Before we saw Jean Racine’s Phèdre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a couple of weeks ago, we thought the play might give us some clues to the lyrics of one of the oddest pop hits of the 1960s.
It was early 1968 when “Some Velvet Morning” was on the radio, a modest top-30 hit for Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood (whose better-known duet was “Jackson” (“We got married in a fever . . . hotter than a pepper-sprout”)). The recording begins with Lee singing these lyrics to a slow rock beat:
Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phèdre
and how she gave me life
Abruptly, as if part of a second recording had been spliced in, Nancy begins singing an entirely unrelated melody in a waltz tempo:
Flowers growing on the hill, dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phèdre is my name
Unfortunately, as we learned in Stratford, nothing in Racine’s play sheds any light whatsoever on the apparently drug-induced lyrics of “Some Velvet Morning.”
Phèdre’s story clearly has staying power. The Phèdre we saw in Stratford was a 2009 translation (by one Timberlake Wertenbaker) of Racine’s 1677 play, which was of course originally written in French, which was a retelling of the story of Phèdre and her stepson Hippolytus in a prize-winning play written by the Greek dramatist Euripides in 428 B.C., which was based on an even older Greek myth. We found the 2009 show in Stratford, which took a little over an hour and a half, without an intermission, strangely compelling.
The plot revolves around an unaccountable and dishonorable lust that Phèdre (Seana McKenna), the wife of Greek king Theseus (Tom McCamus), has conceived for her stepson Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad). She confesses her passion first to her old nurse Oenone (Roberta Maxwell), then to her stepson himself. Hippolytus is astonished and appalled; Phèdre becomes suicidal.
But Hippolytus has his own issues; he has imprudently fallen in love with Aricia (Claire Lautier), the imprisoned daughter of a king overthrown by Hippolytus’s father Theseus. Theseus had been missing in action for months, and (in the first act) it is reported that he is dead, but to everyone’s surprise, Theseus reappears. At the urging of Oenone, Phèdre lets Oenone tells her husband a pre-emptive lie; she says that Hippolytus tried to rape her. Hippolytus is reluctant to tell his father the full truth, because that would involve revealing his passion for Aricia, so he does not accuse his stepmother. Theseus impetuously calls upon the god Neptune to punish Hippolytus.
Phèdre isn’t much like theater we’re used to, from King Lear to The Cherry Orchard to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Still, it’s not as dramatically different from them as our first experience with ancient Greek drama a year ago, which left Emsworth so bemused that he never did post his thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s production of another play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women (written 415 B.C.). The Trojan Women consisted mostly of woe-is-us speeches by the women of Troy after the Greeks had burned their city and slaughtered their husbands, and it struck us as practically a different art form from European and American plays over the last 400 years.
Racine’s Phèdre has much more of what would strike us as a conventional story line than The Trojan Women. But it’s still a very different sort of drama. We’re used to reasonably realistic dialogue. But in Phèdre the characters don’t so much converse as make speeches to one another. And the characters simply aren’t people like us. We are made to understood that these characters — who are direct descendants of gods! — have passions and dreams that are far more intense, more noble (or ignoble), and more tragic than anything we could possibly experience. We can’t identify with them on a human level as we can, for example, with another semi-mythological member of royalty, Shakespeare’s Lear.
We thought the very finest performances in this show were by Roberta Maxwell, as Phèdre’s subtle, Machievellian nurse Oenone, and by Sean Arbuckle, as Hippolytus’s tutor and friend, Théramène. Arbuckle’s long, riveting narrative of the dramatic death by Hippolytus made us feel that we’d actually seen the monster rising from the sea to terrify Hippolytus’s horses.
We were less enamoured of the performance of Jonathan Goad, whose face bore the same smirk throughout the play, and who, especially in his late speeches, had an annoying tendency to pause, for no particular reason, two or three words into each sentence.
Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:
The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.
Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)
The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post
The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)
The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)
The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)
The musical West Side Story (see this post)