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Chapter 9

THEATER


JOANNY.

March 7, 1830, Midnight.



They have been playing "Hernani" at the Théâtre-Français
since February 25. The receipts for each performance
have been five thousand francs. The public
every night hisses all the verses. It is a rare uproar. The
parterre hoots, the boxes burst with laughter. The actors
are abashed and hostile; most of them ridicule what they
have to say. The press has been practically unanimous
every morning in making fun of the piece and the author.
If I enter a reading room I cannot pick up a paper without
seeing: "Absurd as "Hernani"; silly, false, bombastic,
pretentious, extravagant and nonsensical as "Hernani"." If I
venture into the corridors of the theatre while
the performance is in progress I see spectators issue from their
boxes and slam the doors indignantly. Mlle. Mars
plays her part honestly and faithfully, but laughs at it,
even in my presence. Michelot plays his resignedly and
laughs at it behind my back. There is not a scene shifter,
not a super, not a lamp lighter but points his finger at me.

To-day I dined with Joanny, who had invited me.
Joanny plays Ruy Gomez. He lives at No. 1 Rue du
Jardinet, with a young seminarist, his nephew. The
dinner party was sober and cordial. There were some
journalists there, among others M. Merle, the husband of Mme.
Dorval. After dinner, Joanny, who has the most beautiful
white hair in the world, rose, filled his glass, turned
towards me. I was on his right hand. Here literally is
what he said to me; I have just returned home and
I write his words:

"Monsieur Victor Hugo, the old man, now unknown,
who two hundred years ago filled the role of Don Diègue
in "Le Cid" was not more penetrated with respect and
admiration in presence of the great Corneille than the old
man who plays Don Buy Gomez is to-day in your presence."


MADEMOISELLE MARS.

In her last illness Mlle. Mars was often delirious. One
evening the doctor arrived. She was in the throes of a
high fever, and her mind was wandering. She prattled
about the theatre, her mother, her daughter, her niece
Georgina, about all that she held dear; she laughed, wept,
screamed, sighed deeply.

The doctor approached her bed and said to her: "Dear
lady, calm yourself, it is I." She did not recognise him
and her mind continued to wander. He went on: "Come,
show me your tongue, open your mouth." Mlle. Mars
gazed at him, opened her mouth and said: "Here, look.
Oh! all my teeth are my very own!"

Célimène still lived.


FREDERICK LEMAITRE.

Frédérick Lemaitre is cross, morose and kind. He lives
in retirement with his children and his mistress, who at
present is Mlle. Clarisse Miroy.

Frédérick likes the table. He never invites anybody to
dinner except Porcher, the chief of the claque.*
Fredérick and Porcher "thee-thou" each other. Porcher
has common sense, good manners, and plenty of money,
which he lends gallantly to authors whose rent is due.
Porcher is the man of whom Harel said: "He likes,
protects and disdains Literary men."

* A band of men and boys who are paid to applaud a piece or a
certain actor or actress at a given signal. The applause contractor, or
~chef de claque~, is an important factor in French theatrical affairs.

Frédérick has never less than fifteen dishes at his table.
When the servant brings them in he looks at them and
judges them without tasting them. Often he says:

"That is bad."

"Have you eaten of it?"

"No, God forbid!"

"But taste it."

"It is detestable."

"I will taste it," says Clarisse.

"It is execrable. I forbid you to do so."

"But let me try it."

"Take that dish away! It is filthy!" And he sends
for his cook and rates her soundly.

He is greatly feared by all his household. His domestics
live in a state of terror. At table, if he does not speak,
no one utters a word. Who would dare to break the
silence when he is mute? One would think it was a dinner
of dumb people, or a supper of Trappists, except for
the good cheer. He likes to wind up the repast with fish.
If there is turbot he has it served after the creams. He
drinks, when dining, a bottle and a half of Bordeaux wine.
Then, after dinner, he lights his cigar, and while smoking
drinks two other bottles of wine.

