chapter  5
Pages 17

The autocratic and hierarchical society into which Beaumarchais was born in 1732 was closely reflected in its culture: the theatre in particular presented a microcosm of the political and social organism of the ancien regime. It had been the declared policy of the rulers of France throughout the seventeenth century to fulfil the aspirations to cultural supremacy first formulated in Du Bellay's Defense et illustration de la langue fran~aise of 1549: that French language and literature should become paramount in modern Europe by modelling itself on the Latin culture of the Augustan age. Richelieu had led the way in the 1630s as patron of the arts, founding the Academie Fran~aise and enrolling practising playwrights to write plays under his direction; and his own preference for 'regular' drama (that is, plays written in conformity with the Three Unities) was a not unimportant factor in the establishing of classical tragedy at the expense of the irregular (and more obviously theatrical) tragicomedy of this period. Louis XIV had taken an active interest in the theatre during the early years of his reign, and his discerning patronage of Moliere and of Lully is remembered as the most tangible instance of this. Moliere's company at the Palais-Royal theatre had enjoyed the King's favour as the second official 'Troupe du Roi' alongside the long-established company at the Hotel de Bourgogne, and Moliere himself figured prominently on the list of royal pensions. On his death in 1673 a royal decree had amalgamated the remnant of his company with that of the Theatre du Marais, and seven years later, as a notable instance of his centralising policy, Louis took the further step of amalgamating this body of actors with the Hotel de Bourgogne company, creating in this manner the Theatre-Fran~ais.Although its foundation in 1680 gives the Theatre-Fran~ais(or Comedie-Fran~aise) a seniority, as a national institution, of over three hundred years, the title did not originally indicate the company's national standing, but served rather to distinguish it, as a company playing in french, from the Theatre-Italien, the Italian-language company which also enjoyed royal patronage.