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Jean Racine (1639-1699)

 

Playwright, poet, master of the classical French tragedy in the times of Moliére and Corneille. Racine took his subjects from antiquity or mythology and became very popular with his plays on blind, passionate love. His dramas followed the neoclassical tragic form; they had five acts and the dramatic time of the action did not exceed one day. Usually the action was restricted to one place. In a number of political or aesthetic debates, Racine has been praised over Shakespeare.

"Great crimes grow out of small ones. If today / A man first oversteps the bounds, he may / Abuse in time all laws and sanctities: / For crime, like virtue, ripens by degrees; / but when has one seen innocence, in a trice, / So change as to embrace the ways of vice? " (from Phèdre, 1677)

Jean Racine was born in La Ferté-Milon, a small town near Soissons. His family belonged to the upper bourgeoisie. After the death of his mother and father, he was raised by his grandparents. They were converted to Jansenists, a sect that emphasized severely controlled conduct, denied free will and stressed the necessity of grace for salvation. Pope Urban VIII condemned the movement in the 1641 Papal Bull.

Racine was educated at the Catholic school at Port-Royal, a centre of religious thought and learning, where his grandmother had retired. At the age of 19, he entered the Collège de Harcourtin in Paris. During this period he became friends with Moliére, the fabulist La Fontaine, and the poet-critic Boileau. Racine's lost first play, Amasie (1660), was accepted by the Marais Theatre but never performed. Because theatre was considered at that time immoral, Racine found himself in conflict with his family. He was forced to leave Paris, and his family tried to get him interested in the career of a priest. However, after a period of seclusion in Provence, he returned to Paris and the theatre world. Racine's early tragedy Les Amours d'Ovide (1661) has been lost. 

The Thebans, or The Enemy Brothers (1664) was staged by Moliére's company. The word "blood", mostly on a metaphoric level, appears more frequently than any other word in any of his other plays. "Let the mob love or loathe us at their choice; Blood sets us on the throne, not their blind voice," says Polynices, one of the characters. "Bloodf will exercise its wonted sway," prophecies Creon. Racine's first chef-d'oeuvre, Alexander the Great (1665), was performed by the rival company at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This work alienated him from Moliére, who never spoke to him again, but marked the beginning of his ruthless promoting of his own career and his artistic triumphs. Moliére never spoke to him again.

Following the success of his dramas, Racine challenged Corneille's position as the leading tragedian of the age. He sniped at Corneille in the prefaces to the printed editions of his plays, referring to "a certain malicious old poet". During the production of Andromaque (1667) for Moliére's theatre, the star actress Mlle. Duparc chose Racine and became his mistress. She died in 1688. In the 1680s Racine's mistress was the actress La Champmeslé, who was his leading lady from Berenice.

In the mid-1660's Racine made his break with the Jansenists. Among his following plays were Les Plaideurs (1668, The Litigants), Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673, Mithridates), Iphigénie (1674, Iphigenia), and Phèdre (1677, Phaedra), the last two being inspired by Euripides, whom Racine most admired. Of Racine's tragedies, only Bajazet had a contemporary setting; The Litigants, a comedy partly based on Aristophanes' Sphekes (The Wasps), was set in the 17th century. Phaedra, Racine's masterpiece, was his last for the professional theatre. Unfortunately, Cardinal Mazarin's niece Nicolas Pradon had written a play of the same nime, and it was praised by critics. Racine was a master of Alexandrine verse, but he sketched his plays first in prose and then turned it into verse, using conventional vocabulary, less than 2000 words.

The chief source for Andromaque was a passage from the third book of the Aeneid, but Racine made many changes. Andromache is the widow of Hector. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, has brought her captive from Troy. Another great woman character is Hermione, who has come to the court of Epirus to marry Pyrrhus. In one of the great scenes of the play, the desperate Hermione says to the king, who loves the unresponsive Andromaque: "I loved you faithless; had you been faithful, how much more could I have loved you? Even now, Hearing you speak the calm, cold words which kill my hopes, it may be that I love you still."

Phaedra was partly based on Euripides' Hippolytys. Phaedra loves her stepson, Hippolytys, and confesses her love to him when she wrongly assumes that her husband Theseus, the heroic King of Athens, is dead. "Shall Theseus' widow dare to love his son? No, such a monster is too vile to spare. Here is my heart. Your blade must pierce me there." Theseus returns home and hears from his wife's nurse that Hippolytus has attempted to seduce Phaedra. Hippolytus wants to seek his own heroism, telling his father: "Let me at long last show my courage." He loves the princess Aricia and protects her step-mother's honor. Theseus curses his son who is killed by Neptune's power. Phaedra confesses all and poisons herself - "Death dims my eyes, which soiled what they could see, Restoring to the light its purity."

