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Philip Butler’s Baroque: A Feminist Re-birth Claire Carlin P HILIP BUTLER’S meticulously researched and beautifully writ­ ten 1959 book Classicisme et baroque dans l’œuvre de Jean Racine defines the baroque as an attitude expressive of both the Counter Reformation and the last hurrah of feudalism in France.1Butler con­ siders that the baroque sensibility is born out of the social structures of the period from the end of the Council of Trent in 1563 to the 1650s; for Butler, the end of the Fronde marks the end of the âge baroque in its purest form, before its melding with classicism (74). He acknowledges the slipperiness of the term “ baroque” as he explores its literary and social manifestations during the seventeenth century (16), but the vision he proposes is one of passion as a vehicle for heroic action on the part of the nobility, of an always benevolent Providence ready to intervene with a paternal helping hand to assure (with occasional exceptions) the tri­ umph of virtue. Alongside this Christian and heroic baroque of the early seventeenth century there exists the libertine, more sensual baroque of writers like Théophile de Viau, Saint-Amant and Scarron (31). The libertine baroque does not idealize noble chivalry nor require the social conformity appar­ ent in the dominant aristo-Catholic literary baroque which Butler sees represented in the theatre of Corneille and Rotrou, for example (39-43). Nonetheless, both tendencies of the pre-1660 baroque have in common those formal stylistic elements that come to mind for most of us when we think of the baroque in seventeenth-centuury French literature: often grotesque, brutal imagery using brilliant color intermingled with con­ trasts of light and dark, and the frequent use of antithesis associated with a view of the world as a disturbingly unstable place. Death imagery and metaphors suggesting physical disintegration often seem surreal and rein­ force the theme of the world’s inconstancy (Butler 25-42). The human being searching for the meaning-of our condition can see reflected in baroque theatre the discussions of Christian philosopher/scientists such as Descartes and Pascal: What are the roles of matter and spirit, the misery and grandeur of humanity, and reason versus faith in defining our condition? Most playwrights of the baroque era answer optimistical­ ly that reason means the protection of noble privilege, faith means the V o l . XXXIII, No. 3 69 L ’E sprit C réateur exercise of free will within Jesuit guidelines, matter and passion serve the development of the spirit, and the result is grandeur’s triumph over misery (Butler 45-48). In much of Racine’s theatre, Butler finds indications of the classical age which would follow. A vision of government based on machiavellian principles joins with the conviction that the individual is unable to con­ trol his or her passions, and is thus unable to control fate (Butler 161-62, 198-200, 216). Although the term classicism may be even more difficult to define than baroque in terms of style, Butler associates it with order and equilibrium of structure, along with themes of anti-clericalism, anti­ feudalism and acceptance of Colbertian raison d ’état typical in the post1660 generation (295-300). These characteristics are best reflected in the Racinian corpus by Britannicus (1669), Bérénice (1670), and Bajazet (1672).2However, the baroque influence never disappears from Racine’s work. Racine both assimilates and transforms many baroque tendencies, for while the playwright displays from the beginning of his career a desire to break with baroque tradition, he must integrate it into his theatre, both in order to appeal to an audience accustomed to certain conventions and in order to stretch the baroque world view to fit his purposes (Butler 127-28, 295). Racine creates an experimental climate where expectations are uprooted and psychological exploration can take place (Butler 136-38). Most of the baroque elements of style that I have mentioned are present in this theatre, but they are tempered by their meeting with Racine’s brand of classicism. Butler notes that, as we might expect, the first two performed plays, La Thébaïde (1664) and Alexandre le Grand (1665) are much...


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pp. 69-80
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