Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Anxiety of Senecan Influence in Racine, or Phedre in the Labyrinth

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Anxiety of Senecan Influence in Racine, or Phedre in the Labyrinth

Article excerpt

For those who would make sense of Jean Racine's career, Phedre will always present a paradox: at once a summit and an impasse. In this paper I propose not so much a resolution of this paradox as a new mapping of the play's contradictions, both internal and external, with the help of Racine's own topological metaphor: the labyrinth. Adhering closely to tradition and to Racine's stated concerns, we will take two well-lit entrances into this literary monument: aesthetics and ethics, plaire et instruire. Like the visitor to the Cretan maze, we will follow a path of (textual) turns and detours, of new perspectives and reflected images, as we approach a dark, deep center which, for my purposes, is to be round in Phedre's famous speech to Hippolyte, Act 2, scene 4, v. 634-662. (1)

Like most other dramatists of his time, Racine limited his writings on dramatic theory to the prefaces of his individual plays. Written as the plays were only just ending their initial runs, these reflections typically emerged from the red-hot crucible of theatrical debate that all but lit up the Parisian stage during the seventeenth century. Informed as much by polemics and unsettled scores as by an impartial reading of the anciens, these nevertheless invaluable sources must be read with caution if one is to account for the occasional distortions of theory or fact which they contain.

An interesting case in point can be round in Racine's preface to Phedre. The seventeenth-century reader would likely have been surprised to find there no mention of Pradon, whose parasitic rival version of the same story set off an unusually venomous battle amid the upper reaches of the aristocratic theatergoing public and the habitues of influential literary salons. The demise of Pradon's play was already complete: Racine could comfortably look down in detached silence on the rubble of the past furor.

There is, thus, at least an undercurrent of subtle irony in the opening line's placid erudition: "Voici encore une tragedie dont le sujet est pris d'Euripide." Racine's own creation is modestly represented as a carefully charted divergence from the Eurpidean "route" to which he, Racine, remains richly indebted, were it only for the example of the character of Phedre, "ce que j'ai peut-etre mis de plus raisonnable sur le theatre." The litotes of this opening, which might be read as a ritual gesture of authorial self-effacement, conceals in fact a far more complex irony inasmuch as it erases more than we at first think--more, that is, than the simple vanity of a purely original creation, an inventio ex nihilo. One is, upon reflection, struck by a number of things in this apparently modest statement. This is certainly one of the very few places where one can find the character of Phedre described, at whatever level, as raisonnable. It has also been fairly argued that Euripides's tragedy Hippolytus--given the play's title and the stepmother's early guilt-ridden suicide--is not really about Phaedra anyway. In the end, despite Racine's repeated invocation of the Eurpidean model (Racine names Euripides five times in the preface), the majority of scholars consider Racine's principal source hot to be Euripides's Hippolytus but rather the Latin Phaedra attributed to Seneca. (2) The single reference to Seneca in the preface (3) is in its own right deceptive in that the citation ("vim [tamen] corpus tulit," (4)) which is its motivation seems to be attributed to Seneca and Euripides. More importantly, as it implies only a difference between the Latin and the French versions, Racine's dismissive reference identifies the Senecan text as the site of corruption and consequently, as an alibi for his own text's purer origins.

Recent criticism has shown such neglect in Racine's treatment of Seneca to be habitual--or, in the words of William Levitan, part of a "pattern of response that is evident throughout Racine's work--an obvious, at times even inevitable, use of Senecan material . …

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