Monday, February 7, 2011
Phaedra - Racine, translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur
I am not a scholar of French Theatre, this might actually be my first reading of a classical French work, so please feel free to fill in my gaps and clarify my misunderstandings. My first question after reading this is what was Racine up to - writing this very Greek feeling play after Shakespeare and the Renaissance playwrights had opened up wildly divergent ways of telling a story? Is it an emulation of the Greeks, where this story originated? Or is it the type of play being written in this era? I’ll read more and find out.
Also, after reading this I saw that Adam Bock has a version of the story set in modern times, which I’d love to read next, and also Ted Hughes has a translation.
The story. Phaedra, wife of Theseus, is cursed with an unquenchable desire for her step-son Hippolytus. She resists her lust with every fiber of her being. Before the play opens she’s had him banished and removed from her sight. Theseus, a wandering hero and a philanderer, is off on another adventure and sends Phaedra to the country village where Hippolytus now resides. Phaedra withdraws from society and wastes away from the toxic mix of guilt and desire.
News is received that Theseus has been killed, during a romantic escapade perhaps, and a glimmer of possibility kindles in Phaedra’s mind. Perhaps she and Hippolytus can rule together, perhaps all will be well. But, as Phaedra declares her love to Hippolytus, he announces his love for the banished princess Aricia, whom he plans to make his queen. Phaedra is crushed, in suicidal despair. It turns out Theseus is not dead, he returns to find his house in disarray. To spare her mistress from torment, Phaedra’s servant devises a plan where they will accuse Hippolytus of accosting Phaedra with unwanted advances before he has a chance to humiliate Phaedra. Theseus is enraged, refuses to hear Hippolytus’s protestations of innocence and banishes him. He dies, Phaedra poisons herself and to make some amends for his rashness Theseus forgives Aricia the sins of her fathers and restores her to her rightful throne.
Over five acts through dialogue made up of declarative speeches and monologues delivered by characters to question their own motives and understandings of events, the story unfolds and moves inexorably towards its classically tragic conclusion. Reading it I found my own sense of the romantic to be so ingrained - and my sympathies so with Phaedra - that when Theseus was reported killed I celebrated with her, and believed in the possibility of these two young people to be brought together. This isn’t the outcome, instead, despite Phaedra’s attempts to resist temptation and manage her own impulses she cannot and they lead to her downfall.