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Jean Racine

Author(s): Régis Michaud

Source: The French Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jan., 1940), pp. 181-198
Published by: American Association of Teachers of French
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Accessed: 04-03-2017 23:27 UTC

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In his famous book Le Sidcle de Louis XIV, Voltair

hesitate to place that great king among the master-b
civilization, along with Pericles, Augustus and the Med
was enough of a philosopher and a man of the 18th c
know the faults and defects of the Sun King and
approve of many of his policies. Yet he justly recogn
the soul and inspirer of one of the greatest periods in
of France and of her civilization and culture. To a lar
the French classical order was the work of Louis XIV
deserved to have his name given to 17th century Fren
tion. The plenitude of classicism, however, was not o
duration. It lasted from the majority of Louis XIV
around 1685, when the absolute monarchy entered it
a quarter of a century in all. This was French classici
prime and the career of Racine coincides with it litera
other merits, Louis XIV showed a vivid sense of the gr
the State. "L'Etat c'est moi," said he, and nothing
enough for the glory of the State. He waged too many
he repented of it in his last years. Hie was intolerant
cal and religious dissenters, but all the time he had in

* Lecture delivered by the late author on December 18,

of a series of lectures on the age of Louis XIVth) at the Col
and Applied Arts, University of Illinois.


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unity and security of France. Louis XIV was a great ar

and his personal foibles, vices and defects must not
blind to his contributions to French civilization. With his sense
of grandeur, he always had before his eyes the examples of those
great pioneers of French institutions and culture, Francis I and
Richelieu, and he completed their work. French literature,
French art, the French language, as well as French etiquette and
refinement, owe largely to him their reputation and prestige, and,
even after his defeats, it is owing to him that French culture
became a standard culture in Europe. Louis XIV founded acade-
mies, schools of music, science and arts, and he built Versailles.
He pensioned savants, writers, and artists and took a personal
interest in their works. Without him Racine, Boileau, La Fon-
taine, Moliere, Lebrun, Lulli, would not have been exactly what
they were. Let us write all that down to his credit.

One of the chief aspects of the royal and classical pageant

was the stage, Comedy, Tragedy and the Opera, all matter-of-
course functions and institutions of court life and parts of the
royal setting. It is my special task today to speak to you of the
classical drama and of its foremost representative, Jean Racine.
French classical tragedy, like the royal order itself, was born of
a long confusion. France had three different dramatic systems,
the medieval, the classical, and, later on, the romantic. The first
was essentially popular and made a direct appeal to the masses
with the so-called mystery and passion-plays. It was a crude
stage and one that could hardly be called artistic. After provid-
ing thrills and edification to the masses, for at least two hundred
years, it broke down at the time of the Reformation. In 1548 an
ordinance of Francis I prohibited mystery plays. They survived
more or less in the French provinces, well until the beginning
of the 17th century, but were no longer adapted to the new
civilization. They proved inacceptable to the classicists and
Boileau gave them the last blow in his Art Podtique. At the close
of the 16th century the trust of mystery-plays, the Brotherhood
of Passion players, sold its equipment to the H6tel de Bourgogne
which provided a stage for the newly born regular drama. French
classical tragedy was born, in the middle of the 16th century,


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from translations, adaptations or imitations of Greek, Latin

Italian plays, given in the original or in French. Historian
the Erench stage agree on the chaotic and altogether undram
character of most of those productions. At about the time w
the Elizabethan drama was to bloom, it does not seem th
either in the environment or on the stage itself, there w
strong dramatic demand in France, anything similar to
mighty dramatic influx which goaded and inspired the g
Elizabethan playwrights, although France, at that time
pecially with the religious wars, went through many traged
French tragedy at its birth showed very little contact with
and had no popular appeal. It was and remained artificial
learned, the work of scholars and humanists more eager to
their models than to instill life in their productions. Renaiss
tragedy was much more oratorical and lyrical than dramatic
its audience was aristocratic and learned. It came right ou
the books of those theoricians who tried to pin the stage to A
totles' Poetics and to the rules of the three unities. Those e
tragedies, however, are of interest for the historians of the
sical drama who have been able to detect in them most of the
structures and devices used by classical tragedy itself, the five
acts, the unities, the alexandrines, mythology and ancient his-
tory, the monologues, the oratorical and semi-lyrical effects.
Yet the popular tradition had not been entirely obscured,
and the necessity to gratify the masses and to provide thrills ex-
plains the success, among others, of Alexandre Hardy with his
so-called tragi-comedies and pastoral-plays. As many as 800 plays
of that sort have been credited to Hardy. And there were Du
Ryer, Scudery and Rotrou among others. Up to the advent of
Corneille with Le Cid (1636) - and even Corneille was none
too regular in that play--the struggle continued between the
popular and the regular drama. How the latter finally won is a
long story, the story of social and intellectual advance. The
triumph of the regular tragedy marked the triumph of classicism
itself as well as that of the royal order. It coincided with the
absolute rule of Cardinal de Richelieu who interfered in person
in Le Cid's quarrel. It also marked the triumph of the learned
and the refined.


