Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, September 13, 2013

Eight words on Phèdre

I saw Jack Ryan last week at the Chestnut-Houston art crawl. Seeing Jack Ryan is of course special since he's in Oregon. When he said he checks this blog from time to time it made me think maybe I should post something and try to make it not completely a waste of his time. I may disappoint Jack, because instead of posting on local shows--say his show at Seed Space--I'm going to say a few words about classical French theater. Then again, Jack seems to appreciate some such things. 

1. Alexandrine. In school I heard about the alexandrine, the classic French meter, but I don't remember seeing it too much because I much preferred more modern poets--think Rimbaud--who were freeing themselves of the tyranny of the alexandrine. The term refers to a 12-syllable line that breaks neatly into two halves, 6 and 6. It is to French verse what the iambic pentameter is to English. When I finally picked up Racine, there it was, line after line of couplets repeating the meter, on end, at length, and seemingly effortlessly.  Drama rendered with such formal rigor boggles my mind.

2. Vetru/honneur.  Oenone says "pour sauver notre honneur combattu,/il faut immoler tout, et même la vertu" (III.iii.).  Throughout the play nouns like virtue and honor drop into the play like characters--once named and spoken, they take on a life of their own. Actions and emotions bend to them. They seem to be self-evident, and characters wield them as tools against each other. Their relative weights become self-evident even if their meanings may not be. These nouns protrude from the text. The Germans go so far as to capitalize their nouns, as if each were the name of a God. Like a God, every bit of added meaning the noun brings seems to come with more mystery.

3. Silence. Much of the action revolves around silence. Oenone (again III.iii.): "Mon zèle n'a besoin que de votre silence." Phèdre gives her that silence, perhaps out of weakness, but just as easily as a form of action--to protect her son, protect her honor, revenge the insult of having fallen in love with Hippolyte. As Racine says in his preface, "Phèdre n'est ni tou à fait couplable, ni tout à fait innocente." Hippolyte himself lends motion to the drama through silence--in refusing (III.v.)  to explain to Thésée how, and by whose hands, he has suffered the offense he just learned of from Phèdre, Hippolyte makes himself an easy target of Thésée's suspicions.

4. Abstract. Not much happens in this play. The settings are indistinct and unimportant. A small number of players meet in different configurations and talk to each other, mostly in pretty big chunks of alexandrine. The action such as it us takes place well off stage.

5. Past. The key character developments have already taken place when the play opens. Phèdre has fallen in love with her husband's son. That son has lost his resistance to Venus, and fallen in love with Aricie, the daughter of his father's rivals.

6. Performatives. In this play with its sequence of dialogues and implacable nouns, the uttering of words changes the conditions of the world. Words are action. Thésée kills his son by going to Neptune's altar to ask his justice for the outrage he has declared that his son has committed (IV.iii and iv).

7. Irreversibility. Once something is said, it cannot be unsaid. Every generation tries to teach our children these lessons. Whether true or untrue. "I love you." "Your son took advantage of your wife." "Neptune, avenge me on my son."  In Act V when Thésée receives Aricie's testimony that contradicts Oenone's lies, he starts to investigate too late--he would re-question Oenone, but she has thrown herself into the sea, and as he asks for his son, he only receives the news of his death at the hands of Neptune's sea monster. "O soins tardifs et superflus!" In the end Phèdre acknowledges "un injuste silence" and would return to Hippolyte his innocence. I suppose he does end up redeemed in his father's eyes, but too late.

8. Diane. Diane Arnson Svarlien, a friend from high school who now lives in Kentucky, grew up to become a classicist, and she is known for translations of Euripides. Her Medea is superb and very well-regarded. In that same volume she translated the Euripides play that was Racine's source. It is titled Hippolytus rather than Phèdre. Racine took a hero out of the center and replacing him with someone who combines hero and anti-hero.  


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