Athalie or Athaliah was written for private performance at court, and
has something of the gloom and piety that marked the later years of the
Sun King's reign. It was staged in 1691 by the convent girls at St Cyr,
and so belongs to the period between the Counter-Reformation and the
grand operas of the following century. The first attempted to bring the
majesty of God down to earth in magnificent music, ceremony and
architecture. The second aimed at spectacle and stunning stage effects.
With its extended choruses (though unperformed in Racine's lifetime,
and a troubled history for the play as a whole thereafter), Athaliah is
indeed close to opera, but of a peculiarly religious kind.
Austere and more successful in
stagecraft than in creating sympathetic characters is probably the
common impression. But Voltaire, no great friend of the French court,
considered it one of the great achievements of the human mind,
excelling anything of Shakespeare's. Flaubert greatly admired the work,
and Gide praised the chorus sections. Like all Racine's work, the play
is not naturalistic but poetic: it succeeds or fails as the poetry
succeeds or fails. We miss what Racine intended by complaining that
what little warmth emanates from the play comes from the minor
characters: the honest but simple Abner and the long-suffering Princess
Jehoshabeath, who meekly follows her husband's dictates. Similarly with
Joash. His is a cloistered virtue, doubtless, but if he comes over as
something of a prig that is all to Racine's purposes. The untried youth
was to turn apostate in his later years, as Racine takes pains to
emphasize, in the Introduction and the play itself, because man is born
into sin, and cannot escape damnation by his own efforts. Racine was
not writing fiction, but dramatizing something that was importantly
true. The choruses put the matter plainly, and the play fails if we
simply respond to them as poetry.
The plot is largely based on Biblical
history. Athaliah, widow of the king of Judah, has abandoned the Jewish
religion for the worship of Baal, and believes she has eliminated other
members of the royal family. In fact, however, the late king's son,
Joash, has been rescued by Jehoshabeath, wife of the high priest, and
secretly raised in the Temple as Eliacin.
Act 1. Abner, Athaliah's general,
assures Jehoiada, the high priest, that he would support a descendant
of the king of Judah if one appeared. Jehoiada agrees with Jehoshabeath
to reveal the existence of Joash, intending to dethrone Athaliah and
bring the country back to the old faith.
Act 2. Athaliah goes into the Jewish
temple and finds a child, Eliacin, whom she has seen in a threatening
dream. Not knowing that this child is Joash, she asks Jehoiada to bring
the child, and then invites him to come to live with her at the palace.
Act 3. Fearing what the dream foretells,
Athalie demands Eliacin be sent as a hostage. The high priest decides
to hasten the restoration of Joash to preclude plots by the treacherous
Mathan, the chief priest of Baal.
Act 4. Eliacin is revealed as Joas, the
true successor of the kings of Judah. The priests barricade the Temple.
Act 5. Athaliah prepares to dislodge the rebels from the Temple. She
comes under promise of safe passage into the Temple to claim Eliacin
and reputed treasure of the place. Joash is then proclaimed king, when
armed priests seize Athaliah and kill her guards. The army beseiging
the Temple flees. Athaliah is executed.
A free e-book in pdf format includes the
French text, glossary and notes on the translation. The text may be
used free of performance royalties if the translator is acknowledged.
e-book in pdf format includes the French text, glossary and
references. Corrected and revised in January 2014.