Comédie-Française (Paris)

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

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

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).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philipp von Neumann

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Internet Archive