Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Odd Man Out: The Kings in Corneille's Machine Plays

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Odd Man Out: The Kings in Corneille's Machine Plays

Article excerpt

ANDROMEDE and La Conquete de la Toison d'or have a largely unenviable status in Corneille's oeuvre. They are often either dismissed or marginalized, and almost inevitably read as different from, and therefore inferior to, the more canonical Cornelian works. (1) In fact, both plays are richer and more interesting than commonly thought, as I hope to suggest by an examination of the curious and curiously similar role of the king.

Andromede deals with Persee's rescue of Andromede from a man-eating monster and the consequent transfer of her affections and her hand from her fiance Phinee to Persee, the son of Jupiter. La Toison d'or involves a transfer as well, in this case of both the Golden Fleece and Medee's affections, from her family to Jason, the leader of the Argonauts. In both plays there is a king who is faced with a crisis: in the case of Cephee, the devouring monster, and for Aete, the loss of his kingdom if he loses the Golden Fleece. Neither, however, is the typical Cornelian king or even father. Authority, to say nothing of heroism, is curiously lacking in both characters. Most surprising is the fact that in both plays, the kings act in a fashion that can only be considered ill-advised or inappropriate and yet neither is called to account. Despite relatively substantial roles, (2) these two kings have attracted remarkably little critical attention. I propose to examine each of these kings in turn and consider the possible meanings of their disturbing and yet masked lapses.

Cephee in Andromede adopts a stance of reason and sound judgment. He neither caused the wrath of the gods that resulted in the virgineating monster (his wife Cassiope did) nor does he propose any solution beyond passive obedience. An equitable king, he insists that Andromede's name be included in the group of young women eligible for sacrifice, despite her fiance Phinee's loud objections. A loving father, he is deeply distressed at the thought of losing his daughter and suffers from the conflict between his public responsibilities and his private affections: "Je vous refuse en Roi, ce que je veux en pere," he tells Phinee (l. 293). In these respects, Cephee operates comfortably within the norms of the Cornelian monarch.

Cephee's error is one of absence. The central moment of the play occurs in Act III when Andromede is tied to the rocks to await the approaching monster. It is a fabulous visual spectacle, with Persee flying around on his horse Pegasus as he attacks and defeats the presumably horrific monster. The presence or absence of certain characters may seem insignificant in comparison with the action onstage, but such is not the case: it is Phinee's absence from this scene that constitutes the basis of his rejection as Andromede's fiance. Everyone interprets Phinee's choice not to come to Andromede's aid against the monster as an unpardonable lachete, despite his protestation that he could not bear to witness her death. In dramatic terms, Corneille underlines the scandal of Phinee's absence by his decision to place a considerable number of characters onstage. While only Persee, Andromede, and the monster are necessary to the dramatic action, Andromede's mother Cassiope is present, joined by the captain of the guards Timante and a chorus of Cephee's subjects, all lamenting and offering their support. In fact, the only significant characters absent from the scene are Phinee and Cephee. And while everyone considers Phinee's absence blameworthy, Cephee's passes unnoticed. No mention is ever made of the latter's absence. If Cephee is unable to assume the role of the rescuer, either because of advanced age or a sense of royal obligation to obey divine dictates, why does he not at least join his wife onstage? The disjuncture in the play's treatment of the absence of the two men is unsettling.

The similarity of the choice made by both Cephee and Phinee in this context is obscured. The two men would seem to have little in common, one the father and king, the other the lover; the first the voice of reason and acceptance, the second imprudently trumpeting his objections to the decrees of both king and gods. …

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