Esther by Jean Baptiste Racine


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Page 2


French tragedy is purely a work of art. It does not claim to mirror
Nature in her infinite complexity; it is the professedly artificial
presentment, in the noblest form, of _character_ unfolding itself by
means of one action, as far as possible in one place, and within the
limits of one day. It is bound by other formal and conventional
rules: of versification--such as the alternation of masculine and
feminine pairs of rhymes, and of taste--such as the avoidance of all
"doing of deeds" on the stage (e.g., all fighting and dying take place
behind the scenes) and the grouping of the fewest possible secondary
parts around the one central situation.

There are but three names in the front rank of writers of French
tragedy: Corneille (1606-1684), Racine (1639-1699), and Voltaire
(1694-1778). Their tragic masterpieces cover but one century of time,

these poets, French tragedy had not reached such a degree of perfection
as to be entitled to an identity of its own; after them and their few
feeble imitators, it was merged into a new form, and, as classical
French tragedy, ceased altogether to be.

Corneille purified both thought and language of the bad taste due to
the prevailing Spanish influence. He subordinated the actor to the
play, instead of composing, as his predecessors had done, lengthy
monologues for mere histrionic display. He did away with absurdly
tangled plots, and focussed the interest of tragedy on character.
Tragedy thus purified, he made immortal by the strength and elevation
of his moral teaching. His principal plays are _Le Cid_ (1636),
_Cinna_ (1639), _Polyeucte_ (1640).

The new tragedy shaped by Corneille, Racine carried to its highest
perfection of form. Nothing in his plays betokens struggle,
innovation, or effort. His is the polished finish of ease and
ripeness. Subtle delineation of the passions, profound tenderness,
faultlessness of style and expression, distinguish him above all
others. Yet this very perfection of form robs him of some of the
rough, wholesome vigor, which makes Corneille's plays the most healthy
reading in the French language. Corneille speaks by the mouths of
heroes, Racine speaks by the mouths of men.

Voltaire is only to be placed by their side for the extraordinary
skill, amounting to genius, with which he followed in their footsteps.
We must not look to him for new departures, nor indeed for the lofty
authority of the one, or the harmonious richness of the other. Yet in
each particular he succeeds, by the force of art, in getting within

(1743) would hardly have been disowned by either.

After Voltaire, new times demanded new methods. The nineteenth century
reacted against the portraiture of character alone, and required more
complete representation of the action; it called for deeds enacted on
the stage, and not in the slips. Hence, a new form, with a new name,
_le drame_, has taken exclusive possession of the French tragic stage.


In the year 1687, Mme. de Maintenon had founded at St. Cyr, in the
vicinity of the royal residence of Versailles, an establishment for the
education of two hundred and fifty girls, belonging to noble families
in reduced circumstances. To this institution she devoted much of her
time and care.

It was usual, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, to
consider the acting of plays a valuable aid to liberal education,
suitable pieces being often written by the heads of the institutions in
which they were to be performed. Dissatisfied with the compositions of
Mme. de Brinon, the first superior of St. Cyr, and objecting to the
love-making that held such a large place in the works written for the
public stage, Mme. de Maintenon applied to Racine, requesting him to
write a play that should be entirely suitable for performance by very
young ladies. The courtier poet could not refuse, and the result was
the play of _Esther_, performed in January, 1689, by pupils of St. Cyr,
not one of whom was over seventeen years of age.

The success of the play was startling. The king witnessed it
repeatedly, and insisted that all his court and guests should do
likewise. The performances of _Esther_, at St. Cyr, became great
events for the fashionable society of the day. This unlooked-for
result was not slow to alarm Mme. de Maintenon: their very success
became a danger for the youthful actresses. Accordingly, Mme. de
Maintenon discountenanced the resumption of _Esther_ after the first
series of performances was concluded, and she entirely withheld from
public representation the second play, _Athalie_, written by Racine in
the following year for the same purpose. Subsequently Mme. de
Maintenon banished dramatic performances altogether from St. Cyr; she
concluded it was better to train the _reason_[1] by the _solid_[1]
truths of philosophy than the imagination by the unrealities of
dramatic literature.

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