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His strength may uphold kingdoms and speak through the mouth of the ruler and people; but in the sacred history, as Racine conceives it, we hear His voice and He appears as to Moses on the Mount.1

1

Mais d'où vient que mon cœur frémit d'un saint effroi,
Est-ce l'esprit divin qui s'empare de moi?

C'est lui-même; il m'échauffe, il parle, mes yeux s'ouvrent,
Et ces siècles obscurs devant moi se découvrent.

Athalie, act iii, sc. 5.

CHAPTER IX

THE DRAMATIC BACKGROUND IN THE PLAYS OF RACINE

IN the drama of Racine, where the action is simple and complete, the time assigned to it is short and definitely marked. Here there is a contrast with Corneille. His drama of the will evoked no sense of the passing of time: on the plane on which it was worked out time was disregarded; thus, in its symbolic presentation on the stage the time was undetermined.1 But Racine's drama of the emotions is sensitive to time, to its stages and its duration. Whether time is lagging for the hot-headed lover, or hurrying the condemned wretch to execution, it is indifferent to neither, for it is bound up with the granting or the denial of desire. So in all passionate drama the hours are told one by one as they mark happiness or suffering. There are many other illustrations of this treatment of time to be seen in Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice the tension is felt throughout the play-will the ships come to port? will Portia arrive for the trial? And it is part of the dramatic value of the trial scene that Portia so naturally seems to wish to delay the decision. So again, in The Tempest idyll, morning and evening, and the hours of the day are marked; in Hamlet, the heavy leaden months of indecision, and in Othello, the moments of swift precipitate madness of jealousy.

Thus, too, in the passionate drama of Racine time is

1 Le Bidois, De l'action dans la tragédie de Racine (speaking of Corneille's time): 'indéterminé, donc irréel' (p. 35). 2 As You Like It.

invoked. Take, for example, the play of Iphigénie. In the first act the arrival of Achille the night before—

Et ce vainqueur, suivant de près sa renommée,
Hier avec la nuit arriva dans l'armée-1

is followed to the terrible perplexity of Agamemnon by the entrance of Achille with the dawn of the fatal day:

Déjà le jour plus grand nous frappe et nous éclaire, Déjà même l'on entre, et j'entends quelque bruit. C'est Achille. Va, pars, Dieux! Ulysse le suit.2 The repetition of the fatal word 'to-day' comes at intervals through the acts.

Achille's absence from the camp for the space of one month is also alluded to.3 As the day passes Achille marks the loss of time. Then we hear that the sacrifice of Iphigénie is to take place within the hour. Dans une heure elle expire.' 5 Agamemnon's effort to save her is thus marked.

Cette nuit même encore, on a pu vous le dire,
J'avais révoqué l'ordre où l'on me fit souscrire."

Then at the supreme moment comes the demand of Agamemnon for a delay. He claims the remainder of the day that is passing.

Je vais faire suspendre une pompe funeste,

Et de ce jour, au moins, lui demander le reste."

And this last effort is answered by the counter-crisis of Eriphile's sacrifice.

1 Iphigénie, act i, sc. 1.

3

2 Ibid.

Quoi, seigneur, ne le savez-vous pas,
Vous qui, depuis un mois, brûlant sur ce rivage,
Avez conclu vous-même et hâté leur voyage?

Iphigénie, act ii, sc. 7.

Je perds trop de moments en des discours frivoles;
Il faut des actions, et non pas des paroles.

5 Ibid., act iv, sc. 1.

7 Ibid., sc. 10.

Ibid., act iii, sc. 7.

• Ibid., sc. 4.

Again, in Andromaque, the moments of crisis are strongly marked. Oreste has been possessed for a year with the thought of Hermione.

Voilà, depuis un an, le seul soin qui m'anime.1

Pyrrhus, in demanding of him the hand of Hermione, asks for the marriage the next day.

Voyez-la donc. Allez, dites-lui que demain

J'attends avec la paix son cœur de votre main.2

And Pylade plots with Oreste to seize Hermione from the hands of Pyrrhus that night.

Et cette nuit, sans peine, une secrète voie

Jusqu'en votre vaisseau conduira votre proie.3

In the great scene between Hermione and Oreste which follows, Hermione urges swift vengeance on Pyrrhus, who has offered to raise Andromaque to his throne.

Mais si vous me vengez, vengez-moi dans une heure.4 And the sharp blows of her emotion sound in the verse: S'il ne meurt aujourd'hui, je puis l'aimer demain.5 Oreste answers with the same incisive feeling :

Cette nuit je vous sers, cette nuit je l'attaque.6

Phèdre, Bajazet, Bérénice, Britannicus, all yield a similar result. The sudden hour of love or hate or deliverance is marked like the passing of a human life. While in Corneille passion is lost or merged in the supremacy of the human will, in Racine physical death is the only thing that can put an end to a love that is as strong as death or a jealousy as cruel as the grave. It is perhaps in the most passionate conflict of all those depicted by Racine that we hear the

1 Andromaque, act ii, sc. 2.

3 Ibid., act iii, sc. 1.

5 Ibid., sc. 2.

2 Ibid., sc. 4.

4 Ibid., act iv, sc. 2.

6 Ibid.

clang of the passing days and hours as most resistless and unrelenting. Enone speaks to Phèdre :

Les ombres par trois fois ont obscurci les cieux
Depuis que le sommeil n'est entré dans vos yeux;
Et le jour a trois fois chassé la nuit obscure
Depuis que votre corps languit sans nourriture.
A quel affreux dessein vous laissez-vous tenter ? 1

Place, as well as time, has its strongly-marked characteristics in the drama of Racine. If, as R. L. Stevenson said, romance lies in the 'sudden consciousness of background', there is romance in this sense in all the plays of Racine. While Corneille, as we have seen, was ensnared by the difficulties of convention, and in his effort for the presentation of a complicated intrigue on a simple stage fell back on an idea of a lieu théâtral which was in no way symbolic of the thought of any character, alien to all, and in fact a new and empty convention, Racine feels that place is where passion lives; the human spirit in its yearning and despair (which in Racine is always expressive), can give a reality to place, and make it thrill with meaning. Thus the realism of Racine makes his stage in truth the scene of human life; a few planks give room enough for playing out a tragedy, a few paces serve for a mortal combat, a few feet of soil hold the mystery of love and sacrifice, of death and frustration. His characters are not only conscious of place, but they give it its whole meaning, just as on the Elizabethan stage the actors made the same raised gallery into Juliet's love-haunted balcony or into the walls of Rome.

But in Racine there is more than the consciousness of place, there is the consciousness of background, in the fullest sense of the word; in the sense in which Stevenson used the term. In Corneille the background is the continuance

1 Phèdre, act i, sc. 3.

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