All the entertainment of the town are the two new plays, both of them called Berenice, one written by Monsieur Racine, the other by Corneille, of which that of Racine seems to take much, and the ladies melt away at it and proclaim them hardhearted who do not cry, so much they are concerned for the unfortunate Berenice. The two great tragic playwrights of the age, Pierre Corneille , at 64 the grand old man of letters, and Jean Racine , still at 30 the relatively new kid on the block, staged plays devoted to the same subject matter: the sad tale of the newly crowned emperor of Rome, Titus, and his love for the Palestinian Princess Berenice. That viewpoint has persisted to this day. For a start, it is his only mature tragedy in which no deaths occur.

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T wo men enter a grand and empty room, one marvelling at its splendour, one wary and preoccupied. The former is a soldier and a servant to the other, a foreign king who is also a great military hero.

He comments on his attendant's marvelment, completes a long verse line, then speaks another, which rhymes with it. Already two things, one dynamic, the other cumulative, have been initiated: on the one hand the metronome of rhyme has begun to tick and the rhyming couplets that follow will enact over the coming 90 minutes a movement as inexorable as time itself; on the other, a unit, of form and sense, has been set down, one on which each of the characters in the play will in turn place further blocks, the rising stairs of an invisible monument.

This combination of the architectural and the evanescent is characteristic of Racine's plays. In one sense they are static, and can successfully be acted with very little physical movement; on the other their extreme economy and structural control create in performance a terrifying and inescapable velocity — they are grippingly exciting. The nouns of time chime through their texts, since each play happens between the dawn and dusk of a single day.

The Aristotelian unity of time is not merely the playwright's device but an essential fact grasped by all the principal characters: this one day is the day in which the tragic action, often long deferred, must at last be performed.

In Berenice , Antiochus, the king who hesitates to start the play, seeks repeatedly to escape from it, calculating how much daylight remains for him to leave Rome and avoid the especial catastrophe Racine has designed for him. This is also the day in which Titus, having been crowned emperor the previous night, knows he can no longer postpone the heartbreaking act of sending away Queen Berenice, the woman he loves and is loved by, but who will not be accepted as his wife by the Roman people.

The day marks the start of his reign, and the end of his happiness. In Racine's plays the action is tightly controlled by the proprieties of neo-classical dramaturgy which kept almost all physical business off the stage in Berenice there are three stage directions, "Titus reads a letter", "Berenice sits down" and "Berenice stands up" — these last two actions proportionately momentous.

Almost all his plays are extremely violent, in utterance and narrative, but the physical violence is unseen though often vividly imagined. The assaults, the duels, the running encounters and alarums of the Shakespearean stage are things that in Racine are merely reported in the one room — usually an enclosed and even claustrophobic space — where the drama unfolds. The stage becomes an echo-chamber in which deeds committed outside it resonate with accumulated force.

It is in the words that are spoken that violence is made manifest. And the constant pressures and threats of the world beyond the stage are felt all the more powerfully when their effect is registered only in the hopes and dreads, the agonising moral decisions of the generally small cast of characters each principal having an attendant confidant, of widely varying status and dramatic importance. I mentioned the catastrophe of Berenice , but it is a remarkable one, unique in Racine's plays, since nobody dies.

Many tears are shed, but not a drop of blood. In the last act of the play Berenice, having threatened to kill herself, is countered by Titus, who says that if she does so, he too will commit suicide. Antiochus enters and, assuming the intense stand-off between the two lovers to be a reconciliation, announces that he also will end his life.

The mutual crisis of despair has activated a dramatic mechanism, and expectation, which only a singular unexpected action can prevent. Berenice, in a final speech of sublime pathos, takes control of the play in which she has been a confused victim, and directs them all in an act of collective renunciation. They will live, but they will separate, and none of them will see the others again. The effect is unconventional, and profound: the pained acceptance of the irreconcilable in human affairs, and the surrender, by each of the main characters, of the person they most love.

Antiochus closes the play with the single word that has echoed throughout it: "Alas! The avoidance of the conventional mechanism of tragedy makes Berenice a disconcertingly modern play, and nowadays one of Racine's most highly regarded. But it wasn't always so. Racine himself justified its unconventionality in terms that remain effective; in his preface he wrote that tragedy did not absolutely require violence and bloodshed: "It is enough that the action be grand, the actors heroic, that the passions in it be excited, and that everything in it be charged with that majestic sadness which is all the pleasure of tragedy.

