France

Arms and the Woman

Source: Boris Uxkull, extract from diary entry for 1-25 March 1814 [Julian calendar], reproduced in Detlev von Uexküll (trans. Joel Carmichael), Arms and the Woman: The Diaries of Baron Boris Uxkull 1812-1819 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966), p. 183

Production: Jean Racine, Britannicus, Théâtre-Français, Paris, April 1814

Text: I love promenading along the boulevards studying the people passing by beneath the trees, or along the Champs-Elysées, where you can watch all the grand and beautiful people of Paris passing by in carriages, on horseback, or on foot, or else in the magnificent Jardin des Plantes, where so many objects of natural history have been brought together. Evenings are devoted to the various shows or theatres of Paris. The opera attracts me especially, mostly because of its orchestra. Its repertoire is unique. The vaudeville is highly diverting, just as the national theatre is interesting in its choice of classical plays. The other day I attended a performance of Racine’s Britannicus. The monarchs were there in the grand loge opposite. In the midst of a scene that echoed present-day circumstances the audience shouted and divided into two sides, of which one – the one that was for the restoration and the Bourbons – was absolutely determined to knock down the eagle floating above the stage! The racket was horrible, but the whites prevailed over the reds and managed to climb up on an improvised ladder leaned against the balustrade and to knock down the emblem of the defeated dynasty to cries of “Down with the hen!” “Down with the griffin!” “Down with the scoundrel!” It was a veritable bedlam, an infernal bellowing that stunned the crowned heads, scarcely accustomed to such scenes in their own capitals. It took a long time for order to be restored; the play lasted until midnight. Zinsky, the quartermaster of our regiment, found me a good lodging with a legal expert by the name of Rousseau at No. 7 Rue du Jardin; he has a charming family and is smothering me with friendliness. I’m very well off here!

Comments: Baron Boris Uxkull (1793-1870) was an Estonian aristocrat attached to the Russian army during the Napoleon campaign. He was among the Allied Armies (Russia, Austria, Prussia) that entered Paris in 1814. His diaries are a combination of a record of the Napoleonic war, culminating in the march on Paris, and later amorous adventures. He saw Jean Racine‘s 1669 tragedy Britannicus performed at the Théâtre-Français (the Comédie-Française). Uxkull’s diaries give dates using the Julian (Russian) calendar; following the the Gregorian (Western) calendar, the Allies entered Paris on 31 March, so Uxkull saw the performance in early April 1814. I’ve not been able to confirm wich monarchs were in attendance, but those who were part of the Allied Armies’ march into Paris were Tsar Alexander of Russia, Frederick William III, King of Prussia, and Prince Schwarzenberg of Austria.

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

(L-R) Ludmilla Pitoëff, Georges Pitoëff and Marcel Herrand in Orphée in 1926, via https://cocteau.biu-montpellier.fr

(L-R) Ludmilla Pitoëff, Georges Pitoëff and Marcel Herrand in Orphée in 1926, via https://cocteau.biu-montpellier.fr

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 303

Production: Jean Cocteau, Orphée, Théâtre des Arts, Paris, 15 June 1926

Text: First night of Cocteau’s Orphée, under Pitoeff’s direction, at the Théâtre des Arts. Tickets costs a hundred francs each (the same as for the Russian Ballet) and the audience was the usual smart and international et, including many Americans, British, and even Japanese. The play, which the Serts have long praised as a masterpiece, disappointed me. I thought it fumbling, neither true tragedy nor true comedy. Its focal point is an impossible, unintentionally funny figure of an angel (calculated appeal to the fashionably Catholic trend of taste). The part is played by a revoltingly mawkish, effeminate young man who appears to have escaped from some dreadful hairdresser’s. This sugary youth completely spoiled my taste for a production which was not improved by the fact of Mme Piteoff being once again far gone in pregnancy, a detail lending the part of Eurydice a touch of the grotesque. I was so ruffled that I quickly took myself off after the performance, greeting neither Cocteau nor the Serts.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Jean Cocteau‘s Orphée had its debut at the Théâtre des Arts (now the Théâtre Hébertot) in Paris on 15 June 1926. It was directed by Georges Pitoëff (who also played Orphée). His wife Ludmilla played Eurydice. The ‘angel’ Heurtebise was played by Marcel Herrand. The Serts were the artist Josep Maria Sert and his pianist wife Misia. Most sources say that the play had its premiere on 17 June.

