Jean Racine, French Playwright

In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.

Jean-Baptiste Racine was one of the three great French playwrights of 17th century along with Molière and Pierre Corneille. He was primarily a master of classical tragedies, but he also wrote poetry and worked as a historiographer for King Louis XIV.

Racine was born in La Ferté-Milon into a provincial family of minor bureaucrats and baptized on December 22, 1639. At the age of 13 months, Racine’s mother died and his father died two years later. His paternal grandparents took custody of him. When Racine was nine, his grandfather died and his grandmother, Marie des Moulins went to live at the convent of Port-Royal des Champs near Paris, taking Racine with her. A school had been founded there so Racine had the opportunity to study the classics of Greek and Latin literature with eminent teachers. The school was run by men who were associated with the Jansenist movement which had recently been condemned as heretical by the French church.

Racine attended the school in Port-Royal from 1649 to 1653 then attended the College of Beauvais for nearly two years before returning to Port-Royal to finish his studies in rhetoric. When the school was closed by authorities in 1656, Racine remained there until he was eighteen and sent to study law at the College of Harcourt in Paris. While there he wrote a sonnet praising Cardinal Mazarin, the prime minister of France, for his completion of a peace treaty with Spain in 1659.

For a few years, Racine tried to obtain different positions without any luck and returned to Paris to try writing plays. His first play, “Amasie” was never produced and no longer survives. On June 24, 1664, his play “The Thebaide or The Enemy Brothers” was performed by Molière’s troupe of actors at the Palais-Royal Theater. Molière also produced his play “Alexander the Great” in December of 1665. The production was successful enough Racine negotiated a secret agreement with the Theater of the Hôtel Bourgogne to present a second premiere of the same play a few days later. Racine felt the Hôtel actors were superior to Molière’s troupe at performing tragedies. Racine also persuaded Molière’s lead actress Thérèse du Parc to join him personally and professionally and all his plays were performed by the Hôtel actors from that point on. Because of this, Racine’s friendship with Molière suffered permanent damage.

Racine’s first masterwork was “Andromaque” in 1667. This was followed by a comedy called “Les Plaideurs” (The Litigants) in 1668. Two more tragedies followed which were set in Rome called “Britannicus” in 1669 and “Bérénice” in 1670. He wrote two more “Bajazet” and Mithridate before reverting back to classical Greek mythology with “Iphigénie en Aulide” and his masterpiece “Phèdre”. Racine was so successful at this point he was able to live off the income from his writing. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1672 and came to have autocratic authority over it. In 1674, he was given the noble title of treasurer of France. In 1677, he married Catherine de Romanet. The couple lived in domestic tranquility and would have two sons and five daughters. Also at this time, he left playwriting to take a position as a royal historiographer for King Louis XIV with his friend Nicholas Boileau.

In Racine’s capacity as historiographer he wrote about Louis XIV’s military campaigns, resulting in a book called “The Historical Panegyric for the King on His Conquests” in 1682. In 1690 he was named ordinary gentleman of the king and in 1696 he named secretary of the king. King Louis’ morganatic wife, Madame de Maintenon had started a convent school at St. Cyr and she requested Racine write some plays for the girls to perform. He returned to playwriting with two moral fables “Esther” (1689) and “Athalie” (1691). In the last few years of his life he re-edited his complete works which he had published for the first time in 1676 and he wrote a short history of the convent and school of Port-Royal.

Racine died of liver cancer on April 21, 1699 and was buried at Port-Royal as he requested. King Louis XIV had Port-Royal destroyed in 1710 but Racine’s remains were reburied in a tomb in the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris. Because of his reputation at court, King Louis made sure Racine’s widow and children were taken care of.

4 thoughts on “Jean Racine, French Playwright

  1. Superb piece Susan, exemplary I thought, so lucid, precise and informative. I knew almost nothing about Racine, except his name and when he lived, and something of the other huge figures of that great but terrible Age, Richelieu, Mazarin and so on. (We all grow up reading the 3 Musketeers of course, plus Louis XIV had a huge direct impact on my country Ireland,of course, through paying to maintain, fund, officer and equip the catholic Irish army of James II) But I’ve always wanted to know more about that remarkable generation of writers in France too, so I really, really enjoyed this. Will you be posting on Moiliére and some of the others too in time? (Sorry, i know you’ve just only barely posted this one!) You know by the way, i saw a terrific French movie some years ago about Moliere, well worth seeking out I think, absolutely super, but highly romantised i suspect. I am keen to disentangle fact from fiction, and frankly you are my best hope!


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