'Jean Racine: Iphigenia, Phaedra and Athaliah'
By Jean Baptiste Racine (Author), John Cairncross (Author), E. F. Watling (Author)
This volume contains three of Racine's classical drama. Two 'Iphigenia' and 'Phaedra' are based on plays of Euripides. The third is based on a Biblical story.
'Iphigenia' relates to the conflict Agammemnon has over whether or not to meet the demands of the gods and sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, or by not doing so to prevent the Greek expedition from proceeding on its way to war with Troy. The outcome is an unusual one for Racine in that Iphigenia is spared, and the expedition nonetheless goes ahead.
'Phaedra' is Racine's best known play. It is based on an earlier version of the play by Euripides. It is written at a relatively late period in Racine's career when he was moving back toward Jansensim and a fully religious life. The play is considered the most perfect French example of a tragedy written according to the classic rules. The story is one of illicit passion and its price. One strange idea of Racine was that the 'gods' forced people to sin, and then punished them for this. This cruelty of the gods somehow suits the whole tenor of Racine's work which has a certain fierce kind of cruelty in it. Phaedra the second wife of the king Theseus falls passionately in love with Theseus' son Hippolytus. Hippolytus who supposedly hates woman is in fact secretly in love with Arcis. Upon receiving a message that Theseus has died Phaedra contain contain her passion and confesses her love to a horrified Hippolytus. Then it is revealed that the message of Theseus dead like Mark Twain's has been premature. Theseus returns and urged on by her wicked servant Oenone Phaedra indicates that Hippolytus has attempted to seduce her. Outraged Theseus orders that his son be executed. Phaedra upon learning this thinks to confess, but then learns that Hippolytus is not indifferent women as he has pretended to her but in fact loves Arcis. In a fit of jealousy she allows Theseus to carry out the execution. Upon learning of Hippolytus death, she commits suicide.
The virtous Phaedra who worked so hard to overcome her passion for Hippolytus has been defeated by that passion. The passion, the sinful nature of the human heart has ruthlessly brought to the tragic death of the innocence. This is the harsh and bleak world of Racine's tragedy, the cruel world in which sinner and innocent alike go to their doom.
In 'Athaliah' Racine's Jansenist religious sympathies come to the fore, though in contradiction with loyalty to the monarchy and Louis XIV who despised Jansenism. Athaliah is a ruling queen who despite her sympathetic character is eventually defeated by a cruel and inevitable fate.
As John Cairncross puts it in his excellent introduction to this play ..." Racine set out ostensibly to defend absolute monarchy by divine right and ended up by appeals to pity the poor that smack of eighteenth- century humanitarianism. ..There can be few more striking examples of an artist going beyond and indeed against the aims that he might be expected to follow. ..Racine was too rich and complex, too sensitive to the endless contradictions of life, not to reproduce these in his last play. It is a fitting conclusion to a series of works of genius that hold perpetual revelations to the attentive reader."
Jean Racine, baptismal name Jean-Baptiste Racine (22 December 1639 – 21 April 1699), was a French dramatist, one of the three great playwrights of 17th-century France (along with Molière and Corneille), and an important literary figure in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a tragedian, producing such "examples of neoclassical perfection" as Phèdre, Andromaque, and Athalie, although he did write one comedy, Les Plaideurs, and a muted tragedy, Esther, for the young.
Racine's plays displayed his mastery of the dodecasyllabic alexandrine; he is renowned for elegance, purity, speed, and fury, and for what Robert Lowell described as a "diamond-edge", and the "glory of its hard, electric rage". The linguistic effects of Racine's poetry are widely considered to be untranslatable, although many eminent poets have attempted to do so, including Lowell, Ted Hughes, and Derek Mahon into English, and Schiller into German. The latest attempt to translate Racine's plays into English earned a 2011 American Book Award for the poet Geoffrey Argent. Racine's dramaturgy is marked by his psychological insight, the prevailing passion of his characters, and the nakedness of both the plot and stage.
Note: 'The Great Books of the Western World' recommends Racine's 'Phaedra' and 'Athaliah'