Racine, Jean Baptiste
RACINE, JEAN BAPTISTE
French dramatist whose works represent the peak of dramatic art in 17th-century France; b. La Ferté-Milon, baptized Dec. 22, 1639; d. Paris, April 21, 1699. Born of bourgeois parents, Racine was orphaned at the age of three, and raised principally by grandparents. In 1649, through family connections with port-royal he entered that important Jansenist school, where he received an excellent education, particularly in the classics. With the exception of two years spent at the college of the city of Beauvais, Racine remained under the guidance of the men at Port-Royal until 1658. He was thus witness to the turbulent period (1656–58) when the Jansenist-Jesuit quarrel was highlighted by the appearance of pascal's Les Lettres Provinciales.
Racine left Port-Royal for Paris in 1658. There, in his desire to succeed, he dedicated to the queen an ode entitled, "La Nymphe de la Seine" (1660), which attracted the attention of Colbert, Prime Minister of Louis XIV. However, Racine's two attempts at play writing (L'Amasie and Les Amours d'Ovide ) were rejected, and on the possibility of obtaining an ecclesiastical benefice he went to Uzès in Languedoc. Despite the important diocesan post held there by his uncle Antonin Sconin, Racine's efforts were fruitless and he returned to Paris and the stage.
The Young Dramatist. In 1664 Molière's troupe presented the first of Racine's tragedies ever to be performed, La Thébaïde, which was followed in 1665 by Alexandre le Grand. Both plays were in the French classical tradition as practiced by Corneille and Quinault, but neither exhibited more than traces of the genius he was to show in Andromaque and for which he became famous. However, in his drive to satisfy his profound ambitions, Racine made an enemy of Molière by asking a rival theater, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, to present Alexandre in direct competition with Molière's production. It was also during this period that Racine quarreled openly with his former masters at Port-Royal because of their general condemnation of theatrical spectacles.
Andromaque (1667) marked Racine's departure from the tradition of heroic tragedy; for in this play he introduced a new concept of the tragic motive of passion, different from the ennobling sentiment of Corneille and the older generation. Andromaque revealed a violent, destructive love that consumed all in its desire to possess the beloved; it was this intimate rapport between passion and hatred that marked the innovation.
In 1668 Racine turned briefly to the writing of comedy and produced a satire on the legal profession, Les Plaideurs, that owed much to the Wasps of Aristophanes. But he returned to his particular domain in 1669 with Britannicus, in which he displayed his mastery of Corneille's favorite type of drama—tragedy with a Roman background. Yet within the typically Cornelian framework, the same explosive passions are at work that were discovered in Andromaque. A struggle for power forms the basis for an intensely cruel plot in which innocent intermediaries are caught and sacrificed to the needs of the two predatory creatures who seek complete domination—the ruthless Agrippine and her sadistic son Néron.
Despite the relative lack of success of Britannicus, Racine remained with Roman history for one more play, Bérénice (1670). This time his efforts were crowned with a double triumph; Bérénice was an unqualified success at the box office and Racine saw his own adaptation of the Titus and Bérénice story preferred to Corneille's (Tite et Bérénice ), which was first presented only eight days after the première of Racine's version. Despite much bitter criticism, largely based on antagonism toward Racine and personal affection for Corneille, Racine emerged victorious in the public eye.
After the Sophoclean simplicity of Bérénice, with its three characters and bloodless, though definitely tragic, conclusion, Racine once again looked to the active, mobile kind of plot, characterized by passion and death. The result was Bajazet (1672). He also endeavored to profit from the surge of interest in things exotic by having the action of the play performed entirely within the confines of a royal Turkish harem. Racine's personal satisfaction with the public and royal reception of his play may be measured by the fact that in the preface to the printed edition of Bajazet he did not deign to defend at length his creation against the inevitable criticism of rivals. It was a self-assured Racine who composed that relatively short preliminary discourse, free from the acid polemics that characterized earlier Racinian prefaces.
The Master Dramatist. Racine was at the pinnacle of his fame during the years from 1670 to 1677, and two events in 1673 are indicative: his reception to the Académie Française on January 12 and the popularity of Mithridate (Louis XIV's favorite Racinian tragedy), which was performed shortly thereafter. However, in Mithridate himself Racine has attempted to create a hero of Cornelian proportions, and a certain uneasiness about depicting a figure foreign to his own conception of the "fallen" hero—the man endowed with great strength who nevertheless is crushed—may serve to explain the drama's lack of intensity in comparison with preceding Racinian endeavors.
Iphigénie (1674) was the occasion of Racine's return to Greek subjects, particularly as dramatized by Euripides. Racine also wished to profit from the popularity of French opera and the consequent vogue of mythological subjects by producing a work in which not only the strong flavor of Greek fatality but also the very musicality of the verses recalled Greek tragedy with its lyrical moments of choral declamation.