For all that he is a comedian of genius and a very good
fellow. He is easily moved to tears, which start to his
eyes at a word said to him angrily or reproachfully.


This dates back to 1840. Mlle. Atala Beaudouin (the
actress who under the name of Louise Beaudouin created
the role of the Queen in Ruy Bias) had left Frédérick
Lemaître, the great and marvellous comedian. Frédérick
adored her and was inconsolable.

Mlle. Atala's mother had strongly advised her daughter
on this occasion. Frédérick was occasionally violent,
notwithstanding that he was very amorous; and, besides, a
Russian prince had presented himself. In short, Mlle.
Atala persisted in her determination and positively refused
to see Frederick.

Frederick made frightful threats, especially against the
mother. One morning there was a violent ringing at Mlle.
Atala's bell. Her mother opened the door and recoiled in
terror. It was Frédérick. He entered, dropped into the
chair that was handiest to him, and said to the old woman:

"Don't be afraid, I haven't come to kick your--,
I have come to weep."


THE COMIQUES

September, 1846

Potier, having grown old, played at the Porte Saint
Martin towards the close of his life. He was the same in
the street as he was on the stage. Little boys would
follow him, saying: "There is Potier!" He had a small
cottage near Paris and used to come to rehearsals mounted
on a small horse, his long thin legs dangling nearly to the
ground.

Tiercelin was a Hellenist. Odry is a connoisseur of
chinaware. The elephantine Lepeintre junior runs into
debt and lives the life of a ~coquin de neuveu~.

Alcide Tousez, Sainville and Ravel carry on in the
green room just as they do on the stage, inventing
cock-and-bull yarns and cracking jokes.

Arnal composes classic verse, admires Samson, waxes
wrath because the cross has not been conferred upon him.
And, in the green room, with rouge on his nose and cheeks
and a wig on his head, talks, between two slaps in the face
given or received, about Guizot's last speech, free trade
and Sir Robert Peel; he interrupts himself, makes his
entry upon the stage, plays his part, returns and gravely
resumes: "I was saying that Robert Peel----"

Poor Arnal recently was driven almost insane. He had
a mistress whom he adored. This woman fleeced him.
Having become rich enough she said to him: "Our position
is an immoral one and an end must be put to it. An
honest man has offered me his name and I am going to get
married." Arnal was disconsolate. "I give you the
preference," said the belle, "marry me." Arnal is married.
The woman left him and has become a bourgeoise.
Arnal nearly lost his reason through grief. This does
not prevent him from playing his pasquinades every night
at the Vaudeville. He makes fun of his ugliness, of his
age, of the fact that he is pitted with small-pox--laughs
at all those things that prevented him from pleasing the
woman he loved, and makes the public laugh--and his
heart is broken. Poor red queue! What eternal and
incurable sorrows there be in the gaiety of a buffoon! What
a lugubrious business is that of laughter!


MADEMOISELLE GEORGES.

October, 23, 1867.

