Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIII, 9

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XIII, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIII, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIII - Chapter 9
The year 1802 – Talma

Paris, 1837

The summer passed: according to custom, I promised to repeat it again the following year; but the clock-hand never returns to the hour one would wish it to revisit. During the winter in Paris, I made several new acquaintances. Monsieur Julien, wealthy, obliging, a cheerful guest, though from a family where they kill themselves, had a box at the Théâtre Français; he lent it to Madame de Beaumont; I went to see the show on four or five occasions with Monsieur de Fontanes and Monsieur Joubert. When I entered society, the old comedy was in full swing; I met with it again when it was in a state of complete decay; tragedy was still going strong, thanks to Mademoiselle Duchesnois and above all to Talma, who had achieved the peak of his dramatic talent. I had seen him on his debut; he was not as handsome and in a manner of speaking, not as young as he was when I saw him again: he had acquired distinction, nobility and gravitas with the years.

The portrait Madame de Staël has painted of Talma in her work on Germany is only half true: the brilliant writer perceived the great actor with a woman’s imagination, and endowed him with a quality he lacked.

Talma had no use for the Middle Ages: he understood nothing of the gentleman; he did not know of our ancient society; he had not sat at the ladies’ table, in a Gothic tower in the depths of the woods; he was ignorant of the pliability, the sensitivity of taste, the gallantry, the swift movement of manners, the simplicity, the tenderness, the heroic sense of honour, the Christian devotion of chivalry: he was no Tancred, or Coucy, or at least, he transformed them into heroes of a Middle Ages of his own creation: Othello was at the root of his Vendôme.

What was Talma, then? His age and classical times were both his. He had deep and intense passions, inspired by love and by his country; they exploded from his breast. He possessed the fatal inspiration, the genius for disorder, of that Revolution through which he had passed. The terrible scenes, that had surrounded him, echoed, in his art, with the distant and mournful tones of Sophocles’ and Euripides’ choruses. His mode of acting which was not the accepted mode, gripped you like an illness. Black ambition, remorse, jealousy, the soul’s melancholy, physical pain, madness and conflict among the gods, human grief: that is what he understood. His mere entry during a scene, the mere sound of his voice, was powerfully tragic. His brow showed suffering and thought, which were alive in his immobility, his stance, his gestures, his paces. A Greek, he arrived, gloomy and panting from the ruins of Argos, an immortal Orestes, tormented as he had been for three thousand years by the Eumenides; A Frenchman, he came from the solitudes of Saint-Denis, where the Parcae of 1793 had cut the thread of the kings’ sepulchral existence. Utterly sad, waiting for something unknown but decreed by an unjust heaven, he stepped forward, driven by destiny, inexorably bound, between fatality and terror.

That time cast an inevitable shadow over ageing dramatic masterpieces; its gloom could change the clearest Raphael into a Rembrandt; without Talma a major part of the wonders of Corneille and Racine would have remained unknown. Dramatic skill is a fiery torch; it communicates its flames to other partially-lit torches and makes those dramatists of genius live again to delight you with their re-born splendour.

To Talma we owe the perfection of the actor’s costume. But is theatrical truth and authenticity of dress as necessary to the art as one might suppose? Racine’s characters gain nothing from the cut of their cloth: in the paintings of the masters the backgrounds are poorly done and the clothes inexact. Orestes’ Rages or Joad’s Prophecy, played in a salon by Talma in morning dress, have just as much effect as if they are declaimed on the stage by Talma in a Greek cloak or a Hebrew robe. Iphigenia was dressed like Madame de Sévigné, when Boileau addressed these fine lines to his friend:

‘Never did Iphigenia, at Aulis, sacrificed,
Cost the throng of Greeks more tearful cries,
Than La Champmeslé shed, in her guise,
In this great drama played before our eyes.’

This fidelity in representing the inanimate object embodies the spirit of the arts of our times: it heralds the decadence of high poetry and true drama; we content ourselves with minor beauties when we are powerless to create great ones; we imitate armchairs and velvet upholstery, to deceive the eye, when we can no longer draw the features of the man seated in that armchair, on that upholstery. Moreover, once we have stooped to this exactness of material form, we find ourselves forced to replicate it; since the public, materialists themselves, demand it.