Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2382
Article abstract: Combining psychological insight, poetic power, and a profoundly pessimistic view of human life, Racine wrote the finest tragedies in French literature.
Jean Baptiste Racine was born in the village of La Ferté-Milon, near Soissons, France, and was baptized on December 22, 1639, presumably shortly after his birth. His mother was Jeanne Sconin Racine, and his father was Jean Racine, a minor local official. When Jean Baptiste was a year old, his mother died in childbirth. Although his father remarried a year later, he too died, in 1643, leaving Jean Baptiste and his sister penniless. His grandparents took the two babies; Jean Baptiste’s sister went to his mother’s family, and he went to live with his father’s parents. When Jean was nine, however, his paternal grandfather died, and his grandmother entered the Convent of Port-Royal des Champs, southwest of Paris, where her sister was a nun and her daughter was a postulant.
Port-Royal was the center of Jansenism, an austere doctrine, based on Cornelis Jansen’s interpretation of Saint Augustine, arguing that man was predestined to be saved by grace alone, not by works. After its introduction at the Cistercian convent of Port-Royal in 1634, Jansenism began to spread throughout France, partly because its emphasis on rectitude appealed to those who were disillusioned with the moral corruption around them and partly because its proponents were the outstanding scholars and educators of their day. Realizing the threat which Jansenism posed to their intellectual and educational monopoly, the Jesuits opposed it bitterly and in 1653 obtained the condemnation of its doctrines by Pope Innocent X. Throughout its existence, Port-Royal, its nuns, and its scholars were subject to persecution. The opponents of Jansenism finally succeeded in having the convent abolished in 1708.
Like many other young men of his time, Jean Racine was educated by the Jansenists. Indeed, except for two years in a Jansenist college in Beauvais (1653-1655), he was at the center of Jansenism, Port-Royal des Champs, from 1649 to 1658, reading the literary classics, learning Greek and Latin, studying philosophy and theology, and absorbing the somber view of life which was held by his mentors. For the orphaned boy, Port-Royal was home as well as school. In addition to his aunt, grandaunt, and grandmother in the convent, he had other kinfolk nearby. His grandmother’s sister had married M. Vitart, and the Vitarts, too, were ardent Jansenists. Racine’s feeling for Port-Royal is evident: Even after his school was closed by royal decree in 1656, he remained at Port-Royal, studying independently. Later, he was to defend the Jansenists as much as he dared; to write a short history of Port-Royal, which was not published even in part until 1742 and not in full until 1767; and to request burial at Port-Royal.
In 1658, Racine went to the Collège d’Harcourt in the University of Paris to study law. The following year, he lived with and was employed by his grandmother’s nephew Nicolas Vitart, the steward of the Jansenist Duc de Luynes. From his base in the Hôtel de Luynes, Racine ventured into the brilliant, sophisticated world of Louis XIV’s France. He became a boon companion of the ecclesiastical amorist, the Abbé le Vasseur, and of Jean de La Fontaine, who was to write the immortal Fables Written in Verse (1668). He attended the theater, socialized with actors and actresses, and indulged in a number of love affairs. He also began to write, first light verse, then an ode dedicated to Louis’ new queen. This was Racine’s first published work.
Because of his association with performers, however, Racine was also developing an interest in writing for the theater. Encouraged by an actress, he wrote his first play, which was never produced and is lost; encouraged by an actress of another troupe, he began a second play that may not have been finished and certainly was never performed.
Although Racine was enjoying himself in Paris, he was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Furthermore, his family disapproved of his activities. At their insistence, in 1661 he went to Uzès, where a maternal uncle hoped to find the young man a sinecure in the Church. A year later, unsuccessful, Racine was back in Paris. Events had made the decision for him: He was to make his mark not in the Church but in the theater and at court.
