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Le Cid by Pierre Corneille

October 30, 2016 18 comments

Le Cid by Corneille (1637) I found an online translation by A.S. Kline here.

le_cid_afficheLe Cid by Corneille is one of the most famous play of the French theatre. It’s as famous as a play by Shakespeare and it is written in alexandrines which are to French classic theatre what iambic pentameters are to Shakespeare. Lots of famous quotes and expressions come from this play. So, it’s not surprising that it’s part of school syllabuses. When I was fourteen, I studied Le Cid in school. It is a truly painful memory of students reading aloud and stumbling alexandrine after alexandrine and butchering the text with great gusto. I’m sure some of you have the same kind of memories about Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth.

Well, we were in Paris this weekend and wanted to go to the theatre and Le Cid happened to be played at the Ranelagh theatre.  It is directed by Jean-Philippe Daguerre. I bought tickets wanting to make new memories of this play and give my children the opportunity to watch Corneille before they had to read him for class. I was also curious to see my response to it now.

Le Cid is set in Castille at the court of the king Don Fernand. Chimène and Rodrigue are in love and when the play opens, Chimène has just heard that both of their fathers approve of the match. Alas, Don Gomès, Chimène’s father is not too happy to hear that Don Diègue, Rodrigue’s father, was promoted as governor of the Prince of Castille. Don Gomès considers that he should have been chosen by the king. He’s jealous of Don Diègue and picks up a fight with him. Unfortunately, Don Diègue is too old to go into a duel and his arm fails him. Time for the first cult lines:

Ô rage! Ô désespoir! Ô vieillesse ennemie!

N’ai-je donc tant vécu que pour cette infamie?

O anger! O despair! O age my enemy!

Have I lived simply to know this infamy!

Humiliated, Don Diègue asks Rodrigue to wash away the insult and fight Don Gomès for him. Duty calls. Rodrigue is now between a rock and a hard place: either he fights for his father’s honour and loses Chimène or he betrays his father and keeps Chimène. But that’s the other cult thing about the play: the proverbial choix cornélien (literally Cornelian choice/dilemna.) or bluntly described “Whatever the decision you make, it’s going to suck big time.”

Rodrigue decides to follow the voice of reason, ie duty and challenges Don Gomès to a duel. The odds aren’t in favour of Rodrigue since Don Gomès is an experienced soldier. Don Gomès is sure to win this duel and he’s cocky enough to say the second cult line of this post:

A vaincre sans péril on triomphe sans gloire There is no honour for me in victory:

The lack of risk will deny me glory.

(Please note that for once, the French is more compact than the English.)

Rodrigue wins the duel and now he has killed his father-in-law-to-be. Chimène is not very happy with it and it’s her turn to face a choix cornélien. To seek revenge for her father or to let go and choose her lover, that is the question. Again, duty calls. She goes for revenge and since she’s a female, she turns to the king for that.

Now king Don Fernand has just lost a valuable soldier in Don Gomès and he’s not willing to lose another one by punishing Rodrigue. He tries to go around the honour code, probes in Chimène’s heart and pushes her buttons to make her drop her revenge schemes. But she’s too far gone on the duty road to turn around. So she follows through and the king is forced to consider her request.

However, Rodrigue is saved by the bell. The Moors are approaching and Rodrigue is sent to lead the army to the battle. He comes back after a glorious victory and his retelling the battle takes us to the next cult line of this post:

Nous partîmes cinq cents, mais par un prompt renfort,

Nous nous vîmes trois mille en arrivant au port.

We were five hundred, but with swift support

Grew to three thousand as we reached the port,

Given the splendid outcome of Rodrigue’s war expedition, the king tries again to deflate Chimène’s revenge wish. While she moans in private and fears for her lover’s life, duty is still her strongest drive. She keeps on demanding revenge and comes with a new idea. The king shall find a volunteer to fight Rodrigue in her place and she will marry the winner. Don Sanche, who’s secretly in love with her makes himself known and becomes her champion. Rodrigue wins the duel and proves to be the better man and doesn’t kill Don Sanche.

Now that both Chimène and Rodrigue have done their duty toward their families, they can have their happy ending. After all, this is a tragi-comedy, not a tragedy.

So, what’s the verdict? We all loved the play, even my wary husband. It was lively with fantastic sword battles on stage, live music and comical moments. After a scene or two, we got used to the alexandrines. The director bet on the comedy side of the play. The king has a lisp and looks slightly ridiculous. Don Gomès comes out as an arrogant hothead whose misplaced pride creates a succession of fights. I believe that this version is faithful to the spirit of the text and the atmosphere of the 17th century theatres. It was wonderful and I’m happy that my children’s first encounter with Corneille’s work happened that way. My response to the form of the play was very different from the one I had at fourteen.

However, my response to the substance of the play is surprisingly consistent with my earlier experience. Blind obedience to duty seems to bring more corpses than solutions or happiness. Or, more precisely, the honour code by which Rodrigue and Chimène abide leads to death and desolation. It reminds me of Gandhi’s saying An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. As my twelve-year old son pointed out When does it stop? Lucky Chimène, Rodrigue is wise enough to stop the destructive merry-go-round they hopped on and put an end to fights and untimely deaths. I didn’t like Chimène then, I still don’t like her now. I don’t find her obstinacy to play by the rules admirable. The king gives her several outs. She never takes them and to me that’s just plain stupidity. I don’t understand her choices and actions. I found her high maintenance then, and I still find her complicated now. As my daughter bluntly puts it “This Chimène chick, she doesn’t know what she wants”. She wants an out but doesn’t dare to take it. She invents the last challenge but when she thinks Don Sanche killed Rodrigue, she says she won’t marry Don Sanche. Fickle should be her middle name. Anyway. My opinion of Chimène is not that important. She left the French language with an expression avoir les yeux de Chimène (to have Chimène’s eyes) and it’s used to designate a woman in love or something one looks at fondly or is interested in.

The most important part of the evening is that I’m reconciled with Corneille and my children don’t dread plays in alexandrines so much anymore. That’s good because my daughter has to read The Misanthropist by Molière for next week.

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