The Diary of Philipp von Neumann

Talma in Manlius Capitolinus at Comédie-Française, 1806, via Gallica

Talma in Manlius Capitolinus at Comédie-Française, 1806, via Gallica

Source: E. Beresford Chancellor (ed.), The Diary of Philipp von Neumann, vol. 1 (London: Philip Allan, 1928), p. 81

Production: Antoine de la Fosse, Manlius Capitolinus, Comédie-Française, Paris, 1 November 1821

Text: Went to see Talma in Manlius, one of his best parts, but of a kind I do not care for. One cannot but praise him in it, however. He shouts less than in other pieces. What suit him better than parts in which noble, generous and chivalrous sentiments must be exhibited are those of conspirators and the doers of dark deeds. Altogether Talma possesses one great undisputed merit, and that is the clear forcible way in which he speaks his lines; his declamation is pure, sharp and well punctuated, and consequently original. He is always master of the scene and, in short, his voice makes three-fourths of his success.

Comments: Baron Philipp von Neumann (1781-1851) was an Austrian diplomat, posted at the Austrian embassy in London during the 1810s and 1820s. His diaries provide a detailed account of the political and high society life of the time, and document his many visits to the theatre and opera. François-Joseph Talma (1762-1826) was the leading French actor of the period. One of his most celebrated roles was than of Manlius in Manlius Capitolinus, the 1698 Roman tragedy by Antoine de La Fosse.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons

Postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Our Paris Correspondent, ‘Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet’, The Era, 27 May 1899, p. 13

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, Paris, May 1899

Text: After triumphing brilliantly a couple of years ago as Alfred De Musset‘s youthful, effeminate Lorenzaccio – a Florentine Hamlet – Madame Bernhardt aspired to impersonate Shakespeare’s towering hero, and through this venturesome ordeal, on which the courageous artiste set her heart, she has passed with truly remarkable success. Not that the performance leaves no room for criticism – quite the reverse – but it is attractive, curiously fascinating in its singularity and will doubtless create much interest at your side. Here the new Hamlet has been received with enthusiasm, the actress’s thick and thin admirers going into the wildest ecstasies the first night, while succeeding audiences have cordially confirmed this favourable verdict. The new prose version of the play is to all intents and purposes a literal translation, written in sound style, and rather too accurate, perhaps, the close adhesion to the English text causing at times a certain amount of obscurity. But MM. Morand and Schwob’s reading, if somewhat heavy, must be pronounced far and away more satisfactory than that of Dumas and Maurice, which is in verse, or than that of MM. Cressonois and Samson, also in verse, which we saw at the Porte-St.-Martin some thirteen years since, when, by-the-way, Madame Sarah Bernhardt played Ophelia to the Hamlet of M. Philippe Garnier, a part that did not suit her talent. Excessive length is a drawback to the new play. No fewer than fifteen scenes were presented on Saturday, witha pretty long wait between each, shifting being still in its infancy on our stage, so that half-past one had struck before the curtain fell. Pruning and splicing have since been adopted, three scenes have been cut out, but still, starting at eight, the close is not reached until a quarter past twelve. And during all that time the spectators have eyes and ears (or nobody but Madame Bernhardt, though Ophelia’s mad scene, with Mdlle. Mellot’s pretty singing, seems to please them. So poor is the rest of the cast that the celebrated actress forms the sole attraction, and it must be said she proves equal to the occasion.

As a general rule, Madame Bernhardt throws herself into a rôle for ten minutes in each act; during the remainder of the time she merely dallies with it. In the present instance her energy never flags, and apart from occasional want of action, a manifest reluctance to express passion otherwise than by voice, remaining stock still when she should move about – as in the comparison of the portraits, which are painted (very badly) on the wall, not in lockets – the actress exerts herself with an intensity so untiring that it is marvellous how she can bear the strain of such arduous efforts. Her interpretation shows, as I have said, attractive singularity. Far from being “fat and short of breath,” the new Hamlet is a vivacious, excitable, almost fidgetty stripling, whose febrile agitation bears no resemblance to our ideal of the musing, melancholy Dane. I heard people say that this rendering of the part made it more comprehensible than any they had hitherto seen, and fully coincide in their view. The hesitation, the weakness, and the inability of such a slender youth to cope with the difficulties of the terrible task he has set himself are too obvious to need any explanation or reflection. They “jump to the eyes,” as the French say, simplifying exceedingly the signification of the complex rôle. But is this nervous, impetuous Hamlet Shakespeare’s? I think not. At Madame Bernhardt’s hands he loses his earnestness, the dreamy, tristful features of his character as good as disappear. Nay, he becomes so waggish, that even in the dialogue preceding the play some his gamierie prompts him to pluck the cap off the head of the candle lighter! Despite, however, blemishes of the sort that render Madame Bernhardt’s delineation untruthful, it is undoubtedly attractive. In the scenes with the Ghost she is admirably effective, and though the soliloquies – more especially the most famous of them – are delivered in the monotonous, clanking tones which the actress has adopted, her elocution is telling throughout, her attitudes and gestures are graceful. The performance is more emotional than impressive; feminine in its feverish restlessness and excessive juvenility.

