French dramatist Jean-Baptiste Racine was born on December 22, 1639. Along with Corneille and Molière, he’s one of the three heavy-weights of 17th century French literature. I studied his tragedies Phèdre and Andromaque in university. If you want to give them a go in translation, try the recent efforts by Geoffrey Argent, for which he won an award.
Racine had an unusual upbringing. He was orphaned by age four and went to live with his grandparents. When his grandfather died, his grandmother went to live in a convent, taking Jean with her. He received a classical education with a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin. His understanding of mythology influenced all of his later work. He was supposed to go into law, but took the path to the life of a poet.
He and Molière were friendly rivals who became bitter enemies. Molière put on one of Racine’s plays, but Racine went behind the other man’s back to have a different troupe, better known for interpreting tragedies, put it on just a few days later. He cemented his betrayal by stealing the leading actress from Molière’s company for her many talents. It seems that this wasn’t the only source of conflict. Since virtually all plays were based on mythology, the same story often appeared told by different authors. For instance, two versions of Phèdre were written within three years of each other. The success of one of his rivals caused Racine to give up on the theater and live on his earnings. He was the first French writer ever to be able to do so.
In his retirement, Racine was elected to the Académie française and was given various honors by the Louis XIV. He returned to writing for the theater at the request of Madame de Maintenon, the king’s second wife. Now his inspiration was the Old Testament. He died of liver cancer on April 21, 1699. After his death, the king continued to support Racine’s widow and children.
Today’s expression, prendre racine (prawndruh rahseen), literally means “to take root.” It’s used in a figurative way “to mean to outstay one’s welcome.” Racine’s occupied space on bookshelves for over 300 years, but he doesn’t seem to have overstayed his welcome.