« AnteriorContinuar »
use another figure, Shakespeare gives us a series of individual portraits, into which enough of the universal enters to make them appealing; while Racine gives a series of composite pictures into which enough of the individual enters to prevent them from becoming abstractions.
Racine represents French classic tragedy in its purest form. For Corneille the rules of the unities were often a bondage; for Racine they were an aid, because they furnished him with the dimensions of his picture. This picture represents a crisis in the moral life of his hero or heroine. He makes no effort to present the history of an epoch in the life of a nation, a family, or even an individual. He makes no effort even to represent the moral development of an individual. He takes that individual when he is face to face with the crucial action of his life, only giving us as briefly as possible, but always very clearly, such antecedents as are necessary for the complete understanding of the case in question. Consequently it is quite natural that the characters shall not change place, that only a short space of time shall be represented, and that, in the tenseness of the situation, nothing extraneous shall be allowed to intervene.
Nettled by criticisms, Racine made frequent protestations of his fidelity to history. As a matter of fact he did not hesitate to take considerable liberties with historical facts or characters in regard to details which were relatively unimportant or not well known, whenever by so doing he might add to the dramatic interest or the appealing power of his piece. Most of the authorities on dramatic art in his time granted this privilege; Racine used it wholly in the interests of realism. When he chose a subject his first step was to study in it its universal elements, for these were to be the vital principle in his work. Here his method has often been compared to that of the anatomical laboratory. To Racine the stage was a dissecting-table, for which he chose his specimen with the greatest care before proceeding to lay bare its moral organism. Hence we may speak of Racine's realism without contradicting what has been said of the universal tendencies of his work. A parallel between him and Corneille will illustrate the truth of this. Corneille said in defense of Chimène, who was criticized for having used too figurative language in speaking of the death of her father: "if we do not permit ourselves something more ingenious than the ordinary course of passion, our poems will be prosy." Racine has no such fears: he knows that people under the stress of emotion speak an "ingenious" language only when they have something to conceal. The "Andromaque" will furnish striking examples of what Racine accomplished here. Again, Corneille makes his characters come to their supreme resolution under the stress of large considerations; Racine remembers that the little things often exert the determining influences. So in "Britannicus" it is an appeal to Nero's vanity as a musician that precipitates him into his course of crime.
When he had thus selected and prepared his subject, Racine proceeded to write out his play in prose with the most consummate care; for, la scene demande une exacte raison. That having been done, "il n'avait que les vers à faire." This last phrase, however, must not be taken to mean that he was in any way lax in his versification. No one has ever handled the Alexandrine verse with more perfect mastery. This verse, the almost exclusive vehicle of French classic tragedy, consists of twelve syllables with a caesural pause after the sixth. Each of the two equal parts or "hemistichs " thus formed receives two accents or stresses: one, as a rule more pronounced and immovable, falling on the last syllable (i. e. the 6th or the 12 th of the line); the other falling on any one of the five free syllables of the hemistich. Variation in the position and weight of these stresses, as well as in the length of the cassural and verse-end pauses, prevents the verse from becoming monotonous and singsongy. With some concessions to poetic license, all Alexandrine verse is thus constructed. In Racine these processes minister singularly to clarity and force of expression. The stresses fall with unerring accuracy upon the words most charged with meaning; by them words and phrases are almost flung at you from the context:
Non que de sa conquête il paraisse flatté.
It has been said that the Alexandrine served Racine as a keyboard, upon which his virtuoso finger always found the note to emphasize the thought or sentiment that he wished to express. His own artistic qualities, reënforced by the constant supervision of Boileau, impressed upon him the necessity of "making easy verses with difficulty" (i. e. with painstaking care). Thanks to his natural gifts and this conscientious workmanship, he acquired "those three incomparable qualities of Hellenic genius: order, precision, and harmony" (Leconte de Lisle).
