Imágenes de página
PDF

by the troupe of Molière in the theater of the Palais-Royal. But Racine, dissatisfied, as he claimed, with his friend's presentation, soon transferred the piece to Molière's bitter rivals, the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. No warning was given; the tragedy appeared at the two theaters on the same evening. It was an act contrary to all the professional ethics of the period, and furthermore aggravated by the fact that Racine was under considerable obligations to Molière for the presentation, and perhaps for assistance in the composition, of his first acted tragedy, "La Thébaïde." Racine lost thereby Molière's friendship, which he never regained. With the "Alexandre," too, he began another rivalry which was to continue for many years. Racine is said to have taken his tragedy to Corneille and asked for his advice. While the poet of the " Cid " recognized in the beginner some poetic talent, he advised him to exercise it along other lines of poetic composition. Henceforth Racine's attitude towards Corneille resembles a little too much that of a young prima donna toward an aging rival.

During all this time Racine was leading a life quite at variance with his early training; reproofs and exhortations from his relatives and former masters rained down upon him. The following extract from a letter written in 1663 by his aunt Agnès suggests the tone: "J'ai donc appris avec douleur que vous fréquentiez plus que jamais des gens (de théâtre) dont le nom est abominable à toutes personnes qui ont tant soit peu de piété, et avec raison, puisqu'on leur interdit l'entrée de l'église j et la communion des fidèles même à la mort, à moins qu'ils ne se reconnaissent.1 Jugez donc, mon cher neveu, dans quel état je puis être, puisque vous n'ignorez pas la tendresse que j'ai toujours eue pour vous, et que je n'ai jamais rien désiré sinon que vous fussiez tout à Dieu dans quelque emploi honnête. Je

1 Such in fact was the attitude of the church towards actors at this period and for a considerable time afterward.

vous conjure donc, mon cher neveu, d'avoir pitié de votre âme, et de rentrer dans votre cœur, pour y considérer sérieusement dans quel abîme vous vous êtes jeté. Je souhaite que ce qu'on m'a dit ne soit pas vrai; mais si vous êtes assez malheureux pour n'avoir pas rompu un commerce qui vous déshonore devant Dieu et devant les hommes, vous ne devez pas penser à nous venir voir; car vous savez bien que je ne pourrais pas vous parler, vous sachant dans un état si déplorable et si contraire au christianisme." Though stung to the quick by this sort of excommunication on the part of those whom, in his heart, he loved and respected the most, the poet not only continued this " intercourse which dishonored him before God and men" but broke into open rebellion. Shortly after the representation of "Alexandre " a religious controversy arose between Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin and Nicole, one of Racine's former masters at Port-Royal. In the course of it, Nicole let fall this remark: "Un faiseur de romans et un poète de théâtre est un empoisonneur public, non des corps, mais des âmes des fidèles." Racine chose to see in these words an allusion to himself, and published a letter in which, with brilliant wit and biting sarcasm, he made sport of Port-Royal, of its customs, its men and women, not sparing even those who were dead or who had watched over him with the most affectionate care. His temperament was at war with his heart.

Amid this turmoil " Andromaque," Racine's first great tragedy, was produced. It was played on the seventeenth of November, 1667, in the queen's apartments, before a " quantité de seigneurs et dames de la cour." Soon afterward, at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, it created a great sensation: " cette tragédie," says a contemporary, "fit le même bruit à peu près que le Cid lorsqu'il fut représenté."

The same year, Nicole had a new edition of his controversial writings printed, and included in his preface two anonymous replies to Racine's letter. The poet's resentment flamed up anew in another letter, even more bitter than the first. He showed it to Boileau, who gave him a mark of true friendship in saying "Ces œuvres font honneur à votre esprit, mais elles n'en font pas à votre cœur." The letter was withheld from publication. But Racine, highly elated over his success as a dramatist, was quite in the mood to satirize something; a legitimate subject very soon presented itself. He had finally received his church benefice, but it had been contested. The matter came before the courts and the poet lost his case. Here was both the motive and the suggestion for a satire on the legal procedure of the period. Racine and his friends formed a sort of club which met informally in the cafés and sometimes in Boileau's apartments: these friends collaborated. Boileau had been witness of a ludicrous scene before his brother, who was a court clerk; a parliamentary judge assisted with the law jargon of the Palais de Justice; Furetière offered some piquant details; the " Wasps" of Aristophanes furnished a model. The result was the satirical farce " Les Plaideurs," played in 1668, with indifferent success at first, although Molière, with characteristic fairness, publicly recognized its merit. The piece finally found favor through the influence of the king. Here is the report of a contemporary, which is suggestive of the literary conditions of the time: "Un mois après, les comédiens étant à la cour, et ne sachant quelle petite pièce donner à la suite d'une tragédie, risquèrent les Plaideurs. Le feu Roi, qui était très-sérieux, en fut frappé et y fit même de grands éclats de rire; et toute la cour qui juge ordinairement mieux que la ville, n'eut pas besoin de complaisance pour l'imiter. Les comédiens, partis de Saint-Germain dans trois carrosses à onze heures du soir, allèrent porter cette bonne nouvelle à Racine."

