Influence of Racine on 19th Century Hebrew Dramatic Poetry

(a lecture, circa 1999)

(possible errors in text due to conversion from old files)



Allow me to introduce here briefly one of unknown chapters in history of modern Hebrew literature, which escaped the eyes of most critics and historians mainly because of everlasting cultural discrepancies between East and West. The great histories of the past (such as Klausner and Lachover, the Hebrew counterparts of Sainte Beuve) and these great histories unfortunately have not been replaced hitherto by none of our celebrated contemporaries, are typical products of East European Jewry. As such they were keen to assume that our Maskilim (namely authors of Hebrew Enlightenment) were mainly influenced by German and Russian sources. And this is essentially true, but one has to take into account fact that along with the first centre of Hebrew Haskala which is commonly known as the Berlin Centre of Enlightenment there was also a group of Jewish-Dutch young intellectuals who lived in Amsterdam (a blend of Sepharadic Jews from Spain and Italy and Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and Netherlands) who steered a cultural Centre of their own. This small but significant centre was paradoxically characterized by genuine avidity and openness to secular themes together with great attraction to Biblical language and Biblical heroes. These young students believed that Biblical age was in fact classical golden era of Israelites and that this heroic state of the past should be revived (at least culturally) in times of Emancipation and liberty.


One of them was David Franco Mendes, who lived in Amsterdam between years 1713 and 1792, most famous disciple of Moshe Hayim Luzatto - the pioneer of modern Hebrew literature and the first to compose literary works on secular themes after 250 infertile years that came after expulsion from Spain. Mendes wrote plays and operaic libretti, and even started to compose first Hebrew encyclopedia but unfortunately this ambitious venture had not been completed. His most famous work - as his biographer Dr. Joseph Melkman stated - is Gemul Athaliah Retribution of Athalie, drama of revolution that led to death of Queen Athaliah and accession to throne of young Joash.


This drama was completed by Mendes in 1766 but was not published until 1770 and in fact was never permed and remained - like all 19th century Hebrew drama - a closet drama meant for a small elite. Soon enough, it was highly praised by Hebrew reading public by and two distinguished contemporary writers - Calimani and Wessely - who spoke on it with admiration. Mendes in fact introduced a new genre hitherto unknown in modern Hebrew literature: purely historical and biblical drama (unlike morality plays and allegories of his predecessors who had no pretensions to create true-to-life dramas). This unprecedented venture was so successful that its fame outlasted Mendes' lifetime. Not only did work pass through two more editions even the celebrated non-Jewish historian Franz Delitsch called it "meisterhaft". Indeed, in the introduction to an adaptation of Racine's Athalie - Geza Ishai {root of Jess‎ - by another enlightenment poet named Letteris, Shalom Ha'cohen - a leading figure in this Western circle of Maskilim denounced Mendes but probably on personal grounds. Lichtenstein in his book from 1933 Racine - poete biblique mentions Gmul Athaliah in his discussion of influence of Racine's Athalie and defines it as a polemical work. In fact, Mendes himself admitted of his partial dependence on two exemplary precursors - Racine and Metastasio: "I have thrown away paring but kept kernel", declares in introduction to this play. A close reading of this dramatic work will reveal that actually took over from these two dramatists a number of important elements with which biblical story per se did not furnish him. None less accuses them at the same time of having invented details which are in plain contradiction to laws that prevailed in ancient Israel (in other words, accuses them of anachronism, unfaithfulness to reality and of their inability to capture authentic world picture that prevailed in Antiquity).


