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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frederick Morris Warren (1859–1931)

By Jean Racine (1639–1699)

BY the time French classical tragedy had reached Racine, in its development from the Latin drama of Seneca, its form and style had become definitely fixed. Like its Latin progenitor it consisted of five acts, subdivided into scenes; was written in long lines,—the Alexandrine verse of twelve syllables,—and observed in its stage setting and the duration of its action the unities of place and time. But in the process of assimilation to modern requirements the chorus of the ancients had been dropped, their monologues had been shortened and subjected to interruptions by the theatrical device of confidants, and Seneca’s lyricism had been given a stronger admixture of the dramatic element, by the pressure of audiences which had been trained to the action and episodes of the old miracle plays. All the questions of scenic art which had been agitated for four generations, and from which Corneille’s early years were not exempt, were settled before Racine began. He had only to take his structure as he found it, and fill it in with such material as would be in harmony with the French conception of tragedy.

Racine was genius enough to make a place for himself, while conforming to these limitations. Corneille had produced his dramatic effects by opposing the passion of love to some general conception of duty, honor, or patriotism. His plays treat these topics subjectively, didactically. They abound in maxims. Their characters are ideal, perhaps. Their heroes often win attention away from the heroines. Racine’s method is different. He belongs to another, a new generation, inspired by a different spirit. Instead of being general, his treatment is individual. His themes relate to private life, not public. He is objective, studying humanity around him. He indulges rarely in abstract ideas. If we might apply a modern term to him we might call him realistic. Certainly he stood, as did Molière, in the eyes of his contemporaries, for a close adherence to the plain facts of existence. And in the judgment of the eighteenth century Racine was “natural.”

Furthermore he worked from within outward. It is an analysis of character which he aims at, or rather a study of the effects of some passion—almost always love, or its concomitant emotions of jealousy, hatred, revenge, or remorse, rarely ambition or bigotry—on the human heart, with the actions that result from it. The dramatic solution in Racine is obtained by the clash of such passions. In other words, Racine’s situations are brought about by his characters, whereas with Corneille it was the situations which produced the characters. And it so happens, whether from the very nature of things or from a fixed purpose, that most of Racine’s characters are women. Few of his men can support comparison with them.

Racine’s career shows an impulsive temperament,—the temperament of a poet. He was born at the small town of La Ferté-Milon, some distance to the northeast of Paris, on December 21st, 1639. His Christian name, Jean, was in the family. His parents dying before he was three years old, he fell to the care of his relatives, who sent him to the college at Beauvais. Leaving this institution at the age of sixteen, he entered the Jansenist school at Port Royal, where he imbibed that love for the Greek poets which was to manifest itself so vigorously in his later works. The foundations of an ardent piety were evidently laid here also, though they were to be hidden many years by other interests and occupations. On leaving Port Royal in 1658, and entering Harcourt College at Paris, to receive his final training, Racine, with his literary instincts and his capacity for enjoying life, was quickly admitted to a pleasure-loving set of authors and amateurs, of whom La Fontaine the fabulist was one. Encouraged by them, he threw himself into poetry, and in 1660 attracted public attention and royal munificence by an ode, ‘The Nymph of the Seine,’ written on the occasion of Louis XIV.’s marriage. His devout family connections, alarmed for his salvation, rusticated him to the south of France, where he was to study for orders. But in 1663 this experiment was abandoned. Racine returned to Paris, met La Fontaine again, formed acquaintance with Boileau and Molière, and under their sanction began his theatrical career.

