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, by the leading Sorbonne expert, Raymond Picard, the author of the definitive biography of Racine and the editor of the plays in the Pléiade collection. Barthes and Mauron have tended to read the plays less as seventeenth-century works of art (although there has also been some discussion of Racine and the baroque) than as cryptograms of the author’s private obsessions. This is fun, but when the author in question wrote in an extremely formal manner, left behind him no autobiographical material, and has been dead 300 years, any discussion of what went on inside his head is bound to be controversial.

I once asked Michel Saint-Denis, the well-known producer and a nephew of Copeau, why Racine should be in such a sorry theatrical plight, and his answer was, quite simply, that no one was able any longer to cope with this kind of play. It is true, I think, that Racine represents such an exceptional and delicate balance between formality and savage emotion that he admits of no variation in style. He has to be performed in the grand manner, with exquisite distinction, timing, and rhythm, by actors who really believe in the rigid stylization of the seventeenth century. Shakespeare is so multifarious and poetically abundant that he can survive almost any sort of treatment. One can be impressed by Macbeth even if the warriors pipe in a schoolboy treble and the witches’ wigs catch fire during the cauldron scene. But an amateur performance of any of Racine’s plays would now be unthinkable, and I have even sat through some renderings by the professionals of the Comédie Française that were quite deadly.

Present-day French classical actors can still do Molière superbly well, because the stylization of comedy does not conflict with the surrounding twentieth-century atmosphere. But Racine, and to a lesser degree Corneille, strain them beyond capacity. They tend to be grand only in a routine way, as if they could no longer believe in the psychological inhibitions and relentless sense of decorum that govern seventeenth-century tragedy. More than any other playwright, Racine needs to be given a certain tone, to be sung; all the delicate shifts in emotional tension take place above a certain level of sublimity, and the verbal music has to be kept going above that level, without any modern inflections or concessions to realism that might break the fabric of the verse. This is perhaps why latter-day admirers of Racine hear impossible, ideal performances in their minds and are disappointed when the word is made contemporary, contingent flesh.


Mme de Mourgues is an admirer writing for other admirers. Her book is intended to help the English-speaking reader to a better appreciation of Racine, but she seems to believe that the initial impact is a kind of grace that is vouchsafed to some people and not to others. She addresses herself to

…readers whose relationships with Racine’s tragedies have been, at some time or other, a first-hand personal experience…. No-one, I think, who is not endowed with the possibility of being violently moved by Racine, emotionally, aesthetically, even before wondering why, can derive any profit from this book, nor, for that matter, from any study of Racinian tragedy…. I should not have stressed so heavily what an approach to Racine’s tragedies requires from our sensibility if I had not met a number of intelligent people who admitted with great honesty that Racine left them unmoved, although they possessed in theory very sound and precise notions on the perfection of his tragedies.

I myself would not be quite so pessimistic. Anyone who is not tone-deaf to French verse can be brought to see that Racine possesses a unique quality, and precisely by such arguments as Mme de Mourgues uses. The point, I think, is not to expect Racine to be rich, varied, and, as it were, externally poetic. His exquisite, puritanical control drives him to absolute simplicity in the sublime. Why, for instance, was Françoise Sagan able to use the six little words Dans un mois, dans un an to such good effect as the title of one of her novels? I have now completely forgotten what the novel was about, but I was struck by the title, which is the beginning of a famous couplet from Bérénice:

Dans un mois, dans un an, com- ment souffrirons-nous,
Seigneur, que tant de mers me séparent de vous;

I had never noticed before how delicately the temporal perspective is indicated by the movement from mois to an, and how the emotion rises and then spreads out into a present of desolation in which the expanse of the sea—tant de mers—becomes an implied metaphor of sadness. The modulation of sounds and internal echoes in the lines are unobtrusive and faultless: comment souffrirons-nous repeats and darkens the five nasal vowels of the beginning of the line; the whole weight of the appeal rests on Seigneur, which comes at the beginning of the second line, thus reducing the force of the final rhyme: nous, vous (the obvious danger with rhyming couplets is a monotonous, quack-quack effect); the last syllable of Seigneur modulates at perfect intervals to ers in mers and ar in séparent. There is nothing to this poetry, really, except that it is exactly right, with a minimum of show. Racine is so discreetly poetic that an impatient reader might not notice that he is poetic at all.

Mme de Mourgues, using different quotations, makes similar comments. But she is also concerned to prove that the principle of purity and economy of effect which governs Racine’s use of language also lies behind the other conventions on which his plays are based. The unities of time and place, the choice of royal protagonists, the absence of visible “effects,” the paring down of the interest to psychological action conducted by monologues (confrontation of the character with himself), duologues, or three-cornered exchanges—all these devices tend to the same end, the creation of the perfect cathartic operation. This is the triumph of relevance. The spectator looks into the minds of universally representative characters at a moment when, in full consciousness, they are being crushed by their fate and are defining it scrupulously in transparent alexandrines. In Racine the conventions are not the dead wood they were to become during the eighteenth century; they are aesthetic conditions that he exploits positively and to the full.