Some of the “business” deserves notice. In the Play scene the King and Queen take their places on a sort of high dais, to which steps lead up on either side, the front resembling that of a pulpit, forming an inverted V with the point cut off. On the floor below Hamlet reclines on cushions by Ophelia’s side, and raising himself to watch Claudius, screens his face with the girl’s long flaxen tresses instead of with the traditional fan. In the end his excitement leads him to climb the barrier, and, when the conscience stricken monarch rises, Hamlet, seizing a torch from the footlights, thrusts it into the face of his father’s murderer, who rushes off screaming with terror. This arrangement of the scene struck me as fantastic, for, by having to peer over the balustrade, Hamlet is obliged to betray his purpose before it is attained, but Claudius does not seem to notice him, being intent on the play beyond. In the Churchyard scene, neither Laertes nor Hamlet leap into the grave, and at its close the latter falls on the heap of newly dug earth. Laertes and the Prince are each armed with a rapier and dagger in the concluding scene, but do not employ the latter weapon. Hamlet, when pinked in the hand, takes off his glove, and, perceiving Laertes start and shudder on seeing the blood flowing from the wound, divines the treachery. Setting upon his adversary in a furious bout, he disarms him, and as Laertes hastens to pick up his sword, prevents him by placing himself before it, offering him his own rapier with a glance and gesture too significant to be denied, taking the poison weapon himself. This modification to the customary exchange “while scuffling” seems to me an improvement.

Little else need, I think, he said of the performance. Madame Bernhardt’s company do not shine in it, and with the exception of Mdlle. Mellot, whose pleasing singing has been already noticed, but otherwise an insignificant Ophelia, there is not a name to mention, all being below mediocrity, provincial and stagy to a degree. The scenery is very handsome, the scenic arrangements faultless, and the costumes are in perfect taste, except that of the King, which is hideous; he looks like an old woman. Madame Bernhardt has fair hair falling low on the neck, and wears a short black satin tunic bordered with sable, long black hose, and a long, narrow silken black cloak which trails slightly. A soupçon of white ruffles on the breast is the only relief to this sombre garb, which makes the gifted actress look more slender than ever. Some impressive incidental music has been contributed by M. Gabriel Pierné, and Ophelia’s song is pretty.

Madame Bernhardt, I should not omit to mention, is not the first French actress who has played the part of the Danish Prince, Madame Judith having obtained considerable success in the rôle some thirty years since, and in her case Shakespeare’s hero was by no means a “Miss Hamlet.”

Comments: Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) first played Hamlet on 20 May 1899 at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris, in a prose translation by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob which ran for around four hours. The production moved to the Adelphi Theatre in London on 12 June, with a single performance at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford on 29 June. The duel scene from the play was filmed, with accompanying sound effects, for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, which was an attraction at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Mme Judith played Hamlet in 1867. The Era was a British theatrical trade journal, hence the reference to “at your side”.

Links: Copy at the British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Put Money in Thy Purse

Source: Micheál Mac Liammóir, Put Money in Thy Purse: The Diary of the Film of Othello (London: Methuen, 1952), p. 212

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Théâtre Marigny, 11 December 1949

Text: December 11th. Spent morning cutting Earnest, and after lunch Hilton and I experienced keenest disappointment of the year by seeing Jean-Louis Barrault’s Hamlet at the Marigny. ‘Twenty-ish production, all ingenuity and grey tabs and set-pieces pulled and pushed hither and thither to indicate changes of location, and J-L.B. in the same mood, a slick, vivacious Puck of a Prince. H. cheered me up after the shock of the first court scene by muttering in my ear ‘Harlequin, Prince of Denmark’; but general impression one of disillusion too deep for jokes: so fine an artist brilliantly engaged on so palpable a misconception. He treated the ghost as a leprechaun, and the friendship with Horatio as a mild Alma Mater flirtation, and Ophelia as if she were pestering him for an autograph. Saw dear Tanya Moiseiwitsch for a few minutes in an interval, came away early and dined with Orson, wild-eyed and in hell’s-a-poppin’ form.

