History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Classical
The three main dramatists of the Classic period, starting at the death of King Louis XIII in 1643, are Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), Jean Racine (1639-1699), and Molière (1622-1673). in th entire corpus, several plays include adaptations previous work. The study of adaptations is useful for detecting shifts of moods in a period or from one period to the next. “It is thanks precisely to the recurrence of identical themes in the course of several generations of playwrights that the student of literature can detect, in at least one form, the evolution of attitudes, ideals and customs. The comparison is in fact facilitated by the similarities of basic situation, for contrasts and variations between original play and its later adaptation are the more discernable for having sprung from the same set of premises” (Collins, 1966 p 22).
"The plot of the classical French drama is simpler than that of the modern romantic drama, but more complex than the ancient classical plot. The plots of Corneille and Racine hold a posi tion intermediate between the simplicity of iEschylus and Alfieri and the intricacy of Shakespeare and Hugo. The interest of the French classical plot lies rather in its intensity than in its complication. There is a disposition to emphasize only one supreme moment, or crisis, the action moving on unswervingly and impressively towards one grand climax, and then descending with directness and concentration to its inevitable catastro phe, more or less clearly foreseen from the first. On the whole, however, unlike the Greek and the earlier French drama, which foretells the dénouement from the beginning, the French classical drama prefers uncertainty and curiosity as to the outcome. By this means compression and economy, both of attention and of interest, are secured. This limiting of the story to one great crisis presents the exhibition of the whole of a life history or era, discourages the development of character, and excludes minor actions, irrelevant episodes, sub-plots, and parallel actions. As a result of this compression the dramatist avoids the leisurely movement of the epic and divests his action of everything that is irrelevant, digressive, or merely accessory" (Bruner, 1908 p 331).
After 1643, Corneille continued strong work from the previous reign with "Rodogune" (1644).
The play "abounded in dramatic effect, and contained more of the element of intrigue than the author had previously shown. The character of Cleopatra, queen of Syria, is one of the most terrible ever created for the stage" (Bates, 1913 vol 7 French drama p 91). Lockert (1958) complained that Rodogune’s proposal of matricide “is entirely out of character” (p 65), an opinion that comes from wanting an admirable main character to remain admirable throughout. In the play, "Corneille gives full vent to his love of invention, manipulation, and theatricality. From the unorthodox exposition to the harrowing ‘coup de théâtre’ with which the play closes, Corneille assaults his spectator with shocking demands, upsetting threats, and surprising revelations...Seleucus champions an ideal whose concrete expression takes the form of non-action...Antiochus possesses the sureness of temper his brother achieves only by stages...it is he who acts constantly as a restraining force on his more tempestuous twin...He relies on entreaties and tears...When we first meet [Rodogune], she is a noble figure filled with disquiet and foreboding...At times Rodogune seems as ambitious for the crown...as Cleopatra...Rodogune is as wily as Cleopatra, but not really immoral...In demanding the twins to kill their mother, Rodogune seems to be acknowledging that circumstances force us to the choice of a non-value over a value...Circumstances will not disappoint this hope...Never once does Cleopatra express doubts as to any technique to maintain power...She is the most self-reliant of Corneille’s heroes to date, as her refusal to keep even Laonice in her confidence indicates, and she is also the most self-possessed, as the shifting developments of the last act reveal...She is an undoer of ‘natural knots’ as much as she is a weaver of ‘secret knots’...She dies unilluminated because...there are no higher powers than those of Cleopatra” (Nelson, 1963 pp 139-161).
Time: Antiquity. Place: Syria.
The twin brothers, Antiochus and Seleucus, are waiting for their mother, Cleopatra, queen of Syria, to reveal at last which of the two is the eldest and thereby destined to claim the throne. She has always kept this information secret to reign alone. Both brothers love Rodogune, princess of Parthia, kept a prisoner in Syria. Nevertheless, it is agreed that the elder will not only become king but also win her hand in marriage. Cleopatra hates Rodogune for having married her husband while he was imprisoned in Parthia and who had almost seized the crown from her until she killed him. Antiochus is ready to yield the crown for Rodogune's hand, but, to his grief, so is Seleucus. "She must marry, not you, not me," Antiochus concludes, "but me or you, whoever will be king." Both affirm that they are content to see their mother reign in their place. Cleopatra is happy to hear that, but expects more from them. She proclaims that the crown belongs to whoever kills Rodogune. Both are astonished and silently grieve at this decision. She in turn is astonished at their silence. "Will you marry one to have her flout me," she cries,"to submit my destiny at the hands of my slave?" The brothers agree to visit the princess in prison and stay united, where Antiochus asks her to reveal the man she loves, but she refuses. "The choice you offer me belongs to the queen," she says. Seleucus warns her of the queen's hate, to be countered by choosing a husband, but she fears by choosing one to create two enemies in stead of one. At last, pressed on both sides, she says she will give her hand to the man who avenges their father's murder. However, alone with Antiochus, she admits she loves him more and no longer wants to become "the prize of crime" but rather will wait to see who the queen announces as the rightful king. Antiochus reveals to his mother that they both love Rodogune. Feigning to weaken at these news, Cleopatra says: "Rodogune is yours together with the empire." But yet, alone with Seleucus, she reveals he is the eldest after all and yet might lose all. Despite his mother's wrongs against him, he answers as she wishes. "Hope to see in me but friendly feelings towards my brother and zeal for my king," he declares. Nevertheless, to continue her reign alone, she has her son killed and pretends to join Antiochus and Rodogune for the marriage ceremony. She gives Antiochus the nuptial cup, a poisoned one, but before he can put it to his lips, he receives news of his brother's murder, for which Cleopatra blames Rodogune and she Cleopatra. Antiochus does not know what to think, but is ready to press the ceremony forward. He reaches for the cup, but Rodogune, suspecting poison, prevents him and asks for a servant to swallow it. Feeling caught in her own trap, Cleopatra reaches for the cup herself, drinks it, and dies. A grieving Antiochus commands that "the nuptial pomp be changed to funeral designs".
While Corneille wrote a myriad of comedies and tragedies, Racine wrote only tragedies except for "The litigants" (1668). Among Racine's most admired tragedies are "Britannicus" (1669), based on the son (41 AD- 55 AD), of Roman emperor Claudius in histories of Ancient Rome, mainly that of Tacitus (58-120 AD), “Mithridate” (Mithridates, 1673), more particularly Mithridates VI or Mithridates the Great (162-63 BC), the king of Bosphorus in Asia Minor, "Phèdre" (Phaedra, 1677), adapted from the "Hippolytus" of Euripides (480-406 BC) and the "Phaedra" of Seneca (12-65 AD), and "Athalie" (Athaliah, 1691), based on a Biblical source, 2:11 Kings. Contrary to Grein's opinion (1905, p 282), it is untrue that Racine is "a great orator rather than a great playwright". Among many other factors, what makes his plays intensely dramatic is the element of surprise: the characters are often startled by turn of events and each other's behavior, creating great fear and worry. A second recurrent theme is sibling rivalry, often leading to murder.
Clark (1939) pointed out that the style of "Britannicus" is of a Tacitean terseness. The character studies are striking. Indeed, Agrripina "is shown not merely as the ambitious plotter but as the mother who resents the loss of her influence over her son, not merely as the clever dialectician but as the woman liable to imprudent fits of temper...Burrhus’ virtue is mitigated by certain prudential considerations. Narcissus is a villain of a subtlety and psychological insight never before seen in drama outside of Shakespeare...Narcissus arrives with the news that preparations are complete for the poisoning of Bntannicus. Note the cool cynicism of his first speech, his quick utilization of Nero’s revised decision to enforce still more strongly his own point of view, and the short, sharp struggle with Nero’s conscience which he brings to triumphant issue by his poisonous allusion to Agrippina’s boastings" (pp 154-162). “As a single instance among many of Racine’s consummate craftsmanship in this play, we may note the scene in which Nero, concealed behind a curtain, listens to Britannicus and Junia. For tension, for terror, for sheer force and effectiveness, it can hardly be matched by any similar situation in all the dramas of the world...Derived largely from Tacitus, [the play] seems to catch something of its terse power...[Racine] meant to portray Britannicus as a high-spirited and pathetic youth; he did portray him as a little master who is at times unmanly and affected. Junia, on the other hand, is a lovely creation- of all Racine’s women the least sophisticated and, unless perhaps Monime, the most appealing- with the simplicity, the directness, the sweet dignity and the fresh charm of young girlhood...[Agrippina is more impressive as a character than Nero], for she surpasses the emperor in force of personality, intelligence, energy, and courage...The conception of the emperor...is in the main the traditional one, but not all its phases are equally stressed; that of the virtuoso, which was perhaps dominant in him, is clearly revealed only once...though at a crucial point...a young man fundamentally cruel, vain, and vicious, whose predisposition to evil at length causes him to break from restraints hitherto imposed by his weakness and timidity” (Lockert, 1958 pp 305-307). Like many others, this critic’s opinion of the portrayal of Britannicus is biased by his dislike of the courtly type, too gallant for his taste. Other critics criticize the portrayal of Agrippina relative to Tacitus' portrayal. "The woman who poisoned the aged emperor, her husband, who encouraged her son in the wildest excesses of his passion, and stood not aghast at incest of the strangest sort, if so she might secure that ascendency which was slipping from her grasp, stands alone in the lurid light of a fiendish age. An imperious and dominating spirit, she formed a fitting subject for the tragedian's art. But Racine was all too weak for such an argument. His gentle and sensitive spirit shrank from the crude atrocities of his subject, and, while striving to render to the full the overweening ambition of Agrippina and the jealous haughtiness of Nero, he left in the background, or at least mitigated as much as possible, the more revolting traits" (Hallard 1895 p 63).
