France

The Variétés

The Théâtre des Variétés, 1900, via Wikipedia

Source: Arnold Bennett, ‘The Variétés’ in Paris Nights, and Other Impressions of Places and People (New York: George H. Doran, 1913), pp. 13-20

Text: The filth and the paltry shabbiness of the entrance to the theatre amounted to cynicism. Instead of uplifting by a foretaste of light and magnificence, as the entrance to a theatre should, it depressed by its neglected squalour. Twenty years earlier it might have cried urgently for cleansing and redecoration, but now it was long past crying. It had become vile. In the centre at the back sat a row of three or four officials in evening dress, prosperous clubmen with glittering rakish hats, at a distance of twenty feet, but changing as we approached them to indigent, fustian-clad ticket-clerks penned in a rickety rostrum and condemned like sandwich-men to be ridiculous in order to live. (Their appearance recalled to my mind the fact that a “front-of-the-house” inspector at the principal music-hall in France and in Europe is paid thirty sous a night.) They regarded our tickets with gestures of scorn, weariness, and cupidity. None knew better than they that these coloured scraps represented a large lovely gold coin, rare and yet plentiful, reassuring and yet transient, the price of coals, boots, nectar, and love. We came to a very narrow, low, foul, semi-circular tunnel which was occupied by hags and harpies with pink bows in their hair, and by marauding men, and by hats and cloaks and overcoats, and by a double odour of dirt and disinfectants. Along the convex side of the tunnel were a number of little doors like the doors of cells. We bought a programme from a man, yielded our wraps to two harpies, and were led away by another man. All these beings looked hungrily apprehensive, like dogs nosing along a gutter. The auditorium which was nearly full, had the same characteristics as the porch and the couloir. It was filthy, fetid, uncomfortable, and dangerous. It had the carpets of a lodging-house of the ‘seventies, the seats of an old omnibus, the gilt and the decorated sculpture of a circus at a fair. And it was dingy! It was encrusted with dinginess!

Something seemed to be afoot on the stage: from the embittered resignation of the audience and the perfunctory nonchalance of the players, we knew that this could only be the curtain-raiser. The hour was ten minutes past nine. The principal piece was advertised to commence at nine o’clock. But the curtain-raiser was not yet finished, and after it was finished there would be the entr’acte — one of the renowned, interminable entr’actes of the Theatre des Variétés.

The Variétés is still one of the most “truly Parisian” of theatres, and has been so since long before Zola described it fully in Nana. The young bloods of Buenos Ayres and St. Petersburg still have visions of an evening at the Variétés as the superlative of intense living. Every theatre with a reputation has its “note,” and the note of the Variétés is to make a fool of its public. Its attitude to the public is that of an English provincial hotel or an English bank: “Come, and be d — d to you! Above all, do not imagine that I exist for your convenience. You exist for mine.” At the Variétés bad management is good management; slackness is a virtuous coquetterie. It would never do, thereto be prompt, clean, or honest. To make the theatre passably habitable would be ruin. Its chic would be lost if it ceased to be a Hades of discomfort and a menace to health. There is a small troupe of notorious artistes, some of whom show great talent when it occurs to them to show it; the vogue of the rest is one of the innumerable mysteries which abound in theatrical life. It is axiomatic that they are all witty, and that whatever lines they enunciate thereby become witty. They are simply side-splitting as Sydney Smith was simply side-splitting when he asked for the potatoes to be passed. Also the manager of the theatre always wears an old straw hat, summer and winter. He is the wearer of an eternal battered straw hat, who incidentally manages a theatre. You go along the boulevard, and you happen to see that straw hat emerging from the theatre. And by the strange potency of the hat you will be obliged to say to the next acquaintance you meet: “I’ve just seen Samuel in his straw hat.” And the thought in your mind and in the mind of your acquaintance will be that you are getting very near the heart of Paris.

Beyond question the troupe of favourites considers itself to be the real centre of Paris, and, therefore, of civilisation. Practically the entire Press, either by good nature, stupidity, snobbishness, or simple cash transactions, takes part in the vast make-believe that the troupe is conferring a favour on civilisation by consenting to be alive. And the troupe of course behaves accordingly. It puts its back into the evening when it thinks it will, and when it thinks it won’t, it doesn’t. “Aux Variétés on travaille quand on a le temps.” The rise of the curtain awaits the caprice of a convivial green-room. “Don’t hurry — the public is getting impatient.” Naturally, the underlings are not included in the benefits of the make-believe. “At rehearsals we may wait two hours for the principals,” a chorus- girl said to me. “But if we are five minutes late, one flings us a fine. A hundred francs a month I touch, and it has happened to me to pay thirty in fines. Someone gets all that, you know!” She went off into an impassioned description of scenes at rehearsals of a ballet, how the ballet-master, after epical outbursts, would always throw up his arms in inexpressible disgust and retire to his room, and how the women would follow him and kiss and cajole and hug him, and how then, after a majestic pause, his step could be heard slowly descending the stairs, and at last the rehearsal would resume. . . . The human interest, no doubt!

The Variétés has another rôle and justification. It is what the French call a women’s theatre. When I asked a well-known actress why the entr’actes at the Variétés were so long, she replied with her air of finding even the most bizarre phenomena quite natural: “There are several reasons. One is, so that the gentlemen may have time to write notes and to receive answers.” I did not conceal my sense of the oddness of this method of conducting a theatre, whereupon she reminded me that it was the Variétés we were talking about. She said that little by little I should understand all sorts of things.

As the principal piece progressed — it was an opérette — the apathy of the public grew more and more noticeable. They seemed to have forgotten that they were in one of the most truly Parisian of theatres, watching players whose names were household words and synonyms of wit and allurement. There was no applause, save from a claque which had carried discipline to the extreme. The favourites were evidently in one of their moods of casual ness. Either the piece had run too long or it was not going to run long enough. It was a piece brightly and jinglingly vulgar, ministering, of course, in the main, to the secret concupiscence which drives humanity forward; titillating, like most stage-spectacles, all that is base, inept, and gross in a crowd whose units are perhaps, not quite odious. A few of the performers had moments of real brilliance. But even these flashes did not stir the public, whose characteristic was stolidity. A public which, having regard to the conditions of the particular theatre, necessarily consisted of simple snobbish gulls whose creed is whatever they read or hear, with an admixture of foreigners, provincials, adventurers, and persons who, having no illusions, go to the Variétés because they have been to everything else and must go somewhere! The first half-dozen rows of the stalls were reserved for males: a custom which at the Variétés has survived from a more barbaric age, as the custom of the finger-bowl has survived in the repasts of the polite. The self-satisfied and self-conscious occupants of these rows seemed to summarise and illustrate all the various masculine stupidity of a great and proud city. To counterbalance this preponderance of the male, I could glimpse, behind the lath grilles of the cages called baignoires, the forms of women (each guarded) who I hope were incomparable. The sight of these grilles at once sent the mind to the seraglio, and the House of Commons, and other fastnesses of Orientalism.

