On Not Translating Racine

Racine or The Triumph of Relevance

by Odette de Mourgues
Cambridge University Press, 180 pp., $5.50

The Complete Plays of Jean Racine

translated by Samuel Solomon, with an Introduction by Katherine Wheatley
Random House, Vol. 2, 459 pp., $20.00 the set

Jean Racine
Jean Racine; drawing by David Levine

There are some great artists whose work travels on triumphantly through the centuries and who never need rediscovering or dusting down for contemporary use. Beethoven and Shakespeare are cases in point. Their popularity, untouched by changes in fashion, has increased in geometrical progression, so that now there can be no moment during the twenty-four hours when someone, somewhere in the world, is not being dazzled by the Diabelli Variations or the power of Shakespeare’s imagination. Other artists, and particularly some poets, never achieve this universal significance and have to be defended afresh by successive waves of admirers. To this category belong, for instance, Pushkin and Racine. And Racine is perhaps an even more peculiar case than Pushkin. Whereas Russians seem to be unanimous in considering Pushkin as their greatest poet, even if he is not much appreciated abroad, many Frenchmen with literary tastes remain insensitive to Racine and take no interest in his plays, once they have been freed from the obligation of reading them at school or university. To be a genuine Racine enthusiast in France is to belong to a minority, even among theater people. It is a remarkable fact, for instance, that none of the many theatrical innovators of the modern movement—Antoine, Lügné-Poë, Copeau, Dullin, Jouvet, Barrault, Vilar, Planchon, etc.—has shown any special concern for Racine; they have all been much more interested in Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Molière.

The only exception I can think of is Gaston Baty, who many years ago produced what I thought was a lamentable Bérénice. More recently, the actor, Robert Hirsch, made a hit with his sinister/comic Néron in Britannicus. At the moment, some enterprising new company is giving a lavishly mimed, Freudian Britannicus, which, however, has not been well received. From time to time, famous actresses have come more or less to grief in Phèdre. When Edwige Feuillère had a shot at the great role, I found her very moving, but this may have been because my critical faculties tend to desert me whenever Mme Feuillère makes her entrance; I feel fifteen instead of fifty-plus and drool with calf-love; at any rate, I could get hardly anyone to agree with me that she glowed with conviction in the part. Marie Bell was strong, but too raspingly vulgar. Maria Casarès was generally considered unsatisfactory. Jeanne Moreau announced her intention of putting on the play and then her courage failed her. In short, there has been no Phèdre in recent times that theatergoers and writers can be enthusiastic about, in the way their predecessors were about Sarah Bernhardt.

If Racine has come in for a lot of public discussion in France during the last year or so, this is not because of theatrical performances, but because one or two avant-garde critics, such as Roland Barthes and Charles Mauron, subjected the plays to structuralist or psychoanalytical interpretation and were vigorously attacked, on grounds of willful distortion,…

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