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Of Corneille himself I cannot here speak at leng

was, and not without effort and hesitations, who final
the French stage and brought it up to the new standa
neille at last was a genuine dramatist and his principa
as a playwright was action, action carried to the ex
heroism, action triumphant. One wonders how that sm
from Rouen, a very quiet and even timid man, could
self to that pitch of pathetic frenzy in his plays, abo
plays in all, besides several comedies, Le Cid, Horac
etc., all alive with battles, duels, challenges, heroic
heroic deeds and crucial climaxes, in a Spanish, Greek
setting, especially Roman. This quiet man could not he
the stage with atrocities, enhanced by high-soundi
drines. How Corneille liked to talk, to provoke, to
have the last word! But was he not a lawyer? His verb
mism has not been surpassed and he was a dogged ind
-a dangerous thing in his days - one who believed
worship, hero-worship and the worship of the will. Co
be called Nietzschean, and he filled the stage with s
and super-women. Down to his death at 78 in 1684, he
producing plays, when Racine had already left the
several years. He remained the idol of a clique led b
Sevign6 who insisted on shouting "Vive Corneille!" to
ears of Racine. No doubt but that many years of civil s
restlessness and violence of one of the most dramatic
French history freed themselves in Corneille's plays.
something of the Elizabethean in the old playwright w
against the rules and proprieties all his life. "I1 avait
tion sublime."

It was in 1667 that a twenty-six-year-old old poet, named

Jean Racine, stole from Corneille the mastery of the French
classical stage with his tragedy Andromaque. From then on, until
1667, Racine produced eight tragedies in all, to which were
added, later on, two biblical plays, eight plays in only ten years
that won him fame as the most accomplished representative of
the tragic art. Who was that man, Jean Racine, the author of
Andromaque, Iphige'nie, Britannicus, Bajazet, Mithridate, Phedre,


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Esther, Athalie? Some modern admirers of Racine tell us

this question is irrelevant, that Racine, the playwright,
nothing to do with the man Racine. In their eyes Racine wa
pure spirit, the spirit of classicism. He worked in the absol
and the eternal, with his eyes riveted on a standard of perf
tion obtained from his Greek models, along with a tragic un
standing of human destiny also derived from Greek sou
I regret that we cannot well retain this idealistic interpreta
today. We know Racine too well to do it and we cannot beli
that art, even classical art, can exist without the personal elem
There are too many things in Racine's plays and in his ca
that cannot be explained without the help of biographers, p
chologists and perhaps psycho-analysts. (Racine was one
younger than Louis XIV, and they made their glorious d
at about the same time.) Considering the paramount part w
women and love play in Racine's tragedy it is not indiffere
notice that he was a very sensitive child. He was only a
when both his mother and father died, and he was left to t
care of his grandmother and his aunt, both of them connec
with the famous Jansenist monastery of Port-Royal of whic
aunt, Sister Agnes, became the Abbess. Ensconced in the fo
of one of the loveliest valleys near Paris, under its old trees
with its running brooks, at the foot of shaded hills, Port-R
was an ideal and almost romantic spot for those who wante
nurse an inclination for prayer and solitude. Strong Christi
hearts beat behind its walls and Louis XIV had more difficu
in defeating the Jansenists than in quashing European coaliti
Indeed, he never beat them and there is no more dramatic
ample of the fight for freedom of conscience. Not only were
Port-Royalists, one of the toughest brands of uncompromis
Christians, but they were also very learned. Besides its figh
nuns, the Port-Royal valley had its hermits, a group of eld
gentlemen who renounced the world to concentrate in devo
and study. They had come there with strong convictions and
books of theology and controversy, an arsenal made up, in
ticular, of Saint Augustine's works with which to fight the
and the Jesuits. A place for prayer, abnegation and mira
Port-Royal was also an academy. As a diversion to their dev


