Jean Racine’s Britannicus is considered by many to be his signature piece–a thoughtful, carefully structured tragedy solidly within the Neoclassical fold and a model of French literature. Its story of Nero’s rise to power in a corrupt Rome can be seen as a corrective contrast to the stability of Louis XIV’s France after the series of rebellions known as the Fronde (1649-53) led to the Sun King’s ultimate ascent as absolute monarch.
But there may be more to this play’s importance that is not generally covered in theatre history. It was on this day–December 13, 1669–that Racine’s play first premiered at the Hotel de Bourgogne to a less than enthusiastic reception and showed Parisian audiences where the playwright stood on a popular scandal of the day.
One clue to both the mild reception and the work’s political importance can be found in the play’s title–Britannicus. As the play’s story unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that the title character is merely secondary to the corrupt machinations of Nero and his mother, Aggripine. The point of this may be explained by an event that occurred earlier in the year and that might well have prompted Racine to write his masterpiece–the trial, torture, and execution of Roux de Marcilly in June of 1669.
Roux de Marcilly had been suspected of plotting the assassination of Louis XIV while arranging for the dissolution of several French provinces in favor of the legendary “Man in the Iron Mask”–Louis XIV’s alleged twin step-brother. When the plot was discovered, Roux de Marcilly, who had been hiding in Switzerland, was kidnapped and returned to Paris where he was publicly tortured and executed. Why Britannicus? Roux de Marcilly had been plotting with the English in London. Britannicus was a name given to the Roman emperor, Claudius (after his conquest of Britain), who then bestowed it upon his son. And for Racine, the story of Nero’s half-brother, named after France’s great enemy must have seemed too convenient to pass up in the wake of the scandal against the king.
The tepid critical response to the play perhaps had less to do with its aesthetics than the author’s political implication that Britain (and hence Louis’s cousin, Charles II) was behind the failed plot. Nonetheless, the play’s reputation quickly recovered as Louis’s political status solidified and Britannicus soon become one of the most studied and popular tragedies in French literature.