With the death of Molière (1673) and the decline of Corneille, Racine was the undisputed master of the Parisian stage. Nevertheless, two and a half years elapsed before his next production, Phèdre, which stands at the summit of Racinian tragedy. In Phèdre, which owed much of its material to many predecessors, ancient and modern alike, Racine fashioned a drama about an uncontrollable passion that led not only to an event of catastrophic import (the death of Hippolytus), but also to the tragic torment. Phèdre is the culmination of a Racinian tendency to infuse an awful lucidity into the heroine (or hero), so that she is fully aware of her moral degradation. Moreover, by employing a mythological background Racine greatly enlarged the scope of his tragedy. This factor, plus Phèdre's acute self-consciousness, give substance to her cry that she has blackened the universe by an incestuous desire, and that the ritual of her death (on stage) is therefore tantamount to a cosmic rite of purification.
The years from 1677 to 1689, known as his retraite, formed a dramatic pause in the creative life of Racine. Among the most likely reasons for this period of silence are his reconciliation with the Jansenists and principally his appointment, at the same time as Boileau, as historiographer of the King. Racine's advancement in royal circles apparently inspired in him little inclination to continue his association with actors and with his "trade," as dramaturgy was considered in his day. Moreover, it was precisely in 1677 that he began his life as husband, and later, as devoted father of five girls and two boys, in a household where religion and moral principles were closely observed.
At the request of Mme. de Maintenon, Racine composed, in 1689, a play destined for the edification of the students at Saint-Cyr, a school for young girls. This was Esther, a three-act religious tragedy with chorus. Athalie (1691) was also written for the girls under Madame de Maintenon's care; and the title character is one of Racine's most powerful creations. Because of the imposing stature of Athalie, her struggle against God's will assumes titanic proportions. Thus, even when inevitably defeated, she still evokes admiration by the very magnitude of her effort.
Racine was never again strongly tempted to undertake the composition of another dramatic work, but he did continue to write, as the four beautiful Cantiques Spirituels (1694) and his Abrégé de l'Histoire de Port-Royal (not published until 1742–67) attest. It was only, however, in the last two years that remained to him (1698–99) that he irrevocably deserted the mundane existence of the courtier for the scrupulously principled life compatible with the Jansenist point of view. He died in Paris and was buried, according to his wish, in the cemetery of Port-Royal-des-Champs.
The conception of the human condition discovered in Racine's plays is a tragic one: man, deceived into believing that his acts can be efficacious, is frustrated and finally crushed by his collision with a ruthless destiny. Some have referred to this view as Jansenist, because of Racine's background; but this would not seem to be necessarily the case, since, for example, approximately the same tragic conception may be found in the works of Seneca. What is certain, however, is that life as tragedy never has found a more eloquent nor profound expression than in Racinian drama.
Racine's Genius. The most striking elements of any Racinian play are his characters; they are finely nuanced, passionate models of intensity whose very suffering excites sympathy and pathos (le pathétique ) while their stature summons admiration. Creations such as Oreste, Hermione, Néron, Athalie, and above all Phèdre are truly unforgettable.
Racinian tragedy is well constructed to incite the many and violent emotional reactions of its characters, because it is composed with crisis at its center. Everything underlines and forces the tension of the crisis to the point of explosion: the location of the action in one defined area, the limitation of the time span to one day, and the strict subordination of details to the central conflict. Unlike Shakespearean theater, Racinian drama uses little scenic effect and employs relatively few physical actions to aid the plot's development; it remains for language to sustain the play, and Racinian verse is celebrated both for its poetical beauty and its functional use in the drama.
Indeed, the whole trend of French classical literature seemed to have paved the way for Racine so that on his arrival he found all the elements in readiness: lucidity, simplicity, concision, intellectuality, and universality. In fact, Racine may be considered as principally responsible for the death of classical French tragedy because of the perfection of his work: his art was inimitable and served only to frustrate the creative efforts of post-Racinian classical dramatists, such as Voltaire. Racinian tragedy thus remains the most exalted form of French art in a century consciously striving for artistic perfection.
Bibliography: j. b. racine, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. p. mesnard, 10 v. (2d ed. Paris 1885–88); Oeuvres Complètes, ed. r. picard, 2 v. (Paris 1950–52). a. adam, Histoire de la littérature française au 17 e siècle, 5 v. (Paris 1958–61) v.4. r. picard, La Carrière de Jean Racine (new rev. ed. Paris 1961). p. moreau, Racine: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris 1943). j. giraudoux, Racine (Paris 1950). t. maulnier, Racine (Paris 1958). p. bÉnichou, Morales du Grand Siècle (Paris 1948). j. pommier, Aspects de Racine suivi de l'histoire littéraire d'un couple tragique (Paris 1954). e. vinaver, Racine and Poetic Tragedy, tr. p. mansell jones (New York 1959). j. c. lapp, Aspects of Racinian Tragedy (Toronto 1955). j.d. hubert, Essai d'exégèse Racinienne (Paris 1956).
[r. w. tobin]