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life the Port-Royal hermits opened a school where the

logic and the humanities. We owe Racine's Greek tr
his teacher, M. Lancelot, a consummate hellenist who
of the first Greek text books, and there was good M.
who nicknamed Jean "le petit Racine" and put him
of preventing the mice from nibbling at his grim bo
true that young Racine already knew some Greek
heart? We know for sure that he covered with notes h
the Greek tragics. The scenery was beautiful around Po
and Racine described it in very promising lyrics. Abo
although the young poet kept sighing to see Paris, th
stamp of Port-Royal was on him for the rest of his l
shall soon dramatically find out.
Religion, yes, predestination, sin, prayer, but R
twenty tried to forget all that and we see him soon liv
life in the capital, making friends with congenial com
like La Fontaine, and he will soon find Boileau, courtin
ses, going to the theaters, dreaming of glory, love and
In vain did his guardians try to make him don a casso
shipped him to an uncle in the South of France, in orde
the church. Jean preferred to flirt with pretty southern
he soon came back to Paris, to the great indignation of
Royalist masters and especially Sister Agnes, who took
Port-Royal did not like comedians and it cursed the st
It was one of the paradoxes and hypocrisies of that t
while the stage had become the favorite pastime of so
the court, public morals and the Church condemned i
dians were excommunicated ipso facto and they we
church burial. When Molibre died it was difficult to fin
to bless his grave in the dark. Many years afterward,
was still fighting to prevent as eminent an actress as
Lecouvreur, the Sarah Bernhardt of her times, fr
dumped into the "common ditch".
A bitter satirist and epigrammatist, young Racine
Port-Royal's admonitions and darted at his former mas
very nasty quibbles, when those good souls accused pla
of poisoning souls. Some ten or fifteen years later he b
gretted his conduct.


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Here was Racine knocking at the door of fame and of th

French stage. He was a poet but also a very practical yo
man and, at twenty, he was already on the list of royal pens
thanks to some very well-turned French compliments in ve
to the praise of the King. He soon had two plays produce
the stage, one by Molibre's troop, but Moliere and he pa
friends when, none too delicately, Racine stole from Molier
pretty actress, Mlle Champmesl6, who became his mistress.
Th6baide and Alexandre failed but Racine took a brilliant re-
venge with Andromaque. He was only twenty-six.

Up to then love had triumphed on the French stage, as well

as in poetry and the novel, among flowery speeches and more
or less sincere sighs, as a form of euphuism, straight out of the
pr6cieux drawing-rooms. Even Corneille had dealt with love
awkwardly and assigned to it a secondary place in his dramas.
Through lack of personal experience, as it seems, the author of
Le Cid knew only "amour de tete", love which comes more from
the head than from the heart. Womanly women are scarce in
his plays. In Andromaque there were Orestes and Hermione, two
furies, straight out of the nightmares of the Greek legend, and
there were jealously, blood and tears, passion drawn from life.
At one stroke Jean Racine was in full command of his major
themes. Like those rocks polished through long rolling in the sea,
Racine's tragedies have lost most of their ferocity in the class-
rooms. Ferocity comes out when one returns to them after many
years. Since the time, years and years ago, when one learned
them by heart at college, one has read Gide, Freud, and Marcel
Proust. Reading Racine is no longer a task and one is amazed at
the modernity of his themes - mysterious themes much more in-
volved and much deeper than one thought at first. They were
probably rooted in the innermost recesses of Racine's sensitivity.
Let us leave to Freud the libido, the Oedipus and the mother-
complex. Yet those Racinian themes provide food for thought.
I cannot discuss them here, I simply list some of the most im-
portant. Here they are: the theme of the dominating and tyran-
nic mother, Clytemmestre, Agrippine, Athalie; the theme of
sacrificed children and orphans, Astyanax, Britannicus, Iphigenie,