"THÉSÉE: Ah! qu'est-ce que j'entends? Un traître, un téméraire
Préparait cet outrage á l'honneur de son père,
Avec quelle rigueur, destin, tu me poursuis:
Je ne sais où je vais, je ne sais où je suis.
O tendresse! ô bonte trop mal récompensée!
Projets audacieux! détestable pensée!

(from Phèdre, 1677)

At the age of thirty-three, Racine was elected to the Académie Française. After Phaedra was ridiculed in a sonnet, Racine decided to change his life. Never happy at the distress that his career caused his family, Racine cut all links with the commercial stage, and reconciled with the Jansenists at Port-Royal. He married a pious young woman, Catherine de Romanet; they had two sons and five daughters. Most of the children became nuns or priests. Racine's wife never went to theatre. It has been claimed that she never even read any of Racine's plays.

Racine remained in the country but also made short trips to Paris. He was appointed Royal Historiographer with Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711), a writer and critic. As royal historian, Racine accompanied the King on his military campaigns and recorded his exploits. He received a salary of 145,000 francs over a period of ten years. However, the King was not aware about the artistic significance of his favorite. When Boileau once remarked that Moliére was the greatest writer of the century, he replied: "But I never knew that."

Racine's last plays, Esther (1689), first performed by pupils of St. Cyr, and Athalie (1691), were commissioned by King Louis XIV's wife, Mme de Maintenon. Athalie, in which the heretical queen Athaliah is crushed by the unrelenting God of Israel, was imbued with Jansenist theology. To the end, Athaliah remains unrepentant and wins the sympathy of the audience. Voltaire called the tragedy "the work which closest approaches perfection by a mortal man". Esther was a great success but eventually Mme. de Maintenon banished plays from St. Cyr, her charitable foundation for young ladies. Racine died on April 21, 1699 from cancer of the liver, and was buried at Port-Royal. Later his remains were transferred to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris and reburied next to Pascal.

For further reading: Jean Racine by J. Lemaître (1908); Jean Racine by G. Truc (1926); La vie de Jean Racine by F. Mauriac (1928); Racine; L'homme et l'oeuvre by P. Moreau (1945); Jean Racine: A Critical Biography G. Brereton (1951); Vers le vrai Racine by R. Jasinski (1958); Le thème symbolique dans le thèâtre de Racine by M. Blom (1962-1965); On Racine by Roland Barthes (1964); The Art of Jean Racine by B. Weinberg (1963); Jean Racine: A Critical Biography by G. Brereton (1973); Racine's Theatre: The Politics of Love by William Cloonan (1978); Racine by B.J. Yarrow (1978); Dramatic Narrative: Racine's Recits by Nina C. Ekstein (1986); Racine: Berenice by James J. Supple (1987); Time and Space in Euripides and Racine: The Hippolytos of Euripides and Racine's Phedre by Mary Pittas-Herschbach (1990); Racine: A Theatrical Reading by David Maskell (1991); Racine: Phedre by E.D. James, G. Jondorf (1994); Jean Racine Revisited by Ronald W. Tobin (1999); Birth Marks: The Tragedy of Primogeniture in Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine by Richard E. Goodkin. (2000)

Selected works:

