Tuesday, 27 April 1999

Jean Racine: Athaliah (1691)

Translation: John Cairncross (1963)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 241

Racine's last play is one of the two Biblical dramas he wrote after a long hiatus. It is based on the story from Kings of Athaliah and her grandson Joash, rulers of the kingdom of Judah. Athaliah was the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel of Israel who had married into the Davidic royal house of Judah. When Ahab's family was destroyed when Jehu became King of Israel, her son, visiting Israel, was killed. Athaliah took her revenge on the house of David, killing her grandchildren and taking the throne of Judah for herself.

But one grandson, a baby, survived, and was brought up in secret in the Temple, the centre of Judaism. (Athaliah followed her parents' worship of Baal, and imposed him on Judah.) Eventually Athaliah, tormented by dreams in which a young boy killed her, went to the temple where she saw the boy from her dreams assisting in the ritual. The boy is of course her grandson, though he does not know his own origins.

Athaliah's surprising - and threatening - appearance at the Temple leads the priesthood to set off a rebellion, with ends with the death of Athaliah and Joash becoming king. The play ends there, and it is only through hints that Racine reminds us of the ironical conclusion to the whole affair. As Joash got older, he followed his grandmother's example and abandoned the faith of Yahweh for that of Baal.

With the particular plot of this play - one beloved of fantasy authors, many of whom I suspect have never read the book of Kings - it should, according to the conventions of the time, be entitled Joash. However, it concentrates strongly on the psychology of Athaliah, and so Racine is justified in the title he chose.

The obvious play with which to compare Athaliah is of course Phaedra, the last of Racine's plays to have a story from a non-Biblical source. The main focus of both plays is a tormented female character and her psychology as it develops through the play. In Athaliah, there is more written for the other characters, so Racine's analysis of her is briefer, and the language he uses not so poetic. (That of course may be partly the translation.)

One interesting aspect of the play is the portrayal of the priests. The priest of Baal is a cynical man who does not believe in the god he follows; he is a priest for primarily political rather than religious reasons. In fact, he has a strong belief in Yahweh, and is a renegade from the Jewish priesthood. (Almost all of the characters, including Athaliah herself, believe in the power of Yahweh, whatever their public stance.) The priests of Yahweh are zealots, bigots with an extreme and distasteful creed, using the opportunities provided by the comparative toleration of Athaliah's reign (they allowed to continue to worship, for example) to plot the destruction of Baal's worshippers. Any means available to them that will accomplish this are seized upon, even if they involve morally dubious deceptions. Since the characters of the specific priests involved are not made explicit in the Biblical account, the way that they are portrayed is largely Racine's own choice. It is a fascinating one for him to have made, particularly given the extremism of his own brand of Catholicism.

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