VOL. XXIII.—APRIL, 1877.—No. 4.
Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1877, by SHELDON & CO., in the office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
THE THÉÂTRE FRANÇAIS.
M. Francisque Sarcey, the dramatic critic of the Paris "Temps," and the gentleman who, of the whole journalistic fraternity, holds the fortune of a play in the hollow of his hand, has been publishing during the last year a series of biographical notices of the chief actors and actresses of the first theatre in the world. "Comédiens et Comédiennes: la Comédie Française"—such is the title of this publication, which appears in monthly numbers of the Librairie des Bibliophiles, and is ornamented on each occasion with a very prettily etched portrait, by M. Gaucherel, of the artist to whom the number is devoted. By lovers of the stage in general, and of the Théâtre Français in particular, the series will be found most interesting; and I welcome the pretext for saying a few words about an institution which—if such language be not hyperbolical—I passionately admire. I must add that the portrait is incomplete, though for the present occasion it is more than sufficient. The list of M. Sarcey's biographies is not yet filled up; three or four, those of Mme. Favart and of MM. Fèbvre and Delaunay, are still wanting. Nine numbers, however, have appeared—the first being entitled "La Maison de Molière," and devoted to a general account of the great theatre; and the others treating of its principal sociétaires and pensionnaires in the following order:
- Sophie Croizette,
- Sarah Bernhardt,
- Madeleine Brohan,
- Mme. Plessy.
(This order, by the way, is purely accidental; it is not that of age or of merit.) It is always entertaining to encounter M. Francisque Sarcey, and the reader who, during a Paris winter, has been in the habit, of a Sunday evening, of unfolding his "Temps" immediately after unfolding his napkin, and glancing down first of all to see what this sturdy feuilletoniste has found to his hand—such a reader will find him in great force in the pages before us. It is true that, though I myself confess to being such a reader, there are moments when I grow rather weary of M. Sarcey, who has in an eminent degree both the virtues and the defects which attach to the great French characteristic—the habit of taking terribly au sérieux anything that you may set about doing. Of this habit of abounding in one's own cause, of expatiating, elaborating, reiterating, refining, as if for the hour the fate of mankind were bound up with one's particular topic, M. Sarcey is a capital and at times an almost comical representative. He talks about the theatre once a week as if—honestly, between himself and his reader—the theatre were the only thing in this frivolous world that is worth seriously talking about. He has a religious respect for his theme, and he holds that if a thing is to be done at all, it must be done in detail as well as in the gross.
It is to this serious way of taking the matter, to his thoroughly businesslike and professional attitude, to his unwearying attention to detail, that the critic of the "Temps" owes his enviable influence and the weight of his words. Add to this that he is sternly incorruptible. He has his admirations, but they are honest and discriminating; and whom he loveth he very often chasteneth. He is not ashamed to commend Mlle. X., who has only had a curtsey to make, if her curtsey has been the curtsey of the situation; and he is not afraid to overhaul M. A., who has delivered the tirade of the play, if M. A. has failed to hit the mark. Of course his judgment is good; when I have had occasion to measure it, I have usually found it excellent. He has the scenic sense—the theatrical eye. He knows at a glance what will do, and what won't do. He is shrewd and sagacious and almost tiresomely in earnest, but this closes the list of his attractions. He is not witty—to speak of; and he is not graceful; he is heavy and common, and above all what is familiarly called "shoppy." He leans his elbows on his desk, and does up his weekly budget into a parcel the reverse of coquettish. You can fancy him a grocer retailing tapioca and hominy—full weight for the price; his style seems a sort of integument of brown paper. But the fact remains that if M. Sarcey praises a play, the play has a run; and that if M. Sarcey says it won't do, it does not do at all. If M. Sarcey devotes an encouraging line and a half to a young actress, mademoiselle is immediately lancée; she has a career. If he bestows a quiet "bravo" on an obscure comedian, the gentleman may forthwith renew his engagement. When you make and unmake fortunes at this rate, what matters it whether you have a little elegance the more or the less?
Elegance is for M. Paul de St. Victor, who does the theatres in the "Moniteur," and who, though he writes a style only a trifle less pictorial than that of Théophile Gautier himself, has never, to the best of my belief, brought clouds or sunshine to any playhouse. I may add, to finish with M. Sarcey, that he contributes a daily political article—generally devoted to watching and showing up the "game" of the clerical party—to Edmond About's journal, the "XIXième Siècle"; that he gives a weekly conférence on current literature; that he "confers" also on those excellent Sunday morning performances now so common in the French theatres, during which examples of the classic repertory are presented, accompanied by a light lecture upon the history and character of the play. As the commentator on these occasions M. Sarcey is in great demand, and he officiates sometimes in small provincial towns. Lastly, frequent playgoers in Paris observe that the very slenderest novelty is sufficient to insure at a theatre the (very considerable) physical presence of the conscientious critic of the "Temps." If he were remarkable for nothing else, he would be remarkable for the fortitude with which he exposes himself to the pestiferous climate of the Parisian temples of the drama.
For these agreeable "notices" M. Sarcey appears to have mended his pen and to have given a fillip to his fancy. They are gracefully and often lightly turned; occasionally, even, the author grazes the epigrammatic. They deal, as is proper, with the artistic and not with the private physiognomy of the ladies and gentlemen whom they commemorate; and though they occasionally allude to what the French call "intimate" matters, they contain no satisfaction for the lovers of scandal. The Théâtre Français, in the face it presents to the world, is an austere and venerable establishment, and a frivolous tone about its affairs would be almost as much out of keeping as if applied to the Académie herself. M. Sarcey touches upon the organization of the theatre, and gives some account of the different phases through which it has passed during these latter years. Its chief functionary is a general administrator, or director, appointed by the State, which enjoys this right in virtue of the considerable subsidy which it pays to the house; a subsidy amounting, if I am not mistaken (M. Sarcey does not mention the sum), to 250,000 francs. The director, however, is not an absolute, but a constitutional ruler; for he shares his powers with the society itself, which has always had a large deliberative voice.
Whence, it may be asked, does the society derive its light and its inspiration? From the past, from precedent, from tradition—from the great unwritten body of laws which no one has in his keeping, but many in their memory, and all in their respect. The principles on which the Théâtre Français rests are a good deal like the common law of