Britannicusby Jean Racine
Britannicus was acted for the first time at the Hotel de Bourgogne, on the 13th of December 1669, and among the spectators was Corneille, who pointed out some of the anachronisms already mentioned, and thus provoked bitter allusions to some of the weak plays of his old age in the author's first preface (1670). These allusions were judiciously suppressed in the second… See more details below
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Britannicus was acted for the first time at the Hotel de Bourgogne, on the 13th of December 1669, and among the spectators was Corneille, who pointed out some of the anachronisms already mentioned, and thus provoked bitter allusions to some of the weak plays of his old age in the author's first preface (1670). These allusions were judiciously suppressed in the second preface, written in 1676, when success had healed the wounds inflicted on Racine's "amour-propre" by the cold reception his work had first met with; for, strange to say, Britannicus, in spite of the beauty of the characters and the vigour of the style, did not for some time find favour with the public. Boursault1 has left us an interesting account of the first representation:—
"Il était sept heures sonnées par tout Paris, quand je sortis de l'Hôtel de Bourgogne, où l'on venait de représenter pour la première fois le Britcmnicm de M. Racine, qui ne menaçait pas moins que de mort violente tous ceux qui se mêlent d'écrire pour le théâtre. Pour moi, qui m'en suis autrefois mêlé, mais si peu que par bonheur il n'y a personne qui s'en souvienne, je ne laissais pas d'appréhender comme les autres, et dans le dessein de mourir d'une plus honnête mort que ceux qui seraient obligés de s'aller pendre, je m'étais mis dans le parterre pour avoir l'honneur de me faire étouffer par la foule. ... Je me trouvai [toutefois] si à mon aise que j'étais résolu de prier M. de Corneille, que j'aperçus tout seul dans une loge, d'avoir la bonté de se précipiter sur moi, au moment que l'envie de se désespérer le voudrait prendre, lorsque Agrippine, ci-devant impératrice de Rome, qui, de peur de ne pas trouver Néron, à qui elle désirait parler, l'attendait à sa porte dès quatre heures du matin, imposa silence à tous ceux qui étaient là pour écouter...."
Agrippina, anxious to maintain her credit, meditates uniting Britannicus with Junia, who belongs to the family of Augustus; but Junia has been arrested in the middle of the night by Nero's order and brought to his palace. Thus baffled in her project, the emperor's mother rises before daylight, and, at the beginning of the play, is impatiently waiting for him at his door to call him to account for this unjustifiable act of violence. At last Burrhus comes out of the room. She wishes to go in, but the two consuls, introduced by a secret entrance, have already forestalled her. Stung by this humiliation, she bursts into reproaches, and accuses Burrhus of using the authority he has received from her to estrange Nero from his mother. Burrhus respectfully defends both Nero and himself. He has never promised her to betray the duties of his office. Her son is no longer her son, he is the master of the world. He must reign, and she had better resign herself to a situation she cannot alter than hasten her disgrace by giving vent to her resentment. As Burrhus retires, Britannicus appears, accompanied by the perfidious Narcissus, to inquire the fate of Junia. Agrippiua comforts him and promises her support. After her departure Narcissus artfully excites his master to vengeance.
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