Much has been written on Racine as biblical poet, particularly since Renan's frontal attack (dated 1846) on Racine's treatment of biblical material which culminated in conclusion: "athalie n'est donc pas une oeuvre biblique" (this quotation is of course drawn from his essay "Imitation de la Bible dans Athalie" which was reprinted in 1922 in "Revue de Paris"). Some of Racine's defenders against criticism of Renan have tried to prove that Athalie is not a purely biblical drama in sense that it is a christian drama (I refer to Jules Lemaitre in this book from 1912 Jean Racine). This is perhaps true, but there are only few deviations from Biblical text. Even if intertexual dialogue with the New Testament is somehow negligible (out of 51 references to scriptures 51 are from Bible and only 5 from New Testament) this does not imply that tragedy exhibits none but biblical influence. Bre his Esther, Racine had written Greek tragedies and Sainte-Beuve has already remarked that background of drama was a Greek temple and not Solomon's temple. structure too bears resemblance to that of Sophocles in sense that it places human element, and not transcendental element inre, or in facade of the play. And there is also this famous Racinian partiality for female characters - a trait that appears in all 19th century Hebrew dramatic works influenced by Racine. No doubt that when looking for biblical themes for his performances, felt most attracted by women who had played a major role in biblical history. even added a chorus of women of tribe of Levi at the head of which he placed the invented character of Salomith. When we study more closely feminine characterization of Racine we find that through these woman dramatist wanted to depict fierce struggle between uncontrollable passion of individual and the undeniable duty of such a majestic figure to public cause and welfare. In Mendes' version of biblical story feminine element is pushed to background, and even two maids of Athaliah (an addition of Mendes to original dramatic personae) their only function is to explain that women are inferior to men and understand less than men in way of world. As compared with Racine, Mendes constantly stresses repression of women. It seems that in this aspect wanted to stress contrast rather than resemblance between him and Racine and that he has chosen subject of fate of Athalia - although opposed to the ideological tendencies of Racine - mainly because of the popularity of his predecessor, a popularity which considered unjustified, as if he was indirectly teasing Racine with pretentious claim: "anything you can do I can do better". But this is by all means exaggerated and ridiculous. Melkman indeed testifies that Mendes version undoubtedly stands above Dutch adaptions of Racine, but of course he does not come up to Racine.


Mendes' self evaluation is by all means an overestimation that is based on extra literary rather than on artistic criteria. Racine's Athalie is a women to be pitied despite her mischief and wickedness. She is actuated by standards of society wherein lived and it is her tragedy that precisely by doing what conceives to be right (she even boasts of bringing prosperity to her country) perpetrates the most inhuman crimes. This tragic figure arouses abhorrence and pity in same time - kind of ambivalence that usually prevails audience while attending or reading a Greek tragedy. Mendes revolts against her characterization as a heroine that still enlists some sympathy and pity. He too makes Athaliah explain her motives but her speech, far from being an apology, is rather strongest possible indictment of herself. Mendes' Athaliah is moved by low ambition and lust for power, and cannot appeal to God, not even to Baal, for justification. fact that she was never victim of a conflict of conscience which seemed to Mendes a more faithful interpretation of biblical story seems to us nowadays as an inferior interpretation, at least artistically, as a direct and single-minded borrowing from Bible does not comply with our modern standards and sophisticated taste. Mendes utmost objective was to bring upon stage God's victory over his adversaries, and there in his case element of struggle is less conspicuous. This fact that Mendes assures us of excellence of his drama above all others must be attributed to his convictions that superiority of his faith and superiority of Hebrew language in dealing with biblical themes entitle him to this distinction. and these criteria are naturally very far from us nowadays.


Mendes had paved path to Samuel Mulder who lived in Amsterdam between the years 1792 and 1862. Mulder was editor of two Hebrew literary periodicals - first in their kind in history of modern Hebrew literature. His most celebrated work is a long dramatic poem of Bruria - daughter of Rabi Hanina ben Tradion and wife of rabbi Meir. This is a daring poem about a clever woman who was tempted to adultery by her husband's disciple. This poem has been mistaken by some critics as a late offshoot of Maskilic epos, but in fact it should be classified and interpreted in light of norms of Mendes plays and the Racinian drama in general. Mulder did not turn to Talmudic heroes because was run out of Biblical heroes, but because sought and und a Racinian heroine who would like Athalie and her counterparts be torn apart by a conflict between ratio and emotion, between passion and duty. Like Racine's Esther, Mulder's heroine is fully aware of her human rights and delivers a passionate speech on feminine virtues. Like his Berenique who is devastated by Titus' decision to prefer his national duties Mulder's heroine is led to her death by her lover's decision to prefer his duties to her husband, his admired mentor. Like Racine's Phedre Bruria is captured by her life to a young lad whom calls "my son" and at least metaphorically this can be considered an incest. As long as adulterous episode is kept in secret behaves in accordance with all rules of decorum and bienseance, but once it is revealed all fetters of civilization are shattered and complete chaos overrules Universe.


