Sunday, February 01, 2009

Racine's "Iphigenia"

A colleague has invited me to attend a reading of Racine's "Iphigenie en Aulide," in a new English translation by Rachel Hadas. Presented by Verse Theater Manhattan, Rutgers University and Handcart Ensemble, and directed by James Milton, the reading will take place at Kirk Theater on Monday Feb 9, and is free.

I just finished reading "Iphigenia" translated by John Cairncross, the first Racine I have ever read. My first impression is that the play is a pallid thing compared to Shakespeare. The characters are rather flat, the plotting is tight but small, the imagery decorous instead of devastating. Long speeches take turns, and so the scenes lack the life-like spontaneity, the human contingency, the swelling progress, the ironic self-reflexivity of Shakespearian drama. The minor characters in "Iphigenia" are entirely negligible; in Shakespeare, even a nameless knight, in King Lear, is individualized through a brilliant speech.

Racine took Euripides for his model, and his affinity and his debt can be seen in the interest in psychological realism. How would a father-king respond when the gods demand he sacrifice his daughter for a wind to launch his ships for Troy? How would the daughter react to this divine edict and paternal command? The most interesting character of the play, however, is neither Agamemnon nor Iphigenia, but rather Eriphile.

Taken by Achilles from her homeland, Lesbos, which he destroyed, Eriphile falls in love with the ravager. She is driven by her irrational passion to betray kind Iphigenia by attempting to stop her marriage to Achilles. She is a minor Medea, in her all-consuming passion, and the play would be a much more explosive thing, more akin to Euripides, if it takes Eriphile for its protagonist.

I'll probably change this quick impression when I read more Racine, or after I attend the Verse Theatre reading.


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