May 05, 2009

Carey Perloff - Director's Notes

In October 2008, Timberlake Wertenbaker and I were invited to come to Stratford to workshop her new translation of Racine's PHEDRE, which we had commissioned at the American Conservatory Theater. After an extraordinary week of work, spearheaded by the unparalleled talent and ferocity of Seana McKenna and Jonathan Goad, we all came away feeling a compelling urgency to continue exploring this rarely produced French classic.

PHEDRE is a play that at first glance might seem very remote from our own times: it was born out of a highly formal seventeenth century Catholic culture with enormous sexual taboos and clear social hierarchies. But its heartbeat remains astonishingly potent today. The play begins with a terrible secret: the passionate, uncontrollable love of Phedre for her stepson Hippolytus. Over the course of a taut ninety minutes, as secret upon secret is exposed, the tide of erotic love threatens to overwhelm the entire societal structure of the court of Theseus. Phedre's desire is not only transgressive, it is fated: in some frightening way, she is paying for the sins of her mother Pasiphae, the descendant of the Sun who lusted after a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Phedre exerts every ounce of will to resist her longing while secretly knowing that resistance is pointless. In Racine's pitiless world, eros is a disease that cannot be easily cured, a pollution that is impossible to purge, a visitation from an angry and destructive god. "This is not sweet love coursing through my veins, but Venus tooth and claw gnawing my limbs."

The conflict is heightened immeasurably because Phedre is a Queen, presiding over a politically divided court in which her own children are pitted against the potential claims of the stepson she loves. Thus desire, that most private of emotions, is played out in a public arena that is as fraught for her stepson Hippolytus as it is for Phedre. For Hippolytus is also passionately in love. This is Racine's brilliant innovation: he takes Euripides' stringent ascetic hero, the devotee of the virgin goddess Artemis, and turns him into a complex prince whose own sense of duty is at odds with his newly captured heart. With each scene, the conflict in the play escalates until the center cannot hold and an extraordinary explosion occurs.

What is so rich dramatically about the situation Racine imagines is that it all centers on the act of speaking. The secrets of lust and desire lie deeply buried in the hearts of his characters. They become convinced that to speak the truth is to purge the pain, but in fact the opposite occurs: the act of naming the desire brings it to life. Speech is irreversible: a single word can cause a cataclysm, but the lovers in this play cannot resist the impulse to articulate their love. Of course, once spoken, their words can never be retracted. They take on a dangerous life of their own.

In many ways PHEDRE is closer to Greek tragedy than to the unruly, multi-storied tragedies of Shakespeare. Racine famously observes the unities of time, place and action, so the piece is spare, inexorable, intense, and short! Its stark theme is built on contrasting images of fire, heat and the watchful eye of the sun, versus darkness, the sea, and the labyrinthine recesses of the human heart. It is both archaic and Catholic, primal and courtly, passionate and highly formal. Most importantly, the enormity of feeling in PHEDRE is captured in a poetry which is extremely elegant and precise. Without the constraint of its language, the sheer force of emotion in the play would devolve into melodrama. The characters in the play almost never touch, yet the sexual heat between them is enormous.

When we staged the workshop, we put the actors at opposite ends of the huge rehearsal hall to see whether the language alone could stitch their hearts together. One of the gifts of working with Timberlake is her ability to sculpt a line of dialogue that is both subtle and simple, speakable and resonant, leaving a great deal to the actors' and audience's imaginations. For this translation of PHEDRE, she has created an unrhymed ten-syllable line in place of the twelve-syllable French alexandrine, and has avoided the rhyming that often makes English translations of French slightly laughable. This is a version for North American actors, a bridge between our own world and the seventeenth century labyrinth of Racine's. It is such a joy to see this work in the hands of the remarkable Stratford company, who are as fearless as they are skilled.

-- Carey Perloff

Posted by Alison Humphrey at May 5, 2009 02:46 PM