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26 december 2018

Phaedra is the greatest of all French plays. It occupies a place in the French theatrical canon … I would say analogous to Hamlet, except that Phaedra isn't much like Hamlet in action or theme. Othello is a better analogy, full of sinister misprisions and bitterly-regretted impulses. Phaedra is a continual touchstone in later French literature. Racine's play is the one that the young narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu first sees live on stage, with his ideal actress Berma in the leading role.

John Edmunds' translation of Phaedra was first performed in 1969, and reworked over the next 45 years. It forms the kernel for Penguin's 2013 collection of 17th-century French plays. I think it's the best translation in the volume, grand but also terribly direct. Racine's play is the same. It is majestic poetry but at the same time (here too like Othello) it is searing and intense personal tragedy.

And as I said, it's almost all about misprision (with a little misrepresentation thrown in, to make matters worse). Nobody does anything inexcusable till well into the play. The situation is one that Racine borrowed from Euripides. (Or just took; it's not like he could give it back.) Hippolytus, son of Theseus, is notoriously uninterested in love. His father's second wife, Phaedra, is notoriously interested in Hippolytus. When the son tells Phaedra to get lost, she kills herself, but not before writing to the father telling him that Hippolytus has raped her. Theseus calls on the god Poseidon to wreak vengeance on Hippolytus for his (supposed) offenses. Hippolytus is killed (ultimately by Poseidon but proximately by his own cherished horses). Theseus learns the truth and is not happy.

Racine complicates the situation of Euripides' Hippolytus by adding counterweights on various sides of the situation. Theseus is off killing monsters somewhere and everybody thinks he's dead. Before taking off, he has decreed that nobody can marry the beauteous Aricia, a rival claimaint to the throne of Athens. Hippolytus, up to that point completely uninterested in women, falls swooningly in love with Aricia. (In a rare reciprocation for neoclassical tragedy, Aricia loves him back.) Phaedra makes her fatal confession to Hippolytus, who finds it icky. She's not too pleased with herself, herself, and begs the young man to kill her. He can't bring himself to do that, and drops his sword instead.

Here things get downright messy. Theseus shows up none the worse for wear. Phaedra's confidante Oenone (everybody in French plays of the period has a confidant/e) grabs the sword and tells the king that Hippolytus had assaulted Phaedra. (A key difference from Euripides, where Phaedra had herself blamed the young man.) In quick succession, Oenone kills herself, Neptune (as Racine calls him) kills Hippolytus, and Phaedra poisons herself. With the ranks of his family suddenly depleted, Theseus decides to make Aricia his heir.

The early-modern embellishments to a classical story are all just right and make for beautifully confrontational scenes. Central to the energy of the play is Racine's concept of falling in love. This affliction may never involve physical contact, and doesn't have a lot to do with hanging out and getting to know someone, either. Love for Racine is a bolt from the blue that floors the bolted individual and turns them completely obsessive. And like a good intellectual Christian, Racine firmly believes that to contemplate something in your heart is as sinful as doing it. Phaedra never acts on her obsession, but the very thought of it is damning to her. Hence when Phaedra exclaims in Act 4

Hélas! du crime affreux dont la honte me suit
Jamais mon triste cœur n'a recueilli le fruit.

[Ah! My poor heart bears all the shame of sin,
And yet I've never tasted its sweet fruit.] (Edmunds, 250)
she sets up a terrible ambiguity. Edmunds rejects the notion that Phaedra expresses a "vulgar regret" (276) for not at least having had a little fun while she was ruining everybody's life. She's merely pointing out that her sin was limited to adultery in her heart. (Incest too, by Racine's lights.) But as André Gide observed, you can't help but hear some complaint about the unfairness of the equation between incestuous adultery in the heart and incestuous adultery in the flesh. "Sans doute Racine est pieux," Gide said, "mais son génie dramatique est impie"1. Of course Racine is saintly, but he got his dramatic talent from the devil.

Racine, Jean. Phaedra. 1677. Translated by John Edmunds. In Four French Plays. London: Penguin, 2013. 201-261.

1 Racine, Phédre. Ed. Jean Salles. Paris: Bordas, 1973. 99.