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Racine wrote the tragedy of Athalie for the demoiselles de St. Cyr. Under the direction of Madame de Maintenon, the girls of this school had already produced a play of Corneille. After this Madame de Maintenon requested Racine to write a play for the school. He complied, but his "Andromaque" was not quite suitable for her purposes, and soon afterwards he wrote "Esther," a tragedy drawn from Holy Writ. Inspired by his biblical material Racine wrote "Athalie" his masterpiece, but owing to the intervention of the spiritual advision of the school, the first performances of the play were stripped of their beauty and left cold without the charm of costumes or the splendid music that should always accompany it.
As the play did not win the admiration it deserved, "Athalie," in fact was far ahead of its time, it was written for posterity. The protagonist never appears. The real hero is never seen, for that hero is Jehovah the God of the Hebrews working through the agency of the High Priest.
"Jehoram, king of Judah, son of Jehoshaphat, and seventh king of the line of David, married Athaliah, daughter to Ahab and Jezebel, who reigned over Israel, famous both of them, but chiefly Jezebel, for their bloody persecutions of the Prophets. Athaliah, no less impious than her mother, soon drew her husband to idolatry, and even caused to be built in Jerusalem a temple to Baal, which was the god of the country of Tyre and Sidon, where Jezebel was born. Jehoram, after having seen all the princes his children, with the single exception of Ahaziah, perish by the hands of the Arabians and the Philistines, himself died wretchedly from a lingering sickness which consumed his bowels. His fearful death did not prevent Ahaziah from imitating his impiety and that of Athaliah his mother. But this prince, atter a reign of one year only, having gone to pay a visit to the king of Israel, brother to Athaliah, was included in the fall of the house of Ahab, and slain by order of Jehu, whom God had caused to be anointed by his prophet to reign over Israel, and to be the instrument of his vengeance. Jehu utterly destroyed the posterity of Ahab and caused Jezebel to be thrown from a window; she, in fulfilment of Elijah's propheay, was eaten by dogs in the vinyard of that same Naboth whom she had formerly had put to death in order to seize upon his inheritance. Athaliah, having learned in Jerusalem of all these massacres, undertook on her part to extinguish finally the royal line of David by putting to death all the children of Ahaziah, her grandsons. But fortunately, Jehoshabeath, sister to Ahaziath, and daughter to Jehoram, but by another mother than Athaliah, having come up while the princes, her nephews, were being slain, found means to remove from among the dead the young Joash, still a child at the breast, and confided him with his nurse to the High Priest, her husband, who concealed them both in the Temple, where the child was brought up secretly until the day when he was proclaimed king of Judah."
The action of the play centers about the discovery of the concealed child as an off-spring of the line of David, his revelation to the faithful Jews by the High Priest, and the subsequent defeat and death of the queen Athalie. The plot is briefly as follows:
Joad, the High Priest, loyal to Jehovah and the house of David, devotes himself to the restoration of the ancient faith. Biding his time he steadily prepares for a revolution. In the seventh year of Athalie's reign things are ripe for a change. Joah, who has won over the queen's body-guard, makes them swear fidelity to the young king, now a child of seven.
Arrangements are made to hold the gates of the temple with a strong force. The day chosen is the Sabbath when croweds gather in the temple, and at this time when the people have filled the wide courts the young king is brought out to the central platform, when flanked by rows of armed men Joad places the crown upon his head and lays upon it a roll of the law of Moses.
Athalie hitherto ignorant of what was afoot now learns of her danger, but she has all the bravery of Jesezebel her mother, calling her litter she instantly comes in person to the temple. Appalled by the scene she finds there, she can only rend her garments and cry, "Treason, Treason," but no one will come to her assistance, her officers desert her. The High Priest pronounces her fate. She is led out beyond the sacred precincts and there slain.
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