"Les Plaideurs" is Racine's sole effort in comedy. It was merely an incident in his career to which he attached little importance, if we may believe his preface: "je n'attends pas un grand honneur d'avoir assez longtemps réjoui le monde."

"Andromaque" offered something new in French tragedy: naturally it aroused a great deal of discussion. This discussion ranged from a rather stupid parody, Subligny's " La Folle Querelle," played by the troupe of Molière, to serious literary criticisms. The points most generally touched upon, and especially by the adherents of Corneille, were Racine's alleged infidelities to history. His next tragedy, "Britannicus" (1669), shows how keenly he was affected by such criticisms. The subject is the murder of Britannicus by his step-brother, Nero. Nero is presented at the crucial point in his life when he changed from a rather heavy, inoffensive youth to the tyrant of tradition. Racine's effort to surpass Corneille in the latter's own field, Roman historical tragedy, is everywhere apparent. This is driven home in the preface, where he treats his aging rival in a way that is far from attractive, especially to us who are so far away from all that led up to it. "Que faudrait-il faire pour contenter des juges si difficiles? La chose serait aisée, pour peu qu'on voulût trahir le bon sens. Il ne faudrait que s'écarter du naturel pour se jeter dans l'extraordinaire." Thereupon follows a series of very thinly veiled allusions to plays of his rival as examples of this extraordinaire so contrary to le bon sens.

The year following (1670) brought this rivalry of the two poets to a decisive test. This came about, according to a somewhat doubtful tradition,1 through the agency of the Duchesse d'Orléans to whom the "Andromaque" is dedicated. She is said to have privately suggested to each of these poets the same subject: Titus, emperor of Rome, is in love with Berenice and has promised to marry her. Out of deference to the wishes of

1 For a very'thorough discussion of the whole matter, see G. Michaut, "La Bérénice de Racine," Paris, 1907.

the Roman senate, he gives her up. It was a subject much less suited to the talent of Corneille than to that of Racine, whose "Bérénice" won a crushing victory over the "Tite et Bérénice" of the older poet. It left Racine the generally acknowledged master of French tragedy, although continually worried by the criticisms of a few faithful adherents of the old idols and by the attacks of those who were envious of his success or incensed by his cavalier attitude and his biting epigrams.

The "Bérénice" in its extreme simplicity has sometimes, though improperly, been called an elegy. It was followed by the most ferocious and bloody of all Racine's tragedies, the "Bajazet" (1672), which is also unique in the modernness of its subject: " une aventure arrivée dans le serail, il y a plus de trente ans " (preface). The Orient again, but this time the Orient of antiquity, supplied Racine with the subject for his next tragedy, played a year later: the resistance of Mithridates, king of Pontus, to the Romans. It is one of the plays in which the poet put forth his greatest efforts to satisfy the aesthetic ideals of the time. His success is reflected in this item, written ten years later in the "Journal" of Dangeau: "Le soir, il y eut comédie française; le roi y vint, et l'on choisit Mithridate parce que c'est la comédie qui lui plaît le plus." It is Racine's last piece written in open rivalry with Corneille, upon a subject chosen from the latter's own field.1 This same year saw his election to the French Academy. Thereafter he returns to the subjects of his early predilection, those taken from Grecian antiquity. In 1675 he vies successfully with Euripides in " Iphigénie," given first, with grandiose decorations, in the open air of the gardens of Versailles. Two years and a half later he surpasses himself in a final effort, "Phèdre" (1677). Lemaître gives voice to the French appreciation of this last great tragedy in the following terms. "Phèdre est la plus enivrante de ses tragedies.

1 Compare it with Corneille's " Nicomède," 1651.

« AnteriorContinuar »