In developing this thesis, Mme de Mourgues makes two major points with which I wholeheartedly agree. First, she argues that it is wrong to try to bring Racine up to date in order to appreciate him, and in saying this, she is on the side of Picard rather than of Barthes. Racine is what he is because of the way in which the peculiar circumstances of the seventeenth century influenced his genius; his aesthetic depends on the severity of the period, and is distinguished by wholeness of effect. He can, up to a point, be re-read according to Freudian notions, but they should not take precedence over the aesthetic according to which he operated. It is in this sense that one cannot play about with Racine, as one can with Shakespeare, whose aesthetic is much more mixed and fluid. I remember that, in the Gaston Baty production of Bérénice, Titus and the Queen sat on the palace steps and cuddled. This was quite shocking because Racinian characters can never touch each other on stage, except perhaps occasionally in a formal embrace; they commune only through language. In Phèdre, when the Queen confesses her love to Hippolyte and then, in despair, asks him to give her his sword so that she can kill herself, she is no doubt proclaiming her desire to be pierced publicly by his symbolic phallus, but she should not actually snatch at the sword, as Marie Bell did: the obscene implication should be all in the force of the one word: Donne! The imaginative strength of the scene is greater if one remembers seventeenth-century decorum. Louis XIV might spit into his bedclothes and defecate in public but, according to Saint-Simon, he only once lost his temper and struck a servant with his cane, and he was thoroughly ashamed of the lapse.


Secondly, Mme de Mourgues does not believe that Racine, in writing his plays, was an orthodox Catholic; even Athalie, which was composed at a time when he had returned to the fold, deals with the drama of the relationship of the individual with an incomprehensible Providence. It has always seemed to me that Athalie is the French equivalent of Paradise Lost, the complaint of a believer who doubts God’s goodness.

Mme de Mourgues’s book is a helpful and enlightening study. What of Mr. Solomon’s translations? If one begins by reading Miss Katherine Wheatley’s enthusiastic Introduction, one might suppose that the circle has at last been squared:

Whether he was born with it or acquired it, Mr. Solomon has the same aesthetic as Racine, la bienséance, in the broadest sense of the term, of the age of French classicism. Because he completely understands the aesthetic of the author he is translating, Mr. Solomon’s translations are superb. And this may be said of each and every play as a whole, although each one falls short of perfection, of course, in some details. …Racine has found his translator and the untranslatable has been translated for the first time in three hundred years….

Miss Wheatley goes on to make many true remarks about Racine, the difficulty of translating him and the inadequacy of previous translations. But frankly, I cannot for the life of me see why she goes overboard about Mr. Solomon’s worthy efforts. I respect his labor of love and I agree that he provides readable, unpretentious versions for anyone who wants to know what the plays are about. But can a reader who really knows Racine believe that Mr. Solomon comes even within hailing distance of suggesting the beauty of Racine’s language? Here, as a sample, is his rendering of the couplet I have already discussed:

In a month, a year, how great our misery
With all these seas sundering you and me;

This is exactly on the same level as Roy Campbell’s version of the opening of Baudelaire’s “Invitation au voyage

Mon enfant, ma soeur, songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble

My daughter, my sister, consider the vista
Of living out there, you and I.

In both cases, great poetry is replaced by a musical comedy jingle. In reading Mr. Solomon, one inevitably visualizes the last word in the first line as “miseree” and one begins to twitch vaguely in anticipation of the music. Nothing whatever remains of the quality which justifies Racine’s claim to our interest.

It is a very strange thing that people who say they enjoy poetry will go on arguing not only that it ought to be translatable but that, in fact, it has been translated. I doubt whether a single line in Mr. Solomon’s two large volumes actually translates any fragment of Racine, in the strict sense of making its literary presence felt in the second language. Listen to Racine’s Phèdre:

Que ces vains ornements, que ces voiles me pèsent.
Quelle importune main, en form- ant tous ces noeuds,
A pris soin sur mon front d’assem- bler mes cheveux?
Tout m’afflige, et me nuit, et conspire à me nuire.

This is one of the great sighing, sibilant laments of all time, and in Mr. Solomon’s English it becomes:

How heavy are these veils, these baubles vain!
And whose unwelcome hand, with all these knots,
Has on my brow with care ar- ranged my hair?
O all of you pursue and persecute me!

which conveys some of the literal sense, but has none of the physiological heaviness of the marvelous original. This is not Mr. Solomon’s fault; even if he were a real poet, which he manifestly is not, he couldn’t do the trick, because there is no solution to the problem of reproducing rhymed verse in another language with a different phonetic system, a different tonic beat, and a different vocabulary—in short, a different linguistic and psychological identity. The best that can be achieved is a transposition, in the manner, say, of Robert Lowell’s version of the play. His rendering of the passage is full of an independent vitality, which is barbaric and exciting in its own right:

Tear off these gross, official rings, undo
these royal veils. They drag me to the ground.
Why have you frilled me, laced me, crowned me, and wound
my hair in turrets? All your skill torments
and chokes me. I am crushed by ornaments.
Everything hurts me, and drags me to my knees!

This is pitched in quite a different key from the original; it is much less inward, less spiritually distraught, and it lacks the long, inevitable breathing of the alexandrine. Bleak as the thought may be, the only way to derive authentic enjoyment from Racine is to know French and join the minority of French-speakers who can think themselves back into the austere beauties of the seventeenth century. Of course, no one who does not feel the urge is under any obligation to do this. As Mme de Mourgues says:

No aspersions should be cast…. Aesthetic experiences are of many kinds and Racine is not the only great dramatist in the world.

This Issue

January 2, 1969