The Untranslatable Linguistic Elegance of Jean Racine

Jean Racine (22 December 1639 – 21 April 1699)

Jean-Baptiste Racine (22 December 1639 – 21 April 1699)

On Dec 22, 1637, French dramatist Jean Racine was born, one of the three great playwrights of 17th-century France, along with Molière and Corneille, and an important literary figure in the Western tradition. Racine’s plays displayed his mastery of the dodecasyllabic (12 syllable) French alexandrine. His writing is renowned for its elegance, purity, speed, and fury. The linguistic effects of Racine’s poetry are widely considered to be untranslatable, although many eminent poets have attempted to translate Racine’s work.

“Today, let us make haste to enjoy life. Who knows if we will be tomorrow?”
– Jean Racine, Athalie, act II, scene IX. (1691)

Jean Racine – Early Years

Racine was born the first child of a royal salt tax official belonging to the lower nobility. His mother also came from these circles, but she died giving birth to a sister when Jean Racine was only two years old. When he was just over three years old, he also lost his father, who had remarried shortly before, and was taken into care by his maternal grandparents, while his sister joined the other grandparents. When the grandfather died in 1649, the grandmother retired to the Jansenist monastery Port Royal des Champs, about 10 km southwest of Versailles, and gave her grandson to the small but excellent school run by renowned Jansenist theologians and scholars. In 1653/54 he completed the school year called “rhétorique” as a boarding school student in the Jansenist Collège de Beauvais in Paris. Although he was deeply influenced by their fundamentalist piety, he also read with interest classical Latin and Greek plays, both in the original and in morally and religiously “purified” French translations written by one of his teachers, Louis-Isaac Lemaistre de Sacy. He also began to write: Odes to Nature around Port-Royal, but also pious verses, some in Latin.

First Poems

He moved to Paris to the Jansenist Collège d’Harcourt, where he completed his schooling with the “philosophy” class (1659). Afterwards, at the age of almost 20, he was taken in by a relative who lived in the city palace of a ducal family and managed their house, real estate and finances. He introduced Racine to a number of aesthetic circles, where he met Jean de La Fontaine,[1] a distant relative who later became a fable poet. Racine wrote all kinds of occasional poems for lectures in this environment and in the ambience of the high spirits after the end of the long war with Spain (1659), including various gallant. On the whole he was taken with his sophisticated existence in Paris and seemed to turn his back on strict Jansenism. His relatives and teachers, however, were appalled by this unpious development. In 1661 they urged him to go to Uzès in the south of France to a brother of his mother, who was deputy to the bishop there. Here he was to prepare himself to receive at least the lower ordinations, so that he could then be given a church benefice which would provide for him, as the destitute orphan that he was, for the rest of his life.

First Drama

In Uzès, however, where he dutifully dealt with theology but felt like in exile, Racine finally became aware of his dramaturgical ambitions. In 1663 he returned to Paris and tried to revive his contacts and establish new ones. He became friends with the not so elderly writer Nicolas Boileau and met among others the comedy writer and theater director Molière.[4] His Panegyric Ode sur la convalescence du Roi brought him once again the applause of Chapelain, who gave him a royal pension of 600 francs a year, about half of what a person who economizes needs. It was also through Chapelain that he obtained the protection of the highly noble Duc d’Aignan, who introduced him to the king. Above all, however, he wrote for Molière’s troops, perhaps even on his behalf and with his help, the tragedy La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis (Thebais or the enemy brothers), which is about the bloody dispute between the twin sons of Oedipus over the rule of the Greek city-state of Thebes. The play, which was performed at the beginning of 1664, had little success.

First Success

“Crime, like virtue, has its degrees;
And timid innocence was never known
To blossom suddenly into extreme license.”
– Jean Racine, Hippolyte, act IV, scene II. (1677)

His next play, the tragicomedy Alexandre le Grand (1665), was more romanesque. Racine first practised the nuanced depiction of love and the conflicts it causes, a theme that from then on played a key role in his work. In 1667, Racine’s contact with the court intensified, for he made contact with Henriette d’Angleterre, the young sister-in-law of King Louis, who (after a miscarriage and the loss of a child through illness) appreciated him as an entertainer and had him read from the new play he was writing, the tragedy Andromaque. His pension was increased to 800 francs.