  • La Nymphe de la Seine, 1660 [The Nymph of the Seine]
  • Ode sur la convalescence du Roy, 1663
  • La renommée aux muses, 1663
  • La Thébaïde; ou, les Frères ennemis , 1664 (prod.)
    - [The Thebans, or The Enemy Brothers] / The Fatal Legacy (tr. 1723) / The Fratricides (translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent, in The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 1, 2010)
  • Alexandre le Grand, 1665 (prod.)
    - Alexander the Great (tr. 1714)
  • Andromaque, 1667 (prod.)
    - The Distressed Mother (translated by Ambrose Philips, 1808) / Andromaque (translated by F. M. Warren, 1903) / Andromache (translators: Eugene Fontaine, 1929; L. Abel, in The Genius of the French Theatre, 1961;  John Cairncross, in Andromache and Other Plays, 1963; Joachim Neugroschel, 1966; Richard Wilbur, 1982; R.C. Knight, in Four Greek Plays, 1982; Jean Korn, 1988; Geoffrey Alan Argent, in The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 1, 2003)
  • Les Plaideurs, 1668 (prod.)
    - The Litigants (tr. 1715; I. Browne, in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, Vol. 7, 1903-1904) / The Suitors (translators: Irving Browne, 1871; Richard Wilbur, 2001)
  • Britannicus, 1669 (prod.)
    - Britannicus (translators: F.M. Warren, 1903; John Cairncross, 1967; C.H. Sisson, 1987; Geoffrey Alan Argent, in The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 1, 2003; Timberlake Wertenbaker, 2011)
    - Britannicus (suom. Mauno Manninen, 1951)
  • Bérénice, 1670 (prod.)
    - Titus and Berenice (translated by Thomas Otway, 1977) / Berenice (translated by John Masefield, 1922; R. B. Boswell, in World Drama, Vol. 2, 1933; John Cairncross, 1967; Alan Hollinghurst, 2012)
  • Bajazet, 1672 (prod.)
    - The Sultaness (tr. 717) / Bajazet (translated by Alan Hollinghurst, 1991; Geoffrey Alan Argent, in The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 2, 2011)
  • Mithridate, 1673 (prod.)
    - Mithridates (translated by Howard Davis Spoerl, 1926)
  • Iphigénie, 1674 (prod.)
    - Achilles; or, Iphigenia in Aulis (tr. 1700) / The Victim (tr. 1714) / Iphigenia (translators: John Cairncross, 1963; William L. Crain, 1982;  R.C. Knight, in Four Greek Plays, 1982; Geoffrey Alan Argent, in The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 1, 2003)
  • Phèdre et Hippolyte, 1677 (prod.)
    - Phaedra and Hippolytus (tr. 1756) / Phaedra (translators: Robert Bruce Boswell, in The Harvard Classics, Vol. XXVI, Part 3, 1909-14; Agnes Tobin, 1958; Oreste F. Pucciani, 1959; Wesley Goddard, 1961; Margaret Rawlings, 1961; Wallace Fowlie, in Classical French Drama, 1962; John Cairncross, in Phaedra and Other Plays, 1963; Robert Lowell, 1963; Joachim Neugroschel, 1966;  R.C. Knight, in Four Greek Plays, 1982; C.H. Sisson, 1987; Edwin Morgan, 2000) / Phèdre: A Play (translated by Ted Hughes, 2000)
    - Phaidra (suom Eino Leino, 1907) / Faidra (suom. Aale Tynni; uusi p. 1986)
  • Œuvres, 1679 (2 vols.)
  • L'Idylle sur la Paix, 1685 (music by Lully)
  • Esther, 1689 (prod.)
    - Esther (tr. 1715; in Nine Classic French Plays, ed. by J. Seronde and H. Peyre, 1936)
  • Athalie, 1691 (prod.)
    - Athaliah (tr. 1722; translators: R.B. Boswell, in An Anthology of World Literature, 3rd. ed., 1951; John Cairncross, 1963;  R.C. Knight, in Four Greek Plays, 1982; C.H. Sisson, 1987; Geoffrey Alan Argent, in The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 4, 2013) / Athalie (translated by F.M. Warren, 1903; W. P. Thompson, 1966)
  • Abrégé de l'histoire de Port-Royal,, 1692
  • Les Cantiques spirituels, 1694
  • Campagne de Louis XIV, 1730 (with Boileau, as Éloige historiques du Roi, Louis XIV, 1784)
  • Œuvres, 1767 (3 vols.)
  • Œuvres, 1767 (7 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1796 (5 vols.)
  • Œuvres, 1801 (5 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1865-73 (9 vols., ed. by P. Mesnard)
  • The Dramatic Woks, 1890-1908 (2 vols., translated by R.B. Boswell)
  • Six Plays of Corneille and Racine, 1931 (ed. by Paul Landis)
  • The Best Plays of Racine, 1936 (translated by L. Lockert)
  • Mid-career Tragedies, 1938 (translated by L. Lockert)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1940-1952 (2 vols.)
  • Théâtre, 1944 (4 vols.)
  • Mid-career Tragedies, 1958 (translated by Lacy Lockert)
  • Five Plays, 1960
  • Œuvres complètes, 1960 (2 vols., ed. by Raymond Picard)
  • Three Plays, 1961 (translated by George Dillon)
  • Phaedra and Other Plays, 1963  (translated by J. Cairncross)
  • Andromache and Other Plays, 1967 (translated by J. Cairncross)
  • Complete Plays, 1967 (2 vols., translated by Samuel Solomon)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1980 (ed. by Jacques Morel and Alain Viala)
  • Théâtre Complet, 1980
  • Four Greek Plays: Andromache, Iphigenia, Phaedra, Athaliah, 1982 (translated by R.C. Knight)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1999- (edited by Georges Forestier) 
  • The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 1: Iphigenia, Andromache, Britannicus, 2003 (translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent) 
  • The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 1: The Fratricides, 2010 (translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent)  
  • The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 2: Bajazet, 2011 (translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent) 
  • Théâtre complet, 2010 (rev. ed., edited by Alain Viala)
  • The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 3: Iphigenia, 2011 (translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent) 
  • The Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Volume 4, Athaliah, 2013 (translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent) 

 


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