Kalliope Muse speaks to me

Emigrée from GR


Phèdre - Jean Racine 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 funesteje 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/Ph%C3%A8dre-DVD-Dominique-Blanc/dp/B0002T279G/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357209078&sr=8-1, 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.

Currently reading

The Aspern Papers (Dover Thrift Editions)
Henry James
No es lo mismo ostentoso que ostentório: la azarosa vida de las palabras
José Antonio Pascual Rodríguez
Dernier Des Camondo
Pierre Assouline
A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (A la recherche du temps perdu, #2)
Marcel Proust, Pierre-Louis Rey
Music in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Oxford History of Western Music Vol. 2
Richard Taruskin
Thaïs (Dodo Press)
Anatole France
Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time
Eric Karpeles
The Poetics of Space
Maria Jolas, John R. Stilgoe, Gaston Bachelard, Étienne Gilson
The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, John E. Woods
Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society, and Religion 1280-1400, Volume 1: Interpretive Essays
Diana Norman