Note to readers: You may choose to read this analysis of Bérénice here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
On December 3, 1670, the secretary to the British Embassy in Paris, Francis Vernon, wrote of an unusual theatrical event taking place in Paris that week: “The King came to Paris, on Saturday last about 5 in the evening. All the entertainment of the town are the two new plays, both of them called Berenice, one written by Monsieur Racine, the other by Corneille, of which that of Racine seems to take much, and the ladies melt away at it and proclaim them hardhearted who do not cry, so much they are concerned for the unfortunate Berenice.”
The two great tragic playwrights of the age, Pierre Corneille (1606-84), at 64 the grand old man of letters, and Jean Racine (1639-99), still at 30 the relatively new kid on the block, staged plays devoted to the same subject matter: the sad tale of the newly crowned emperor of Rome, Titus, and his love for the Palestinian Princess Berenice. As Vernon’s description indicates, it was the younger dramatist’s version that found much the greater public favor. That viewpoint has persisted to this day. Corneille’s Tite et Bérénice is now only read or very rarely staged as a theatrical oddity, its plot and cast of characters cumbersome next to the simplicity and clarity of Racine’s version.
As this year is the 350th anniversary of the first performance of both plays, it seems appropriate to discuss Racine’s Bérénice, one of my favorite theatrical works. Those not already familiar with Racine’s plays are most likely to have heard of the great ones drawn from ancient Greek myth, such as Phèdre and Andromaque, but Bérénice, taken from Roman history, stands on its own in many respects. For a start, it is his only mature tragedy in which no deaths occur. Instead of blood flowing, we witness tears shed, as Vernon’s account makes clear.
I mentioned earlier the simplicity of the Racinian play; that is something he deliberately chose to achieve. Taking his cue from the most eminent of ancient Greek theorists of the theater, Aristotle, he situates all the action in one day, in a single space – the side-chamber between the apartments of Titus and Bérénice in Rome – with only one central plot-line: the impending decision that Titus has to make between love and duty. These are the three unities of time, place and action that are so often dutifully trotted out in essays by students of 17th-century literature. In Racine’s plays, you have none of Shakespeare’s subplots, leaps forward in time or multiple locations.
But, far from being artificial features that constrain the drama – an accusation often leveled against 17th-century French tragedy – these unities are for Racine essential to maintaining plausibility (the word he uses is “vraisemblance”). As he explains in his preface to the play, far from showing a lack of invention, this adherence to a single space, time and plot allows the spectator to be absorbed in the moment and to fully believe in what is happening onstage, without the need to transport oneself across time and space or to be distracted by other tales. As he puts it, he hopes that “the violence of [the play’s] passions, the beauty of its feelings, and the elegance of its expression” will be enough to sustain the audience throughout the five acts. To my mind, he succeeds in this aim triumphantly.
The play opens, not with either Titus or Bérénice speaking, but with Antiochus, the king of Comagène (now Syria), who is in Rome in the hope that he might be able to declare his love for Bérénice. He thinks that he stands a chance of this if Titus, following the rule of the Roman Senate that the emperor may only marry a Roman woman, is forced to abandon his love for the foreign princess Bérénice. Some commentators tend to pass over the fact that Antiochus has not only loved Bérénice for a number of years but also has been Titus’s closest companion; some of the classical sources even indicate that the two men had been lovers, even though, in observing the proprieties of his time, Racine does not mention this directly.
The whole play revolves around this love triangle, leaving the audience guessing about which of many possibilities might occur: will Titus reject Rome and marry Bérénice? Or will he push Bérénice away, leaving her free to marry Antiochus? And, if so, could she possibly return Antiochus’s love? Or will they carry out the threats that each of them makes at certain points of the drama to kill themselves in order to resolve the dilemma? The ending, when it comes, is magnificent, because it is the woman who wrests control of the theatrical space and who makes the ultimate decision.
The unbearable tension of the choices faced by all three protagonists is enough to keep us transfixed, but when you add into the mix the extraordinary beauty of Racine’s language, I hope you will find the whole experience mesmerizing. And don’t be put off by the fact that it is written in verse; it’s extraordinary how memorable so many of the lines are and how quickly one becomes immersed in the poetic line.
It might be invidious to mention any particular lines, because with Racine one strongly gets the sense that every single word is integral to the whole tragedy, but among my favorites, I would mention Bérénice’s devastating remark to Titus, “Vous êtes Empereur, Seigneur, et vous pleurez.” (You are the Emperor, my Lord, and yet you weep), and, in the final scene, her heartbreaking assertion of the mutuality of their love and the paradox that they must leave each other: “Je l’aime, je le fuis. Titus m’aime, il me quitte.” (I love him, I flee from him. Titus loves me, he leaves me.”).
Obviously, the best way to enjoy the play is live in the theater, something that may not be possible in the near future, but, other than reading the actual text in French or English, there are a number of staged versions available on film.
The 2000 television film Bérénice, while cutting a number of the lines and not strictly observing the unity of place, does have the advantage of starring Carole Bouquet, who is incandescent in the title role, with her then-partner Gérard Dépardieu as Titus.
If you would like a gentler introduction to the play, I would heartily recommend Agnès Jaoui’s wonderful movie from 1999, Le Goût des Autres (The Taste of Others), starring Jaoui herself and Jean-Pierre Bacri. The play Bérénice plays a pivotal part in the film, as Bacri, in the role of an uncultivated nouveau-riche businessman, gradually becomes transfixed as he watches a performance of Racine’s play, returning again to see both the tragedy and the lead actress, played beautifully by Anne Alvaro. The tears he sheds during the performances bring us back to both Racine’s and Vernon’s accounts of the tears shed by audience members in the early performances. I found it deeply moving.
If you’d like to read a clear but poetically sensitive translation of Bérénice, I’d recommend Alan Hollinghurst’s version, written for a production that took place at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2012.
Buy the DVD of The Taste of Others.