À venir : conversation critique autour d’un texte de Mitchell Greenberg

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Despite the revolutionary changes in French society during the three hundred years since his death, Racine appears to have spanned the centuries and to have emerged as at once the most familiar and the most alien icon of French culture. In the spirit of a certain polemic, we might even say that Racine stands in the pantheon of French letters as a metaphor for France itself, if by “France” we mean the absolute epitome of an ideal of classical harmony and grace, a poetic equipoise rarely, if ever, matched since its elaboration in the seventeenth century. In his celebrated essay On Racine, Roland Barthes begins by telling us that Racine is “the greatest French writer.” At the same time that he extols Racine as the supreme writer in the French tradition, Barthes claims that the specificity of Racine’s tragic production remains always tantalizingly beyond the reach of any critical idiom that would, by appropriating it, undermine its seduction. What is particularly Racinian escapes any univocal interpretation. Paradoxically, Barthes tells us, Racine is France’s matchless dramatist because the Racinian text is “an empty critical cipher,” “a blank space, eternally offering itself to interpretation.” It is precisely the classical harmony, the seeming transparency of his tragic verse that, ironically, makes of Racine an object open and yet resistant to almost any critical discourse one could apply to him.

It is true that since the explosion of critical works on Racine in the 1950s and 1960s with masterful readings by Mauron, Barthes, Goldmann, and with the heated controversy between the supporters of Barthes and the followers of Picard, one has the impression that at the beginning of the twenty-first century Racinian criticism has settled into a less exciting dynamic: in the last decade or so, we have seen the studies on Racine follow a more sociological and biographical approach, where the author of some of the most erotically charged tragedies in the world canon has been reduced to the role of a social – climbing parvenu, navigating his way through the various cliques and coteries at the court of Louis XIV. At the same time, the work of historical exegesis continues unabated: Racine’s relations to the court and Port-Royal, his (supposed) amorous imbroglios tainted with the hint of scandal and poison, and his relations to Boileau, to the elder Corneille, and to his rivals continue to fill the scholarly community with never – ending subjects of dissertations, biographies, and an inexhaustible stream of erudite articles. Simultaneously, his theater, along with that of his contemporary and patron/rival Molière (another subject of endless argument), continues to be staged throughout the world in both traditional and startlingly innovative productions (see the Wooster Group’s production of Phèdre—“To You, the Birdie . . .”) with ongoing success.

There seems to be, perhaps there always was, a disconnect between the historical personage of Racine—what I would call the “object-Racine,” the seventeenth-century figure, fossilized in the amber-hued chrysalis of Versailles, more idealized than real—and a text, the “affective Racine,” that continues to touch contemporary audiences who, we can be reasonably sure, know little or nothing of the elaborately Byzantine politics of the court of Louis XIV. It would be safe to say that for contemporary audiences, the heated debates around Jansenism, Port-Royal, and the Augustinus that were among the most impassioned issues of the seventeenth century are as distant as the ruins of ancient Egypt. The rites and rituals of absolutist France have been relegated to the arcana of the distant past. And yet, despite the historic distance and the cultural ignorance of the vast majority of contemporary theatergoers, we can say of the Racinian legacy—his tragic theater—E pur si muove. Racine, or what I would like to call the “Racine effect,” still works. We still go to see that particular theater of beauty and cruelty that is Racinian tragedy, and despite the disparities in time and history, we are caught in its seductive spell.

 “Seduction,” of course, always brings with it the hint of scandal, for it implies that in some delicate way a coercion of the body has triumphed over the dictates of the mind—the body led astray, led into a place, a position, or a pleasure the mind cannot, in good conscience, admit to. For this reason, the theater, the most physical of the canonical forms of representation, has been the object of profound mistrust by the guardians of public mores from the very beginning—the celebrated attack on the theater by Plato in the Republic. The condemnation of the theater’s harmful effects, perhaps in direct rapport with its increasing popularity during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, was no less heated in the seventeenth century. (…) For in the long, often anxious development of what we consider French classicism, the body, or at least all those vulgar references to bodily parts, functions, and the very physicality of the body, had been, by the time Racine emerges on the stage of seventeenth-century dramaturgy, banned as too lowly for so refined a spectacle as tragedy.

The justification most often invoked to explain the absence of any but the most veiled references to the body in its Kreaturlichkeit in Racinian tragedy is the concept of bienséances, which, when coupled with those other rules of French neoclassical protocols, the “three unities,” can be seen as doing to the theatrical body precisely what Foucault suggested the general epistemic shift of the seventeenth century did to those suddenly socially undesirable others—the mad, the heterodox, and the feminine. The body is circumscribed; limits are imposed on it (limits to its visibility). It is objectified as foreign to a certain aesthetic (but also sexual and political) ideal, and then it is banished. The body in French classical drama is expelled from the stage, exiled to another site, to the wings of representation, because its presence proves too disruptive of the absolutist call to order. If we follow Foucault’s argument, we can see that the seventeenth century in its diverse discursive practices, of which the bienséances must figure, begins to encircle a carnality that in its excessiveness appeared too threatening to the unitary order that was being elaborated. The quiddity of bodies onstage proves, because seductive, to be too potentially dangerous to the political agenda of absolutism.

