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.