La danse devant le miroir

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