Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Athaliah by Jean Racine.

Athaliah or Athalie is a tragedy by the French neoclassical playwright Jean Racine first performed in 1691. It's based on a story from the Bible - the Books of Kings: Athaliah was the Queen of Judah, her father was Ahab, King of Israel, her mother Jezebel, and her husband King Jehoram, a descendent of King David (this is dated to be around the 9th Century B.C.). Athaliah was a worshipper of Ba'al (or Baal), the god of Tyre and Sidon where her mother was born. When King Jehoram died their son Ahaziah claimed the throne, however he was killed by Jehu's men - Jehu was the brother of Athaliah and the King of Israel. They were responsible too for the death of Jezebel and others. Athaliah reacted by attempting to wipe out the royal line of King David by killing all of her grandchildren, however her sister Jehosheba (daughter of King Jehoram, but by a different woman) rescued one child - Joash (Jehoash) and hid him until he could claim the throne himself. This episode is described in the Second Book of Kings Chapter XI:
When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family. [2] But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Jehoram and sister of Ahaziah, took Joash son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the royal princes, who were about to be murdered. She put him and his nurse in a bedroom to hide him from Athaliah; so he was not killed. [3] He remained hidden with his nurse at the temple of the Lord for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
Racine's play begins with the accession of Athaliah. Abner, one of the chief officers of the kings of Judah and Jehoiada, a high priest and husband of Jehosheba, discuss their new queen, Abner beginning,
To worship the Eternal, yea, I come
Into his temple, come to celebrate,
According to our ancient, solemn use,
In company with you, the hallowed day
On which upon Mount Sinai unto us
The law was given. How changed are the times!
No sooner did the sacred trumpet sound
That day's return, than holy people thronged
In multitudes the temple's porticos;
And all in order 'fore the altar placed,
Bearing the fields' new produce in their hands,
Those first-fruits offered up to the One God:
The sacrifices overtaxed the priests!
Stopping that concourse, an audacious woman
Has changed those glorious days to days of gloom.
Scarce a small number of true worshippers
Dare give faint semblance of the ancient times;
The rest have shewn a fatal thoughtlessness
Towards their God, or worse, have even rushed
To Baal's altars to initiate
Themselves into his shameful mysteries
And curse the name their fathers have invoked.
To speak right openly, I am in dread
That Athaliah from the altar will
Tear you, yourself; and casting off, at length,
The remnants of her forced respect, complete
On you her deadly vengeance.
The two agree that the "unending line of kings" from King David was "heaven's promise" but Abner, unaware of Joash's existence, expresses his doubt:
This king of David's line, where shall we find him?
Can heaven itself repair this ruined tree,
Dried up and withered to its very roots?
Athaliah stifled the chind in its cradle.
Do the dead rise up from the tomb after eight years?
Ah! had she, in her fury, been mistaken,
If some drop of our kings' blood had escaped... 
Jehoiada later replies,
I speak in riddles. But, when the star of day
Has done a third of its course from east to west,
When the third hour calls everyone to prayer,
Be in the temple, with your present zeal.
God will then show you, by his mighty benefits,
That his word does not change or know deceit.
Go, for I must prepare for this great day;
Already the dawn whitens on the temple roof.
Jehosheba appears, and she and Jehoiada plan to reveal Joash to be the true king and restore the line of the King David and the true faith. Before they do, their son Zechariah tells of how Athaliah appeared in a temple during a ritual sacrifice. She is told to leave, but -
The queen then, with a ferocious glance,
Opened her lips, no doubt to blaspheme.
I do not know, perhaps the angel of God
Appeared to her and showed her a flaming sword;
But her tongue was instantly frozen in her mouth
And all her insolence was beaten down.
Her eyes, as if in terror, dared not move.
Eliazin above all seemed to astonish her.
Eliazin is Joash, and Athaliah later tells a priest of Ba'al of how he appeared to her in a dream. She first describes the appearance of her mother who warns her, then of the child who is clearly a threat to her. She recognises this child as Eliazin, not realising his real identity is Joash. When she speaks to him, he tells her that he is an orphan (for that is what he believes) and she replies,
No doubt you are no ordinary child.
You see, I am the queen, and I have no heir.
Take off that garment, give up this poor trade.
I want you to have a share of all my wealth.
From today, try the effect of my promises.
At my table, everywhere, sitting beside me,
I intend to treat you as my own son.
What follows is a great rebellion, their is a coup, and Athaliah learns that Joash is her grandson and heir to the line of King David. Jehoiada then executes her when she appears once more in the temple. 

This was not an easy play to read. I think familiarity with the original story from the Bible would help enormously, but even so I couldn't quite get into it. However there are many who would disagree very strong with me - Voltaire described this play as "the masterpiece of mankind", and there are some fiercely strong and chilling scenes in it, especially the description of Athaliah's dream of her mother, yet I do firmly believe that his Phèdre (1677) is far superior. That said, I do still look forward to Britannicus, the final Racine play of my Classics Club list.

Athaliah Expelled from the Temple by Antoine Coypel.
Further Reading 


  1. I have a theory: what you say about Bible knowledge sounds about right because people in Racine's time (especially theater audiences and readers of plays -- generally more educated people) were probably much more Bible-literate than people in the 21st century; they may not have read the Bible extensively but they knew a lot about it than we do because of their church attendance.

    Also, I wonder if this play was widely performed in front of audiences or was instead "closet drama" intended for reading. I'll have to do some research now. Thanks for the great posting, a catalyst that will send me on a search for more information. Well done!

    1. You're right about knowledge of the Bible - and there was something I missed for this post - Athaliah has a note of irony to it - Joash, after all of the trouble to get him on the throne, turned to false gods just like his mother. As you say the audience of the time would have picked up on that straight away.

      As for performance - it was first performed at a school of Madame de Maintenon's (I got that information here).



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