Bajazet by Jean Racine

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BBC Radio 3, 22 June 2008

One of the most enduring stereotypes of the Ottoman Empire is that it was a site of decadence and cruelty, where sultans imposed their authority over silent minions, while keeping harems full of innocent women guarded by eunuchs. It was once known as ‘the sick man of Europe’: in a world where absolute rulers indulged themselves and paid scant attention to their subjects, it was perhaps inevitable that it should have earned this title.


Jean Racine’s Bazajet makes no attempt to challenge this stereotype. The plot is straightforward; in a harem deep within the Sultan’s palace Bazajet (Bertie Carvel) is told by the Emperor’s wife Roxanne (Victoria Hamilton) that he must marry her or die. However, matters are complicated by the fact that he is already engaged to Atalide (Claire Price). The play traces a predicable course, with Bazajet caught between two women, and eventually choosing suicide as the only course open to him. The play also incorporated an Iago-like figure Acomat (Michael Pennington), whose sole interest is in exploiting others for his own ends.


Racine is obviously fond of language; the play itself comprises a series of set-piece speeches full of sensuous metaphors and classical allusions. They are obviously designed to be enjoyed as rhetorical performances, giving actors the chance to show off their verbal skills. This aspect was amply underlined in Jane Morgan’s production. All the actors took full advantage of the opportunities given to them; and by doing so conjured up a world of sensuality, of excess, where physical over-indulgence in bodily pleasures was complimented by verbal over-indulgence. This represented a classic orientalist interpretation of the Ottoman Empire: for those of us old enough to remember it, the revival reminded us of an old television advertisement for Fry’s Turkish Delight – “full of eastern promise.”


Bazajet’s orientalist viewpoint is also evident in its reading of Islam. Rather than concentrating on its democratic aspects (where everyone is entitled to practise their religion), Racine focuses on its violence, on the necessity for sacrifice. Bazajet sacrifices himself to ensure the survival of the state; and thereby likens himself to a sacrificial animal. No one cares about his feelings; but the act of sacrifice remains significant. Morgan tried to make us sympathize with him, but the overriding impression was that he had no other choice. Again we, as listeners, were being invited to distance ourselves from the Ottoman Empire; what ‘they’ did was really no concern of ours.


In the end, I have to say that Racine’s obsessive focus on the poetry of excess began to pall. I have no quarrel with Alan Hollingshurst’s supple translation, which transformed the French text into blank verse. But I do think that the play made its point with a sledgehammer rather than a rapier; once you have condemned the Ottoman Empire for its indulgence, there is really no need to drive the point into the ground.  Nonetheless, I was grateful to the BBC for bringing a little-known Racine play to the listeners’ attention.