by Jean RacineOriginally published on my blog here in June 1999.
Andromache is the play that first made Racine's name, that first signalled his break from the Baroque conventions - a step towards modern drama. In plot, the play starts in the same situation as the lovers' subplot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but, without the fairies' meddling, events take a tragic turn. Orestes, son of Agammemnon and envoy from the Greeks to the Epirote court, loves Hermione. Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, and promised by her parents to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, loves Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, loves Andromache. Andromache, widow of Hector and enslaved to Pyrrhus with the end of the Trojan War, cares only so save what remains to her of her husband - their son, Astyanax. Orestes' mission is to remind Pyrrhus of his promise to the Greeks that Astyanax would be killed, to end the Trojan royal line.
To safeguard her son, Andromache agrees to wed Pyrrhus (on the day that he was finally to marry Hermione), resolving to kill herself immediately following the ceremony so as not to be false to Hector's memory. Hermione, furious with jealousy, orders Orestes to kill Pyrrhus at the altar during the ceremony. Then, when he does so, she is distraught, as her rage has lost her the object of her obsessive love. (Love is always obsessive in Racine.)
So why does Andromache mark such a break with previous dramatic practice? Racine brought a new portrayal of the noble classes to the French stage, showing them as real people with flaws, suffering in the same way that the rest of humanity might suffer. The older way - where the nobility were portrayed as a race apart - was much less prevalent in English plays, which always had the examples of the Elizabethan dramatists. ) Characters in King Lear or The Duchess of Malfi, for example, could hardly be considered admirable. In Andromache, Pyrrhus is portrayed as a serial oathbreaker (he breaks promises to the Greeks about Astyanax, and his betrothal vows to Hermione); and this means he commits a crime against the very centre of the aristocratic concept of honour.
The play itself pivots round Andromache's decision to go ahead with the wedding, which is why she is at the centre of the play (though Orestes and Hermione may seem more important parts at first sight). She also has the best speeches; otherwise, Racine's relative inexperience shows through, in that none of the characters comes alive on the page. They may do on stage, of course, in the hands of skillful actors well directed, but work will be required. It is rather like Richard II where the quality of some of the poetry can easily kill the performance.
For the title character of a play, Britannicus has very little to do; his words and actions do not influence the development of the plot. It is his very existence, his relationships with the other characters (mostly familial determined at birth), which drive the play; he is a sort of passive centre.
The key to the real historical events retold (more or less) in Britannicus is the succession to the Roman Emperor Claudius on his death by poisoning. Britannicus is his young son, but under the influence of his third wife Agrippina Claudius had adopted her son Nero as his heir - a move that signed his death warrant. Now, Nero is on the throne, though his mother holds the real power. As Nero begins to try to take over power for himself, his true monstrous nature begins to come through. The birth of this monster is what principally interests Racine.
In order to emphasise this interest, to make it clear to the audience, Racine invents a character who acts as a catalyst to the events of the play. The young girl June is a minor member of the royal family; she and Britannicus fall in love. But then Nero abducts her, at first to prevent her marriage to Britannicus but then because of his own lust for her. This leads to several scenes in which he enjoys a sort of psychological sadism: he allows June and Britannicus to meet in the palace, he himself remaining a hidden witness known to June but not Britannicus. On pain of severe imperial displeasure with Britannicus, he forces June to pretend that her love has died and that she is now indifferent to him.
Two other characters deserve mention. Nero's mother worked hard to gain the throne for him, persuading Claudius to adopt him, and then becoming a murderer for his sake. She is now becoming appalled at what Nero is turning into, though it is not quite clear whether it is the dishonourable nature of Nero's actions or the fact that she is being pushed out of her position of power which makes her feel this way. There are also hints of an unnatural relationship between mother and son, at least an attraction even if this hasn't been consummated. She certainly dotes on him, and this has not only blinded her to his true nature until the abduction of June but has encouraged its development.
The other character is the imperial slave, Narcissus, who is engaged throughout the play in a covert power struggle to gain influence over Nero at Agrippina's expense. He also works to diminish the legacy left by those close to Nero in the past, such as his former tutor Seneca, now in exile. He constantly urges Nero to acts which will increase his control over the Emperor, countering those who want Nero to act with honour. He plays on Nero's burgeoning paranoia, to urge the murder of Britannicus which climaxes the play.
Britannicus is Racine's detailed examination of the sees of a character of insane depravity; not a common type and not one familiar to audiences used to the Baroque, aristocratic style of Corneille. (There are several dismissive references to the older playwright in Racine's preface to the play.) Nero was perhaps a slightly dangerous subject for a drama in the absolute monarchy that was Louis XIV's France, but the differences in the situations of the two monarchs probably helped the king to miss any references - intended or otherwise - to himself. (Racine was a supporter of the king against the privileges of the aristocracy in general, so no such reference is likely to have been intended.) Louis XIV would probably have felt that he was much more the sort of monarch that tutors like Seneca had tried and failed to produce in Nero.
Like Britannicus, Berenice is based on actual events that took place in the first century Roman Empire. It is derived from the Roman historian Suetonius, and was rather neatly (and famously) summarised by Victor Hugo relating the five acts to clauses of a sentence from Suetonius: Titus | Reginam Berenicem | invitus | invitam | dimisit (Titus | Queen Berenice | he unwilling | she unwilling | he sent away).
Berenice is a fairly domestic play with three essential characters, all friends. It is their position as monarchs which brings the element of tragedy to their lives, but the tragedy is expressed through discussion and argument rather than violence and passion. Cairncross expresses in the introduction to his translation the view that the lack of violence is one reason why Berenice was less successful than most of Racine's other mature plays, both at the time and for a considerable period afterwards. It is a restrained play, which perhaps prefigures some of the naturalistic ideas of Ibsen and Chekhov.
The three main characters are the Judean Queen Berenice, the Roman Emperor Titus and Antiochus, king of the Black Sea state of Commagene. As a vassal of Rome, Antiochus fought under Titus and his father Vespasian in the war to put down the Jewish revolt; that is where the two men met Berenice and where they both fell in love with her.
The three are now in Rome, where Titus has just become Emperor on his father's death. He is about to marry Berenice, only to be brought up short by the Roman dislike of foreigners, the specific law against marrying a non-Roman, and the many historical precedents enshrined in the history of the Republic where people have sacrificed their personal happiness for the good of the state, a history that Titus has been brought up to revere. So Titus feels that if he is to continue as Emperor, he must reject his personal happiness with Berenice, and he feels that it is his sacred duty to rule the Empire.
Meanwhile, Antiochus is on the point of returning home, feeling that his unrequited love for Berenice has no hope while the whole city talks of her impending marriage to the favoured Titus. Honour is important to him too, and he has suffered through being unable to act on his love for Berenice when he is the trusted friend of both her and Titus. But this is nothing to his feelings when Titus, unable to bring himself to face Berenice with the news that he has decided not to marry her, asks him to tell he on his behalf as a friend.
The other characters in the play, all attendants on one or other of the principals, exist mainly to suggest alternatives to their actions and to encourage them. The major part of the virtually actionless play consists of discussion and heart-searching by the three of them; it is a play for those interested in personalities.
|Title||Andromache; Britannicus; Berenice|
|eBook format||Paperback, (torrent)|
|File size||5.1 Mb|
|Book rating||4.56 (22 votes)