Jean Racine, Echoes Across Europe

by John Sayer (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 258 Pages


Rich with examples of Racine’s impact across generations on stage and page, of the inspiration of leading actors across borders, and of the influence of his tragedies, their mostly classical and biblical themes brought in the finest verse or in translation, on European courts, townships, amateur theatre, education at home and school, opera and oratorio, other literatures, art and sculpture, this book follows these many echoes far beyond performances in Paris and at Versailles alone and opens up vistas for further exploration across cultural and political borders. The promotion of Racine’s mastery to champion or to challenge successive regimes at home, or to assert French cultural supremacy abroad, and the sheer volume of translations, musical adaptations and borrowings of each play across Europe, are brought together for the first time, offering a fresh perspective not just of reception but of dissemination and active response.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Impact and Echoes across Europe
  • Chapter 1 The Play of Politics
  • Chapter 2 Of Publishing and Powers
  • Chapter 3 Théâtre sans Frontières
  • Chapter 4 Translated, Adapted, Borrowed
  • Chapter 5 Musical Settings
  • Chapter 6 Artists and Icons
  • Chapter 7 Suited for Study and Schooling
  • Chapter 8 Racine and Amateur Theatricals
  • Chapter 9 Echoes of Each Play
  • Chapter 10 Lives of Racine after Racine
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix to Chapter 4
  • Appendix to Chapter 5
  • Index
  • Series index

←viii | 1→


Impact and Echoes across Europe

Ein Talent gehört seinem eignen Volke,

ein Genie aber der ganzen Menschheit an

Meraner Zeitung, 26 April 1899

[Talent belongs to one’s own country

Genius belongs to all humanity]

So could a local newspaper in the Tirol feature on its front page the 1899 bicentenary of Racine’s death. Ein Genie – the very notion of genius had changed in the two hundred years since the tribute made by Valincour.1

Over the last century or so, and in particular the last thirty years, questions of what happened to Racine’s works have come to be covered by ‘reception’ studies. Many of these reflect twentieth- and twenty-first century modes of enquiry, cultural habits and frames of mind, rather than those of intervening generations. For example, our addiction to received media may easily dull our awareness of the active transmission of reciting, acting, group reading, translating, adapting to opera and representing in art forms, all of which were more prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than today. The sheer difficulty of assembling evidence for some of these has recently been eased, though usually in one or other separate field.

It is no longer enough to measure impact by the easily accessible registers of attendances and reception of Racine plays at the Comédie-Française,2 or by the views of leading literati, which have been so exhaustively examined ←1 | 2→in hundreds of studies that they are played down here. Yet tracing the many phases of Racine’s impact and adaptation into streams of consciousness over those centuries and across frontiers, languages and modes of expression, in examples drawn sometimes from less illustrious sources, may help raise awareness in today’s European readership of the finest French poet-playwright of tragedy, who as inherited belongs to a wider world. For the Racine we inherit is not only the Racine of his lifetime whom we may endeavour to recapture, but the accumulation of Racine as experienced across centuries of changing national contexts, literary and theatrical styles, and philosophical and religious outlooks.

Figure 1.Jean Racine, plate by Jean Daullé, 1762, chosen for the 1770 edition of Racine’s works and transforming the Santerre portrayal

This survey travels with Racine through generations of enactment and controversy, not only on the Paris stage but also in the provinces and abroad. It follows the impact of his works across Europe and across the changes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In doing so, it recognises Racine’s place in the European memory and at the same time his renewal and transmission of that classical heritage which had become a foundation of Europe, however now built over.

Some will argue that changing contexts and uses made of Racine’s plays are of interest only in shedding light on the works. It is indeed the dramas which make the author’s impact of interest, but without the active engagement of generations of court and city life, of publishers, of wandering troupes, of political promotion or disapproval, of teaching and enactment in schools and latterly universities, of adaptations to music and art, the plays might be no more.

Racine was writing for the great of his time, at pains to secure their support, patronage and favour. In every generation and national context, the drama on stage and page has had to adapt for its intended impact. Our times may be out of tune with Racine and his age, with his craft and culture. However we try to enter his theatre, we bring our habits of mind and disposition with us. But so did Racine’s audience and readers, and so did later generations: not all were steeped in the same inheritance or were looking for the same pleasure or listening with the same ear. The Paris audience and the audience at court, the remote reader and the monarch being read to, all had to be accommodated, as part of the crafts of poet and actors. Plays were performed, recited, read in private and taught to match the moods of ←2 | 3→the moment as well as perpetuating great myths of the past for posterity. We inherit not just the plays as written and presented to Louis XIV, but a footprint across Europe and beyond.

That is why this study is about connecting different fields of exploration, widening the view of European contexts in which Racine’s works took their place, and providing further leads for comparative study. There are excursions in some chapters to view aspects and influences which apply to particular plays, to outline their impact over the centuries in France and unevenly across the continent, and to explore the different images and interpretations accompanying political and literary movements, journals, stage personalities and school study programmes.

