The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

French Dramas and Melodramas

There are three kinds of drama in France, which you may subdivide as much as you please.

There is the old classical drama, wellnigh dead, and full time too: old tragedies, in which half a dozen characters appear, and spout sonorous Alexandrines for half a dozen hours. The fair Rachel has been trying to revive this genre, and to untomb Racine; but be not alarmed, Racine will never come to life again, and cause audiences to weep as of yore. Madame Rachel can only galvanize the corpse, not revivify it. Ancient French tragedy, red-heeled, patched, and be-periwigged, lies in the grave; and it is only the ghost of it that we see, which the fair Jewess has raised. There are classical comedies in verse, too, wherein the knavish valets, rakish heroes, stolid old guardians, and smart, free-spoken serving-women, discourse in Alexandrines, as loud as the Horaces or the Cid. An Englishman will seldom reconcile himself to the roulement of the verses, and the painful recurrence of the rhymes; for my part, I had rather go to Madame Saqui’s or see Deburau dancing on a rope: his lines are quite as natural and poetical.

Then there is the comedy of the day, of which Monsieur Scribe is the father. Good heavens! with what a number of gay colonels, smart widows, and silly husbands has that gentleman peopled the play-books. How that unfortunate seventh commandment has been maltreated by him and his disciples. You will see four pieces, at the Gymnase, of a night; and so sure as you see them, four husbands shall be wickedly used. When is this joke to cease? Mon Dieu! Play-writers have handled it for about two thousand years, and the public, like a great baby, must have the tale repeated to it over and over again.

Finally, there is the Drama, that great monster which has sprung into life of late years; and which is said, but I don’t believe a word of it, to have Shakspeare for a father. If Monsieur Scribe’s plays may be said to be so many ingenious examples how to break one commandment, the drame is a grand and general chaos of them all; nay, several crimes are added, not prohibited in the Decalogue, which was written before dramas were. Of the drama, Victor Hugo and Dumas are the well-known and respectable guardians. Every piece Victor Hugo has written, since “Hernani,” has contained a monster — a delightful monster, saved by one virtue. There is Triboulet, a foolish monster; Lucrèce Borgia, a maternal monster; Mary Tudor, a religious monster; Monsieur Quasimodo, a humpback monster; and others, that might be named, whose monstrosities we are induced to pardon — nay, admiringly to witness — because they are agreeably mingled with some exquisite display of affection. And, as the great Hugo has one monster to each play, the great Dumas has, ordinarily, half a dozen, to whom murder is nothing; common intrigue, and simple breakage of the before-mentioned commandment, nothing; but who live and move in a vast, delightful complication of crime, that cannot be easily conceived in England, much less described.

When I think over the number of crimes that I have seen Mademoiselle Georges, for instance, commit, I am filled with wonder at her greatness, and the greatness of the poets who have conceived these charming horrors for her. I have seen her make love to, and murder, her sons, in the “Tour de Nesle.” I have seen her poison a company of no less than nine gentlemen, at Ferrara, with an affectionate son in the number; I have seen her, as Madame de Brinvilliers, kill off numbers of respectable relations in the first four acts; and, at the last, be actually burned at the stake, to which she comes shuddering, ghastly, barefooted, and in a white sheet. Sweet excitement of tender sympathies! Such tragedies are not so good as a real, downright execution; but, in point of interest, the next thing to it: with what a number of moral emotions do they fill the breast; with what a hatred for vice, and yet a true pity and respect for that grain of virtue that is to be found in us all: our bloody, daughter-loving Brinvilliers; our warmhearted, poisonous Lucretia Borgia; above all, what a smart appetite for a cool supper afterwards, at the Café Anglais, when the horrors of the play act as a piquant sauce to the supper!

Or, to speak more seriously, and to come, at last, to the point. After having seen most of the grand dramas which have been produced at Paris for the last half-dozen years, and thinking over all that one has seen — the fictitious murders, rapes, adulteries, and other crimes, by which one has been interested and excited — a man may take leave to be heartily ashamed of the manner in which he has spent his time; and of the hideous kind of mental intoxication in which he has permitted himself to indulge.

