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||Jean Racine (1639-1699)|
Playwright, poet, master of the classical French tragedy in
the times of Moliére
and Corneille. Racine took his subjects from antiquity or mythology and
became very popular with his plays on blind, passionate love. His
dramas followed the neoclassical tragic form; they had five acts and
the dramatic time of the action did not exceed one day. Usually the
action was restricted to one place. In a number of political or
aesthetic debates, Racine has been praised over Shakespeare.
"Great crimes grow out of small ones. If today / A man first oversteps the bounds, he may / Abuse in time all laws and sanctities: / For crime, like virtue, ripens by degrees; / but when has one seen innocence, in a trice, / So change as to embrace the ways of vice? " (from Phèdre, 1677)
Jean Racine was born in La Ferté-Milon, a small town near
His family belonged to the upper bourgeoisie. After the death of his
mother and father, he was raised by his grandparents. They were
converted to Jansenists, a sect that emphasized severely controlled
conduct, denied free will and stressed the necessity of grace for
salvation. Pope Urban VIII condemned the movement in the 1641 Papal
Racine was educated at the Catholic school at Port-Royal, a
of religious thought and learning, where his grandmother had retired.
Racine acquired a solid education. At the age of 19, he entered the
Collège de Harcourtin in Paris. During
this period he became friends with Moliére, the fabulist La Fontaine,
and the poet-critic Boileau. Racine's decision to take up the career of
a playwright was not approved by his influential aunt, Mother Agnès de
Sainte-Thècle, and his Jansenist teachers, who nevertheless had
provided him with the opportunity to study Latin and Greek classics.
His lost first play, Amasie
(1660), was accepted by the Marais Theatre but never performed.
theatre was considered at that time immoral, Racine found himself in
conflict with his family. He was forced to leave Paris, and his family
tried to get him interested in the career of a priest. However, after a
period of seclusion in Provence, he returned to Paris and the theatre
world. Les Amours d'Ovide (1661), which presumably dealt with the Roman poet Ovid and Julia, the daughter of Augustus, was turned down.
The Thebans, or The Enemy Brothers
(1664) was staged by Moliére's company. The word "blood," mostly on a
metaphoric level, appears more frequently than any other word
in any of his other plays. "Let the mob love or loathe us at their
choice; Blood sets us on the throne, not their blind voice," says
Polynices, one of the characters. "Bloodf will exercise its wonted
sway," prophecies Creon. Racine's first chef-d'oeuvre, Alexander
the Great (1665),
was performed by the rival company at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This work
alienated him from Moliére, who never spoke to him again, but marked
the beginning of his ruthless
promoting of his own career and his artistic triumphs. Moliére never
spoke to him again.
Following the success of his dramas, Racine challenged Corneille's position as the leading tragedian of the age. He sniped at Corneille in the prefaces to the printed editions of his plays, referring to "a certain malicious old poet". In the mid-1660's Racine made his break with the Jansenists. His reply to his former teacher Pierre Nicole, who dismissed novelists and playwrights as public poisoners, was an anonmous letter, 'Lettre à l'auteur des Hérésies imaginaires' (May 1666). When Nicole treated it scornfully, Racine's remarks in his reply were so harsh, that his second letter to "this author's defenders" only circulated in Paris; it was not printed. (God and Mammon; and, What was Lost by François Mauriac, 2003, p. 61) During the production of Andromaque (1667) for Moliére's theatre, the star actress Mlle. Duparc chose Racine and became his mistress. She died in 1688. In the 1680s Racine's mistress was the actress La Champmeslé, who was his leading lady from Berenice.
The chief source for Andromaque was a passage from the third book of the Aeneid, but Racine made many changes. Andromache is the widow of Hector. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, has brought her captive from Troy. Another great woman character is Hermione, who has come to the court of Epirus to marry Pyrrhus. In one of the great scenes of the play, the desperate Hermione says to the king, who loves the unresponsive Andromaque: "I loved you faithless; had you been faithful, how much more could I have loved you? Even now, Hearing you speak the calm, cold words which kill my hopes, it may be that I love you still."
Among Racine's following plays were Les Plaideurs (1668, The
Litigants), Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), Mithridate
(1673, Mithridates), Iphigénie (1674, Iphigenia), and Phèdre
(1677, Phaedra), the last two being inspired by Euripides, whom Racine
most admired. Of Racine's tragedies, only Bajazet had a
contemporary setting; The Litigants, a comedy partly based on
Aristophanes' Sphekes (The Wasps), was set in the 17th century.
Racine was a master of Alexandrine verse, but he sketched his plays first in prose and then turned it into verse, using conventional vocabulary, less than 2000 words. Phaedra, Racine's masterpiece, opened on 1 January 1677 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Unfortunately, Cardinal Mazarin's niece Jacques Pradon (also known as Nicolas) had written a play of the same name, and it was praised by critics. Phaedra was performed to a nearly empty house, because Racine's enemies, many of whom were friends of Corneille, had bought up all the tickets, only to leave the seats unoccupied. Devasted and embittered, Racine never wrote for the public stage again. Pradon's success lasted only a few weeks.