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Joas; the theme of desecrated motherhood, Androm

theme of brotherly hatred, La Th6baide, Britannicus, M
the theme of incest, Phedre; the theme of rivalry betwe
and son, Mithridate, or hatred between mother and so
. . . and there are others. From what dark caves did
monsters come out? Are all those erotic themes bookish or were
they related, more or less consciously, to Jean Racine's secret
life? What is the significance of all of them? It is here that the
idealism of some critics appears, indeed, very shallow and that
we need, perhaps, to call in the psycho-analysts. In 1680, when
Racine had already renounced the stage for three years and
was still in favor with the king, a sensational case was still being
cleared by Louis XIV's detectives. A woman, La Voisin, had been
arrested for poisoning several persons, and, among the warrants,
Secretary of State Colbert announced that he was going to sign
one for the arrest of "le Sieur Racine", accused of no less a crime
than abortion practiced on the person of actress Du Parc who
died under mysterious circumstances. . . . All this, three years
only after Racine dramatized on the stage the criminal passions
and the remorses of Phedre --three years before he left the
stage in a hurry at only thirty-six, and, as it seems, in complete
fright, with the intention of entering a monastery. Of this more
later. Indeed, Racine's knowledge of love and passion did not
come to him only through his Greek books.
When Racine took possession of the French stage in 1667,
Corneille was old and wrote very bad plays. French society was
no longer what it used to be in the days of Le Cid, thirty years
earlier. A new spirit, a new taste and order prevailed. Richelieu
had brought to an end civil wars, plots, intrigues, duels and
heroic deeds. Rugged individualism was kept rampant. Mal-
herbe, the pr6cieux salons and Descartes had done their work.
Civil life had been disciplined, room had been made for the re-
fined, and court-life began to rule. Decorum, 6tiquette, disci-
pline and reason were enforced. The stage also was tamed and
its audience was now composed of gentlemen and ladies bent
on good manners, intellectual refinement and learning, --the
age of reason in literature. The roughest sides of human nature
no longer concerned the 6lite that read L'Astree and Mile de

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Scuddry's novels. The members of the new smart set were w

educated and learned persons, the women as well as the m
They knew Greek and Latin, Spanish and Italian and they co
discuss and criticize books. Besides books, love was their chie
topic for conversation and the discussion of human conduct
one of their favorite pastimes. This was a time for moralist
word which, in French, means observers and analysts of hum
conduct. Reason was henceforth the standard and even love was
subjected to it.
How could tragedy, as Racine conceived it, appeal to those
sedate and sensible persons, when everything was quiet in pri-
vate as well as in public life? What need had they of a Racine
and of his Orestes, Nero, Roxane, Phedre or Mithridates? What
need had they of terror and pity, jealousy, poison and suicides on
the stage? Or is it that we exaggerate the decorum and refine-
ment of the classical period? Was not refinement purely formal
and used as a veil drawn on a life much less conventional in
reality than it seemed? And was it not to something much less
unconventional, under the veil, that Racine appealed, while he
seemed to submit himself to the conventions? From Andromaque
and Britannicus to Phedre and Athalie, what a procession of luna-
tics, perverts and paranoiacs on the stage, all drawn to their death
by Fate and the curse in their blue blood! How did those bloody
stories echo in the hearts of those gentlemen and ladies under
their wigs, ruffles and laces? Racine's tragedies are sufficient
proofs that the classical age had its dark and secret sides and
that in its own way, it was perhaps more romantic than we
thought. The artificialities will come later, but with Racine the
distance is far smaller between classicism and romanticism than
it will be one hundred years later. There is an easy transition
from Racine to Rousseau.
The ferocity of Racine's tragedies is undeniable, but it has
a counter-part in the amazing dexterity with which he adapted
himself to the rules and standards of his times. Yes, violence,
ferocity, death on all sides, but hardly a drop of blood was shed
on the stage. Even those characters who were expected to die a
frantic death did it without ado, with hardly a wrinkle of their
court custumes. Racine's ferocity-as befits the classical stage-


