An initial reaction towards this quote by Barthes, would lead the reader to consider the importance of death in Racine’s tragedies, and its impact upon the audience. However, this quote must be considered in context, and therefore it is essential to recognize that Barthes is writing critically in response to a play that he saw in the 1980’s, which he disliked and found theatrically unacceptable. According to Barthes, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to stage a modern production of Racine without boring the audience, influencing them in a way that would not be representative of Racine, or unjustly changing the stage setting.
This implies that it would simply be pointless or at least dramatically displeasing to see a modern performance of a Racine play, and that a reading of the play would be a more rewarding literary experience. Other critics, however, dispute this standpoint, believing that there is enough evidence, both contemporary second-hand as well as textual, for a modern director to successfully stage a Racine play, according to the playwright’s desires.
This essay will seek to examine, by analysing three separate plays, whether or not this evidence is sufficient for a play to be put on stage in a way that would correspond, to some extent, to the dramatic intentions of the playwright, and whether a visual theatrical experience of Racine is preferable to reading Racine from a book. Examining three Racine plays, Phi?? dre, Britannicus and Iphigi?? nie, certain aspects of the production have to be addressed, including the stage settings, physical actions, costumes and props, and lighting and sound effects, in order to clarify the effectiveness of a modern Racinian performance.
Phi?? dre is potentially a very good starting point, as there is a richness of physical action and facial expressions, which are alluded to in the text. Phi?? dre’s dramatic entrance onto the stage is the first example of this, and her physical description is described immediately, ” Je ne me soutiens plus; ma force m’abandonne. /Mes yeux sont i?? blouis du jour que je revoi/Et mes genoux tremblants se di?? robent sous moi.
Helas ! ” I believe it likely that a visual demonstration of Phi dre’s weakened physical state would be more emphatic than reading it on the written page. This scene, in which most play directors would probably add dramatic theatricality by showing Oenone physically supporting her mistress, would also add a visual support to Oenone’s verbal explanation in the previous scene regarding her mistress, “Elle meurt dans mes bras d’un mal qu’elle me cache. ” as Oenone will no doubt be looking at her arms as she despairingly expresses herself.
This idea is repeated when Oenone again refers to her arms in an emotional plea to Phidre, “Songez-vous qu’en naissant mes bras vous ont rei?? ue? ” The sight of the very arms, which lovingly held Phi?? dre and cared for her in a protective and motherly way, would serve as a powerful visual contrast with the physical appearance of Phi?? dre on stage.
Oenone’s arms thus become symbolic of Phi?? dre’s innocence before she was overpowered by this supernatural and Divine curse, while Phi?? dre, shaking and in tears, symbolizes her corrupt and immoral state of mind. The sight of Oenone’s arms, representing Phidre in her once innocent condition, invokes an element of sympathy from the audience, corresponding with Racine’s explanation in the preface to the play that “Phi?? dre n’est ni tout i?? fait coupable ni tout i?? fait innocente . Elle est engagi?? e, par sa destini?? e et par la coli?? re des dieux, dans une passion illi?? gitime. ” In this scene, there is a rare stage direction in the text, referring to Phi?? dre – “Elle s’assied,” which perhaps emphasizes the extent of her wretched and destabilized condition.
The sight of Phidre, too weak to stand up any longer, contrasts with the demand she gives to Oenone later in the same scene, when asking her if she wants a revelation of “mon crime,” and she tells her “Tu le veux, Li?? ve toi. ” Her corrupted mind, inflicted with paranoia and despair is reflected in her physical appearance and costume. Her clothing and hair are directly referred to, “Que ces vains ornements, que ces voiles me pi?? sent! Quelle importune main, en formant tous ces noeuds, A pris soin sur mon front d’assembler mes cheveux? Tout m’afflige et me nuit, et conspire i?? me nuire. ”
The audience would thus have immediately seen Phi?? dre weighed down by her jewellery and hair as she walks onto the stage, which as a visually striking piece of theatre, would be sadly be neglected by a reader of the play. The effect that this illicit passion is having on Phi?? dre is represented by her facial expressions and physical actions. The reader is informed, and I am sure that the audience can see, that Phi?? dre is shaking and full of tears, “Et mes yeux, malgri?? moi, se remplissent de pleurs,” and at the mere thought of the name Hipployte, she responds “A ce nom fatal, je tremble, je frissone.
” She also demonstrates her shameful passion by her uncontrollable blushing, which she explains to Oenone is a way of hiding her face, “Oenone, la rougeur me couvre le visage. ” When she thinks about her passion for Hipployte, she also has a physical reaction, “Je le vis, je rougis, je pi?? lis i?? sa vue,” These examples of blushing, as a visual way of representing emotions of passion and shame, contrast with a presumable example of Phi?? dre going pale when she actually sees Hippolyte, “Le voici. Vers mon Coeur tout mon sang se retire.
” Perhaps the most dramatic of these physical actions, which one can interpret from the text, is the way in which Phi?? dre points her chest as she powerfully demands that Hippolyte stab her. “Voili?? mon coeur: c’est li?? que ta main doit frapper,” Upon the word “li?? ” one can envisage a visually dramatic moment, as Phi?? dre angrily and desperately points to her heart, begging the man she loves to end her torment. A significant feature in modern theatre productions is the use of lighting, which can be symbolic of the action on the stage.
The visual aspect of lighting could also heavily influence 17th Century French productions, with the use of candles to add extra or less light to the stage. As was touched upon earlier with Phi?? dre’s line “Mes yeux sont i?? blouis du jour que je revoi,” the notions of light and darkness in Phi?? dre are extremely important. Phi?? dre is suffering from melancholy, coming from the Greek melankholia, and which is a disease, in which a character becomes gloomy and depressed as a result of too much black bile.
In Phi?? dre’s case, this means that she finds it practically impossible to look at the Sun, which is in fact her father, and therefore she prefers to lock herself away in darkness. A contemporary French as well as a modern production could both have played upon this theory by making the stage appear gloomy and darkened whenever Phi?? dre is present. Phi?? dre believes that her death will ultimately clear the light from her disease, allowing her to ponder miserably in darkness,