Sunday, March 10, 2013

Thoughts on Racine

            In the 1660s and 1670s, Jean Racine wrote a series of plays, mostly on classical subjects, that included such admired works as Andromache, Britannicus, and Iphigenie. Along the way, however, he also made many enemies in the theatre. Moliere's company produced (at a loss) Racine's first two plays to be performed. Racine repaid the favor by jumping ship and allowing the Hotel de Bourgogne to produce the second play only days after its premiere. Even worse, Racine had fallen in love with the leading tragic actress in Moliere's company, Therese du Parc, a stunning woman Corneille himself had once courted. Racine not only won her heart, but convinced her to join the rival company at the Hotel de Bourgogne as well. In 1667, du Parc originated the title role in Andromache at the Hotel de Bourgogne. The next year, she was dead, and her mother later accused Racine of poisoning the actress.

            By the time Racine wrote his masterpiece, Phedre, in 1677, he had become a very controversial figure. He wrote the play for his new mistress, Marie Champmesle, whom he had met when she played the lesser role of Hermione opposite du Parc in Andromache. Champmesle was frequently praised for her naturalistic acting, and the title role in Phedre provided her with a perfect opportunity to display her skill.

            Sparse and focused rather than grand and sprawling like the plays of Corneille, Phedre is everything that The Cid is not. Racine boiled down Euripides' play Hippolytus to its essence and gave each tautly written line dramatic force. In contrast to the encyclopedic vocabulary of Shakespeare, Racine used a mere 4,000 French words in his plays, and the language of Phedre is particularly restricted. While Corneille chafed under neoclassical restrictions, Racine triumphs in minimalism.

            Though Phedre was undoubtedly an artistic triumph, it was a commercial disaster. Racine had made too many enemies, and it would now come back to haunt him. His previous play, Iphigenie, had been threatened when a rival company produced a play on the same subject to directly compete against the Hotel de Bourgogne. Racine plotted to have the rival performance postponed, but the next time he would not be so lucky.

            Two years prior to Phedre, Racine might have been involved in getting a play by rival dramatist Jacques Pradon pulled from its run in spite of a series of successful performances. Even if Racine was innocent of this particular slight, Pradon had a grudge, and so did much of the rest of the theatre community in Paris. Pradon wrote a rival play called Phedre and Hippolyte. Though Pradon's play is virtually forgotten now, it drew crowds of enthusiastic admirers, while Racine's play opened to tepid applause from houses with suspiciously empty seats.

            Racine never again wrote a play for the public stage. An orphan, he had been raised in a religious institution run by an ultra-conservative sect known as the Jansenists, who were deemed heretics by mainstream Catholics. After giving up the stage, he married a strict Jansenist wife who had allegedly never read a word of his plays.

            At the request of the Marquise de Maintenon, who had secretly become Louis XIV's second wife, Racine wrote two religious dramas to be performed by students at a school for girls the marquise had established in 1684. The plays, Esther and Athalie, are both based on Biblical subjects, and while they have their admirers, most critics find them timid and uninteresting when compared to Phedre.