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is a ferocity without realism. The pathos in his plays is no

tended for the eyes. It is based on the reactions of the vic
,on their response to the challenge of Fate and to the clima
which they find themselves. Tragedy in Racine is not sho
is told and sung. He makes almost no display of physica
The pathos results from the way characters feel about thei
fortunes, from the way they react to them and it is this re
which is intended to thrill the audience along with the int
of passions. What we meet in his plays are people in the g
deadly conflicts at the breaking point, people undergoing
rible mental tortures and emotional third degrees which t
no longer control. They come on the stage to tell us all abo
to tell their friends or their enemies, and to tell themselve
stage where internal action counts little, the so-called conf
have been especially and very cleverly invented to make p
talk and vent their feelings since it is the only way for th
be dramatic. Some of them do it by raving aloud, like Ore
by engaging in a fearful duel and challenge of words, like
temnestra, Agrippine or Athalie, in the course of appar
sedate conversations, like Andromaque or Ber6nice, or thr
heart-rending ultimatums like Roxane or through pathetic
quies like Phedre. Thus all their private griefs are filtered
to say, and sublimated through speeches, harmonious spee
dialogues, monologues, narratives, curses, or prayers. How
Racine knew how to keep an audience panting, just by list
to those characters with Greek or Roman names, as the
bare their bleeding hearts, while Fate pushed them relentl
to their death! How well he knew the way to keep his aud
in suspense while death lurked behind the door and de
hovered over them for five acts, harmoniously progressing
exposition to d6nouementl
This fine indifference to realism explains Racine's attit
toward the rules of the classical drama, as already enforce
the French stage. At the time when the realistic system pre
it was easy to call Racine's tragedies conventional, for la
local color and appropriate historical setting. For the last q
ter of a century our ideas have changed on this subject, an
are accustomed today to the symbolic or synthetic se


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Theatrical audiences show more imagination, and we can bett

understand and appreciate the classical system. The classi
stage was beautifully anachronistic and it was so by choice a
not by ignorance. The classics did not ignore local color, as w
can see from the 17th century paintings (those of Poussin, Cla
Lorrain and Lebrun for instance) but, on the stage, they ma
a compromise of ancient and modern costume. For Greek
Roman plays they used what they called "habit a la roma
and for a Turkish play like Bajazet, they had the "habit
turque". Racine's tragedies, in what concerns women's pa
were acted in full court dresses, no bare arms, no flying tuni
Actresses made themselves as beautiful, imposing, decorative
expensive as possible and Andromaque, Clytemnestre or Phed
did not forget to carry their fans, their embroidered handk
chiefs (a very useful contrivance for tears) and sometimes a l
baton, as a symbol of their majesty. The men wore the "hab
la romaine", a curious blend of the antique and the modern c
tume. Even in the 18th century, as local color invaded the st
more and more, actors showed themselves very reluctant to g
up entirely their modern attire. The Roman costume included
full Roman equipment, breast-plate and all, but, in place of
helmet, or under it, they insisted on keeping the classical w
(as Louis XIV himself did in his statues and in real life, when
donned a Roman costume in the court carousels). Besides, act
wore gloves and neckbands. In the 18th century, when they
peared bareheaded, they still came on the stage with their w
in hand. The truth of human passions was what Racine ai
at and you did not need, as he thought, a Greek peplum o
Roman toga to love, to hate or to be jealous. Phedre, as playe
in conventional court dress by Mlle Champmesl6, was not les
herself than Phedre played in the original Greek costume, let
say, by Sarah Bernhardt. We might indeed say that Raci
tragedies could just as well have been played in the nude.
classical costume was simply and candidly adapated to the cla
sical setting.
That setting was just as beautifully conventional as the cos-
tumes. It could not be archeological. It was princely, decorative
and architectural. With the rules of the unities of time and place,


