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Dans aucune il n'a mis plus de paganisme ni plus de christianisme à la fois; dans aucune il n'a embrassé tant d'humanité ni mêlé tant de siècles; dans aucune il n'a répandu un charme plus délicieux et troublant; dans aucune, à ne considérer que la forme, il n'a été plus poète et plus artiste." It is the story of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, who falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Theseus, six years absent, is reported dead. Phaedra reveals her love to Hippolytus, who spurns her. Theseus returns. Fearful lest her fault be discovered, Phaedra allows her nurse to accuse Hippolytus; Theseus in anger prays Neptune to avenge him. In response to this prayer Hippolytus is killed by a sea monster, and Phaedra, in despair, confesses her crime and kills herself. Practically all the details of the plot are to be found in Euripides and Seneca, but the treatment of Phaedra's passion is thoroughly Racinian. She is presented as a noble soul, who abhors even the thought of crime. Fatality and blind circumstance lead on to her ruin. That is what Lemaître alludes to in the passage cited above. And, in sum, that was quite in harmony with the fundamental tenet of the Jansenists, the weakness and helplessness of man in conflict with sin. So Racine himself considered it; he was convinced that he had taught a great moral and religious lesson: "le vice y est peint avec des couleurs qui en font connaître et haïr la difformité" (preface). And that, too, was the view taken of it by his old
J friends and masters of Port-Royal, who saw in it, besides, signs of an inclination on the part of the poet to return to the fold.
Nor were they deceived: the poet was tired of the stormy life he had been leading, tired of literary quarrels and of the petty intrigues of jealous rivals. These last had attended his career from the "Andromaque" on; they reached their climax when a second-rate poet, Pradon, attempted to forestall his " Phèdre" with another upon the same subject. On this occasion the partisans of Pradon even went so far as to buy up the houses and pack them for the first representations of the rival plays.1 Sick of it all, Racine, in the plenitude of his power, with new tragedies planned and partly written out (" Iphigénie en Tauride," "Alceste ") severed all connection with the theater. He listened with a willing ear to the overtures of his old friends, and, returning to the faith of his youth, retired to Port-Royal to spend his remaining days. Except for the advice of friends he would have taken orders. He followed their counsel, however: he married that same year (1677) Catherine de Romanet — a good woman, who had never read his tragedies. "L'amour ni l'intérêt n'eurent pas de part à cette choix," declares his son. They had five daughters and two sons, and in the midst of this family Racine spent his remaining years in exemplary fashion. No conversion, perhaps, has ever been more complete.
Yet he did not entirely abandon literary work. In 1677 he was named royal historian, and, together with Boileau, prepared an " Histoire du royaume sous le règne de Louis XIV" of which the manuscript is said to have been burned in 1726. In his last years, too, Racine composed an "Histoire de PortRoyal" in which he made reparation for the wrongs he had done that institution. He also composed a considerable amount of religious verse, and two opportunities came to him for employing his dramatic genius without running counter to his religious convictions. Madame de Maintenon had founded a school for young ladies at Saint-Cyr in which she took the greatest interest. It occurred to her that the poet might prepare for these young ladies a theatrical diversion which would be free from the demoralizing influences attributed to the secular drama. The result was " Esther," a drama following the biblical narrative, interspersed with choruses "comme dans les anciennes
1 A similar though less spectacular attempt was made on the occasion of "Iphigénie." For a full discussion of this phase of Racine's career see F. Deltour, " Les Ennemis de Racine au Xvik siècle," 6e édition, Paris, 1898.
tragédies grecques " (preface). The piece was played with great success (1689), first at Saint-Cyr, then by the young ladies at court before very select audiences. It was followed by " Athalie" (1691), which was also based on the Biblical narrative, and composed in the same manner for the same purpose. By many it is considered Racine's greatest work. But, although superior to "Esther," it met with little success for the time being. Madame de Maintenon found that Racine's first effort had succeeded too well: the heads of her young charges had been quite turned by their histrionic success. Accordingly, many restrictions were put upon the staging and the costuming of the piece; besides, the play is one that demands all the resources of trained artists. Its great success as a play dates from its first public representation in 1716, some years after the poet's death. The poet's last years were saddened by the disfavor of the king. He died the twenty-first of April, 1699.
