Life of Racine
Jean Racine was born to modest circumstances in 1639, orphaned at a
young age, and brought up on charity. He was given a first-class
education by the Jansenists at Port Royal, and spent a further two
years at their college of Beauvais. Rejecting their sober teachings,
however, Racine began writing for the theatre in 1660, and by the time
of Phaedra, performed in 1677, had nine plays to his credit, several of
them masterpieces of the French classical theatre and containing some
of its greatest poetry. Phaedra was poorly received, however, and
Racine retired to marriage and a court position, though returning a
decade later with two further plays: Esther and Athaliah. He died of
cancer in 1699.
Athaliah was written for private performance at court, and has
something of the gloom and piety that marked the later years of the Sun
King's reign. It was staged in 1691 by the convent girls at St Cyr, and
so belongs to the period between the Counter-Reformation and the grand
operas of the following century. The first attempted to bring the
majesty of God down to earth in magnificent music, ceremony and
architecture. The second aimed at spectacle and stunning stage effects.
With its extended choruses (though unperformed in Racine's lifetime,
and a troubled history for the play as a whole thereafter), Athaliah is
indeed close to opera, but of a peculiarly religious kind.
We can stay on the outside, surrendering to the play as an accomplished
work of art, but only as a work of art. Athalie/Athaliah is then a view
of Biblical history at a certain time by a certain man, and not a model
for a worthwhile and virtuous life. Many readers have found the queen a
more generous and tolerant character than Jehoiada, for all that she
meets the savagery of the time with a brutal statecraft that sheds
innocent blood if necessary. Athaliah may have turned away from Yahweh,
and have seated herself on a throne reserved for men, but her
accomplishments are real and impressive. She is imperious and lustful
for gold, but what contemporary ruler was not? Racine's treatment
suggests his human sympathies lay with Athaliah, but she was
nonetheless to be destroyed and the line of David continue with Joash
and so on to Christ.
We are so used to drama exploring the subtler shades of human
psychology that we can forget that drama need not do anything of the
kind. Athaliah presents memorable characters but does not refine their
motivations. A threat existed in this Biblical episode to the
appearance of Christ, who alone saves us from eternal damnation. God
removed the threat. Otherwise, man remains as he always has been.
Israel will again turn from the true faith. Contending interpretations
of Christ's intentions will arise, and nations be plunged into error
and bloodshed. Racine himself has seen the religious wars of France,
and knows the hope for man lies on the other side of the grave, though
none can tell what that will be.
Racine's Choice of Theme
The Bibical episode no doubt appealed to Racine, providing a credible
and fast-moving plot, a strong female lead, and the threat of violence.
The playwright was also making atonement for his years of indulgence
and error. But Athaliah has none of the quiet resignation and
reconciliation that old age brings: it is an uncompromising play, which
Racine's verbal skill makes even more challenging. Racine the commoner
become courtier has some very hard things to say on the failings of
courts, kings and priests. Yahweh is a jealous and vengeful God. Mathan
is an odious character, who understands the sources of his thwarted
ambition and self-loathing. Jehoiada, that unfaltering tower of
rectitude, vanquishes the queen, but does so through treachery, in the
Temple and under the promise of safe conduct.
In the end the play has to be judged on its own terms, as Racine's
statement of faith. Religious freedom had been largely lost: private
worship was allowed, but an orthodox Catholicism was the state
religion. Louis XIV, whom he genuinely admired, had closed the very
college where Racine had been educated, and this peculiarly sensitive
man who had come so far from middle class beginnings has now, in his
last play, to look back on a world from which he has been largely
excluded. Choruses mark the ends of four acts but are missing from the
fifth. The conclusion of the play sees Joash restored to the throne,
the besieging army dispersed and Athaliah executed, but at this golden
moment, when choral celebration might be so expected, Racine simply has
Par cette fin terrible, et due à ses forfaits,
Apprenez, roi des Juifs, et n'oubliez jamais
Que les rois dans le ciel ont un juge sévère,
L'innocence un vengeur, et l'orphelin un père.
Which I have slightly condensed as:
Learn from that fierce ending, King of Jews,
how heaven's stern judge of kings exacts His dues,
that innocence when wronged will have redress
in He who's father to the fatherless.
Racine's View of Life
What does this mean? More than alluding to Jean Racine the orphan who
eventually found a father in his religious faith, it is a pointer to
matters more compelling than the Greek tragedies Racine knew so well.
Where Greek city life was admittedly precarious, and the gods only
occasionally beneficent, Jansenists accept that God moves to unknown
and unknowable ends. Some of us will be saved, and many more will be
damned to eternal suffering. It is Racine's outlook that gives Athaliah
its particular frisson and chilling force.
While the tragedy of Phaedra rises from flaws in the characters, the
characters in Athaliah are not flawed but only limited, indeed almost
monolithic in their inner workings. In such an absence of psychological
shading, Racine has moved beyond depicting the frail vessels of
humanity to more essential matters. They are not lovable, these
embodiments of God's purposes, but they are magnificently compelling.
Only the queen weakens, it must be supposed, when the Lord parts the
waves of her suspicious mind to allow pity to enter, for a few hours
only, but sufficient to preserve Eliacin from vengeance and have
Jehoiada's plot succeed. Otherwise, there are no sub-plots or twists of
fate to waylaid denouement. The conflicts are not resolved on the
personal level, but by appeal to the chorus, to the Almighty himself.
The plot is largely based on Biblical history. Athalie (Athaliah in
this translation), widow of the king of Judah, has abandoned the Jewish
religion for the worship of Baal, and believes she has eliminated other
members of the royal family. In fact, however, the late king's son,
Joash, has been rescued by Josabeth, wife of the high priest, and
secretly raised in the Temple as Eliacin.
Act 1. Abner, Athalie's general, assures Jehoiada, the high priest,
that he would support a descendant of the king of Judah if one
appeared. Jehoiada agrees with Josabeth to reveal the existence of
Joash, intending to dethrone Athaliah and return the country to the old
Act 2. Athalie goes into the Jewish temple and finds a child, Eliacin,
whom she has seen in a threatening dream. Not knowing that this child
is Joash, she aks Jehoiada to bring him to her, and then invites the
child to live with her at the palace.
Act 3. Fearing what the dream foretells, Athalie demands Eliacin be
sent as a hostage. The high priest decides to hasten the restoration of
Joash to preclude plots by the treacherous Mathan, the chief priest of
Act 4. Eliacin is revealed as Joash, the true successor of the kings of
Judah. The priests barricade the Temple.
Act 5. Athalie prepares to dislodge the rebels from the Temple. She
comes under promise of safe passage into the Temple to claim Eliacin
and the reputed treasure of the place. Joash is then proclaimed king,
when armed priests seize Athaliah and kill her guards. The army
besieging the Temple flees. Athalie is executed.