Home > 17th Century, CENTURY, Classics, French Literature, Racine Jean, Theatre > Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

  1. April 24, 2019 at 3:49 pm

    One of the things I miss most about France is going to the theatre; you’re so fortunate over there. Outside of New York, the options for good theatre in the U.S. are limited and expensive. I saw a good production of Phèdre in San Francisco a few years ago, but it was also so conventional and unchallenging – which the above production does not seem to have been. And again the ticket prices, high as usual, meant that the audience was almost uniformly old and white, also as usual.


    • April 24, 2019 at 8:30 pm

      I know we’re lucky. The Lyon city guide “Le petit paumé” lists 60 places under the word “theatre” for the Lyon metropolis. And it’s not that expensive (from 17€ to 38€ in Lyon, full price, depends on where the seat is located)
      The audience is rather white and old too but teacher take their students to certain plays, mostly for classics. (Lots of teenagers in the theatre for Iphigénie, for example)

      I’m glad that theatre survive. I guess we can thank our taxes that subsidise cultural venues and also the unemployment plan for artists. (the famous régime des intermittants du spectacle)


  2. Em
    April 25, 2019 at 4:41 am

    I always get so excited to hear about Racine … he’s one of my ancestors on my mother’s side. (My one claim to fame lol … the rest of my relations are gardeners and farmers.) But you hardly ever hear of him in Canada … in fact, I can’t ever remember one of his plays being put on.


    • April 25, 2019 at 8:23 pm

      So you have Racine at the root of your family tree! How lucky you are.

      Do you live in Québec or in Anglophone provinces? I’d be surprised to hear he’s hardly played in Québec as he’s like Shakespeare for French literature.
      I read that Iphigénie is not often played in France, I don’t know why.
      Phèdre is probably his most famous play.


  3. Em
    April 26, 2019 at 12:56 am

    Likely in Quebec 🙂 But I’m definitely from Anglophile-land! (My grade-school French is rather embarrassing.) Maybe I’ll catch an English-language version one day!


    • April 26, 2019 at 7:43 am

      That’s what I thought. I can’t imagine that Racine, Corneill or Molière are never played in Québec.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. May 1, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    Nice that you were able to enjoy this classic through the play! I don’t go to the theatres much unfortunately, and Corneille/Racine don’t usually appeal either, but from my limited experience a good play (perhaps with a bit of background reading on my side) does help to make these difficult classic playwrights more accessible, maybe even fun.


    • May 1, 2019 at 8:38 pm

      That’s the best way to discover the classics, especially Racine and Corneille who are a little dry to read.
      In my experience, the modernized versions are hit or miss, though. Sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s terrible.


  5. May 2, 2019 at 3:12 am

    Wow, I would love to see this. I would suffer, since the French would be too hard, but who cares?

    Célestins, what a theatre!


    • May 2, 2019 at 9:41 pm

      Racine is worth suffering a little bit, then? I supposed you’d need to read it before watching the play.

      And yes, the Théâtre des Célestins is gorgeous. Although I’ve been there many many times, each time I look around and stare in awe. I love the place.


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