The evening was interminable, not for me alone, but obviously for the majority of the audience. Impossible to describe the dull fortitude of the audience without being accused of wilful exaggeration! Only in the entr’actes, in the amplitude and dubious mystery of the entr’actes, did the audience arouse itself into the semblance of vivacity. There was but little complaining. Were we not at the Variétés? At the Variétés, to suffer was part of the entertainment. The French public is a public which accepts all in Christian meekness — all! It knows that it exists for the convenience of the bureaucracy and the theatres. It covers its cowardice under a mantle of philosophy and politeness. Its fierce protest is a shrug. “Que voulez-vous? C’est comme ça.

At last, at nearly half after midnight, we came forth, bitterly depressed, as usual, by the deep consciousness of futile waste. I could see, in my pre occupation, the whole organism of the Variétés, which is only the essence of the French theatre. A few artistes and a financier or so at the core, wilful, corrupt, self-indulgent, spoiled, venal, enormously unbusinesslike, incredibly cynical, luxurious in the midst of a crowd of miserable parasites and menials; creating for themselves, out of electric globes, and newspapers, and posters, and photographs, and the inexhaustible simplicity and sexuality of the public, a legend of artistic greatness. They make a frame, and hang a curtain in front of it, and put footlights beneath; and lo! the capricious manoeuvres of these mortals become the sacred, authoritative functioning of an institution! It was raining. The boulevard was a mirror. And along the reflecting surface of this mirror cab after cab, hundreds of cabs, rolled swiftly. Dozens and dozens were empty, and had no goal; but none would stop. They all went ruthlessly by with offensive gestures of disdain. Strangers cannot believe that when a Paris cabman without a fare re fuses to stop on a wet night, it is not because he is hoping for a client in richer furs, or because he is going to the stables, or because he has earned enough that night, or because he has an urgent appointment with his enchantress — but simply from malice. Nevertheless this is a psychological fact which any experienced Parisian will confirm. On a wet night the cabman revenges himself upon the bourgeoisie, though the base satisfaction may cost him money. As we waited, with many other princes of the earth who could afford to throw away a whole louis for a few hours’ relaxation, as we waited vainly in the wet for a cabman who would condescend, I could savour only one sensation — that of exasperating tedium completely achieved.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist and playwright. He lived in Paris from 1902 to 1912. The Théâtre des Variétés is a theatre in Montmartre, Paris, and features in the opening chapters of Emile Zola’s novel Nana.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At Home and Abroad

Rachel as Racine’s Phèdre, via Wikipedia

Source: Margaret Fuller Ossoli (ed. Arthur B. Fuller), At Home and Abroad; or, Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (New York: The Tribune Association, 1869 [orig. pub. 1956]), pp. 188-190

Productions: J.W. Marston, The Patrician’s Daughter, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 1848, and Jean Racine, Phèdre, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1848

Text: To turn to something a little gayer, – the embroidery on this tattered coat of civilized life, – I went into only two theatres; one the Old Drury, once the scene of great glories, now of execrable music and more execrable acting. If anything can be invented more excruciating than an English opera, such as was the fashion at the time I was in London, I am sure no sin of mine deserves the punishment of bearing it.

At the Sadler’s Wells theatre I saw a play which I had much admired in reading it, but found still better in actual representation; indeed, it seems to me there can be no better acting play: this is “The Patrician’s Daughter,” by J.W. Marston. The movement is rapid, yet clear and free; the dialogue natural, dignified, and flowing; the characters marked with few, but distinct strokes. Where the tone of discourse rises with manly sentiment or passion, the audience applauded with bursts of generous feeling that gave me great pleasure, for this play is one that, in its scope and meaning, marks the new era in England; it is full of an experience which is inevitable to a man of talent there, and is harbinger of the day when the noblest commoner shall be the only noble possible in England.

But how different all this acting to what I find in France! Here the theatre is living; you see something really good, and good throughout. Not one touch of that stage strut and vulgar bombast of tone, which the English actor fancies indispensable to scenic illusion, is tolerated here. For the first time in my life I saw something represented in a style uniformly good, and should have found sufficient proof, if I had needed any, that all men will prefer what is good to what is bad, if only a fair opportunity for choice be allowed. When I came here, my first thought was to go and see Mademoiselle Rachel. I was sure that in her I should find a true genius, absolutely the diamond, and so it proved. I went to see her seven or eight times, always in parts that required great force of soul and purity of taste even to conceive them, and only once had reason to find fault with her. On one single occasion I saw her violate the harmony of the character to produce effect at a particular moment; but almost invariably I found her a true artist, worthy Greece, and worthy at many moments to have her conceptions immortalized in marble.

Her range even in high tragedy is limited. She can only express the darker passions, and grief in its most desolate aspects. Nature has not gifted her with those softer and more flowery attributes that lend to pathos its utmost tenderness. She does not melt to tears, or calm or elevate the heart by the presence of that tragic beauty that needs all the assaults of Fate to make it show its immortal sweetness. Her noblest aspect is when sometimes she expresses truth in some severe shape, and rises, simple and austere, above the mixed elements around her. On the dark side, she is very great in hatred and revenge. I admired her more in Phèdre than in any other part in which I saw her. The guilty love inspired by the hatred of a goddess was expressed in all its symptoms with a force and terrible naturalness that almost suffocated the beholder. After she had taken the poison, the exhaustion and paralysis of the system, the sad, cold, calm submission to Fate, were still more grand.

I had heard so much about the power of her eye in one fixed look, and the expression she could concentrate in a single word, that the utmost results could only satisfy my expectations. It is, indeed, something magnificent to see the dark cloud live out such sparks, each one fit to deal a separate death; but it was not that I admired most in her: it was the grandeur, truth, and depth of her conception of each part, and the sustained purity with which she represented it.

