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“the masterpiece of the human spirit" - Voltaire on Athalie

RACINE, JEAN. Athalie. Tragédie

Paris: Denys Thierry, 1691

4to. Engraved frontispiece by Jean Mariette after Jean-Baptiste Corneille. Contemporary calf, restored. A fine copy.

FIRST EDITION. Racine is, with Moliere and Corneille, one of the three giants of 17th-century French drama. He is widely recognized as “the most illustrious figure in the history of French tragedy” (A. C. Keys).

Athalie, Racine’s final play, has long been considered one of the monuments of French theater. Voltaire called Athalieperhaps the masterpiece of the human spirit” (Discours historique et critique, 1772).

The leading French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared it comparable to Oedipus Rex in beauty, with “the true God added.” August Wilhelm Schlegel said the play was “animated by divine breath.” Even Flaubert’s character Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist in Madame Bovary, calls it the most “immortal masterpiece of the French stage” and names one of his daughters Athalie.

This “magnificently written” (Oxford French) five-act play is based on the books of Kings and Chronicles. Forces loyal to the house of David struggle to overthrow the usurper Athaliah, queen of Judah, who is determined to exterminate the people of David. The high priest Jehoiada seeks to overthrow the heathen queen and enthrone the orphaned scion of the house of David, Jehoash. Athaliah believes she killed Jehoash as an infant ten years earlier, but Jehoiada had hidden him in Solomon’s Temple. The portrayal of the boy king is a rare stage appearance by a child in 17th-century theater.

Athalie is scarce in fine condition in a contemporary binding, as French collectors long sought out quality examples for rebinding in the taste of French bibliophiles.

Provenance: de Cambon, bishop in Mirepoix; Henri Seguin.

Guibert 107-110 (“Athalie was his last piece and his last masterpiece”).