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it was easy to do away with realistic scenery. The play t

in only one town, or, more usually with Racine, in only
or gallery of only one palace where the actors conve
met. In his stage directions, Racine was very careful to
exact name of the location where action really took
left to the imagination of the audience the care to
name to the conventional setting before their eyes. It w
that the setting was grand and decorative, with heavy
rich hangings, a throne, the receding prospect of a fin
nade. Sometimes, when the plays were given, for in
Versailles, the setting was adapted to the natural scene
stretching vistas of trees, columns, vases and statues,
architectural setting. The 17th century did not ign
elaborate and clever devices, wings, machines and all, b
were kept for the opera. Nothing, in the minds of the
must divert attention from the tragic action itself. So
torians have pretended that this lack of proper local colo
a dearth of imagination. But did it not require just as
perhaps more imagination, to see Greece and Rome in
parlor or in a Versailles alley, than it did to accept the
"simultaneous setting" of the old-fashioned stage wi
places simultaneously painted on the wings and with th
moving from one to the other?
Concerning time and place, as enforced by the fam
of unities, Corneille had already declared that time
were irrelevant on the stage and that the first duty of t
tist was to cheat the spectators. He insisted that nobody
of time and place, except, perhaps, Aristotle and th
Racine did not even need to cheat his audience in this
The very nature of his plays prevented him from worry
time and space. What had they to do with his purely m
psychological tragedies? Selecting very cleverly, as he
dramas on the verge of a climax, time and space did no
Twenty-four or even twelve hours were more than en
him to kill his people. The time in Racine's plays is not
time, not the time counted by the hands of the clock,
time lived or suffered within every second, minute
Racinian time is pure duration. Those of you who are a


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with M. Bergson's philosophy or with Marcel Proust's "A

cherche du temps perdu" will understand Racine ver
Time on the Racinian stage is counted by heart beats. Th
no time for love and passion, there is only intensity. Cri
us that, while Corneille had never enough time to fill th
with as many events and happenings as he could, Rac
the contrary, had no difficulty in piling into his plays
moral or psychological problems as he wanted. I am n
tirely of the same opinion with those critics. If we used
ometer we would see that Racine's characters live too fast. One
wishes, sometimes, that their creator had given them some
breathing spell. Even loving, jealous or hainous persons must
rest, now and then, and the results of their woes and wishes
cannot materialize on the spot. In some of Racine's plays, in
Britannicus, Bajazet or Mithridate, for instance, things move so
fast that one cannot believe them. There is a terrible cascade of
climaxes. Everybody seems to be late in catching the train, the
train of despair, doom and death. But, here again, Racine relied
on his audience against the rules. He sinned against them, not by
stretching time unduly, but by simply ignoring it, and what does
it matter after all? Racine's plays are masterpieces of dramatic

Yet, when all is told, Racine's tragedies do not lack local

color and they are rich in atmosphere. Racine was one of the
best aware and most suggestive historians of his times. Despite
his conventional settings and costumes, his materials and charac-
ters were faithfully taken from the ancient legend and history,
as he knew them. They were all carefully authenticated by him.
Reads his prefaces. Everything and everybody are there certi-
fied, with the ancient historians in hand. Racine quotes his
sources and compares his characters with his models. He does
not make any changes without proper reference and discussion.
Let me say that he painted from life. For his subjects and at-
mosphere he went back to some of the most primitive and weird
legends, to those of Argos, Troy, Mycenae, and Crete. He had
not read Schliemann nor the modern archeologists, but already
walked in their tracks. Read Iphigenie or Phedre. Here are Cly-


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temnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes, Theseus, Pasipha