Nor are simple society outrages the only sort of crime in which the spectator of Paris plays has permitted himself to indulge; he has recreated himself with a deal of blasphemy besides, and has passed many pleasant evenings in beholding religion defiled and ridiculed.

Allusion has been made, in a former paper, to a fashion that lately obtained in France, and which went by the name of Catholic reaction; and as, in this happy country, fashion is everything, we have had not merely Catholic pictures and quasi religious books, but a number of Catholic plays have been produced, very edifying to the frequenters of the theatres or the Boulevards, who have learned more about religion from these performances than they have acquired, no doubt, in the whole of their lives before. In the course of a very few years we have seen —“The Wandering Jew;” “Belshazzar’s Feast;” “Nebuchadnezzar:” and the “Massacre of the Innocents;” “Joseph and his Brethren;” “The Passage of the Red Sea;” and “The Deluge.”

The great Dumas, like Madame Sand before mentioned, has brought a vast quantity of religion before the foot-lights. There was his famous tragedy of “Caligula,” which, be it spoken to the shame of the Paris critics, was coldly received; nay, actually hissed, by them. And why? Because, says Dumas, it contained a great deal too much piety for the rogues. The public, he says, was much more religious, and understood him at once.

“As for the critics,” says he, nobly, “let those who cried out against the immorality of Antony and Marguérite de Bourgogne, reproach me for THE CHASTITY OF MESSALINA.” (This dear creature is the heroine of the play of “Caligula.”) “It matters little to me. These people have but seen the form of my work: they have walked round the tent, but have not seen the arch which it covered; they have examined the vases and candles of the altar, but have not opened the tabernacle!

“The public alone has, instinctively, comprehended that there was, beneath this outward sign, an inward and mysterious grace: it followed the action of the piece in all its serpentine windings; it listened for four hours, with pious attention (avec recueillement et religion), to the sound of this rolling river of thoughts, which may have appeared to it new and bold, perhaps, but chaste and grave; and it retired, with its head on its breast, like a man who had just perceived, in a dream, the solution of a problem which he has long and vainly sought in his waking hours.”

You see that not only Saint Sand is an apostle, in her way; but Saint Dumas is another. We have people in England who write for bread, like Dumas and Sand, and are paid so much for their line; but they don’t set up for prophets. Mrs. Trollope has never declared that her novels are inspired by heaven; Mr. Buckstone has written a great number of farces, and never talked about the altar and the tabernacle. Even Sir Edward Bulwer (who, on a similar occasion, when the critics found fault with a play of his, answered them by a pretty decent declaration of his own merits,) never ventured to say that he had received a divine mission, and was uttering five-act revelations.

All things considered, the tragedy of “Caligula” is a decent tragedy; as decent as the decent characters of the hero and heroine can allow it to be; it may be almost said, provokingly decent: but this, it must be remembered, is the characteristic of the modern French school (nay, of the English school too); and if the writer take the character of a remarkable scoundrel, it is ten to one but he turns out an amiable fellow, in whom we have all the warmest sympathy. “Caligula” is killed at the end of the performance; Messalina is comparatively well-behaved; and the sacred part of the performance, the tabernacle-characters apart from the mere “vase” and “candlestick” personages, may be said to be depicted in the person of a Christian convert, Stella, who has had the good fortune to be converted by no less a person than Mary Magdalene, when she, Stella, was staying on a visit to her aunt, near Narbonne.

STELLA (Continuant.) Voilà Que je vois s’avancer, sans pilote et sans rames, Une barque portant deux hommes et deux femmes, Et, spectacle inouï qui me ravit encor, Tous quatre avaient au front une auréole d’or D’où partaient des rayons de si vive lumière Que je fus obligée à baisser la paupière; Et, lorsque je rouvris les yeux avec effroi, Les voyageurs divins étaient auprès de moi. Un jour de chacun d’eux et dans toute sa gloire Je te raconterai la marveilleuse histoire, Et tu l’adoreras, j’espère; en ce moment, Ma mère, il te suffit de savoir seulement Que tous quatre venaient du fond de la Syrie: Un édit les avait bannis de leur patrie, Et, se faisant bourreaux, des hommes irrités, Sans avirons, sans eau, sans pain et garrotés, Sur une frêle barque échouée au rivage, Les avaient à la mer poussés dans un orage. Mais à peine l’esquif eut-il touché les flots Qu’au cantique chanté par les saints matelots, L’ouragan replia ses ailes frémissantes, Que la mer aplanit ses vagues mugissantes, Et qu’un soleil plus pur, reparaissant aux cieux, Enveloppa l’esquif d’un cercle radieux! . . .

