France

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

Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): her diaries and letters

Source: Lucy Masterman (ed.), Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): her diaries and letters (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1930), p. 173

Production: Victor Hugo, Hernani, Théâtre-Français, Paris, 17 October 1879

Text: PARIS, Fri. Oct. 17. — A 2 hours’ drive in great cold and drizzle, went to Notre Dame and the Madeleine and all over the place. Table d’hôte and off to the Théâtre Français for Hernani and Sarah Bernhardt. I still think her greatest in her excessive quiet and repose, her tenderness is wonderful, the stormy bits are splendid, tho’ not as splendid here as in Phèdre. Mounet-Sully who acts with her very much overdoes voice and gestures, wh. is a great pity. The final Death scene very fine.

Comments: Mary Gladstone (1847-1927) was a writer and political secretary, daughter of the British prime minister William Gladstone. Her diaries regularly mention visits to the theatre, Hernani was a drama by the French novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry

Source: Lady Theresa Lewis (ed.), Extracts of the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, from the year 1783 to 1852 (London: Longmans, Green, 1865), pp. 167-168

Production: Antoine de la Fosse, Manlius Capitolinus and Marc-Antoine Legrand, L’Aveugle Clairvoyant, Comédie-Française, Paris, 6 July 1818

Text: Monday, July 6th. — M. de Duras gave us tickets for this week in the box of the gentlemen in waiting. I arrived in time to see the last scene’ of Talma, in ‘Manlius.’ It was the night of his return to the theatre after rather a long absence. On the curtain falling, they called loudly for him, with a noise and a disturbance much more like London than Paris. Three times they in vain began the second piece; it was impossible to hear a word. Three times the two actresses who had to commence the piece took refuge in the side scenes. At last, whilst Baptiste Cadet came forward to address the audience, some officer of the police, in his scarf of office, announced that, by an order of the police, the actors were forbidden to appear upon the stage out of their parts. One might well ask why this rule? which prevents the audience from showing, and the actor from receiving, these marks of approbation. They have much to learn in this country upon the ne quid nimis in the way of government. At last the audience was asked if they would have the second piece, ‘L’Aveugle Clairvoyant.’ Upon the reiterated ‘Ouis’ from the pit, they replied, ‘Vous l’aurez quand ces misérables criards ont cesses.’ On this the noise was renewed for some minutes, after which we had the piece very well acted and very amusing.

Comments: Mary Berry (1763-1852) was a British editor, letter writer and diarist, known for her close association with Horace Walpole. Her published journals and correspondence include many theatregoing references. 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. L’Aveugle Clairvoyant was written by the prolific French playwright Marc-Antoine Legrand.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Théâtre Français

Mademoiselle Nathalie (Zaïre Martel), from La Comédie Parisienne, no. 85 (1879), via Gallica

Source: Henry James, ‘The Théâtre Français’, in French Poets and Novelists (London: Macmillan, 1878), pp. 408-415

Productions: Octave Feuillet, Le Village, Comédie-Française, Paris, 187?

Text: Whence, it may be asked, does the society derive its light and its inspiration? From the past, from precedent, from tradition—from the great unwritten body of laws which no one has in his keeping but many have in their memory, and all in their respect. The principles on which the Théâtre Français rests are a good deal like the Common Law of England—a vaguely and inconveniently registered mass of regulations which time and occasion have welded together and from which the recurring occasion can usually manage to extract the rightful precedent. Napoleon I., who had a finger in every pie in his dominion, found time during his brief and disastrous occupation of Moscow to send down a decree remodelling and regulating the constitution of the theatre. This document has long been a dead letter, and the society abides by its older traditions. The traditions of the Comédie-Française—that is the sovereign word, and that is the charm of the place—the charm that one never ceases to feel, however often one may sit beneath the classic, dusky dome. One feels this charm with peculiar intensity as a newly arrived foreigner. The Théâtre Français has had the good fortune to be able to allow its traditions to accumulate. They have been preserved, transmitted, respected, cherished, until at last they form the very atmosphere, the vital air, of the establishment. A stranger feels their superior influence the first time he sees the great curtain go up; he feels that he is in a theatre that is not as other theatres are. It is not only better, it is different. It has a peculiar perfection—something consecrated, historical, academic. This impression is delicious, and he watches the performance in a sort of tranquil ecstasy.

