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‘What a perennial delight is in hearing the French language spoken!’: Class, Language and Taste in the Maison de Molière’s French Performances in London (1871–1893)

« What a perennial delight is in hearing the French language spoken! » : Classe, langue et goût théâtral dans les représentations en français de la Maison de Molière à Londres (1871–1879)
Ignacio Ramos Gay

Résumés

En 1879, le critique de théâtre Augustin Filon déclara à propos de la seconde visite à Londres de la compagnie française cette année-là, « les voyages de la Comédie-Française sont regardés en Angleterre comme des dates ». En accueillant la troupe, le célèbre comédien Henry Irving loua le succès des acteurs français, tels que Got, Mounet-Sully, Coquelin aîné et cadet, et Sarah Bernhardt sur la scène du Gaiety Theatre à Londres. Leur interprétation dans leur langue maternelle dévoilait une magnificence esthétique qui avait clairement captivé un public essentiellement anglophone : « les images qu’ils suscitaient allaient droit au cœur et n’avaient besoin d’aucune langue pour ceux d’entre nous qui ne maîtrisaient pas le français », déclara Irving. En effet, les représentations en version originale étaient assurées de recueillir les acclamations des critiques. L’acteur et metteur en scène britannique Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree serait également intervenu pour faire l’éloge de la prosodie de la langue de Molière, la comparant à la tradition britannique de la manière suivante : « Quel éternel plaisir que d’entendre parler français […] Comme en comparaison l’anglais semble un vieil instrument lourd ! » De par leur puissant art oratoire et leur élocution sur scène, les Français, conclut-il, étaient « une race naturellement expressive ». Cette étude vise à analyser l’impact de la Comédie-Française dans l’Angleterre victorienne, à travers les représentations à Londres de la compagnie en 1871, 1879 et 1893. Bien que leur répertoire (qui incluait des pièces de Molière, Racine, Corneille, Alfred de Musset, Alexandre Dumas fils, et Émile Augier) fût entièrement joué en français, les comédiens furent autant acclamés par le public qu’ils furent loués par leurs pairs britanniques, pour qui ils représentaient la fine fleur de l’art. À travers l’étude de revues et d’impressions publiées par un éventail de professionnels, ainsi que par les principaux critiques de théâtre de l’époque, des dramaturges, des comédiens et des aficionados, la recherche porte sur les implications sociologiques, politiques et esthétiques associées à la ferme présence de la langue française et des pièces canoniques françaises dans le Londres de la fin de l’époque victorienne. Les réponses des professionnels du théâtre abordent inéluctablement le thème du grand art en demandant implicitement laquelle de ces deux traditions théâtrales reflétait ou recréait le mieux, à travers le langage, de tels standards culturels : Comment une langue est-elle interprétée de sorte à répondre à la fois aux conventions théâtrales et aux attentes liées au sentiment national ? Dans quelle mesure la phonétique et la prosodie françaises étaient-elles considérées comme des références socioculturelles uniquement accessibles à un public d’élite ? Lord Chamberlain soumit-il les pièces en français aux mêmes procédures de censure et à la même vigilance que celles qui étaient jouées en anglais ? En posant ces questions et d’autres en rapport, ce travail montre que le débat sur la supériorité du français ou de l’anglais en tant que langage théâtral est inévitablement lié à la question toujours fluctuante de « la britannicité ». Le théâtre étant un pilier de l’identité nationale (tout en étant un outil indispensable de questionnement de l’ordre et des structures politiques), la rivalité traditionnelle entre la culture française et la culture britannique n’aurait pu trouver meilleur cadre que la scène londonienne pour se disputer l’excellence esthétique et rhétorique.

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1Les voyages de la Comédie-Française sont regardés en Angleterre comme des dates’ (173), stated the French theatre critic Augustin Filon in 1896 regarding successive visits to London by the company in the last three decades of the 19th century. The performances at the Opéra Comique in 1871, the Gaiety Theatre in 1879, and Drury Lane in 1893, forged a legend regarding the dramatic excellence of the company’s sociétaires. These three visits led the Comédie-Française, based on its declamatory and organizational gifts, to become a theatrical ideal for the public, critics, and the theatre profession in England, such that those calling for the creation of a British national theatre proposed that the French troupe would serve as an example to emulate. This article explores the cultural values transmitted by the Maison de Molière during its time on English soil in the last third of the 19th century. Rather than a chronological account of its performances, the objective is to analyse how, through three specific visits, its impact on English actors, critics, and playwrights consolidated a paragon of theatrical excellence that brought together national identity and the dramatic arts. I argue that the Comédie-Française exploited the mechanisms of the British theatre industry to become a seal of quality linked to the French nation, consumable by the wealthy English spectator to extol the national theatre. Rather than building merely an abstract ideal of the excellence of the theatrical arts, the French company was able to market itself as a material entity, graced with a marketable physical infrastructure and a certain social spectrum. Secondly, I address the mystification of French-language recitation by the members of the Comédie-Française. Under its leadership, French became a vector of artistic quality and an emblem of intellectual aristocracy that entailed elevated socio-economic status. Finally, I analyse how the presence of the Comédie-Française represented a creative and organizational incentive for native theatre. Through multiple comparisons of English and French declamatory style, I elucidate a conceptualization of the theatre as a form of cultural expression of national identity.

