The Most Difficult Plays – n°4 : Berenice.
Hello to you. Here I’m back again tonight – with my challenge of the summer: to promote the most difficult plays to put on a stage. Because Altair is designed for challenges that look really tough, after all.
This week, Bérénice, by Jean Racine.
It’s a horribly difficult play on just about every point.
To set the record straight:
Jean Racine is one of the greatest French playwrights – but he dates back a bit to the 17th century.
When you study French literature, and theatre, there is: Corneille, Racine, Molière.
All three of them in the 17th century – all three supported by King Louis XIV, all three of them quite free to write – because the King had confidence in them.
But of course, this is classical literature.
So it sounds too serious. And that’s the first difficulty of the play.
Secondly, Berenice is a tragedy. It doesn’t end well.
It is a play written in verse, in 12 syllables precisely – we call it at home: “the verse of majesty”.
It means we have to go in… majestically. A King does not stir.
He does not hurry, he does not panic – and when he suffers, he suffers slowly.
Might as well say it’s a state of mind light years away from ours.
I know there are some excellent translations – at least that one difficulty is removed: the beauty of the style will be saved.
The story … is ancient, of course – since it is about the love between the Emperor Titus and Berenice.
Why choose this play?
Why not let it die in the libraries of French literature teachers?
Because Berenice is the most beautiful Love Story.
It’s not childish love – this is not Romeo and Juliet.
They are not lovers thwarted by jealousy – this is not Othello.
No. It’s a love between adults.
It’s an immense love, incredibly powerful. A love that would break you so easily.
Berenice and Titus are going to have to choose: on the one hand their absolute happiness, their selfish love, but so beautiful, so strong, so incredible.
on the other their duties as adults: to be what you’ve lived for. Not to betray those who gave you their trust. Not to run away from your responsibilities, your commitments, your destiny.
The whole story rests on this choice: will Titus choose to be Emperor of Rome – and without cheating, without creating civil wars, without mocking his people – or will he choose the simple and withdrawn life with Berenice?
What will Berenice do?
What kind of lover will she be?
Will she help this man who must do his duty?
Will she sing in the beautiful voice of the lover the song of “Only the two of us, let the others die“?
Will she get angry? Will she be unjust?
Will she, in order to save her love, let the people of the Empire slaughter each other and have so many innocent bloods on her heart?
Sacrificing oneself to save others ? it’s not easy.
Especially when you’re only sacrificing your love – and everyone else finds you pathetic for holding on to that love – which was the only one in your life.
For an actress, the role of Berenice is an Everest to climb.
Do not overact.
Do not exaggerate in the violence of feelings – it’s a French tragedy, at home we cry alone, without an audience.
Do not make Bérénice erased: it is she who holds the play.
They say there are no plays for actresses?
At least there is Bérénice.
There are lots of others, but you have to find out, it’s exhausting.
Can you imagine if it was Marlene playing? Her eyes on Titus? Poor man, I feel even worse for him.
It takes an actress with the power of Marlene to fill the power of Berenice.
Featured Image : Marlène Dietrich
For Marlène, for pleasure too – this splendid piece : Marlène by Noir Désir