Jean Racines great tragedy Phedre
was itself the victim of tragedy. Racines rivals arranged for a lesser playwright to stage a similar play, and then hired claqueurs
(organized audience members who were paid to applaud wildly) to give this competing upstart the illusion of a grand opening, and thus sink Racines production. Racine retired from writing for the secular stage after this. But the quality of Racines work wins out in the end, as his Phedre
is still performed today, in particular, by the National Theatre of London, with Helen Mirren in the title role. Mirrens turn as Phedre is being hailed on both sides of the Atlantic for its incendiary power. Phedres husband Theseus has been long-absent, and she has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, in the interim. But Hippolytus loves Aricia, who is bound by a (forced) vow of chastity. Burning with unrequited lust, Phedre plans to commit suicide rather than dishonor herself, but instead confesses her love for her stepson in a fit of passion, and he rejects her. If thats not a Greek enough Greek Tragedy for you, Theseus returns to Athens almost concurrently with Phedre accusing Hippolytus of rape; for if she can not have him, she will destroy him. English poet Ted Hughes translation of Racines Phedre
features free verse rather than the original alexandrine verse -- which were in French, no less -- but it maintains Racines trenchant characterizations. Phedre is a woman of terrible impulses and she commits evil deeds, but shes also a pitiable figure; incestuous habits are the curse of her family, and as much as her love is inappropriate, she is also powerless to alter its object or decrease the depth with which she feels it. The National Theatre broadcasts a high-definition-filmed version of a live performance of Phedre
at noon at the Saint Louis Art Museum (314-721-0072 or www.slam.org). Tickets are $10 to $15.
Sat., July 11, noon, 2009