Directed by LANISE ANTOINE SHELLEY
Featuring Stephanie Berry, Jennifer Ehle, Mister Fitzgerald, Allen Gilmore, Jacqueline Nwabueze, Olivia Reis, AhDream Smith, and David Strathairn
Secret yearnings unleashed, ruinous deceits perpetrated, scandalous familial dysfunction displayed…isn’t it astonishing what loneliness can do to a person? Once a model mother and devoted wife, Phèdre finds her resolve destroyed as her desire for her maturing stepson becomes inescapable and all-consuming.
Red Bull Theater is delighted to partner with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) to present a staged reading of Jean Racine’s 17th-century tragedy with an exceptional cast led by Tony Award winner Jennifer Ehle and Emmy Award winner David Strathairn. Join us in rediscovering this timeless classic of French theater in a new translation by Rob Melrose.
This event will premiere live and in-person at FIAF Florence Gould Hall, NYC, on Monday, February 20, 2023. A recording will be available Tuesday, February 21 until Sunday, February 26 at 11:59 PM ET.
ABOUT THE PLAY
Premiered in January 1677, Phèdre is considered to be Racine’s masterpiece - the epitome of French classical tragedy, and the greatest example of the dramatic use of the 12-foot “alexandrine” verse. Racine wrote it following the same method he used for his previous plays: first research and read the material that inspired him, in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus and Seneca’s Phaedra; then lay out a “beautiful” plan of all that “his character must do,” all her goals and actions. For once the protagonist’s actions “are well set, it will be easy, for her, to say beautiful things,” as Racine explained to his son. The play revolves around its central character’s burning passion for her stepson Hippolytus, to whom she confesses her love upon learning that his father - her husband - Theseus is dead. Appalled, Hippolytus rejects her. But Theseus is alive, and his return leads the desperate Phaedra to accuse Hippolytus of trying to rape her. Theseus vows to destroy his son with Neptune’s help. Upon learning of Hippolytus’ death, Phaedra confesses everything to Theseus and kills herself.
In Phèdre, Racine proved at once very faithful to his sources and fiercely independent in his use of the material. As one critic remarked, he set the play halfway between history and myth, “which allowed the supernatural to render reality poetic without destroying verisimilitude.” Racine slightly and subtly modernized the legend — the character of Théramène, for example, was clearly modeled after tutors teaching 17th-century princely children. The succession crisis triggered by Theseus’s supposed death is, similarly, not resolved according to Greek political protocols, but rather to contemporary French ones. And Racine imbued his heroine with a very Christian sense of sin, which he deftly wove into the Pagan setting. Phèdre’s last couplet, for example, mixes the images of death and brightness (the literal meaning of the word “phaedra“ in Greek) and ends on the word “pureté” (“purity”) — hinting at the redemptive nature of her death. Although classical theory forbade the representation of death on stage in tragedies, Racine managed to circumvent it by having Phèdre poison herself offstage but die onstage, thereby achieving the dramatic effect he sought while avoiding visible blood or violence. But more than anything else, Racine’s talent lies in his use of the French language and poetry. From the overall construction of the play, full of fugue-like thematic repetitions (the monster, the poison, the confession) to the almost operatic expressiveness of the verses, many now staples of the French language, the play is suffused with a unique musicality that both defines and heightens the destiny of its heroine. It has been said that with this character, Racine wanted to offer his lover, La Champmeslé, the role of her life, in which “every passion would be expressed” with unprecedented depth and acuity. As it turns out, he accomplished far more than that, contributing to French literature one of its greatest tragic plays.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Jean Racine was born in Picardy, northern France, in December 1639, into a lower middle-class family. Orphaned by the age of four, he was sent to the prestigious Jansenist school of Port Royal, whose unique pedagogical methods (emphasizing French over Latin, and teaching ancient Greek as well as of modern vernacular languages) were to deeply influence his literary style. By the time he finished school, Racine had a wide, if exclusively bookish, knowledge of theatre, and a unique access to the entirety of Ancient Greek literature. Upon his arrival in Paris at age 19 Racine immersed himself in the ebullient literary and theatrical life of the capital, met Molière, became friends with La Fontaine, and soon vowed to supersede the old-fashioned playwriting style of Corneille. After a few setbacks, Racine’s career took off and he became the only playwright who not only managed to live off of his writing but also make his way up to the top of the very rigid social hierarchy. Between 1667 and 1677 he wrote and oversaw the performance of eight tragedies (among which were Andromaque, Britannicus, and Bérénice), successively became the lover of two of the most famous contemporary actresses — la Du Parc, and Marie Champmeslé, who created the role of Phèdre — and earned himself King Louis XIV’s protection. Following the creation and, if not immediate, ultimately enduring success of Phèdre in 1677, Racine became the King’s historian, stopped writing plays, settled for an arranged marriage, had seven children, and returned to the strict religious doctrine of his youth. Racine took up playwriting again at the request of the King’s secret wife Madame de Maintenon, and wrote his last two plays, Esther (1689) & Athalie (1691), for the students of Saint Cyr, the school she created for noble orphaned or poor girls. He died in April 1699, at age 59, of a liver tumor.
French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)is the home of francophone cultures and French language: a beacon from New York to the world. As an independent, not-for-profit organization, FIAF is committed to providing our audience and students with engaging French language classes and audacious multi-disciplinary programming that celebrates the diversity of francophone cultures and creativity around the world.