The character of “Mithridates, with his sanguinary greatness and violent passions, more nearly accords with the conception of a tragic hero held by Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethans than does any other protagonist of Racine...Menace lurks in his smoothest words…His indefatigable, undismayed resilience in defeat, his grandiose plans and overweening hopes of success against mighty Rome are revealed with a virile eloquence...Monime is generally considered the most attractive of Racine’s heroines, gentle and innocent though she is, she displays self-respecting pride, a quiet courage, strength of will, and devotion to duty which makes her Corneillian in Racine’s own, very different way” (Lockert, 1967 pp 356-361).
In "Phaedra", Racine "will closely follow Euripides in the scene where Phaedra confesses her secret to the nurse. Then he will borrow from Seneca the false rumor of Theseus’ death, for this will make Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus seem somewhat less criminal and thereby make her relax her watch over herself slightly. Besides, by putting Hippolytus in a position of power as his father’s successor, it will give an excuse for Phaedra to seek an interview with him in order to assure his protection to her own son. Finally, it will provide a sensational ‘peripetie’ in itself and pave the way for a still more striking one when Theseus returns. Then, when Phaedra has her interview with Hippolytus, he will introduce Seneca’s idea of having her blurt out a declaration of love to the latter...[The most important change in dramatic character was in Hippolytus from Euripides' chaste misogynist to a lover, which drives Phaedra's passion as it becomes] exasperated by jealousy...Phaedra takes her place with a very select few: Antigone, Lear, Faust- in the gallery of the world’s tragic portraiture" (Clark, 1939 pp 201-207). “Euripides was his chief source...He followed Seneca, however, in making Phaedra herself declare her love of Hippolytus and in making the nurse originate the slander against him...In destroying Hippolytus, [the Greek and French Phaedra] are actuated by the desire to protect their good repute and thereby their children. The Phaedra of Euripides combines this motive with resentment at the young man’s excessive abuse of her and at his failure to comprehend the agonized struggle which she has made to preserve her purity; the Phaedra of Racine, when in a revulsion of feeling she is ready to save Hippolytus at any cost, is checked by the discovery that he loves Aricia, which fills her with jealous madness and then, in consequence, with utter horror at herself and with such confusion of soul that she is paralyzed, as it were, and incapable of action until too late...The Greek Phaedra is less...the frenetic and morbid prey of her passions...[relative to] the [great] self-loathing of Racine’s Phaedra...Hippolytus must express himself like a young gentleman, with all the customary phrases of gallantry...Between what is said of Hippolytus and all that he himself says there is a hopeless incongruity...To set himself up as a judge of his father’s legitimacy and to undertake to use the power and prestige which he has gained as Theseus’ supposedly faithful son to frustrate his father’s will and despoil his father’s heir in favor of an hereditary enemy as soon as the hero-king and not unloving sire (he believed) helpless in death, is an ugly combination of complacent self-righteousness and disloyalty...The only reason...he has for silence is that it would be unbecoming of him to offend his father’s ear with the shameful truth; and this consideration seals his lips though at the risk of his life and though his beloved Aricia, as well as he, would gain by his speaking out. But when he goes into exile, he plans to enlist friends at Argos and Sparta and make war on his country to regain his rights and Aricia’s!” (Lockert, 1958 pp 388-395). Lockert’s opinion of the portrayal of Hippolytus is biased by his dislike of the gentleman rather than the huntsman, as if the two cannot be combined in the same man. It is also a common bias for a critic to expect that a tragic victim possess no fault except the one he dies for. Hippolytus’ silence is not motivated solely to avoid offending his father’s ear but to preserve his father’s marriage and the stability of his reign. But as an exile, the right motion of a princely character is to regain what he has unjustly lost. “The return of Theseus radicalizes the division between extreme passion and rational duty. Phaedra denounces Hippolytus, who will not reveal the truth to his father. In Euripides, Hippolytus does not speak because he has sworn an oath of silence and does not expect to be believed in any case. In Racine, duty towards his father commends silence…Condemning him, Phaedra has acted as if Hippolytus himself stood at a passionate extreme, ready to reveal an offense to his chastity; her passion has blinded her to his moderate reasonableness” (Calarco, 1969 p 132). "In the first act of 'Phaedra', we have the scene of the avowal of her criminal love for Hippolyte, and in the fourth act the astonishing recoil of her nature on the confidante Oenone, who has dared to call in the example of the gods to palliate Phèdre's evil desires. The suggestion has gone too far, and the weak confidante has but hastened Phèdre's self-destruction" (Jourdain, 1912 p 158). "One could hardly refrain from expatiating upon the delicacy and firmness of drawing in the characterization of the heroine, 'daughter of Minos and Pasiphae', the subtlety with which from the first she insinuates herself, with all the morbid fascination of her moral distemper and personal disorder, into the blood and senses of the audience. The debut of all Racine's heroines is tremendously effective- Monime's is a good instance; but Phèdre's is, in especial, insidious...Nor would a critic at large be likely to overlook the knowingness of Hippolyte's 'psychology' or the propriety of his preferences- only a novice in love would have had eyes for Aricie when Phèdre was by- nor would begrudge a word or two for Aricie herself, 'la belle ‘raisonneuse' of the salons, who takes love to be some kind of syllogism...Phèdre is not merely a sufferer and a patient; hers is the debility of innate depravity, and invalided and graceless as she is, her hapless soul is the prey of the whole passionate intrigue to which she is exposed" (Frye, 1922 pp 223-225). "The use of mythological allusion and imagery similarly provides Racine with a wealth of poetry of which few poets not even Virgil, Milton, or Keats- have availed themselves with such effective economy. Erechtheus, Minos, Pasiphae, the Cretan labyrinth and the Minotaur conjure up the atmosphere of an heroic age, when gods and men lived in closer contact, when monsters were challenged by mortals and women ravished by the gods. A new and greater dimension is afforded the play by such allusions to the myths which seventeenth-century audiences revered from their early training in classical lore" (Peyre, 1974 p 97).
In "Athaliah", "the powerful characterization of the guilt-laden queen and of the sweet-tempered lad, the effective dialogue, and the magnificent lyrics of this tragedy create an impression of rare majesty. If some of us must find its labors academic, it is difficult to withhold one's admiration for Racine’s virtuosity or deny this work the right to be considered the greatest of all biblical plays (Gassner, 1954a p 279). "The dramatic characters are "portrayed with a sureness of touch that reveals the matured master...Abner is a very subtle study of the temporizer...Mathan makes a fine Biblical pendant to the profane Narcisse in 'Britannicus'. But the two crowning glories of the cast are, of course, the old Athalie, half queen, half witch, and her mortal foe, the priest Joad, that thundering, foaming cataract of divine fury" (Clark, 1939 pp 267-268). “The second act...containing...the queen’s dream, her interview with the child in which with diabolical cunning she besets him with all her wiles yet is baffled at every turn by his simple innocence, her sudden outburst of fury at Jehosheba when she feels herself balked, and her marvelous revelation of her inmost heart...is the finest act that Racine every wrote...The other characters...the gentle, anxious Jehosheba, the worthy but commonplace Abner, and Mattan the arch-villain [are] delineated with sure and delicate strokes...The real protagonist...is God himself, who after suffering this blood-stained, impious woman to live long in her iniquity, at last majestically avenges the moral law upon her...It is not merely just retribution...The little Joash is the last surviving descendant of David in unbroken male succession, and it is from David’s line of kings that the promised Messiah...is to be born” (Lockert, 1958 pp 407-411). In Athaliah’s interview of the boy, “although her very life is involved, her reaction...is surprisingly tender...obviously due to the cry of blood...We begin to realize Athaliah’s tragic position. She has safety within her grasp, but her instinctive tenderness is indeed a kind of fatal blow since it prevents her from taking Mattan’s advice and have the boy killed as a precautionary measure...Athaliah, in not being able to recognize Joash until it is too late, is...a helpless victim of an inescapable superhuman persecution” (Cherpack, 1958 pp 82-84).
