Racine's Athaliah Translation at the Ocaso Press

Racine's 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.

Excerpt from the Translation

Act One: Scene 1 (Opening)
Jehoiada, Abner

In Temple custom, yes, I come to praise
our God on this revered of hallowed days,
and celebrate with you what would be still
were laws as handed down from Sinai’s hill.
How times have changed! For when the dawn's first red
by sacred trumpet had been heralded,
the Temple with its festooned porticoes
was thronged by worshippers. In endless rows
they progressed to the altar, there to yield
10. the first of fruits they'd gathered from the field,
with blessings of the universal god to ask,
that priests were scarcely equal to the task.
But now that one audacious woman's cast
her shade on blest occasions of the past,
there are of fervent worshippers but few
who dare recall to us the ways we knew.
The rest are sunk in dire forgetfulness
and even to the shrine of Baal would press,
in shameful mysteries so far gone
20. as curse the name their fathers called upon.
Athaliah soon will leave small doubt
of aims in having even you dragged out,
and in her gloomy savagery reject
those last few vestiges of feigned respect.

What do these dark presentiments presage?

Can you be holy and escape her rage?
The faith that ornaments your diadem
is long what Athaliah must condemn.
Devotions such as yours assault
30. her mind with dark suspicions of revolt.
She envies merit in another's life,
And Josabeth she hates, your blameless wife,
and if you fill the high priest Aaron's place,
your wife's the late king's sister. So take care
of Mathan more. For Mathan, that false priest,
In goading Athaliah is not the least
of dangers. Treacherous, he prowls around
in search of virtue to dispatch or hound.
A Levite still, but foreign mitre wears,
40. in ministering to Baal and vile affairs.
So much our Temple galls him, he would reft
the greatness from it of the God he left.
To injure you no wiles are too refined:
he seems to pity you, and has combined
a soft, persuasive and forgiving air
with depths that cloak his baleful scheming there.
He paints you as determined to withhold
what salves her sovereign appetite for gold.
You guard the Temple, and to you alone
50. is known the treasure of King David's throne.
Athaliah, strikingly, these past
two days, has shown a shrouded, sombre cast.
I watched her yesterday, and saw advance
across her features such a furious glance,
supposing that our Temple vastness held
a God that injured and her force repelled.