Thursday, March 31, 2016

Liver Cancer Claimed Jean Racine, 59, Torn Between Debauchery and Piety

Throughout his life, playwright Jean Racine was torn between the rigorous strictures of the strait-laced and deeply pious Jansenists and the louche bacchanalian high life of a Parisian theatre world laced with wine and sex. He stuck with Bacchus long enough to become a theatrical giant.


Racine was born December 20, 1639, in La Ferté-Milon, a small town fifty miles north of Paris.  Both his parents died when he was an infant, and he was placed in the care of his grandmother, Marie Desmoulins, who sent him to a monastery at Port-Royal des Champs, run by monks who adhered to Jansenism, a strict Catholic sect that was accused of heresy for its denial of free will and Calvinistic insistence on the depravity of mankind. Despite the severity of the discipline, young Jean had the opportunity of studying the rich literature of Latin and Greek classics. When he was eighteen, the monks sent him to Paris to study law at the College of Harcourt, a decision they no doubt came to regret after Racine fell in with a theatrical crowd and decided to try his luck at his first love—the theatre, even though that profession was castigated by the Jansenists as the work of the devil.

With high hopes, Racine submitted his first play, a tragedy, La Thébaïde, to Molière’s company, and he was elated when it was accepted for production at the Palais-Royal. A second work, Alexandre le Grand, was produced the following year, and Racine was on his way to a career in the glittering beau monde of Paris under King Louix XIV. 

Molière’s forte was comedy, and Racine was not happy with the quality of the production his tragedies were receiving, and he decided to switch his allegiance to a rival company, the Hôtel de Bourgogne.  He also decided to take Molière’s leading lady, Thérèse du Parc, with him to the new theatre—after first seducing her. Molière, having given young Racine his first big break, was deeply hurt by his betrayal and never spoke to his protégé again.

Meanwhile, Racine continued to have great success at the Bourgogne playhouse with his tragedies, mostly based on Greek myths, including Iphigénie, Britannicus, Bérénice, Bajazet, Mithridate, and his masterpiece, Phaedre. The dashing young playwright, his ascetic Jansenist days banished from his mind, also had great success as a Lothario, with a string of affairs with actresses and courtesans, including one leading lady whom he was accused of murdering by poison—although he escaped formal charges.

Racine also managed to acquire a host of enemies, many of whom were loyal fans of the older playwright, Pierre Corneille, and they felt that Racine had failed to show him proper respect. So determined were his foes to destroy Racine’s career that they bought a block of seats in the front rows for the opening of Phaedre—then failed to show up, leaving a huge swath of empty seats and casting a pall on the performance. 

Whether this animosity, or a romantic failure—or some deep religious epiphany—motivated Racine, in 1677 he decided to leave the theatre and return to his Jansenist roots. Back at Port-Royal, the monks arranged a marriage for him with Catherine de Romanet, a pious young woman with whom he had seven children. Catherine never saw any of his plays or read a single line of them.  Racine also took up a new job as royal historiographer, a sinecure that had been secured for him by Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s consort.

In the spring of 1699, when he was fifty-nine, Racine fell ill.  He languished for a few weeks in Paris, where he sought treatment, and on April 21, he died there of liver cancer.  He requested burial in Port-Royal at the foot of his Jansenist teacher’s grave, but as a special honor he was placed at its head.  The monks’ eulogy omitted any mention of his theatrical work:

                  On this day, one thousand six hundred and 
     ninety-nine, there died in Paris Jean Racine, treasurer of 
     France, secretary of the King and Gentleman-in-Ordinary 
     of his Bedchamber. He had been brought up in              
     these precincts with other persons who were pursuing 
     their studies here, and having been obliged to depart 
     hence, he followed for some time the ways of the world. 
     But God showed him His grace by renewing in his spirit  
     the light of truth which had been darkened there and by 
     awakening in his heart the sentiments of piety. He had 
     much affection for this monastery; and he has given us 
     proof of his zeal, having used his influence to protect us. 
     His body has been brought here and buried in the 
     outside cemetery as he had directed. He left us eight 
     hundred livres in his will.

In 1710, when Louis XIV had Port-Royal razed, Racine’s body was moved to the Church of St.-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 44, creator of ‘Little Prince’, dead in wartime plane crash

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose famous “Little Prince” was created to combat the popularity of “Mary Poppins,” died as he had lived most of his life—soaring in an aircraft high above the earth. Saint-Exupéry’s love of flying was matched by his love of literature, and he once exasperated ground crews by circling over an airfield for an hour before landing so that he could finish reading a novel (the title of which is not recorded).

Born June 29, 1900, in Lyon to an aristocratic Catholic family, he inherited the title of count, but no fortune to go with it, after his father le Comte Jean de Saint Exupéry, dropped dead in a train station when Antoine was only three years old. (Saint-Exupéry later added the hyphen to his name to prevent Americans from calling him “Mr. Exupéry.”)  He failed out of the French Naval Academy twice, studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, served in the French cavalry, where he took flying lessons, transferred to the air force, and finally snared a job as an airmail pilot. 

His experiences flying mail routes across desolate stretches in Africa and South America, and over the South Atlantic, including serious injuries in several near-fatal crashes, provided material for two of his most famous books, Night Flight, a novel, and Wind, Sand, and Stars, a memoir that won the U. S. National Book Award and established him in a lucrative writing career. In between flying assignments, Saint-Exupéry held down jobs as a test pilot, a publicity attaché for Air France, and a reporter for Paris-Soir, while pursuing his literary career.  

