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Our Tragic Heroine is Here

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

In the year 1670, at the height of glory of Louis XIV, and before rebellions and unlucky foreign wars dimmed somewhat the brilliance of the Sun-King, his cousin and sister-in-law, Henriette d'Angleterre, daughter of the unlucky Charles I of England, wife of Phillip d’Orleans, staged a bloodless game: a head-to-head duel between two court dramatists, the aging Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and the up-and-coming Jean Racine (1639-1699), both of whom were commissioned to produce a play on the subject of Berenice, Queen of the Jews.

Performed a week apart at the end of November 1670, the two plays caused a furor, a loud war of words and pamphlets between two cultural (and, therefore, as always in France, political) factions—the supporters of one or the other. It was a war conclusively won by the new man. Broken by his defeat, Corneille never wrote another play. For Racine, this victory marked his rise to power. In 1672 he was elevated to a seat in the Academie and went on to compose, in short order, his greatest plays: Bajazet (1672), Mithridate (1673), Iphigénie (1674) and Phèdre (1677).

The French ruckus caused a veritable cultural tsunami across the landscape of European courts, all of which rushed to stage their own versions of the story, whether in dramatic, or poetic, or operatic, or graphic form. As a result, the amount of “Titus and Berenice” output deposited in the deep layers of European culture is staggering; Racine’s play remains on the playbill in France until this day. As a result, most Europeans have heard of Titus and Berenice: the title rings a bell even if most today cannot say which church is tolling.

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