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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Through miserable intrigues a competing Iphigenie


_Les

Plaideurs_, however, was only an interlude between graver efforts. _Britannicus_ (1669), founded on the Annals of Tacitus, exhibits with masterly power Nero's adolescence in crime; the young tiger has grace and strength, but the instinct of blood needs only to be awakened within him. Agrippine is a superb incarnation of womanly ambition, a Roman sister of Athalie. The play was at first coldly received; Corneille and his cabal did not spare their censures. In a preface Racine struck back, but afterwards repented of his bitter words and withdrew them. The critics, as he says in a later preface, disappeared; the piece remained. His conception of tragedy in contrast with that of Corneille was defined by him in memorable words--what is natural should be sought rather than what is extraordinary; the action should be simple, "chargee de peu de matiere"; it should advance gradually towards the close, sustained by the interests, sentiments, and passions of the personages.

The sprightly Henrietta of England, Duchess of Orleans, seems to have conceived the idea of bringing the rivalry between the old dramatic poet and his young successor to a decisive test. She proposed to each, without the other's knowledge, a subject for a tragedy--the parting, for reasons of State policy, of two royal lovers, Titus, Emperor of Rome, and Berenice, Queen of Palestine. Perhaps Henrietta mischievously thought of the relations of her friend Marie de Mancini with Louis XIV.

The plays appeared almost simultaneously in November 1670; Corneille's was before long withdrawn; Racine's _Berenice_, in which the penetrating voice of La Champmesle interpreted the sorrows of the heroine, obtained a triumph. Yet the elegiac subject is hardly suited to tragedy; a situation rather than an action is presented; it needed all the poet's resources to prevent the scenes from being stationary. In Berenice there is a suavity in grief which gives a grace to her passion; the play, if not a drama of power, is the most charming of elegiac tragedies.

_Bajazet_ (1672), a tragedy of the seraglio, although the role of the hero is feeble, has virile qualities. The fury of Eastern passion, a love resembling hate, is represented in the Sultana Roxane. In the Vizier Acomat, deliberate in craft, intrepid in danger, Racine proved, as he proved by his Nero and his Joad, that he was not always doomed to fail in his characters of men. The historical events were comparatively recent; but in the perspective of the theatre, distance may produce the idealising effect of time. The story was perhaps found by Racine in _Floridon_, a tale by Segrais. The heroine of _Mithridate_ (1673), the noble daughter of Ephesus, Monime, queen and slave, is an ideal of womanly love, chastity, fidelity, sacrifice; gentle, submissive, and yet capable of lofty courage. The play unites the passions of romance with a study of large political interests hardly surpassed by Corneille. The cabal which gathered head against _Bajazet_ could only whisper its malignities when _Mithridate_ appeared.

_Iphigenie_, which is freely imitated from Euripides, was given at the fetes of Versailles in the summer of 1674. The French Iphigenia is enamoured of Achilles, and death means for her not only departure from the joy of youth and the light of the sun, but the loss of love. Here, as elsewhere, Racine complicates the moral situation with cross and counter loves: Eriphile is created to be the jealous rival of Iphigenie, and to be her substitute in the sacrifice of death. The ingenious transpositions, which were necessary to adapt a Greek play to Versailles in the second half of the seventeenth century, called forth hostile criticisms. Through miserable intrigues a competing _Iphigenie_, the work of Le Clerc and Coras, was produced in the spring of 1675; it was born dead, and five days later it was buried.


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