Saturday, August 12, 2017

Phaedra (Phèdre) as Picture and Word

Burial-chest with relief of Hippolytus and Phaedra
British Museum

O shallop of Crete, whose milk-white wing
Through the swell and the storm-beating,
    Bore us thy Prince's daughter,
Was it well she came from a joyous home
To a far King's bridal across the foam?
    What joy hath her bridal brought her?
Sure some spell upon either hand
Flew with thee from the Cretan strand,
Seeking Athena's tower divine;
And there, where Munychus front the brine,
Crept by the shore-flung cables' line,
    The curse from the Cretan water!

And, for that dark spell that about her clings,
Sick desires of forbidden things
    The soul of her rend and sever;
The bitter tide of calamity
Hath risen above her lips; and she,
    Where bends she her last endeavour?
She will hie her alone to her bridal room,
And a rope swing slow in the rafters' gloom;
And a fair white neck shall creep to the noose,
A-shudder with dread, yet firm to choose
The one way strait for fame, and lose
    The Love and the pain for ever.

– from Hippolytus by Euripides, translated by Gilbert Murray (1902)

"Hippolytus was produced in 428, the third year of the Peloponnesian War, on one of four occasions during Euripides' lifetime when his entries won first prize.  Subsequent ages, despite changes in critical fashion in the assessment of Euripides' work, have agreed in regarding Hippolytus as one of his masterpieces.  But in spite of this consensus, there are sharp disagreements between critics about how the play is to be interpreted.

Hippolytus, illegitimate son of Theseus and the queen of the Amazons, is the special favorite of Artemis.  He lives a life of chastity in the goddess' company and calls Aphrodite the basest of deities.  To avenge this slight to her honor, Aphrodite uses her power as goddess of love to bring about his death by indirect means, a complicated but clearly foreseen chain of causality.  She causes Theseus' wife Phaedra to fall in love with him.  The passion is doubly discreditable, being both adulterous and quasi-incestuous, Hippolytus being her stepson.

One group of critics finds Hippolytus deeply flawed: he is foolish in his attempt to suppress sexual love in himself, arrogantly convinced of his superiority to the mass of mankind, intolerant of weakness in others, and warped by his fanatical misogyny.  The first group of critics finds Phaedra a sympathetic character, since she resists the passion Aphrodite has inspired in her and causes Hippolytus' death only when stung by the injustice of his condemnation of her.

A second group reverses the judgments.  For them Phaedra is weak and vacillating, she thinks too much about her good name and too little about the reality of virtue, and her failure to make the distinction between being and seeming virtuous betrays her into the unjust act of slandering Hippolytus.  These critics regard Hippolytus in a sympathetic light: he is seen as single-minded in his devotion to Artemis and a man of integrity.

As regards the human figures, there is no reason to sympathize with one of them to the exclusion of the other.  Both are victims of Aphrodite, as is Theseus.  It is also a mistake to see the outcome of the play as the result of human shortcomings and to ignore the cardinal element of divine malice."

– from the introduction by David Kovacs to the most recent Loeb Classical Library edition of  Euripides' Hippolytus (Harvard University Press, 1995)

Phaedra with attendant
AD 20-60
fragment of wall painting from Pompei
British Museum

Greece (Corinth)
Mirror-back with seated Phaedra, Eros and Attendant
380-370 BC
British Museum

Jean Racine (1639-1699) amplified the plot of Euripides' Hippolytus – adding characters and altering actions – mainly in order to enhance Phaedra's ethical position in relation to those around her and so permit a slightly larger sliver of nobility to her than Euripides could grant.  Racine's Phèdre was first performed in 1677.

Philippus Velyn after Anne-Louis Girodet
Phèdre (seated) confesses her love to Oenone (standing, horrified)
ca. 1816
etching (working proof with added white highlights)
British Museum

Phèdre:  I have conceived just terror for my crime;
I hate my life, and hold my love in horror.
Dying I wish'd to keep my fame unsullied,
And bury in the grave a guilty passion;
But I have been unable to withstand
Tears and entreaties, I have told you all;
Content, if only, as my end draws near,
You do not vex me with unjust reproaches,
Nor with vain efforts seek to snatch from death
The last faint lingering sparks of vital breath.

– from Robert Bruce Boswell's translation into ample High-Victorian English of Racine's Phèdre (Act I, Scene iii)

Philippus Velyn after Anne-Louis Girodet
Theseus rejects Hippolytus
ca. 1816
etching (working proof with added white highlights)
British Museum

Philippus Velyn after Anne-Louis Girodet
Death of Phèdre
ca. 1816
etching (working proof with added white highlights)
British Museum

Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Choquet
Scene from Racine's Phèdre
drawing (print study)
British Museum

Theseus:  Fortune no longer fights against my wishes,
Madam, and to your arms restores –

Phèdre:  Stay, Theseus!
Do not profane endearments that were once
So sweet, but which I am unworthy now
To taste. You have been wrong'd. Fortune has proved
Spiteful, nor in your absence spared your wife.
I am unfit to meet your fond caress,
How I may bear my shame my only care

– Robert Bruce Boswell, translating Racine's Phèdre (Act III, Scene iv)

Below, a select gallery of actresses who became well-known in the role of Phèdre 

Esprit-Aimé Libour
Mademoiselle Georges as Phèdre
ca. 1812
hand-colored stipple-engraving
British Museum

Marguerite Joséphine Georges (1787-1867) Actress; born Marguerite Joséphine Weimer, known as Mademoiselle Georges. Debut at the Théâtre Français in 1802.  To St. Petersburg 1808-12.  Retired in 1853.  Mistress of Napoleon.

George Cruikshank
Studies of the actress Rachel as Phèdre
before 1858
British Museum

George Cruikshank
Studies of the actress Rachel as Phèdre
 before 1858
British Museum

Elisabeth-Rachel Félix (1821-1858) Actress; stage name Rachel or Mademoiselle Rachel.  Stage debut in 'La Vendéenne' at Théâtre du Gymnase, 1837; joined the Théâtre Français in 1838. Particularly associated with plays by French dramatists like Racine and Corneille. Had many lovers, among whom Louis Napoléon Bonaporte (the future Napoleon III), Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, and count Walewski (illegitimate son of Napoleon I), to whom she bore a son.

– biographical notes, British Museum

Félix Nadar
Sarah Bernhardt as Phèdre
albumen silver print
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Sarah Bernhardt as Phèdre
British Museum

"The performance of Phèdre, given this afternoon before an enthusiastic audience, which included the foremost representatives of society and the arts, as well as the principal critics, was for Mme. Berma, who played the heroine, the occasion of a triumph as brilliant as any that she has known in the course of her phenomenal career.  We shall discuss more fully in a later issue this performance, which is indeed an event in the history of the stage; for the present we need only add that the best qualified judges are unanimous in the pronouncement that such an interpretation sheds an entirely new light on the part of Phèdre, which is one of the finest and most studied of Racine's creations, and that it constitutes the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art which it has been the privilege of our generation to witness."

 – Parisian newspaper review "quoted" by Marcel Proust (or composed by him) for his fictionalized response to Sarah Bernhardt's Phèdre, as embedded in the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff

William John Henderson after Georges Clairin
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt
(reproducing a painted portrait of 1876)
British Museum

Vincent Brooks
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt
lithograph from Vanity Fair
British Museum

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) Actress, painter and sculptor. Her acting debut was at the Comédie Française in 1862. She first exhibited at the Salon in 1876 with a plaster statue (After the Storm).

– biographical note from the British Museum