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.