Minotaur alive. Racine was no Victor Hugo, but man
verses are truly evocative. Roxane, in Bajazet, is an
and most cruel Turkish Sultana. Nero is true Nero. In his biblical
plays, Esther and Athalie, the biblical color is faithfully rendered
and Athalie, in particular, is a true epic pageant. If the 17th
century audience lacked historical knowledge to fully enjoy
Racine's plays, it only depends on us today to feel and enjoy
their implications.
The lust for power was only second in Racine's plays to
the lust for passion and his tragedies contain a great deal of
politics. Not in vain had Racine conversed with historians like
Tacitus and Suetonius, Tacitus in particular. Racine had his
secret thoughts and he seems to have known more than he told
us on politics, and he told us a great deal. All his characters are
kings, queens, princes and princesses and their individuality is
tied to some peoples and nations. All his plays are more or less
political plays, even those where love rules paramount. Several
of them have history for their principal background, like Britan-
nicus, Mithridate, and Athalie. In every one of them, there is
much to be read between the lines, and they contain bold allu-
sions to 17th century events. We are told that when he saw
Berenice, Louis XIV could easily recognize himself and his love
for Mazarin's niece, Marie Mancini, whom he loved but could
not marry for reasons of state. In Esther there are some transpa-
rent allusions to Mme de Maintenon and Mme de Montespan.
Esther and Athalie, which Racine wrote on Mme de Maintenon's
order, contain allusions to the Great King himself and his ene-
mies, the Huguenots, and also, as it seems, the Jansenists. These
plays were written just after the repeal of the edict of Nantes
and at the climax of the Jansenist persecution. In many passages,
Racine used the tragic mask to teach monarchs their lessons,
while at some other time, on the contrary, he would court and
flatter the king. Politics under a veil, this was the only way to
deal with it in those days. The very year of Racine's death Bishop
F6nelon published his allegorical novel, Teldmaque, for the in-
struction of Louis XIV's grandson, and future heir to the throne,
the Duke of Burgundy. A perfect Hellenist like Racine, although


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not quite as good a courtier, Fenelon also used his writing

teach kings their lessons and, like Racine, he died in the
favor of Louis XIV.

This takes us back to the second phase in Racine's career

and dramatic production, when he left the stage after Phddre in
1677. He was only thirty-six and had twenty-two years more to
live. Why did he retire? The reasons are obvious. There was
first his very vulnerable sensitiveness. Dramatic as well as lit-
erary criticism, in general, was rather ferocious in his days. For
every play that Racine produced, he met with rivals whose jeal-
ousy, supported by Corneille's friends, went to the limits of
abuse. Almost every one of his plays was duplicated on the stage
by parodists. Matching playwrights against each other was then
great sport, and as high a royal princess as Henriette d'Angle-
terre enjoyed the game when she pitted Corneille against Racine
in the writing of a play on the same subject. (Tite et Berenice.)
The campaign against Phddre was simply odious and Racine
resented it to the quick. But the true reasons for his withdrawal
from the stage must, very likely, be found much deeper, in the
very recesses and secrets of Racine's life, in what we may well
call his Jansenist heredity. Yes, the stamp of Port-Royal was on
him. It had been in him all through his stage career, without
perhaps himself knowing it. The pronunciamentos of his former
masters against the stage were still present to his mind and, most
of all, he had never succeeded in unifying his double life. How
faithfully had he portrayed the shady sides of life on the stage,
consorting meanwhile with courtiers, comedians and actresses,
all sinners in Port-Royal's eyes. How fondly had he hugged to
his heart the forbidden joys of love. His sins had not been all
platonic. There were his mysterious love affairs just about to
be investigated by the royal police. In 1677 Racine was fright-
ened at his own shadow. He felt that, after all, those mad men
and women in his plays were Racine himself in disguise. Re-
pentance, remorse, the memories of Port-Royal, and a sordid fear
of the police, combined to make him seek obscurity for the rest
of his life. If, at least, his favor with the king could endure!
But those were hard days for the Port-Royalists, and Racine, in


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his heart, had remained one of them. He never could

royal protector about it. Racine, in 1667, was scare
thought of entering a monastery to do penance. The m
had translated so beautifully the hymns of the Chu
have sung them beautifully at chapel. Racine did not en
convent, but at the last moment, he chose another form
ance and he married a woman who had never read or even seen
his plays and never cared. She gave him seven children, two sons
and five daughters, several of whom became nuns. In the new
household nothing was left of the former Racine. The stage was
so well and so entirely forgotten that Racine himself turned
against it, called it a niaiserie and instructed his children never
to set foot in that abode of peridition, the theatre. Racine had
turned into a bourgeois, a very scared man whose only ambition
was to make himself completely ignored. He was well-to-do, he
had his pensions from the king, who appointed him his historiog-
rapher along with his friend Boileau. Racine followed the army
on horse-back, was a very bad horseman and made the king
laugh. He came back to the stage when Mme de Maintenon
asked him to write plays for her young school girls at Saint-Cyr.
The young ladies played Esther so well that the court, then
turned devout, complained and Athalie was given quite inform-
ally in Mme de Maintenon's chambers. We are told that the king
himself played usher and checked with his cane the audience at
the door. What a grand play, Athalie, what an epic pageant for
those who had imagination enough to see the Temple of Jeru-
salem in Mme de Maintenon's ascetic apartment. What beautiful
lyrics sung to Moreau's music and again, what a savage and fero-
cious play, under the superficial decorum. And thus the years went
by in Racine's new and quiet life, a good husband and father,
somewhat addicted to scolding and preaching, a rich bourgeois
with a carrosse, still a faithful courtier. Even a king must rest, and
Racine was often called to Versailles to entertain his king. He
was a fine reader and he read to the king in the day-time and at
night also, when Louis XIV had insomnia. Racine slept in the royal
ante-chamber until the king called. What a scene if we use our
imagination! One day (was it sincerity or malice?) the mor-
ganatic queen of France, Mme de Maintenon, had a bright idea.


