Plays, Racine

Classics Spin #23: Review of La Thébaïde by Racine

La Thébaïde by RacineI did it! I finally completed a Classics Spin book. My pick for this month’s spin was a play: La Thébaïde by Racine.

La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis by Racine follows the bitter war fought between the two sons of Oedipus and Jacosta: Étéocle (Eteocles) and Polynice (Polynices). At the start of the play, we learn that Eteocles’s term has ended. According to Oedipus’s decree, it is now his brother’s turn to rule Thebes. Unfortunately, Eteocles refuses to share the throne with Polynices. Although Antigone initially supported Polynices’s claim to the throne, she can no longer stand by and look on while her brothers fight each other. Thus, she and her mother arrange a meeting with the two men, in hopes that they might finally lay down their weapons and come to a peaceful agreement. Why don’t Eteocles and Polynices rule together? But waiting in the wings is their uncle Creon, who insists that only one man should be king. The law must be respected, even if the people are unhappy. Jacosta is convinced, however, that Creon wants the throne for himself.

Racine was one of the three greatest playwrights of 17th-century France (the other two being Corneille and Molière). He is best known for his tragedies — a genre that appears to have lost its appeal in the 21st-century. As you might expect from the character list, La Thébaïde is a tragedy. Nothing good can come from an incestuous marriage:

Tu ne t’étonnes pas si mes fils sont perfides,
S’ils sont tous deux méchantset s’ils sont parricides :
Tu sais qu’ils sont sortis d’un sang incestueux,
Et tu t’étonnerais s’ils étaient vertueux.

Jacoste, Act 1, Scene 2

Although this is not Racine’s best play, it is not terrible (he also wrote it when he was 25!). The dialogue is brilliant even if the characterization is lacking. My favorite character was Creon because he had layered motives. Despite knowing that Creon aspired to the throne, I was often struck by how reasonable he sounded. I also enjoyed the tension between passion and duty. The play gave me many story ideas…

I don’t know how many English versions there are of this play. I suspect, not many. But if you have enjoyed other plays by Racine and you come across a copy of La Thébaïde, I recommend you give it a try. I will certainly be reading other plays by Racine in the near future. The only other play by him that I have read is his most famous: Phèdre.

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