Phaedra was partly based on Euripides' Hippolytys. Phaedra loves her stepson, Hippolytys, and confesses her love to him when she wrongly assumes that her husband Theseus, the heroic King of Athens, is dead. "Shall Theseus' widow dare to love his son? No, such a monster is too vile to spare. Here is my heart. Your blade must pierce me there." Theseus returns home and hears from his wife's nurse that Hippolytus has attempted to seduce Phaedra. Hippolytus wants to seek his own heroism, telling his father: "Let me at long last show my courage." He loves the princess Aricia and protects her step-mother's honor. Theseus curses his son who is killed by Neptune's power. Phaedra confesses all and poisons herself - "Death dims my eyes, which soiled what they could see, Restoring to the light its purity."
"THÉSÉE: Ah! qu'est-ce que j'entends? Un traître, un téméraire
At the age of thirty-three, Racine was elected to the Académie Française. At first he attended the meetings sporadically. As director of the Academy, he flattered the King, whose appetite for adulation was well known: "All the words of our languge, all the syllabes, should appear precioius to us as so many instruments to be used for the glory of our august protector." After Phaedra was ridiculed in a sonnet, Racine decided to change his life. "Racine, the finest poet of the age," wrote Mme de la Fayette in her memoirs, "who has been drawn away from his poetry, in which he was inimitable, to make him, to his misfoertune and that of those who enjoy the theatre, a most imitable historian." (Jean Racine: Life and Legend by Peter Lang, 2006, p. 291) Never happy at the distress that his career caused his family, Racine cut all links with the commercial stage, and reconciled with the Jansenists at Port-Royal. He married a pious young woman, Catherine de Romanet; they had two sons and five daughters. Most of the children became nuns or priests. Racine's wife never went to theatre. It has been claimed that she never even read any of Racine's plays.
Racine remained in the country but also made short trips to
He was appointed Royal Historiographer with Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
(1636-1711), a writer and critic. As royal historian, Racine
accompanied the King on his military campaigns and recorded his
exploits. He received a salary of 145,000 francs over a period of ten
years. However, the King was not aware about the artistic significance
of his favorite. When Boileau once remarked that Moliére was the
greatest writer of the century, he replied: "But I never knew that."
Before falling from the king's favor, Racine wrote two sacred dramas about the victory of God in the world. Esther (1689), first performed by pupils of St. Cyr, and Athalie (1691), were commissioned by King Louis XIV's wife, Mme de Maintenon. Athalie, in which the heretical queen Athaliah is crushed by the unrelenting God of Israel, was imbued with Jansenist theology. To the end, Athaliah remains unrepentant and wins the sympathy of the audience. Racine took based his text on the Book of Kings and used the commentaries of Josephus and other sources. The court was portrayed as a place of lawlessness and violence. Voltaire called the tragedy "the work which closest approaches perfection by a mortal man". Esther was a great success but eventually Mme. de Maintenon banished plays from St. Cyr, her charitable foundation for young ladies. Racine died on April 21, 1699 from cancer of the liver, and was buried at Port-Royal. Charles Perrault wrote in the second volume of his Éloges des Hommes Illustres du Siècle de Louis XIV (1700), that he died in a most edifying and pious manner. Later Racine's remains were transferred to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris and reburied next to Pascal.
For further reading: Jean Racine by J. Lemaître (1908); Jean Racine by G. Truc (1926); La vie de Jean Racine by F. Mauriac (1928); Racine; L'homme et l'oeuvre by P. Moreau (1945); Jean Racine: A Critical Biography G. Brereton (1951); Vers le vrai Racine by R. Jasinski (1958); Le thème symbolique dans le thèâtre de Racine by M. Blom (1962-1965); On Racine by Roland Barthes (1964); The Art of Jean Racine by B. Weinberg (1963); Jean Racine: A Critical Biography by G. Brereton (1973); Racine's Theatre: The Politics of Love by William Cloonan (1978); Racine by B.J. Yarrow (1978); Dramatic Narrative: Racine's Recits by Nina C. Ekstein (1986); Racine: Berenice by James J. Supple (1987); Time and Space in Euripides and Racine: The Hippolytos of Euripides and Racine's Phedre by Mary Pittas-Herschbach (1990); Racine: A Theatrical Reading by David Maskell (1991); Racine: Phedre by E.D. James, G. Jondorf (1994); Jean Racine Revisited by Ronald W. Tobin (1999); Birth Marks: The Tragedy of Primogeniture in Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine by Richard E. Goodkin. (2000); Jean Racine: Life and Legend by Peter Lang (2006); Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy, edited by Jan Bloemendal, Nigel Smith (2016)