And more Success

At the end of 1667 Racine achieved his breakthrough with Andromaque. At the same time he had found his subject: the fateful, passionate but unfulfilled love, which drives the lovers in their jealousy and/or disappointment to the extreme – murder and suicide included – and thus to their doom. Racine continued to frequent the court and from 1668 received a pension of 1200 francs. Also in 1668 he was assigned a priory in Anjou as a benefice, whereby he, since he was not ordained, had to cede part of his income to the priest, who was the official owner and represented him locally. After this, he once again competed with Corneille and,[2] with the tragedy of Britannicus (1669), he began to specialise in the processing of fabrics from Roman history. The next, “Roman”, play, the tragicomedy Bérénice (1670), was also a challenge for Corneille, who at the same time had a similar play, Tite (=Titus) et Bérénice, by Molière published. After Racine had indeed beaten Corneille in the favour of the audience (and in the meantime had also gone out and in with the all-powerful minister Colbert),[3] he switched to more recent Turkish history with the intrigue play Bajazet (1672), which is set at the court of Istanbul. France was in league with the Sultan against the German Emperor, and “turqueries” were in fashion.

Dominating the Parisian Theatres

After the success of Bajazet, Racine dominated the Parisian theatre. In 1673 he was elected to the Académie française. With Mithridate (1673) he again wrote a “Roman” play that was a rival to Corneille. After this he returned to the world of Greek antiquity with Iphigénie en Aulide (1674). The first performance took place at a festival with which the king celebrated the annexation of Franche-Comté, conquered in 1668, in the middle of the Dutch War (1672-78). In the same year 1674, Racine was given the not insignificant but hardly burdensome position of “Treasurer of France” (Trésorier de France) for the district of Moulins. In 1676 he had a collected edition of his plays published, which he had thoroughly revised for this purpose. In early 1677 Phèdre was performed, based on the ancient Phaidra material. It is regarded as his best and quasi-tragic play alongside Andromaque. The success, however, was only moderate. On the other hand, when a mediocre play of the same name by Jacques Pradon was generally praised and applauded, Racine withdrew frustratedly from the theatre in favour of his other activities. He also married: the pious and rich, distantly related Catherine de Romanet, with whom he successively had a son, five daughters and another son until 1692.

Later Years

Already in 1676, together with his friend Boileau, he had been appointed Royal Chronicler (Historiographe du roi) and from then on had to take part in Louis XIV‘s now almost non-stop campaigns to record them (including the siege of Ghent in 1678 in the Dutch War, and the siege of Namur in 1692 in the War of Palatinate Succession). However, his and Boileau’s records were later destroyed in a fire. From 1685 Racine read to Ludwig and Madame de Maintenon. In 1688 and 1690 he was persuaded by her to write a play again and wrote the Esther and Athalie, which dealt with religious matters and were intended for performance in the noble convent and girls’ boarding school of Saint-Cyr, where they were performed by pensioners. Theologians, however, criticized the plays as secular profanation of spiritual objects. In 1690, Racine reached the height of his courtier career with the appointment as Royal Chamberlain (gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre du roi), which was associated with his elevation to the peerage.

Gradually, but initially only secretly, he also returned to the strict Jansenism of his youth and reconciled himself with some of his old teachers. In 1694 he aroused the King’s displeasure because he had tried to enlist the services of the Archbishop of Paris for the Port-Royal Monastery, which was still the spiritual centre of the Jansenists. When he showed his sympathies publicly in 1698 with an Abrégé de l’histoire de Port-Royal (outline of the history of P.-R.), he fell out of favour with Louis. Away from court he spent his last months in bitterness, albeit as a rich man and as patriarch in the circle of his large family. Jean Racine died in 1699 from cancer of the liver. He requested burial in Port-Royal, but after Louis XIV had this site razed in 1710, his remains were moved to the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church in Paris.

Michael Holland, Feel Your Inner Stage: Outrageous Antics in French Theatre, [9]

References and Further Reading:

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