As Racine’s letters reveal, the playwright was a complex person. From the Jansenists, he had absorbed the conviction that human beings are at the mercy of emotions over which they have no control and that therefore they have very little control over their lives. As a sensitive human being, he felt compassion for these creatures, yet as an artist he could view their anguish with detachment. Racine liked to think of himself as a scholar-poet; yet he was ambitious, and he planned the political moves which would ensure his success at court. A sketch by his eldest son emphasizes both his confidence and his capacity for detachment. A dark-eyed, dark-wigged man with a prominent nose, rounded features, and an unimpressive chin, Racine looks out at the world with a slight smile, as if he is taking its measure for his plays and for his purposes.
Racine’s career as a playwright lasted only thirteen years, from 1664 to 1677. During that time, he produced eleven tragedies and one comedy, rose to social eminence, and, by winning royal favor, gained wealth and a title of nobility. It was the great actor-manager and comic playwright Molière who produced Racine’s first tragedy at the Palais Royal on June 20, 1664. Entitled La Thébaïde: Ou, Les Frères ennemis (1664; The Theban Brothers, 1723), it was the account of the struggle between the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, for the throne of Thebes. Although the play lacks the sureness of touch which would later be evident, it does have the typical situation of a Racine tragedy: an emotional obsession, in this case the mutual hatred of two brothers, which cannot be controlled, but which results in the destruction of those who are obsessed and of all those who are involved in their lives.
In his second tragedy, Alexandre le Grand (1666; Alexander the Great, 1714), Racine followed the footsteps of Pierre Corneille, who had for some time been the monarch of French tragic theater. Although it was successful, the play of love, rivalry, and betrayal at the court of Alexander the Great lacks the stature of later plays. Surprisingly, after it had been performed by Molière’s troupe, Racine took the play, along with Molière’s beautiful leading lady, Marquise Du Parc, to the rival company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Biographers have attempted to justify what must be classified as ingratitude by noting that the realistic acting style of Molière’s company, so effective in comedy, did not do justice to the raptures and passions of seventeenth century tragedy. At any rate, all of Racine’s later plays were presented by the Comédiens du Roy of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.
Racine’s success in the theater scandalized his relatives and friends at Port-Royal, who hoped to save him and France from the domination of the theater. When in 1665 the Jansenist Pierre Nicole called novelists and dramatists the poisoners of souls, Racine viciously attacked him in print, thus joining himself to the enemies of Port-Royal. Although Racine has been accused of opportunism at a time when the Jansenists were increasingly unpopular, it may be that he had tired of the Jansenists’ unceasing castigation of the art form he loved. In the preface to Phèdre (1677; Phaedra, 1701), Racine addressed his old teachers in more measured tones, urging them to realize that his tragedies were essentially as didactic as their sermons.
In November, 1667, Du Parc played the lead role in Andromaque ( Andromache, 1674), a superb play about Hector’s heroic widow who is doomed by Pyrrhus’ obsessive love for her. With this play, Racine had reached the level of tragic grandeur that he was to maintain until the end of his career as a playwright. Although in 1668 he tried his hand at comedy with Les Plaideurs ( The Litigants, 1715), an adaptation of Aristophanes, he soon returned to his own métier and wrote two fine tragedies on subjects from Roman history, Britannicus (1669; English translation, 1714) and Bérénice (1670; English translation, 1676). With these plays, Racine unseated Corneille from the throne of tragedy and became the recognized monarch.
Racine was never afraid to explore new subject matter. In 1672, he presented Bajazet (English translation, 1717), a violent play set in contemporary Turkey; in Mithridate (1673; Mithridates, 1926), Racine wrote a moving story about an Oriental ruler who could defy Rome but who could not subdue his own passion for a young Greek woman. Of all Racine’s plays, this was Louis’ favorite.
At this point in his career, Racine’s fortunes were at their height. Every play seemed to increase his standing with the king and with the public. The fact that the critics were equally enthusiastic was reflected in his election in 1673 to a seat in the Académie Française, the French society of men of letters. The once-penniless orphan was now well-off. Since his second ode in 1663, he had been awarded pensions from the king, and in 1674 he was given a lucrative post as Treasurer of Moulins, which automatically raised him to the ranks of nobility. Ironically, he was only three years away from abandoning the theater, to which he owed everything he had won.
