Friday, 4 June 1999

Jean Racine: Andromache (1667)

Translation: John Cairncross (1967)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 266

Andromache is the play that first made Racine's name, that first signalled his break from the Baroque conventions - a step towards modern drama. In plot, the play starts in the same situation as the lovers' subplot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but, without the fairies' meddling, events take a tragic turn. Orestes, son of Agammemnon and envoy from the Greeks to the Epirote court, loves Hermione. Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, and promised by her parents to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, loves Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, loves Andromache. Andromache, widow of Hector and enslaved to Pyrrhus with the end of the Trojan War, cares only so save what remains to her of her husband - their son, Astyanax. Orestes' mission is to remind Pyrrhus of his promise to the Greeks that Astyanax would be killed, to end the Trojan royal line.

To safeguard her son, Andromache agrees to wed Pyrrhus (on the day that he was finally to marry Hermione), resolving to kill herself immediately following the ceremony so as not to be false to Hector's memory. Hermione, furious with jealousy, orders Orestes to kill Pyrrhus at the altar during the ceremony. Then, when he does so, she is distraught, as her rage has lost her the object of her obsessive love. (Love is always obsessive in Racine.)

So why does Andromache mark such a break with previous dramatic practice? Racine brought a new portrayal of the noble classes to the French stage, showing them as real people with flaws, suffering in the same way that the rest of humanity might suffer. The older way - where the nobility were portrayed as a race apart - was much less prevalent in English plays, which always had the examples of the Elizabethan dramatists. ) Characters in King Lear or The Duchess of Malfi, for example, could hardly be considered admirable. In Andromache, Pyrrhus is portrayed as a serial oathbreaker (he breaks promises to the Greeks about Astyanax, and his betrothal vows to Hermione); and this means he commits a crime against the very centre of the aristocratic concept of honour.

The play itself pivots round Andromache's decision to go ahead with the wedding, which is why she is at the centre of the play (though Orestes and Hermione may seem more important parts at first sight). She also has the best speeches; otherwise, Racine's relative inexperience shows through, in that none of the characters comes alive on the page. They may do on stage, of course, in the hands of skillful actors well directed, but work will be required. It is rather like Richard II where the quality of some of the poetry can easily kill the performance.

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