Matthews, Brander, ed. (18521929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.
XXIV. The Théâtre Francais
Henry James (1843 )
M. FRANCISQUE SARCEY, the dramatic critic of the Paris Temps, and the gentleman who, of the whole journalistic fraternity, holds the fortune of a play in the hollow of his hand, has been publishing during the last year a series of biographical notices of the chief actors and actresses of the first theater in the world. Comédiens et Comédiennes: la Comédie Françaisesuch is the title of this publication, which appears in monthly numbers of the Librairie des Bibliophiles, and is ornamented on each occasion with a very prettily etched portrait, by M. Gaucherel, of the artist to whom the number is devoted. By lovers of the stage in general and of the Théâtre Français in particular the series will be found most interesting; and I welcome the pretext for saying a few words about an institution whichif such language be not hyperbolicalI passionately admire. I must add that the portrait is incomplete, though for the present occasion it is more than sufficient. The list of M. Sarceys biographies is not yet filled up; three or four, those of Madame Favart and of MM. Fèbvre and Delaunay, are still wanting. Nine numbers, however, have appearedthe first being entitled La Maison de Molière, and devoted to a general account of the great theater; and the others treating of its principal sociétaires and pensionnaires in the following order:
(This order, by the way, is purely accidental; it is not that of age or of merit.) It is always entertaining to encounter M. Francisque Sarcey, and the reader who, during a Paris winter, has been in the habit, of a Sunday evening, of unfolding his Temps immediately after unfolding his napkin, and glancing down first of all to see what this sturdy feuilletoniste has found to his handsuch a reader will find him in great force in the pages before us. It is true that, though I myself confess to being such a reader, there are moments when I grow rather weary of M. Sarcey, who has in an eminent degree both the virtues and the defects which attach to the great French characteristicthe habit of taking terribly au sérieux anything that you may set about doing. Of this habit of abounding in ones own sense, of expatiating, elaborating, reiterating, refining, as if for the hour the fate of mankind were bound up with ones particular topic, M. Sarcey is a capital and at times an almost comical representative. He talks about the theater once a week as ifhonestly, between himself and his readerthe theater were the only thing in this frivolous world that is worth seriously talking about. He has a religious respect for his theme and he holds that if a thing is to be done at all it must be done in detail as well as in the gross.
It is to this serious way of taking the matter, to his thoroughly businesslike and professional attitude, to his unwearying attention to detail, that the critic of the Temps owes his enviable influence and the weight of his words. Add to this that he is sternly incorruptible. He has his admirations, but they are honest and discriminating; and whom he loveth he very often chasteneth. He is not ashamed to commend Mlle. X., who has only had a curtsy to make, if her curtsy has been the ideal curtsy of the situation; and he is not afraid to overhaul M. A., who has delivered the tirade of the play, if M. A., has failed to hit the mark. Of course his judgement is good; when I have had occasion to measure it I have usually found it excellent. He has the scenic sensethe theatrical eye. He knows at a glance what will do, and what will not do. He is shrewd and sagacious and almost tiresomely in earnest, and this is his principal brilliancy. He is homely, familiar and colloquial; he leans his elbows on his desk and does up his weekly budget into a parcel the reverse of coquettish. You can fancy him a grocer retailing tapioca and hominyfull weight for the price; his style seems a sort of integument of brown paper. But the fact remains that if M. Sarcey praises a play the play has a run; and that if M. Sarcey says it will not do it does not do at all. If M. Sarcey devotes an encouraging line and a half to a young actress, mademoiselle is immediately lancée; she has a career. If he bestows a quiet bravo on an obscure comedian, the gentleman may forthwith renew his engagement. When you make and unmake fortunes at this rate, what matters it whether you have a little elegance the more or the less? Elegance is for M. Paul de St. Victor, who does the theaters in the Moniteur, and who, though he writes a style only a trifle less pictorial than that of Théophile Gautier himself, has never, to the best of my belief, brought clouds or sunshine to any playhouse. I may add, to finish with M. Sarcey, that he contributes a daily political articlegenerally devoted to watching and showing up the game of the clerical partyto Edmond Abouts journal, the XIXième Siècle; that he gives a weekly conférence on current literature; that he confers also on those excellent Sunday morning performances now so common in the French theaters, during which examples of the classic reportory are presented, accompanied by a light lecture upon the history and character of the play. As the commentator on these occasions M. Sarcey is in great demand, and he officiates sometimes in small provincial towns. Lastly, frequent playgoers in Paris observe that the very slenderest novelty is sufficient to insure at a theater the (very considerable) physical presence of the conscientious critic of the Temps. If he were remarkable for nothing else he would be remarkable for the fortitude with which he exposes himself to the pestiferous climate of the Parisian temples of the drama.
