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Phèdre EN302: European Theatre. Racine’s life 1639: Born in La Ferté-Milon; orphaned at a young age and lives with his grandparents 1649: Racine’s grandmother.

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Presentation on theme: "Phèdre EN302: European Theatre. Racine’s life 1639: Born in La Ferté-Milon; orphaned at a young age and lives with his grandparents 1649: Racine’s grandmother."— Presentation transcript:

1 Phèdre EN302: European Theatre


3 Racine’s life 1639: Born in La Ferté-Milon; orphaned at a young age and lives with his grandparents 1649: Racine’s grandmother joins the Jansenist convent of Port- Royal-des-Champs upon the death of her husband. Racine educated at Port-Royal 1655-8. 1659: Racine begins his literary career in Paris 1664: Writes La Thébaïde for Molière’s theatre 1665-77: Writes a string of successful tragedies for performance both at court and at the Hôtel de Bourgogne 1677: Writes Phèdre (under the original title Phèdre et Hippolyte) and then retires from the ‘profane theatre’. Marries Catherine de Romanet, and is appointed historiographer to Louis XIV 1699: Dies and is buried (as stipulated in his will) at Port-Royal

4 Racine and the theatre ‘Racine is one of those great dramatic poets (Byron was another) who had no natural liking for the theatre. … He moved from public drama to private performance and then to silence.’ (Steiner 1980: 76) Nearly joined priesthood in 1661. Estranged himself from his Jansenist relatives and teachers upon entering the professional theatre. Self-consciously literary (rather than theatrical). Withdrew from the professional theatre altogether in 1677: Religious conversion? Racine would later claim (in 1698) that his aunt rescued him from fifteen years of ‘distractions and miseries’, a period of time which roughly corresponds with the length of his theatrical career. Social aspirations? Racine was named historiographer to the king (and remunerated very generously) in 1677.

5 Neo-classical tragedy Racine wrote almost exclusively within the genre of neo-classical tragedy. In his Preface to Phèdre, he described classical tragedy as ‘a school in which virtue was taught not less well than in the schools of the philosophers’: It would be greatly to be desired that modern writings were as sound and full of useful precepts as the works of these poets. This might perhaps provide a means of reconciling to tragedy a host of people famous for their piety and their doctrine who have recently condemned it and who would no doubt pass a more favourable judgement on it if writers were as keen to edify their spectators as to amuse them, thereby complying with the real purpose of tragedy. Racine’s view of tragedy is founded upon reason, decorum and moral utility.

6 Political context Foundation of the Académie française under Louis XIII in 1635: imposition of orthodoxy in literature and the arts. Key authors (including Pierre Corneille) worked under the direct supervision of Cardinal Richelieu. Louis XIV’s suppression of aristocratic dissent following the Fronde: ‘The vogue of sensibility and taste for lavish entertainment and spectacle were congenial to an autocratic regime which sought to encourage the creation of a culture of brilliance and prestige, and preferred to have the nobility harmlessly occupied at court rather than plotting in their domains.’ (James & Jorndorf 1994: 5) French cultural superiority: Louis XIV styled himself as a modern Alexander or Caesar, so Parisian cultural activity was to be commensurate with that of classical Athens and Rome.

7 Neo-classical poetics Lodovico Castelvetro’s Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata e sposta (Aristotle’s Poetics Vernacularized and Expounded), 1570: about 20 times the length of Aristotle’s incomplete Poetics. It was the main source for neo-classical ideas about the ‘three unities’: time, place, and action (Aristotle, in fact, made no mention of place at all). Castelvetro argued that the unities were necessary components of realism. French neo-classical dramatic theory: The Abbé d’Aubignac’s La Pratique du théâtre (1657) Corneille’s three Discours (1660) Debates surrounding morality, verisimilitude, and reason. Focus on establishing rules.