2Because the statutes of the Maison de Molière prevented the company from performing abroad, only under exceptional circumstances was it permitted to travel to England during the last third of the 19th century. The armed civil conflict unleashed in the Paris Commune in 1891 and the renovations to the theatre on Rue Richelieu in 1879 and 1893 led the Ministre des Beaux-Arts to make an exception and grant permission for the company to move to England for a limited period. The works selected for these tours included many that best represented the French theatrical canon, including works by key 17th-century playwrights such as Molière, Racine, and Corneille, and others that served to introduce contemporary authors such as Émile Augier, Alexandre Dumas fils, and Alfred de Musset. In this manner, London audiences could see classics such as Tartuffe, Les précieuses ridicules, Le menteur, and Phèdre alongside more modern works such as L’étrangère, Le Demi-Monde, Les Fourchambault, and Il ne faut jurer de rien. The many actors who performed them—up to thirty in 1879, when the company moved completely to London—varied over the course of the three decades, given that some quit, retired, or died, but the most emblematic members of the company were included: Edmond Got, Delaunay, Coquelin aîné and cadet, Mounet-Sully, Frédéric Febvre, and Charles Thiron and their female counterparts, Sarah Bernhardt, Marie Favart, Sophie Croizette, and Madeleine Brohan, among many others.

3The successive visits were praised in news articles that highlighted their exceptionality and pointed to a series of elements that made them an exemplary model of domestic theatre. The numerous columns published in major magazines and local and national newspapers, in addition to essays, reviews and studies, insisted on the benefits that the British theatre profession could derive from the tours. They generally assumed an instructive and didactic tone. ‘The artistic world should surely make it a matter of duty to go to the Français’, proclaimed the Era on 7 May 1871. The canonical essay by Matthew Arnold about the 1879 visit, ‘The French Play in London’, published in The Nineteenth Century the same year, closed with a categorical mandate, ‘the theatre is irresistible, organise the theatre!’ (85), aimed at British actors, theatre impresarios, and government representatives. Arnold’s imperative demanded an urgent adaptation of the English theatre to the artistic and administrative parameters displayed by the French troupe during its visit, i. e., the ‘establishment of state subsidised theatres in a nation which was historically opposed to them’ (Foulkes 125). His study served as a point of reference for many subsequent authors, such as Frederick Wedmore (‘The Comédie-Française and Monsieur Zola’, Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1879), A. Strobel (‘La Comédie-Française’, Murray’s Magazine, September 1889), Yetta Blaze de Bury (‘The Théâtre Français, and its Sociétaires’, The Nineteenth Century and after, June 1889), Ange Galdemar (‘The Comédie-Française in London’, Fortnightly Review, June 1893), Albert Vandam (‘The Comédie-Française of To-Day’, June and September 1893), Edward F. Spence (‘The acting of the Comédie-Française’, The Theatre, August 1893), and J. F. Nisbet (‘The Question of a Subsidy’, The Theatre, June 1897), amongst many others, who over the next two decades impelled a drastic change to elevate the tone of national theatre, taking as a reference point the ‘lessons’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 8, 10 & 12 July 1879) imparted by the French company.

4Among these lessons, those related to the model of internal management have had the greatest impact on the history of British drama, given that on multiple occasions they were employed as points of reference in the creation of a domestic national theatre. Although such a theatre would not materialize until nearly a century later, the debate regarding its basic parameters dates back to the last third of the 18th century, reaching its highest expression during the years that saw visits by the French actors. In the words of Woodfield, in the second half of the 19th century, the idea of a national theatre project ‘came to be perceived as an essential first step in the larger cause of revitalizing the English theatre and bringing it on a par with its continental counterparts’ (94). After its visit to London, critics underscored that the Maison de Molière was, above all, a manifestation of how this excellent and ancient national dramatic tradition could be preserved over time, taught, regulated, and exhibited as an example of the intellectual elevation of the country. Adding to the antiquity and experience of the oldest national theatre company in Europe—it was founded in 1680, seven years after the death of Molière, with the joining of the two most important Parisian companies, the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Hôtel Guénégaud—was a modern internal administration guided by a regime of government subsidies to provide for salaries, pensions, and theatre maintenance. The actors possessed a notable system of fair pay among the sociétaires and a retirement pension as soon as they became pensionnaires. Similarly, the existence of an acting school—the Conservatoire, designed to both train actors and preserve unified standards for the art of declamation—demonstrated the eradication of an intuitive conception of acting and established the basis for the theatre as an artistic discipline. British critics also praised the playhouse on Rue Richelieu for possessing its own performance space that could operate independently of the laws of the market that threatened private theatres. The Théâtre-Français also became a normative museum that preserved from the passage of time the teachings of the major figures of national theatre and with which an attempt was made to indoctrinate and elevate the dramatic taste of the public. Certainly, the Comédie-Française was conceptualized as a model of management and acting graced with a strong state presence and with a freedom among its impresarios and artists in which, despite state interventionism—a quota of the performances had to be reserved for works by Molière and the state reserved the right to impose some works over others—would have resolved the great ills of British theatre as described by critics, starting with the liberalization of theatres in 1843 as a result of the massive industrialization of the stage (specifically, the system of long runs, the star system among actors, the scarce regeneration of roles, excessive reliance on audience tastes, and the impossibility of creating a company and a space while remaining metonymic icons of the symbols of British national identity).

5If the large number of reviews, articles, and journalistic essays about the Comédie-Française contributed to the creation of a dramatic ideal of French acting incarnated by the company, its success was largely owed to the manner in which it was able to market itself on English soil in coordination with British impresarios. Although, during the first visit, the French actors arrogantly ‘disdained to puff or to largely advertise their performances’ (Saturday Review, 7 December 1878), hence obtaining more moderate success, during the following two tours, those in charge sagely fused the dramatic excellence of the actors and their profitability, thus ensuring the success of both initiatives. This is particularly notable in the case of the second visit, from 2 June to 12 July 1879, which was perhaps the most outstanding of the three. This trip represents a perfect exercise of marketing by theatre impresarios and directors, starting with the very announcement of their arrival. The visit of the French comedians began to be publicized nine months in advance. Newspapers dedicated covers and entire pages to praising the actors’ generous visit for the benefit of London audiences, commenting on the works that would be staged and praising the internal organization of the theatre company that so well represented the nation. Even in the provinces, it was considered a noteworthy event, as shown by the Liverpool Mercury—which was among the first to announce the visit, as early as 25 November 1878—declaring, ‘London is at last to see the finest acting that Paris can produce’.

6In addition to articles enthusiastically praising the upcoming visit for the cultural values that could be extracted from it, many others recounted interesting anecdotes to grab the attention of spectators. Personal details about the performers provided by the sensationalist press of the era encouraged prospective playgoers. Less interested in their charitable works than in the various female sociétaires participating, writers focused their efforts on describing the most intimate and risqué details of their biographies. The private lives of the actors were carefully documented in articles published in The Sketch and The Pall Mall, from their salaries to the conflicts between them and the directors. Sarah Bernhardt was a focal point for critics both for her interpretive gifts and for her eccentricities. The coffin that she swore she slept in each night to familiarize herself with death, the skeleton in her dressing room whose hand she shook with familiarity, and the legends about a diet of ‘roasted cats, lizards’ tails, and peacocks’ brains sautées au beurre du singe’ (Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 6 June 1879) reinforced the rumours of witchcraft that swirled around her and would be confirmed by her appearance on the stage, viewed as a transgression of the limits of femininity and proximity, Powell states, to the ‘inhuman’ (xi).

7The publicity generated by the presence of Sarah Bernhardt was undoubtedly one of the keys to the company’s success in London in 1879, and its failure—due to her absence—in 1893. As reported by The Saturday Review, ‘All we have heard of her . . .  of her various arts and accomplishments, her early life, her personal peculiarities and eccentricities, has helped the effect produced by her acting, and made her . . .  the centre of curiosity and interest of all the troupe of La Comédie’ (14 June 1879). The box office profits testify to this point. According to figures cited by the impresario who promoted the visit, John Hollingshead, the works that drew the largest audiences during the 1879 tour were those featuring the actress. Of the 43 performances produced, the 18 in which Bernhardt acted netted an average of 534 pounds per show, versus 400 pounds on average for the shows in which she was not present. ‘These . . . figures taught Mme. Bernhardt her commercial value’, states Hollingshead (1897: 81). Nor did the audience hide its preferences. When a sudden illness required the director to cancel Bernhardt’s appearance at the matinee of L’Étrangère, the public was given the choice of a full refund for their ticket, tickets to any other show that week, or tickets to the two shows scheduled later that day (the classic by Molière, Tartuffe, and the comédie-proverbe by Alfred de Musset, Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée). The profits for that day, 81 pounds, attest to the fact that few opted to remain at the theatre.

8Apart from the undoubtedly important role played by Sarah Bernhardt in the success of the 1879 trip, the publicity surrounding the visits of the Comédie-Française exemplifies the impact of propaganda in the creation of the myth and how this is based on aspects that stressed the tangible and quotidian nature of some referents considered practically inaccessible to the British reader. In this sense, part of the troupe’s triumph resided in the London spectators being courted by all of the commercial apparatus created around its exceptional arrival. This apparatus lowered the nearly divine status of the Maison de Molière to a more tangible materiality for the spectator/consumer. In the face of the legions of voices that for months echoed in the mind of London audiences proclaiming the sublime nature of the French actors—‘the Comedie-Française is almost the ideal theatre’, wrote W. E. Henley in July 1879 in the Cornhill Magazine (69),—its translation to the material plane through an enormous range of commercial products enabled its appropriation and acquisition by the audience. For the initiative to be effective—and, by extension, profitable—the ideal of theatrical excellence had to be crystallized in concrete, real, and accessible referents so that the British public could take it in and possess it. In other words, the discursive praising of the French company and the symbolic representation of an unsurpassable artistic abstraction to which domestic theatre must aspire contrasted with a material form that guaranteed its commercialization and hence the success of the company. The troupe had thus to descend from the heavens of the theatrical arts to be consumed by the British public.

9The process of marketing the Comédie-Française included all of the possibilities of cultural consumption. The variety of items is a testament to the industrial will in the Victorian Era to squeeze the most out of any artistic referent capable of being turned into a source of profit and a seal of quality. Consequently, we find advertised in hundreds of newspapers an endless stream of articles designed to lend physical materiality to the high ideal of French drama. Items ranged from books with autographed notes by the actors to small pedagogical manuals—such as one published by the London Figaro that describes and analyses the fifty most significant works of its repertoire—to numerous memory books, recordings, portraits, and illustrations of all of the main sociétaires; biographies—or hagiographies—drafted by English-language critics or translated from the French; historiographical chronicles of the institution’s trajectory since its founding; raffles of costumes used by the actors; and even drawings of the main halls and spaces of the Théâtre Français—primarily the busts and paintings of its celebrated ‘Foyer’. Editors and theatre impresarios joined the fervour for converting the French company into a consumer product. It is even possible to find newspaper advertisements for a perfume named ‘Comédie-Française’ marketed by Piesse et Lubin: defined with an interweaving of English and French as ‘a New and Exquisite Bouquet pour le Mouchoir’, the fragrance was sold at ‘Fashionable Druggists and Perfumers in the principal cities of the world’ (Graphic, 5 July 1879).

10The perfume’s scent undoubtedly synthesized the transposition of the ideal represented by the French troupe into a class product, oscillating between reification and abstraction. Through consumer objects, the incorporeal model signified by the French company was materialized in commercial goods marked by a diacritic of social class that were offered for sale and acquired by a segment of high-status audiences. The reified ideal could be consumed only by those elites capable of appreciating the company’s artistic gifts and its material form. Through this commercialization the Comédie-Française and, with it, the cream of British theatre resolved the debate that had marked a good part of the 19th century: high art need not be divorced from commerce. Rather to the contrary, the products derived from the company demonstrated how both could go hand-in-hand, provided that they were suitably aimed at a certain audience.

11By virtue of its conversion into a material consumer product, the reception of the French troupe in Great Britain must inevitably be scrutinised from a class perspective. An analysis of the target audience for the performances confirms that the presence of the Comédie-Française in London was essentially a ratification of the manner in which high culture remained in the hands of societal elites. The origin of the initiative attests to the fact that only those who could afford the high ticket prices—according to The Graphic, ‘from two to three times higher than usual’ (7 June 1879)—would have access to the events. A review published in The Sentinel in July 1879 satirized the impossibility of acquiring tickets by those not among society’s affluent elites: ‘Some representatives of Royalty . . .  have been present every night, and ordinary mortals have sought in vain for tickets, already eagerly secured by the more wealthy [sic] theatre-goers of West End Society’. In the case of the 1879 visit, the promoter, John Hollingshead, implemented an advance subscription system to guarantee the success of the undertaking. Despite the renown achieved eight years before, the initiative involved serious financial risk and was backed only by the impresario, given that the plays were performed entirely in French. The Era recalled the fear among theatre entrepreneurs regarding the language barrier, to which was added the consideration of the ‘immorality’ linked to certain modern French playwrights: ‘There were . . .  two difficulties that presented themselves relative to this visit. Firstly—would the public understand? Would the public come, even although it had paid for its seats? Secondly—the repertory was entirely accepted at Paris, but would it not scare English prudery?’ (2 November 1879). Taking into account the opinion of the drama critic Francisque Sarcey, the newspaper recognized that many London spectators were capable of expressing themselves slowly in French, ‘but to talk and to understand were two different things’ (Era, 2 November 1879). Through the advance subscriptions, Hollingshead minimized the risk involved in the initiative. This measure defined the presence of the company in London in a purely economic sense, similar to an investment. In Hollingshead’s words, the negotiations ‘were conducted in a purely commercial spirit. Whatever worship of art there may or may not have been in the transaction was discreetly kept in the background on all sides’ (1898: 363).

12The advertising mechanisms explain how the British gentry embraced a model of exquisite theatrical taste that would be imitated by its peers. Most news articles that promoted the arrival of the French actors included long lists of all those ‘noble men’ who had ‘secured boxes’ in advance (Glasgow Herald, 24 March 1879). Earl Granville, the Duke of Beaufort, Baron Rothschild, and Lord Londesborough, among many other representatives of the British high society, rubbed shoulders on countless occasions with the French actors, establishing a fraternity that linked class and the dramatic arts. Famed British actors, representatives of institutions, aristocrats, and top impresarios attended the official banquets, lunches, and receptions organized to commemorate their presence. The respective speeches given by the French actor Got and Lord Dufferin, each in the language of the other, corroborate the use of language as a mechanism of national, cultural, and particularly class-based fraternity. This cohabitation certified how the visit of the Maison de Molière was, in essence, conceived as a social event reserved for an exceptional spectator. It was the elites, then, who were called to receive the teachings of the French troupe and, in this manner, to lead the project of renovating domestic theatre, attending to the substantive artistic criteria of their own privilege.

13That the visit by the Comédie-Française constituted a theatrical event reserved for the upper class was certified by the royal family’s regular attendance in the boxes reserved for the occasion, in addition to the numerous royal visits and receptions planned in its honour. The actor Edmond Got describes in his diary that, during the 1871 journey, the Prince of Wales requested the honour of attending his performance (I, 127). Eight years later, the event organized at Albert Hall to benefit the French Hospital and Bureau de la Bienfaisance under the auspices of the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, illustrates the close ties between elite actors and the aristocracy, corroborated by the numerous gifts exchanged between them, such as the famous gold-tipped cane given by the Prince of Wales to Febvre to thank him for his services as a guide to Parisian theatres during his visits to France (Era, 4 May 1879).

14Such was the collusion between the royal family and the Comédie-Française that the media frequently reported that, owing to the support of the Prince of Wales, the company was able to avoid censorship restrictions. Unlike other actors and theatre impresarios, who, to see their works performed in London, had to first obtain the blessing of the Lord Chamberlain, the French actors benefited from their connection with the Prince to circumvent censorship restrictions in 1879. This represented a significant change with respect to the policy followed in 1871. During its first visit, the proposed programme was initially modified due to interference of the Lord Chamberlain. Works such as Le supplice d’une femme, Julie, Delilah, Paul Forestier, and Maurice de Saxe were thus cancelled. Eight years later, among the forty plays proposed, the objections of the censor initially focused on Le supplice d’une femme by Madame de Girardin and Le demi-monde by Alexandre Dumas fils, though both were eventually approved. Dumas himself stated that the Prince of Wales ‘saved’ his repertoire from the English censorship (Western Daily Press, 18 July 1879). During the French actors’ stay, the Gaiety Theatre became a type of French cultural embassy that was granted all sorts of diplomatic privileges related to the arts. As such, works that were sweetened or expurgated in their translation into English for the London stages could be represented in their entirety in French, provided that they were staged in the shelter of the space reserved for the French troupe.

15Inevitably, the British spectator would conceive of the presence of the Comédie-Française in London as another part of the panorama of social aristocratic acts of the moment and, not surprisingly, upper-class playgoers perceived it as a class duty to attend the performances. This is precisely how it is framed in an article in Era from 2 November 1879, which states that, for elites, attending the performances of the Comédie-Française was more of a ritual of devotion, a spiritual pilgrimage, than a pleasure originating from the desire to sample the artistic virtuosity of the French actors. ‘They felt they were accomplishing a “sacerdoce”. They said to themselves, “we must go every night and we must see those pieces. Whether we understand them or not, that does not matter. We must go because it is our duty to go”’. Similarly, Albert Vandam described the Comédie-Française as the ‘temple of high dramatic art’ and its sociétaires as ‘high priests and priestesses’ (686). The semantic field of religion accounts for the abstract interpretive magnificence of the French actors and the blind faith that compelled the public to appear at the theatre regardless of its level of familiarity with the company or even its language of operation.

16It is precisely this last aspect that has been least explored in studies of the Comédie-Française in London, given the unanimous advantage and celebration its presence entailed for the British public. It can be assumed that a large segment of the wealthy audiences in London knew French by virtue of the frequent ‘French seasons’ scheduled at various theatres in the city since the mid-19th century. Curious, however, is the large number of journalistic reviews that evoke the supine ignorance, negligence, and poor education of the London public regarding the performances by the French actors. An examination of newspaper articles regarding the performances confirms that a considerable share of the spectators merely viewed their attendance as a social obligation or else as a simple class pastime. The Saturday Review lamented that a portion of the audience attended the theatre ‘not because they understand or care about the acting, but because they think it the right thing to do’ (7 June 1879). This indifference and incomprehension is primarily due to the use of French. As the Examiner declared on 19 July 1879, ‘French was a sealed book, or about as intelligible as the hieroglyphs’. In line with this, we find multiple reviews in which the spectators would have spent the performance with their eyes glued to a print copy of the work due to their inability to understand recited French—some newspapers even recommended potential theatregoers ‘to carefully read, in the morning, the work to be represented in the evening’ (All the Year Around, 31 May 1879). Others, incapable of following French language, appeared ‘fidgety’ and restless in their seats during the entire performance (The Saturday Review, 21 June 1879). Among the spectators unversed in the language of Molière, many others demonstrated their indifference by engaging in conversations, even interfering with the actors’ recitation. Hence, newspapers complained that a performance of Andromaque was interrupted on several occasions ‘by the vulgar and selfish behaviour of various persons . . . who select a box in a commanding position on the balcony tier . . . as a convenient place wherein to crackle gossip, and to discuss Mme Bernhardt’s photographic presentments in a loud tone . . . during the most moving passages’ (The Saturday Review, 28 June 1879). Disrespect for the actors was made patent by loud noises from doors or footsteps as ticketholders arrived late to shows or left their seats before they ended. ‘It really seemed as though a chosen assembly of dunces had been gathered together to see the famous tragedy’, The Saturday Review roundly declared regarding a performance of Phèdre (21 June 1879). The actor Got was vocal about the type of spectators who attended their plays, writing in his diary with a certain tone of surprise, ‘the public that attends our performance does not like to stay late and leaves at eleven or half-past to go to evening receptions’ (Galdemar 869). Constant allusions to interference by the public confirm that the Comédie-Française’s performances were primarily an exercise in listening, a type of operatic concert in which the French language was synonymous with a musical melody.

17That the actors’ interpretations would be calibrated to the musical parameters associated with their voices is an element that appears highlighted from the very selection of the works included in the company’s repertoire. In their multiple exegeses on the internal functioning of the institution, British newspapers noted that, in the process of admission of a work, its author had to undergo that trial by fire before a jury composed of the actors themselves: a cold reading of the piece. As Musical World indicated on 14 September 1889, the difficulty lay in reading the work ‘in the presence of the greatest master of elocution’. Thus, ‘most of the successful playwrights are excellent readers’. Through a reading of the work, the French actor assesses the nuances that he will attribute to the characters, and it is included or rejected from the repertoire based on its sound.

18The repeated insistence on the training received by the sociétaires points in this same direction. Elocution is a regimented discipline, requiring much instruction to achieve the distinctness of speech that students at the Conservatoire possess. Critics reacted negatively to the autonomous learning process of actors who, like Febvre, had ‘learnt his business on the stage just as English actors learn it, by knocking about in provincial theatres’. The result was nothing less than a style ‘that disfigures the method of many English actors’ (The Saturday Review, 25 August 1877). This was expressed through a difficulty in discerning words during elocutions, particularly in works written in verse compared to works of prose, in which defects were less easily perceived. The evident class connotations inherent in this statement imply a hierarchization of actors based on their training: those trained in minor provincial theatres were believed to be of lower quality than those who received instruction at the Parisian Conservatoire. Centre and periphery were opposed based on the quality of the training received and projected upon the declamatory schism that presumed the nobility of verse over the vulgarity of prose.

19Given the insistence on the necessity of receiving formal elocution training, French diction was metaphorically associated with the sound emanating from a musical instrument, requiring its perfection through constant learning. Hence, French declamation was, above all, a technical expression of musical sonority, and therefore, independent of the French-language abilities of the British public, all of the reviews noted the undeniable pleasure produced by the harmonious melody of the language, such that the troupe was reduced to declamation as the distinctive and metonymic element of its acting as a whole. As the Era admitted on 8 June 1879, the company arrived in London ‘to show Englishmen, on their own soil, what a theatrical performance really means, and how French is pronounced in France’. Quality of pronunciation equated excellence in acting.

20Therefore, it is not surprising that accounts of the performances profusely describe the diction, articulation, modulation, tonality and vocal colour of the sociétaires. Under the heading ‘The Comédie-Française’, The Times, The Saturday Review, The Era, and The Pall Mall Gazette daily narrated the impact of the performances on the British public, particularly focusing on the acting of the sociétaires. The elocution of the French actors and their vocal gifts in transmitting emotion constituted the common denominator in reviews during each of the three tours discussed here. Juliet Pollock lauded the declamation of Mlle Favart in Les caprices de Marianne and L’Aventurière, claiming ‘whatever passion rings in its accents, her voice never loses the richness of its harmonies’ (54). In June 1879, London Society saluted Delaunay’s acting in the characters of Musset, whose ‘sweet voice makes perfect the charm of the sad youthful poetry’ (489). That same year, The Times praised the ‘sweetness of voice’ of Sarah Bernhardt in the crowning work by Racine, defending her as ‘the most feminine Phèdre we have seen’ (14 June 1879). Of Mounet-Sully, Edward Spence noted his ‘splendid voice, with which he is able to accomplish strange tours de force’ (76). The number of comments along these lines is extensive, and all highlight the same vocal attributes of the actors through a long list of epithets celebrating their voices (‘delicious’, ‘graceful’, ‘inexpressible charm of refinement and intelligence’, ‘culminating passion’, ‘exquisite finish’, ‘tender beauty’, ‘beautiful delivery of the language’). Being able to appreciate the melodic nuances of French language implied a higher spirituality of sorts, an aristocratic refinement of feeling. In Pollock’s words when commenting upon Musset’s Les caprices de Marianne, ‘those who are familiar with the French language will feel a delicious music in Celio’s description of his love’ (51–52). Based on the parameter of quality, the language of the declamation contributed to a democratization of the performers, all of them equally notable, the result of which was a final harmonic whole.

21This equality was possible because the main representatives of the Comédie-Française were reduced exclusively to their vocal expressions. More than scenic corporeality, the French performer was revealed by the physical abstraction of his/her sonorous expression. We know very little about the players’ behaviour on the stage, their scenic movement or gestures, apart from the epithets that describe their voices. The costumes also did not merit greater attention, and nor did the setting. Based on the theatre columns, it is easy to imagine them reciting statically, without any movement, on a stage devoid of scenery. Their bodily morphologies and any peri-theatrical elements are entirely obscured in favour of their sonic creations. The French actor is, above all, a mode of declamation that reduces his/her corporeality to a sensorial melody. ‘There was no music but that of their voices’, wrote Juliet Pollock for The Contemporary Review in 1871 (50).

22French was thus conceived as a melody whose transmission transcended lexicon and was founded in rhythmic movements closely tied to emotions. The combination of harmonic sounds in given temporal spaces, the use of poetic patterns, the melody of the verses recited, together with the vocal tessitura and tonal ranges of the actors, transformed the performances into operatic representations. French imposed itself across a language barrier, revealing itself to be the international language par excellence of the dramatic arts, a lingua franca of the theatre whose declamatory excellence was recognized by all and whose comprehension required laws that were less grammatical than sensory. The speech given by the English actor Henry Irving during the reception organized in 1893 left no doubt as to the suprasegmental nature that revealed itself as a vector of significance. Alluding to the prior visit in 1879, Irving assured that ‘the pictures they produced went straight to the heart and needed no language for those of us who could not master French’ (Irving 86).

23Reduced to a musical expression, French actors lost their scenic corporeality. The acting, physically transparent for the London spectator, was transformed into a type of musical choir, an orchestra of voices in which the collective was elevated above individuals. The reviews highlight the protagonism of the group, which acted as a plural system in which the vocal solos dissipated before the vocal union of the ensemble. The coordination of voices oriented towards the primacy of the whole was the result of a mode of internal organization of the dramatic roles. Critics stated on more than a few occasions that the distribution of parts was based on a sort of equality of assignation: all of the actors had to be capable of interpreting all of the characters, regardless of their relevance. This system of theatrical democratization contributed to achieving greater excellence in each and every one of the roles interpreted in the work, fostering group cohesion and ultimately the improved quality of the company.

24This form of assignation of parts strongly conflicted with British acting. The French performer disguised his individuality behind the character, whereas the British actor subjected the character, and the group, to his own personal characteristics. ‘The English artist puts himself in the first place and his art in the second. Reverse the position and we are on the road to a harmonious perfection’, stated the Era (8 June 1879). The result of a fierce star system in which individual celebrity was opposed to the group, Great Britain advocated a theatre dominated by artists of the ilk of Henry Irving, whereas the French system focused more on the ensemble instead of the isolated figure. In fact, the statutes of the Maison de Molière—published in various British newspapers as an example to emulate—established it as thus: during its time in London, actors were prohibited (at the risk of serious sanctions) from holding individual performances in addition to the engagements scheduled by company. The internal discipline required the actor to comply with the institution that had furnished his fame. Actors with the Comédie, in France, acquired their nobility through belonging to the institution, and not the inverse. Needless to say, not everyone strictly adhered to the norms, with Sarah Bernhardt causing the most ink to be spilled due to her multiple affronts to the troupe. During the 1879 season, her private performances, eccentricities, and notable absences from the billboard reflected an exaggerated individuality that would later materialize in her abandonment of the company in search of individual recognition and financial gain.

25In addition to the qualities of the acting, the French language also entailed a class connotation that turned knowledge of the language into an exercise in intellectual growth. Because of its syntactic and phonetic difficulty, its links to the rarefied literary realm embodied by the classics of the 17th century, and its ascendant aesthetic among Victorian elites, French became the expression of an intellectual aristocracy. According to an article published in All the Year Around on 31 May 1879, ‘of all European languages, French, perhaps, is the most difficult for an unaccustomed ear to understand when spoken. People may read French fluently, and yet be unable to follow it when they hear it pronounced by native lips’. To be able to attend—and appreciate—a theatrical production entirely in French was hence synonymous with cultivation. In the words of Juliet Pollock, ‘such delicate, such exquisite finish in action and in speech, such force and such intellect, as we have seen combined in the performance of Molière’s, Reynauld’s, Augier’s, and De Musset’s finest works, must tend to exalt the character of any intelligent audience’ (54).

26This combination of erudition and social status undoubtedly served as an excuse for the French actors to perform their works uncensored in 1879. Because the target audience belonged to the wealthiest classes, there was a lessened risk of immorality than among the lower classes, who were much more intransigent on issues considered transgressive according to the prevailing morals (Booth 146). That the spectators belonged to the elite neutralized the dangerous charge of the works selected. Simultaneously, the fact that the performance was produced entirely in French certainly helped ameliorate the risk associated with its message. The British public largely concentrated on the melody over the words, either because of the pleasure of the musicality of the French language or because of its incapacity to understand the textual significance of the works, thus dissipating the danger. As described in the Era, ‘In an audience . . .  there are many intelligences, and people do not listen to each phrase; they are carried away by the movement and the general sense. It was thus that the English listened for six weeks’ (2 November 1879).

27The above provides evidence that the performances by the Comédie-Française were understood in terms of both their linguistic singularity and the cultural values that they entailed. The symbolism acquired by French as the language of the theatre triggered an inevitable comparison with domestic theatre in English. French became a language of culture and privilege, linked to exquisite interpretation and a company of actors that defined a nation whose style would become the artistic epitome of the Western world. The obligatory question, repeated throughout the last three decades of the century, was, therefore: ‘Why have we no English Comedy?’ (Once A Week, 27 May 1871). French became a mark of quality by which to measure both English language and national theatre. As Herbert Beerbohm Tree exclaimed, ‘What a perennial delight is in hearing the French language spoken . . .  In French, how quickly, how neatly, how gracefully you can say just what you want to say to your interlocutor! How blunt and heavy an old instrument, in comparison, English seems’ (217). The excellence of the language was such that the British public would retain in its collective memory the performances in French at the Gaiety, rejecting subsequent versions in English, as recognized by the actress Ellen Terry in her memoirs when explaining the failure of the English translation of Froufrou by Meilhac and Halévy, entitled Butterfly: ‘of course it is partly the language. English cannot be phrased as rapidly as French. But I have heard foreign actors, playing in the English tongue, show us this rapidity, this warmth, this fury . . .  wondered why we are, most of us, so deficient in it’ (126).

28The visit of the Comédie-Française revealed a conception of the dramatic arts that opposed two national traditions and even two ‘races’ of actors. In addition to voice and language, the expressive naturalness on the stage—understood as a technique learned through years of study at the Conservatoire—highlighted the movements of the French actors. These attributes were associated with a certain genetic gift, the intrinsic nature of the French actor, who appeared culturally to the English, in Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s words, as ‘a naturally expressive race’ (217). From this racial mythification is deduced their wide range of bodily skills because ‘it is natural for them to express themselves through facial play and gesture, as mimes must, and through modulations of the voice. It is not natural for us to do so’ (Tree 217). This perfection of control over the body, this domain over expressive mechanisms, the submission of the organic to the interpretation, was constantly applauded by the profession in England. Henry James even glimpsed in that magisterial possession a certain magic absent from the English stage: ‘in France . . .  the actor’s art, like the ancient arts and trades, is still something of a “mystery”—a thing of technical secrets, of special knowledge’ (121). This ‘secret knowledge’ had as its origin ‘the evidences of training—of a school, a discipline, a body of science’ that, in James’s words, was absent from the English theatre (121). The French actor had domesticated his body and his voice to the point of creating in his interlocutor through a sound the desired effect, which led James to praise the vocal technique of the French actor: ‘the basis, the prime condition, of acting is the art of finished and beautiful utterance—the art of speaking, of saying, of diction, as the French call it’ (122).

29Due to the technical perfection that they possessed in the eyes of their foreign peers, the modes of interpretation of the French actors became a model to emulate. The French critic Augustin Filon, recalling the acting by Favart and Delaunay in Musset’s comedy On ne badine pas avec l’amour, described the audience’s awe in the final act: ‘Je ne serais pas surpris, que cette soirée eût marqué dans la carrière de plus d’un artiste’ (174). The performances of the Comédie-Française were characterized by their indelibility in the memory of British spectators, to the point of instilling in them a style modelled on that projected by the French actors. A notable example is the illustrious marriage of actor-managers Squire and Mary Bancroft, who describe in their memoirs how the performances by the French actors inspired them: ‘I especially recall the exquisite acting of Favart and Delaunay in La nuit d’octobre, which greatly impressed us all. For some time we would revert on that performance as being one of the most delicate and artistic we had ever witnessed on the stage’ (154). On other occasions, the admiration led to imitation, as the one given by Mr Hare and Mrs Bancroft of Favart and Delaunay (Bancroft 154). That the actors of the so-called ‘revival of English drama’ would take as a point of reference the acting of the sociétaires of the Comédie-Française clearly illustrates the complexity of distinguishing national identity linked to each theatrical practice during the last third of the 19th century, a period of broad collaboration and artistic rapprochement between the two countries.

30By way of conclusion, we can state that the presence of the Comédie-Française in London throughout the last third of the 19th century was essentially the expression of a class event conveying taste and intellectual refinement around a specific language. The myth created around the company, whose significance was, in reality, understood by a privileged few, demonstrated how theatrical sensibility was sublimated into erudition and social status. More of a trend created through advertising than a dramatic ideal that could be decoded by the average spectator, it was social and cultural elites who forged the legend of French as synonymous with elegance and the intellectual aristocracy. ‘It is a common belief that in all matters of taste the French nation is far ahead of our own’, reported The Saturday Review in January 1879. The visits by the French troupe thus responded to a marked tendency by a social class capable of directing the tastes of the nation, something Matthew Arnold had imagined when seeing ‘in wealthy London society a future audience for a National Theatre, with the potential to develop cultivated taste, though noting how their enthusiasm might be shaped by judicious education’ (Guest 284–85).

31Hence, it is not strange that, as a result, the Maison de Molière as an expression of the noblest artistic tradition corresponded precisely with the parameters imposed by this class as a national project. In her study of the link between theatre and cultural legitimation in Europe and America, Loren Kruger argues that the invention of a British identity was ‘emblematized by loyalty to the imperial monarchy’ (84) and, I would contend, to its dramatic taste. The French troupe set the road map for the development of a national English theatre in terms of its internal structure and the weight of tradition, of a repertoire and a conservatoire as paradigmatic constitutive elements of a national identity forged through the dramatic arts. However, such vision was always accompanied by a cultural elitism linked to the wealthiest classes and the centrality of the capital, which posed serious challenges to its ability to represent an entire nation or empire (Guest 285–86). In later decades, the birth of English nationalism encouraged a questioning of the lessons of the Comédie-Française. Multiple attacks on it and commercial speculation, in addition to the personal interests of actors—primarily Bernhardt and Coquelin, who abandoned the troupe to pursue solo careers—threatened to discredit the institution and convert it into merely another troupe, sullied by the same financial problems as the rest of the profession. The 1893 visit marked a turning point in the shared perception of the French troupe/company, breaking ‘the spell’ that had so elevated their legendary craft during the 1871 and 1879 visits, demystifying the utility of its teachings for the English theatre and completely delegitimizing its intellectual authority. Several commentators proclaimed fatigue regarding the repeated need for comparisons with France, and others scorned the work of the Conservatoire, including Edward F. Spence, who insisted that many British actors, such as Irving, the Bancrofts, Ellen Terry, the Kendals, John Hare, Marie Wilton, Arthur Cecil, and Charles Wyndham possessed equal or superior talents. In his own words, ‘without aid of any Conservatoire we have material for a Comedie Anglaise [sic] quite equal to that of which the member of the Maison de Molière is composed’ (Spence 79). The last decades of the reign of Queen Victoria and the first of the Edwardian era were characterized by a ‘nationalization’ of English culture (Collini 316) and a reaffirmation of the stability of the British Empire in the face of the secessionist shocks of Home Rule in Ireland and the disastrous consequences of the Boer War. In a context of growing tension in Ireland and Africa, the theatre was to become a vector of cultural expansion and unification as well as resistance (Imre 2008) to other cultural empires such as that of France, represented by its most notable icon: the Comédie-Française.

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Référence électronique

Ignacio Ramos Gay, « ‘What a perennial delight is in hearing the French language spoken!’: Class, Language and Taste in the Maison de Molière’s French Performances in London (1871–1893) », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 21 août 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3371 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3371

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Auteur

Ignacio Ramos Gay

Ignacio Ramos Gay is Associate Professor in French and comparative literature at the University of Valencia in Spain. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and French, a Masters in Translation Studies, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Valencia. His research focuses on nineteenth-century European drama and popular culture. He is the author of Oscar Wilde and French Boulevard Theatre (Valencia University Press, 2007) and has co‑edited a number of volumes on the cultural cross‑currents between Britain and France such as Adaptations, Versions and Perversions in Modern British Drama (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) and Curious about France: Visions littéraires victoriennes (Peter Lang, 2015). A Fulbright visiting scholar at the Martin E. Seagal Theatre Centre at the City University of New York, his research has been published in journals such as Revue de Littérature Comparée, Romantisme, Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens, Studi Francesi, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Revue des Sciences Humaines, Atlantis, and Journal of Postcolonial Writing, among others. He is the team leader of a research project titled ‘French Sources of Victorian British Drama: Adaptation, Theatre Industry, and Cultural Imperialism’ funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. He is currently editing six plays from Eugène Labiche’s Théâtre complet for Classiques Garnier.
Ignacio Ramos Gay est professeur agrégé en littérature française et comparée à l’université de Valencia en Espagne. Il est titulaire d’une licence en lettres, en anglais et en français, d’un master en traduction, ainsi que d’un doctorat en littérature comparée de l’université de Valencia. Ses recherches portent sur le théâtre et sur la culture populaire du dix-neuvième siècle européen. Il est l’auteur d’Oscar Wilde and French Boulevard Theatre (Valencia University Press, 2007) et a co-édité un grand nombre d’ouvrages sur les courants culturels entre la France et la Grande-Bretagne tels qu’Adaptations, Versions and Perversions in Modern British Drama (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) et Curious about France: Visions littéraires victoriennes (Peter Lang, 2015). Boursier Fulbright en résidence au Martin E. Seagal Theatre Centre de la ville universitaire de New York, ses recherches ont été publiées dans des revues comme Revue de Littérature Comparée, Romantisme, Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens, Studi Francesi, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Revue des Sciences Humaines, Atlantis, et Journal of Postcolonial Writing, entre autres. Il est le directeur d’un projet de recherche intitulé « Sources françaises de la scène britannique victorienne : Adaptation, industrie du théâtre et impérialisme culturel » financé par le Ministère espagnol de l’Économie et de la Concurrence. Il travaille actuellement sur l’édition de six pièces du Théâtre complet d’Eugène Labiche pour les Éditions Classiques Garnier.

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