Phèdre by Jean Racine

by Paul Mathers

phaedra2The story was not the primary motivation for the inclusion of this play in the series. I know this because we have already read the exact same story in Hippolytus by Euripides. Again, I think I made the wise move in avoiding the translation provided in the Harvard Classics and sought the translation I thought best.

I found a translation by Margaret Rawlings who, as some of you may know, was an acclaimed, world-famous stage actress right up the center of the previous century. She was in a production of the play in the 1950s and found the translation they were using (which also happens to be the Harvard Classics translation) to be horribly clunky, unactable, and dated. The Rawlings translation is a translation meant to be spoken from the modern stage. I feel that precisely what one ought to look for in a translation of a play is producibility. It was also worthwhile for Rawlings’ introduction. She explains her process and also explains the situation with Racine in English. Shakespeare is meant to be read in English although there are translations and the people of France, Russia, Germany, etc. know the works of Shakespeare in their own tongues. This is not true of Racine and Rawlings felt that this was an injustice.

There are some beautiful lines. Hippolytus speaks of his father’s death:

“The Gods at last have doomed him, even him

Alcides’ friend, companion, and successor,

to the homicidal shears of Fate.”

Note the repetition in the first line. The dry academic translation would “correct” this, but from the stage this repetition becomes electric. It wakes up the ears of the audience and has a poetry mirroring the quality of speech.


I grew to riper years and knew myself,

I praised myself the self I came to know.”

One line that has stuck with me is “No one views twice the mansions of the dead.” Rawlings made the gusty move of printing the original French in the opposite page of her text: “On ne voit point deux fois le rivage des morts.” Which is more “the shores of the dead.” But there is so much language in this piece that I loved. I could go on and on, but will do so privately.

Racine’s Phaedra is a bit more sympathetic of a character than Euripides’. I also appreciated an insight Rawlings had in casting. Phaedra is, of course, the wife of Theseus and step-mother of Hippolytus. She falls in love with Hippolytus and thither comes tragedy. So often it is cast with a stupendous age gap. I think Rawlings hits the nail on the head when she writes:

“I long to see the play done with a Phaedra of not over thirty-five, a Theseus of not over forty-five, and a Hippolytus, indeed the same age as Phaedra or a little younger… What we forget is how young people died of old age in those days.”

It is a wonderful play and I am happy that there is a playable version of it available. As a personal note, every time I read great plays like this, I get a dreadful ache in my soul to be the creative director of a theater company which produces classic plays. Perhaps one day.