melpomene’s work. But hey, I am! And until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I will be Doing Melpomene’s Work.