The theaters surpassed the salons in the place they held in the life and affection of Paris. “The theater,” said Voltaire to Marmontel in 1745, “is the most enchanting of all careers. It is there that in one day you may obtain glory and fortune. One successful piece renders a man at the same time rich and celebrated.”3 There were good theaters in the provinces, there were private theatricals in rich homes, there were dramatic performances before King and court at Versailles; but it was in Paris that the enthusiasm for plays became a fever of controversy and delight. The highest standards of subject and performance were maintained by the Comédie-Française in the Théâtre-Français; but larger audiences flocked to the Théâtre des Italiens and the Opéra-Comique.
All these theaters, and the Opéra in the Palais-Royal, were spacious ellipses, with several tiers of boxes or seats for the perfumed few; less aromatic spectators stood in the “parterre” (i.e., on the ground), which we misname the orchestra; no seats were placed there till the Revolution. As many as 150 extra-paying fops or devotees sat on the stage, surrounding the action on three sides. Voltaire denounced this custom as hampering the players and destroying the illusion. “Hence it arises that most of our plays are nothing but long discourses; all theatrical action is lost, or, if practiced, appears ridiculous.”4 How, he asked, could a dramatist represent on such a stage such a scene as Brutus and then Antony addressing the Roman populace after Caesar’s assassination? How could the poor Ghost in Hamlet peek through these privileged anatomies? Hardly any of Shakespeare’s plays could be presented under such conditions.5 Voltaire’s vigorous protests, seconded by Diderot and others, finally had effect, and by 1759 the stages of the French theaters were cleared.
Voltaire had less success in his campaign to improve the theological status of actors. Socially their condition had improved; they were received in aristocratic homes, and in many cases they played at royal command. But the Church still condemned the theater as a school for scandal, held all actors to be ipso facto excommunicated, and forbade their burial in consecrated ground—which included every cemetery in Paris. Voltaire pointed the contradiction:
Actors are paid wages by the King, and excommunicated by the Church; they are ordered by the King to play every evening, and forbidden to play at all by the ritual. If they do not play they are put into prison [as happened when His Majesty’s Players went on strike]; if they play they are [at death] cast into the sewers. We delight to live with them, and object to be buried with them; we admit them to our tables, and close our cemeteries to them.6
Adrienne Lecouvreur, the greatest French actress of her time, illustrated these antitheses in her life and death. Born near Reims in 1692, she came to Paris at the age of ten. Living near the Théâtre-Français, she found her way into it frequently, and imitated at home the tragediennes whom she admired from the parterre. At fourteen she organized a company of amateurs, which performed on private stages. The actor Le Grand gave her lessons, and secured a place for her in a troupe acting in Strasbourg. For years, like Molière, she played in the provinces, passing from role to role, and doubtless from one romance to another. Longing for love, she found only lechers; two of them in succession left her pregnant and refused her marriage; at eighteen she bore a daughter, at twenty-four another. By 1715 she was back in Paris, for young Voltaire met her there and then, and was for a time something more than a friend.7 In 1717 she was the leading lady at the Théâtre-Français, the haunt and aspiration of her youth.
Like many famous actresses, she was not particularly beautiful; she was rather stout, and her features were irregular. But she had an indescribable grace in carriage and manners, a seductive music in her voice, a light of fire and feeling in her dark eyes, a mobile and noble expression in her face; her every action expressed personality. She refused to follow the oratorical style of speech that had been made traditional in French acting by the long, rectangular form of the early theaters; she resolved to act her part and speak her lines as naturally on the boards as in real life, except for the distinct articulation and added volume of voice needed to carry her words to the farthest auditors. In her brief career she accomplished a revolution in histrionic art. This was founded also in her depth of feeling, her capacity to convey the passion and tenderness of love, the full pathos or terror of a tragic scene. She excelled in the difficult art of listening actively and expressively while others spoke.
Old men praised her, youths lost their hearts and wits over her. Young Charles Augustin de Ferriol, Comte d’Argental, who was to be the “angel” and agent of Voltaire, developed for her an ardor that alarmed his mother, who, fearing that he would propose marriage and be accepted, vowed to send him to the colonies. When Adrienne heard of this she wrote to Mme. de Ferriol (March 22, 1721) assuring her that she would discourage the youth’s addresses:
I will write to him whatever you please. I will never see him again if you desire it. But do not threaten to send him to the end of the world. He can be useful to his country; he can be the delight of his friends; he will crown you with satisfaction and fame; you have only to guide his talents and let his virtues act.8
She was right; d’Argental rose to be a councilor of the Parlement of Paris. In his eighty-fifth year, going through the papers his mother had left, he came upon this letter, of which he had known nothing before.
Adrienne in her turn experienced all the rapture and desolation of love and rejection. Often to her performances came the young Prince Maurice of Saxony, not yet swollen with victories, but so handsome and romantic that when he pledged her his lifelong devotion she thought that this was the hero she had long awaited. (When it comes to pledging lifelong devotion men have as many lives as a cat.) She accepted him as her lover (1721), and for a time they lived in such cooing fidelity that Paris compared them to La Fontaine’s amorous turtledoves. But the young soldier, already a marèchal de camp, dreamed of kingdoms; we have seen him running off to Kurland to seek a crown, half financed by Adrienne’s savings.
She consoled herself in his absence by establishing a salon. It was not without intellectual profit that she had learned the elegance of Racine and the ideas of Molière; she had become one of the best-educated women in France. Her friends were not casual admirers, but men and women who liked her mind. Fontenelle, Voltaire, d’Argental, the Comte de Caylus came regularly to her dinners; and some titled ladies were glad to join that sparkling company.
In 1728 the defeated soldier of fortune returned to Paris. Absence had cooled his glands; he discovered that Adrienne was four years his senior, being now thirty-six; and a dozen rich women were offering to share his bed. One of them was almost as royal as himself, Louise de Lorraine, Duchesse de Bouillon, granddaughter of Poland’s noble hero Jan Sobieski. She paraded Maurice so boldly in her box at the Théâtre-Français that Adrienne faced that box when, with some emphasis, she recited angry lines from Racine’sPhèdre:
Je ne suis point de ces femmes hardies
Qui, portant dans le crime une tranquille paix,
Ont su se faire un front qui ne rougit jamais9
—“I am not one of those brazen women who, bringing into crime a [show of] tranquil peace, have learned to put on a front that never blushes with shame.”
In July, 1729, Siméon Bouret, abbé and painter of miniatures, informed Mlle. Lecouvreur that two masked agents of a court lady had proposed to him to give the actress some poisoned pills, for which service he was to receive 6,600 livres. Adrienne notified the police. They arrested the abbé and questioned him severely, but he persisted in his story. She wrote a characteristic letter to the lieutenant of police, asking him to free the abbé:
I have talked with him and made him talk often and for a long time, and he always answered connectedly and intelligently. It is not that I wish what he said to be true; I have a hundred times more reason to wish he may be crazy. Ah, would to God I had only to solicit his pardon! But if he is innocent, think, monsieur, what an interest I ought to take in his fate, and how cruel this uncertainty is to me. Do not consider my profession or my birth; deign to see my soul, which is sincere and laid bare in this letter.10
The Duc de Bouillon, however, insisted that the abbé should be detained. He was released several months later, still adhering to his story. We do not yet know if it was true.
In February, 1730, Mlle. Lecouvreur began to suffer from a diarrhea that grew daily worse. She continued her roles at the theater, but early in March she had to be carried from the theater in a faint. On March 15, with her last strength, she played Jocaste in Voltaire’s Oedipe. On the seventeenth she took to her bed, bleeding mortally from severe inflammation of the bowels. The Maréchal no longer came to her; only Voltaire and d’Argental attended her in this tragic and humiliating end. She died on March 20 in Voltaire’s arms.I
Since she had refused the last rites of the Church,11 canon law forbade her burial in consecrated ground. A friend engaged two torchbearers to take her body in a hackney coach and bury her clandestinely on the banks of the Seine, in what became the Rue de Bourgogne. (In that same year 1730 Anne Oldfield, an English actress, was buried with public honors in Westminster Abbey.) Voltaire wrote (1730) a poem, La Mort de Mademoiselle Lecouvreur, passionately denouncing the indignity of this burial.
Tous les coeurs sont émus de ma douleur mortelle,
J’entends de tous côtés les beaux-arts éperdus
S’écrier en pleurant, “Melpomène n’est plus!”
Que direz-vous, race future,
Lorsque vous apprendrez la flétrissante injure
Qu’ à ces arts désolés font des hommes cruels?
Ils privent de la sépulture
Celle qui dans la Grèce aurait eu des autels.
Je les ai vus soumis, autour d’elles empressés;
Sitôt qu’elle n’est plus, elle est donc criminelle!
Elle a charmé le monde, et vous l’en punissez!
Non, ces bords désormais ne seront plus profanes;
Ils contiennent ta cendre, et ce triste tombeau,
Honoré par nos chants, consacré par tes mânes,
Est pour nous un temple nouveau!II
The greatest dramatist of this period was, of course, Voltaire. He had many rivals, among them Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, an old survival who should have been long since dead. From 1705 to 1711 Crébillon had produced successful plays; then, convinced by the decided failure of his Xerxès (1714) and Sémiramis (1717) that he was through, he had retired from authorship, and fallen into a poverty consoled in his garret by his tender collection of ten dogs, fifteen cats, and some ravens. In 1745 Mme. de Pompadour rescued him with a pension and a sinecure, and arranged for an edition of his collected works to be published by the government press. He came to Versailles to thank her; ill, she received him while she remained in her bed; as he bent to kiss her hand Louis XV entered. “Madame,” cried the septuagenarian, “I am undone; the King has surprised us together.”12 Louis enjoyed this flash of wit, and joined Pompadour in urging him to complete his abandoned play on Catiline. She and the court attended and applauded the première (1748), and Crébillon again thrilled with fame and francs. In 1754, aged eighty, he produced his last play. He survived eight years more, happy with his animals.
Voltaire did not enjoy this appearance of a competitor from the grave. But he had also to face, in comedy, the rivalry of the versatile and effervescent Marivaux. Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux became a satirist when, by chance, he saw his seventeen-year-old sweetheart practicing her seductive charms before a mirror. His heart was only momentarily sprained, for his father was the rich director of the mint at Riom, and many a young lady yearned to be Pierre’s wife. He married for love, and surprised Paris by leading a life of sexual sobriety. He joined the salon of Mme. de Tencin, and may have learned there the gay wit, elegant phrasing, and subtle feeling that went into the marivaudage of his plays.
His first success was Arlequin poli par l’amour, which ran for twelve successive nights at the Théâtre des Italiens in 1720. Just as he was sipping his royalties he lost most of his money in the crash of Law’s bank. We are told that he retrieved his fortune with his pen,13 writing a long succession of comedies that amused Paris with their graceful badinage and clever plots. The most famous of them, Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (The Game of Love and Chance), turned on the simultaneous but unconcerted resolve of two couples to test the devotion of their as-yet-unseen fiancé(e)s by an exchange of garb and manner between master and man, mistress and maid, developing through a concatenation of coincidences as absurd as Desdemona’s handkerchief. The women of Paris were better pleased than the men with the love tangles in these plays, and their tender sentiment. Here too, as in Versailles and the salons, as in Watteau and Boucher, woman ruled, and had the deciding word; and the analysis of feeling replaced the problems of politics and the heroics of war. The masculine comedy of Molière gave way before the feminine comedy that ruled the French stage (barring Beaumarchais) to the days of Scribe, Dumas fils, and Sardou.