Dramatist, b. at La Ferte-Milon, in the old Duchy of Valois, Dec. 20, 1639; d. in Paris, April 21, 1699
Racine, JEAN, dramatist, b. at La Ferté-Milon, in the old Duchy of Valois, December 20, 1639; d. in Paris, April 21, 1699. Left an orphan at a very early age, his relatives sent him to the College of Beauvais, which was intimately connected with Port Royal, whither he went in 1655. Here, though only sixteen years of age, he made such progress that he not only read Greek at sight, but wrote odes both in Latin and in French. In 1658, he entered the College d’Harcourt. While boarding with his uncle, Nicolas Vitart, he formed too close an acquaintance with some theatrical people, and in order to guard him against temptation his relatives sent him to another uncle, the Abbe Sesvrin, at Uzes; but failing to obtain any position there, he returned to Paris in 1663, where he wrote two odes which made him known to the court. In 1664 his first play, “La Thebaide, ou les Freres ennemis”, was performed. It was followed by “Alexandre”, another drama equally insignificant. “Andromaque”, in 1667, proved a great success, and was followed by his only comedy, “Les Plaideurs” (1668). “Britannicus” followed in 1669, “Berenice” (1670) “Bajazet” (1672), “Mithridate” (1673), “Iphigenie” (1674). After the failure of “Phedre” in 1677, Racine abruptly severed his connection with the stage, partly because he was weary of unjust criticism and unfair rivalry, and partly from conscientious motives. He remained silent for twelve years, but in 1689, at the request of Madame de Maintenon, he wrote “Esther” and “Athalie in 1691.
Racine’s dramas were variously received. “Andromaque” achieved as great a success as “Le Cid”, and deservedly; the author devoted his most delicate and refined art to the portrayal of the most tragic passion. No characters on the French stage are more interesting and attractive than “Hermione”, the type of passionate love, and “Andromaque”, of maternal. His comedy, “Les Plaideurs”, inspired by the “Wasps” of Aristophanes, failed at first, but, being applauded by Louis XIV; it subsequently met with great favor. “Britannicus” was called by Voltaire la piece des connoisseurs. “Berenice” was written in competition with a play on the same subject by Corneille, which it far surpassed. His two tragedies on Oriental subjects, “Bajazet” and “Mithridate”, do not breathe the Oriental spirit. “Iphigenie” is full of pathos. “Phedre”, which may dispute with “Andromaque” and “Athalie” the title of Racine’s masterpiece, was represented at the Had de Bourgogne, while the “Phedre” of Pradon was performed by the king’s actors. From the first, Racine had been bitterly opposed by various cabals, whom his success and his sarcasm had irritated. His own “Phedre” was a failure, while Pradon’s triumphed. He now ceased all dramatic work, married, and became very pious, devoting himself entirely too domestic life and to his duties as royal historiographer. In the remaining twenty years of his life he wrote only two plays. Madame de Maintenon, who had established an institution at Saint-Cyr for the education of poor girls of noble family, asked Racine for a drama to be represented by her protegees. He wrote “Esther“, which had an enormous success. Every critic admires in it the splendor of the chorus, the perfection of the characters, and the wonderful art of the play as a whole. The other was “Athalie”, a drama of the same kind.
As a dramatic writer, Racine is one of the leaders of the classical school. His dramatic art was a protest against the heroic and bombastic tragedies which, until that time, had been the fashion. We read in the preface to “Britannicus”: “What can I do to satisfy my stern critics? It would be very easy to do so if I were willing to sacrifice common sense. I need only disregard nature and rush into the sensational.” Corneille liked an action rather complicated, “full of incident, a large number of theatrical surprises, and numberless high-flown speeches”. Racine, to quote his own words, always chose “a simple action, not overladen, which, progressing steadily to the catastrophe, is sustained by the interest, the feelings, and the passions of the characters”. Again, while in Corneille the characters are secondary to the action; in Racine the action is suited to the characters. Hence we do not find sensational situations in his tragedies, but rather a deep and complete study of the passions to which the human heart is a prey and, above all, of love. Racine is the great painter of love, but love as he conceives it is always violent, impetuous, jealous, and sometimes criminal. The effect of his new method was to bring about a change in that of the French drama. Racine’s style is simple and smooth, always pure, elegant, harmonious, and, nevertheless, when necessary, strong and bold. Racine was a sensitive, vain, and irritable man, with deeply religious feelings, and a keen, supple, and strong intellect. He displays in his work almost unique powers of psychological analysis, a wonderful delicacy of sentiment, and an exquisite sense of literary art.