Three adjectives indicate quite clearly the progress of tragic composition in France during the seventeenth century: héroïque, romanesque, and passionnée. In la tragédie héroïque the characters, by the force of their convictions and their will-power, rise superior to all considerations of family, love, or self-interest. Its great representative is Pierre Corneille, at his best in " Le Cid," "Cinna," "Horace," and "Polyeucte." In la tragédie romanesque love is the mainspring of all actions: love conquers all obstacles, and these obstacles are as varied and as complicated as the ingenuity of the poets can make them. But it is a romançiçal love, very virtuous, very noble, very aristocratic, always between princes and princesses, very correct, very elaborate, and very verbose—love-gallantry in short, not love-passion. Some of Pierre Corneille's plays, notably the "Don Sanche d'Aragon"; the "Timocrate" (1656) of his brother Thomas, perhaps the masterpiece of the type; all the tragedies of Quinault, — these are its most noteworthy productions. Its vogue extends from about 1650 on through the early plays of Racine. The tragédie passionnée is inaugurated and carried to its highest degree of perfection by Racine. Love-passion is the central theme in all his tragedies from "Andromaque" to " Phèdre," although with somewhat less intensity in " Britannicus," "Mithridate," and "Iphigénie." The term love-passion is to be taken quite literally. It is not merely love as a sentiment, but rather as a force, which drives those possessed by it to perform great deeds, undergo great sacrifices, or commit great crimes: even to become weaklings and perjurers. In the characters of Agrippine (" Britannicus ") and Athalie, Racine showed his power in depicting other passions (ambition), as in the character of Andromaque he showed his ability in the portrayal of maternal love; but in general he chose to specialize in the presentation of love as a passion, a perverting force, with all the impulses and emotions to which it gives rise; and in that field he has no equal.
Whence did he derive this power? He has himself given us a clue. In 1694, five years before his death, he wrote these verses:
Mon Dieu, quelle guerre cruelle!
That this was not merely a poetic fancy, is indicated by the remark which Louis XIV is said to have addressed to Madame de Maintenon, on hearing these verses sung: "Madame, voilà deux hommes que je connais bien." Now one of these men in Racine, filled with the austere religious doctrines of Port-Royal, waged a stubborn uphill battle with the other, who was dazzled by literary ambitions and favored at court, and who loved, with what he keenly felt to be a guilty love, the two most beautiful actresses of his day. And so Racine studied in his own heart the struggles which he portrays in the characters of his tragedies. This is one, and not the least important, of the reasons why in the portrayal of his passion-torn characters nothing escapes Racine: every impulse, every transition, every conflict, is noted with a virtuosity which is amazing when one stops to consider the virtuoso's part in it.1
Compared with the universality of Shakespeare, the field of Racine seems quite limited. It is so, if one considers it from the external side, of the number of characters or the variety of social classes represented. From another point of view it is much less so. Shakespeare's method is diffusive and analytical, Racine's concentrated and synthetic. In reality, Racine's tragedies are quite as representative of life as those of any other. It has often been pointed out how, shorn of their royal or mythological names, these tragedies always present problems and situations which are constantly arising in the life we lead. In these problems and situations there are certain representative or universal motive impulses which enter into the performance of any act which seems to us good or evil. Now the characters of Racine present, so to speak, epitomes of these universal impulses. Thus his tragedies represent a very large part of the moral experiences of humanity, boiled down, as it were, into a concentrated solution; whereas Shakespeare and Balzac represent these moral experiences in what we may term separate doses. Or, to
1 Garrick, commenting upon Racine's tragedies from the actor's standpoint, complained that nothing was left to the actor's interpretation except the mere elocution of the verses.