Never has he seen anything so smooth and harmonious, so artistic and complete. He has heard all his life of attention to detail, and now, for the first time, he sees something that deserves the name. He sees dramatic effort refined to a point with which the English stage is unacquainted. He sees that there are no limits to possible “finish,” and that so trivial an act as taking a letter from a servant or placing one’s hat on a chair may be made a suggestive and interesting incident.He sees these things and a great many more besides, but at first he does not analyse them; he gives himself up to sympathetic contemplation. He is in an ideal and exemplary world—a world that has managed to attain all the felicities that the world we live in misses. The people do the things that we should like to do; they are gifted as we should like to be; they have mastered the accomplishments that we have had to give up. The women are not all beautiful—decidedly not, indeed—but they are graceful, agreeable, sympathetic, ladylike; they have the best manners possible and they are delightfully well dressed. They have charming musical voices and they speak with irreproachable purity and sweetness; they walk with the most elegant grace and when they sit it is a pleasure to see their attitudes. They go out and come in, they pass across the stage, they talk, and laugh, and cry, they deliver long tirades or remain statuesquely mute; they are tender or tragic, they are comic or conventional; and through it all you never observe an awkwardness, a roughness, an accident, a crude spot, a false note.

As for the men, they are not handsome either; it must be confessed, indeed, that at the present hour manly beauty is but scantily represented at the Théâtre Français. Bressant, I believe, used to be thought handsome; but Bressant has retired, and among the gentlemen of the troupe I can think of no one but M. Mounet-Sully who may be positively commended for his fine person. But M. Mounet-Sully is, from the scenic point of view, an Adonis of the first magnitude. To be handsome, however, is for an actor one of the last necessities; and these gentlemen are mostly handsome enough. They look perfectly what they are intended to look, and in cases where it is proposed that they shall seem handsome, they usually succeed. They are as well mannered and as well dressed as their fairer comrades and their voices are no less agreeable and effective. They represent gentlemen and they produce the illusion. In this endeavour they deserve even greater credit than the actresses, for in modern comedy, of which the repertory of the Théâtre Français is largely composed, they have nothing in the way of costume to help to carry it off. Half-a-dozen ugly men, in the periodic coat and trousers and stove-pipe hat, with blue chins and false moustaches, strutting before the footlights, and pretending to be interesting, romantic, pathetic, heroic, certainly play a perilous game. At every turn they suggest prosaic things and the usual liability to awkwardness is meantime increased a thousand fold. But the comedians of the Théâtre Français are never awkward, and when it is necessary they solve triumphantly the problem of being at once realistic to the eye and romantic to the imagination.

I am speaking always of one’s first impression of them. There are spots on the sun, and you discover after a while that there are little irregularities at the Théâtre Français. But the acting is so incomparably better than any that you have seen that criticism for a long time is content to lie dormant. I shall never forget how at first I was under the charm. I liked the very incommodities of the place; I am not sure that I did not find a certain mystic salubrity in the bad ventilation. The Théâtre Français, it is known, gives you a good deal for your money. The performance, which rarely ends before midnight, and sometimes transgresses it, frequently begins by seven o’clock. The first hour or two is occupied by secondary performers; but not for the world at this time would I have missed the first rising of the curtain. No dinner could be too hastily swallowed to enable me to see, for instance, Madame Nathalie in Octave Feuillet’s charming little comedy of “Le Village.” Madame Nathalie was a plain, stout old woman, who did the mothers and aunts and elderly wives; I use the past tense because she retired from the stage a year ago, leaving a most conspicuous vacancy. She was an admirable actress and a perfect mistress of laughter and tears. In “Le Village” she played an old provincial bourgeoise whose husband takes it into his head, one winter night, to start on the tour of Europe with a roving bachelor friend, who has dropped down on him at supper-time, after the lapse of years, and has gossiped him into momentary discontent with his fireside existence. My pleasure was in Madame Nathalie’s figure when she came in dressed to go out to vespers across the place. The two foolish old cronies are over their wine, talking of the beauty of the women on the Ionian coast; you hear the church-bell in the distance. It was the quiet felicity of the old lady’s dress that used to charm me; the Comédie-Française was in every fold of it. She wore a large black silk mantilla, of a peculiar cut, which looked as if she had just taken it tenderly out of some old wardrobe where it lay folded in lavender, and a large dark bonnet, adorned with handsome black silk loops and bows. Her big pale face had a softly frightened look, and in her hand she carried her neatly kept breviary. The extreme suggestiveness, and yet the taste and temperance of this costume, seemed to me inimitable; the bonnet alone, with its handsome, decent, virtuous bows, was worth coming to see. It expressed all the rest, and you saw the excellent, pious woman go pick her steps churchward among the puddles, while Jeannette, the cook, in a high white cap, marched before her in sabots with a lantern.