For the rest, I shall write somewhere a detailed critique upon the parts in which I saw her. It is she who has made me acquainted with the true way of viewing French tragedy. I had no idea of its powers and symmetry till now, and have received from the revelation high pleasure and a crowd of thoughts.

The French language from her lips is a divine dialect; it is stripped of its national and personal peculiarities, and becomes what any language must, moulded by such a genius, – the pure music of the heart and soul. I never could remember her tone in speaking any word; it was too perfect; you had received the thought quite direct. Yet, had I never heard her speak a word, my mind would be filled by her attitudes. Nothing more graceful can be conceived, nor could the genius of sculpture surpass her management of the antique drapery.

She has no beauty except in the intellectual severity of her outline, and bears marks of age which will grow stronger every year, and make her ugly before long. Still it will be a grandiose, gypsy, or rather Sibylline ugliness, well adapted to the expression of some tragic parts. Only it seems as if she could not live long; she expends force enough upon a part to furnish out a dozen common lives.

Though the French tragedy is well acted throughout, yet unhappily there is no male actor now with a spark of fire, and these men seem the meanest pigmies by the side of Rachel; — so on the scene, beside the tragedy intended by the author, you see also that common tragedy, a woman of genius who throws away her precious heart, lives and dies for one unworthy of her. In parts this effect is productive of too much pain. I saw Rachel one night with her brother and sister. The sister imitated her so closely that you could not help seeing she had a manner, and an imitable manner. Her brother was in the play her lover, —a wretched automaton, and presenting the most unhappy family likeness to herself. Since then I have hardly cared to go and see her. We could wish with geniuses, as with the Phoenix, to see only one of the family at a time.

Comments: Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850), commonly known as Margaret Fuller, was an American feminist and journalist, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She travelled to Europe in 1846 for the New York Tribune, meeting in Italy her partner, the revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. John Westland Marston was a British poet and dramatist. Rachel (Elisa Félix) (1820-1858) was one of the great stars of the Comédie-Française, known especially for her performances in classical roles, including Racine‘s Phèdre. her sister Lia Félix was an actress and presumably the sister referred to here. Her brother was Raphael Félix.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

Journal of a Tour Through the Netherlands to Paris

Source: Margurite, Countess of Blessington, Journal of a Tour Through the Netherlands to Paris, in 1821; by the author of “Sketches and fragments” etc. etc. etc. (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822), pp. 162-164

Text: Sunday, Oct. 22nd, Calais. — On arriving at this place yesterday we found that, owing to a heavy gale of wind, no vessel would leave the harbour; but that, if the weather improved, a steam-boat would sail this morning. The weather, however, wore so unpropitious an appearance, that we agreed to wait another day; so the Dasher steam-boat sailed this morning without us. We spent the day in sauntering about the dirty streets of Calais, and in the evening went to the theatre, whence I am but just returned. The theatre is larger than the generality of country ones, and was well filled. The audience entered with great animation into the performances, and applauded or hissed with equal vehemence, as the dramatis personae excited their admiration or disgust. The performance consisted of three pieces; the second was founded on the landing and defeat of the Pretender in Scotland, and Lady Athol and Flora M’Donald are the heroines. The Pretender was represented at one moment as a hero, and at the next as the most dastardly coward, kneeling in agonies at the feet of Lady Athol, entreating her to conceal and protect him. The alternate heroism and fits of weeping of this hero, seemed to please the audience (who were nearly all French) extremely; and that speech, when in relating his defeat, he says, that if he had had but twenty Frenchmen he would have conquered all his foes, called forth loud plaudits. Some of the performers were unfortunately very imperfect in their parts, and in vain did the prompter roar out their speeches with almost stentorian lungs: they came to a perfect stand-still, and left us to behold six or seven people on the stage, all looking at each other with dismay and conscious shame, without the power of saying a word; the audience hissing and groaning until the curtain fell. It is but justice to say, that in the two other performances, which were humorous, they acquitted themselves extremely well.

Comments: Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington (17891-1849) was an Irish novelist and literary hostess. She wrote several accounts of her travels and an account of her acquaintance with Lord Byron.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15

Talma (Hamlet) and Joséphine Duchesnois (Gertrude) in 1807, via Gallica

Source: Archibald Alison, Travels in France, During the Years 1814-15. Comprising a residence at Paris during the stay of the allied armies, and at Aix, at the period of the landing of Bonaparte (Edinburgh: printed for Macredie, Skelly, and Muckersy; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London; Black, Parry & Co. and T. Underwood, London; and J. Cumming, Dublin. 1816), vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 204-215

Production: William Shakespeare (adapted by Jean-François Ducis), Hamlet, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 1814

Text: The tragedy of Hamlet, in which we saw Talma perform for the first time, is one which must be interesting to every person who has any acquaintance with French literature; and it will not probably be considered as any great digression in a description of Talma’s excellencies as an actor, to add some further remarks concerning that celebrated play in which his powers are perhaps most strikingly displayed, and which is one of the greatest compositions undoubtedly of the French theatre. It can hardly be called a translation, as many material alterations were made in the story of the play; and though the general purport of the principal speeches has
been sometimes preserved, the language and sentiments are generally extremely different. The character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was wholly unsuited to the taste of a French audience. What is the great attraction in that mysterious being to the feelings of the English people, the strange, wild, and metaphysical ideas which his art or his madness seems to take such pleasure in starting, and the uncertainty in which Shakespeare has left the reader with regard to Hamlet’s real situation, would not perhaps have been understood — certainly not admired, by those who were accustomed to consider the works of Racine and Voltaire as the models of dramatic composition. In the play of Ducis, accordingly, Hamlet thinks, talks, and acts pretty much as any other human being would do, who should be compelled to speak only in the verse of the French tragedy, which necessarily excludes, in a great degree, any great incoherence or flightiness of sentiment. In some respects, however, the French Hamlet, if a less poetical personage, is nevertheless a more interesting one, and better adapted to excite those feelings which are most within the command of the actor’s genius. M. Ducis has represented him as more doubtful of the reality of the vision which haunted him, or at least of the authority which had commissioned it for such dreadful communications; and this alteration, so important in the hands of Talma, was required on account of other changes which had been made in the story of the play. The paramour of the Queen is not Hamlet’s uncle, nor had the Queen either married the murderer, or discovered her criminal connexion with him. Hamlet, therefore, has not, in the incestuous marriage of his mother, that strong confirmation of the ghost’s communication, which, in Shakespeare, led him to suspect foul play even before he sees his father’s spirit. In the French play, therefore, Hamlet is placed in one of the most dreadful situations in which the genius of poetry can imagine a human being: Haunted by a spirit, which assumes such mastery over his mind, that he cannot dispel the fearful impression it has made, or disregard the communication it so often repeats, while his attachment to his mother, in whom he reveres the parent he has lost, makes him question the truth of crimes which are thus kid to her charge, and causes him to look upon this terrific spectre as the punishment of unknown crime, and the visitation of an offended Deity. Ducis has most judiciously and most poetically represented Hamlet, in the despair which his sufferings produce, as driven to the belief of an overruling destiny, disposing of the fate of its unhappy victims by the most arbitrary and revolting arrangement, and visiting upon some, with vindictive fury, the whole crimes of the age in which they live. There is in this introduction of ancient superstition, something which throws a mysterious veil round the destiny of Hamlet, that irresistibly engrosses the imagination, and which must be doubly interesting in that country where the horrors of the revolution have ended in producing a very prevalent, though vague belief, in the influence of fatality upon human character and human actions, among those who pretend to ridicule, as unmanly prejudice and childish delusion, the religion of modern Europe.