Finally, according to Taine: "Comme Shakespeare, comme Sophocle, Racine est poète national; rien de plus français que son théâtre." For what Racine has to offer the student here, we had best leave the floor to one of the most representative of modem Frenchmen, Jules Lemaître: "Je suis tenté de croire qu'il y a une partie de Racine à jamais inaccessible aux étrangers et, qui sait? peut-être à tous ceux qui sont trop de Midi comme à ceux qui sont trop du Nord. C'est un mystère. C'est ce par quoi Racine exprime ce que nous appellerons le génie de notre race, ordre, raison, sentiment mesuré et force sous la grâce. Les tragédies de Racine supposent une très vieille patrie. Dans cette poésie, à la fois si ordonnée et si émouvante, c'est nousmêmes que nous aimons; c'est — comme chez La Fontaine et Molière, mais dans un exemplaire plus noble — notre sensibilité et notre esprit â leur moment lé plus heureux."
Andromaque — General Considerations
The " Andromaque " is the first tragedy in which the artistic originality of Racine has free scope. The plays before it, "La Thébaïde" and "Alexandre," were both strongly influenced by older French dramatists, especially by Corneille and Quinault, whose qualities in some measure they combine. But the devotees of the theater were quick to recognize that they were in the presence of something new when they attended the first representations of " Andromaque." At first, it carried all hearts by storm: "Cuisinier, cocher, palefrenier, laquais et jusqu'à la porteuse d'eau en veulent discourir, bientôt la contagion gagnera le chien et le chat," remarks a character in Subligny's parody. Perrault, another contemporary, states that it created as great a stir as the " Cid " had done. Racine alludes to this, as we shall see, in his original preface: the spectators have been "too favorable" to let him be disturbed by the "private chagrin of two or three individuals." This allusion also indicates that critics were not long in making themselves heard. A biting epigram by the poet enables us to identify two, the Marquis de Créqui and the Comte d'Olonne. The " Gazette" of the same year, in its report of the first performance, remarks:
cette œuvre de Racine Maint autre rare auteur chagrine.
It was, in fact, from the men of letters that this piece, as well as those which followed, had the most to suffer. The " Attila" of Corneille was played the same year. Both tragedies were sent to the highly esteemed critic Saint-Évremond — then in England — to secure his opinion as to their respective merits. In his reply Saint-Évremond showed embarrassment, and sought to avoid the dilemma by admitting: "A tout prendre, c'est une belle pièce, qui est fort au-dessus du me'diocre, quoique un peu au-dessors du grand," before he began his extravagant eulogy of Corneille's tragedy. The discussion to which this comparison led reached its height in the parody by Subligny, "La Folle Querelle,"1 played by Molière's troupe in 1668. This parody is, in effect, a fairly complete repertory of the criticisms which had been directed against Racine's work during the six months elapsed since the first representation of 1667. We shall have occasion to see what some of these criticisms were in studying Racine's two prefaces. Suffice it to note here that the parody had as many as thirty representations during seven and a half months of 1668, which is a clear indication of the interest taken in the matter. This discussion explains, if it does not wholly justify, the attitude adopted by Racine toward Corneille and his adherents in the prefaces of "Andromaque," "Britannicus," and " Bérénice."
It has often been said in one form or another that the years which saw the representations of the "Cid" (1636) and of "Andromaque" (1667) are the two most important dates in the history of French tragedy. "Avec le Cid on vit naître chez nous la tragédie fière, sublime, héroïque, qui agrandit les âmes; avec VAndromaque, la tragédie pathétique, qui connaît tous les secrets, toutes les faiblesses du cœur dans leurs nuances les plus délicates, dans leurs replis les plus profonds, et qui sait peindre avec une vérité saisissante les terribles orages des passions." And the significance of "Andromaque" in French literature is not limited to tragedy. It is a commonplace to speak of the Racinian qualities of men so different from Racine as Marivaux and Alfred de Musset. Voltaire saw in Racine "le poète de l'univers qui a le mieux connu le cœur humain," and Anatole France avows that he goes to him constantly for "le secret des pensées justes et des paroles limpides." All that great body of French literature, whether drama, poetry, or fiction,
1 Published by Victor Fournel in "Les Contemporains de Molière," Paris 186j, vol. III, p. 483ff.