For these agreeable notices M. Sarcey appears to have mended his pen and to have given a fillip to his fancy. They are gracefully and often lightly turned; occasionally, even, the author grazes the epigrammatic. They deal, as is proper, with the artistic and not with the private physiognomy of the ladies and gentlemen whom they commemorate; and though they occasionally allude to what the French call intimate matters, they contain no satisfaction for the lovers of scandal. The Théâtre Français, in the face it presents to the world, is an austere and venerable establishment, and a frivolous tone about its affairs would be almost as much out of keeping as if applied to the Académie herself. M. Sarcey touches upon the organization of the theater, and gives some account of the different phases through which it has passed during these latter years. Its chief functionary is a general administrator, or director, appointed by the State, which enjoys this right in virtue of the considerable subsidy which it pays to the house; a subsidy amounting, if I am not mistaken (M. Sarcey does not mention the sum), to 250,000 francs. The director, however, is not an absolute but a constitutional ruler; for he shares his powers with the society itself, which has always had a large deliberative voice.
Whence, it may be asked, does the society derive its light and its inspiration? From the past, from precedent, from traditionfrom 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 Englanda 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 remodeling and regulating the constitution of the theater. This document has long been a dead letter, and the society abides by its older traditions. The traditions of the Comédie Françaisethat is the sovereign word, and that is the charm of the placethe 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 theater that is not as other theaters are. It is not only better, it is different. It has a peculiar perfectionsomething 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 ones 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 analyze them; he gives himself up to sympathetic contemplation. He is in an ideal and exemplary worlda 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 beautifuldecidedly not, indeedbut 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, 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 mustaches, strutting before pathetic, heroic, certainly play a perilous game. At every turn they suggest prosaic things and the usual liability to awkwardness is meantime increased a thousandfold. 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 ones 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 oclock. 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 Feuillets 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 Nathalies 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 ladys 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 stallthe stalls at the Français are extremely uncomfortableto 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 outby 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 studious 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.
Going to the other Parisian theaters helps you to believe in them. Unless you are a voracious theater-goer you give the others up; you find they do not pay; the Français does for you all that they do and so much more besides. There are two possible exceptionsthe Gymnase and the Palais Royal. The Gymnase, since the death of Mademoiselle Desclée, has been under a heavy cloud; but occasionally, when a months sunshine rests upon it, there is a savor of excellence in the performance. But you feel that you are still within the realm of accident; the delightful security of the Rue de Richelieu is wanting. The young lover is liable to be common and the beautifully dressed heroine to have an unpleasant voice. The Palais Royal has always been in its way very perfect; but its way admits of great imperfection. The actresses are classically bad, though usually pretty, and the actors are much addicted to taking liberties. In broad comedy, nevertheless, two or three of the latter are not to be surpassed, and (counting out the women) there is usually something masterly in a Palais Royal performance. In its own line it has what is called style, and it therefore walks, at a distance, in the footsteps of the Français. The Odéon has never seemed to me in any degree a rival of the Théâtre Français, though it is a smaller copy of that establishment. It receives a subsidy from the State, and is obliged by its contract to play the classic repertory one night in the week. It is on these nights, listening to Molière or Marivaux, that you may best measure the superiority of the greater theater. I have seen actors at the Odéon, in the classic repertory, imperfect in their texts; a monstrously insupposable case at the Comédie Française. The function of the Odéon is to operate as a pépinière or nursery for its elderto try young talents, shape them, make them flexible and then hand them over to the upper house. The more especial nursery of the Français, however, is the Conservatoire Dramatique, an institution dependent upon the State, through the Ministry of the Fine Arts, whose budget is charged with the remuneration of its professors. Pupils graduating from the Conservatoire with a prize have ipso facto the right to débuter at the Théâtre Français, which retains them or lets them go, according to its discretion. Most of the first subjects of the Français have done their two years work at the Conservatoire, and M. Sarcey holds that an actor who has not had that fundamental training which is only to be acquired there never obtains a complete mastery of his resources. Nevertheless some of the best actors of the day have owed nothing to the ConservatoireBressant, for instance, and Aimée Desclée, the latter of whom, indeed, never arrived at the Français. (Molière and Balzac were not of the Academy, and so Mlle. Desclée, the first actress after Rachel, died without acquiring the privilege which M. Sarcey says is the day-dream of all young theatrical women-that of printing on their visiting-cards, after their name, de la Comédie Française.)
The Théâtre Français has, moreover, the right to do as Molière didto claim its property wherever it finds it. It may stretch out its long arm and break the engagement of a promising actor at any of the other theaters; of course after a certain amount of notice given. So, last winter, it notified to the Gymnase its design of appropriating Worms, the admirable jeune premier, who, returning from a long sojourn in Russia and taking the town by surprise, had begun to retrieve the shrunken fortunes of that establishment.
On the whole, it may be said that the great talents find their way, sooner or later, to the Théâtre Français. This is of course not a rule that works unvaryingly, for there are a great many influences to interfere with it. Interest as well as meritespecially in the case of the actressesweighs in the scale; and the ire that may exist in celestial minds has been known to manifest itself in the councils of the Comédie. Moreover, a brilliant actress may prefer to reign supreme at one of the smaller theaters; at the Français, inevitably, she shares her dominion. The honor is less, but the comfort is greater.
Nevertheless, at the Français, in a general way, there is in each case a tolerably obvious artistic reason for membership; and if you see a clever actor remain outside for years, you may be pretty sure that, though private reasons count, there are artistic reasons as well. The first half dozen times I saw Mademoiselle Fargueil, who for years ruled the roost, as the vulgar saying is, at the Vaudeville, I wondered that so consummate and accomplished an actress should not have a place on the first French stage. But I presently grew wiser, and perceived that, clever as Mademoiselle Fargueil is, she is not for the Rue de Richelieu, but for the Boulevards; her peculiar, intensely Parisian intonation would sound out of place in the Maison de Molière. (Of course if Mademoiselle Fargueil has ever received overtures from the Français, my sagacity is at faultI am looking through a millstone. But I suspect she has not.) Frédéric Lemaître, who died last winter, and who was a very great actor, had been tried at the Français and found wantingfor those particular conditions. But it may probably be said that if Frédéric was wanting, the theater was too, in this case. Frédérics great force was his extravagance, his fantasticality; and the stage of the Rue de Richelieu was a trifle too academic. I have even wondered whether Desclée, if she had lived, would have trod that stage by right, and whether it would have seemed her proper element. The negative is not impossible. It is very possible that in that classic atmosphere her great charmher intensely modern quality, her super-subtle realismwould have appeared an anomaly. I can imagine even that her strange, touching, nervous voice would not have seemed the voice of the house. At the Français you must know how to acquit yourself of a tirade; that has always been the touchstone of capacity. It would probably have proved Desclées stumbling-block, though she could utter speeches of six words as no one else surely has ever done. It is true that Mademoiselle Croizette, and in a certain sense Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt, are rather weak at their tirades; but then old theater-goers will tell you that these young ladies, in spite of a hundred attractions, have no business at the Français.
In the course of time the susceptible foreigner passes from that superstitious state of attention which I just now sketched to that greater enlightenment which enables him to understand such a judgment as this of the old theatergoers. It is borne in upon him that, as the good Homer sometimes nods, the Théâtre Français sometimes lapses from its high standard. He makes various reflections. He thinks that Mademoiselle Favart rants. He thinks M. Mounet-Sully, in spite of his delicious voice, insupportable. He thinks that M. Parodis five-act tragedy, Rome Vaincue, presented in the early part of the present winter, was better done certainly than it would have been done upon any English stage, but by no means so much better done as might have been expected. (Here, if I had space, I would open a long parenthesis, in which I should aspire to demonstrate that the incontestable superiority of average French acting to English is by no means so strongly marked in tragedy as in comedyis indeed sometimes not strongly marked at all. The reason of this is in a great measure, I think, that we have had Shakespeare to exercise ourselves upon, and that an inferior dramatic instinct exercised upon Shakespeare may become more flexible than a superior one exercised upon Corneille and Racine. When it comes to rantingranting even in a modified and comparatively reasonable sensewe do, I suspect, quite as well as the French, if not rather better.) Mr. G. H. Lewes, in his entertaining little book upon Actors and the Art of Acting, mentions M. Talbot, of the Français, as a surprisingly incompetent performer. My memory assents to his judgment at the same time that it proposes an amendment. This actors special line is the buffeted, bemuddled, besotted old fathers, uncles and guardians of classic comedy, and he plays them with his face much more than with his tongue. Nature has endowed him with a visage so admirably adapted, once for all, to his rôle, that he has only to sit in a chair, with his hands folded on his stomach, to look like a monument of bewildered senility. After that it does not matter what he says or how he says it.
The Comédie Française sometimes does weaker things than in keeping M. Talbot. Last autumn,1 for instance, it was really depressing to see Mademoiselle Dudley brought all the way from Brussels (and with not a little flourish either) to create the guilty vestal in Rome Vaincue. As far as the interests of art are concerned, Mademoiselle Dudley had much better have remained in the Flemish capital, of whose language she is apparently a perfect mistress. It is hard, too, to forgive M. Perrin (M. Perrin is the present director of the Théâtre Français) for bringing out LAmi Fritz of M. Erckmann-Chatrian. The two gentlemen who write under this name have a double claim to kindness. In the first place, they have produced some delightful little novels; everyone knows and admires Le Conscrit de 1813; everyone admires, indeed, the charming tale on which the play in question is founded. In the second place, they were, before the production of their piece, the objects of a scurrilous attack by the Figaro newspaper, which held the authors up to reprobation for having insulted the army, and did its best to lay the train for a hostile manifestation on the first night. (It may be added that the good sense of the public outbalanced the impudence of the newspaper, and the play was simply advertised into success.) But neither the novels nor the persecutions of M. Erckmann-Chatrian avail to render LAmi Fritz, in its would-be dramatic form, worthy of the first French stage. It is played as well as possible, and upholstered even better; but it is, according to the vulgar phrase, too thin for the locality. Upholstery has never played such a part at the Théâtre Français as during the reign of M. Perrin, who came into power, if I mistake not, after the late war. He proved very early that he was a radical, and he has introduced a hundred novelties. His administration, however, has been brilliant, and in his hands the Théâtre Français has made money. This it had rarely done before, and this, in the conservative view, is quite beneath its dignity. To the conservative view I should humbly incline. An institution so closely protected by a rich and powerful State ought to be able to cultivate art for art.
The first of M. Sarceys biographies, to which I have been too long in coming, is devoted to Regnier, a veteran actor, who left the stage four or five years since, and who now fills the office of oracle to his younger comrades. It is the indispensable thing, says M. Sarcey, for a young aspirant to be able to say that he has had lessons of M. Regnier, or that M. Regnier had advised him, or that he has talked such and such a point over with M. Regnier. (His comrades always speak of him as M. Regniernever as simple Regnier.) I have had the fortune to see him but once; it was the first time I ever went to the Théâtre Français. He played Don Annibal in Emile Augiers romantic comedy of LAventurère, and I have not forgotten the exquisite humor of the performance. The part is that of a sort of seventeenth century Captain Costigan, only the Miss Fotheringay in the case is the gentlemans sister and not his daughter. This lady is moreover an ambitious and designing person, who leads her thread-bare braggart of a brother quite by the nose. She has entrapped a worthy gentleman of Padua, of mature years, and he is on the eve of making her his wife, when his son, a clever young soldier, beguiles Don Annibal into supping with him, and makes him drink so deep that the prating adventurer at last lets the cat out of the bag and confides to his companion that the fair Clorinde is not the virtuous gentlewoman she appears, but a poor strolling actress who has had a lover at every stage of her journey. The scene was played by Bressant and Regnier, and it has always remained in my mind as one of the most perfect things I have seen on the stage. The gradual action of the wine upon Don Annibal, the delicacy with which his deepening tipsiness was indicated, its intellectual rather than physical manifestation, and, in the midst of it, the fantastic conceit which made him think that he was winding his fellow drinker round his fingersall this was exquisitely rendered. Drunenness on the stage is usually both dreary and disgusting; and I can remember besides this but two really interesting pictures of intoxication (excepting always, indeed, the immortal tipsiness of Cassio in Othello, which a clever actor can always make touching). One is the beautiful befuddlement of Rip Van Winkle, as Mr. Joseph Jefferson renders it, and the other (a memory of the Théâtre Français) the scene in the Duc Job, in which got succumbs to mild inebriation, and dozes in his chair just boosily enough for the young girl who loves him to make it out.
It is to this admirable Émile Got that M. Sarceys second notice is devoted. Got is at the present hour unquestionably the first actor at the Théâtre Français, and I have personally no hesitation in accepting him as the first of living actors. His younger comrade, Coquelin, has, I think, as much talent and as much art; as the older man Got has the longer and fuller record and may therefore be spoken of as the master. If I were obliged to rank the half-dozen premiers sujets of the last few years at the Théâtre Français in their absolute order of talent (thank Heaven, I am not so obliged!) I think I should make up some such little list as this: Got, Coquelin, Madame Plessy, Sarah Bernhardt, Mademoiselle Favart, Delaunay. I confess that I have no sooner written it than I feel as if I ought to amend it, and wonder whether it is not a great folly to put Delaunay after Mademoiselle Favart. But this is idle.
As for Got, he is a singularly interesting actor. I have often wondered whether the best definition of him would not be to say that he is really a philosophic actor. He is an immense humorist and his comicality is sometimes colossal, but his most striking quality is the one on which M. Sarcey dwellshis sobriety and profundity, his underlying element of manliness and melancholy, the impression he gives you of having a general conception of human life and of seeing the relativity, as one may say, of the character he represents. Of all the comic actors I have seen he is the least trivialat the same time that for richness of detail his comic manner is unsurpassed. His repertory is very large and various, but it may be divided into two equal halvesthe parts that belong to reality and the parts that belong to fantasy. There is of course a great deal of fantasy in his realistic parts and a great deal of reality in his fantastic ones, but the general division is just; and at times, indeed, the two faces of his talent seem to have little in common. The Duc Job, to which I just now alluded, is one of the things he does most perfectly. The part, which is that of a young man, is a serious and tender one. It is amazing that the actor who plays it should also be able to carry off triumphantly the frantic buffoonery of Maître Pathelin, or should represent the Sganarelle of the Médecin Malgré Lui with such an unctuous breadth of humor. The two characters, perhaps, which have given me the liveliest idea of Gots power and fertility are the Maître Pathelin and the M. Poirier who figures in the title to the comedy which Emile Augier and Jules Sandeau wrote together. M. Poirier, the retired shopkeeper who marries his daughter to a marquis and makes acquaintance with the incommodities incidental to such a piece of luck, is perhaps the actors most elaborate creation; it is difficult to see how the portrayal of a type and an individual can have a larger sweep and a more minute completeness. The bonhomme Poirier, in Gots hands, is really great; and half-a-dozen of the actors modern parts that I could mention are hardly less brilliant. But when I think of him I instinctively think first of some rôle in which he wears the cap and gown of a period as regards which humorous invention may fairly take the bit in its teeth. This is what Got lets it do in Maître Pathelin, and he leads the spectators exhilarated fancy a dance to which the latters aching sides on the morrow sufficiently testify.
The piece is a réchauffé of a mediæval farce which has the credit of being the first play not a mystery or a miracle-piece in the records of the French drama. The plot is extremely bald and primitive. It sets forth how a cunning lawyer undertook to purchase a dozen ells of cloth for nothing. In the first scene we see him in the market-place, bargaining and haggling with the draper, and then marching off with the roll of cloth, with the understanding that the shopman shall call at his house in the course of an hour for the money. In the next act we have Maître Pathelin at his fireside with his wife, to whom he relates his trick and its projected sequel, and who greets them with Homeric laughter. He gets into bed, and the innocent draper arrives. Then follows a scene of which the liveliest description must be ineffective. Pathelin pretends to be out of his head, to be overtaken by a mysterious malady which has made him delirious, not to know the draper from Adam, never to have heard of the dozen ells of cloth, and to be altogether an impossible person to collect a debt from. To carry out this character he indulges in a series of indescribable antics, out-Bedlams Bedlam, frolics over the room dressed out in the bed-clothes and chanting the wildest gibberish, bewilders the poor draper to within an inch of his own sanity and finally puts him utterly to rout. The spectacle could only be portentously flat or heroically successful, and in Gots hands this latter was its fortune. His Sganarelle, in the Médicin Malgré Lui, and half-a-dozen of his characters from Molière besidessuch a part, too, as his Tibia, in Alfred de Mussets charming bit of romanticism, the Caprices de Mariannehave a certain generic resemblance with his treatment of the figure I have sketched. In all these things the comicality is of the exuberant and tremendous order, and yet in spite of its richness and flexibility it suggests little connection with high animal spirits. It seems a matter of invention, of reflection and irony. You cannot imagine Got representing a fool pure and simpleor at least a passive and unsuspecting fool. There must always be an element of shrewdness and even of contempt; he must be the man who knows and judgesor at least who pretends. It is a compliment, I take it, to an actor, to say that he prompts you to wonder about his private personality; and an observant spectator of M. Got is at liberty to guess that he is both obstinate and proud.
In Coquelin there is perhaps greater spontaneity, and there is a not inferior mastery of his art. He is a wonderfully brilliant, elastic actor. He is but thirty-five years old, and yet his record is most glorious. He too has his actual and his classical repertory, and here also it is hard to choose. As the young valet de comédie in Molière and Regnard and Marivaux he is incomparable. I shall never forget the really infernal brilliancy of his Mascarille in LÉtourdi. His volubility, his rapidity, his impudence and gayety, his ringing, penetrating voice and the shrill trumpet-note of his laughter, make him the ideal of the classic serving-man of the classic young loverhalf rascal and half good fellow. Coquelin has lately had two or three immense successes in the comedies of the day. His Duc de Sept-Monts, in the famous Étrangère of Alexandre Dumas, last winter, was the capital creation of the piece; and in the revival, this winter, of Augiers Paul Forestier, his Adolphe de Beaubourg, the young man about town, consciously tainted with commonness, and trying to shake off the incubus, seemed while one watched it and listened to it the last word of delicately humorous art. Of Coquelins eminence in the old comedies M. Sarcey speaks with a certain pictorial force: No one is better cut out to represent those bold and magnificent rascals of the old repertory, with their boisterous gayety, their brilliant fancy and their superb extravagance, who give to their buffoonery ie ne sais quoi dépique. In these parts one may say of Coquelin that he is incomparable. I prefer him to Got in such cases, and even to Regnier, his master. I never saw Monrose, and cannot speak of him. But good judges have assured me that there was much that was factitious in the manner of this eminent comedian, and that his vivacity was a trifle mechanical. There is nothing whatever of this in Coquelins manner. The eye, the nose, and the voicethe voice above allare his most powerful means of action. He launches his tirades all in one breath, with full lungs, without troubling himself too much over the shading of details, in large masses, and he possesses himself only the more strongly of the public, which has a great sense of ensemble. The words that must be detached, the words that must decisively tell, glitter in this delivery with the sonorous ring of a brand-new louis dor. Crispin, Scapin, Figaro, Mascarille have never found a more valiant and joyous interpreter.
I should say that this was enough about the men at the Théâtre Français, if I did not remember that I have not spoken of Delaunay. But Delaunay has plenty of people to speak for him; he has, in especial, the more eloquent half of humanitythe ladies. I suppose that of all the actors of the Comédie Française he is the most universally appreciated and admired; he is the popular favorite. And he has certainly earned this distinction, for there was never a more amiable and sympathetic genius. He plays the young lovers of the past and the present, and he acquits himself of his difficult and delicate task with extraordinary grace and propriety. The danger I spoke of a while sincethe danger, for the actor of a romantic and sentimental part, of being compromised by the coat and trousers, the hat and umbrella of the current yearare reduced by Delaunay to their minimum. He reconciles in a marvelous fashion the love-sick gallant of the ideal world with the gentlemanly man of to-day; and his passion is as far removed from rant as his propriety is from stiffness. He has been accused of late years of falling into a mannerism, and I think there is some truth in the charge. But the fault in Delaunays situation is certainly venial. How can a man of fifty, to whom, as regards face and figure, Nature has been stingy, play an amorous swain of twenty without taking refuge in a mannerism? His mannerism is a legitimate device for diverting the spectators attention from certain incongruities. Delaunays juvenility, his ardor, his passion, his good taste and sense of fitness, have always an irresistible charm. As he has grown older he has increased his repertory by parts of greater weight and sobrietyhe has played the husbands as well as the lovers. One of his most recent and brilliant creations of this kind is his Marquis de Presles in Le Gendre de M. Poiriera piece of acting superb for its lightness and désinvolture. It cannot be better praised than by saying it was worthy of Gots inimitable rendering of the part opposed to it. But I think I shall remember Delaunay best in the picturesque and romantic comediesas the Duc de Richelieu in Mlle. De Belle-Isle; as the joyous, gallant, exuberant young hero, his plumes and love knots fluttering in the breath of his gushing improvisation, of Corneilles Menteur; or, most of all, as the melodious swains of those charmingly poetic, faintly, naturally Shakespearean little comedies of Alfred de Musset.
To speak of Delaunay ought to bring us properly to Mademoiselle Favart, who for so many years invariably represented the object of his tender invocations. Mademoiselle Favart at the present time rather lacks what the French call actuality. She has recently made an attempt to recover something of that large measure of it which she once possessed; but I doubt whether it has been completely successful. M. Sarcey has not yet put forth his notice of her; and when he does so it will be interesting to see how he treats her. She is not one of his high admirations. She is a great talent that has passed into eclipse. I call her a great talent, although I remember the words in which M. Sarcey somewhere speaks of her: Mlle. Favart, who, to happy natural gifts, soutenus par un travail acharné, owed a distinguished place, etc. Her talent is great, but the impression that she gives of a travail acharné and of an insatiable ambition is perhaps even greater. For many years she reigned supreme, and I believe she is accused of not having always reigned generously. However that may be, there came a day when Mesdemoiselles Croizette and Sarah Bernhardt passed to the front and the elder actress receded, if not into the background, at least into what painters call the middle distance. The private history of these events has, I believe, been rich in heart-burnings; but it is only with the public history that we are concerned. Mademoiselle Favart has always seemed to me a powerful rather than an interesting actress; there is usually something mechanical and overdone in her manner. In some of her parts there is a kind of audible creaking of the machinery. If Delaunay is open to the reproach of having let a mannerism get the better of him, this accusation is much more fatally true of Mademoiselle Favart. On the other hand, she knows her trade as no one doesno one, at least, save Madame Plessy. When she is bad she is extremely bad, and sometimes she is interruptedly bad for a whole evening. In the revival of Scribes clever comedy of Une Chaine, this winter (which, by the way, though the cast included both Got and Coquelin, was the nearest approach to mediocrity I have ever seen at the Théâtre Français), Mademoiselle Favart was, to my sense, startlingly bad. The part had originally been played by Madame Plessy; and I remember how M. Sarcey in his feuilleton treated its actual representative. Mademoiselle Favart does Louise. Who does not recall the exquisite delicacy and temperance with which Mme. Plessy rendered that difficult scene in the second act? etc. And nothing more. When, however, Mademoiselle Favart is at her best, she is remarkably strong. She rises to great occasions. I doubt whether such parts as the desperate heroine of the Supplice dune Femme, or as Julie in Octave Feuillets lugubrious drama of that name, could be more effectively played than she plays them. She can carry a great weight without flinching; she has what the French call authority; and in declamation she sometimes unrolls her fine voice, as it were, in long harmonious waves and cadences the sustained power of which her younger rivals must often envy her.
I am drawing to the close of these rather desultory observations without having spoken of the four ladies commemorated by M. Sarcey in the publication which lies before me; and I do not know that I can justify my tardiness otherwise than by saying that writing and reading about artists of so extreme a personal brilliancy is poor work, and that the best the critic can do is to wish his reader may see them, from a quiet fauteuil, as speedily and as often as possible. Of Madeleine Brohan, indeed, there is little to say. She is a delightful person to listen to, and she is still delightful to look at, in spite of that redundancy of contour which time has contributed to her charms. But she has never been ambitious and her talent has had no particularly original quality. It is a long time since she created an important part; but in the old repertory her rich, dense voice, her charming smile, her mellow, tranquil gayety, always give extreme pleasure. To hear her sit and talk, simply, and laugh and play with her fan, along with Madame Plessy, in Molières Critique de lÉcole des Femmes, is an entertainment to be remembered. For Madame Plessy I should have to mend my pen and begin a new chapter; and for Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt no less a ceremony would suffice. I saw Madame Plessy for the first time in Émile Augiers Aventurière, when, as I mentioned, I first saw Regnier. This is considered by many persons her best part, and she certainly carries it off with a high hand; but I like her better in characters which afford more scope to her talents for comedy. These characters are very numerous, for her activity and versatility have been extraordinary. Her comedy of course is high; it is of the highest conceivable kind, and she has often been accused of being too mincing and too artificial. I should never make this charge, for, to me, Madame Plessys minauderies, her grand airs and her arch-refinements, have never been anything but the odorous swayings and queenly tossings of some splendid garden flower. Never had an actress grander manners. When Madame Plessy represents a duchess you have no allowances to make. Her limitations are on the side of the pathetic. If she is brilliant, she is cold; and I cannot imagine her touching the source of tears. But she is in the highest degree accomplished; she gives an impression of intelligence and intellect which is produced by none of her companionsexcepting always the extremely exceptional Sarah Bernhardt. Madame Plessys intellect has sometimes misled heras, for instance, when it whispered to her, a few years since, that she could play Agrippine in Racines Britannicus, on that tragedy being presented for the débuts of Mounet-Sully. I was verdant enough to think her Agrippine very fine. But M. Sarcey reminds his readers of what he said of it the Monday after the first performance. I will not sayhe quotes himselfthat Madame Plessy is indifferent. With her intelligence, her natural gifts, her great situation, her immense authority over the public, one cannot be indifferent in anything. She is therefore not indifferently bad. She is bad to a point that cannot be expressed and that would be distressing for dramatic art if it were not that in this great shipwreck there rise to the surface a few floating fragments of the finest qualities that nature has ever bestowed upon an artist.
Madame Plessy retired from the stage six months ago and it may be said that the void produced by this event is irreparable. There is not only no prospect, but there is no hope of filling it up. The present conditions of artistic production are directly hostile to the formation of actresses as consummate and as complete as Madame Plessy. One may not expect to see her like, any more than one may expect to see a new manufacture of old lace and old brocade. She carried off with her something that the younger generation of actresses will consistently lacka certain largeness of style and robustness of art. (These qualities are in a modified degree those of Mademoiselle Favart.) But if the younger actresses have the success of Mesdemoiselles Croizette and Sarah Bernhardt, will they greatly care whether they are not robust? These young ladies are children of a later and eminently contemporary type, according to which an actress undertakes not to interest but to fascinate. They are charmingawfully charming; strange, eccentric, imaginative. It would be needless to speak specifically of Mademoiselle Croizette; for although she has very great attractions I think she may (by the cold impartiality of science) be classified as a secondary, a less inspired and (to use the great word of the day) a more brutal Sarah Bernhardt. (Mademoiselle Croizettes brutality is her great card.) As for Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt, she is simply, at present, in Paris, one of the great figures of the day. It would be hard to imagine a more brilliant embodiment of feminine success; she deserves a chapter for herself.