The struggle, accordingly, that appears to take place in Hamlet’s mind is most striking; and when at last he yields to the authority and the commands of the spirit, which exercises such tyranny over his mind, it does not seem the result of any farther evidence of the guilt which he is enjoined to revenge, but as the triumph of superstition over the strength of his reason. He had long resisted the influence of that visionary being, which announced itself as his father’s injured spirit, and in assuming that sacred form, had urged him to destroy the only parent whom fate had left; but the struggle had brought him to the brink of the grave, and shaken the empire of reason; and when at last he abandons himself to the guidance of a power which his firmer nature had long resisted, the impression of the spectator is, that his mind has yielded in the struggle, and that, in the desperate hope of obtaining relief from present wretchedness, he is about to commit the most horrible crimes, by obeying the suggestions of a spirit, which he more than suspects to be employed only to tempt him on to perdition. No description can possibly do justice to the manner in which this situation of Hamlet is represented by Talma; indeed, on reading over the play some time afterwards, it was very evident that the powers of the actor had invested the character with much of the grandeur and terror which seemed to belong to it, and that the imagination of the French poet, which rises into excellence, even when compared with the productions of that great master of the passions whom he has not submitted to copy, has been surpassed by the fancy of the actor for whom he wrote. The Hamlet of Talma is probably productive of more profound emotion, than any representation of character on any stage ever excited.

One other alteration ought to be mentioned, as it renders the circumstances of Hamlet’s situation still more distressing, and affords Talma an opportunity of displaying the effects of one of the gentler passions of human nature, when its influence seemed irreconcileable with the stern and fearful duties which fate had assigned to him. The Ophelia of the French play, so unlike that beautiful and innocent being who alone seems to connect the Hamlet of Shakespeare with the feelings and nature of ordinary men, has been made the daughter of the man for whose sake the king has been poisoned, and was engaged to marry Hamlet at that happier period when he was the ornament of his father’s court, and the hope of his father’s subjects. In the first part of the play, though no hint of the terrible revenge which he was to execute on her father has escaped, the looks and anxiety of Talma discover to her that her fate is in some degree connected with the emotions which so visibly oppress him, and she makes him at last confess the insurmountable barrier which separates them for ever. Nothing can be greater than the acting of Talma during this difficult scene, in which he has to resist the entreaties of the woman whom he loves, when imploring for the life of her father, and yet so overcome with his affection, as hardly to have strength left to adhere to his dreadful purpose.

The feelings of a French audience do not permit the spirit of Hamlet’s father to appear on the stage: “L’apparition se passe, (says Madame de Stael), en entier dans la physionomie de Talma, et certes elle n’en est pas ainsi moins effrayante. Quand, au milieu d’un entretien calme et melancohque, tout a coup il aperçoit le spectre, on suit tout ses mouvemens dans les yeux qui le contemplent, et l’on ne peut outer de la presence du fantome quand un tel regard l’atteste.” The remark is perfectly just, nothing can be imagined more calculated to dispel at once the effect which the countenance of a great actor, in such circumstances, would naturally produce, than bringing any one on the stage to personate the ghost; and whever has seen Talma in this part, will acknowledge that the mind is not disposed to doubt, for an instant, the existence of that form which no eye but his has seen, and of that voice which no ear but his has heard. We regretted much, while witnessing the astonishing powers which Talma displayed in this very difficult part of the play, that it was impossible to see his genius employed in giving effect to the character of Aristodemo, (in the Italian tragedy of that name by Monti), to which his talents alone could do justice, and which, perhaps, affords more room for the display of the actor’s powers, than any other play with which we are acquainted.