Time: 1st century AD. Place: Rome.
Agrippina worries over her waning influence over her son, Nero, the young emperor. She does not understand why he abducted Junie, the intended of Britannicus, his half-brother. "I would soon fear him, should he no more fear me," she admits. Nero startles a courtier, Narcissus, by declaring that he loves Junie, seeing in her a woman "beautiful without ornament, in the simple attire of a beauty torn away from sleep". In the first meeting with his captive, Nero astonishes her by declaring that he wishes to marry her, despite already being married to Octavia. Suspecting Junie's love of Britannicus, the emperor commands her to refuse him while he observes their meeting hidden behind a curtain. When Britannicus arrives, she behaves reservedly towards him, much to his distress, and Nero's, too, the first because of her apparent coldness, the second because he senses the latent fires of her love. After learning of Nero's intention to repudiate Octavia, Agrippina is incensed, and more worried than ever about her declining position. In their next meeting, as Junie explains her fake conduct to the reassured Britannicus, Nero suddenly emerges and angrily separates them, murmuring: "thus their fires are redoubled". When Agrippina at last is allowed in Nero's presence, she reminds him that he owes his position entirely to her, who, only for his sake, cast away Britannicus as ruler of the Roman empire, being the son of the previous emperor, Claudius. Assailed thus by his mother, Nero hypocritically promises to yield Junie to his rival, but when Burrhus, his tutor and a valiant soldier, enters rejoicing, he reveals his real sentiments. "I embrace my rival only to choke him," he confesses. Hearing Burrhus' pleadings for Britannicus and then Narcissus' pleadings against him, but seeking mostly freedom from his mother's influence, Nero is still uncertain about what to do. Just as Agrippina congratulates herself on her ability to restrain Nero, Burrhus runs in with the horrible news that Britannicus has been poisoned, falling "on his bed without warmth and without life". Horrified by this deed, she expects her son will live out a dire and troublesome reign. An attendant then enters to announce that Junie, renouncing the world as a vestal virgin, was restrained on her way from the world by Narcissus, at which time the people, angry at his interference, stabbed him with a "thousand blows" to the extent that "his blood besprinkled Junie". At this news, the emperor retires alone in his apartment in "fierce silence".
Time: 63 BC. Place: Nymphaeum, Pontus.
Text at ?
A short while ago, Mithridates, king of the Bosphorus and Rome’s great opponent, fell in love with Monime and offered her to be his queen in place of his wife, mother of their son, Xiphares. To avenge Mithridates’ treachery and advance Xiphares’ fortunes, the rejected woman struck a deal with Pompey the Great to overthrow the Pontine region, but was defeated by her son, whose will refuses to yield to the Roman yoke. Meantime, Xiphares has learned of Mithridates’ death, a cause of grief but also of relief, because now the way lies open to declare his own love to Monime, although now the rival of his step-brother, Pharnaces. Aware of Pharnaces’ love but unaware of Xiphares’ and unwilling to accede to it, Monime begs Xiphares to protect her. He accepts, but to her surprise, immediately declares his love for her. “Defend me from Pharnaces’ furies,” she pleads. “To make me consent, my lord, to see you afterwards, you will not need an unjust power.” Pharnaces enters to offer his own help, but Monime refuses it, because her father was killed by the Romans and she will never marry their friend. Pharnaces guesses that Xiphares has declared himself and the two step-brothers are ready to contend when, to their astonishment, the news of Mithridates’ death is proven false. The king arrives to take his wife away, but quickly discovers that she is only ready to obey, not love, supposing that she loves Pharnaces instead. To prevent Pharnaces’ plans, he commands Xiphares to protect Monime while he prepares to war against the Romans one more time. Paradoxically left together, she assures Xiphares that she in no way approves of Pharnaces’ love but his alone, “a too perfect union by fate belied!” She begs him to disobey his father only by avoiding her. To his two sons, the king reveals a bold plan: attacking Rome at their very gate, accompanied by armies from nations along the way. To add Parthia in his armies, he commands Pharnaces to marry the daughter of their king. Instead, Pharnaces proposes to appease Rome, but is interrupted by his indignant step-brother. “Burn the Capitol and turn Rome into cinders,” he cries to his father. “But it is enough for you to open the way. Deliver the fire to younger hands and, while Asia occupies Pharnaces, with that other enterprise honor my boldness.” The king approves his son’s design, except that he will accompany him, while his other son refuses his role and is arrested. On his way to a tower, he reveals that Xiphares also loves Monime. Mithridates assures Xiphares that he does not believe it, but yet he doubts. To test his future wife, the king pretends to consider himself too old and hands her over to Xiphares. After a minimal delay, she accepts, too easily in the king’s view. By the king’s behavior in disposing of the troops, Xiphares recognizes that he knows Monime’s secret. He meets Monime to say that she should save herself by marrying his father. Instead, Monime tells the king that she is unable to. Before the king can exact the widest revenge on her and his two sons, he receives news that Pharnaces has succeeded in convincing the soldiery of the futility of Mithridates’ plan against Rome, that Xiphares has joined the rebels, and that a Roman army has invaded their territory. Mithridates orders that poison be delivered to Monime. Having heard a false rumor of her lover’s death, she gladly takes it up until the king’s confidante informs her of a counter-order. After bravely fighting against the rebels and the Romans, Mithridates, surrounded by a battalion, stabbed himself with his sword, too late to be saved by Xiphares who fought “a glorious way” to his side, chasing the enemies to their vessels. Thankful of his son’s deeds, he hands Monime over to him with his dying breath. “Ah, madam, let us unite our pains,” Xiphares says. “And throughout the universe, let us find avengers.”
Time: Antiquity. Place: Trezene, Peloponnesus, Greece.
Text at http://www.bartleby.com/26/3/ http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Phaedra_(Racine) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1977 https://archive.org/details/phaedraaclassic00racigoog https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.186696
Hippolytus, conscious of the presumed hate of Phaedra, his stepmother, and seeking to escape the amorous attentions of Aricia, disapproved of by his father, Theseus, intends to leave Troezen. On seeing Phaedra, he escapes immediately, while Phaedra, seeing him go, sinks under her woes, saying: "How these vain ornaments and veils press me down!" and seems to be slowly dying. Her confidente, Oenone, is unable to lift her spirits, not knowing the cause of such suffering. At last Phaedra reveals that not only does she not hate Hippolytus, but, though her stepson, she loves him all too well and culpably, for on seeing him a little after her marriage she "recognized Venus and her fires". News arrive that her husband, Theseus, has died, so that, according to Oenone, Phaedra now has all the more reason to live, since the husband's death "has cut the knots that made all the crime and horror of your fires", at which Phaedra agrees to follow her advice and live. Now that his father is presumed dead, the way is free for Hippolytus to divulge his love to Aricia, whose response is discretely favorable. As Hippolytus prepares to subdue Athens for her sake, Phaedra asks him to protect her young son. In Hippolytus she seems to see her husband once more. He is ashamed of such attentions. Despairing of her quest to make him love her, Phaedra takes away his sword and threatens to kill herself, but Hippolytus does nothing. Oenone takes the unhappy Phaedra away. Meanwhile, Athens has declared in favor of Phaedra's son as her rightful king. Despite her sufferings, Phaedra still hopes to obtain Hippolytus. She decides to yield the crown of Athens to Hippolytus. "I place under his power both son and mother," she says to Oenone. But, before speaking with Hippolytus, Oenone advises her to abandon her quest. "You must choke off the thought of such vain love," Oenone pleads, because Theseus is alive, at which Phaedra sinks into even deeper woes, expecting Hippolytus to reveal her adulterous love, or else perhaps herself will do so inadvertently. Oenone proposes that she accuse Hippolytus of incest. When Theseus enters, Phaedra suspiciously retires with her stepson's sword, saying she is "unworthy of pleasing or approaching" him. Too long inactive, Hippolytus proposes to leave and build a name for himself, worthy of his father's. Theseus is dismayed at his wife's behaviour and seeks her to find out who has played the traitor in his absence. Thinking to benefit her mistress, Oenone tells Theseus that Hippolytus is guilty of an incestuous attempt. The father curses his son by threatening to use Neptune, the sea-god, as his violent avenger. Guilt-stricken at Oenone's proceeding, Phaedra returns, but loses any scruple after learning from Theseus that Hippolytus loves Aricia. When Aricia encounters Hippolytus, she pleads that he return to his father to assure him of his innocence, but Hippolytus considers this useless, being particularly unwilling to reveal to his father Phaedra's guilt. Nevertheless, Hippolytus proposes to marry Aricia and leave for Mycaena, which she agrees to do. Theseus wants to learn more on his wife's conduct from Oenone, but is told that she has drowned herself and Phaedra is in a state of "mortal despair". As Theseus fears the worse, he learns of Hyppolytus' death: affrighted by a "formidable voice" and a "humid mountain" from which "vomited" "a furious monster" the horses of his chariot plunged forward out of control and tore the unfortunate passenger to pieces, where "dripping brambles bear the bloody remains of his hair". While Theseus grieves and prepares to accuse Phaedra, she admits her guilt under the effects of a deadly poison, whereby her husband concludes: "May so dark a deed expire with her memory."