In 1931 Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncin, a twice-widowed Salvadoran writer and artist, who had the artistic soul of a bohemian and the vicious tongue of a viper. She was both his muse and his nemesis, and their on-again, off-again marriage was marked by many affairs, notably Saint-Exupéry’s with a Frenchwoman named Hélène de Vogüé, who became his biographer and literary executor. The Saint-Exupérys moved to New York in 1941 after France fell to the Germans, and spread their time among dual penthouses on Central Park South, a townhouse in Beekman Place, and a summer home on Long Island. It is rumored that Saint-Exupéry and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, were lovers during this time. 

The wife of Saint-Exupéry’s publisher persuaded him to write a children’s book, in order to capitalize on the popularity of P. L. Travers’ tales of a nanny, Mary Poppins, and the result was The Little Prince, ostensibly for children but really a fable for adults. Drawing on his aviation experiences, it tells the story of a pilot in the desert who encounters a little boy, a prince fallen to earth from an asteroid. The central message of the story, expressed by a fox the prince meets, is, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” The book has sold almost 150 million copies worldwide.

During the height of World War II, in 1943, Saint-Exupéry returned to France and resumed flying with his former squadron in the Mediterranean theatre. Still suffering from injuries that prevented him from dressing himself in his flight suit or turning his head in flight to check on enemy aircraft, he became depressed and began drinking heavily. He wrote a pessimistic work, Citadelle, in which he expressed the view that man’s only reason for living was to be a repository for civilized values. 

Despite his disabilities, and although at forty-three eight years over the maximum age for combat pilots, Saint-Exupéry gained permission from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to fly reconnaissance missions. On July 31, 1944, he took off from an airfield in Corsica in an unarmed P-38 to gather information about troop movements in France. He never returned. Sixty years later, wreckage raised from the seabed near Marseille was identified as belonging to his plane. The forty-four-year-old pilot had probably been shot down by an enemy fighter, though the cause of the crash may never be known.  After the war, at least three Luftwaffe pilots claimed to have shot him down, but none of their stories has been backed by solid evidence.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Flute-playing poet, composer, and lecturer Sidney Lanier dead of tuberculosis at 39

 Poor Sidney Lanier, for whom a middle school in Houston has been named since 1926, recently suffered the indignity of having his name removed from the school, owing to his participation in the Civil War on the Confederate side.  The sad irony, of course, is that Lanier is hardly known for his military service and was honored, not for that, but for his later achievements as a poet, musician, and faculty member of Johns Hopkins University.

Born in Macon, Georgia, on February 3, 1842, to descendants of French Huguenots, Lanier studied the flute as a child and then attended Oglethorpe University, graduating at age seventeen as class valedictorian. When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered and served mostly as a pilot and signal officer aboard British blockade-runners, smuggling supplies past Union ships.  He was captured by Union forces and imprisoned for five months at Point Lookout in Maryland, where he became infected with tuberculosis, which plagued him for the rest of his brief life. At war's end, he had to walk all the way home to Macon, arriving desperately ill.

He taught school in Macon and then went to work as a desk clerk at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama.   Adept at not only the flute, but also the banjo, violin, guitar, piano, and organ, he entertained hotel guests with his music, and served as organist at the First Presbyterian church. He also wrote his only novel, Tiger-Lilies, an anti-war autobiographical work published in 1867.  The same year he moved to Prattville, Alabama, became a school principal, and married a friend from Macon, Mary Day, with whom he had four sons.

Returning to Macon, he took up the practice of law, as his health worsened from constant attacks of tuberculosis. He began to publish poetry, much of which sold well and established him as a literary figure. Most notable of his verses were "Corn" (1875), "The Symphony" (1875), "Centennial Meditation" (1876), "The Song of the Chattahoochee" (1877), "The Marshes of Glynn" (1878), and "Sunrise" (1881).

Seeking a better climate for his lungs, he left his family and went to Texas, where he spent time in Houston, Galveston, Austin, and San Antonio, working as a freelance musician. He left Texas in 1873 and sought permanent work in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, winding up as a member of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Baltimore, where he soon rose to first flautist.  Lanier composed several notable works for orchestra, including “Black Birds,” a work that mimics the bird’s song on the flute.   

Lanier's family rejoined him in Baltimore, and he supported them with his work as a musician and as a poet. In the late 1870s he began to lecture on literature at Johns Hopkins University, where he was named a permanent faculty member, specializing in Shakespeare, Chaucer, English novelists, and Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Lanier maintained a lifelong Christian belief, reflected in much of his poetry, which stemmed from his college days, when he was under the influence of James Woodrow, a professor of science, who regarded science as a gift of God.  Woodrow taught the theory of evolution, for which he was condemned by the Southern Presbyterian Church, but held to his Christian faith—as did his pupil, Sidney Lanier.  In later life Lanier was unaffiliated with any denomination, but remained a devout Christian and independent thinker.

Continually suffering from tuberculosis, Lanier sought relief in North Carolina. Convalescing with his family in the small town of Lynn, he suffered complications and died on September 7, 1881. He was thirty-nine. Lanier is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.