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Phedre by Jean Racine

Phedre (1677)

by Jean Racine

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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
A Greek tragedy by Racine, a web of interlocking and tragic loves and misunderstandings propels this play from beginning to end. Although I enjoyed Andromache more, this was also a pleasure from beginning to end. And like Andromache, added greater psychological depth and complexity to characters caught in what would otherwise appear to be the inevitably unfolding clockwork gears of their fates. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Why do modern authors insist on retaining both the characters and the predictable outcomes of these ancient dramas? Racine's French prose is great but the story fails to excite.
  Audacity88 | Feb 7, 2014 |
I loved this. Racine makes one big change from Euripides: he blames Phedre's false accusation mostly (though not wholly) on her nurse, instead of on her. Coincidentally, that's the one thing that really stuck out for me in the original: I found Phedre's final accusation jarring, unearned and unexplained. So...nice job, Racine!

He also throws a love interest for Hippolytus in, though, in order to make him a little less...y'know, above it all. This was less successful. I think he'd have achieved the effect more cleanly simply by having Hippolytus acknowledge some attraction to Phedre.

And I have now managed to second guess Euripides and Racine in two paragraphs. You know who else wasn't that great? Shakespeare. Yeah!

*ahem* Translation review: not so great. Rawlings delivers with the original French on preceding pages, which is terrific but also serves to make obvious her own shortcomings. Her translation is loose, and it ignores the rhyme of the original. Richard Wilbur manages the same rhyme scheme with ease in his Moliere translation. I'd heard that he failed hard when he attempted Racine, so I didn't read it. With hindsight, I'd give him a shot - or recent dead Laureate Ted Hughes, who also attempted it. Without anything to compare it to, Rawlings' interpretation is functional but not great. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Since Rawlings' translation was just okay for me, I'd like to get back and check this out at some point. Besides, the cover is way cooler.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |

When is one guilty of something, when one commits the reprehensible deed, and only one knows it, or when it is made known to others?

Phèdre thinks that the latter case is a great deal worse, worse even than death:

je meurs pour ne point faire un aveu si funeste
je n’en mourrai plus, j’en mourrai plus coupable

And so probably did Racine, because in his Phèdre, the action is activated by Phèdre’s avowal of her guilt which she makes three times. These three long soliloquies are amongst the most famous parts of the play. She is guilty of loving her stepson and she acknowledges this to her “confidente” (Oenone), to her stepson (Hyppolite), and to her husband (Thésée). These three confessions trigger the drama that unfolds irremediably fast, bringing the tragic downfall of both guilty and non guilty.

But the interest of this play is not in the plot, but in the themes that Racine so lyrically develops. Love coupled with jealousy as a fatal damnation. Treachery as the worst ignominy that can be suffered and inflicted. Choices that remain captive and render Destiny unavoidable. And expectedly in Racine, the power of the word as the vehicle for the human soul.

Racine’s tragedies are distilled drama. They are tragedies at their purest in which there is the very minimum of extraneous material. Respecting the three Aristotelian units of one place, one theme and one unit of time (one day), Racine also added the typically 17th century French concept of “bienséance” or “propriety”. He approached the three units by emptying them as much as possible. The place is no place, but just an enclosing undefined lieu that traps the tragic heroes and heroines in their own disarrays. The action takes place elsewhere and the messengers just inform the enclosed heroes about them. The resulting single action we see acted is no action at all, but the soul’s suffering them (in a way similarly to Baroque opera in which the recitatives tell the story and the arias sing the feelings). With so much material stripped out, then everything can happen quickly. We end up not been aware of whether it all happened in one day, or in an accelerated, condensed and immeasurable eternity. On the stage are left the abstract concepts that do not resolve.

For Phèdre has remained guilty.

I have reread this play as a complement to reading Marcel Proust’s La recherche du temps perdu as part of the 2013: The Year of Reading Proust Group. And since it is a play I have sought to watch it acted out. I found this DVD http://www.amazon.co.uk/Phèdre-DVD-Dominique-Blanc/dp/B0002T279G/ref=sr_1_1?ie=..., and therefore my review will comment on this production as well.

I should add that, sadly, this is the only filmed production of a Racine play that I have been able to find. Are they commercially so unattractive? When I lived in Paris I was on a budget but was willing to stand and queue, for sometimes close to two hours, to be able to get the cheapest tickets (FF12.-) for the Comédie Française performances (Corneille, Marivaux, but mostly Molière and Racine). In one year I did not miss one single production.

I am lucky that I have seen some wonderful productions of Racine at the CF then. The stage settings were bare. The accoutrements for emphasizing the Drama were almost only the costumes that the characters wore, with their flowing tunics and floating capes and veils. They were simple but made out of absolutely exquisite materials. Contrasting hues in the clothing paralleled opposite personalities while subtle gradations in color tones marked allegiances. Only tenuously would they distract from the declaimed verses. The acting was selective. Racine’s characters do not move abruptly nor do they gesticulate while they converse. They do not need to touch since they reach each other with their words. Racine’s heroes and heroines are walking and speaking souls.

When in this DVD Phèdre first appears on the stage as a crouching and limping neurotic woman I was shocked that this could be a Racine Queen. I had been expecting a dignified dame whose august and majestic body carried the full weight of suffering in a stately manner. Phèdre is most famous for her remarkable and very long monologues, known to be so difficult to deliver well that they can make or unmake an actress. It seems that theatre critics count their career in France by the number of Phèdres they have attended. The legendary Sarah Bernhardt was unforgettably photographed in this role.

But this unappealing first entrance of a broken and bent Phèdre in my DVD is, furthermore, followed by somewhat hysterical characters who shout at each other their love and longings. Their incensed and broken sentences and undue emphasis at invented syncopations ruins Racine’s verses and rhyme.

For Racine was a master of the Alexandrines, the twelve syllable verses with a clear caesura in its exact middle. His iambic hexameters establish a cadential rhythm which measures an even pace. True, at selected times he breaks and joins the verses with a skillful “enjambement” (the continuation of a thought in the following verse) that has an effect of an accelerated train of thought, but this enjambement ought not to interfere with a mellifluous enunciation of the lines. His verses should have the lulling effect of a hypnotic lullaby.

In the DVD production, with its broken chants and histrionic acting, a worthy exception is Théramène’s account of Hyppolite’s death. Were a film director of Steven Spielberg’s kind get hold of Théramène’s speech, it would be inflated it into a fantastic rendering of monsters, seas opening into abysms, and a hair-raising run of frenzied and desperate horses with a fatal consequence. Instead, true to Racine, a sad man, barely moving, declaims this succession of horrors, without blinking, depicting with only words the dreadful scene that gradually sinks the listening father into an unavoidable sorrow. What a wonderful speech.

It is not surprising that Racine’s selected use of words and exquisite ability with the Alexandrines would fascinate someone as careful and sensitive to the power of language as Marcel Proust. We have Proust’s explicit admiration for the way Racine could twist the very formal structure of his verses and with a broken syntax add ambiguity and richness to his meaning. These examples he gave are from Andromaque:

Pourquoi l’assassiner, Qu’a-t-il fait? A quel titre ?
Qui te l’a dit ?

But it was the poignant portrayal of guilty love in Phèdre that obsessed Proust. And it is this play, which he knew in its entirety by heart, that he has associated to his fictional actress La Berma and which figures in La recherche repeatedly.


After this wonderful reading I will proceed with the rereading of more plays by Racine and with the listening of Rameau’s Opera, Hippolyte et Aricie.

( )
  KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (63 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Racine, Jeanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bakx, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fowlie, WallaceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goddard, WesleyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grebanier, Bernard D. N.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hughes, TedTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kinding, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lloyd, Harold AnthonyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowell, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowell, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pucciani, Oreste F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rawlings, MargaretTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salles, JeanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schiller, FriedrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Steinsieck, Wolf.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilbur, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Le dessein en est pris, je pars, cher Théramène,

Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 015675780X, Paperback)

Phaedra is consumed with passion for Hippolytus, her stepson. Believing her husband dead, she confesses her love to him and is rebuffed. When her husband returns alive, Phaedra convinces him that it was Hippolytus who attempted to seduce her. In his interpretation, Racine replaced the stylized tragedy with human-scale characters and actions. Introduction by Richard Wilbur.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:24 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Phaedra is consumed with passion for Hippolytus, her stepson. Believing her husband dead, she confesses her love to him and is rebuffed. When her husband returns alive, Phaedra convinces him that it was Hippolytus who attempted to seduce her. In his interpretation, Racine replaced the stylized tragedy with human-scale characters and actions. Introduction by Richard Wilbur.… (more)

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