From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Jean Racine (December 22, 1639 – April 21, 1699) was a French dramatist, one of the "big three" of 17th century France (along with Molière and Corneille), and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a tragedian, though he did write one comedy.
As with any contributor to the Western Canon, Racine has been subjected to many generations of literary criticism. His works have evoked in audiences and critics a wide range of responses, ranging from reverence to revulsion. In his book Racine: A Study, Philip Butler of the University of Wisconsin broke the main criticisms of Racine down by century to best portray the almost constantly shifting perception of the playwright and his works.
In his own time, Racine found himself compared constantly with his contemporaries, especially the great Pierre Corneille. In his own plays, Racine sought to abandon the ornate and almost otherworldly intricacy that Corneille so favored. Audiences and critics were divided over the worth of Racine as an up and coming playwright. Audiences admired his return to simplicity and their ability to relate to his more human characters, while critics insisted on judging him according to the traditional standards of Aristotle and his Italian commentators from which he tended to stray. Attitudes shifted, however, as Racine began to eclipse Corneille. In 1674 the highly respected poet and critic Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (also known simply as "Boileau") published his Art Poétique which deemed Racine's model of tragedy superior to that of Corneille. This erased all doubts as to Racine's abilities as a dramatist and established him as one of the period's great literary minds.
Butler describes this period as Racine's "apotheosis," his highest point of admiration. Racine's ascent to literary fame coincided with other prodigious cultural and political events in French history. This period saw the rise of literary giants like Molière, Jean de La Fontaine, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, and François de La Rochefoucauld as well as Louis Le Vau's historic expansion of the Palace of Versailles, Jean-Baptiste Lully's revolution in Baroque music, and most importantly, the ascension of Louis XIV to the throne of France.
Under Louis XIV's revolutionary reign, France rose up from a long period of civil discord (see the Fronde, or 'Slingshot Rebellion') to new heights of international prominence. Political achievement coincided with cultural and gave birth to an evolution of France's national identity, known as l'esprit français. This new self perception acknowledged the superiority of all things French; the French believed France was home to the greatest king, the greatest armies, the greatest people, and, subsequently, the greatest culture. In this new national mindset, Racine and his work were practically deified, established as the perfect model of dramatic tragedy by which all other plays would be judged. Butler blames the consequential "withering" of French drama on Racine's idolized image, saying that such rigid adherence to one model eventually made all new French drama a stale imitation.
The French installation of Racine into the dramatic and literary pantheon evoked harsh criticism from many sources who argued against his 'perfection.' Germans like Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dismissed Racine as höfliches Drama, or "courtly drama" too restricted by the etiquette and conventions of a royal court for the true expression of human passion. French critics, too, revolted. Racine came to be dismissed as merely "an historical document" that painted a picture only of 17th century French society and nothing else; there could be nothing new to say about him. However, as writers like Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert came onto the scene to soundly shake the foundations of French literature, conservative readers retreated to Racine for the nostalgia of his simplicity.
As Racine returned to prominence at home, his critics abroad remained hostile due mainly, Butler argues, to Francophobia. The British were especially damning, preferring Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott to Racine, whom they dismissed as "didactic" and "commonplace." This did not trouble the French, however, as "Racine, La Fontaine, or generally speaking the chefs-d'œuvre de l'esprit humain could not be understood by foreigners."
The 20th century saw a renewed effort to rescue Racine and his works from the chiefly historical perspective to which he had been consigned. Critics called attention to the fact that plays such as Phèdre could be interpreted as realist drama, containing characters that were universal and that could appear in any time period. Other critics cast new light upon the underlying themes of violence and scandal that seem to pervade the plays, creating a new angle from which they could be examined. In general, people agreed that Racine would only be fully understood when removed from the context of the 18th century.
In his essay, The Theatre and Cruelty, Antonin Artaud claimed that 'the misdeeds of the psychological theater descended from Racine have unaccustomed us to that immediate and violent action which the theater should possess' (p84).
At present, Racine is still widely considered a literary genius of revolutionary proportions. His work is still widely read and frequently performed. Marcel Proust developed a fondness for Racine at an early age, "whom he considered a brother and someone very much like himself..." — Marcel Proust: A Life, by Jean-Yves Tadié, 1996. Racine's influence can also be seen in A.S. Byatt's tetralogy ( The Virgin in the Garden 1978, Still Life 1985, Babel Tower 1997 and A Whistling Woman 2002). Byatt tells the story of Frederica Potter, an English young woman in the early 1950s (when she is first introduced), who is very appreciative of Racine, and specifically of Phedre.