Comments: Micheál Mac Liammóir (1899-1978) was an English actor, born Alfred Willmore, who in adult life adopted an Irish name. His lifelong partner was the actor Hilton Edwards. Both acted in Orson Welles’ feature film Othello (1951), whose peripatetic production in Morocco and Italy is documented in Mac Liammóir’s published diary, Put Money in Thy Purse (he played Iago). He and Hilton were in Paris during a gap in film production, preparing for a stage production of The Importance of Being Earnest, when they saw this production of Hamlet at the Théâtre Marigny. Jean-Louis Barrault was a French stage and film actor, director and mime artist, renowned for his appearance in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis and for his performances at the Comédie-Française.

Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Source: William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself; comprising a complete journal of his negotiations to procure the aid of the French for the liberation of Ireland, with selections from his diary whilst agent to the Irish Catholics (London: H. Colburn, 1827), vol. 1, pp. 290-291

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Paris, 21 March 1796

Text: [21 March 1796] Went to see Othello; not translated, but only taken from the English. Poor Shakspeare! I felt for him. The French tragedy is a pitiful performance, filled with false sentiment; the Moor whines most abominably, and Iago is a person of a very pretty morality: the author apologizes for softening the villany of the latter character, as well as for saving the life of Desdemona and substituting a happy termination in place of the sublime and terrible conclusion of the English tragedy, by saying that the humanity of the French nation, and their morality, would be shocked by such exhibitions! “Marry come up, indeed! People’s ears are sometimes the nicest part about them.” I admire a nation that will guillotine sixty people a day for months, (men, women, and children,) and cannot bear the catastrophe of a dramatic exhibition! Yet certainly the author knows best, and I have had occasion repeatedly to observe, that the French are more struck with any little incident of tenderness on the stage, a thousand times, than the English, — which is strange. In short, the French are a humane people when they are not mad, and I like them with all their faults, and the guillotine at the head of them, better, a thousand times, than the English. And I like the Irish better than either; and as no one can doubt my impartiality, I expect my opinion will be received with proper respect and deference by all whom it may concern. I have nothing to add.

Comments: Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was an Irish republican who led the Irish rebellion of 1798. He went to Paris in February 1796 to persuade the revolutionary government to assist in an invasion of Ireland. The production of Othello that he saw was probably an 1792 adaptation by Jean-François Ducis, which radically altered the plot (hence Desdemona survives and Iago is pardoned by Othello). Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. The plays were nevertheless a significant step in the belated appreciation of Shakespeare in France.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott

Source: Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1825-1832 (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1910 [orig. pub. 1890]), p. 287

Production: Émile de Bonnechose, Rosemunde, Comédie Française, Paris, 30 October 1826

Text: October 30, 1826
We went to theatre in the evening – Comédie Française the place, Rosemunde the piece. It is the composition of a young man with a promising name – Émile de Bonnechose; the story that of Fair Rosamond. There were some good situations, and the actors in the French taste seemed to me admirable, particularly Mademoiselle Bourgoin. It would be absurd to attempt to criticise what I only half understood; but the piece was well received, and produced a very strong effect. Two or three ladies were carried out in hysterics; one next to our box was frightfully ill. A Monsieur à belles moustaches – the husband, I trust, though it is likely they were en partie fine – was extremely and affectionately assiduous. She was well worthy of the trouble, being very pretty indeed; the face beautiful, even amidst the involuntary convulsions. The afterpiece was Femme Juge et Partie, with which I was less amused than I had expected, because I found I understood the language less than I did ten or eleven years since. Well, well, I am past the age of mending.

Comments: Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish novelist and poet, whose historical novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and The Heart of Midlothian were immensely popular and influential. Émile de Bonnechose (1801–1875) was a French poet and historian. The actress was Marie-Thérèse Bourgoin (1781-1833). The comedy Femme Juge et Partie (1821) was written by Onésime Leroy.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

‘Hamlet’ at the Front

Source: ‘A Correspondent’, ‘”Hamlet” at the Front: Impromptu Acting by a Khaki Company’, The Times [London], 24 August 1915, p. 9

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, somewhere in France, July/August 19115

Text: It is difficult to realise that before leaving France I saw Hamlet performed by soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force within a few hours’ distance of the firing line. An officer of high standing who saw the play hit off the situation: “Our men do not live by bully beef alone; they need some food for the mind, and there is nothing better for them than the great thoughts of our great writers.” The play was performed in costume, with scenery painted in camp, and with not a word misplaced or forgotten in the rendering.

Four scenes were chosen – the Ghost scene; the room in the castle where Hamlet decides on revenge; the great soliloquy and the graveyard. The cast was chosen on the spot, neighbouring towns and libraries were scoured for copies of the play, as there was no time to send to England. Luck turned our way, copies were secured, and in a town close by was a branch of a Paris theatrical costumier. Horatio looked more like Henry VIII on the Field of Gold than the friend of Hamlet; while Hamlet’s costume reminded one more of Madame Tussaud’s than of Sir J. Forbes-Robertson; but on active service one cannot be particular.