Time: Antiquity. Place: Jerusalem.
Text at http://www.archive.org/details/greatplaysfrenc00mattgoog https://archive.org/stream/greatplaysfrench00corn#page/n23/mode/2up https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.186696 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21967
After murdering several little children of Athaliah's son in her quest to become sole reigning sovereign, unbeknown to her, one of them, Joash, is saved by Jehoshaba, his aunt, and Jehoiada, a high priest, who nurture him to become the future king. One of the main officers of the kings of Juda, Abner, expresses to Jehoiada great fear that Athaliah will seek further revenges. But Jehoiada at this time or at any other time never loses confidence in his God. Athaliah describes a dream which deeply perturbs her, in which her mother, Jezebel, appeared, "as on the day of her death pompously arrayed", warning her to tremble that "the cruel God of the Jews does not defeat you as well". Moreover, Athaliah sees in her dream a boy plunging a sword into her breast, the very child she just saw when she was awake, in a ceremony conducted by the high priest. She demands to see that boy. When interrogated, Athaliah is charmed by Joash's manner, to the extent of offering him to live in her palace, but he refuses that honor. She consults Baal's priest, Mattan, who recommends, to Abner's horror, that they kill the boy. Mattan first speaks to Jehoshaba, then to Jehoiada, who both refuse to hand the boy over to Athaliah. Instead, Jehoiada annouces to the Levites and the priests Joash's true identity as king of the Jews, and they prepare to resist Athaliah's army. Unaware of what is prepared against her, Athaliah enters the temple where she is surrounded. "Unpitying God, you alone conducted this," she cries out in despair. She is murdered along with her priest.
Among the admired comedies of Molière are "Tartuffe" (1664), "Dom Juan" (Don Juan, 1665), "Le misanthrope" (The misanthrope, 1666), "Les Femmes savantes" (The learned women, 1672), and "Le malade imaginaire" (The imaginary invalid, 1673), all characterized by sparkling wit and profound psychology.
“The mere mention of 'Tartuffe' and its acknowledged position as one of the glories and masterpieces of universal dramatic literature is a sufficient reply, one would think, to all who urge that it is not lawful to treat religion upon the stage. The play and Molière's preface to it remain as a triumphant assertion for all time of the sovereignty of the drama in its own domain. And that domain is the whole of the nature, and heart, and passions, and conduct of men” (Jones, 1895 p 54). "The major dramatic question, for most of that experience, is why does Orgon worship, flatter, and bribe Tartuffe so?...The obvious answer is that Orgon, an aging man with a domineering mother, grown children, and a younger (second) wife, is seeking a way to preserve control in his household. According to this interpretation, he is obsessed less with piety than with the desire to achieve a kind of absolute power and total autonomy in the realm of his home. The instrument of Orgon’s will or desire, of course, is Tartuffe, but the ludicrous irony here is that, insofar as Tartuffe is invested with superior authority and complete independence by Orgon, the latter sacrifices his own sovereignty" (Cardullo, 2016 pp 129-130). Moreover, "Orgon lives in the illusion that God has sent Tartuffe as a sign of his special mercy" (Fischer-Lichte, 2002). Orgon has suffered financial and social failures and, as a result, is all the more vulnerable to be fooled by a man who purports to help him succeed at least in the after-life. "In proportion as the vision of the reader is clearer as to the abominable hypocrisy of Tartuffe, so much the more comic becomes his dupe and foil Orgon. Each subtle victory of Tartuffe, as in the case of the donation, makes the gullibility of Orgon plainer; and the play gains tense interest not merely from the conflict of inclinations in Tartuffe, but from the almost reckless way in which the action swerves and plunges from farce to tragedy and back again. It is a breathless struggle of emotions” (Jourdain, 1912 p 129). The ending of ‘Tartuffe’ has been described as a ‘deus ex machina’, but is nevertheless incited by Tartuffe himself. “The infatuated Orgon has made him a donation, a legal engagement disinheriting his son and assigning all his possessions to Tartuffe. In addition, he has entrusted him as his director of conscience with some politically compromising documents left in his keeping by a friend...Hypocrisy is not ridiculous...His hypocrisy would have paid off...if he had not gone one step too far and denounced Orgon to the police, so provoking the royal intervention...The principal object of laughter is the dupe...Obsessive religion leads to pernicious results” (Brereton, 1977 pp 118-120). "Molière is studiously careful not only to make it clear that Tartufte himself is a villain in disguise, but to supply an antidote to any mischief which the cause of religion might suffer from his villany, by introducing the character of Cléante into the piece. Cléante is good in himself, and he is made the vehicle of some of the noblest sentiments with regard to true religion that are to be found in anv dramatic writer...When Orgon discovers the villany of Tatuffe and rages not only against him, but against all 'gens de bien', Cléante interposes with some words of moderation, warns him against confoundino; the truly good with the impostors, and ends by telling him that to turn against the zeal because he had been taken in by a false zealot, would be the worse fault of the two...The little sketch of Madame Pernelle, Orgon's mother, is excellent, and is probably not overdrawn. Elmire, the wife, is a model of prudence, and one sees in her the family likeness to her brother Cléante. She is perhaps a trifle too prudent on one or two occasions, when she might as well have spoken out more plainly. Damis, the hot-headed young son, is a good character; and the daughter, Mariane, is a capital specimen of a missy young lady. The scene between her and her lover, Valère, when the question of her marrying Tartuft'e is under consideration, is one of the most amusing that Moliere ever wrote... Doreen...has all the ready wit and the keen sense of the ludicrous which distingish the servants in other plays; but she has, withal, something of a higher tone than most of them, and one looks upon her as almost the good angel of the piece, opposed to the fiendish Tartuffe" (Northcote, 1887 pp 395-400).
In "Don Juan", “the subject...is religion, contemptuously attacked by Don Juan and defended by his servant with conspicuous feebleness...[Juan also criticizes medicine]. As the doctors are frauds when they claim to cure physical ills, so are the priests in the spiritual domain...[Molière] entrusted the defense of religion to a buffoon, whose heart may have been in the right place but whose brain was not...[Juan], a monster of wickedness, defiant to the last, going down to his punishment...in which few audiences could have believed in this primitive spectacular form” (Brereton, 1977 pp 126-130). The latter comment is doubtful, as many critics believe in its utter truth. Gassner (1954a) even interpreted the ending of "Don Juan" as "comic", mistakenly taking Sganarelle's lack of feeling as a sign of how the reader should respond. Nevertheless, Gassner finely observed that "Don Juan’s cynicism was illuminated with brilliant flashes of wit. In comparison with his clever sallies, his servants’ commonplace precepts sound like parodies on conventional morality" (p 296). Don Juan's "speeches are invariably in the spirit of his actions; he leaves us in no doubt as to the principles by which his conduct is governed; he lays bare the primary anatomy of his soul; he believes nothing, hopes nothing, fears nothing, and insolently proclaims his want of faith in the efficacy of prayer. In...meeting a mendicant who passes his life in prayer, but who is dying of starvation, he tosses him a louis d'or 'for the sake of humanity'. Moreover, he is superbly indifferent to all moral considerations; he is unmoved by the anguish of the too-credulous beings whose lives he has wrecked, and is perpetually on the watch for what he terms fresh conquests...Throughout the play Don Juan is never permitted to enlist our sympathies. His courage, his esprit, his elegant and chivalrous bearing these and other natural or acquired graces- are attributed to him simply to bring his character within the bounds of humanity, to account for the fascinations he exercises over women, and to deepen, by force of contrast, the moral blackness which they appear to relieve. In this portraiture, the most philosophical yet witnessed on the French stage, the genius of Moliere probably found it's loftiest and most artistic expression"(Bates, 1913 vol 7 French drama pp 190-192).
