Frederick Hawkins.

Annals of the French stage from its origins to the death of Racine, Volume 1 online

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between their characters, they formed a friendship which
withstood the crucial test of daily intercourse for nearly
forty years. They lived in adjoining houses, and the
utmost harmony appears to have subsisted between
them. M. Comeille de Tile, as the younger was called,
treated and spoke of his brother with something like
reverence ; Pierre, on his part, used to declare that he
would give much to be the author of the other s best
work. In a wall separating their studies there was a
sliding panel, and when the great Comeille found
himself at a loss for a word or a rhyme, as was not
unfrequently the case, he would unceremoniously avail
himself of this means of communication with his brother
to get out of the difficulty. Thomas Corneille's first
essay in the drama, Les EngagemenU du llamrd, was
suggested by the same play as Boisrobert's Inconntfc, but
was written before that piece made its appearance.

Simultaneously with the production of Les Engage-
menta du Hasard a graceful compliment was paid by the
Court to the elder Corneille. The opera, a form of
composition which admitted of a variety of spectacular
effects, had been invented at the end of the previous
century by a little band of Florentines, and, favoured
by influential personages. Popes and Cardinals not
excepted, was now firmly established in Italy. In



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166 THE FRENCH STAGE. [1647.

1645, a piece belonging to this category, La Feata
teatrale della Finta Pazzia, was played at the Petit
Luxembourg by a company of actors collected from
various parts of Italy for the purpose ; Cardinal Mazarin,
who occupied without filling the place of Richelieu,
having, as the story goes, been urged by Urban VIII.,
the poet-pontiflF, to try the effect in Paris of a product
so honourable to the genius of their country. The
libretto was by Jacques Torelli, a Venetian architect of
literary and theatrical proclivities, and the score by
Giulio Strozzi. Had the Minister foreseen how the
experiment would tu^n out he would not have ventured
to make it. Most of the spectators testified no pleasure
with the entertainment, some in order to mortify the
much -hated Cardinal, some on account of knowing little
or nothing of Italian, and some because they objected to
opera on principle. In the last-mentioned class we find
no less cultivated a critic than Saint Evremond. He
thought that " a play sung from beginning to end, as if
the persons represented had come to the absurd under-
standing to discourse in music on the most ordinary as
well as the most important affairs of life, was contrary
to nature, hurtful to the imagination, and offensive to
the understanding." St. Evremond, it is clear, had but
narrow views as to the prerogatives of poetry and art ;
and he might well have been asked whether French
tragedy, with its rhymed alexandrines and stately



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1G47.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 167



declamation, was less " contrary to nature " than what
he denounced for that reason. In 1647, piqued at his
ill-success, Mazarin had an Orfeo played three times a
week for two successive months in the small salon of
the Palais Royal by another Italian company, headed
by a Signora Leonora. Anne of Austria, to humour
the Minister, was present at each performance, but on
one occasion, when the opera was so timed as to clash
with her devotions, she went away early — a circum-
stance which seems to have caused him the greatest
annoyance. Notwithstanding the interest which the
Queen feigned to take in it, Orfeo became a subject of
derision at Court, and the Cardinal, whose chagrin
thereat was aggravated by the surreptitious publication
of a satire entitled Le Ballet et le Branle de la Fuite de
Mazarin, danse sur le Tliedtre de la France par lui-menie et
par ses adherents, deemed it expedient to give the Italian
actors their conye. In yielding to the force of circum-
stances, however, he did not entirely relinquish his
purpose. He resolved that a piece of an operatic
character, but bearing a diflFerent designation, should
be w^ritten by a French dramatist for the Court ; and
Corneille was selected to execute the work.

The result was Andromede — a graceful poem in action,
with musical embellishments here and there, and so
constructed as to allow of a variety of stage pictures
being presented. The Court was on tip-toe with ex-



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168 THE FRENCH STAGE. [1647.