After one unsuccessful venture, his ‘Thébaïde’ (1664) was played by Molière’s company. It was followed the next season by ‘Alexandre.’ Both of these dramas reflect the ideas of older authors, particularly Corneille. But in 1667, with ‘Andromaque,’ a delineation of maternal love in conflict with a widow’s fidelity, set off by the love and jealousy of suitors and rivals, Racine found his peculiar and lasting manner. The enthusiasm aroused by the psychological analyses of ‘Andromaque’ had been exceeded in Paris only by the delight occasioned by the romantic declamations of ‘The Cid.’ He next tried a comedy of an Aristophanic bent, ‘The Pleaders’ (1668), a satire of legal procedure. But this was Racine’s sole deviation from the tragic path. ‘Britannicus’ (1669), on the imperiousness of Agrippina and the baseness of Nero; ‘Bérénice’ (1670), the idyl of the Jewish princess forsaken by her lover Titus, for reasons of State; ‘Bajazet’ (1672), the vengeance of a queen on her rival and faithless lover; ‘Mithridate’ (1673), the Oriental despot, the enemy of Rome, disputing a girl’s heart with his own son; ‘Iphigénie’ (1674), a mother’s love, oblivious of all but the object of its passion, contrasted with filial affection and obedience,—all these pictures of the heart of woman were summed up, reached their culmination, in the love, shame, jealousy, revenge, and remorse which the poet imagined in the story of ‘Phèdre’ (1677). The great parts in Racine were for the heroines. The heroes rarely attained the level of being even counterpoises.

A literary cabal in favor of the rhymester Pradon prevented the immediate success of ‘Phèdre’; and this circumstance, coupled with his reviving devotion, led Racine to renounce the stage and its surroundings. He was made historiographer of the King, married, and divided his time between his family and the court. But the old fire was only smoldering within him. It burst forth into new and brighter flame when at the summons of Madame de Maintenon a religious drama was demanded for the girls’ school at St. Cyr. The fusion of Racine’s piety with the gratification of his poetic ideals was now possible; and ‘Esther’ (1689), a Scriptural idyl built on the model of French tragedy, with the addition of the lyric choruses of the Greeks, displayed his talent at its best. Another sacred tragedy with choruses, ‘Athalie’ (1691), was lost to Racine’s contemporaries by doubts about the wisdom of schoolgirls acting. The remainder of our author’s life was passed in the exercise of his official duties, in the composition of religious hymns, and the penning of biting epigrams ridiculing the playwrights of the time. He died the last year of the century, on April 26th.

The first part of Racine’s dramatic work, from ‘Andromaque’ to ‘Phèdre,’ being strictly within the canons of French classical tragedy, calls for no further mention. But the second part, though consisting of but two plays, drawn from sacred sources, presents certain novelties. The addition of the choruses, imitated as they evidently were from Greek models, suggests that French tragedy, in its conflict with its rival the opera, would not be above borrowing some of that rival’s attractions. Besides, ‘Athalie,’ which is regarded by many as the best example of French tragedy, takes certain liberties with the scenery and the number of persons in evidence on the stage; and this points to a modification, an enlarging, of the scope of the traditional play.

‘Athalie’ is also to be noticed for its plot. The element of love does not enter into it. It is the strife of an unscrupulous, ambitious, yet fluctuating woman with the direct and persevering enthusiasm of a strong man who summons the miraculous to his aid. For these divergences from the ordinary run, and for its intrinsic excellence, ‘Athalie’ was the constant preoccupation of French dramatists down to the reaction in the nineteenth century against all tragedy, classical or romantic. It powerfully aided in confirming Racine in the supremacy which his method, his psychology, his measured language and harmonious versification, had combined in awarding to him. The subsequent history of French tragedy is hardly more than a commentary on Racine.

The best edition of Racine’s complete works is published at Paris by Hachette et Cie., in the series of ‘Les Grands Écrivains’ (8 vols., 8vo). It is edited by Paul Mesnard. Nearly every French critic has written on Racine, but F. Brunetière’s chapters (Lectures 5 and 7) in his ‘Époques du Théâtre Français’ (Paris, 1892), and G. Lanson’s comments in his ‘Histoire de la Littérature Français’ (Paris, 1895), pages 532–547, are especially valuable.