This so-called victory of instincts and emotions has misled critics into the conclusion that this is a pre-romantic poem, but in fact nature of this dramatic poem is purely Racinian in the sense that it demonstrates what can happen when Man is carried away by his desires and impulses and forgets his duty to God, to society and to his family. Bruria's tragic flaw (her gullibility to young lad's compliments), and her hubris that is manifest during her debate with her husband doom her to a tragic fate. Her husband is equally a tragic hero motivated by his Faustian avidity for knowledge and truth.


Mulder is not an epic writer, but rather a dramatist, and consequently when he came to depict tragic fate of his Racinian heroine he opened scene in medias res, in midst of a dramatic dialogue between Bruria and her husband and not in an ab ovo exposition that reveals an epic distance. did not choose his heroine as a result of elimination but out of a deliberate selection. It was time of Sanhedrin in Paris, erected by Napoleon theoretically in order to cancel biases and prejudices on Judaism as an oppressed ethnic minority. In fact, revolutionary who raised banner of equality and fraternity did not think highly on Jews and on women, to put it mildly. Mulder - at the end of Napoleon regime when Holland liberated itself and Prince of Urania acceded to throne - creates a heroine who ardently defends rights of women against her misogynous husband. Midrashic stories about Rabbi Meir - stories about his dealing with hooliganism and prostitution on the one hand and about his delving in intellectual activities together with a small elitary circle of local aristocracy) fitted tolerant atmosphere that prevailed in 18th century Amsterdam.


It must be noted that rabbi here is not representative of forces of darkness and regression as would have been presented at a later stage of Hebrew enlightenment. Conversely, stands for ideas of empiricism, wisdom and love of rational lore. All names in this poetic drama or dramatic poem are drawn from realm of light: Rabbi Meir and Bruria are associated with bright sunlight (but these names are drawn from ancient sources). However the name of disciple - Uriah - is probably Mulder's invention and it was chosen not only because of its connection with the biblical story of David's betrayal of his comrade Uriah in order to abduct his wife, but also because of its affinity with semantic field of light. As you may know, all movements of Enlightenment are associated with light as metaphors of wisdom and lore (siecle de lumieres in France, enlightenment in England, aufklarung in Germany, illuminismo in Italy), and this work shows what happens when wisdom is misused, decays and turns out to be simple wit. Bruria's failure like Phedre's symbolizes the Decadence of civilization and darkening of light of wisdom. It is described in terms of a cosmic disaster - an eclipse that denotes return of chaos.


Mulder's poem affected two major poets of Hebrew Haskala: Michal, son of Adam Ha'cohen, who died at age of 24 and is considered one of most talented Hebrew poets in the 19th century. second was no other than Yehuda Leib Gordon, commonly known as Lion of Hebrew Haskala Poetry. latter mentions Mulder's poem in his letters as one of masterpieces of modern Hebrew poetry. Both 19th century prominent poets chose women as protagonists of their long dramatic poems and both portrayed struggles between emotion and ratio, passion and duty. All of these poets are neo-classical poets, not Romantics, and it should be noted that Neo-classicism not only praised rule of mind but also lamented its restrictions which is its view tragic flaw of Man. Since Gordon is considered as precursor of Haim Nachman Bialik (greatest modern Hebrew poet) and as his main source of influence it is only logical to try to detect some Racinian traces in Bialik. Indeed Bialik composed 5 long poem which bear undeniable resemblance to Gordonian source, but none of them has a female protagonist and all of them deal with national Hebraistic themes, far from Greek world picture that dominates Racine's works and their many imitations. Only a Juvenile unfinished poem, kept by poet in his archives for decades, tells story of Queen of Sheba and may be loosely related to Racinian sinewy line that underlies Modern Hebrew literature.