CORNEILLE'S first play, Mélite, was presented in Paris in 1629 and at once scored a popular success. Like the playwright's other early efforts it was full of the insipid love that was the mode of the moment. These first plays of Corneille's, however, insipid as they were, were far superior to any French plays that preceded them. It is to these very plays, in fact, that modern drama owes the happy invention of the soubrette. But when the epoch-making Cid appeared in 1636 it so far outshone anything that preceded it, that the earlier plays were practically disregarded.
The critics and Corneille's contemporary writers waged around this revolutionary piece of dramatic writing as passionate a battle as raged around Hugo's Hernani some two centuries later. The public, however, spoke with no uncertain voice, and from The Cid modern French drama dates. It is quite possible that much of the criticism of The Cid was due to an awkwardness inherent in the play itself. Corneille as a dramatist adhered rigidly to the classical tradition of the three unities. The plot of The Cid was drawn from a Spanish source, and the Spaniards knew nothing of the three unities. Naturally the resulting combination was not entirely happy.
Corneille followed The Cid with other plays in a similar style, among them Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte, which shares with The Cid the best of his dramatic powers. His comedy, Le Menteur, now ranks as the best French comedy prior to Molière. It was not, however, until eighteen years after his first dramatic success that he was finally elected to the French Academy. This tardiness was due, perhaps, in some measure to Richelieu's hostility.
Corneille's father was a magistrate and lawyer who was ennobled in the year following his son's great success with The Cid. The young Corneille was educated by the Jesuits and later studied law. He actually continued work in minor legal positions long after he became famous . . . in fact, until he was forty-four. For a time he enjoyed wealth and popularity, but the rising stars of Molière and Racine eclipsed his. They perfected the style in which Corneille had pioneered. A fickle public, ever ready to applaud newer celebrities, forgot or disregarded Corneille and he gradually was reduced to wretched circumstances. In 1663 he was granted a pension but its payment was irregular and he died in poverty.
In temperament Corneille was serious, rugged and stern; in manner he was awkward and ill at ease; but in the field of drama he was more than a successful writer; he was a pioneer, a trail blazer for the subsequent genius of Molière.