Between the Earth and the Heavens: the Monsters of French Tragédies Lyriques

The presence of monsters in French operas comes out in a dialectic of what is spectacular and symbolic. First and foremost, the stage role of opera monsters is ornamental, for they are a vivid image of the horrible underworld. However, monsters can also intervene as a key element to the plot. In order to respect rules of the vraisemblable merveilleux, monsters in tragédies lyriques are always sent by angry divinities, as instruments of their vengeance. Fighting the monster means therefore for human characters to come into conflict with divine power.  A monster is first created in order to contrast with a hero in ordeal, thus enthroning the hero in his status. But rather than wrapping up the ending with the monster’s death, the confrontation heightens the conflicts’s complexity and sophistication. In order to interpret this innovative approach, we must embrace a broad definition of monstrosity, thus breaking the rules of nature. To do this,  we shall study the meaning of parricides provoked by divine curse, based on the works that place side-by-side traditional monsters and other characters metamorphosed into furious creatures. Lastly, we shall witness the new orientation of 18th-century tragedy, where monsters leave the stage.

Laura Naudeix
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Centre de recherche sur l’Histoire du Théâtre, Université de Paris-Sorbonne, France