Napoleon was well acquainted with the classic drama of France, and only less so with the dramatic literature of ancient Greece. Corneille was his favorite because in him, far more than in Racine, he found what he felt was a just understanding of heroism and nobility. “A good tragedy,” he said, at St. Helena, “gains upon us every day. The higher kind of tragedy is the school of great men: it is the duty of sovereigns to encourage and disseminate a taste for it…. Had Corneille lived in my time I would have made him a prince.”10 The Emperor did not care for comedy; he had no need to be amused; Talleyrand pitied M. de Rémusat because, as director of entertainments at the imperial court, he was expected to arrange some amusements for “cet homme inamusable.”11 But this unamusable man lavished funds upon the Comédie-Française and its “stars”; he welcomed Talma to his table, and Mlle. George to his bed.
In 1807 Napoleon restricted the number of Paris theaters to nine, and reinstituted the Théâtre-Français—the then and present home of the Comédie-Française—in almost exclusive right to perform the classic drama. On October 15, 1812, amid the ruins of burned Moscow, he found time to draw up for the Théâtre-Français an elaborate code of regulations which still govern it today.12 So encouraged, the Comédie-Française staged, during the Empire, the finest productions of classic drama in French history. To supplement these activities the Théâtre de l’Odéon, built in 1779 and destroyed by fire in 1799, was rebuilt in 1808 on classic lines by Chalgrin. A court theater was set up in the Tuileries, and private theatricals of considerable excellence were staged in many rich homes.
Talma, after playing his parts in the Revolution, reached his zenith under Napoleon. His own character was so proud, distinctive, and intense that he must have found difficulty in shedding it for any assumed role. He mastered the subtle art by learning to control and coordinate all the movements of his limbs, all the muscles and features of his face, every inflection of his voice, to fit and convey any sensation, feeling, or idea, any wonder, doubt, or intention, in the personality he portrayed. Some playgoers went repeatedly to see him in the same role to relish and study the finesse of his art. He had discarded the oratorical style of the theater in the Old Regime; he spoke the alexandrine verses as if they were unmetered prose; he rejected any unnatural expression or sentiment; yet he could be as tender as any lover, as passionate as any criminal. Mme. de Staël, moved almost to terror by Talma’s portrayal of Othello,13 wrote to him, in 1807: “You are, in your career, unique in all the world, and no one, before you, has reached that degree of perfection where art unites with inspiration, reflection with spontaneity, and reason with genius.”14
Napoleon too was enamored of the tragedian. He gave him substantial sums, paid his debts, and frequently invited him to breakfast; then the Emperor could so lose himself in discourse on the drama that he kept diplomats and generals waiting while he explained historical details that should determine the presentation of a character. On the morning after seeing La Mort de Pompée he told Talma, “I am not entirely satisfied. You use your arms too much. Monarchs are less prodigal of gestures; they know that a motion is an order, and that a look is death; so they are sparing of motions and looks.” Talma, we are assured, profited from this counsel.15 In any case he remained to the end of his life the ruler of the French stage.
It had its queens too, as Napoleon observed. Mlle. Duchesnois was plain of face but perfect in form. Accordingly, as Dumas père reported, “she was particularly fond of the part of Alzire, in which she could display her form almost naked.” But also “she had a voice containing notes of such profound tenderness, such melodious sorrow, that to this day most people who have seen her in Maria Stuart prefer her to Mlle. Rachel.”16 Her forte was tragedy, in which she almost rivaled Talma; it was usually she who was chosen to play opposite to him. Mlle. George was a frailer beauty, whom the Comédie must have hesitated to cast in such demanding roles as Clytemnestra in Racine’s Iphigénie. Her voice and figure charmed the First Consul; and like a feudal lord with the droit de seigneur, he called upon her for a command performance now and then.17 Though this liaison ended after a year, she, like Talma, remained devoted to Napoleon through all his glory and defeats; consequently she lost her place at the Théâtre-Français when Napoleon fell; but she returned later to share in the excitement of the Romantic stage.
Napoleon believed, with some reason, that the Comédie-Française had in his reign raised the French stage to a higher excellence than ever before. Several times, to display its quality and his splendor, he bade the company, at the state’s expense, come to Mainz, Compiègne, or Fontainebleau, and perform for the court, or, as at Erfurt and Dresden, to play devant un parterre de rois—”before an audience of kings.”18 Not even the Grand Monarque had shone in such theatrical glory.