Such matters are trifles, but they are representative trifles, and they are not the only ones that I remember. It used to please me, when I had squeezed into my stall—the stalls at the Français are extremely uncomfortable—to remember of how great a history the large, dim salle around me could boast; how many great things had happened there; how the air was thick with associations. Even if I had never seen Rachel, it was something of a consolation to think that those very footlights had illumined her finest moments and that the echoes of her mighty voice were sleeping in that dingy dome. From this to musing upon the “traditions” of the place, of which I spoke just now, was of course but a step. How were they kept? by whom, and where? Who trims the undying lamp and guards the accumulated treasure? I never found out—by sitting in the stalls; and very soon I ceased to care to know. One may be very fond of the stage and yet care little for the green-room; just as one may be very fond of pictures and books and yet be no frequenter of studios and authors’ dens. They might pass on the torch as they would behind the scenes; so long as during my time they did not let it drop I made up my mind to be satisfied. And that one could depend upon their not letting it drop became a part of the customary comfort of Parisian life. It became certain that the “traditions” were not mere catchwords, but a most beneficent reality.

Comments: Henry James (1843-1916) was an American novelist and critic. The above is an extract from a long essay on the Théâtre-Français, or Comédie-Française, which was and remains one the leading Parisian theatres. The actors mentioned are Jean Baptiste Prosper Bressant, Jean Mounet-Sully, Zaïre-Nathalie Martel (Mademoiselle Nathalie) and Rachel Félix (Mademoiselle Rachel).

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The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley

Source: Richard Edgecumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1912-1913), pp. 104-105

Production: André Grétry and Michel-Jean Sedaine, Richard Coeur-de-lion, Théâtre Feydeau, Paris, July 1815

Text: The Prussians are quartered all over Paris; and wherever they suspect the loyalty of the inhabitants they keep quartering more soldiers upon them. Our men are quartered out of the town – in the Bois de Boulogne – the officers excepted. One evening we went to the Théâtre Feydeau, opera comique. The first piece was ending as we entered the house, and some couplets were sung in praise of Louis XVIII; they were received with violent applause by the whole audience. One man, however, ventured to hiss, whereupon there was a great disturbance, and the individual in question was thrown out of the pit. The couplets were then encored amid tumultuous expressions of delight. It was a moving scene. The petit-pièce was entitled “Richard Coeur de Lion.” The man who represented Blondel had been with the King to Ghent, and was consequently much applauded. He sang well, and with real feeling. When Marguerite in the play said, “Vous etiez avec le Roi,” the cheering was beyond description. I cannot describe the enthusiasm which prevailed throughout the house. The theatre is dirty, the boxes small and insufferably hot.

Comments: Frances Lady Shelley (1787-1873) was a well-connected, vivacious British society figure, whose lively diaries (edited by her grandson) include several accounts of theatregoing. At the time of this diary entry, Paris was occupied by British and Prussian troops following the defeat of Napoleon. She saw the opéra comique Richard Coeur-de-lion composed by André Grétry, with a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, at the Théâtre Feydeau. It was an immensely popular work, first performed in 1784, but was not presented in France during the revolutionary period, owing to its royalist theme.

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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. 212-215

Production: François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and Christoph Gluck, Iphigénie en Aulide and François-Joseph Gossec, L’Offrande à la Liberté, Théâtre des Arts, Paris, 13 February 1796

