France - An Aspirant To The Comedie Francaise
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I LOVE Paris Parisien, the Paris not of cosmopolitan pleasure-seekers and idlers, but of the work-a-day world, Belleville and the Buttes Chaumont, the quays of the Canal St. Martin, the faubourg St. Antoine, above all, the Place de la Nation, with its monuments, sparkling basin fountains and shaded swards, Tuileries gardens of humble toilers.
And how the work-a-day adores its Paris ! As I drove lately towards Montmartre, with a young business lady, whose home was in the eighteenth arrondissement, her face glowed with pleasure.
" These quarters are so animated, so bustling," she said, as she revelled in the sights of the living stream around. It seems paradoxical to say that an urban population lives abroad, but certainly Parisians, alike the rich and the poor, spend as little time as possible within four walls. When we compare the advantages gratuitously enjoyed out of doors with the minimum of air, light, and sunshine obtainable by modest purses within, we can understand why it is so.
What a contrast was presented today by the wide, sunny umbrageous boulevard Poissonière and our destination, a small interior on the third floor of a side street, " Space anyhow is dear in Paris," rejoined M. Bergeret's sister upon the philosopher observing that time and space existed in imagination only.
Light and sunshine are higher priced still. The house-holder of narrow means must, above all, forego a cheerful look-out ; and all windows, whether looking north or south, east or west, are taxed. How comes it about, readers may ask, that a tax presumably so unpopular should remain on the statute book ?
Doors and windows were first assessed under the Directoire, twenty centimes only being charged per window in communes of less than five thousand souls, sixty in those of the two first storeys in communes of a hundred thousand. The new duty aroused a storm of opposition. "What!" cried a member of the Cinq Cents. " If I wish to put a window looking east in my house in order that I may adore nature at sun-rising, I must pay duty ? If, in order to warm the chilly frame of my aged father, I want a southern outlet, I must pay duty ? And if, in order to avoid the burning heat of Thermidor, I wish for an opening north, I must pay duty ? Surely it is possible to chose an imposition less objectionable and odious 1 "
The levy was made, and, being increased later on, brought in sixteen million of francs, In 1900 the door and window tax produced thirty millions.
By a law of 1832 some modifications were made in favour of factories and workmen's dwellings, as I have said, but it certainly seems strange that some substitute for this source of revenue should not be devised. And a Parisian window is often no window in the proper sense of the term. Coloured glass is now much used, and when I asked a friend living at Passy the reason why, she replied, that it was to prevent neighbours from overlooking each other !
The tiny flat to which I was now introduced consisted of small parlour, a mere slip of a kitchen, and two bedrooms, all looking upon side walls, a craning of the neck being necessary in order to get even a peep at the sky. But the little salon, with its pianette, pictures, and pretty carpet, wore a cheerful, home-like look, and gaily enough we sat down to tea, the party consisting of my young companion, our hostess and her son, a pupil of the Conservatoire, and an aspirant to the Comédie Française. Sunless, cribbed, cabined, and confined, this little Montmartre home might appear to outsiders, but it was irradiated with golden dreams, elated with airy hopes. Who could say ? This youth, now giving his days to the conning of French plays and poetry, might attain an aspirant's crowning ambition, make his histrionic debut in the house of Molière ?
"You are working very hard ? " I asked.
"All day long," was the reply.
"But," I said, "you must surely require an occasional break ? "
"No," the youth rejoined. "I find, on the contrary, that if I go into the country for a single day's holiday I have lost ground. The memory must be constantly exercised."
" I presume that poetry is much easier to commit to memory than prose ? "
" Infinitely, although both differ immensely in this respect, some writers being so much more difficult to remember than others."
" Molière, for instance, I should say ? "
"You are right, Molière is one of the most difficult poets to get by heart ; but practice is everything."
After discussing his methods of study and the system pursued at the Conservatoire, we passed on to contemporary drama. I mentioned play I had just witnessed at the Français, whereupon he exclaimed, "Then you have seen my master," naming the leading actor, from whom he received lessons in declamation.
The drama in France is indeed as essentially a profession as that of medicine, the law, or civil and military engineering ; it is furthermore, and in contradistinction to these, of absolutely gratuitous attainment. Native talent is thus developed and fostered to the utmost. The greatest actors give students the benefit of their gifts and experience, day after day unwearily presiding at rehearsals.
Some readers doubtless may remember the delightful acting of Got—acting, I should say, that reached the high watermark. At the height of his fame and in the zenith of his powers, this consummate artist would take a daily class at the Conservatoire. The masterpieces of dramatic literature are rehearsed again and again, with the most minute attention to accent, expression, and gesture. It is at the Française indeed the ambition of every student —that the French tongue is heard in its purity. In their indispensable dictionary Messrs. Hatzfeld and Darmsteter inform us that they have adhered to the pronunciation of the best Parisian society, which is generally adopted by the Comédie Française. No greater treat than a matinée in Molière's house can be enjoyed by a lover of French and French classic drama.
The Conservatoire or school of music and declamation was founded by the Convention, and inaugurated in 1793, when no less than six hundred pupils entered their names as students under Méhul, Grétry, and other masters. Already in 1784 musical and dramatic classes had been opened at Versailles under the direction of the Baron de Breteuil, the object in view being to provide the Trianon and royal theatre of Versailles with singers and players. In 1789 the Assembly took up the notion, the nucleus of a musical and dramatic school was transferred to Paris, and that same year it furnished no less than seventy-eight performers for the band of the National Guards. The Revolution, as has been remarked, was from first to last the most musical period of French history, and no doubt music was a great power in moving spirits and aiding the revolutionary cause. The example of Paris was followed by Lille, Toulon, Dijon, Metz, Marseilles, Nantes, and other large towns, their musical schools being called pépinières, or nurseries. The " Chant du Depart" and the " Marseillaise " expressed the military side of the Revolution, the sentimental side was voiced in countless light airs recently unearthed by members of the Sociéte de l'histoire de la Révolution. Had I not been familiar with French life,"my young friend's general culture would have come as a surprise. Here was a youth of eighteen, who on leaving school had entered a commercial house, intelligently, nay discriminately, discussing literature and the drama, at that early age exemplifying what I regard as the quintessential characteristic of our neighbours, namely, the critical faculty. Already he was thinking out theories for himself, by no means content to take other folks' opinions at haphazard as if playing at cross and pile. Family feeling is an adamantine chain in France.
"I have given up the larger bedroom to Henri, as you see," madame had said, when showing me over her tiny flat. " He spends so much time indoors that it is necessary he should have all the space and air possible."
And I could easily guess that the choice of such a career implied sacrifices of a more serious nature. By this time the student of the Conservatoire might have been bringing grist to the mill, earning as junior clerk perhaps two thousand francs a year. But the aspirant had fired his mother and sister with his own enthusiasm. Both utterly believed in the brilliant future foretold by youthful ambition. Moreover, the stage is held, and deservedly held, in high honour by our neighbours. Contemporary drama has usurped the functions of the pulpit without forfeiting its high claims as a school of classicism and culture ; the stage, alike by tragedy and comedy, brings human nature face to face with social vices and follies. Exemplifying this assertion, I need only mention one or two of the plays so successfully produced in leading theatres of late years, Les Remplaçantes, La course du Flambeau, Divorce, these among many others. By turns immorality, drunkenness, the wrongs caused by vicarious motherhood or wet nursing, and other phases of modern life are held up to reprobation and ridicule. Oftener, indeed, to weep rather than laugh, Parisians now fill the leading theatres.