But the soliloquy on death is the part in which the astonishing excellence and genius of Talma are most strikingly displayed. Whatever difficulty there may often be to determine the particular manner in which scenes, with other characters, ought to be performed, there is no difference of opinion as to the manner in which soliloquies ought in general to be delivered. How comes it, then, that these are the very parts in which all feel that the powers of the actors are so much tried, and in which, for the most part, they principally fail? No one can have paid any attention to the English stage, without being struck with the circumstance, that while there may be much to praise in the performance of the other parts, many of the best actors uniformly fail in soliloquies; and that it is only of late, since the reputation of the English stage has been so splendidly revived, that we have seen these difficult and interesting parts properly performed. It is in this circumstance, more than any other, in which the talents of Talma are most remarkably displayed, because he is peculiarly fitted, by his complete personation of character, and the deep interest which he seems himself to take in the part he is sustaining, to excel in performing what chiefly requires such interest. He is, at all times, so fully impressed with the feelings, which, under such circumstances, must have been really felt, that one is uniformly struck with the truth and propriety of every thing he does; and of course, n soliloquies, which must be perfect, when the actor appears to be seriously and deeply interested in the subjects on which he is meditating, Talma invariably succeeds. In this soliloquy in Hamlet, he is completely absorbed in the awful importance of the great question which occupies his attention, and nothing indicates the least consciousness of the multitude which surrounds him, or even that he is giving utterance to the mighty thoughts which crowd upon his mind. “Talma ne faisoit pas un geste, quelquefois seulement il remuoit la tête pour questioner la terre et le ciel sur ce que c’est que la mort! Immobile, la dignite de la meditation absorboit tout son etre.” We could wish to avoid any attempt to describe the acting of Talma in those passages which the eloquence of M. de Stael has rendered familiar throughout Europe; yet we feel that this account of the tragedy of Hamlet would be imperfect, if we did not allude to that very interesting scene, which corresponds, in the history of the play, to the closet scene in Shakespeare. Talma appears with the urn which contains the ashes of his father, and whose injured spirit he seems to consult, to obtain more proof of the guilt which he is to revenge, or in the hope that the affections of human nature may yet survive the horrors of the tomb, and that the duty of the son will not be tried in the blood of the parent who gave him birth. But no voice is heard to alter the sentence which he is doomed to execute; and he is still compelled to prepare himself to meet with sternness his guilty mother. After charging her, with the utmost tenderness and solemnity, with the knowledge of her husband’s murder, he places the urn in her hands, and requires her to swear her innocence over the sacred ashes which it contains. At first, the consciousness that Hamlet could only suspect her crime, gives her resolution to commence the oath with firmness; and Talma, with an expression of countenance which cannot be described, awaits, in triumph and joy, the confirmation of her innocence, — and seems to call upon the spirit which had haunted him, to behold the solemn scene which proves the falsehood of its mission. But the very tenderness which he shews destroys the resolution of his mother, and she hesitates in the oath she had begun to pronounce. His feelings are at once changed, — the paleness of horror, and fury of revenge, are marked in his countenance, and his hands grasp the steel which is to punish her guilt: But the agony of his mother again overpowers him, at the moment he is about to strike; he appeals for mercy to the shade of his father, in a voice, in which, as M. de Stael has truly said, all the feelings of human nature seem at once to burst from his heart, and, in an attitude humbled by the view of his mother’s guilt and wretchedness, he awaits the confession she seems ready to make: and when she sinks, overcome by the remorse and agony which she feels, he remembers only that she is his mother; the affection which had been long repressed again returns, and he throws himself on his knees, to assure her of the mercy of Heaven. We do not wish to be thought so presumptuous as to compare the talents of the French author with the genius of Shakespeare, but we must be allowed to say, that we think this scene better managed for dramatic effect: and certainly no part of Hamlet, on the English stage, ever produced the same impression, or affected us so deeply. We are well aware, however, how very different the scene would have appeared in the hands of any other actors than Talma and Madle. Duchesnois, and that a very great part of the merit which the play seemed to possess, might be more justly attributed to the talents which they displayed. At the conclusion of this great tragedy, which has become so popular in France, and in which the genius of Talma is so powerfully exhibited, the applause was universal; and after some little time, to our surprise, instead of diminishing, became much louder; and presently a cry of Talma burst out from the whole house. In a few minutes the curtain drew up, and discovered Talma waiting to receive the applause with which they honoured him, and to express his sense of the distinction paid to him.

Comments: Archibald Alison (1792-1867) was a Scottish lawyer and historian, author of the ten-volume History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 (1833-1843). Jean-François Ducis helped introduce Shakespeare to the French through adaptations of the plays in which elements of the plot were sometimes radically altered. His adaptation of Hamlet was made in 1760. Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. François-Joseph Talma performed in a number of Ducis’s adaptations. Hamlet’s mother was played by Joséphine Duchesnois. Madame de Staël wrote about Talma’s Hamlet in De l’Allemagne (1813).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of an Invalid

Mademoiselle Duchesnois as Joan of Arc, via Wikipedia

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819, vol. 2 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), pp. 283-288

Production: Charles-Joseph Laeillard d’Avirigni, Jeanne d’Arc à Rouen, and Étienne Gosse, Les Femmes politiques, Théâtre Français, Paris, 26 May 1819

Text: 26th. In the evening to the Théâtre Français. When a favourite piece is performed, it is necessary to be at the doors some time before they are opened. But the candidates for places have the good sense to perceive the inconvenience of thronging in a disorderly manner, and the established rule is to form à la queue as it is called; that is, in a column of two a-breast, and every one is obliged to take his place in the rear, in the order in which he arrives. This is done with as much order and regularity as would be observed in a regiment of soldiers; in consequence of which the whole business is conducted without the smallest tumult, and with ease to every one. It is true that the gens d’armes in attendance have authority to enforce this rule, if there should be any person so unreasonable as to refuse compliance; but still great credit is due to the French for their ready adoption of what is rational. The play was Joanne d’Arc. Mademoiselle Duchesnois was the heroine, and a most alarmingly ugly heroine she made; but bodily defects are of little importance if the soul be of the right temper. When that is the case –

“Pritchard’s genteel, and Garrick’s six feet high.”

Her face, however plain, is capable of considerable variety of expression; and, what is of more importance than beauty, there is a great deal of mind in her countenance; for this is absolutely necessary to command our interest and sympathy. Who can sympathize with a simpleton, even if it be a pretty simpleton? Duchesnois drew down much applause, and she deserved it;-she feels justly, and has the faculty of expressing what she feels. This is the extent of her merit; but here, where there is so much unnatural declamation, her style appears to the greatest advantage.

Mademoiselle Volnais, for example, with a plump unmeaning pretty face, chants out her part, with no more apparent feeling or understanding than a parrot.

La Fond, who is a great favourite with the audience, played Talbot with something that was very like spirit and dignity; but he can never conceal the actor; he is all “strut and bellow;” and his voice, though it has great compass, is harsh and unpleasant. The political allusions of which the play is full, particularly the prophetic denunciations of Joanne against England, were eagerly seized by the audience, and rancorously applauded. It must require all the vanity of the French, to sit and hear, as the audience did with patience and complacency, the most fulsome and disgusting flattery addressed to their national feelings, in the vilest and worst taste of clap-traps. The very gallery in England has grown out of its liking for this sort of stuff.

A new after-piece followed—“Les Femmes Politiques;” a pretty trifle written in elegant language, which was charmingly delivered. Mademoiselle Mars and Mademoiselle Dupuis played delightfully; Baptiste ainé looked and spoke like the old gentleman he represented; and Monrose excited a laugh without descending to buffoonery and caricature. This sort of conversational French comedy is delightful;-it is Nature in her best dress—polite—well bred—and sparkling.