pectation, but at the eleventh hour the performance was
indefinitely deferred. " In the Palais Cardinal," writes
Conrart to F^libfen, "great preparations have been
made to play this carnival a comedie en musique^ with
words by M. Corneille. He has taken the fable of
Andromeda as his subject, and, I believ^, has treated it
more to our taste than have the Italians ; but since the
recovery of the King," young Louis XIV., now ten
years of age, from his late illness, "M. Vincent has
turned the Queen against such amusements, the con-
sequence being that " at Court " all such vanities have
been dropped." This M. Vincent, if I am not mistaken, "
was the cur^ of St. Germain FAuxerrois, who, not to
be deterred by the frowns of the Court from doing
what he conceived to be his duty, boldly admonished
the Queen for countenancing such pernicious things as
stage-plays, especially the " comedie h. machines." Her
majesty, taking the admonition to heart, referred the
question to the Bishops, who, evidently aware of her
predilection for the drama, promptly decided in her
favour. In regard to amusements, they said, kings
and queens must have more latitude than humbler
individuals. Historical and serious plays might be
represented at Court without scruple. By assisting at
such performances, moreover, the courtiers in attend-
ance upon her majesty might be withdrawn from more
questionable amusements in the town. The cure of St.



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1647.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 169

Germain rAuxerrois, however, was not easily beaten.
Supported by seven doctors of the Sorbonne, he held
the Queen to be guilty of nothing less than peche
mortel^ and the Sorbonne itself was requested to deter-
mine the point thus raised. The result need hardly
be stated. Eleven or twelve doctors out of nineteen
decided that the ideas of the apostolic age were not
binding upon persons living in the seventeenth century
(although even now the pleasures of a worldly mind were
not to be freely indulged in), and that the Queen was
at liberty to witness the performance of any play void
of oflfence to morality. But the complaisance of the
Bishops and the Sorbonnists was not attended by any
change in the attitude of the Church towards the stage ;
at the very moment when they gave judgment, perhaps
the remains of some player who had enlivened the
Queen in the theatre of the Palais Royal were being
interred in an unconsecrated grave.

The Court was now free to see Andromede ; but the
insurrection of the Fronde, which broke out soon after-
wards, and in the course of which Anne of Austria
found it necessary to fly from the capital with her son
and Mazarin, led to another postponement of the play.
The agitation produced in Paris by this contest between
the Parliament and the royal authority was naturally
inimical to the interests of the theatres. The number
of new pieces brought out during the two years which



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170 THE FRENCH STAGE. [1G48-9.

followed the Day of the Barricades may almost be
counted upon the fingers. The actors of the Marais,
anxious to ascertain how far a comcdie a machines
would suit the popular taste, had recourse to the Abb6
Boyer, who thereupon devised for them Ulf/sse dans
rile de Circe. Thomaj* Corneille, following up his first
success, adapted Calderon's Astrologo Fin</ido under the
precisely similar title of Z^ Feint Astrolofjfue, and Francisco
de Roxas s Entre Bohos Anda El Jaego under that of Don
Bertrand de Cigarral. Precisians exclaimed against the
latter as outrageously farcical, but could not keep it
out of the repertory of the players. Boisrobert was
indebted to Lope de Vega for the substance of a Jalouse
d" Elle-vieme, which also succeeded. Two comedies by
Rotrou, La Florimonde and Don Lope de Cardonne^ also
came from the other side of the Pyrenees, but in the
interval between them he vindicated his right to the
title of an original and effective dramatist by a tragedy
having Cosrhoes for its hero. Duryer, too, had three
plays accepted — NitocriSy DgnamiSy and Amarillis. ITie
mGrry humour of Scarron again shone forth in LHeritier
Ridicule — a humour in remarkable contrast with the
bitterness of the lampoons he launched against Mazarin
at this period.

The political and social storm began to pass away ;
the Court returned to Paris, and Androniede was
represented before it on a stage fitted up for it in



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1650.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 171

the Hotel du Petit Bourbon, situated in the Kue des
Poulies, opposite the cloister of St. Germain TAuxerrois.
" The most critical," says Renaudot, " must confess that
the Andromede of the Sieur Comeille is produced in
a manner to charm every spectator." But then the
scenery was under the management of Jacques Torelli,
who, to say nothing of other improvements he had eflfected
in this branch of theatrical art, had devised the means
of changing an elaborate set in almost less time than
it takes to record the feat. The tircumstances under
which he had left Venice are not a little curious. His
achievements as a stage mechanician gave rise there to
the dark suspicion that he had dealings with the Devil ;
and one night an attempt was made by a party of
men in masks to assassinate him. He defended himself
80 well that his assailants — more than ever convinced,
perhaps, that their suspicions were not without cause
— took quickly to their heels, though not before one of
them had badly wounded him in the hand. Finding
his native city was becoming too warm for him, the
" great sorcerer," as he was styled, took up his quarters
in less superstitious Paris, where he seems to have
been cordially received by Mazarin. The success of
Andronwde was due in a large measure to the scenic
eflfects devised for it by this versatile Venetian, but the
piece appealed to the ear almost as much as the eye.
Not to speak of the music engrafted upon it, the verse



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172 THE FRENCH STAGE, [1650.

displayed a grace of fancy for which even the Cid had
scarcely prepared the audience.

The satisfaction derived by Corneille from the result
of his labours was soon to be qualified by the loss of
the oldest and most valued of his Parisian friends.
For some time past Rotrou had filled the posts of
Lieutcnant-Particulier and Commissaire-Examinateur au
Comtc et Bailliage of Dreux, his native place. Here,
except when he had a play in rehearsal, he invariably
resided — a circumstance which served to exclude him
from the Academy, as by the rules of that body any
one living out of Paris could not be made one of the
Forty. In the summer of this year a terrible epidemic
visited the town, and, setting all medical science and
skill at defiance, seemed likely to carry ofi" the
whole of the population. Most of the local officials
sought safety in flight, but Rotrou, disregarding the
entreaties of many friends, would not follow their
example. Holding the offices he did, he thought it
was incumbent upon him to assist in checking the
progress of the disorder, to mitigate suffering, and to
(*omfort the bereaved. "The peril in which I stand/'
he writes to his brother, "is imminent. The bells are
at this moment tolling for the twenty-second death
to-day. Before long, perhaps, they will toll for me ;
])ut my conscience tells me I am only performing
my duty. The will of God be done!" He accord-



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1650.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 173

ingly remained at his post; and three days after the
foregoing letter was written, on the 27th of June,
the gloom which hung over the unfortunate town
was deepened by the announcement that M. Rotrou
had fallen a victim to the scourge. Prone as French-
men are to forget public services, the name of this
intrepid magistrate is still held in affectionate venera-
tion by the good people of Dreux, although more than
two centuries elapsed before a monument to his memory
was erected on the scene of his self-sacrifice. In his
case, perhaps, no such tribute was required. His chief
tragedies, with all their inequalities and shortcomings,
occupy a permanent place in French literature ; and
the heroism which marked his premature end would
show that if he excelled in the portraiture of generous
impulses and sentiments it was because he was no
stranger to them himself.

Corneille may have found 'some relief from the
sorrow into which he was plunged by Rotrou 's death
in tlie composition of a new play. Don Sanclic (T Arragon^
heroic comedy, appeared at the end of the year. At
the outset it was received with great favour, but in
the course of a few nights the actors found themselves
playing it to thin audiences. The cause of its fiiilure
is not far to seek. The hero, a man of unknown
origin, but graced with every virtue and accomplish-
ment, is loved by two Queens, and eventually, by means



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174 THE fRENCH STAGE. [1650.

of a deus ex machinay turns out to be the brother of one
and the husband of the other. How Corneille could
have persuaded himself that such a story would serve
the purpose of a heroic comedy it is not easy to under-
stand. In his remarks on the play, however, he ascribes
the failure of Bon Sanche less to its demerits than
the " refus d un illustre suflfrage." The person here
glanced at, it has been suggested, was Anne of Austria,
before whom the piece was played immediately after its
first production at the H6tel de Bourgogne. Don Sanche,
by reminding her in some respects of Cromwell, could
find little favour in her eyes, especially after the
Fronde, says one commentator. But the refusal of the
Queen's suffrage could have had no prejudicial effect
upon the fate of the play in the Rue Mauconseil. If
anything, the fact that a play had been fi-owned upon
at Court would just then have afforded a potent reason
for applauding it in the town, and even in a different
state of public feeling the playgoing community would
hardly have reversed their original verdict because
it was not in unison with the Queen s. For these
reasons I believe that the failure of Don Sanche
d' Airagon was due exclusively to its own defects,
which, however, did not prevent it from succeeding
in other parts of France.

Don Sanche d'Arragon was followed by a comedy
from Thomas Corneille, U Amour a la Mode^ with



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1650.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 175

Floridor as Oroute, the chief personage, and Jodelet

as Cliton, a diverting valet. In the first of these

parts a typical Frenchman is described :

Si cliaque objet me plait c'est sans inquietude ;
Jamais de preference et point de servitude.
Ainsi quelque beau feu que je fasse paraltre,
Pour ue rien hasarder j*en suis toujours le maltre ;
Ainsi divers objets m'engagent tour a tour,
Je me regarde seul dans ce trafic d'amour ;
£t chassaut de mon coeur celui qui m'incommode,
Si je sais mid aimer, du moina j'aime k la mode.

The same piece exhibits a lively coquette, by name
Doroth^e. Next came La Folic Gageure^ a comedy by
Boisrobert, or rather by Lope de Vega, and Seleucus^
a tragedy by Montauban. Eighteen or nineteen years
previously Rotrou wrote an Jmari/lis, but as the
pastoral was then going out of fashion he turned it into
a comedy under the title of Celinihie. Edited by
Tristan, the piece was now represented in its original
form, with Mdlle. Baron, doubtless looking very pic-
turesque in her male attire, as B^lise. It seems to have
made some noise in the world, for Tubeuf, the Intendant
des Finances, had it played in the course of Vif&te which
he soon afterwards gave at Ruel to the King.

In the cast of Amarillis I find a new actor, Jean
Villiers, who did well as youthful heroes of tragedy.
Nor was he the only recruit secured at this time by
the Hotel de Bourgogne. Eldest son of a learned
mathematician, Eaimond Poisson received an excellent



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176 THE FRENCH STAGE. [1051-2

education, and on approaching manhood had the good
fortune to win the friendship of the Due de Crequi. His
family wished him to be a surgeon, but a passion he
had conceived for the stage led him to go into the
country as a strolling player. He was not ill-advised ;
in the delineation of quaint character he quickly
established a high reputation, and the doors of the
H6tel de Bouigogne were opened to receive him.
But for a slight stutter he would have been deemed
faultless as a comedian. He also became the delight of
the Court, in some measure, perhaps, because the King
liked both his acting and his conversation. In an
engraving by Edelinck the new-comer is shown to have
been of good presence, with good eyes, large mouth,
and fine teeth. Not content with his fame as an
actor, he coveted the laurels of the dramatist, and if
his taste in this respect was not born of talent he did
not wholly fail. His first play was a farce entitled
Labin^ on le Sot Vcng6.

And now we have to speak of another tragedy by
Corncille. Nicoiucde is of almost exclusively political
interest, and even in the middle of the seventeenth
century might have been pronounced dull if the author
had not shot a thread of fine irony through the speeches
of the hero, dignified several scenes with new traits
of highmindcdness, and clothed the whole with the
distinctively energetic language of which he was the



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1652.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 177

great and unrivalled master. The time fixed upon for
its production proved opportune enough. For some
time past the great Cond^ and the Prince de Conti
had been under lock and key on account of the attitude
they had assumed towards the Court. They were now
released; and the populace of Paris, who not long
previously had loaded them with execrations, went into
transports of joy on hearing the news. Nicomade^ which
appeared before this effervescence had subsided, con-
tained more than one passage in harmony with public
sentiment, the consequence being that the progress of
the play was frequently interrupted by significant
bursts of applause. If these demonstrations occasioned
annoyance to Corneille it was not simply from a fear
that they would expose him to the ill-will of the Court.
He seems to have carefully held aloof from the political
warfare of the time, however frequent his visits to the
house of the " Abb^ " Scarron might be.

By the way, that eccentric invalid, of all men in
the world, had just entered into the matrimonial state.
In the train of one of his habitual guests he had
perceived a beautiful girl of sixteen summers, by name
Fran9oise d'Aubign^. Her previous history and present
position could not but give her great interest in his
eyes. Of good birth, but a penniless orphan, she had
fallen into the hands of a distant relative, Madame
de Neuillant, who induced her, though not without

VOL. I. N



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178 THE FRENCH STAGE. [1652.

considerable ditBculty, to abjure Calvinism, the faith in
which she may be said to have been brought up, and
who was now looking for a religious community that
would receive her without the customary dof. Mean-
while, CindercUa-like, the girl was reduced to the most
menial occupations, but on one occasion was allowed to
attend her kind protectress to the house in the Rue de
la Tixeranderie. Scarron was sensibly impressed by her
beauty, her charm of manner, her cruel degradation.
Suddenly becoming poetic, he sang of her under the
names of Sylvia and Chloris. In the result, moved by
passion and compassion, he resolved to provide for her
himself. Did she wish to enter a convent ? In that
case he would pay the necessary money. Did she wish
to marry ? As for himself, he could offer only a limited
fortune and a very ugly face. For once the jester was in
earnest ; and Mdlle. d'Aubigne, after a little hesitation,
accepted the second proposal. " Immortality," he said
to the notary as the marriage contract was being pre-
pared, " is what I settle upon her. The names of kings'
wives die with them ; that of the wife of Scarron will
live for ever." The prediction was to be verified,
though not exactly in the way which the grotesque
poet — long since divested for good of his clerical
functions — could have anticipated.

Madame Scarron imparted a new charm *and a new
character to the meetings at her husband's house. Her



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1652] THE FRENCH STAGE. 179

timidity as a girl soon wore off, revealing a woinau of
infinite savoir-faire, grace of manner, and even wit.
Her salon became nothing less than a temple of fashion.
The proudest cavalier or dame seemed to think it a
privilege to be included in her set. Gilles Boileau,
whose election to the Academy had been opposed by
Scarron, maliciously proclaimed that this social success
was due exclusively to the lady, and her husband
gallantly declared that such was the fact. The tongue
of scandal, as may be supposed, was busy enough with
her name ; but there is absolutely no reason to suppose
that her conduct justified the aspersions cast upon her.
Nor does her claim to our respect end here. From the
hour of her marriaore a changje stole over the tone of
the gatherings in the Rue de la Tixeranderie. The
conversation became decent without losing any of its
brightness — as void of offence to ears polite as any
to be heard in the refined atmosphere of the H6tel de
Rambouillet.

Scarron himself was to yield to the purifying
influence exerted by his wife. Both at the table and
in his writings he ceased to indulge in unclean jests
and expressions. The first comedy he wrote after
his marriage, Don Japltct dArnvtnie, bears emphatic
testimony to the change thus wrought in him. Barely
inferior in liveliness to what had gone before it, this
piece, in which a fool by profession appears for the first

N 2



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180 THE FRENCH STAGE. [1652.

time on the French stage, was comparatively free from
the taint of indecency. Not until he had finally put off
the garb of the Abb6 did the poet seem worthy to wear
it. Don Japhet, indeed, caused so little scandal that the
author obtained permission, doubtless through Anne of
Austria, to dedicate it to the King — ^a privilege of which
he availed himself in a characteristic manner. '* On
occasions such as these," he writes, " it is usual to say
in fine language that you are the greatest monarch in
the world ; that at the age of fourteen or fifteen you are
more learned in the art of government than a gray-
bearded ruler ; that you are the handsomest of men, to
say nothing of kings, who are a limited class, &c. I do
not propose to do any such thing ; all that may be
taken for granted. I simply seek to persuade your
majesty that if you extended to me a little practical
encouragement {me faisait un peu de bien) you would
not be doing a great wrong ; that if you gave me a little
practical encouragement I should be gayer than I am ;
that if I were gayer than I am I should produce lively
comedies ; that if I produced lively comedies your
majesty would be amused ; that if you were amused
your money would not be wasted.*' M. Scarron, who
about this time had lost an action a<jainst \na mother-in-
law for the recovery of his rights, was evidently in want
of money ; and it is also worthy of note that the first
play he wrote after his marriage with Mdlle. d'Aubign^



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1652.] THE FRENCH STAGE. 181

— a play which probably owed something to her — should
have been associated with the name of Louis XIV.

In the circle at Scarron's house we perceive a man
who never appeared in the streets of Paris without
striking terror into the hearts of many passers-by.
Cirano de Bergerac, of the Regiment des Gardes, was
commonly known as a " demon de la bravoure." There
was scarcely a day on which he had not a duel on his
hands. In one of his letters he says, " Quand tout le
genre humain serait erig^ en une tSte, quand de tous
Ics vivants il n'en resterait qu'un, ce serait encore
un duel que me resterait ^ faire." Most of these
little "aflfaires" were due to a singular cause. His
nose was strangely deformed ; and if any one incon-
sidercitely stopped in the street to laugh or even stare


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Online LibraryFrederick HawkinsAnnals of the French stage from its origins to the death of Racine, Volume 1 → online text (page 11 of 23)