JUNIA. — Mais c’était un prodige.

STELLA. — Un miracle, ma mère! Leurs fers tombèrent seuls, l’eau cessa d’être amère, Et deux fois chaque jour le bateau fut couvert D’une manne pareille à celle du désert: C’est ainsi que, poussés par une main céleste, Je les vis aborder.

JUNIA. — Oh! dis vîte le reste!

STELLA. — A l’aube, trois d’entre eux quittèrent la maison: Marthe prit le chemin qui mène à Tarascon, Lazare et Maximin celui de Massilie, Et celle qui resta . . . . C’ETAIT LA PLUS JOLIE, (how truly French!) Nous faisant appeler vers le milieu du jour, Demanda si les monts ou les bois d’alentour Cachaient quelque retraite inconnue et profonde, Qui la pût séparer à tout jamais du monde. . . . . Aquila se souvint qu’il avait pénétré Dans un antre sauvage et de tous ignoré, Grotte creusée aux flancs de ces Alpes sublimes, Ou l’aigle fait son aire au-dessus des abîmes. Il offrit cet asile, et dès le lendemain Tous deux, pour l’y guider, nous étions en chemin. Le soir du second jour nous touchâmes sa base: Là, tombant à genoux dans une sainte extase, Elle pria long-temps, puis vers l’antre inconnu, Dénouant se chaussure, elle marcha pied nu. Nos prières, nos cris restèrent sans réponses: Au milieu des cailloux, des épines, des ronces, Nous la vîmes monter, un bâton à la main, Et ce n’est qu’arrivée au terme du chemin, Qu’enfin elle tomba sans force et sans haleine . . . .

JUNIA. — Comment la nommait-on, ma fille?

STELLA. — Madeleine.

Walking, says Stella, by the sea-shore, “A bark drew near, that had nor sail nor oar; two women and two men the vessel bore: each of that crew, ’twas wondrous to behold, wore round his head a ring of blazing gold; from which such radiance glittered all around, that I was fain to look towards the ground. And when once more I raised my frightened eyne, before me stood the travellers divine; their rank, the glorious lot that each befell, at better season, mother, will I tell. Of this anon: the time will come when thou shalt learn to worship as I worship now. Suffice it, that from Syria’s land they came; an edict from their country banished them. Fierce, angry men had seized upon the four, and launched them in that vessel from the shore. They launched these victims on the waters rude; nor rudder gave to steer, nor bread for food. As the doomed vessel cleaves the stormy main, that pious crew uplifts a sacred strain; the angry waves are silent as it sings; the storm, awe-stricken, folds its quivering wings. A purer sun appears the heavens to light, and wraps the little bark in radiance bright.

“JUNIA. — Sure, ’twas a prodigy.

“STELLA. — A miracle. Spontaneous from their hands the fetters fell. The salt sea-wave grew fresh, and, twice a day, manna (like that which on the desert lay) covered the bark and fed them on their way. Thus, hither led, at heaven’s divine behest, I saw them land —

“JUNIA. — My daughter, tell the rest.

“STELLA. — Three of the four, our mansion left at dawn. One, Martha, took the road to Tarascon; Lazarus and Maximin to Massily; but one remained (the fairest of the three), who asked us, if i’ the woods or mountains near, there chanced to be some cavern lone and drear; where she might hide, for ever, from all men. It chanced, my cousin knew of such a den; deep hidden in a mountain’s hoary breast, on which the eagle builds his airy nest. And thither offered he the saint to guide. Next day upon the journey forth we hied; and came, at the second eve, with weary pace, unto the lonely mountain’s rugged base. Here the worn traveller, falling on her knee, did pray awhile in sacred ecstasy; and, drawing off her sandals from her feet, marched, naked, towards that desolate retreat. No answer made she to our cries or groans; but walking midst the prickles and rude stones, a staff in hand, we saw her upwards toil; nor ever did she pause, nor rest the while, save at the entry of that savage den. Here, powerless and panting, fell she then.

