Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/794

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RACINE, JEAN


exquisite versification was not denied. But there is no doubt that in Britannicus the defects of Racine display themselves pretty clearly to any competent critic. The complete nullity of Britannicus himself and of junie, and the insufficient attempt to display the complex and dangerous character of Nero are not redeemed by Agrippina, who is really good, and Burrhus, who is solidly painted as a secondary character. Voltaire calls it “ la piece des connoisseurs, ” a double-edged compliment. The next play of Racine has, except Phédre, the most curious history 'of all. “ Bérénice, " says Fontenelle succinctly, “fut un duel, ” and he acknowledges that his uncle was not the conqueror. Henrietta of Orleans proposed (it is said without letting them know the double commission) the subject to Corneille and Racine at the same time, and rumour gives no very creditable reasons for her choice of the subject. Her death preceded the performance of the two plays, both of which, but especially Racine's, were successful. There is no doubt that it is the better of the two, but Claude Chapelle's not unfriendly criticism in quoting the two lines of an old song“Marion pleure, Marion crie,

Marion veut qu'on la marie"is

said to have annoyed Racine very much, and it has a most malicious appropriateness. Bajazet, which was first played on 4th January 1672, is perhaps better. As a play, technically speaking, it has great merit, but the reproach commonly brought against its author was urged specially and with great force against this by Corneille. It is impossible to imagine anything less Oriental than the atmosphere of Bajazet; the whole thing is not only French but ephemerally French-French of the day and hour; and its ingenious scenario and admirable style scarcely save it. This charge is equally applicable with the same reservations to Mithridale, which appears to have been produced on 13th January 1673, the day after the author's reception at the Academy. It was extremely popular, and Racine could hardly have lodged a more triumphant diploma piece. His next attempt, I phigénie, was a long step backwards and upwards in the direction of Andromaque. It is not that the characters are eminently Greek, but that Greek tragedy gave Racine examples which prevented him from fiying in the face of the propriety of character as he had done in Bérénice, Bajazel, and M ithridate, and that he here called in, as in Andromaque, other passions to the aid of the mere sighing and crying which form the sole appeal of these three tragedies. It succeeded brilliantly and deservedly, but, oddly enough, the date of its appearance is very uncertain. It was acted at court on the 18th of August 1674, but it does not seem to have been given to the public till the early spring of 1675.

The last and finest of the series of 'tragedies proper was the most unlucky. Phédre was represented for the first time on New Year's Day 1677, at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Within a week the opposition company or troupe du roi launched an opposition Phédre by Nicolas Pradon. This singular competition, which had momentous results for Racine, and in which he to some extent paid the penalty of the lex talionis for his own rivalry with Corneille, had long been foreseen. Racine had from the first been bitterly opposed, and his enemies at this time had the powerful support of the duchess of Bouillon, one of Mazarin's nieces, together with her brother the duke of N evers and divers other personages of high position. These persons of quality, guided, it is said, by Madame Deshouliéres, selected Pradon, a'dramatist of little talent but of much facility, to compose a Phédre in competition with that which it was known that Racine had been elaborating. The partisans on both sides did not neglect means for correcting fortune. On her side the duchess of Bouillon is accused of having bought up the front places in both theatres for the first six nights; on his, Racine is said to have prevailed on the best actresses of the company that played Pradon's piece to refuse the title part. There is even some ground for believing that he endeavoured to prevent the opposition play from being played at all. It was of no value, but the measures of the cabal had been so well taken that the hnest tragedy I

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of the French classical school was all but driven from the stage, while Pradon's was a positive success. A war of sonnets and epigrams followed, during whichit is said that the duke of Nevers menaced Racine and Boileau with the same treatment which Dryden and Voltaire actually received, and was only deterred by the protection which Condé extended to them.

The unjust cabal against his piece no doubt made a. deep impression on Racine. But it is impossible to decide exactly how much influence this had on the subsequent change in his life. For thirteen years he had been constantly employed on a series of brilliant dramas. He now broke off his dramatic work entirely and in the remaining twenty years of his life wrote but two more plays, and those under special circumstances and of quite a different kind. He had been during his early manhood a. libertine in morals and religion; he now married, became irreproachably domestic, and almost ostentatiously devout. No authentic account of this change exists; for that of Louis Racine, which attributes the whole to a sudden religious impulse, is manifestly little more than the theory of a son, pious in both senses of the word. Probably all'the motives which friends and foes have attributed entered more or less into his action. At any rate, what is certain is that he reconciled himself with Arnauld and Port Royal generally, accepted, with whatever sincerity, their doctrine' of the incompatibility of the stage and the Christian life, and on the 1st of June married Catherine de Romanet and definitely settled down to a quiet domestic life, alternated with the duties of a courtier. For his repentance was by no means a repentance in sackcloth and ashes. The drama was not then very profitable to dramatists, but Louis Racine tells us that his father had been able to furnish a house, collect a library of some value, and save 6000 livres. His Wife had money, and he had possessed for some time (it is not certain how long) the honourable and valuable post of treasurer of France at Moulins. His annual “ gratification ” had been increased from Soo to 1500 livres, then to 2000, and in the October of the year of his marriage he and Boileau were made historiographers-royal with a salary of 2000 crowns. Besides all

this he had, though a layman, one or two benefices. It would have been pleasanter if Louis Racine had not told us that his father regarded His Majesty's choice as “ an act of the grace of God to detach him entirely from poetry.” For the historiographer of Louis XIV. was simply his chief flatterer. However, little came of this historiography. The joint incumbents of the office made some campaigns with the king, sketched plans of histories and left a certain number of materials and memoirs; but they executed no substantive work. Racine, whether this be set down to his credit or not, was certainly a fortunate and apparently an adroit courtier. His very relapse into Tansenism coincided with his rise at court, where Iansenism was in no favour, and the fact that he had been in the good graces of Madame de Montespan did not deprive -him of those of Madame de Maintenon. Neither in Esther did he hesitate to reflect upon his former patroness. But a reported sneer of the king, who was sharp-eyed enough, “ Cavoie avec Racine se croit bel esprit; Racine avec Cavoie se croit courtesan, ” makes it appear that his comparatively low birth was not forgotten at Versailles.

Racine's first campaign was at the siege of Ypres in 1678, where some practical jokes are said to have been played on the two civilians who acted this early and peculiar variety of the part of special correspondent. Again in 1683, in 1687 and in each year from 1691 to 1693 Racine accompanied the king on similar expeditions. The literary results of these have been spoken of. His labours brought him, in addition to his other gains, frequent special presents from the king, one of which was as much as iooo pistoles. In 1690 he further received the office of “ gentilhomme ordinaire du roi, ” which afterwards passed to his son. Thus during the later years of his life he was more prosperous than is usual with poets. His domestic life appears to have been a happy one.