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French Scene in Plays: Definition & Breakdown

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  • 0:00 French Scene Defined
  • 0:39 History of the French Scene
  • 1:36 French Scene Breakdown
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You don't have to go all the way to Paris to take in a French scene. Learn more about these dramatic divisions in this lesson and you'll be able to pick them out of your own favorite plays!

French Scene Defined

If you've ever been to a live stage production, you've probably noticed that divisions of a play, including acts, scenes, intermissions, are frequently marked by some change of the scenery. Curtain falls, lighting effects, and set changes can all be used to demonstrate a play's progression. However, there are also much more subtle ways of transitioning from one scene to the next. Sometimes, scene divisions are marked by a change in the composition of characters onstage rather than with lights, curtains, or set changes. When this happens, each character's entrance or exit begins or ends a French scene.

History of the French Scene

French scenes became prevalent in the plays of 17th-century French dramatists. At the time, there were not many dedicated theaters in France. So, if acting companies wanted to perform, they would often have to pay steep prices to hotels or other venues for the privilege of using their performance areas. As a way of getting around the high stage fees, many plays were performed in private homes, public spaces, or leisure courts that were reclaimed as theaters.

None of these locations, however, really had sufficient space for ample set dressings or much equipment, so marking play divisions that way was out of the question. Instead, many French playwrights of the period, like Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, or Molière, produced plays that might not even be divided into acts or scenes at all, representing a string of continuous action in a relatively fixed location. The variety of the play, then, is provided through changes in human scenery rather than through lighting or other technical means.

French Scene Breakdown

Because there are no other cues that a French scene is beginning or ending aside from the entrance or exit of characters, these scenes can be tricky to keep track of. That's why it's important, especially in modern productions of some plays of the 17th century, for directors or stage managers to draw up a breakdown of these scenes by listing all of the characters, along with each time one enters or leaves the stage. This play-by-play analysis can then be used by everyone involved in the production, from actors and stylists to technicians and stage crews, to ensure that the play's action flows as smoothly as possible.

Let's examine one such breakdown constructed to outline French scenes in the first two acts of Molière's famous Tartuffe. Notice how, even in the boundary between Acts I and II, scene changes are marked by slight alterations in the composition of onstage characters.

Timaree McCormick, props master and designer for several film productions of the 80's, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, devised this breakdown by including the names of each character in the scene, as well as stage directions and a brief synopsis of the scene's action. In her line of work, McCormick would've probably used this information to make sure all props were in their proper places or to track actors' quick changes.

Act I

Scene I

MADAME PERNELLE, FLIPOTTE, ELMIRE, MARIANE, CLÉANTE, DAMIS, DORINE. {(All EXIT except CLÉANTE, DORINE)}

Mme. Pernelle lectures family about sinfulness & Tartuffe's goodness.

Scene II

CLÉANTE, DORINE.

Dorine complains about Tartuffe.

Scene III

CLÉANTE, DORINE; ELMIRE, MARIANE, DAMIS, (ENTER). (EXITELMIRE,MARIANE)

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