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She had been discussing the conditions of the French lo

classes with Racine, as more and more people began to d
the twilight of Louis XIV's reign. Racine had spoken so
so convincingly, that Mme de Maintenon asked him to put d
in writing what he had felt and expressed so well about
miseries of the common people, and Racine did it. The king
what Racine wrote and curtly commented: "Since he is a gr
poet, does he also take himself for a great statesman?" Raci
as a socialist, think of that! This was the beginning of the
but it was not all and Racine's Jansenist convictions had prob
a great deal to do with his disgrace. All those last years unt
died in 1699 Racine had carefully kept in a safe, in his bedro
the manuscript of his History of Port-Royal, the last token w
he entrusted to a friend at his death-bed. In his will he asked
that his body be taken to the Port-Royal cemetery to rest beside
his masters, just eleven years before the ashes of the solitaires
were thrown to the wind on royal order. But let us drop the

Architecture, music, painting, the classical drama, as repre-

sented by Racine, fit very well into the 17th century pageant
outlined in this series of lectures. Architecture, yes. With its
harmonious proportions and progressions, a tragedy by Racine
is like a monument in antique style, born on the pillars of the
five acts logically arranged with introduction, climax and denoue-
ment and the careful preparations and transitions between the
acts. Racine's plays are masterpieces of structural unity and sim-
plicity, with few incidents and few characters, sometimes a
quartet or a quintet, sometimes only a trio. In Bir"nice he com-
posed a drama with only two leading characters and out of only
three words of a Latin historian: "Invitus invitam dimisit." One
may well speak also of his plays as paintings on account of their
discreet but none the less suggestive vistas of land and sea and
the historical landscape. With Racine we are never very far
from Claude Lorrain and Poussin, their stately or idyllic groups
in ancient costumes around some ancient monument and their
temples by the sea, at dawn or sunset. As to music, Racine is
well in tune with Lulli, Rameau and, especially, Gluck. Racine's


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verse is true music and he is one of the most harmonious French

poets. Marcel Proust has helped us to better appreciate his
psychology and our so-called "pure" poets, from Baudelaire to
Paul Valery, have trained our ears to hear the music of his verse.
They all held him in high esteem. For what concerns the French
language in general, we consider Racine's speech as one of the
purest. It is the golden rule and standard of French. If this were
not evident to the ear, we might as well accept on this point the
judgment of one of his most admiring disciples and imitators,
Anatole France, who modeled so well and so fondly his style
on Racine, that a scholar has recently filled a volume with exam-
ples of his imitations. Francian honey was made of two thirds
flowers and flavors culled in Racine's garden.

The French classical drama lasted as long as the French

absolute monarchy, and it was still in favor with many when the
romantic revolution broke out. In reality it died with Jean Racine
and the passing away of his unique personality, after exhausting
its best resources. Voltaire tried in vain, with the help of Shake-
speare, to instill into it a new life with local color and philosophi-
cal propaganda, but tragedy was dead and survived only as a
system. Let us not bury Corneille and Racine under the arti-
ficialities of their successors. Classical tragedy, in the 17th cen-
tury, marked one of the highest moments in the history of the
stage and Racine's plays must be considered as one of the most
refined products of French art and civilization under "e Grand
Roi". They can still be for us, today, a source of rare intellectual
and artistic enjoyment.


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