During those three years, however, Racine produced two more masterpieces, this time modeled on those of the Greek playwright Euripides. They were Iphigénie (1674; Iphigenia in Aulis, 1700), the story of Agamemnon’s daughter who was sacrificed for Greek success in the Trojan War, and Phaedra, the tale of Theseus’ wife, whose desperate desire for her stepson destroyed both him and her.
The year which began with the performance of Phaedra marked a turning point in Racine’s life. In June, he was married to Cathérine de Romanet, a well-connected, pious young woman in her mid-twenties, who had never read one of his plays but who was to give him seven children. During that year, too, he accepted an extremely profitable post as king’s historiographer. Whether ambition dictated that he consolidate his position at court by severing his theatrical connections, or whether, as his son and biographer insists, a religious conversion turned the playwright against his genre, after 1677 Racine wrote no plays for the commercial theater. In 1689, however, at the request of Madame de Maintenon, Louis’ wife, he wrote Esther (English translation, 1715), a religious tragedy, and he followed it in 1691 with Athalie ( Athaliah, 1722), which was also based on biblical material. Both plays were presented at a girls’ school at Saint-Cyr. Racine’s final works were the Cantiques spirituels (1694), four songs based on biblical texts, and the secretly written history of Port-Royal, published long after his death. During the last two years of his life, Racine seems to have once again embraced Jansenism and as a result to have fallen from the king’s favor. Racine died in Paris on April 21, 1699. At his request, he was buried at Port-Royal des Champs. When the king had Port-Royal destroyed in 1710, Racine’s remains were moved to a churchyard in Paris.
Following Corneille, Jean Racine established French neoclassical tragedy. Like his predecessor, Racine emphasized heroic deeds and heroic language, and like him he elevated the human conflict of love and duty to an almost Olympian level. Yet even their contemporaries realized that Racine had surpassed Corneille. Understanding that the simplicity and the compression of Greek tragedy could produce a maximum effect, Racine mastered the conventions of those earlier plays, producing works in which no character, line, speech, or scene seems superfluous. Furthermore, writing from his Jansenist background, Racine created a world essentially more tragic than that of Corneille. In Racine’s world, divinity created human beings whose passions were uncontrollable and then warned them that they would be destroyed if they did not control them. For three centuries the audiences at Racine’s plays have experienced intensely tragic emotions—pity for his trapped creatures and fear that all human beings at some time may be similarly destroyed.
Although new neoclassical plays are seldom written, the seven tragedies of Racine’s maturity, from Andromache to Phaedra, are all frequently presented at the Comédie Française and throughout the world. Along with four of Corneille’s tragedies and the comedies of Molière, they are some of the finest plays from France’s golden age of drama.
Abraham, Claude. Jean Racine. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A survey of Racine’s work, helpful for its overview of his importance in his genre. Interesting analyses of the major plays.
Barthes, Roland. On Racine. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. Two of its three essays are useful. “Racinian Man” deals with the Racinian hero from a structural and psychoanalytic point of view, and “Racine Spoken,” originally a review of Phaedra, discusses the problems in acting Racine plays.
Brereton, Geoffrey. Jean Racine: A Critical Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. An important biography by a major critic. Brereton goes beyond the facts to assess Racine’s situation realistically in order to ascertain his motives for those actions which have been too easily criticized.
Clark, A. F. B. Jean Racine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1969. A well-written chronological study, with valuable sections on the age of Racine and on the development of the French classical tradition up to his time. Contains a full treatment of both biblical plays.
Mourgues, Odette de. Racine: Or, The Triumph of Relevance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967. A critical work which carefully places Racine within the context of his historical period.
Tobin, Ronald W. Racine and Seneca. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973. Explores the influence of the Roman tragedian on Racine’s plots and themes. An important book because this relationship has been neglected by many critics, who have assumed that Racine followed only Greek models.
Weinberg, Bernard. The Art of Jean Racine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. An invaluable book on Racine’s development as a dramatist, particularly emphasizing structure. Sensibly organized, with one chapter on each of Racine’s eleven tragedies.
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