THEATER: Starring.... La Pompadour!
"Ravishingly sung” * “sang and acted superbly" * ”sang so well, acted so well" - These reviews - not all of them from friendly critics - were typical of the reviews (usually consigned to intimate memoirs) received by Madame de Pompadour. That a royal mistress should be a superb actress might not be so surprising, though not all got to show their talents on an actual stage. But when the marquise was still the (perfectly respectable) Mme. d’Etiolles, the President Henault wrote of her:
I found there one of the prettiest women I have ever seen; this is Mme. d’Etiolles; she knows music perfectly well, she sings with all the gaity and taste possible, knows a hundred songs, and acts at Etiolles, on a theater as nice as that at the Opera, where there are machines and scene changes.
In 1747, now Mme. de Pompadour and the king’s mistress, in her on-going effort to entertain the king, she proposed building a small theater like that at Etiolles, inside the king’s apartments at Versailles. The resulting theater was known as “The Theater of the Small Apartments” or “The Theater of the Small Cabinets”, and Jullien gives the history of this “Cabinet Theater” in his La Comedie a la Cour (141-234), based largely on Campardon’s life of the marquise. First, Pompadour organized the statutes of the society:
1. Regarding admission. To be admitted as a member, one must prove that this is not their first time acting, in order not to start as a novice in the troupe.
2. Each will choose his position.
3. One cannot, without having obtained the consent of all members, take a different position than that agreed.
4. One cannot, being absent, choose one's own replacement (a right expressly reserved to the Membership, which will choose by absolute majority.)
5. Upon his return, the replaced person will return to his position.
6. No member can refuse a role selected for him, on the pretext that the role does not show him to best advantage, or that it is too tiring. (These first six articles are common to both actresses and actors.)
Here are the rules pertaining uniquely to actresses:
7. Only the actresses will have the right to choose the works that the troupe must perform.
Jullien gives extensive details on the membership, construction, costumes, and more about this theater. Suffice it to say that while top members of the court were accepted in the troupe, others were rejected, including both the count and the marshal of Noailles and the prince of Conti. Mme. du Hausset, a courtier, had occasion to see the Count d'Argenson to request a command for a relative. She was coldly received, but as she left, his son, having overheard, proposed a trade: "I want to be a police officer," he said, "and you are in a position to get me this post." She did not understand what she took for a joke, until he said, “ 'Tartuffe' is to be played in the Cabinet Theater, there is a role as a police officer with very few lines... Get the marquise to give me this role and the command is yours." When this exchange was effected, "he thanked Madame as if she had made him a duke." The first piece performed, on January 17, 1747, was indeed “Tartuffe”. (Jullien only gives a cast list for a later performance.) On the 24th the marquise acted in two pieces - "le Prejugé a la mode", by de la Chaussee, and "l'Esprit de contradiction", by de Dufresny - and was said to have acted well.
8. They will also have the right to select the day of the performance, the number of rehearsals, and the date and time of the performance.
9. Each actor is required to be there at precisely the hour for the rehearsal under penalty of a fine which the actresses alone will decide among them.
10. The actresses alone are granted a half-hour's grace, past which the fire they will incur will be decided by them alone. A copy of these statues will be given to each member, as well as to the director, who will be required to bring these to each rehearsal.
On February 27, the Dauphin and Dauphine came for the first time to one of these performances. The play was "les Trois Cousines". Pompadour played Colette. The others were:
The Bailiff - M. de la Valliere De Lorme,
If it is not obvious, the roles are those of simple people; the actors included some of the most prominent people at court. When Pompadour acted in Moncrif's "Ismene", says Jullien, "this play was extremely pretty and ravishingly sung by the marquise-Ismene". The king, after complimenting the conductor and Moncrif, left, saying, "That was a charming show." On the 30th of December, the Cabinet Theater put on Voltaire's 'l'Enfant Prodigue' followed by a comedy, Cahusac's 'Zeneide'. Pompadour played Lise in Voltaire's play, and the title role in 'Zeneide'. Along with three men in the latter, she was the most praised player. She had championed Voltaire's play, though "Voltaire had the whole royal family against him". Voltaire did not learn of the play's success until several days later. He then showed his gratitude by writing verse in which he placed Pompadour on an equal footing with the king: "Live both without enemies! And both keep your conquests!" The queen and her circle were understandably miffed, as was the king, by Voltaire's 'impertinence'. "The marquise was wise enough to sacrifice this dangerous panegyrist". However, the damage was done, and the usual crude satires rained down:
father of Colette - the duke de Villeroi
Blaise - the duke de Duras
M. de Lepine - M. de Luxembourg
M. Giflot - [not named?]
The miller's wife - Mme. de Brancas, dowager
Marotte - Mme. de Livry
Louison - Mme. de Pons
Mathurine - [not named?]
One must vaunt
Her hummed singing,
Her shakey voice,
Her forced acting.
The faded looks,
The yellow pocked skin,
And each stained tooth...
(Sounds like John Simon in a charitable mood...)
Voltaire came in for his share too:
After the elogy dictated by madness or malice,
That is, prison or, more appropriately, the madhouse.
What fate should he suffer,
The so-noted author?
The Bastille by charity,
And Charenton by justice.
* On January 10, 1748, 'Tartuffe' was performed again, with the following illustrious cast:
Mme. Pernelle - The marquise de Sessenage
M. Orgon - The marquis de Croissy
Elmire - The dutchess of Brancas
Tartuffe - the duke de la Valliere
Damis - the count de Maillebois
Marianne - the countess de Pons
Cleante - the marquis de Gontaut
Valere - the duke de Duras
Dorine - the marquise de Pompadour
M. Loyal - the marquis de Meuse
Police officer - the marquis de Voyer [d'Argenson, that is]
For the price of one good lieutenancy, the young Voyer d'Argenson was living his dream.
Many of the same people performed that Saturday, the 13th, in 'les Dehors trompeurs', by Boissy, and a pastorale, Eglé, by Laujon (music by the very young Lagarde, barely twenty.)
The marquise was naturally the queen of the party, charming actress in the play and adorable singer in the pastorale. She used all the naiveté she possessed in her pretty role as the disabused innocent. Nonetheless, the audience, the king above all, must have had trouble hiding a smile at certain passages, such as this one: 'You are inexperienced?' - 'Oh very,' responds the naive Lucille [in 'les Dehors'], blushing.
February 5th brought three works: 'le Mechant', by Gresset, "a small comedy" by Saint-Foix, and 'le Pedant' a pantomime. Gresset's piece was so demanding that it took two months to rehearse, but the marquise had promised the author it would be put on. He was suitably grateful:
One only writes on sand
The comedy, by the way, showed familiar members of the court under recognizable guise. Said the marquis d'Argenson, "the more I see this play..., the more I find studies done from nature." (He then proceeds to name the models, one his own brother.) He also wrote: "I fear that the spiritual portraits of the vices of the time have no more delighted [those concerned] than converted [them] to virtue." Pompadour played Lisette in this play, but it was the duke de Nivernois, who got the most fulsome reviews, playing Valere, a role created by Roseli, one of the best actors of the time. The memoirist Laujon said:
The vague and instable word
Of all the lords at court.
But on inalterable bronze
The muses have written
Pompadour's name and
her unvarying word.
The ingenuous tone which M. de Nivernois gave Valere, his alacrity in giving way without thinking to a man whose wit seems far superior to his own, the pride in approaching him, presented with a frank air that made Valere interesting.. this was what had escaped the actor who first played this role...
Bearing in mind that the latter was a professional (and celebrated) actor and Nivernois was.... a duke. Roseli came to the next performance and, surprised to see "the noble and touching character which M. de Nivernois brought to this role", incorporated some of Nivernois' touches in his own work, with great success. On March 22, Pompadour played Lucinde in l'Oracle. The evening ended with 'le Pedant', about a schoolmaster being tormented by his pupils. A Miss Durand played a nurse and "so that the demoiselle Durand could play her role as a nurse with all the exterior advantages it involved, art was used to remedy nature" and so the list for the wardrobe includes this item: "A corset with a false bust, the corset covered with a cloth of brown wool and decorated with canetille of white silk."
On February 15, in a reprise of 'le Mariage fait et rompu' by Dufresny, and 'Eglé'. Pompadour appeared (for the first time) in Dufresny's piece as the hostess. The duke de Luynes gave her good reviews: "Mme. de Pompadour is the only woman who acts very well..... Mme. de Pompadour, who played Eglé, sang and acted superbly." On "Fat Monday", Feburary 26, the "Dehors trompeurs" was put on again, followed by Moncrif's 'Almasis' with Pompadour in the title role. "This slim work so pleased the king that he had it played up to three times." But when the full opera from which this was taken was put on in 1750, at the Music Academy, it was a failure. The next day - Mardi Gras - the latter piece was put on again, followed by 'les Amours de Ragonde’, words by Nericault-Destouches, music by Mouret, which "was learned, staged and rehearsed in forty-eight hours." The king skipped a carnival celebration at la Muette to see the latter - which featured Pompadour in drag, as Colin, a shepherd. Said the duke de Luynes: "Mme. de Pompadour was dressed as a man, but as women are when they go horseback riding; it was a very decent outfit."
Around this time, a collection entitled Comedies et ballets des petits appartements appeared. Each play in it bore the note "Printed by express command of His Majesty". The marquis d'Argenson, one of Pompadour's enemies, called it "a really ridiculous collection" and the works "miserable and fawning". "The king spends his time today watching performances by the marquise and other characters by all these professional thespians who are become familiar with the king in a sacreligious and impious way." On March 28,the marquise “shone” in the role of Love in the “Sight” sequence from 'The Ballet of the Senses' by du Roy and Mouret. “One can add nothing to the perfection of acting, of taste and of the voice of Mme. de Pompadour,” wrote Luynes. Her talent was confirmed - if not admired - by others. Moufle d’Angerville wrote later about this year,
We have said that Mme. de Pompadour acted very well. There were frequently shows in the little apartments of the king, and the most serious members of the court gave themselves to this art to amuse the king.
He then went on to blame Pompadour for the “scenic taste” which spread throughout France, even into convents. (In Abbeville, for instance, the abbess of Willaincourt later put on Florian’s plays with her nuns.) The assistant director of the theater, and author of much of its work, Moncrif, was also the queen’s reader. One day (tactlessly, one would think) he was regaling the queen with the success of one of his pieces. “This is very nice, ” she said, “But this is enough!”
When the 1748 season ended (March 30), Pompadour gave out watches or tobacco holders to many of those involved (the professional musicians got 25-30 louis each.) Pompadour’s singing master, Jelyotte, not only was the toast of the town - all the ladies wanted to sup with him - but received a golden box from the king on which the work alone cost 1500 French pounds. Pompadour’s little theater was so successful that too many people wanted to come for the small space, and so a new theater was built within the great staircase, though in such a way that it could be removed quickly. When rumors said that this new construction cost “two million”, Pompadour protested that it had only cost 20,000 francs, though the king said it cost 75,000 French pounds. (The decor, by Boucher, was auctioned off in Paris in the 19th century and last seen in St. Petersburg.)
The new theater opened on November 27, 1748 with a piece, “Les Surprises d’ Amour”, by Gentil-Bernard and Moncrif, music by Rameau. Pompadour played Uranie in one ballet and Venus in the second. The king however started to yawn (!) in the middle of the performance and told a neighbor “I’d rather have comedy.” After another unsuccessful performance of the same work, the troupe put on an opera, “Tancred”, on December 10, with Pompadour as Herminie. Pompadour sang perfectly and the night began well. Then the king was given a note informing him that Prince Edward, having taken refuge in France, had been arrested (by the King’s order) as he arrived at the Opera (presumably the one in Paris.) This cast a pall over the evening. On December 12, after a comedy (‘La Mere Coquette’ by Quinault) which was well-received, the troupe played “the most diverting pantomime which was ever acted in the theatre of the little cabinets”, “L’Operateur Chinois”, which took place in China, with the lead in an appropriately magnificent costume. The Dauphin and Dauphine were there as well as (surprisingly) the queen (who was to attend others in the future). When “Tancred” was put on again, on the 17th, the king complained that there were too many monologues. (The king, I can’t help noting, comes across as a real ‘lad’.) After two more pieces on the 23rd, both with Pompadour in them, the theater was disassembled to make way for the New Year’s celebrations. This only took 18 hours, but in the process two workers were hurt and one curious person, climbing around on his own, fell to his death.
Details... The important thing was, the marquise had reconquered the king’s heart. Those tempted to credit compimentary reviews of her work to flattery might consider this quote from the disapproving marquis d’Argenson:
The king who was said to be tired of his favorite sultana, the marquise de Pompadour, is crazier about her then ever. She sang so well, acted so well in the last ballets at Versailles, that His Majesty praised her publicly, and, caressing her in front of everybody, told her she was the most charming woman in France.
At the start of 1749, however, Pompadour suddenly found herself confronted by the Marshal de Richelieu, who, while remaining infuriatingly gallant to her face, put every obstacle in her way. The details of this court struggle are a saga in themselves; suffice it to say her enemies quietly rejoiced. D’ Argenson’s gloating account of the struggle includes this feline remark (Richelieu was quite a ladies’ man): “He has no trouble knocking about the little Pompadour, and treating her like an opera girl, having had a great deal of experience with this kind of woman, and with all women.”
The struggle ended however when the king casually asked Richelieu “How many times have you been in the Bastille?” “Three”, said the marshal, who took the hint. Poor Richelieu was severely blamed by all the people who had been counting on him to, in effect, do their dirty work. Pompadour, on the other hand, came out the clear, if unpopular, winner. Her “Cabinet Theater” would continue at Versailles and then, after murmurs about the cost, more discreetly at Bellevue (1750-1753). But d’Argenson’s remark at the time of this conflict shows how, already, this ‘diversion’ had effectively cemented Pompadour’s power: "She is considered as strong and even stronger than the Cardinal de Fleury in the government. Woe to whomever goes against her today!"