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What Is Neoclassical Theatre?

By L. Baran
Updated May 23, 2024
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Neoclassical theatre — often spelled as theater — refers to a movement in the mid-17th to early-18th centuries in which the theatrical arts were defined by the ideas and styles of ancient Greek and Roman societies. People of the time placed a heavy focus on decorum, or dignified behavior, and realism, and they believed that the primary reasons for a play were to provide entertainment and to teach a lesson. Grand, intricate scenery, elaborate drama and strict concern for the classics were earmarks of the movement, with most productions also characterized through the use of five acts, few performances and a high level of improvisation. The movement began in France but quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond.

Guiding Principle of the Era

The general philosophy during the Neoclassical era was that the previous periods had been much too lax, focusing excessively on emotions and the individual. People of the time believed that it was necessary to exercise some restraint as a result, and to concentrate more on what each person could contribute to the whole society. They looked for inspiration about how to do this in the cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the original classicists, and attempted to return to the way those groups had handled life and the arts.

The Five Rules

The attitude of the Neoclassicists toward excess and the individual led them to develop a strict set of guidelines for what was appropriate in the theatre. These included five basic rules: purity of form, five acts, verisimilitude or realism, decorum and purpose. Play houses generally rejected scripts or productions that did not meet these requirements.

Playwrights and actors in the Neoclassical period officially recognized just two types of plays: comedy and tragedy. They never mixed these together, and the restriction led to use of the now well-known pair of happy and sad masks that symbolize the theatrical arts. Furthermore, additional stipulations governed the subject matter and characters that could appear in each genre of play. Comedies, which were either satires or comedies of manners, tended to focus on the lower ranks of society, while tragedies portrayed the complex and fateful lives of the upper classes and royals. Adherence to these genres was critical to a play's success, and deviating from these class boundaries went against the order of the classics.

The idea that a play should be structured with exactly five acts ties to the three principles, or unities, devised by Aristotle. As a philosopher and analyst, he believed that good, realistic theatre required unity of action, place and time, meaning very few subplots, restriction of shifts in location or geography and keeping the plot timeline to no more than 24 hours. Playwrights who moved to different formats usually met with heavy criticism. In addition to the five-act limitation, most serious productions were given just one or a handful of performances, because those involved wanted to avoid creating spectacles and to appeal to the elite or learned in society, which resulted in much smaller audiences.

People living in this period also usually expected actors to be as realistic as possible and to portray their characters exactly as they would have behaved. In other styles of theatre, actors were known for being overly dramatic or acting outside their class or role, but neoclassicism called for strict adherence to class, social status, temperament and gender. Fantastic or supernatural elements, along with soliloquies and choruses, usually weren't included, because they did not represent real-world experience or behavior.

Decorum called for scripts to demonstrate fairness in the way characters were portrayed and judged on stage. It also meant that justice would be delivered when necessary, so there generally were no surprise endings in Neoclassical theatre in the sense that characters with sound moral judgment always were rewarded, and those who had made poor or evil choices were punished. Productions ultimately were supposed to fulfill the purposes of teaching some moral lesson and entertaining.

The Stage, Sets and Costumes

Sets in Neoclassical theatre were dramatic, elaborate and rich. They were designed to provide a lush backdrop to each scene and to help the audience lose themselves in the drama. Another goal was to provide a realistic illusion of depth and perception. Stages themselves were redesigned during this period with dramatic arches to highlight the scenes and multiple entry points onto the stage. The idea of changing scenery and backdrops become more prominent, particularly with the invention of pulley systems that allowed parts to move more quickly across the stage. Lighting and sound effects heightened the mood and message of each scene, enhancing the dramatic experience.

Naturally, drab garments would have looked somewhat out of place in the context of these new sets and stage designs. Although costumes did maintain a sense of realism, they were still very colorful, often using lace and other embellishments to make them more attractive. Sometimes, those in the play also used masks, keeping with the commedia dell'arte style.


In many cases, playwrights would provide only a loose outline of a plot, and the actors were expected to improvise to fill in any gaps. This was more common with comedies, but it occurred in both forms, because putting on a performance often was a spontaneous decision that did not always allow a lot of time for writing or rehearsing. In some troupes, people specialized in playing a very limited number of characters so they could capture personas better on the fly, and a few actors devoted themselves to performing the same roles over their entire careers.

Introduction of Women

For hundreds of years, only men were allowed to be on the stage. The general view was that women should not be involved in public spectacles or put into a more prominent position, and some people believed that women were so busy thinking of other things that they couldn't possibly remember and deliver lines properly. Prepubescent boys or men who could manipulate their voices took female roles as a result. During the Neoclassical period, however, women were allowed to be shareholders of theatre companies and to participate in productions, resulting in the some of the first professional paid actresses.

Major Playwrights

While there were many successful playwrights during the Neoclassical movement, three playwrights achieved a significant amount of success and notoriety. Pierre Cornielle (1606 – 1684) is often called the father of the French tragedy, writing scripts for more than four decades. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin — better known as Molière (1622 – 1673) — is known for his comedies. Jean Racine (1639 – 1699) was a tragedian beloved for his simplistic approach to action and the linguistic rhythms and effects he achieved. All three of these men were able to take elements from classical Greek and Roman literature and transform them into plays that adhered to the Neoclassical standards of decorum, time and space.

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Discussion Comments

By pleonasm — On Oct 18, 2013

@KoiwiGal - It's easy to look at it critically now, but there were actually some good things about neoclassical theatre. It was a reaction to sloppy and dumbed down plays of earlier ages.

And it included women for the first time, which was huge progress. I don't know if that was because of the cultural norms, or if it was their commitment to showing what they considered to be reality, but either way it has to be seen as a good thing.

By KoiwiGal — On Oct 17, 2013

@MrsPramm - Well, you need to consider the people who were making these plays and who were watching them as well. It wasn't the lower classes, that's for sure, particularly since this kind of theater was deliberately set up so that it was expensive and only a small audience was able to see each performance.

And the upper class is often very concerned with formality and appearances. So the plays probably did reflect their version of reality. I would be interested to see how many of their evil villains who were punished in the end were people who showed the opposite of upper class ideals, in that they were too emotional, too given to rage or lust. Our classic villain these days is a person in power, perhaps even a corporation, but that reflects the consumer.

When the consumer is a person in power, the villain of the piece is going to look quite different.

By MrsPramm — On Oct 16, 2013

I find it kind of interesting that they believed that acting and scripts should approach realism, but they refused to mix comedy and tragedy and it sounds like they stuck to a relatively strict formula where the evil were always punished in the end. Obviously and unfortunately, real life doesn't actually work like that.

It sounds like they were more interested in putting their version of reality over the top of the play, rather than trying to fit the play to an actual realistic story.

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