That the appeal of the body could always seduce the spectator and could undermine, as the Prince de Conti argued, the entire moral/religious order in place is confirmed when we look into the diaries of François Hébert, curate of Versailles. His vaguely troubling discomfort upon viewing the young ladies of Saint-Cyr performing in Esther reveals both the enticements and dangers of the body. He writes, “Do you really believe that it is fitting for people of our station to watch a tragedy performed by attractive young ladies, whom one cannot stop oneself from gazing upon for hours? Aren’t we exposing ourselves to temptation, and can one do so in good conscious?” In another passage he continues in the same vein, “Some courtiers admitted to me that the sight of these young ladies made a very strong impression on their hearts, and that knowing that they were ‘respectable’ they were even more moved than they would be by actresses.”

To avoid these strong impressions, when staging Athalie at the same venue the demoiselles are rendered as unappealing as possible. Although they are not removed entirely from the stage, there are no more elaborate costumes, no throngs of courtiers admitted nightly to see the play, no dancing, and no music. What remains is a theater “where there is practically no physical description.” In its stead we have, on stage, before our eyes, bodies reduced to talking heads, bodies that are there and yet curiously absent. Or rather, the presence of the body is not in the body but of the body, the body transformed into language. Paradoxically, this language, the marvelously seductive verse of Racine, must be embodied, spoken to an audience whose participation in the passion and tragedy of the Racinian hero returns the body to itself but in a different place. Confronted with a tragic world from which the body is effaced, Racine’s audiences respond corporally; they weep. Writing to Mme de Sévigné, the marquise de Coulanges tells her, “Mithridate is a lovely play; it makes one cry; we remain enthralled throughout.” In his own preface to Bérénice, Racine refers to the tears of his audience, tears that he thinks reflect the pleasure his tragedy has given them: “I can’t believe that the audience is ill disposed to me for having given them a play that has been graced with so many tears, and the thirtieth performance of which was as ardently attended as the first.” As for Iphigénie, in the Entretien sur les tragédies de ce temps (March-April 1675) we find the following: “Have you been to Iphigénie, he asks? It’s a play that has enchanted many people. I found it quite wonderful, responds the other, and I am even not ashamed to say that I couldn’t help myself from crying once or twice while watching.” The audience weeps, signaling an affective resonance—the sign that the trials of these characters reduced to the status of talking heads become incorporated in those bodies that are at the margins of the represented universe, those bodies that are silently, breathlessly present at the sacrifice that the play unfolds before them.

The body, banished from the realm of dramatic representation by the dictates of classicism (dictates that, we must insist, are as much political as aesthetic), resists and remains present but is displaced to the margins of representation, to the audience. How are we to understand this plangent pleasure that was so suspect because also political, these tears, signs of an affective state that the psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall tells us is situated in an indeterminate locus, floating between psyche and soma. An affect, she writes, is “never a purely psychic phenomenon nor purely a somatic one.” So the question remains double—how is theatrical affect a potentially incendiary political apparatus, and, more precisely in this context, what affect(s)? Why did Racine’s audiences weep? Why do they continue, at the start of a new millennium, to become emotionally engaged in these seemingly so foreign plays? What have they seen, what have they come to see that induces tears? Or perhaps, more pertinent questions, since we are dealing with Racine, would be What have they heard? What do the remains of the body, traduced into the voice of the actors, tell the audience? And how does this telling move them?

In a sense, and by way of a very preliminary answer, we can propose that these are tears of mourning, the melancholic tears of a body responding to its own effacement, its (self-)immolation on the stage of French classicism. The classical stage represents the ceremony by which and through which the modern, passionate ego is called into being by the sacrifice of what was its grounding in a world that vanished in the tumultuous cauldron of change that seventeenth-century France underwent in its evolution from an outmoded feudal society to the triumph of the absolutist monarchy. I would suggest that it emerges precisely in that indeterminate space separating and joining the Racinian spectacle to its spectators. It is a reticent and melancholy space, the tearful space of tragedy.

Mitchell Greenberg, Racine From Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2010, « Preface », p. xi-xvi.

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La rédaction (2023, 30 septembre). À venir : conversation critique autour d’un texte de Mitchell Greenberg. Transitions. Consulté le 17 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/roht

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