Mlle. George came to see me to-day. She was sad, and
elegantly dressed in a blue dress with white stripes. She
said: "I am weary and disgusted. I asked for Mars' reversion.
They granted me a pension of two thousand
francs which they do not pay. Just a mouthful of bread,
and even that I do not get a chance to eat! They wanted
to engage me at the Historique (at the Théâtre Historique).
I refused. What could I do there among
those transparencies! A stout woman like me! Besides,
where are the authors? Where are the pieces? Where
are the roles? As to the provinces, I tried touring last
year, but it is impossible without Harel.* I don't know
how to manage actors. How do you think I can get on
with these evil doers? I was to have finished the 24th.
I paid them on the 20th, and fled. I returned to Paris to
visit poor Harel's tomb. It is frightful, a tomb! It is
horrible to see his name there on the stone! Yet I did
not weep. I was dry-eyed and cold. What a strange
thing is life! To think that this man who was so clever,
so witty, should die an idiot! He passed his days doing
like this with his fingers. Not a spark of reason remained.
It is all over. I shall have Rachel at my benefit; I shall
play with her that chestnut "Iphigênie". We shall make
money, but I don't care. Besides, I'm sure she wouldn't
play Rodogune! I will also play, if you will permit me,
an act of "Lucrèce Borgia". You see, I am for Rachel;
she is an artful one, if you like. See how she checkmates
those rascally French actors! She renews her engagements,
assures for herself pyrotechnics, vacations, heaps
of gold. When the contract is signed she says: "By the
bye, I forgot to tell you that I have been enceinte for
four months; it will be five months before I am able to
play." She does well. If I had done the same thing I
shouldn't have to die like a dog on a litter of straw.
Tragedians, you see, are comedians after all. That poor
Dorval, what has become of her, do you know? There
is one to be pitied, if you like! She is playing I know not
where, at Toulouse, at Carpentras, in barns, to earn her
living! She is reduced like me to showing her bald head
and dragging her poor old carcass on badly planed boards
behind footlights of four tallow candles, among strolling
actors who have been to the galleys, or who ought to be
there! Ah! Monsieur Hugo, all this is nothing to you
who are in good health and well off, but we are poor
miserable creatures!"

* M. Harel was manager of the Porte St. Martin Theatre. Mlle.
Georges lived with him.


TABLEAUX VIVANTS

In the year 1846 there was a spectacle that caused a
furore in Paris. It was that afforded by women attired
only in pink tights and a gauze skirt executing poses
that were called ~tableaux vivants~, with a few men to
complete the groups. This show was given at the Porte Saint
Martin and at the Cirque. I had the curiosity one night
to go and see the women behind the scenes. I went to the
Porte Saint Martin, where, I may add in parentheses, they
were going to revive "Lucrêce Borgia". Villemot, the stage
manager, who was of poor appearance but intelligent,
said: "I will take you into the gynecium."

A score of men were there--authors, actors, firemen,
lamp lighters, scene shifters--who came, went, worked or
looked on, and in the midst of them seven or eight women,
practically nude, walked about with an air of the most
naïve tranquillity. The pink tights that covered them
from the feet to the neck were so thin and transparent that
one could see not only the toes, the navel, and the breasts,
but also the veins and the colour of the least mark on the
skin on all parts of their bodies. Towards the abdomen,
however, the tights became thicker and only the form was
distinguishable. The men who assisted them were similarly
arranged. All these people were English.

At intervals of five minutes the curtain parted and
they executed a ~tableau~. For this they were posed
in immobile attitudes upon a large wooden disc which
revolved upon a pivot. It was worked by a child
of fourteen who reclined on a mattress beneath it. Men
and women were dressed up in chiffons of gauze or merino
that were very ugly at a distance and very ignoble ~de prês~.
They were pink statues. When the disc had revolved
once and shown the statues on every side to the public
crowded in the darkened theatre, the curtain closed again,
another tableau was arranged, and the performance
recommenced a moment later.

Two of these women were very pretty. One resembled
Mme. Rey, who played the Queen in "Ruy Blas" in 1840;
it was this one who represented Venus. She was
admirably shaped. Another was more than pretty: she
was handsome and superb. Nothing more magnificent
could be seen than her black, sad eyes, her disdainful
mouth, her smile at once bewitching and haughty. She
was called Maria, I believe. In a tableau which
represented "A Slave Market," she displayed the imperial
despair and the stoical dejection of a nude queen offered
for sale to the first bidder. Her tights, which were torn
at the hip, disclosed her firm white flesh. They were,
however only poor girls of London. All had dirty finger nails.

When they returned to the green room they laughed
as freely with the scene shifters as with the authors, and
talked broken French while they adjusted all kinds of
frightful rags upon their charming visages. Their smile
was the calm smile of perfect innocence or of complete
corruption.

Victor Hugo