“JUNIA. — What was her name, my daughter?

“STELLA. MAGDALEN.”

Here the translator must pause — having no inclination to enter “the tabernacle,” in company with such a spotless high-priest as Monsieur Dumas.

Something “tabernacular” may be found in Dumas’s famous piece of “Don Juan de Marana.” The poet has laid the scene of his play in a vast number of places: in heaven (where we have the Virgin Mary and little angels, in blue, swinging censers before her!)— on earth, under the earth, and in a place still lower, but not mentionable to ears polite; and the plot, as it appears from a dialogue between a good and a bad angel, with which the play commences, turns upon a contest between these two worthies for the possession of the soul of a member of the family of Marana.

“Don Juan de Marana” not only resembles his namesake, celebrated by Mozart and Molière, in his peculiar successes among the ladies, but possesses further qualities which render his character eminently fitting for stage representation: he unites the virtues of Lovelace and Lacenaire; he blasphemes upon all occasions; he murders, at the slightest provocation, and without the most trifling remorse; he overcomes ladies of rigid virtue, ladies of easy virtue, and ladies of no virtue at all; and the poet, inspired by the contemplation of such a character, has depicted his hero’s adventures and conversation with wonderful feeling and truth.

The first act of the play contains a half-dozen of murders and intrigues; which would have sufficed humbler genius than M. Dumas’s, for the completion of, at least, half a dozen tragedies. In the second act our hero flogs his elder brother, and runs away with his sister-inlaw; in the third, he fights a duel with a rival, and kills him: whereupon the mistress of his victim takes poison, and dies, in great agonies, on the stage. In the fourth act, Don Juan, having entered a church for the purpose of carrying off a nun, with whom he is in love, is seized by the statue of one of the ladies whom he has previously victimized, and made to behold the ghosts of all those unfortunate persons whose deaths he has caused.

This is a most edifying spectacle. The ghosts rise solemnly, each in a white sheet, preceded by a wax-candle; and, having declared their names and qualities, call, in chorus, for vengeance upon Don Juan, as thus:—

DON SANDOVAL loquitur.

“I am Don Sandoval d’Ojedo. I played against Don Juan my fortune, the tomb of my fathers, and the heart of my mistress; — I lost all: I played against him my life, and I lost it. Vengeance against the murderer! vengeance!”—(The candle goes out.)

THE CANDLE GOES OUT, and an angel descends — a flaming sword in his hand — and asks: “Is there no voice in favor of Don Juan?” when lo! Don Juan’s father (like one of those ingenious toys called “Jack-inthe-box,”) jumps up from his coffin, and demands grace for his son.

When Martha the nun returns, having prepared all things for her elopement, she finds Don Juan fainting upon the ground. —“I am no longer your husband,” says he, upon coming to himself; “I am no longer Don Juan; I am Brother Juan the Trappist. Sister Martha, recollect that you must die!”

This was a most cruel blow upon Sister Martha, who is no less a person than an angel, an angel in disguise — the good spirit of the house of Marana, who has gone to the length of losing her wings and forfeiting her place in heaven, in order to keep company with Don Juan on earth, and, if possible, to convert him. Already, in her angelic character, she had exhorted him to repentance, but in vain; for, while she stood at one elbow, pouring not merely hints, but long sermons, into his ear, at the other elbow stood a bad spirit, grinning and sneering at all her pious counsels, and obtaining by far the greater share of the Don’s attention.

In spite, however, of the utter contempt with which Don Juan treats her — in spite of his dissolute courses, which must shock her virtue — and his impolite neglect, which must wound her vanity, the poor creature (who, from having been accustomed to better company, might have been presumed to have had better taste), the unfortunate angel feels a certain inclination for the Don, and actually flies up to heaven to ask permission to remain with him on earth.

