Jean Racine created plays in the classical Greek tradition of Sophocles and Euripides, adhering to the unities of time and place and often drawing on Greek subjects. But his characters intentionally lacked…
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Jean Racine Biography

by James Reel

Jean Racine created plays in the classical Greek tradition of Sophocles and Euripides, adhering to the unities of time and place and often drawing on Greek subjects. But his characters intentionally lacked the monumentality found in ancient Greek works, or for that matter in the plays of his older contemporary Pierre Corneille. Racine's characters got into trouble through their deep passions, but otherwise their flaws -- vacillation, indecision, trepidation, selfishness -- were quite ordinary. His mature plays became instant classics and served as the basis of many operas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; productions of the originals have continued steadily to this day, inspiring incidental music from several notable composers along the way.

Racine was raised by a pious grandmother who, in 1655, sent him to the Catholic school of Port-Royal. This was a nest of Jansenists, who subscribed to Catholic reforms emphasizing original sin and a personal relationship with God. Racine broke from the Jansenists in 1666, but the philosophy strongly influenced his work. Racine's rejection of his mentors arose from their condemnation of playwrights as "public poisoners;" in 1658 he had enrolled at the University of Paris, where he was thoroughly educated in all things Hellenic, including the Greek concept of Fate, and fell in with actors and playwrights.

Molière produced Racine's first two tragedies in 1664 and 1665. From 1667 through 1677, there followed a steady stream of tragedies: Andromaque, Britannicus, Bérénice, Bajazet, Mithridate, Iphigénie, and Phèdre. Racine also wrote a satire on lawyers, Les plaideurs. Most of the tragedies, employing simple and elegant language, were historico-political, meant to compete with and eclipse the work of the older Corneille. Most also featured powerful (and powerfully flawed) female characters brought down, or bringing others down, by the destructive force of love on people of feeble will.

Elected to the Académie Française in 1672, Racine was no stranger to polemical intrigue and as the period's leading Classicist, he found himself at odds with the party of "modernes." His enemies' efforts to subvert Phèdre so discouraged him that in 1677 he accepted a lucrative appointment as historiographer to Louis XIV and reconciled with Port-Royal. During the rest of his life, he wrote official histories, texts for court entertainments, and religious odes (his Cantiques spirituels were set to music by Jean-Noël Marchand), but nothing more for the public theater. The only stage works he wrote in his last years were Biblical plays for the St. Cyr girls' school, Esther and Athalie.

With their tragic vision, elevated passion, and strong female characters, his plays naturally served as the basis of many later operas. Andromaque was the source of Rossini's Ermione, as well as works by Caldara, Bononcini, Feo, Sacchini, Grétry, Martin y Soler, and Paisiello. Athalie was taken up by Handel (Athalia), Poissl, and, in 1964, Weisgall, not to forget the incidental music by Mendelssohn.

Bajazet served as the inspiration for treatments by Vivaldi, Generali, and Hervé (Les Turcs). Bérénice was taken up by Caldara (Tito e Berenice) and in 1911, by Magnard. Britannicus found its way onto the opera stage thanks to Porpora (as Agrippina) and Graun. The latter composer also based works on La Thébaïde (as I Fratelli Nemici), Mithridate (with competition from Alessandro Scarlatti, Sacchini, Zingarelli, and of course, Mozart), and Iphigénie en Aulide. The best-known operatic treatment of Iphigénie en Aulide is Gluck's, but there's also one by Cherubini and another by Mayr. Racine's greatest play, Phèdre, was taken up by Rameau (as Hippolyte et Aricie), Gluck (Ippolito), Mayr, and, in 1988, Bussoti. It also drew an incidental score from Massenet and inspired a brief solo cantata by Britten.

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