But, in comedies where there is more room for the exhibition of comic humour, the French actors are perhaps inferior to our own. We shall in vain look for parallels of what Lewis was, or what Munden and Dowton are; and even with respect to Mademoiselle Mars, excellent as she is in the first and highest walks of comedy, for which she seems designed by nature—being very beautiful, very graceful, and perfectly well-bred;—yet, in characters of archness and humour, she might put a little more heart, and a great deal more mind into her representations. We miss the force, the richness, and the warmth of Mrs. Jordan’s acting, and the exquisite point that she had the art of giving to comic dialogue; which only wanted the embellishments and good-breeding of the French Thalia, to constitute a perfect actress.

The point of perfection would perhaps be found somewhere between the styles of the two nations. To take an example from the Tartuffe —the famous scene between Tartuffe and Elmire is scarcely played up to the intention of the author, by Damas and Mademoiselle Mars, and it certainly might be coloured higher, without overstepping the modesty of nature. Dowton, in Cantwell, may go a little too far with Lady Lambert—and yet who can think so that remembers the effect produced by his management of the interview?— but Damas, in Tartuffe, does not go far enough with Elmire. The scene “comes tardy off:”—bienséance, when carried too far, is a millstone round the neck of tragedy and comedy. Congreve says well, that a scene on the stage must represent nature, but in warmer colours than it exists in reality. It is in Molière particularly, perhaps exclusively, that the French comedians seem to fall short of the author; for Molière is the most humorous of all their writers. He is the Fielding of France, and there is a richness and a raciness about him which are sometimes frittered away in the representation.

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The play w=he saw at the Théâtre Français (the Comédie-Française) was Charles-Joseph Laeillard d’Avirigni’s Jeanne d’Arc à Rouen, with Joan played by Joséphine Duchesnois. The afterpiece was Les Femmes politiques, a verse comedy by Étienne Gosse. Other performers mentioned include Mlle. Volnais, M. Lafond, Mademoiselle Mars, Mlle. Dupuis and Nicolas Anselme Baptiste (Baptiste aîné).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Eleonora Duse

Ilya Repin, ‘Portrait of Actress Eleonora Duse’ (1891), via WikiArt

Source: Alice Meynell, ‘Eleonora Duse’, in The Colour of Life: and other essays on things seen and heard (London: John Lane, 1897), pp. 45-52

Text: The Italian woman is very near to Nature; so is true drama.

Acting is not to be judged like some other of the arts, and praised for a “noble convention.” Painting, indeed, is not praised amiss with that word; painting is obviously an art that exists by its convention—the convention is the art. But far otherwise is it with the art of acting, where there is no representative material; where, that is, the man is his own material, and there is nothing between. With the actor the style is the man, in another, a more immediate, and a more obvious sense than was ever intended by that saying. Therefore we may allow the critic—and not accuse him of reaction—to speak of the division between art and Nature in the painting of a landscape, but we cannot let him say the same things of acting. Acting has a technique, but no convention.

Once for all, then, to say that acting reaches the point of Nature, and touches it quick, is to say all. In other arts imitation is more or less fatuous, illusion more or less vulgar. But acting is, at its less good, imitation; at its best, illusion; at its worst, and when it ceases to be an art, convention.

But the idea that acting is conventional has inevitably come about in England. For it is, in fact, obliged, with us, to defeat and itself by taking a very full, entire, tedious, and impotent convention; a complete body of convention; a convention of demonstrativeness—of voice and manners intended to be expressive, and, in particular, a whole weak and unimpulsive convention of gesture. The English manners of real life are so negative and still as to present no visible or audible drama; and drama is for hearing and for vision. Therefore our acting (granting that we have any acting, which is granting much) has to create its little different and complementary world, and to make the division of “art” from Nature—the division which, in this one art, is fatal.

This is one simple and sufficient reason why we have no considerable acting; though we may have more or less interesting and energetic or graceful conventions that pass for art. But any student of international character knows well enough that there are also supplementary reasons of weight. For example, it is bad to make a conventional world of the stage, but it is doubly bad to make it badly — which, it must be granted, we do. When we are anything of the kind, we are intellectual rather than intelligent; whereas outward-streaming intelligence makes the actor. We are pre-occupied, and therefore never single, never wholly possessed by the one thing at a time; and so forth.

On the other hand, Italians are expressive. They are so possessed by the one thing at a time as never to be habitual in any lifeless sense. They have no habits to overcome by something arbitrary and intentional. Accordingly, you will find in the open-air theatre of many an Italian province, away from the high roads, an art of drama that our capital cannot show, so high is it, so fine, so simple, so complete, so direct, so momentary and impassioned, so full of singleness and of multitudinous impulses of passion.

Signora Duse is not different in kind from these unrenowned. What they are, she is in a greater degree. She goes yet further, and yet closer. She has an exceptionally large and liberal intelligence. If lesser actors give themselves entirely to the part, and to the large moment of the part, she, giving herself, has more to give.

Add to this nature of hers that she stages herself and her acting with singular knowledge and ease, and has her technique so thoroughly as to be able to forget it—for this is the one only thing that is the better for habit, and ought to be habitual. There is but one passage of her mere technique in which she fails so to slight it. It is in the long exchange of stove-side talk between Nora and the other woman of “The Doll’s House.” Signora Duse may have felt some misgivings as to the effect of a dialogue having so little symmetry, such half-hearted feeling, and, in a word, so little visible or audible drama as this. Needless to say, the misgiving is not apparent; what is too apparent is simply the technique. For instance, she shifts her position with evident system and notable skill. The whole conversation becomes a dance of change and counterchange of place.

Nowhere else does the perfect technical habit lapse, and nowhere at all does the habit of acting exist with her.

I have spoken of this actress’s nationality and of her womanhood together. They are inseparable. Nature is the only authentic art of the stage, and the Italian woman is natural: none other so natural and so justified by her nature as Eleonora Duse; but all, as far as their nature goes, natural. Moreover, they are women freer than other Europeans from the minor vanities. Has any one yet fully understood how her liberty in this respect gives to the art of Signora Duse room and action? Her countrywomen have no anxious vanities, because, for one reason, they are generally “sculpturesque,” and are very little altered by mere accidents of dress or arrangement. Such as they are, they are so once for all; whereas, the turn of a curl makes all the difference with women of less grave physique. Italians are not uneasy.

Signora Duse has this immunity, but she has a far nobler deliverance from vanities, in her own peculiar distance and dignity. She lets her beautiful voice speak, unwatched and unchecked, from the very life of the moment. It runs up into the high notes of indifference, or, higher still, into those of ennui, as in the earlier scenes of Divorçons; or it grows sweet as summer with joy, or cracks and breaks outright, out of all music, and out of all control. Passion breaks it so for her.

