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JEAN RACINE (1639-1699)

THE second representative of French classical tragedy was born two years after the appearance of Corneille's Cid. Racine was well educated at the school of a religious brotherhood at Port Royal, and, unlike most of the dramatists of the age, he knew Greek as well as Latin. His first pieces were failures, and called forth from the great Corneille the advice not to attempt any more tragedies. His Andromaque (1667) was highly successful. It made the greater impression because already there was apparent in it a principle of composition which differed fundamentally from that of Corneille. This difference (to be explained presently) was the cause of a long and bitter literary warfare. There rose in Paris two cliques, one represented by Racine, Boileau and Molière, the other by Corneille and his followers. In 1670 Racine and Corneille were asked to write a play on the subject of Bérénice, though each was kept ignorant of the fact that the other was attempting the same theme. Corneille's play was coldly received, while that of Racine proved a triumphant success. Corneille's popularity, already waning, received a death blow, and the supremacy of Racine was established.

Racine, however, was far from being satisfied. The court and literary circles were full of intrigue, which turned him against the world; and he was beset by religious doubts concerning the morality of the theater. Soon after his success with Bérénice he abandoned his career as a dramatist, and accepted an appointment as historiographer to Louis XIV. For twelve years he wrote nothing for the stage; then at the request of Madame de Maintenon he produced Esther and Athalie for the pupils of Saint Cyr, a girl's school under royal patronage. Esther was presented with great success, but Athalie, though published, was never enacted until after the author's death.

In his later life, Racine developed an attitude very different from that of the self-confident youth who so boldly withstood the criticisms of Corneille. He became conscientious almost to the point of morbidity, and looked with distaste upon his own writings. New editions failed to interest him. "For a long time past," he said, "God has graciously permitted that the good or evil that may be said of my tragedies scarcely moves me, and I am only troubled by the account of them I shall one day have to render to Him." Racine was accomplished as a prose writer as well as a poet, and produced histories of value. He died April 21, 1699.


Eleven tragedies and one comedy remain from the pen of Racine. Nine of his tragedies are based upon historical subjects of the ancient world, and two upon biblical subjects. The story of Esther had already been treated six times by French dramatists, but a comparison of Racine's method with that of other writers, even of his own school, reveals a wide difference. Racine induced the action to its bare bones -- no underplots, no digressions, episodes, or characters extraneous to the main action. Instead of the extravagant sensational incidents such as Corneille delighted in, Racine worked with probabilities, everyday events, characters nearer to the commonplace. His object was to depict the possibilities of passion implicit in the common experiences of man, the living reality instead of the exceptional situation. Corneille had declared it a law that the subject of a fine tragedy ought not to be probable; to which Racine answered that nothing but what is probable should ever be used in tragedy.

Racine's genius, however, was something far beyond the mere negative virtue of avoiding intricate and improbable plots. Not only did he simplify the action of his plays, but he formed an austere and elegant style appropriate to such simplicity. He avoided windy, rhetorical declamations and "purple patches," and expressed complex things with ease and beauty. His was an authentic voice, not an echo. Given a simple situation, he sought to go deeper into it, to throw upon it the searchlight of understanding combined with a passionate sympathy. As Corneille was more concerned with events, so Racine was more concerned with character; and he gave more importance to the passion of love than any previous dramatist had ever done. He said that as love is the most universal of passions, so it is therefore capable of being the most tragic; that love best displays the peculiarities, the fickleness, the weaknesses and strength of character; and that while there are few ways of showing such a passion as avarice, for example, there are many ways of being in love.


Racine did not escape criticism even from the men who followed in his footsteps. Voltaire sneered about the similarity of his heroes; and the Encyclopædists of the next generation disparaged what they termed the access of sensibility into the drama. The disposition towards sensibility, they said, accompanies weakness, and results from a motion of the diaphragm. It is a disposition which inclines us to admire, to sympathize, to be thrilled; but it is also one which inclines us to lose our reason, to be mad, to have no exact idea of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Inept as this criticism seems when applied to Racine, yet it was in accordance with the movement, fostered by the Encyclopædists, which sought to make practical use of everything. This attitude was expressed by Newton when he spoke of poetry as ingenious fiddle-faddle. Boileau considered that Racine stood at the head of the art of his time. It may be said, in passing, that Boileau was the Horace of the late seventeenth century, a man of extraordinary good sense and taste, trying, in his criticisms, to point out reasons for admiration or condemnation -- reasons which could be justified by nature and experience. His main idea was that the models of the ancients should be used to restrain the too exuberant outpourings of undisciplined talent. To him, naturally, the work of Racine appeared to be more in accordance with the canons of good taste than that of Corneille.

Many of the modern critics have found Racine somewhat cold and formal. It cannot be denied that to the reader of today, accustomed to the greater diversity and richness of the romanticists, his concentration and simplicity seem occasionally bare and frigid. Professor Erskine, in comparing the ancient with the French classic play, says: "The Greek type of life is made clear by wonder and love; the Racine type is life set in order by rule." Saint-Beuve comments: "His style as a rule borders on prose, except as regards the invariable elegance of its form." Even single lines bear evidence of this elegance and concentration. Professor Vaughn, in his study of types of tragic drama, has summed up as follows:

"These then are the supreme qualities of Racine: his deep knowledge of human character, so far as it bears directly upon action; his power of directing the action so as to grip the given characters at close quarters, to wake the energies of their soul to the utmost intensity, to call forth the strongest instincts of the heart. The two plays in which these qualities reveal themselves most clearly are probably Andromaque and Phèdre."

Mr. Arthur Symons said of Phèdre that it is the greatest rôle in the whole repertory of poetic drama, and that it alone reveals Racine as one of the most passionate of poets.

It must be generally admitted that among writers of the French classical school, Racine stands preeminent. He had the singleness of purpose which characterized the ancients at their best. The strength of the neo-classic school lay in its depth of understanding, its clear simple beauty, and in poetry with which the author was able to evelop his theme.