Rationalism meets Le Romanesque: Racine’s Iphigénie
Racine’s Iphigénie transformed an older and more chaotic French dramatic form, the romanesque, into a more tightly rendered and carefully structured drama, updating the medieval form for a more modern age.
Le romanesque is one of the subgenera of the French tragi-comédie along with biblical plays, melodramas and moralitié., These plays were popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The name romanesque suggests it’s relationship to the romance and roman héroïque—which included such popular works as Orlando Furioso, Amor Costante and Jerusalemme Liberata. The romanesque was a drama of love and adventure, written in verse, with an elaborate plot with unexpected twits and a happy ending. Pierre Corneille‘s Le Cid is the best known example of a traditional romanesque.
“Le romanesque is primarily a set of typical adventures and exploits: battles, kidnappings, cases of mistaken identity which birthmarks and token objects are found to solve, and other events involving duels, purloined letters, transvestitism, and the like.”
Susan Read Baker, Dissonant Harmonies: Drama and Ideology in Five Neglected Plays of Pierre Corneille
In the Romanesque love is usually the driver of the action. It starts the plot and keeps it moving forward and keeps the audience’s attention by drawing upon their emotions.
“The role of chance in adventure, the charaters’ idealization of love, and often their awareness of playing a part according to the prescribed rules are also romanesque traits.”
John Gassner, The Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama
Gassner brings up another important characteristic of the romanesque, the role of chance. This is in stark contrast to the notion of fate that is often a part of classical tragedy. The romanesque is optimistic and strongly linked to the notion of Providence. Providence is what leads to the surprising turns that unexpectedly reward the good and punish wrongdoing.
With his drama Iphigénie, Racine will take this older dramatic form and bring it up to date with the Age of Reason. As we saw with Boileau’s L’Art poétique, this new era looked for a rational depiction of realistic events, moving away from the complex and fantastic plots of romance. It also looked for clear expression and focused attention through the adherence to a simplified plotline that supports a central idea as well as the unity of time, place and action. As Racine described it “a simple action, not overladen, which, progressing steadily to the catastrophe, is sustained by the interest, the feelings, and the passions of the characters.”
This seems like a tall order, to blend the exotic and picaresque form of romanesque with the austerity of the new classicism. Racine himself was aware of this issue but refused to give in. As he says in the Preface to his tragedy Britannicus, “What can I do to satisfy my stern critics? It would be very easy to do so if I were willing to sacrifice common sense. I need only disregard nature and rush into the sensational.”
To meet his goal he restricts his vocabulary to the essential, none of the neologisms and verbal chaos of Shakespeare. He limits the number of characters and reduces the amount of action that takes place on the stage. He closely follows the classical unities of time, place and action and even takes them to extremes, sometimes limited to a single room and the play unfolds in real time. The extreme passions expressed stand in stark contrast to the restricted setting and highly structured verse.
The multiple surviving versions of the Iphigénie story allow Racine to carefully construct exactly the kind of plot that fits his dramatic and formal requirements. In many respects he follows Euripides, one of his favorite sources. But the ending, where the goddess Artemis miraculously arrives at the last moment to save Iphigenia from sacrificial death and substitutes a hart in her place. Iphigenia is then carried off by the goddess to safety on the distant island of the Taurians. Clearly this will not do for Racine in the age of reason. As he says in his preface: “How could I possibly have succeeded in bring my tragedy to an end with the help of a goddess and stage machinery, and by a metamorphosis which might have found some credence in Euripides’ days but which would be too absurd and too incredible in ours?”
To avoid this unseemly and unbelievable miraculous intervention Racine draws upon another tradition mentioned by Pausanias which has an additional character Ériphile. Ériphile provides the manipulative and machiavellian counterpoint to the dutiful and virtuous heroine, Iphigénie. At the end, Calchas reveals that the deceitful Ériphile was once called Iphigeneia and is also of the line of Helen, thus providing a providential and more just alternative for the required sacrifice. This source of this revelation is somewhat vague and can be viewed as the fortuitous workings of a divine or supernatural providence looking out for the affairs of men, or a carefully calculated maneuver of very human Realpolitik. Racine was clearly pleased with this solution which allowed him to take messy bit of mythology and a rambling and outdated dramatic form and fuse them together to create a tight and tense work of French classicism.
“And one need only have seen my work on the stage to understand the pleasure I have given the spectator both by saving in the end the virtuous princess … and by saving her by means other than a miracle, which he would not have tolerated because he would never have believed it.”
Jean Racine “Preface to Iphigénie”
- Rationalism meets Le Romanesque: Racine’s Iphigénie (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- The Creativity of Molière (findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com)