Text: In the evening at the Grand Opera, Theatre des Arts; Iphigénie. The theatre magnificent, and I should judge, about one hundred performers in the orchestra. The dresses most beautiful, and a scrupulous attention to costume, in all the decorations, which I have never seen in London. The performers were completely Grecian statues animated, and I never saw so manifestly the superiority of the taste of the ancients in dress, especially as regards the women. Iphigénie (La citoyenne Cheron) was dressed entirely in white, without the least ornament, and nothing can be imagined more truly elegant and picturesque. The acting admirable, but the singing very inferior to that of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The French cannot sing like the Italians. Agamemnon excellent. Clytemnestra still better. Achilles abominable, yet more applauded than either of them. Sang in the old French style, which is most detestable, shaking and warbling on every note: vile! vile! vile! The others sang in a style sufficiently correct. The ballet, L’Offrande à la Liberté most superb. In the centre of the stage was the statue of Liberty, with an altar blazing before her. She was surrounded by the characters in the opera, in their beautiful Grecian habits. The civic air “Veillons au salut de l’Empire” was sung by a powerful base, and received with transport by the audience. Whenever the word, esclavage was uttered, it operated like an electric shock. The Marseillaise hymn was next sung, and produced still greater enthusiasm. At the words, “Aux armes citoyens!” all the performers drew their swords and the females turned to them as encouraging them. Before the last verse there was a short pause; the time of the music was changed to a very slow movement, and supported only by the flutes and oboes; a beautiful procession entered; first little children like cherubs, with baskets of flowers ; these were followed by boys, a little more advanced, with white javelins (the Hasta pura of the ancients) in their hands. Then came two beautiful female figures, moving like the Graces themselves, with torches blazing; these were followed by four negroes, characteristically dressed, and carrying two tripods between them, which they placed respectfully on each side of the altar; next came as many Americans, in the picturesque dress of Mexico; and these were followed by an immense crowd of other performers, variously habited, who ranged themselves on both sides of the stage. The little children then approached the altar with their baskets of flowers, which they laid before the goddess; the rest in turn succeeded, and hung the altar and the base of the statue with garlands and wreaths of roses; the two females with the torches approached the tripods, and, just touching them with the fire, they kindled into a blaze. The whole then knelt down, and all of this was executed in cadence to the music and with grace beyond description. The
first part of the last verse, “Amour sacré de la patrie” was then sung slowly and solemnly, and the words “Liberté, Liberté cherie” with an emphasis which affected me most powerfully. All this was at once pathetic and sublime, beyond what I had ever seen or could almost imagine; but it was followed by an incident which crowned the whole, and rendered it indeed a spectacle worthy of a free republic. At the repetition of the words, Aux armes, citoyens! the music changed again to a martial style, the performers sprung on their feet, and in an instant the stage was filled with National Guards, who rushed in with bayonets fixed, sabres drawn, and the tri-colour flag flying. It would be impossible to describe the effect of this. I never knew what enthusiasm was before; and what heightened it beyond all conception was, that the men I saw before me were not hirelings acting a part; they were what they seemed, French citizens flying to arms, to rescue their country from slavery. They were the men who had precipitated Cobourg into the Sambre, and driven Clairfait over the Rhine, and were, at this very moment, on the eve of again hurrying to the frontiers, to encounter fresh dangers and gain fresh glory. This was what made the spectacle interesting beyond all description. I would willingly sail again from New York to enjoy again what I felt at that moment. Set the ballets of the Haymarket beside this! This sublime spectacle concluded the ballet: but why must I give it so poor a name? It was followed by another ballet, which one might call so, but even this was totally different from what such things used to be. The National Guards were introduced again, and, instead of dancing, at least three-fourths of the exhibition consisted of military evolutions, which, it should seem, are now more to the French taste than allemandes and minuets and pas de deux. So best! It is curious now to consider at what rate one may see all this. I paid for my seat in the boxes one hundred and fifty livres, in assignats, which, at the present rate, is very nearly sixpence sterling. The highest priced seats were but two hundred livres, which is eightpence. I mention this principally to introduce a conjecture which struck me at Havre, but which seems much more probable here, that the Government supports the theatres privately. And, in France, it is excellent policy, where the people are so much addicted to spectacles, of which there are now about twenty in Paris, and all full every night. What would my dearest love have felt at the “L’Offrande à la Liberté?

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. Chrisoph Gluck composed two operas on the classical legend of Iphigenia, Iphigénie en Tauride and Iphigénie en Aulide. The latter had a libretto by François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and was seen by Tone at the Théâtre des Arts, later the Théâtre National de la rue de la Loi, in Paris. ‘La citoyenne Cheron’ was the actress Anne Cameroy or Anne Chéron (1767-18??). François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was a French composer. His L’Offrande à la Liberté was one of several works he wrote in celebration of the French Revolution.

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