Tuesday, 30 March 1999

Jean Racine: Iphigenia (1674)

Translation: John Cairncross, 1963
Edition: Penguin, 1968
Review number: 237

One of the best known stories in Greek mythology is that of Iphigenia. She was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; when he was leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. the fleet was stranded at Aulis by contrary winds, and an oracle told them that the wind would only change if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter.

The story of Iphigenia has a distinguished history in drama. As well as inspiring Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, her death forms the motivation for Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon on his return from Troy, which led in turn to her own murder at the hands of their son Orestes - between them, the subjects of famous, surviving, plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

There are in fact several versions of the myth; a common one has the goddess Artemis substituting a hind for Iphigenia at the last moment, snatching her away to become a priestess (as in Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris). Racine chooses a more obscure version of the myth, in which Iphigenia is saved when the oracle is discovered to refer to another Iphigenia.

His reason for doing this is to make the process of divine retribution clearer. Iphigenia has done nothing to deserve death, so she should not die. He rejected the story of the hind, probably because of his early background as a Jansenist. The Jansenists were a strict group of Catholics; among their beliefs was the idea that it should require the eye of faith to perceive a miracle; to those lacking such an eye, it should appear to be a natural event. (The idea is that the purpose of a miracle is to bolster faith, so that to those with no faith they are meaningless. This is the opposite of the modern charismatic Christian viewpoint, for example, that miracles are a sign intended to convince non-believers.) He was, however, unable to remove or rationalise the miracle that the wind changed on the death of the girl, as the oracle had foretold.

The blandness of Iphigenia as a character is the main weakness in the play. She is really the tool of the others - her parents, her fiancé Achilles, the seer Calchas. It is perhaps ironic that Racine's reason for choosing this particular version of the myth - the inoffensiveness of Iphigenia - should make it so hard to create in her a living character.

No comments: