Forests of the night

In 1677, the tragedy Phèdre was performed in Paris in what was to be a short run. A modern retelling of the mythological tale of the incestuous passion of the eponymous character for her stepson, Jean Racine’s play was a commercial failure. To contemplate this fact now is beyond difficult because it is now considered to be one of the finest works in not only France’s but also recorded literary history. The drama’s language is achingly beautiful and marks the moment when French could finally look at Latin and Greek as at equals, a kind of linguistic canonization. Few authors of any tongue have been capable of mastering their language in the way Racine manages to play French as if it were his instrument. The next poet to achieve this would be Charles Baudelaire almost two centuries later.

Racine’s masterpiece flopped in the theatres because his enemies, who were many -Racine belonged to that long tradition of utterly annoying geniuses such as Mozart and Rimbaud- stage-managed a boycott of performances and herded people to a rival play on the same topic by Jacques Pradon, who had long been the subject of Racine’s fierce critical tongue. Rent-a-crowds, and there was a whole industry of such folk called claqueurs whose services were employed to attract other people to productions, were paid to attend and to applaud Pradon’s play with great enthusiasm while Racine’s tragedy was sidelined and overlooked. Racine, who was as petty as he was brilliant, was so piquéd by this apparent failure that he would never write another play for the professional stage and retired from public life.

Like trying to describe what makes an item beautiful, it is not easy to put Phèdre‘s almost excessively winning formula into words. The central character is cursed with an incestuous passion she cannot control, a malediction from Venus on the sun-god Helios and his female descendants for having denounced Venus’s hidden liaison with Mars. Perhaps Phèdre gets off lightly; the manifestation of the curse in her mother, Pasiphae, was a bestial desire for a prize bull, the results of which produced the Minotaur. What Racine does with this one-dimensional mythology character is astounding. He makes her half-sympathetic and thereby gives her the mantle of humanity.

One electrifying moment that captures the audience’s sympathy is a taboo-breaking instance. Classical French theatre was saturated with conventions known as the bienséances, or rules of appropriateness or seemliness. When Phèdre walks on to the stage for the first time, she who has been talked about in the opening scene at great length, she who as the spectators know is the scarlet woman of Greek mythology, comes in and almost immediately breaks one of these rigorous rules: she sits down. Tragic characters simply do not sit down and there must have been some astonishment at this unexpected infringement of stage tradition during the first performances. Yet, Racine endows this action with much meaning. She sits down because she is weary of the curse eating away at her very soul. She is worn out and the crushing weight of the curse bearing on her physically pushes her body down into a chair. George Steiner calls this minor moment a “momentous gesture of submission”. Any writer who can transform a three-second banal gesture of sitting into such a symbolically laden one is surely worth a great deal of our attention.

I have long been of the opinion that people do not go to church to experience what they normally encounter during their lives, but rather thirst for glimpses of the divine through the heady spell of awe-inducing music and liturgy. The same holds good for theatre and film. Kitchen-sink drama is all good and well, but our minds sing out aloud for the stimulation that only glamour can bring. As Quentin Crisp observed, “any film, even the worst, is better than real life”. Yet, there is something we can all relate to in Phèdre’s predicament and the passion that gnaws away at her soul. Racine is on to something here and he surprises us with the profoundly Christian undertones of this pagan-themed tragedy. Like Phèdre, we are all tainted by a curse over which we have no control and which perverts our best intentions, one which was caused by the transgression of our ancestors: original sin. Racine was certainly acutely aware of his flesh’s weakness as the role of Phèdre was written for and acted by Marie Champmeslé. This actress was married and she was also Racine’s mistress. Perhaps the adulterous liaison and the guilt it produced can help us understand why the work is so painfully touching.

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper as Phèdre and Hippolyte in a 2009 production of the play (courtesy of The Guardian)

The tragedy is, above all, an eerie one with an atmosphere of foreboding and containing many haunting lines. Hippolyte, the stepson, describes his illicit love for Aricie, a woman who has a claim on his father’s throne and whose family has been massacred by his father:

Présente je vous fuis ; absente, je vous trouve ;
Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit. (II.2)

[When you’re there, I flee from you; when you’re not there, I can see you;/ The image of you tracks me down into the deepest forest.]

Phèdre herself also takes up this silvan trope of the forest when she exclaims: “Dieux ! que ne suis-je assise à l’ombre des forêts !” (I.3) [O gods! why can’t I be seated in the dark reaches of the forest?”]. There is something very disturbing and unsettling about being alone in the woods, a fear that is much exploited by fairy tales and horror movies. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time working in woodland, often alone, retrieving fallen wood for firewood, or stacking lengths of wood that had been felled. It was something a friend and I did to make money and an activity in which I was involved over a period of three years. Even after doing it for this amount of time, the darkness and silence of the woods still managed to unnerve me. While trees can stand for many positive things, such as lineage and stability, there is at the same time a primeval taunt that they cast in our direction, a reminder that humans are trespassing on a world which once did not know us. Racine’s imagery captures and encapsulates this.

Today’s cufflinks take their inspiration from the bark of trees. They are made out of solid silver (830 grade) and are designed by the Finnish silversmith Tammen Koru, bearing the maker’s mark of ATK. They date to the early 1970s and the bark design is particularly effective with the silver since the oxidization gives it the appearance of silver birch.

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2 comments on “Forests of the night

  1. Mary m says:

    Fascinating post, Paul. Thank you.

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