In "The Misanthrope" "Alceste...was a character wholly new to the stage, and, unlike the central figure in other plays from the same pen, is intended to enjoy at least our respect, and even a certain measure of sympathy. He is no vulgar hater of mankind, no churlish or brutal cynic. High and noble in nature, he is alienated from the world by its want of heart, its insincerities, its more or less veiled falsehood, its hypocrisies of complaisance, its thousand petty foibles. He regards it as nothing less than a crime that men should exchange civilities simply as a matter of form, should breathe a syllable against those whom they call their friends, or should gloss over their opinion of execrable verses when the author asks for it. His practice is at least equal to his theory; contempt for the harmless hypocrisies of every-day life, however, does not prevent him from becoming the slave of a woman in whom they are fully represented, the spright- ly, accomplished, heartless coquette Celimene. He is conscious of his folly even as he gives way to it the most, and it is upon the conflict in his case between head and heart, terminating in the predominance of the former, that the Interest of the play chiefly depends" (Bates, 1913 vol 7 French drama pp 199-200). The play is "a touching protest against the insincerity of ordinary social relations, against trifling in love, against cynicism and conventional lying. The hero is a plain-spoken, just man, who looks upon the world with childlike good faith, and tells the truth unfalteringly. His disenchantment, his amazement at the falseness of men, and especially of women, and his true-hearted constancy, nevertheless, to what he believes is right, make him a figure as pathetic as he is noble" (Harper, 1901 pp 72-73). “Alceste's heart and his reason are seen in conflict, and this gives the material for a moving play. The conflict is increased through Alceste's natural disposition, which despises the ordinary traffic of politeness, while by his sincerity he shows up the hollowness of the society which surrounds him. No caricature of Molière's has been half so effective as this placing against the background of a social order that is highly nervous and artificial, the solitary man sincere and uncompromising, who wounds the sensibilities of others, but is bound to suffer in return both in his pride and in his happiness. As the play moves on, the more Alceste is injured by the conflicts he brings about, the more he desires love and idealizes it in Celimene; but in vain, for after his momentary defection and attention to Eliante, when he returns to Celimene, it is to find that her love is not equal to sharing his solitude in the desert that his nature has spread around him. The Misanthrope of Moliere is not the man and woman hater, but the disillusioned idealist” (Jourdain, 1912 pp 135-136). “The first two acts pose clearly the question of who is the wrong...[Alceste being] in a temper with his friend, Philinte, a moderate and agreeable man with a strong sense of material realities...[In Act 2] he tackles Célinène on her complaisant reception of other admirers...[That relationship] provides the main substance of the plot...In all his other dealings, he is a man of high principles which he applies to petty examples: the sonnet, affected foppery in dress and manners, the lawsuit...[But] there is Eliante’s defence of him: ‘And the sincerity of which his soul is proud of has something noble and heroic in itself.’ And Philinte...stands by him throughout” (Brereton, 1977 pp 134-145). "'The misanthrope' dispensed with vigorous or spectacular action, and appealed to the intelligence. It is, in fact, the coolest and most Olympian of his comedies. It is an exposé pure and simple; the action is left scrupulously unresolved at the end and the characters remain pretty much as they were at the beginning. The play simply revolves around Alceste, an upright man whose disgust with the follies, affectations, and corruption of his times, amounts to an obsession. The social world that buzzes around him is a collection of fops, bootlickers, intriguers, and philanderers. With them he finds it impossible to compromise even though his loyal friend Philinthe counsels caution. He would rather lose his law case than bribe the court, and he would rather make enemies of the courtiers than flatter their stupidity. The weak point in his armor is his love for an incurably flirtatious woman, whom— like Molière himself— he loves against his better reason. But in spite of his infatuation with her, he cannot bring himself to accept the world of intrigue which is her natural habitat. When she refuses to leave it for a life of retirement with him, he renounces her too" (Gassner, 1954a p 297). DiBastita (1977) contrasted the main characters: "Celimene's satire agrees with self-interest, Alceste's to society’s interest. Alceste rejects Arsinoe’s personal advances as well as her judgments on society. Alceste is subject to 'tragic inflation', Celimene to 'comic deflation'. His love for her reflects his desire to redeem her as well as society. This is opposite to Eliante’s vision of the lover: “If she has any blemish, fault, or shame/He will redeem it by a pleasing name.” [Alceste] does this while confronting Celimene with her letters, a time when the satirist is in conflict with the lover. Unlike Alceste’s, Celimene’s targets of satire are behind people’s backs, so that when finally exposed, she becomes isolated. Frye (1922) also agreed that the ending resolves nothing, deliberately so. "With the exception of the engagement of the two 'confidants', Philante and Eliante, which is again, as far as it goes, a thoroughly conventional expedient intended to give the piece a deceptive appearance of finality— with this exception Le Misanthrope ends very much as such an affair is likely to end in reality— in break-up. Celimene is exposed and Alceste makes his exit. There is a fine off-handedness about it; and that is all. Nothing in particular is illustrated in spite of the circumstance that the play proposes a very pretty problem. And it is on this account that the close is so teasing- that it does not answer the very question which the action has tacitly propounded; if anything, it raises others. Hence it is not surprising to find that the significance of the comedy and even its status as comedy have been a subject of discussion; for it seems hardly to substantiate an idea at all, but rather to moot certain of the dilemmas and paradoxes of social ethics" (p 295).
In "The learned women", “novel reading is at the root of the girls’ over-romantic view of love...[The novel-inspired] romantic love ethic still persists in the mind of Belise, [who] imagines that all men fall in love with her. When told by her skeptical brother that various men she names ignore or even abuse her, she claims that this is either through a delicate regard for her modesty or else due to frustrated passion...But important elements in the play are not burlesque. There is a real danger that Henriette, the natural and domestically inclined sister of Armande, who seeks fulfillment in life though ‘a husband, children, and housekeeping,’ will be forced to marry the unspeakable Trissotin. The plot interest of this is considerable. Her father, Chrysale,...can never stand up to his wife...He grumbles at length about the disorder his comfortable household is in because of the women’s addiction to books and learning: ‘It is not very honest, and for many reasons, that a woman studies and knows so many things,’ [he says], more than Henriette claimed and...[He is] not the voice of good sense...represented by his brother, Ariste” (Brereton, 1977 pp 104-107).
"The imaginary invalid" “is a play about a man who, in seventeenth-century terms, including no doubt Molière's own terms, was not really sick but just thought he was. A modern critic might object that life is not so simple: that it is perfectly possible for a 'malade imaginaire' to be a 'malade véritable' [true invalid], and that what is wrong with Argan is clearly an unwillingness to see his children grow up, an infantile regression which his wife- his second wife, incidentally- shows that she understands completely by coddling him and murmuring such phrases as ‘pauvre petit fils’ [poor, little son]. Such a critic would find the clue to Argan's whole behavior in his unguarded remark after the scene with the little girl Louison (the erotic nature of which the critic would also notice): ‘Il n'y a plus d'enfants’ [Children are no more]. Now whether this reading is right or wrong, it does not swerve from Molière's text, yet it tells us nothing about Molière himself. The play is generically a comedy; it must therefore end happily; Argan must therefore be brought to see some reason; his wife, whose dramatic function it is to keep him within his obsession, must therefore be ‘exposed’ as inimical to him. The plot is a ritual moving toward a scapegoat rejection followed by a marriage, and the theme is a dream-pattern of irrational desire in conflict with reality” (Frye, 1957 p 112). “Molière has realized in his presentation of Argan's character that the fear of death and constant search after health constitute a type of mental illness that is clearly marked out from physical disease. Toinette, who, as the soubrette, marks the common-sense view in the piece, expresses this. The key to the play is, however, not the fact of Argan's nervous weakness, but the self-deception which is at the root of it, and which brings with it the deceit of others. There is a whole network of deceit in the play. Angelique's engagement is brought about by a ruse, Argan's credulousness in the matter of his wife, Belise, can only be cured by Toinette's ingenious device. Louison is trained in ways of deceit. Under the cover of robust farce, Molière is again tilting at the evils of a society which does not fulfil its natural obligations of sincerity and kindness” (Jourdain, 1912 p 134).
