Notes of a Journey through France and Italy

Mademoiselle Mars as Célimène in Le Misanthrope, n.d., via Gallica

Source: William Hazlitt, Notes of a Journey through France and Italy (London: Printed for Hunt and Clarke, 1826), pp. 114-125 (originally published in the Morning Chronicle, 17 November 1824)

Production: Molière, Le Misanthrope, Comédie-Française, Paris, November 1824

Text: MADEMOISELLE MARS (of whom so much has been said) quite comes up to my idea of an accomplished comic actress. I do not know that she does more than this, or imparts a feeling of excellence that we never had before, and are at a loss how to account for afterwards (as was the case with our Mrs. Jordan and Mrs. Siddons in opposite departments,) but she answers exactly to a preconception in the mind, and leaves nothing wanting to our wishes. I had seen nothing of the kind on our stage for many years, and my satisfaction was the greater, as I had often longed to see it. The last English actress who shone in genteel comedy was Miss Farren, and she was just leaving the stage when I first became acquainted with it. She was said to be a faint copy of Mrs. Abington—but I seem to see her yet, glittering in the verge of the horizon, fluttering, gay, and airy, the “elegant turn of her head,” the nodding plume of feathers, the gloves and fan, the careless mien, the provoking indifference—we have had nothing like it since, for I cannot admit that Miss O’Neil had the Lady-Teazle air at all. Out of tragedy she was awkward and heavy. She could draw out a white, patient, pathetic pocket-handkerchief with great grace and simplicity; she had no notion of flirting a fan. The rule here is to do every thing without effort—

– – “Flavia the least and slightest toy
Can with resistless art employ.”

This art is lost among us; the French still have it in very considerable perfection. Really, it is a fine thing to see Molière’s Misanthrope, at the Theatre Français, with Mademoiselle Mars as Celimène. I had already seen some very tolerable acting at the minor French Theatres, but I remained sceptical; I still had my English scruples hanging about me, nor could I get quite reconciled to the French manner. For mannerism is not excellence. It might be good, but I was not sure of it. Whatever one hesitates about in this way, is not the best. If a thing is first-rate, you see it at once, or the fault is yours. True genius will always get the better of our local prejudices, for it has already surmounted its own. For this reason, one becomes an immediate convert to the excellence of the French school of serious comedy. Their actors have lost little or nothing of their spirit, tact, or skill in embodying the wit and sense of their favourite authors. The most successful passages do not interfere with our admiration of the best samples of English acting, or run counter to our notions of propriety. That which we thought well done among ourselves, we here see as well or better done; that which we thought defective, avoided. The excellence or even superiority of the French over us only confirms the justness of our taste. If the actor might feel some jealousy, the critic can feel none. What Englishman does not read Molière with pleasure? Is it not a treat then to see him well acted? There is nothing to recall our national antipathies, and we are glad to part with such unpleasant guests.

The curtain is scarcely drawn up, when something of this effect is produced in the play I have mentioned, and the entrance of Mademoiselle Mars decides it. Her few first simple sentences—her “Mon Ami” at her lover’s first ridiculous suggestion, the mingled surprise, displeasure, and tenderness in the tone—her little peering eyes, full of languor and archness of meaning—the peaked nose and thin compressed lips, opening into an intelligent, cordial smile—her self-possession—her slightest gesture—the ease and rapidity of her utterance, every word of which is perfectly distinct—the playful, wondering good-nature with which she humours the Misanthrope’s eccentricities throughout, and the finer tone of sense and feeling in which she rejects his final proposal, must stamp her a favourite with the English as well as with the French part of the audience. I cannot see why that should not be the case. She is all life and spirit. Would we be thought entirely without them? She has a thorough understanding and relish of her author’s text. So, we think, have we. She has character, expression, decision—they are the very things we pique ourselves upon. Ease, grace, propriety—we aspire to them, if we have them not. She is free from the simagrées, the unmeaning petulance and petty affectation that we reproach the French with, and has none of the awkwardness, insipidity, or vulgarity that we are so ready to quarrel with at home. It would be strange if the English did not admire her as much as they profess to do. I have seen but one book of travels in which she was abused, and that was written by a Scotchman! Mademoiselle Mars is neither handsome nor delicately formed. She has not the light airy grace, nor the evanescent fragility of appearance that distinguished Miss Farren, but more point and meaning, or more of the intellectual part of comedy.

She was admirably supported in Celimène. Monsieur Damas played the hero of the Misanthrope, and played it with a force and natural freedom which I had no conception of as belonging to the French stage. If they drawl out their tragic rhymes into an endless sing-song, they cut up their comic verses into mincemeat. The pauses, the emphasis, are left quite ad libitum, and are as sudden and varied as in the most familiar or passionate conversation. In Racine they are obliged to make an effort to get out of themselves, and are solemn and well-behaved; in Molière they are at home, and commit all sorts of extravagances with wonderful alacrity and effect. Heroes in comedy, pedants in tragedy, they are greatest on small occasions; and their most brilliant efforts arise out of the ground of common life. Monsieur Damas’s personification of the Misanthrope appeared to me masterly. He had apparently been chosen to fill the part for his ugliness; but he played the lover and the fanatic with remarkable skill, nature, good-breeding, and disordered passion. The rapidity, the vehemence of his utterance and gestures, the transitions from one feeling to another, the fond rapture, the despair, the rage, the sarcastic coolness, the dignified contempt, were much in the style of our most violent tragic representations, and such as we do not see in our serious comedy or in French tragedy. The way in which this philosophic madman gave a loose to the expression of his feelings, when he first suspects the fidelity of his mistress, when he quarrels with her, and when he is reconciled to her, was strikingly affecting. It was a regular furious scolding-bout, with the ordinary accompaniments of tears, screams, and hysterics. A comic actor with us would have made the part insipid and genteel; a tragic one with them pompous and affected. At Drury-lane, Mr. Powell would take the part. Our fine gentlemen are walking suits of clothes; their tragic performers are a professor’s gown and wig: the Misanthrope of Molière, as Monsieur Damas plays it, is a true orator and man, of genius. If they pour the oil of decorum over the loftier waves of tragedy, their sentimental comedy is like a puddle in a storm. The whole was admirably cast, and ought to make the English ashamed of themselves, if they are not above attending to any thing that can give pleasure to themselves or other people. Arsinoe, the friend and rival of Celimène, was played by Madame –, a ripe, full-blown beauty, a prude, the redundancies of whose person and passions are kept in due bounds by tight lacing and lessons of morality. Eliante was a Mademoiselle Menjaud, a very amiable-looking young person, and exactly fitted to be an elève in this School for Scandal. She smiled and blushed and lisped mischief in the prettiest manner imaginable. The man who comes to read his Sonnet to Alceste was inimitable. His teeth had an enamel, his lips a vermilion, his eyes a brilliancy, his smile a self-complacency, such as never met in poet or in peer, since Revolutions and Reviews came into fashion. He seemed to have been preserved in a glass-case for the last hundred and fifty years, and to have walked out of it in these degenerate days, dressed in brocade, in smiles and self-conceit, to give the world assurance of what a Frenchman was! Philinte was also one of those prosing confidants, with grim features, and profound gravity, that are to be found in all French plays, and who, by their patient attention to a speech of half an hour long, acquire an undoubted right to make one of equal length in return. When they were all drawn up in battle-array, in the scene near the beginning, which Sheridan has copied, it presented a very formidable aspect indeed, and the effect was an historical deception. You forgot you were sitting at a play at all, and fancied yourself transported to the court or age of Louis XIV.!—Blest period —the triumph of folly and of France, when, instead of poring over systems of philosophy, the world lived in a round of impertinence—when to talk nonsense was wit, to listen to it politeness—when men thought of nothing but themselves, and turned their heads with dress instead of the affairs of Europe—when the smile of greatness was felicity, the smile of beauty Elysium—and when men drank the brimming nectar of self-applause, instead of waiting for the opinion of the reading public! Who would not fling himself back to this period of idle enchantment? But as we cannot, the best substitute for it is to see a comedy of Molière’s acted at the Theatre Français. The thing is there imitated to the life.

After all, there is something sufficiently absurd and improbable in this play. The character from which it takes its title is not well made out. A misanthrope and a philanthropist are the same thing, as Rousseau has so well shewn in his admirable criticism on this piece. Besides, what can be so nationally characteristic as the voluntary or dramatic transfers of passion in it! Alceste suspects his mistress’s truth, and makes an abrupt and violent declaration of love to another woman in consequence, as if the passion (in French) went along with the speech, and our feelings could take any direction at pleasure which we bethought ourselves of giving them. And then again, when after a number of outrages and blunders committed by himself, he finds he is in the wrong, and that he ought to be satisfied with Celimène and the world, which turns out no worse than he always thought it; he takes, in pure spite and the spirit of contradiction, the resolution to quit her forever, unless she will agree to go and live with him in a wilderness. This is not misanthropy, but sheer “midsummer madness.” It is a mere idle abstract determination to be miserable, and to make others so, and not the desperate resource of bitter disappointment (for he has received none) nor is it in the least warranted by the proud indignation of a worthy sensible man at the follies of the world (which character Alceste is at first represented to be.) It is a gratuitous start of French imagination, which is still in extremes, and ever in the wrong. Why, I would ask, must a man be either a mere courtier and man of the world, pliant to every custom, or a mere enthusiast and maniac, absolved from common sense and reason? Why could not the hero of the piece be a philosopher, a satirist, a railer at mankind in general, and yet marry Celimène, with whom he is in love, and who has proved herself worthy of his regard? The extravagance of Timon is tame and reasonable to this, for Timon had been ruined by his faith in mankind, whom he shuns. Yet the French would consider Timon as a very farouche and outré sort of personage. To be hurried into extremities by extreme suffering and wrong, is with them absurd and shocking: to play the fool without a motive or in virtue of making a set speech, they think in character and keeping. So far, to be sure, we differ in the first principles of dramatic composition. A similar remark might be made on the Tartuffe. This character is detected over and over again in acts of the most barefaced profligacy and imposture; he makes a fine speech on the occasion, and Orgon very quietly puts the offence in his pocket. This credulity to verbal professions would be tolerated on no stage but the French, as natural or probable. Plain English practical good sense would revolt at it as a monstrous fiction. But the French are so fond of hearing themselves talk, that they take a sort of interest (by proxy) in whatever affords an opportunity for an ingenious and prolix harangue, and attend to the dialogue of their plays, as they might to the long-winded intricacies of a law-suit. Mr. Bartolino Saddletree would have assisted admirably at a genuine prosing French Comedy.

Mademoiselle Mars played also in the afterpiece, a sort of shadowy Catherine and Petruchio. She is less at home in the romp than in the fine lady. She did not give herself up to the “whole loosened soul” of farce, nor was there the rich laugh, the sullen caprice, the childish delight and astonishment in the part, that Mrs. Jordan would have thrown into it. Mrs. Orger would have done it almost as well. There was a dryness and restraint, as if there was a constant dread of running into caricature. The outline was correct, but the filling up was not bold or luxuriant. There is a tendency in the lighter French comedy to a certain jejuneness of manner, such as we see in lithographic prints. They do not give full swing to the march of the humour, just as in their short, tripping walk they seem to have their legs tied. Madame Marsan is in this respect superior. There was an old man and woman in the same piece, in whom the quaint drollery of a couple of veteran retainers in the service of a French family was capitally expressed. The humour of Shakspeare’s play, as far as it was extracted, hit very well.—The behaviour of the audience throughout exemplary. There was no crowd at the door, though the house was as full as it could hold; and indeed most of the places are bespoke, whenever any of their standard pieces are performed. The attention never flags; and the buzz of eager expectation and call for silence, when the curtain draws up, is just the same as with us when an Opera is about to be performed, or a song to be sung. A French audience are like flies caught in treacle. Their wings are clogged, and it is all over with their friskings and vagaries. Their bodies and their minds set at once. They have, in fact, a national theatre and a national literature, which we have not. Even well-informed people among us hardly know the difference between Otway and Shakspeare; and if a person has a fancy for any of our elder classics, he may have it to himself for what the public cares. The French, on the contrary, know and value their best authors. They have Molière and Racine by heart—they come to their plays as to an intellectual treat; and their beauties are reflected in a thousand minds around you, as you see your face at every turn in the Café des Milles-Colonnes. A great author or actor is really in France what one fancies them in England, before one knows any thing of the world as it is called. It is a pity we should set ourselves up as the only reading or reflecting people—ut lucus a non lucendo. But we have here no oranges in the pit, no cry of porter and cider, no jack-tars to encore Mr. Braham three times in “The Death of Abercrombie,” and no play-bills. This last is a great inconvenience to strangers, and is what one would not expect from a play-going people; though it probably arises from that very circumstance, as they are too well acquainted with the actors and pieces to need a prompter. They are not accidental spectators, but constant visitors, and may be considered as behind the scenes.

Comments: William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was an English essayist, journalist and literary critic. His Notes of a Journey through France and Italy records his impressions of a tour of Europe (not just France and Italy) made in 1824-25. It was based on articles Hazlitt wrote for the Morning Chronicle newspaper. His visit to the Théâtre-Français (Comédie-Française) to see Molière‘s Le Misanthrope took place around November 1824. The afterpiece was a reduction of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which Hazlitt says was similar to David Garrick’s Catherine and Petruchio but which was presumably not actually that work. The performers described include Mademoiselle Mars and Alexandre-Martial-Auguste Damas.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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