8 Previous versions of the play Euripides’ Hippolytus (429 BC) Story of Aphrodite (goddess of love) vs. Artemis (goddess of chastity and hunting) Hippolytus as protagonist who has offended Aphrodite Phaedra is ashamed of her feelings and determined to resist them Phaedra’s nurse declares her mistress’ feelings to Hippolytus Phaedra hangs herself halfway through the play, leaving a letter to incriminate Hippolytus Seneca’s Phaedra (c. AD 50) More focused on mortal passion than immortal conflict Phaedra is more wilfully lustful and tries to seduce Hippolytus She reveals her love herself, and also accuses Hippolytus herself (Racine borrows the plot element concerning Hippolyus’ sword from this play) Phaedra commits suicide after hearing of Hippolytus’ death Robert Garnier’s Hippolyte (1573) and later versions in the seventeenth century (see Short 1998: 24)

9 Racine’s changes Invention of Aricia: Hippolytus was dedicated to chastity in previous versions. Racine describes Hippolytus’ love as his ‘one weakness’. Expansion of the role of the nurse (named here as Oenone): ‘I felt that calumny was somewhat too low and foul to be put in the mouth of a princess whose sentiments were otherwise so noble and virtuous. This baseness seemed to me to be more appropriate to a nurse, who could well have more slave- like inclinations, and who nevertheless launches this false accusation only in order to save the life and honour of her mistress.’ (Preface to Phèdre)

10 Tragic protagonists Racine’s Preface to Iphigénie: ‘How could I possibly have sullied the stage with the horrible murder of so virtuous and lovable a person as Iphigenia had necessarily to be in this play?’ Racine replaced her with a figure who ‘deserves to be punished, without being, however, altogether unworthy of compassion’.

11 Phaedra as ‘coupable innocente’ The ‘coupable innocent’: ‘characters who feel themselves guilty when they are not, or whose responsibility for their actions is open to question.’ (James & Jorndorf 1994: 13) PHAEDRA. I know my baseness, and do not belong / To those bold wretches who with brazen front / Can revel in their crimes unblushingly. (p. 184) Racine considered Phaedra a character who possessed ‘all the qualities required by Aristotle in a tragic hero’: For Phaedra is neither entirely guilty nor altogether innocent. She is involved by her destiny, and by the anger of the gods, in an unlawful passion at which she is the very first to be horrified. She makes every effort to overcome it. Her crime, he concludes, ‘is a punishment of the gods rather than an urge flowing from her own will’ (Preface to Phèdre). Compare with characterisations in Euripides and Seneca?

12 Passion and reason Phaedra’s mother and father symbolise two different drives: the sexual (Pasiphaë’s passion for the Bull) and moral judgement (Minos). These conflicting drives are staged throughout the play: PHAEDRA. …reason reigns no longer over me… I have lost my self- dominion. (p. 180-1) James and Jorndorf discuss the play’s ‘sense of hopeless anguish’: If the gods are to be taken as symbolic of forces at work within human beings, then those forces must be seen as alien, as forces which possess and obsess, not as part of an integrated personality. Phèdre herself is not merely torn between passion and conscience, but harassed by them. (1994: 88)

13 Passion and reason Steiner on Phaedra’s passionate words when she learns she has a rival: The coming to Athens of the daughter of Minos has opened the gates of reason on to an alien and barbaric world. Now they are flung wide. By force of incantation, the maddened queen brings into the seventeenth-century playhouse presences begotten of chaos and ancient night. … Every touch adds to our awareness that the action has been invaded by elemental and daemonic presences. (1980: 92)

14 Theological ideas Jocasta in Racine’s La Thébaïde: ‘This is the justice of the mighty gods: / They lead us to the edge of the abyss; / They make us sin, but do not pardon us.’ Phaedra as both driven and judged by forces beyond her control: ‘Heaven lit in my heart an ill-omened fire’ (p. 213) Moral ambivalence over the gods’ justice: ‘Fear, my lord, fear lest the unbending heavens / Hate you enough to grant you your desire.’ (p. 207) Depiction of a cruel, pre-Christian universe? Cairncross argues that it was not necessary for Racine ‘to jettison everything that he had learned at Port Royal in order to achieve greatness in tragedy. On the contrary, the theory that man had small chance of salvation if unaided by divine grace was admirably suited to that art form’ (2004: 18).

