France produced in this period no plays that have defied oblivion—perhaps excepting a few of those that Voltaire sent up from Les Délices or Ferney. But France gave the drama every encouragement of staging and acclaim. In 1773 Victor Louis raised at Bordeaux the finest theater in the realm, with a pompous portico of Corinthian columns, classic balustrade, and sculptural embellishments. The Comédie-Française, acknowledged by Garrick to be the best group of actors in Europe, was housed in the Théâtre-Français built in 1683 in the Rue des Fosses, St.-Germain-des-Prés: three tiers of galleries in a narrow oblong that compelled declamation and set the oratorical style of acting in France. Hundreds of families staged private theatricals, from Voltaire at Ferney to the Queen at Trianon—where Marie Antoinette played Colette in Rousseau’s Le Devin du village— and the Prince de Ligne thought that “more than ten ladies of quality play and sing better than any in the playhouse.”24 “Little theaters” sprouted everywhere in France. A Bernardine monastery, hidden in the woods of Bresse, built a small theater for its monks, “without” (said one of them) “the knowledge of bigots and small minds.”25
Despite amateur competition, the stars of the Comédie-Française shone brightly over France. We have seen how the people of Geneva and Ferney came out to see Lekain when he played for Voltaire at Châtelaine. His real name was Henri-Louis Cain, but this was a cursed cognomen which he for-givably changed. Neither was his face his fortune; Mlle. Clairon took some time to warm to him even in a play. Voltaire had discovered his ability in an amateur performance, had coached him, and had found a place for him at the Théâtre-Français. On September 14, 1750, Lekain made his debut as Titus in Voltaire’s Brutus; and for a generation thereafter he took the male lead in Voltaire’s plays. The irascible patriarch loved him to the end.
But Voltaire’s stage favorite (now that Adrienne Lecouvreur had passed away) was Mlle. Clairon. Legally she was Claire-Josèphe Hippolyte Léris de La Tude. Born without benefit of marriage in 1723, and not expected to survive, she lived to be eighty—which is not always a blessing for the heroines of the stage. It was not thought worth while to educate her, but she stole her way into the Théâtre-Français, was entranced by the scenery-plus-orations, and never quite overcame a tendency to make speeches even in the ecstasy of love. She announced that she would be an actress; her mother threatened to break her arms and legs if she persisted in so sinful a resolve;26 she persisted and joined a traveling troupe. She soon acquired the morals that were customary in her new profession. “Thanks to my talent, my good looks, and the ease with which I could be approached, I saw so many men at my feet that it would have been impossible for me, being endowed with a naturally tender heart,♥ to be inaccessible to love.”27
Back in Paris, she charmed M. de La Popelinière; he enjoyed her, and then used his influence to get her a place at the Opéra; four months later the Duchesse de Châteauroux, current mistress to the King, secured her admission to the Comédie-Française. The company asked her to choose her first role, expecting her to follow custom and select a minor part; she proposed to play Phèdre; the company protested, but let her have her way; she carried off the adventure triumphantly. Henceforth she starred in tragic roles, in which her only rival was Mlle. Dumesnil. She gained a reputation for acquisitive promiscuity. She entertained a roster of nobles, made them pay well, hoarded her gains, and then yielded much of them to her favorite lover, the Chevalier de Jaucourt, who wrote articles on economics for the Encyclopédie. She paid a price, too, for the attentions of Marmontel, whom we shall soon meet as the author of Moral Tales. Consider the woman’s side of it in her letter to him: “Is it possible that you did not know what troubles you caused me (unintentionally, but I had them all the same), and that those troubles have kept me in bed for six weeks, in critical danger? I cannot believe that you were aware of this, else you would not have gone out in society while everybody knew what condition I was in.”28 Nevertheless she and Marmontel remained fast friends for thirty years.
It was he whose criticisms and suggestions led her to make an important change in acting. Till 1748 she had followed the method usual at the Théâtre-Français—forceful and emotional speech, grand gestures, trembling passion. Marmontel found this unnatural and distasteful. Amid her liaisons Clairon had done much reading, and had become one of the best-educated women of her day; her fame and esprit had won her admission to cultivated society; she perceived that the emptiest vessels were the most resonant. In 1752 an attack of syphilis compelled her to withdraw for a time from the stage. Recovering, she accepted an engagement to give thirty-five performances in Bordeaux. On her first night there, she tells us, she played Phèdre in the traditional manner, “with all the noise, fury, and unreason which then were so applauded in Paris.” She was applauded. But on the next night she played Agrippine in Racine’s Britannicus in quiet voice and restrained gestures, leaving emotions pent up until the final scene. She received an ovation. Returning to Paris, she won the old audience to her new style. Diderot warmly approved; he had her in mind when he wrote The Paradox of the Actor— that a good actor is inwardly calm and self-possessed even in the most passionate moments of his roles; and he asked, “What acting was ever more perfect than Clairon’s?”29 She liked to shock her admirers by telling them that she mentally reviewed her monthly bills while conveying to an audience a pathos that moved it to tears.30 Voltaire did not welcome the new method, but he effectively supported her, and she him, in reforming costume and furniture on the stage. Heretofore all actresses had played their roles—of any nation or age—in the dress of eighteenth-century Paris, with hoopskirts and powdered hair; Clairon startled her audience by dressing her body and hair in the style of the time in the play; and when she played Idamé in Voltaire’s Orphan of China the costume and furniture were Chinese.
In 1763 Clairon went to Geneva to consult Dr. Tronchin. Voltaire asked her to stay with him at Les Délices. “Madame Denis is ill; so am I. Monsieur Tronchin will come to our hospital to see the three of us.”31 She came, and the old sage liked her so much that he lured her to Ferney for a longer visit, and persuaded her to join him in several performances in his theater. An old drawing shows him, in his seventieth year, kneeling before her in a passionate avowal.
She retired from the stage in 1766, having already at forty-three lost her health, and even the precision of her speech. Like Lecouvreur, she fell in love with a dashing young noble; she sold nearly all her possessions to rescue him from his creditors; he repaid her by giving his love, and her livres, to other women. Then, aged forty-nine, she received from the thirty-six-years-old Christian Friedrich Karl Alexander, Margrave of Ansbach and Bayreuth, an invitation to live with him at Ansbach as his mentor and mistress. She went (1773), and for thirteen years she kept her hold on him. He had imbibed in France some ideals of the Enlightenment; with her encouragement he effected several reforms in his principality—abolishing torture and establishing religious liberty. Her final accomplishment was to persuade him to sleep every night with his wife. In time Clairon grew bored, and longed for Paris. The Margrave took her there occasionally; on one of those trips he adopted a new mistress, and left Clairon in Paris, handsomely endowed. She was now sixty-three.
She was welcomed in the salons, even by the virtuous Mme. Necker; she gave lessons in elocution to the future Mme. de Staël. She took on new lovers, including later the husband of Mme. de Staël herself, who was glad to get rid of him. He set up the aging actress in comfort, but the Revolution deflated her livres, and she lived in poverty until Napoleon reinflated her pension in 1801. In that year a Citizen Dupoirier offered her a last liaison. She discouraged him in a pitiful note that summarizes the tragedy of many an old actress: “It is likely that your memory still recalls me as brilliant, young, and surrounded with all my prestige. You must revise your ideas. I can scarcely see; I am hard of hearing; I have no more teeth; my face is all wrinkled; my dried-up skin barely covers my weak frame.”32 He came nevertheless, and they comforted each other by recalling their youth. She died in 1803 by falling out of bed.
She had long outlived the classic tragic drama whose greatest eighteenth-century exponent, Voltaire, had acclaimed her as its supreme interpreter. The Paris audience, predominantly middle-class, was surfeited with the rhyming speeches of princes, princesses, priests, and kings; those majestic alexandrines of Corneille and Racine, marching pompously on six feet, seemed now to be a symbol of aristocratic life; but were there none but nobles in history? Yes, of course, a Molière had shown those others; but that was in comedy; were there not tragedies, profound trials and noble feelings, in the homes and hearts of people without pedigree? Diderot thought the time had come for dramas of the bourgeoisie. And whereas the nobility had shunned sentimentality, and required emotion to wear a stately mask, the new drama, said Diderot, should liberate feeling, and should not be ashamed to move audiences to handkerchiefs and tears. So he, and some others after him, wrote drames larmoyants— weeping plays. Moreover, several of the new playwrights not only portrayed and exalted middle-class life, they attacked the nobility, the clergy, at last even the government—its corruption, taxes, luxury, and waste; they did not merely denounce despotism and bigotry (Voltaire had done this well), they praised republics and democracy; and those passages were applauded with special warmth.33 The French stage joined a hundred other forces in preparing revolution.