However, it wasn't one to which he returned; his next play, Bajazet , set in the sultan's harem in Constantinople, and replete with stabbings, garrottings and general slaughter, is the most frightening and violent that he ever wrote.

But how to translate all this, with its high formal rigour, into English? The customary formula of those who have tried is to say "Racine is untranslateable" and then to get on with it. There have been deliberate attempts to emphasise "the oddity, the foreignness" of Racine's drama to a modern British audience, to retain an awareness of the fact of translation in the English performance, as Neil Bartlett did in his version of Berenice , staged at the National Theatre in ; he used rhyming syllable lines as a way of making the play sound "both English and foreign".

The language is English but the line one rare in English verse and unknown on the English stage. Generally, though, the act of translation has been seen as requiring a cultural shift as well as a linguistic one, into the prevalent forms of the translator's home theatre. So what of that subliminal metronome and building-block, the rhyming couplet? Can it be used for tragedy in English? The act of translation involves a variable mixture of showing off and self-effacement never Lowell's strongest suit.

The first English translation of Berenice was made in , by the young Thomas Otway , five years before he wrote his famous tragedy Venice Preserv'd. For this he used blank verse, but his Titus and Berenice is in heroic couplets rhyming pentameters , the prevalent verse form of his age, as used by Dryden, and later Pope and any number of their contemporaries.

Dryden himself had written, exactly contemporary with Racine, a number of immense "heroic" plays, such as The Indian Emperour about the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs and The Conquest of Granada , in heroic couplets, the incessant machinery of the rhymes producing an aural effect which the critic Peter Thomson has likened to being "pelted with pellets" for 10 acts.

But when Dryden came to write his greatest play, All for Love a neo-classical version of Antony and Cleopatra , he did so in blank verse. And on the English stage a reasserted feeling that blank verse, the staple English form from the Elizabethan period on, is the proper vehicle for tragedy, seems to have prevailed. Still, no translator, probably, will sacrifice Racine's rhyme without a saddening anxiety that something so integral to the original is being jettisoned.

An ingenious attempt at a new equivalent was made by Craig Raine in , his adaptation of Andromaque , which was written in rhyming quatrains ABCB, avoiding the pelting pellets while creating an underlying pulse of rhyme. I'm not aware that anyone has followed this example. Thousands of general readers, and quite a lot of actors, will have known six of Racine's plays, including Berenice , through the blank verse translations of John Cairncross, published in Penguin Classics in the mids and still available.

Cairncross, who was one of a gifted Scottish family, was educated at Cambridge, and worked in the war at Bletchley Park on cracking the Ultra code.

Years later he was revealed as the "fifth man" in the group of Cambridge graduates spying for the Soviet Union. What he lacked, unfortunately, was an ear; in his desire to capture as much of the sense of the original as he could he was forever cramming and enjambing and inverting, with clumsy shifts of register and only the most fleeting glimpses of the piling magnificence and rhetorical inexorability of the originals.

And Rome would joyfully accept from me The most unworthy of her daughters. Why, Even Caesar yielded to the torrent. If The people does not see the queen go off Tomorrow, she will hear this frenzied mob Ask me to banish her before her eyes.

Not only are there small errors, elisions and insertions in this but it is written as if blank verse were chopped-up prose rather than a form with its own tensions and possibilities, and shows little respect for Racine's original couplet structure as a unit of thought. Racine only makes very occasional appearances on the British stage, and is in many ways an alien figure there. The English translator, raised on the richly metaphorical theatre of Shakespeare and trained to avoid repetition as a stylistic fault, will find it hard not to introduce colour and variety into texts which purposely avoid them.

Racine rarely uses more than a handful of metaphors in an entire play, his language is essentially direct and unfigurative, and his vocabulary, though highly charged, is small and repetitive — about 2, words as against the 20, of Shakespeare.

In making a new translation of Berenice I've done my best to respect these restrictions, but haven't always held my nerve. I'm left with a feeling that in the extremism and purity of his art Racine will always elude us, but also with an undiminished desire to keep trying to convey both the clarity and the otherness of the incomparable originals. The text, with Alan Hollinghurst's earlier translation of Bajazet , is published by Faber. Topics Jean Racine. Theatre features. Reuse this content.

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Alan Hollinghurst: translating Racine

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Translated by A. This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Berenice Phenice is not come? How slow these moments. Berenice Well, dear Phenice, have you seen the emperor? Berenice No, leave them, Phenice, lest he appear.

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