If you should sail south-east from Aegina, perhaps seeking Hydra, Leonard Cohen’s island, still blessedly car-free but now bling-strewn, you might glance across at the gloomy, charcoal-coloured cliffs here[1] called the Peloponnesus, but more properly Argolis, but failing to see the well-walled town ruled in heroic times by Theseus, you would probably not raise a digital camera. This is or was ‘low-lying’ Troëzen, mentioned on three occasions in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, often in alliance with Athenian powers against rival city-states.

 

Since the days of Chapman, Dryden and Pope, we have been fortunate in our translators into English from classical languages. In our own day, Gilbert Murray has delivered the complete, 17 strong set of plays by Euripides; in my youth, Robert Fitzgerald rode high on the Homeric waves, while Roberts Fagles, the American professor, is now supreme as a translator, not only of the salty epics but also of the Oresteia of Aeschylus.

 

Ignoring comedy for the moment, including Aristophanes the great mocker of Euripides, it may be helpful to schematise the main bodies of Greek tragedy as follows:

 

Dramatist

Cycle

Components

Aeschylus

Oresteia

Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides

Euripides

(several)

Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Electra, Sisyphos, Phaedra, Iphigeneia at Aulis; in Tauris etc

Sophocles

Theban plays (Oedipus cycle)

Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus

 

In our own day, great poets have not been bashful about attempting bold, even idiosyncratic, assaults on these Mount Rushmore rockfaces. Ted Hughes has given us his free Alcestis, Tony Harrison his slightly chuntering Oresteia and even the notoriously non-literal Robert Lowell has given us a graceful, deceptively simple version, probably performable in a single evening, of the same trilogy coloured with gentle poetic lights.

 

But these are all the original Greeks. What of that extraordinary interest in and revival of classical drama that occurred in France in the second half of the 17th-century, most notably in the astonishing 10 year (1667-1677), 10 play period of productivity in the career of Jean Racine? Phaedra was the last of these, possibly the greatest, certainly the one most concerned with moral virtue and least with heroic reputation; and as such has always been felt to portend a turning back to the essentialising moral perception of the dramatist’s Port Royal mentors. Phaedra was his last work for the stage.

 

The fact that these plays are read and performed in English today has more to do with one man than any other ― the American poet, Richard Wilbur, today still alive at 89. Moreover, this scrupulous poet kept very close to the English model of the heroic couplet, so that we sometimes feel ourselves to be keeping company with Pope or Dryden, yet never allows himself to be deflected from the emotional precision and fidelity of the original.

 

We may think to ourselves, how deprived the French in their theatre ― even in their Golden Age of 17th-century, Molière and Racine (though behind them stands Corneille, in many ways a more interesting figure). This is a theatre that is small and almost without action. In Molière there is the least some sort of plot: people come and go, deceptions are unmasked, things build up to a climax, a dénouement. In Racine, information arrives and leaves the static centre in which a very few characters exchange views of their profound dilemmas, their momentous decisions, their tragic insights. Depth there undoubtedly is, but still little or nothing happens. How impoverished this can seem to an English person used, not just to Shakespeare, but to the drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages.

 

There is no real answer to this accusation, frosted with presuppositions about stagecraft and acting. Racine simply doesn’t work like that. Although cast in the form of a five act tragedy, with two of the acts running beyond five scenes, there is a continuous flow from beginning to end. People implicitly leave and arrive. All dramatic action occurs elsewhere and is economically reported on stage. The revelations ― of deception, treachery, guilt ― are all delivered up-front in the most direct and uncomplicated fashion.

 

It has been customary to concentrate on Phaedra herself, as a

 

“Greek woman with a Christian conscience” … “one of the just to whom grace was not vouchsafed” … her true and hopeless hunger is for innocence, for a state of soul called “purity” […] p. xv

 

Indeed,

 

Heaven lit a fatal blaze within my breast (p. 104)

 

But as always with Phaedra, one feels that there is something more pathological at work:

 

I dared not weep and grieve in fullest measure;

I sipped in secret at that bitter pleasure; (p. 82)

 

It seems to me that a sounder reference point is Hippolytus himself who, somewhat fearlessly, addresses his irate but still-living father, Theseus, profligate as well as hero, in the following terms:

 

Incest! Adultery! Are these still your themes?

I’ll say no more. Yet Phaedra’s mother, it seems,

And, as you know, sir, all of Phaedra’s line

Knew more about such horrors than did mine. (p. 76)

 

In other words, there is a long family tradition (we would nowadays speak of genes) behind Phaedra which has contributed to her disorder, whatever restraining effect her conscience may have played. It is Hippolytus himself who remains the most interesting, perhaps even central character, inspired by a virtue that is simply not to be met with in any other character.

 

In just resentment of so black a lie,

I might well let the truth be known, but I

Suppress what comes too near your heart (p. 73; he is addressing Theseus)

 

One feels that Racine himself places him in our midst as a benchmark. His beloved Aricia sees and loves this nobility of nature which she significantly shares. One of the finest single lines occurs early on when Hippolytus says

 

I would not flee her if I hated her (p. 11)

 

However Hippolytus is torn to pieces, not by the sea monster obligingly spewed forth by Neptune (we deal largely with Roman versions of names in this translation) at the request of the deranged Theseus: this monster is apparently speared and disabled by Hippolytus, but by his own terrified and stampeding horses who no longer answer to his voice and drag him to his death as a bloody and scarcely recognisable corpse.

 

The play derives its power, then, not from some sort of restrained French classicism, but from an astonishing precision of emotional focus and economy of means, which Wilbur faithfully upholds. It could be argued that such a drama is meant for the ears alone (BBC Radio 3 recently presented a powerful Racine play, largely conducted in a dungeon with letters arriving and noises off) or simply to be read on the page, like the great classical poetry it is. Either way, the lucid Wilbur version supports the text whether staged, heard or read. There is never any glitch of comprehension and the evidence of emotional bravery is always clear to see. Nobody seems to be too scared of Theseus. Even Aricia, constrained from marriage and persecuted by the hero, but now a member of his household after the deaths of her brothers, princess of the blood royal and heir to the Athens of Pallas, does not hesitate to speak truth to power:

 

Fear, my lord, fear lest the stern deities

So hate you as to grant your wrathful pleas (p. 94)

 

Eventually light begins to trickle into the darkened mind of Theseus. He starts to take a greater interest in evidence, begins to relent and in the last line of the play adopts Aricia as a daughter.

 

Knowing it to be doomed, we can end with a consideration of the tenderest of young loves, the love which each has denied to him- or herself in no uncertain terms. Hippolytus, driver of chariots through forest solitudes, has long borne his own vow:

 

How, pitying poor storm-tossed fools, I swore

Ever to view such tempests from the shore; (p. 39)

[…]

Judge of my love, which forced me to confide

What even from myself I wished to hide. (p. 89)

 

Aricia is not allowed a declaration of love but she is warm in her response to Hippolytus’s declaration of her political freedom, made at a time when it is believed that Theseus is dead:

 

These words so daze me that I almost fear

Some dream, some fancy has deceived my ear.

Am I awake? This plan which you have wrought ―

What god, what god inspired you with the thought?

How just that, everywhere, men praise your name!

And how the truth, my lord, exceeds your fame! (p. 38)

 

All of this is conveyed in nimble-footed manner by the great but self-effacing Wilbur, who is content neither to be note-perfect in the 18th century elegiac couplet (the lines become slightly dishevelled by reports of violent action at a distance) nor to rue his own lapidary capacities, as many of these quotations show.


[1] Jean Racine, Phaedra (1677); tr. Richard Wilbur. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

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