And when the curtain draws up, to the sound of harps, and discovers white-robed angels walking in the clouds, we find the angel of Marana upon her knees, uttering the following address:—

LE BON ANGE.

Vierge, à qui le calice à la liqueur amère

Fut si souvent offert,
Mère, que l’on nomma la douloureuse mère,
Tant vous avez souffert!

Vous, dont les yeux divins sur la terre des hommes

Ont versé plus de pleurs
Que vos pieds n’ont depuis, dans le ciel où nous sommes,
Fait éclore de fleurs.

Vase d’élection, étoile matinale,

Miroir de pureté,
Vous qui priez pour nous, d’une voix virginale,
La suprême bonté;

A mon tour, aujourd’hui, bienheureuse Marie,

Je tombe à vos genoux;
Daignez donc m’écouter, car c’est vous que je prie,
Vous qui priez pour nous.

Which may be thus interpreted:—

O Virgin blest! by whom the bitter draught

So often has been quaffed,
That, for thy sorrow, thou art named by us
The Mother Dolorous!

Thou, from whose eyes have fallen more tears of woe,

Upon the earth below,
Than ‘neath thy footsteps, in this heaven of ours,
Have risen flowers!

O beaming morning star! O chosen vase!

O mirror of all grace!
Who, with thy virgin voice, dost ever pray
Man’s sins away;

Bend down thine ear, and list, O blessed saint!

Unto my sad complaint;
Mother! to thee I kneel, on thee I call,
Who hearest all.

She proceeds to request that she may be allowed to return to earth, and follow the fortunes of Don Juan; and, as there is one difficulty, or, to use her own words —

Mais, comme vous savez qu’aux voûtes éternelles,

Malgré moi, tend mon vol,
Soufflez sur mon étoile et détachez mes ailes,
Pour m’enchainer au sol;

her request is granted, her star is BLOWN OUT (O poetic allusion!) and she descends to earth to love, and to go mad, and to die for Don Juan!

The reader will require no further explanation, in order to be satisfied as to the moral of this play: but is it not a very bitter satire upon the country, which calls itself the politest nation in the world, that the incidents, the indecency, the coarse blasphemy, and the vulgar wit of this piece, should find admirers among the public, and procure reputation for the author? Could not the Government, which has re-established, in a manner, the theatrical censorship, and forbids or alters plays which touch on politics, exert the same guardianship over public morals? The honest English reader, who has a faith in his clergyman, and is a regular attendant at Sunday worship, will not be a little surprised at the march of intellect among our neighbors across the Channel, and at the kind of consideration in which they hold their religion. Here is a man who seizes upon saints and angels, merely to put sentiments in their mouths which might suit a nymph of Drury Lane. He shows heaven, in order that he may carry debauch into it; and avails himself of the most sacred and sublime parts of our creed as a vehicle for a scene-painter’s skill, or an occasion for a handsome actress to wear a new dress.

M. Dumas’s piece of “Kean” is not quite so sublime; it was brought out by the author as a satire upon the French critics, who, to their credit be it spoken, had generally attacked him, and was intended by him, and received by the public, as a faithful portraiture of English manners. As such, it merits special observation and praise. In the first act you find a Countess and an Ambassadress, whose conversation relates purely to the great actor. All the ladies in London are in love with him, especially the two present. As for the Ambassadress, she prefers him to her husband (a matter of course in all French plays), and to a more seducing person still — no less a person than the Prince of Wales! who presently waits on the ladies, and joins in their conversation concerning Kean. “This man,” says his Royal Highness, “is the very pink of fashion. Brummell is nobody when compared to him; and I myself only an insignificant private gentleman. He has a reputation among ladies, for which I sigh in vain; and spends an income twice as great as mine.” This admirable historic touch at once paints the actor and the Prince; the estimation in which the one was held, and the modest economy for which the other was so notorious.