As for her inarticulate sounds, which are the more intimate and the truer words of her meaning, they, too, are Italian and natural. English women, for instance, do not make them. They are sounds à bouche fermée, at once private and irrepressible. They are not demonstrations intended for the ears of others; they are her own. Other actresses, even English, and even American, know how to make inarticulate cries, with open mouth; Signora Duse’s noise is not a cry; it is her very thought audible — the thought of the woman she is playing, who does not at every moment give exact words to her thought, but does give it significant sound.

When la femme de Claude is trapped by the man who has come in search of the husband’s secret, and when she is obliged to sit and listen to her own evil history as he tells it her, she does not interrupt the telling with the outcries that might be imagined by a lesser actress, she accompanies it. Her lips are close, but her throat is vocal. None who heard it can forget the speech-within-speech of one of these comprehensive noises. It was when the man spoke, for her further confusion, of the slavery to which she had reduced her lovers; she followed him, aloof, with a twang of triumph.

If Parisians say, as they do, that she makes a bad Parisienne, it is because she can be too nearly a woman untamed. They have accused her of lack of elegance — in that supper scene of La Dame aux Camélias, for instance; taking for ill-breeding, in her Marguerite, that which is Italian merely and simple. Whether, again, Cyprienne, in Divorçons, can at all be considered a lady may be a question; but this is quite unquestionable—that she is rather more a lady, and not less, when Signora Duse makes her a savage. But really the result is not at all Parisian.

It seems possible that the French sense does not well distinguish, and has no fine perception of that affinity with the peasant which remains with the great ladies of the old civilisation of Italy, and has so long disappeared from those of the younger civilisations of France and England—a paradox. The peasant’s gravity, directness, and carelessness —a kind of uncouthness which is neither graceless nor, in any intolerable English sense, vulgar—are to be found in the unceremonious moments of every transalpine woman, however elect her birth and select her conditions. In Italy the lady is not a creature described by negatives, as an author who is always right has denned the lady to be in England. Even in France she is not that, and between the Frenchwoman and the Italian there are the Alps. In a word, the educated Italian mondaine is, in the sense (also untranslatable) of singular, insular, and absolutely British usage, a Native. None the less would she be surprised to find herself accused of a lack of dignity.

As to intelligence—a little intelligence is sufficiently dramatic, if it is single. A child doing one thing at a time and doing it completely, produces to the eye a better impression of mental life than one receives from—well, from a lecturer.

Comments: Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was an English poet and essayist. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was an Italian actress of worldwide renown, the performances celebrated for the depth of their sensitivity. The plays in which she appeared mentioned here are Henrik Ibsen‘s Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House), Divorçons by Victorien Sardou and Émile de Najac, and Alexandre Dumas filsLa Femme de Claude and La Dame aux Camélias.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Diary of the French Revolution

Source: Beatrix Cary Davenport (ed.), A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris, 1752-1816 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), vol. 1, pp. 223-224

Production: Jean Racine, Athalie, Comédie-Française, Paris, 19 September 1789

Text: Saturday 19. — Employed this Morning in writing. Dine at Monsr. de Corny’s, in consequence of a Note from Madame, desiring the Engagement for Tomorrow may take Effect this Day. After Dinner converse with de Corny about a Contract for supplying Flour to Paris, and offer him a fourth Concern. He desires a Note of my Ideas, which I promise. The Conversation is as usual political. From hence I go to the french Theatre and see the Chef-d’oeuvre of Racine, Athalie. It is well performed and is well calculated for Performance. There is however a Deal of ridiculous Gesticulation during the Time in which the high Priest is inspired but this can hardly be avoided, for the Mutes, who cannot in the usual Course of Things possess the Talents which are required to speak to the Eye, must either appear as insensible Statues or ludicrous Pantomimes. Hence results a Maxim for Theatrical Exhibitions which I do not remember to have met with anywhere: the Stage should never be filled on great and solemn Occasions. The Procession may be admitted and a Crowd may appear when only common Emotions are to be expressed, or when Laughter is to be excited by Something outré, because most Men have Talents enough to render themselves ridiculous, but very few are able to excite, much less to sustain, the greater Sensations of the Soul such as Terror & Admiration. Return Home immediately after the Piece and write what I promised to de Corny. This has been a rainy disagree[e]able Day.

Comments: Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) was one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, author of the Preamble to the US Constitution. He went to France in 1789 and was Minister Plenipotentiary to France 1792-1794. His diary provides a vivid account of the French Revolution and includes several accounts of visits to the Paris theatre. The ‘French Theatre’ is the Comédie-Française.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Night Side of Europe

Illustration accompanying this chapter from The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 49-55

Production: François de Curel, La danse devant le miroir, Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, Paris, 17 January 1914

Text: “First nights” in Paris are a thing of the past. Paradoxical as this may seem it is actually true. For all the people who used to make up “first nights” audiences see the new plays at their répétition générale. Often two and even three of these functions are given before a new play is offered to the public — so that by the “first night” a play is stale.

A répétition générale used to be called a dress rehearsal — and as is the custom all over Europe the critics were invited to witness the performance, but they were placed on their honor not to write about the play until after its formal “first night.” To-day, however, a répétition générale is not a rehearsal at all. It is the first public performance of a play — yet entirely different from a “first night.” It is a sort of trial trip for a special public, and has become the dressiest and most sought after function in twentieth century Paris. It is also above all things, for the stranger, a marvellous lesson in humbug. The theatrical world of Paris has learned how necessary humbug is in modern life, and the répétition générale is a very excellent object lesson in the knowledge.

All who attend this function are the guests of the management. That is to say the manager, the author, and the members of the cast, the dressmakers, stage furnishers, scene-shifters, everybody who has anything to do with the production, has a right to invite a certain number of friends. This being so, the verdict of the répétition générale audience is the severest verdict which the play will ever get, and very often plays have been half-failures at this répétition générale, and boomed successfully for several hundred nights. For the general attitude is that of “I-dare-you-to-make-me-laugh.” People do not mind applauding so as to be polite, but so many people present are interested in the play business themselves, that comparatively few of them are very anxious for the play to be a success.