Scenery at Short Notice

The Colonel commanding the base was informed of what was in progress on the Saturday evening; he suggested scenery. Imagine the burst of joy when we discovered a sergeant-major who had been stage carpenter. We went altogether to the Y.M.C.A., where the play was to be performed; there we found two A.S.C. men working at the stage, and preparing footlights. The thrilling moment in the preparations came when two privates of the London Scottish offered to paint the scenery if we could find paint and brushes.The difficulty of bringing together all the equipment left us until Monday morning before we began, and I still wonder if there is anything in military or civil life to approach the calm confidence of these men who were to play Hamlet that night, and at 10 a.m. of the same day were faced with a few boxes of dry paint, some brushes, and several square yards of canvas stretched on tent poles; but they did it, and just before the play began the last scene was carefully slung up, still wet.

Long before the time of starting, a great queue assembled. The colonels and officers of the battalions represented honoured the production by their presence; also the matrons and nursing staff of the hospitals, and over a thousand men gained admission. The doors and the windows of the hut were opened so that the crowd outside could hear. Yet during this growing excitement we were shutting out the thought that any one of our company of actors and stage-hands might be called on duty any minute, for most of them were standing by waiting to go to the firing line. The curtains were drawn and, instead of the usual respectful silence that greets the opening of a scene in Hamlet, there were yells of full-throated applause.

Hamlet was embarrassed by the cheers of the gods at the splendid fresh colours in the scenery, for many of these men had not seen stage colours since they left home, and for the time being Hamlet’s scenery outshone Hamlet. Before the play was half through we breathed easily and knew the experiment to be justified. The life behind the scenes was distinctly of the emergency type. A careless gunner smudged out of existence a whole tower of Elsinore with his shirtsleeve. Men accustomed for many months to obey suddenly found themselves in command. One was told to stitch up a hole in silk hose with a darning needle; another wanted a belt; “Give him a puttee.” “My face is too white for the footlights”; “Here, stick on some red distemper”; and I believe the red distemper is still “stuck on.”

An Enthusiastic Audience

The company got itself together in an hour; it learnt its parts from two books in the spare time allowed in three days; it painted and erected its scenery in less then 12 hours and acted, in a way that baffled the keenest critics, to an audience whose vociferous approval would make any actor – Shakespearian or variety – green with envy. Hamlet will long be remembered; a 6ft. 2in. Horatio and limping with a convalescent ankle could not, through physical disparity, keep himself within his shadow; the Ghost wore a fine suit of old French armour shrouded in white muslin. The proceedings were brought to a close by Henry V, clothed in all his shining accoutrements before Harfleur. Flashing his great sword he cried out the famous speech before the battle –

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more
Or close up the wall with your English dead.

and so on, right through breathlessly to

The game’s afoot, follow your spirit
And upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!

The effect was electrical. Had the bugle sounded the charge every man would have rushed out of that building, as he was. All the latent warrior spirit of our race seemed to leap to a flame. As we went out into the still night our hearts were stronger, our minds brighter, our courage high, and in the quiet stars above brooded the certain promise of victorious and lasting peace.

Comments: The unsigned article naturally does not identify the location. J. Forbes Robertson was the most notable Shakespearean actor of the period.

Links: Copy at The Times (subscription site)

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

Rachel in Andromaque, from http://www.larousse.fr

Rachel in Andromaque, from http://www.larousse.fr

Source: Henry Crabb Robinson, diary entry for 13 June 1850, in Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan, 1869), vol. III, pp. 364-365

Production: Jean Racine, Andromaque, Comédie-Française, Paris, 13 June 1850

Text: I went to the Théâtre-Français and saw “Andromaque.” I have no doubt Madame Rachel deserved all the applause she received in Hermione. Her recitation may be perfect, but a Frenchman only can be excited to enthusiasm by such merits. She wants the magical tones, and the marvellous eye, and the majestic figure of Mrs. Siddons. The forte of Rachel, I dare say, is her expression of scorn and indignation. It was in giving vent to these feelings that she drew down thunders of applause.

Comments: Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) was an English lawyer and diarist, whose published journals document his acquaintance with literary figures of the period and refer regularly to theatre productions that he saw. He saw Jean Racine‘s Andromaque at the Comédie-Française, Paris, on 13 June 1850. Rachel (Elisa Félix) (1820-1858) was one of the great stars of the Comédie-Française, known especially for her performances in classical roles. She played an important in reviving interest in French tragedy, such as Racine’s Andromaque.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive