Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Rica to ——
YESTERDAY I witnessed a most remarkable thing, although it is of daily occurrence in Paris.  1
  In the evening, after dinner, all the people gather together and play at a sort of dramatic game, which I have heard them call comedy. The main performance takes place upon a platform which is called the theatre. 1 On both sides may be seen little nooks called boxes, men and women who perform in dumb show, something after our own style in Persia.  2
  Here you see a languishing love-sick lady; there, a more animated dame exchanges burning glances with her lover: their faces portray every passion, and express them with an eloquence, none the less fervid because it is mute. The actresses here display only half their bodies, and usually wear a modest muff to hide their arms. In the lower part of the theatre there stands a crowd of people who ridicule those who are seated on high; the latter, in their turn, laugh at those who are below.  3
  But the most zealous and active of all are certain people whose youth enables them to support fatigue. They are obliged to appear everywhere; they move through passages known only to them, mounting with surprising agility from story to story; now above, now below, they visit every box. They dive, so to speak; are lost, and reappear; often they leave the place of performance, and carry on the game in another. And there are some who, by a miracle one would hardly have expected from the fact that they carry crutches, perform prodigies similar to those I have described. Lastly, there are the rooms where a private comedy is played. Commencing with salutations, the performers proceed to embrace each other: I am told that the slightest acquaintance gives a man a right to squeeze another to death. The place seems to inspire tenderness. Indeed, it is said that the princesses who reign here are far from cruel; and, with the exception of two or three hours during the day in which they are sufficiently hard hearted, it must be admitted that they are uniformly very tractable, their hardheartedness being a species of frenzy, which goes as easily as it comes.  4
  All this that I have described goes on in much the same style at another place called the Opera: the sole difference being, that they speak at the one, and sing at the other. One of my friends took me the other day to a box where one of the principal actresses was undressing. We became so well acquainted, that next morning I received the following letter from her:  5
  “SIR,—I, who have always been the most virtuous actress at the Opera, am yet the most miserable woman in the world. About seven or eight months ago, while I was in the box where you saw me yesterday, and in the act of dressing myself as priestess of Diana, a young Abbé broke in upon me. Undismayed by my white robe, my veil, and my frontlet, he stole from me my innocence. I have tried to persuade him of the greatness of the sacrifice I made; but he mocks me, and maintains that he found me very profane. In the meantime my pregnancy is so apparent, that I dare not show myself upon the stage; for I am, in the matter of honor, extremely delicate, and always insist that it is easier for a well-born woman to lose her virtue than her modesty. You will readily believe that the young Abbé would never have overcome such exquisite modesty, had he not given me a promise of marriage. Having such a good reason to do so, I overlooked the usual petty formalities, and began where I should have ended. But, since I am dishonored by his faithlessness, I do not wish to remain longer at the Opera, where, between you and me, they scarcely give me enough for a livelihood; because now, as I grow older, and, on the one hand, begin to lose my charms, on the other, my salary, which remains stationary, seems to grow less and less every day. I have learned from a member of your suite, that, in your country, they cannot make enough of a good dancer; and that, if I were once at Ispahan, I would quickly realize a fortune. If you would deign to take me under your protection, and carry me with you to your country, you would do yourself the credit of aiding a woman, whose virtuous behavior renders her not altogether unworthy of your good offices. I am…”

  PARIS, the 2nd of the moon of Chalval, 2 1712.
Note 1. “Come on, and let us get a seat on the theatre.—On the theatre, replied my Siamese; you’re joking. We are not going to perform, we come to look on.—No matter, I said, let us go and loll there. We shall see nothing, and hear badly; but it is the most expensive, and consequently the most honorable place.”—Dufresny’s Amusements sérieux et comiques, chap. v. [back]
Note 2. More correctly, Shawal, the tenth month of the Persian year. [back]

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