Authors: Jean Racine

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French playwright

Author Works

Drama:

La Thébaïde: Ou, Les Frères ennemis, pr., pb. 1664 (The Theban Brothers, 1723)

Alexandre le Grand, pr. 1665 (Alexander the Great, 1714)

Andromaque, pr. 1667 (Andromache, 1674)

Les Plaideurs, pr. 1668 (The Litigants, 1715)

Britannicus, pr. 1669 (English translation, 1714)

Bérénice, pr. 1670 (English translation, 1676)

Bajazet, pr., pb. 1672 (English translation, 1717)

Mithridate, pr., pb. 1673 (Mithridates, 1926)

Iphigénie, pr. 1674 (Iphigenia in Aulis, 1700)

Phèdre, pr., pb. 1677 (Phaedra, 1701)

Idylle sur la paix, pb. 1685 (libretto, with Jean-Baptiste Lully)

Esther, pr., pb. 1689 (English translation, 1715)

Athalie, pr., pb. 1691 (Athaliah, 1722)

The Dramatic Works of Jean Racine, pb. 1889

The Best Plays of Racine, pb. 1936

Five Plays, pb. 1960

The Complete Plays, pb. 1967

Poetry:

Cantiques spirituels, 1694

Nonfiction:

Abrégé de l’histoire de Port-Royal, 1742 (first part), 1767 (full text)

Biography

Jean Baptiste Racine (ra-seen) is remembered, along with Pierre Corneille, as a leader of the classical revival in the drama of seventeenth century France. His father was a solicitor and local official in the town of La Ferté-Milon, but both parents died soon after Jean’s birth in December, 1639, and the boy was brought up by his Jansenist grandparents. He attended school first at Beauvais and later at the famous Jansenist monastery of Port-Royal, where he wrote quite passable odes in both Latin and French while still in his teens. By the time he had left the Collège d’Harcourt, he had composed an ode in honor of the marriage of Louis XIV that earned for him six hundred livres from the monarch, written two unsuccessful dramas, formed a friendship with Jean de La Fontaine, and conducted liaisons with several of the leading actresses of the day. A few years later, he also became a friend of the famous critic and arbiter of French taste Nicolas Boileau, who remained his mentor and friendly censor for much of his life.{$I[AN]9810000411}{$I[A]Racine, Jean}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Racine, Jean}{$I[tim]1639;Racine, Jean}

Jean Racine

(Library of Congress)

The years between 1664 and 1673 were marked by the highly favorable reception of two plays, The Theban Brothers and Alexander the Great, the second of which raised Racine to the rank of Corneille in public opinion, and by an extremely unpleasant exchange of pamphlets with the Jansenists at Port-Royal, who hated the theater and Racine’s involvement in it. It was in Andromache that Racine displayed the heights of his particular genius: the ability to combine the strict requirements of the highly formalized Senecan drama that dominated the French stage with a revived interest in human motivation and characterization. Like his other great tragedy, Phaedra, Andromache not only employs a classical Greek theme but also follows the classical rules and unities of Aristotle as they had come to be interpreted on the seventeenth century French stage by the master of the classical renaissance, Corneille. At the same time, Racine devotes all his skill to the creation of warm, human characters, and in such figures as Hermione and Phaedra draws a highly sympathetic (some say sentimentalized) picture of the victims of grand and fatal passions. Like Corneille, he regards human passion as a destructive force, but unlike his rival, he feels a genuine sympathy for its victims. This outlook, combined with almost uniformly brilliant versification, has made Racine almost as popular in modern times as he was in his own.

Andromache was followed in fairly close succession by a long series of successful plays on classical, biblical, or Oriental themes: The Litigants (his charming and only comedy), Britannicus, Bérénice, Bajazet, Mithridates, and Iphigenia in Aulis. In 1677 the series was climaxed by Phaedra, the story of the Grecian woman whose uncontrollable love for her stepson brings on a series of disasters and her own destruction. Perhaps the greatest of Racine’s tragedies, it was also, however, the unluckiest. Influential enemies had commissioned another Phaedra to be written for presentation at the same time as his, and Racine’s play was nearly driven from the stage in consequence. After this blow, the playwright retired almost completely from dramatic writing, abandoning his lifelong libertine habits in favor of a reconciliation with the puritans of Port-Royal. He married and settled down to a comfortable life as a courtier and royal historiographer; he also raised two sons and five daughters.

Racine wrote only two more plays during the remaining twenty years of his life, both composed especially for the young girls who attended the school at St. Cyr established by Louis XIV’s last mistress, Madame de Maintenon, for the education of poor girls from noble families. Esther and Athaliah, while lacking the intense passions of the earlier tragedies, possess a delicacy and perfection of construction, characterization, and versification all their own. The choruses, set to the music of Moreau, the court composer, are particularly lovely.

Except for a short history of Port-Royal and several minor pieces, Racine was silent after 1691. His declining years were marked by a loss of friends and of literary and royal favor. He died in Paris on April 21, 1699, and was buried at Port-Royal.

BibliographyBarthes, Roland. On Racine. 1983. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. A French scholar discusses Racine’s tragedies. Includes bibliography and index.Caldicott, Edric, and Derval Conroy, eds. Racine: The Power and the Pleasure. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2001. This study examines the concepts of power and pleasure in Racine’s dramas.Goodkin, Richard E. Birth Marks: The Tragedy of Primogeniture in Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Goodkin examines the works of Racine and the two Corneilles, placing special emphasis on their treatments of primogeniture.Hawcroft, Michael. Word as Action: Racine, Rhetoric, and Theatrical Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Hawcroft examines Racine’s use of language in his dramatic works. Includes bibliography and indexes.Parish, Richard. Racine: The Limits of Tragedy. Seattle: Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, 1993. An examination of the tragedies written by Racine. Includes bibliography.Phillips, Henry. Racine: Language and Theatre. Durham, England: University of Durham, 1994. A look at the language of Racine and how he used it in his dramas. Includes bibliography.Tobin, Ronald W. Jean Racine Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999. A basic biography of Racine that covers his life and works. Includes bibliography and index.
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