15 Theological ideas Phaedra was described by the Jansenist theologian Arnauld as ‘one of the just to whom grace was not vouchsafed’ (Cairncross 2004: 23-4) Readings of the play as Jansenist: humans as fundamentally corrupt, and driven by forces beyond our control However, James and Jorndorf argue that Jansenist interpretations of the play raise difficulties: …the lines spoken by Oenone to Phèdre, which are cited in evidence: ‘Vous aimez. On ne peut vaincre sa destinee. / Par un charme fatal vous futes entrainee’ ( [You are in love. We cannot change our destiny. You were carried away by a fateful spell] express an unqualified fatalism and magical beliefs which are totally un-Christian. (1994: 85-6)

16 Space in Phèdre Setting: liminal, a space of transition Hippolytus is constantly trying to leave the stage (‘How his whole being hankered to be gone’, p. 180) Phaedra’s first entrance (she sits down) Phaedra is unable to leave the space (p. 155; ‘Even now I feel these very walls, these vaults, / Will soon give tongue and, with accusing voice, / Await my husband to reveal the truth.’ p. 184) Theseus at the end: ‘Let me flee, far from you and from these shores, / The bloody vision of my mangled son… Would I were in another universe!’ (p. 213)



19 Space and material conditions Visibility problems – sightlines, lights – lend themselves to verbal drama Candles and shadows Symbolism of light in the play: Sun as unrelenting, omniscient witness Phaedra as both afraid of and longing for light (pp. 151, 154): ‘You hate the daylight you came forth to see’ (p. 155) Light as unforgiving (p. 156)

20 Hippolytus PhaedraHippolytaMinotaur MinosPasiphaë Helios (Sun) AriadneTheseus Time in Phèdre BullAegeus

21 Time in Phèdre Back story: Ancestry Theseus and the Minotaur Theseus’ womanising past Phaedra seeing Hippolytus for the first time Theseus’ departure Phaedra’s pining Tension in time: awaiting revelations (p. 160)

22 Action in Phèdre Racine gave his approbation to ‘dramatic action’ which is ‘sustained only by the interests, feelings, and passions of the characters’ (Preface to Bérénice). He described Phèdre as ‘probably the clearest and most closely-knit play I have written’ (Preface to Phèdre) Structure: Exposition Slow teasing out of revelations Peripeteia (Theseus’ return) Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus share the stage just once (pp. 186-7), halfway through the play

23 Speech acts Rose describes the play as a ‘tragedy of language’ (2001: xxv) Speech acts: Before the play starts: Neptune’s promise to Theseus; Theseus’ decree regarding Aricia; Theseus’ and Phèdre’s marriage vows. During the play: confessions, news, declarations of love, commands, persuasion, the false accusation, the curse. The audience do not hear the play’s key speech act (the false accusation). Even the refusal to speak is an action (‘All I need is your silence to succeed’, p. 186)

24 Speech in Phèdre Formal, contained style Descriptions of elemental passions Images of uncontrolled momentum ‘All that happens, happens inside language.’ (Steiner 1980: 96) ‘Racine poured molten metal into his unbending forms. At every moment, one expects the structure to yield under stress, but it holds, and this expectation is itself conducive to excitement.’ (Steiner 1980: 80)

25 References Cairncross, John (2004) ‘Jean Racine’ in Racine, Jean, Iphigenia, Phaedra and Athaliah, London: Penguin Classics, pp. 11-27. Howarth, William D. (1995) ‘French Renaissance and Neo- Classical Theatre’ in John Russell Brown [ed.] The Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre, Oxford: OUP, pp. 220-51. James, Edward & Jondorf, Gillian (1994) Landmarks of World Literature: Racine: Phèdre, Cambridge: CUP. Rose, Julie (2001) ‘Introduction’ to Jean Racine, Phedra, Drama Classics, London: Nick Hern, pp. v-xxxiii Short, J. P. (1998) Racine: Phèdre; critical guides to French texts, London: Grant & Cutler. Steiner, George (1980) The Death of Tragedy, Oxford: OUP. Williford, Christa (2006) Playhouses of 17th-Century Paris,

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