Quite an instructive entertainment at a répétition générale in Paris is, after listening to the “Mais c’est charmant! Quel esprit! Que c’est délicieux!” and similar exclamations of delight, to wriggle out of the lighted stalls or balcony into the comparative darkness back in the corridors and listen to what the exclaimers whisper after they have exclaimed. It is also very interesting to hear the different opinions expressed by the same persons to their own friends and the friends of the author or the actor or the actress of whom they are talking. In fact, the more one goes with eyes and ears open to the répétition générale the more one becomes convinced of the fact that if Ananias and Sapphira had lived in our day they would have been immensely popular favorites in Paris.

The iron door which separates the stage from the front of the house is always opened and left open after each act of the modern répétition générale, for two-thirds of the audience really has some right to go behind and congratulate the author, and the manager, and the actors, and the actresses, and the other third, which used to be refused admission, made such a noise about it that it became simpler and easier to let them all through. The principal business of each entr’acte is to embrace the author.

How poor M. François de Curel suffered the evening I was there! It was the répétition générale of La Danse devant le Miroir at the Nouvel Ambigu theater. With most of the audience I went behind the scenes at the end of the second act to congratulate the author. What I saw would have resulted in several sudden deaths in an American playhouse. Forty or fifty highly excited, long-whiskered Frenchmen were shoving and pushing each other about in their frantic efforts to kiss the author. They kissed the back of his head, his ears; in fact, every available place. When they were through the women got a chance. They mobbed him on all sides and kissed him until his face was streaked with rouge and face powder, his glasses broken and his hair rumpled like that of a football player.

I waited until the mob had left to attack M. Garry, the leading player, before I congratulated M. de Curel on his success. He was trying to wipe his mouth and cheeks with his handkerchief and when I only shook hands with him, and did not venture a kiss, he pressed my hand firmly and said “You are a real friend. Tell me, do you like the play? And do you think it will be a success?

“I like it tremendously,” I hastened to assure him, although I had never seen anything quite as bad. “But of course that does not mean it will be a success. Still, from the kissing you underwent, I should say that it looks like a winner.”

“My friend,” said M. de Curel, “at the répétition générale of my last play I was kissed by three times as many people and my play only ran two weeks.” And M. de Curel, let it be known, is considered one of the greatest dramatic authors of France.

I must give a very brief outline of La danse devant le Miroir, it is so typically Parisian. American theatergoers will be interested in it because its leading feminine role is played by Mme. Simone, who tried so hard to establish herself as a star on our stage.

Voila! Face to face with ruin, Paul Bréan throws himself into the Seine, rather than confess his love to Régine, whose fortune he is afraid he may appear to covet. But he is rescued from the river, and Régine offers him her hand. He refuses, and to establish between them a kind of equality, Régine makes him believe that she needs to be saved from dishonor. Out of devotion, he consents to give her his name. Then, learning he has been told a fairy-tale, he in turn plays a part: he pretends he still believes in her lapse. The result is a misunderstanding that is prolonged right up to the wedding night. Régine would like to ascertain whether Bréan is really a hero lover, or, on the contrary, merely a low speculator decked out with the mask of a knight, and Bréan, to quell her perplexities, shoots himself while she is embracing him.

However, Robert de Flers and M.F. Duquesnel, two of the leading critics in Paris, said it was very fine and Edmond See, another critic, added his word of praise. But Paris is a long way from New York.

I was told that some years ago the répétition générale was a real dress rehearsal. There were never to be more than thirty critics and other folk whose business was the stage, and they were expected to come back to the first night. If anything went at all wrong, it was done over again and rehearsals used to be over at three or half past in the morning.

Nowadays the dressmakers, a few critics, and a few friends manage to fill the house at the rehearsal which is called the dressmakers’ and photographers’ rehearsal, but they do not appear in evening dress. The real dress rehearsal is now two or three days before the show. By the first night the play is stale.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. François, Vicomte de Curel (1854-1928) was a French playwright. His play La danse devant le miroir had its premiere at the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique, Paris on 17 January 1914. The actors mentioned are Claude Garry and Simone Le Bargy, known as Madame Simone.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philip Hone

Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide, via Wikipedia

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, p. 227

Production: Gioachino Rossini, Le siège de Corinthe and Filippo Taglioni, La Sylphide, Salle Le Peletier (Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique), Paris, 12 September 1836

Text: Well, I have seen Taliogni. She danced this evening at the French Opera, in the ballet of the Sylphide. It was a single performance, and, fortunately, fell upon our last night in Paris. The immense theatre was crowded in every part. Bradford obtained excellent places for us in the course of the day. The opera was the “Siege of Corinth,” which, did not interest me; but the ballet was certainly the poetry of motion and the sunlight of beauty. I never saw anything of the kind before which is not routed horse and foot out of my recollection by the force of this fascinating spectacle. Not only the calypso of the night, but her attendant nymphs all danced and moved and floated like beings of another world. The piece is exactly the same as that gotten up in New York as an opera when Mrs. Austin was there, under the name of the “Mountain Sylph”; but, fortunately, there was no singing or speaking here. It would have been too much, when one of our senses was completely absorbed, to have another invaded, and in danger of being captured; it might have ended in nonsense. The whole affair was so nicely managed, the machinery worked so well, the sylphs flew in the air, as if their little delicate feet had never touched the ground, and when their lovely sister died, four of them enveloped her in a net of gold and, each taking a corner, flew up with her into the air, where, I take it for granted, the Sylphic Pere la Chaise is situated. Or, perhaps, the beauteous beings of their race, when defunct, are taken up to exhale in the regions above, and return to us in the form of dew-drops to sparkle on the leaves of the newly blown rose, or hide in the velvet recesses of the fragrant violet. Taliogni is small, delicate, and, I think, pretty, and her dancing excels that of any other woman as much as Mrs. Wood’s singing does Mrs. Sharp’s. It is not only in great agility and dexterity, but it is the perfection of grace and beauty, and addresses itself to the imagination, as it is, in fact, half the time something between earth and heaven. When this pleasant affair was ended, we went to Tortoni’s and took our ices. This is the most fashionable house in Paris.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. Marie Taglioni (1804-1804) was a Italian-Swedish ballet dancer, one of the most celebrated figures of the romantic ballet of the nineteenth century, known especially for her dancing en pointe. La Sylphide was choreographed for her by her father Filippo Taglioni in 1832. She danced regularly at the Salle Le Peletier, or Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique as it was known at this time. Le siège de Corinthe was an opera by Rossini.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust