Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Mademoiselle Duchesnois and Phèdre

Most of us have heard the name either in relation to Napoléon Bonapartes mistress, or as a concurrence of Mlle Georges, a fellow actress (and another mistress of NB)

I've stumbled over Mlle Cathérine-Josephine Duchesnois in the Journal des Dames (on BNF). She was a celebrated actress, and these two snippets from the same issue illustrate how present she must have been in those days. A real celebrity, somebody who took the scene by surprise, and who was there to stay.

The date of 30 Frimaire An 12 reads as 22 December 1803, a bit over a year after having charmed and bewitched Paris as Phèdre in August 1802, Racine's tragedy what everyone would have heard or seen for the past generations.

The days of comedy have become the tragic days at the Théâtre Français since Molé (Molière) has passed on: Only Tragedy is fashionable these days. One goes and sees Voltaire, one loves Racine (Author of Phèdre), one runs crazily to Corneille; while the actors influence these movements far more than the pieces they perform. It is a good day when Talma performs; even better with Mlle Volnais and Mlle Georges show up; but the most excellent days are those when Mlle Duchesnois gives an appearance.

A painting what is for sale is is currently on show an engravers studio, close to the Café de Foi at Palais du Tribunat, a portrait what greatly resembles Mlle Duchesnois. 

Sadly the journal doesn't give us a precise description of the portrait. Though given her recent success as Phèdre, and the trademark diadem the role brought along, it might have been any portrait with a lady wearing a diadème. 

© http://www.tombes-sepultures.com/crbst_650.html
Pictured above is Mlle Duchesnois, once in an engraving by a non-mentioned painter on the source site, once in her title role Phèdre, courtesy of the BNF

I have read Phèdre as a teenager, and considered it to be a 'Greek Tragedy, as bad as Oedipus'. I guess I was simply to young to understand or appreciate the piece. In later years I rediscovered the multi layered personality of Phèdre. The woman of duty, of the woman who loves, who despises herself for this love. The woman who falls prey to madness. And the woman who is willing to atone the wrong she felt she did by the sacrifice of her own life. 
And what an extraordinary actress it would have needed, to present Phèdre in her failings and in her dignity. Mlle Duchesnois was not as beautiful as Mlle Georges, she was described as rather plain, but with a spontaneous delivery, a warm and sensual voice.

Apparently Mlle Cathérine-Joséphine was just such an actress. Aged 25, she convinced the Paris audience of the fate of the tragic queen in 1802, and had immediately a very steady fan base, like Joséphine Bonaparte who orchestrated a second chancer for her in Paris, after a disastrous debut in Versailles; or her colleague, the very esteemed Talma, a legend on the boards, who made her his constant acting partner, crowned her on stage, thus firing up a jealous conflict between her and Mlle Georges. (Both Mlle Duchesnois and Mlle Georges became Members of the Comédie Française in 1804. On the same date, because anything else would have fired up the conflict even more)

Baron Gerard's portrait of Mlle Duchesne

While we have no possibility to see her perform the role together with Talma, I would like to direct a little attention to this woman. She was an artist, not just merely 'one of Bonapartes mistresses', and apparently an inspired actress, who had her apprentissage not as such, but as a couturière!  
And while you might have read Phèdre in school and considered it dull to no end (as I did), I would love to inspire you to give the small tome another try, it may make you appreciate the craftsmanship what went into personifying such a role.

For my German readers, there is a special treat: Reclams edition of 'Phädra' was translated in 1804 by Friedrich Schiller. (Yes. That Schiller) And while it render Racines verses, Schiller gives us the Spirit of the Classic period in the clear language of beauty, as much treat to read as the original.

Links for further reading:
Wikipedia about Mlle Duchesnois (her real name was Rufin, not Duchesnois, by the way)  
And a bit longer biography, published in relation of her tomb on Cimetière Père Lachaise, the cemetery where Mlle Duchesnois found her last resting place (in French): http://www.tombes-sepultures.com/crbst_650.html

1 comment:

  1. Vielen Dank für das schöne "Fundstück". Deinen Lesetipp werde ich gerne beherzigen, wobei ich besonders gespannt auf Schillers Übersetzung bin!