Jean Racine’s great tragedy Phedre was itself the victim of tragedy. Racine’s rivals arranged for a lesser playwright to stage a similar play, and then hired claqueurs (organized audience members who were paid to applaud wildly) to give this competing upstart the illusion of a grand opening, and thus sink Racine’s production. Racine retired from writing for the secular stage after this. But the quality of Racine’s work wins out in the end, as his Phedre is still performed today, in particular, by the National Theatre of London, with Helen Mirren in the title role. Mirren’s turn as Phedre is being hailed on both sides of the Atlantic for its incendiary power. Phedre’s husband Theseus has been long-absent, and she has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, in the interim. But Hippolytus loves Aricia, who is bound by a (forced) vow of chastity. Burning with unrequited lust, Phedre plans to commit suicide rather than dishonor herself, but instead confesses her love for her stepson in a fit of passion, and he rejects her. If that’s not a Greek enough Greek Tragedy for you, Theseus returns to Athens almost concurrently with Phedre accusing Hippolytus of rape; for if she can not have him, she will destroy him. English poet Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Phedre features free verse rather than the original alexandrine verse -- which were in French, no less -- but it maintains Racine’s trenchant characterizations. Phedre is a woman of terrible impulses and she commits evil deeds, but she’s also a pitiable figure; incestuous habits are the curse of her family, and as much as her love is inappropriate, she is also powerless to alter its object or decrease the depth with which she feels it. The National Theatre broadcasts a high-definition-filmed version of a live performance of Phedre at noon at the Saint Louis Art Museum (314-721-0072 or Tickets are $10 to $15.
Sat., July 11, noon, 2009

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