“As a writer he is distinguished by wisdom, wit, and grace, as a shoman by improvisation, ingenuity, and vitality. His work exhibits a unique combination of intellect and spirit, of sober judgment and gaiety, of orderliness and vigor” (Gassner, 1968 p 51).
Time: 1660s. Place: Paris.
Text at http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/4/1966/frameset.html http://www.bartleby.com/26/4/ https://archive.org/stream/greatplaysfrench00corn#page/n23/mode/2up http://azactorsacademy.com/uploads/plays/tartuffe.pdf
Supported only by his mother, Orgon has invited in his house Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite who zealously lords over Orgon's family, in an uproar because of him. When the servant, Dorine, reports on his wife's poor health and Tartuffe's ravenous appetite, distracted Orgon exclaims four times: "Poor man!" "Whoever follows his lessons tastes profound peace and regards the entire world as excrement," according to Orgon. Orgon's brother-in-law, Cléante, disagrees, as no one is more odious than those "devout for place, whose sacrilegious and cheating grimaces abuse without impunity." When Cléante asks Orgon about his intentions regarding the proposed marriage between his daughter, Marianne, and Valère, he receives only vague answers. To Marianne, Orgon has a very disagreeable surprise: he wishes her to marry Tartuffe. Dorine interrupts this exchange, unable to believe that Marianne would be "business for the bigoted" and that Orgon would "choose a beggarly son-in-law". She is convinced that such a marriage will only promote adultery. After Orgon leaves to cool off, Dorine admits she is scandalized to hear that Marianne's objections to this proposal appear so weak. Orgon's daughter is timid, but pleads at last for help, to which Dorine responds: "No, you will, by my faith, be tartuffied." But before Marianne leaves the room in despair, Dorine brings her back. After hearing about the awful rumor, Valère also is offended when timidity prevents Marianne from declaring her love more openly. They quarrel. To make peace, the servant invites them to join hands. After some hesitation, they do. Her plan is to pretend acceptance of the proposal and stall for time. Meanwhile, Orgon's son, Damis, is also interested in this love-match, because he himself would like to marry Valère's sister. Against Dorine's advice, he hides inside a closet to discover Tartuffe's intentions. When looking at Dorine's half-naked breasts, Tartuffe takes out a handkerchief and hypocritically exclaims: "Cover that breast I am unable to look on." Orgon's wife, Elmire, also wishes to discover Tartuffe's intentions. In his zeal to serve her, he presses her fingers too hard, then his hand strays to the knee. Though Elmire wishes to speak of her daughter, he deviates the conversation towards her beauties. "Though devoutly religious, I am nonetheless a man," he assures her. Disgusted at this courtship of his stepmother, Damis steps out of hiding and, against her advice, tells his father of Tartuffe's "injurious avowal of a culpable flame". But Orgon knows his family is in league against his friend and dismisses such accusations. Exasperated by his son's insistence of Tartuffe's hypocrisies, he looks around for a stick to beat him with, but is restrained by Tartuffe. Instead, he disinherits his son in favor of his friend. Orgon hastens forward Marianne's marriage. On her knees she implores him that if he is opposed to her choice of a husband, he at least send her to a convent: "to spend the sad days heaven has given me," she has. But he refuses. Surprised at his incredulity of Damis' accusation, Elmire proposes that he himself be the witness of Tartuffe's hypocrisies by hiding under the table while she converses with him, where matters will go as far as he wishes. When Tartuffe enters, Elmire says she has secrets to reveal and that he should "look everywhere in fear to be surprised". She then pretends to disclose her attachment to him. Suspicious of this about-face, Tartuffe advances to obtain from her more than pleasant words. Elmire coughs as a warning to her husband, but he does not budge. To disarm her scruples, Tartuffe Goes further. "It is the world's scandal that makes all the offense," he assures her, "and to sin secretly is no sin." In desperation, she sends him in the next room to make sure her husband is not near. With Tartuffe out of the room, Orgon abandons at last his hiding place, completely abashed. "Nothing so evil ever left hell," he cries. When Tartuffe returns, Orgon orders him out of his house. Yet Tartuffe is by no means confounded, threatening to "avenge heaven's injury". He says that Orgon should leave, because the house belongs to him now, and Orgon fears this to be true. He also fears the consequence of some lost papers left him by a friend. An officer of the court arrives to order Orgon out the house, now Tartuffe's property, and to take away the furniture. Valère informs them that Tartuffe went to the prince with the missing papers, Orgon considered guilty of keeping as a secret matters relating to criminal activities. Stunned by such treachery, Orgon murmurs cynically. "Man, I admit, is an evil animal," he declares. Valère proposes to help him escape from justice, but is intercepted by Tartuffe accompanied by an officer of the law. However, the officer surprises Tartuffe by arresting him instead, the prince having discovered Tartuffe's ploys just in time. Greatly relieved, Orgon at last offers to Valère Mariane's hand in marriage.
Time: 14th century. Place: Spain.
After luring Elvira away from a convent by marriage and then quickly abandoning her and after murdering a commander, father to yet another cheated girl, Don Juan disappears with his servant, Sganarelle. Though morally opposed to such doings, Sganarelle is reconciled to them by the wages he receives and its bodily comforts, convinced that, contrary to Aristotle's opinion, "tobacco is the best of all goods". Juan and Sganarelle sail away to capture the intended of a friend when, surprised by a storm, their boat is overturned, both saved only through the intervention of an energetic peasant. With little delay, Juan rewards the peasant by successfully seducing his intended. After escaping again from any sort of attachment, Juan learns that Elvira's brothers intend to kill him, so that master and servant must now walk about disguised. On the way, Juan saves a stranger from bandits, no less than one of Elvira's brothers, Carlos, who owes Juan his life. Recognizing Juan as the mocker they were looking for, the other brother challenges him to end their quarrel with swords, but Carlos, the recipient of Juan's courage, prevents him from any thought of vengeance for the moment, Juan promising both to render satisfaction at a later date. As they travel farther on, Juan and Sganarelle are surprised to discover the commander's tomb. As a jest, Juan invites the commander's statue to dinner. To his astonishment and Sganarelle's terror, the statue nods in agreement. After witnessing Juan's mocking of a timid creditor, his indifference at seeing Elvira's return as a nun to plead for his salvation, and his suppressed anger at being forced to listen patiently to his father's bitter remonstrances, Sganarelle is found even in a worst state of mind when the statue appears at dinner time. The servant, but not the master, attributes his arrival as a warning from heaven. The statue declines to eat, but instead invites Juan to dine with him. Juan accepts. Sganarelle pleads that he must refuse the honor because of a cold, but his master dismisses that argument. When next Juan meets his father, he promises to amend, a sight that much rejoices the old man as well as Sganarelle, but to the servant's dismay, all was pretense, Juan now choosing religious hypocrisy as the best cover of an evil disposition. When Carlos returns to request marriage on behalf of his sister, Juan refuses by pretending to lead a life of chastity, specifying that he hears "heaven's voice" in that vocation. Juan's pretense at religion is found out when a specter appears, transformed into the shape of time carrying his scythe. Juan dismisses the figure as he did every other warning. The commander appears, offering his hand. Juan resolutely takes it and suddenly feels burning by an "invisible fire". Thunder strikes, the earth opens, and Juan is plunged into the abyss where fires emanate. Sganarelle cries out in despair, not because of his master's fate but for lost money: "By his death, everyone is satisfied. Heaven offended, laws violated, girls seduced, families dishonored, parents outraged, wives evilly served, husbands pushed to the limit, all are satisfied, I only am unlucky. My wages, my wages, my wages!"
Time: 1660s. Place: Paris.