This book extends to the interaction of Racine’s works and European events, political and cultural movements. It is more about echoes, clear or distorted, images and reflections – mirrored re-enlivenments of Racine in succeeding generations and across other art forms. It reflects the writer’s curiosity about how these plays became a major means of transmission conveying a classical heritage through significant stages of European culture and civilisation.

An earlier introduction to Racine (Sayer, 2006)3 concluded with brief sketches of the Racine ‘legend’, through to the twenty-first century, but only as seen by the great and the good, and in stage interpretations. Others, such as Blanc (2003),4 have dwelt in more detail across three centuries, but largely confined to one or other aspect, to France or to the stage, or to the impact in one other country or language. The wider the field, all the more necessary it becomes to focus on a shorter time. There are several fine studies of one particular aspect across a limited period or field: earlier work such as Racine and English Classicism (Wheatley 1956),5 and, in this century, Nebrig (2007)6 on assimilation into German, Markovitz (2014)7 on ←3 | 4→cultural imperialism through to Napoleon, or the excellent iconography by Marie Planche (2011).8 What if we begin to bring such work together in search of a synoptic view of Racine’s impact? This survey looks for echoes of Racine across time and space, language and form, sometimes in the least likely of places, to the mid-nineteenth century, as a background for further pursuit in the very different contexts of modern times.

Much is to be gleaned from the burgeoning press of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a much more considerable means of cultural transmission across Europe than today. Where possible, evidence is sought from probes into past generations themselves. Examples are not particularly sampled among those literati whose own reputations have left their mark on later schools of literary history; and anachronistic applications of later concepts, familiar and accessible elsewhere, are avoided.

Quotations are where possible in the original. Notes and references are largely focused on source material for further exploration. Appendices list the proliferation of translations or adaptations, and of Racine-related musical versions. References are at the same time a grateful acknowledgement of selected examples of the many studies in specific fields of Racine’s impact across the ages and across borders. Translations of quotations are the author’s, unless otherwise stated.

←4 | 5→

1Jean-Baptiste-Henri de Valincour, Éloge de Racine, discours de réception, Académie Française, 1699.

2Comédie-Française Registers Project, bnf. on line, https://cfrp.mitpress.mit.edu/.

3John Sayer, Jean Racine, Life and Legend (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006), Ch. 13.

4André Blanc, Racine, Trois Siècles de Théâtre (Paris: Fayard, 2003).

5Katherine Wheatley, Racine and English Classicism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956).

6Alexander Nebrig, Rhetorizität des hohen Stils (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2007), Anhang 3, 375–413.

7Rahul Markowits, Civiliser l’Europe, Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe Siècle (Paris: Fayard, 2014).

8Marie-Claire Planche, De l’Iconographie racinienne, dessiner et peindre les passions (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).

←6 | 7→

Chapter 1

The Play of Politics

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

– Shakespeare, Henry V

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before the expansion of the press, the principal media for political commentary and critique, whether veiled or explicit, were the theatre and the book. The more authoritarian the regime, the more closely were stage and page controlled and censored. Racine’s plays on stage and with prefaces for publication were immediately subjected to political scrutiny, officially through censorship, or by his opponents, or indeed by those looking for support for their causes.

In Racine’s lifetime

Whether playwrights intended a political effect or not, to remain in favour and, for some, in livelihood, they had to be alert to likely interpretations and accusations. Racine found his way through to royal protection and public favour not only through the quality of his tragedies but also through drawing gratifying parallels with his day.

La Thébaïde was composed in the wake of the Fronde, a reminder of the dangers of divided rule. Alexandre le Grand is a panegyric of Louis XIV, proven in battle and now the bringer of peace, generous in forgiving Condé and harnessing his power, Louis the courtly lover. Its success throughout ←7 | 8→Louis’ reign can be attributed to its praise and glorification of the monarch. Its apparent change of title from the reported Le Grand Porus of draft readings ensures there is no shared glorification. Andromaque, as we are reminded in Racine’s second preface, relates the saving of Astyanax, son of Hector, by legend fondateur de notre monarchie. Whatever may have been the prompting of Henriette d’Angleterre or the conflict with Corneille, Bérénice readily identifies Titus, heroic in renunciation of this foreign queen, with Louis XIV’s earlier renunciation of Maria Mancini or more recent distancing from Louise de la Vallière. Already in 1671, le père Bouhours,1 whom Racine would soon be consulting about niceties of style, was reflecting French pride in conquest and the consequences for the language:


VIII, 258
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VIII, 258 pp., 5 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

John Sayer (Author)

John Sayer is an Honorary Professor at Perm in the Russian Federation, and literary biographer of Racine and of Shakespeare’s German translator Wolf Graf von Baudissin. He has carried Racine through a long career as a leading educator, author, editor and active developer of education policies for the future Europe. Teaching in schools, then for two decades prominent as a school and profession leader, champion of the ill-fated General Teaching Council project, head of the Education Management Unit at the University of London, then tutor and research fellow at the University of Oxford, from there he has directed successive EU Tempus inter-university projects for Eastern Europe.


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