Alceste accuses Philinte of flattering people he barely knows. "So great an anger against the times is to many a source of ridicule," his friend responds. Alceste admits he hates all humankind. "Some because they are evil and do harm,"he enumerates, "others for being to evil men complaisant." But then why does his heart incline towards Célimène, "whose coquette humor and scandal-mongering seems so in tune to the present mores?" Oronte arrives to greet Alceste with much ceremony, wishing to obtain from him an opinion on his sonnet. He rejoices at the opportunity of receiving an honest opinion, but, after obtaining it, he is extremely offended. At Célimène's house, Alceste frowns and fumes on listening to a long series of scandal-mongering between her and two marquis. She describes one acquaintance in this way: "He is a strange talker, who always discovers the art to say nothing with long speeches." Another is described as a man who "without any business is always busy." Of yet another: "of his cook he has obtained merit, and it is his table that receives visits," whereas his own person is "a bad meal." Bur for all this, notes Alceste, they socialize with those they satirize. These pleasantries are interrupted by representatives of Oronte, who wish to settle amiably the subject of their contention. When alone together, both marquis agree that whoever shows signs of having found favor with Célimène should let the other cede his place. Célimène next receives a visit from Arsinoé, a dishonest prude in love with Alceste. According to Célimène, "to save the honor of her feeble attractions, she attaches a crime to the power they do not have." After speaking ill of her for a considerable time, Célimène rushes to bid her friend welcome. Arsinoé arrives with the disagreeable (though secretly pleasant) task of announcing to her friend that "among people of singular virtue", Célimène's galantries have attracted widespread blame. In turn, Célimène is quick to point out to her friend what people say about her, that among "persons of very rare merit" "her prudery and fits of zeal were not cited as a very good model" and that her "bitter censures on things innocent and pure" "were blamed by common opinion," that she "orders nudities in paintings to be covered up, but has a love for the realities." To prevent more bitter terms, she leaves her in Alceste's company. Arsinoé is quick to point out his merits and, to promote them properly, offers to help obtain for him a position at the royal court, but he is certain not to possess the talents of the courtier. Failing that and despite her friendship towards Célimène, she finds her unworthy of his love. She invites him to her house, where she says: "I will let you see a loyal proof of the infidelities of heart of your belle," where also "something may be offered to console you." So tormented appears Alceste's relation with Célimène, in Philinte's opinion, that Eliante, Célimène's cousin, should be the object of his heart. She is open to the idea, though uncertain about the state of Alceste's mind. But yet Philinte specifies that he himself is willing to offer his hand to her in marriage should her heart be free. Devastated, Alceste rushes in, a letter in hand containing certain evidence of Célimène's betrayal: in her own handwriting a love-letter addressed to Oronte, the least likely rival. In a spirit of vengeance, he offers his heart to Eliante, but she demurs, knowing that "a guilty lover is soon innocent". Alceste confronts Célimène with the letter. "But if this letter is addressed to a woman," she asks, "in what way does it harm you?" When he does not believe her, she, exasperated, admits it was addressed to Oronte, but this only weakens his resolve. "Force yourself to appear faithful," he pleads, "and I will force myself to believe you." He is called away to learn he has unjustly lost a court-case. In addition, Oronte circulates untrue rumors about him in revenge. Furthermore, Oronte visits Célimène to insist on the need to banish Alceste forever from her sight and show at last her true heart, a course which Alceste also agrees with. Before she does, the two marquis and Arsinoé crowd in with more of her incriminating letters, which mock all of her suitors. Except Alceste, all suitors leave her contemptuously. Only Alceste forgives, provided she abandon society, but Célimène, so young and frivolous, is unwilling to "bury herself in his desert". Turning towards Eliante, Alceste specifies he feels unworthy of her love. Philinte steps forth, who, for the honor of marrying her, "would sacrifice both blood and life", resolving at the same time to prevent Alceste from retreating completely away from all humankind.
"The learned women"
Time: 1670s. Place: Paris.
Armande is disgusted at her sister's intention to marry. "Far from being to a man's law enslaved, sister, marry philosophy," she avers. Henriette answers she is content with grosser pleasures. "Do not suppress, in wishing to be followed, some little learned one wishing to enter the world," she declares. Though hating the thought of marriage, yet Armande appreciated Clitandre as a follower. When asked for his opinion, he entirely favors Henriette. To help win her, Clitandre begins to explain his case to her aunt, Bélise, who mistakes in thinking that his love is meant for her. Ariste informs his brother and Henriette's father, Chrysale, of Clitandre's love, but Bélise interrupts to say: "One cannot cheat more galantly," for her own person is no doubt his object, as is the case of several other men. Though none have dared to say one word of it, "mute interpreters have all done their office," she adds. Chrysale assures Ariste that he agrees with Henriette's choice and there is no need to consult his wife, Philaminte, but is dismayed on hearing that Martine, their servant, has been dismissed by her. He promises to support her, but when his wife appears, he immediately backs down. Martine is sacked for bad word usage, "wild and gross", bad grammar, "enough to kill a sensitive ear". "What a village soul!" exclaims Bélise. Chrysale mildly objects: "I live thanks to good soup, not good language," he swears. He gets hotter, though only when addressing his sister. Left with his wife alone, Chrysale changes the subject to Henriette's marriage prospects, whereby Philaminte declares she has already selected her son-in-law, the pretentious pedant, Trissotin. Chrysale is mute. When Ariste asks about Henriette, his brother answers that the affair "is not quite done". Despite being often interrupted by their exclamations, Bélise having to catch her breath, Trissotin is able to serve a small feast of poetry to the learned women. Thus Philamante: "One can no more," Bélise: "One swoons," Armande: "One dies in pleasure." Tired of mispent time common to their sex, as in judging skirts, each woman seeks for higher studies, Philamante at her telescope already sure to have clearly seen men walking there. Trissotin introduces his friend, Vadius, mutually showering each other with compliments, until the latter, not knowing the author, insults the former's sonnet. Now Trissotin grumbles before hearing Vadius' ballad, the authors then showering insults against each other. At last, Philaminte announces to Henriette that she has chosen for her a husband, which Bélise nobly yields. But to the two sisters, Chrysale reveals his will: Trissotin for Armande, Clitandre for Henriette. In front of her mother, Armande accuses Clitandre, because "a faithless heart is a monster in morality". Since according to him, one must have "knots of flesh", she is ready to submit, but for Clitandre too late. Trissotin mocks his rival for defending ignorance, Clitandre for defending pedantry. A letter from Vadius promising to prove Trissotin's pillage of Latin authors is without effect on Philaminte's mind, so that Henriette must make him desist, with no better result. Chrysale brings back Martine and strongly assures Henriette of his support, but would nevertheless like to be seconded. When Philaminte enters with the notary, he requests the name of her future spouse, but each parent points to a different one. "Two husbands!" the notary exclaims. Husband confronts wife. Martine is of the opinion that "the hen must not crow in front of the rooster". They are interrupted by Ariste's arrrival with two letters, the first containing news of Philaminte's loss of a great deal of money in a trial, which she stoically accepts, though hating the word "condemned", the second containing news of Chrysale's bankrupty. To this, Trissotin balks, but not Clitandre. Henriette refuses his sacrifice until Ariste reveals both news were false, invented by his desire to expose the false. At long last, Chrysale manly asserts himself. "Write the contract as I said," he commands the notary.
Though of a lesser note than the other three dramatists, Jean Rotrou (1609-1650) stands out as a dramatist of interest in the Classic period, especially for "Le véritable Saint Genest" (The true Saint Genest, 1645). Like Corneille's "Polyeuctus", "The true Saint Genest" describes the life of a Christian martyr in ancient Rome, this time in the form of an actor who reveals the nature of his religion while acting in his play. “In viewing Adrian’s story, we learn that his conversion is largely due to his own persecution of Christians...through his profession, so did Genest through his...The moment of conversion for Genest comes when Adrian asks to be baptized...of a different nature than Adrian’s, being the direct result of divine intervention...Like Adrian, Genest goes to his death denouncing the falseness of the real world...Genest goes too far in the identification with the character that an actor needs for an effective portrayal. The result is that he destroys the play in which he is acting” (Morello, 1980 pp 128-132).
"The true Saint Genest"
Time: 4th century. Place: Nicodemia.
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An acting troupe play in front of Diocletian the emperor during the marriage celebrations of his daughter, Valeria, with Maximinus. The main character in the presented play is Adrian, a martyr once put to death as a Christian by Maximinus. Genest plays Adrian, thrown in prison at the start of the play for his Christian beliefs. Adrian receives a visit by the people's tribune, Flavius, who tries to dissuade him from his voluntarily imposed arrest but is unable to. Next Maximinus curses him as an ingrate and threatens him. "Fear to behold, and soon, my neglected favor and the insult to the gods cruelly avenged," he declares, but Adrian remains firm. Next, Natalia, Adrian's wife, visits him, revealing that she, too, is a Christian. When asked why she never said so before, seeing her husband order the death of so many Christians, she answers his rage seemed then uncontrollable. Flavius returns to free him temporarily from his chains, since he continues all the firmer in his purpose. Seeing her husband freed from his bonds, Natalia rages against his seeming abandonment of the Christian faith, but he reassures her. "God always in my heart conserves his victory," he affirms. Genest, the actor, proves it in real life as did Adrian in the play by suddenly stepping out of his role and disclosing his Christian faith in front of Diocletian, who cries out: "O execrable blasphemy! O impious sacrilege, which we will answer if his blood does not expiate it." In view of dimmer prospects without Genest and in fear of retributive punishments, one of the members of the acting troupe, Marcella, pleads with Genest to desist. "O ridiculous error, to boast the power of a god who to his own gives death as recompense!" she exclaims. "You will see whether those gods of metal and stone will be powerful in heaven, as they seem on earth," he retorts. To her despair and that of the other actors, an officer reports Genest's death. "By your command, my lord," he announces to the emperor, "that glorious actor, of the most famous heroes renowned imitator, of the Roman theatre the splendor and the glory, but so bad an actor in his own history, as complete as ever in his impiety and by my efforts solicited in vain, has by the gods' wrath against his perfidy with a bloody act ended the tragedy."
A fifth dramatist of note is Thomas Corneille (1625-1709), Pierre's brother. Although his comedies are generally weak, his tragedies show a high degree of stoutness and refinement, especially "Timocrate" (Timocrates, 1656) and "Ariane" (Ariadne, 1674).
Collins (1966) pointed out that "although Timocrates could have saved bloodshed by revealing himself sooner, “it is very questionable that the queen of Argos would have accepted Timocrates as her son-in-law...She is a vindictive sovereign, compelled to avenge the death of her...husband...Her bitter animosity against Crete was at least as strong as her esteem for Cleomenes...At the time of his capture, Nicander had had ample opportunity to recognize the Cretan warrior...And yet when Cleomenes appears in the following scene, Nicander gives no indication of recognizing him as Timocrates. With the advantage of hindsight, one can conclude that Nicander had been won over, had already decided to betray Argos...Even after the queen’s assent to Cleomenes’ claims, Nicander remains skeptical” (pp 61-63). At this point, the queen’s passivity regarding the fate of her own country matches Nicander's.
In "Ariadne", to counter a critic’s harsh opinion on Phaedra’s behavior as being “vicious”, Lockert (1958) pointed out that on their first encounter, “she tells Theseus that they must renounce each other, for though she loves him she cannot forget Ariadne’s tremendous claims on him. Later, she proves too weak for her suggested self-sacrifice and accepts his plan of trying to persuade her sister to be reconciled to his inconstancy and marry King Oenarus; but when the forsaken woman begs her to plead with Theseus for her, she does this, against her own interests, so eloquently that Pirithous is convinced that her lack of success makes plain the uselessness of any further efforts to persuade the recreant lover to fulfill his obligations- yet still she wishes to try once more. Only when she learns of Ariadne’s determination to discover the object of Theseus’ affections and kill her does she consent, in terrified dismay, to fly with him” (p 17). While the other characters remain static, “Ariadne evolves dynamically through a series of attitudes each of which claims renewed attention...[In Act 2], so profound is her faith in Theseus that she parries the first blows of deception with confident equanimity. [In Act 3], she can only brood over her loss. [In Act 4], her plan for revenge gives Ariadne an ostensible serenity finally turning to despair. In Act 5...[Phaedra’s role in the tragedy may be defended in that she] makes every effort to persuade Theseus to return to Ariadne...Pirithous...far from being an accomplice of Theseus...disapproves his friend’s decision to abandon Ariadne...There is every good reason for Theseus to love Ariadne, but the only reason that matters is absent” (Collins, 1966 pp 146-155).
Time: Antiquity. Place: Argos, Greece.
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The queen of Argos receives an ultimatum from Timocrates, king of Crete: either war or the hand of her daughter, Eriphile, in marriage. She consults two neighbor-princes and Nicander, a subjected prince, all three rivals for Eriphile's hand, all proposing to reject the marriage offer. The queen next asks the opinion of Cleomenes, a worthy soldier and subject to Nicander. Although he favors peace, the queen rejects the marriage offer, with all the more reason as she swore to avenge her husband's death at the hands of Timocrates' father, the former king of Crete. She declares her daughter will marry whoever defeats Timocrates. Cleomenes reveals to Nicander that his opinion was motivated mostly by personal interests, for he, too, loves Eriphile, but, being devoid of royal blood, feels himself unworthy of her. "I love that she escape my flame this day more as the victim of the state than that of love," he despairingly says. Learning Cleomenes' opinion, Eriphile is heartily dejected, for he is the true object of her desires. When Nicander arrives for encouragement in his aim, she does so only partially, admitting only that she prefers him to the two other princes. When Cleomenes comes, she accuses him of being a traitor. "To love more, I wished to hate myself, and was traitor to myself in fear of being yours," he counters. Despite appearances, he intends to kill Timocrates. "Combat, win," she says. "And especially do not expose my faith to refuse elsewhere what is only meant for you." During the bloody conflict, Timocrates succeeds in killing the two princes and capturing Nicander. Sure of his success and wishing to impress the queen, he releases Nicander without conditions. But the queen hates him all the more as the son of her husband's murderer. Against all hope, Cleomenes defeats Timocrates. In accordance with her oath, the queen offers him Eriphile's hand in marriage. But, unexpectedly, the Cleomenes is found to be an impostor. Hearing this rumor, Eriphile challenges Cleomenes to deny he knew of it. His silence first convinces her that he did. He then counters that it is indeed Timocrates who gave up all claims to her to him. After Eriphile angrily leaves him, the queen requests Cleomenes to explain the matter of his imposture. To her astonishment, he reveals to her he is Timocrates. She is now subject to two conflicting vows offered to the gods: on one hand to give her daughter away in marriage to Timocrates' victor, on the other to avenge her dead husband. "O duty, O vengeance, O bold oath!" she exclaims, "Did I engage heaven to serve my anger only to behold to my anxious heart hated Timocrates in loved Cleomenes?". She condones both, first to let him marry her daughter, then to have him killed, but Eriphile, desperate to avoid becoming "the minister of hate", requests Nicander to save Timocrates, though stopping short of promising to marry him. Nicander answers that he may yet serve her well. As the queen invites the couple to enter the temple to marry, the Cretes invade the city. She is forced to yield the crown, their entry being helped by Nicander, who recognizes in the noble Timocrates his rightful king. Thanks to Nicander, Timocrates becomes the king of Argos and Crete with Eriphile as his queen.
Time: Antiquity. Place: Naxos, Greece.
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After helping Theseus kill the minotaur in Crete, Ariadne and he escaped from the wrath of King Minos, her father, to the isle of Naxos, welcomed and protected by King Oenarus. She expects marrying Theseus, but the man has for three months delayed the ceremony because of his growing love for her sister, Phaedra, as she loves him, but they are unwilling to declare their love until the king declares his own to Ariadne. Unaware of her sister's love, Ariadne proposes that Phaedra marry Theseus' friend, Pirithous. Theseus is unable to say whether he loves Ariadne, leaving Pirithous to suggest that she should heed the king's love, at which suggestion she grows very anxious of having a rival. She asks Phaedra to intercede with Theseus on her behalf, but her sister only half-heartedly attempts to do so. "Love like a tyrant disposes of his heart, and fate, stronger than gratitude, despite what he owes you, leads him to be false," Phaedra confesses. Pirithous once more presses the subject of King Oenarus' love if only to protect Ariadne from King Minos, but she cannot. "Without the one I love, alas, of what use is life?" Ariadne asks. She calls for Theseus and asks him what crime has she committed and specifies that for the service she has rendered only the heart can pay back. "I would like to give it to you," he says. "But this heart, in spite of me, lives under another empire...I hate my injustice but can do no more." On the subject of the king's love, she retorts: "Let everything perish if to you I must cease to be dear...Of the entire universe I wanted only you." To discover her rival's name, Ariadne promises the king to marry his choice after Theseus weds her rival. She also asks for Phaedra's help. "Should I sufficiently consent to everything rage offers as most bloody to avenge my outrage?" she asks. Armed with this knowledge, Theseus and Phaedra flee the court towards Athens. Ariadne discovers her rival's name too late. She asks Oenarus' help to pursue them, but then, in despair, falls on Pirithous' sword.