Then we have Kean, at a place called the Trou de Charbon, the “Coal Hole,” where, to the edification of the public, he engages in a fisty combat with a notorious boxer. This scene was received by the audience with loud exclamations of delight, and commented on, by the journals, as a faultless picture of English manners. “The Coal Hole” being on the banks of the Thames, a nobleman — LORD MELBOURN! — has chosen the tavern as a rendezvous for a gang of pirates, who are to have their ship in waiting, in order to carry off a young lady with whom his lordship is enamored. It need not be said that Kean arrives at the nick of time, saves the innocent Meess Anna, and exposes the infamy of the Peer. A violent tirade against noblemen ensues, and Lord Melbourn slinks away, disappointed, to meditate revenge. Kean’s triumphs continue through all the acts: the Ambassadress falls madly in love with him; the Prince becomes furious at his ill success, and the Ambassador dreadfully jealous. They pursue Kean to his dressing-room at the theatre; where, unluckily, the Ambassadress herself has taken refuge. Dreadful quarrels ensue; the tragedian grows suddenly mad upon the stage, and so cruelly insults the Prince of Wales that his Royal Highness determines to send HIM TO BOTANY BAY. His sentence, however, is commuted to banishment to New York; whither, of course, Miss Anna accompanies him; rewarding him, previously, with her hand and twenty thousand a year!

This wonderful performance was gravely received and admired by the people of Paris: the piece was considered to be decidedly moral, because the popular candidate was made to triumph throughout, and to triumph in the most virtuous manner; for, according to the French code of morals, success among women is, at once, the proof and the reward of virtue.

The sacred personage introduced in Dumas’s play behind a cloud, figures bodily in the piece of the Massacre of the Innocents, represented at Paris last year. She appears under a different name, but the costume is exactly that of Carlo Dolce’s Madonna; and an ingenious fable is arranged, the interest of which hangs upon the grand Massacre of the Innocents, perpetrated in the fifth act. One of the chief characters is Jean le Précurseur, who threatens woe to Herod and his race, and is beheaded by orders of that sovereign.

In the Festin de Balthazar, we are similarly introduced to Daniel, and the first scene is laid by the waters of Babylon, where a certain number of captive Jews are seated in melancholy postures; a Babylonian officer enters, exclaiming, “Chantez nous quelques chansons de Jerusalem,” and the request is refused in the language of the Psalm. Belshazzar’s Feast is given in a grand tableau, after Martin’s picture. That painter, in like manner, furnished scenes for the Deluge. Vast numbers of schoolboys and children are brought to see these pieces; the lower classes delight in them. The famous Juif Errant, at the theatre of the Porte St. Martin, was the first of the kind, and its prodigious success, no doubt, occasioned the number of imitations which the other theatres have produced.

The taste of such exhibitions, of course, every English person will question; but we must remember the manners of the people among whom they are popular; and, if I may be allowed to hazard such an opinion, there is in every one of these Boulevard mysteries, a kind of rude moral. The Boulevard writers don’t pretend to “tabernacles” and divine gifts, like Madame Sand and Dumas before mentioned. If they take a story from the sacred books, they garble it without mercy, and take sad liberties with the text; but they do not deal in descriptions of the agreeably wicked, or ask pity and admiration for tender-hearted criminals and philanthropic murderers, as their betters do. Vice is vice on the Boulevard; and it is fine to hear the audience, as a tyrant king roars out cruel sentences of death, or a bereaved mother pleads for the life of her child, making their remarks on the circumstances of the scene. “Ah, le gredin!” growls an indignant countryman. “Quel monstre!” says a grisette, in a fury. You see very fat old men crying like babies, and, like babies, sucking enormous sticks of barley-sugar. Actors and audience enter warmly into the illusion of the piece; and so especially are the former affected, that at Franconi’s, where the battles of the Empire are represented, there is as regular gradation in the ranks of the mimic army as in the real imperial legions. After a man has served, with credit, for a certain number of years in the line, he is promoted to be an officer — an acting officer. If he conducts himself well, he may rise to be a Colonel or a General of Division; if ill, he is degraded to the ranks again; or, worst degradation of all, drafted into a regiment of Cossacks or Austrians. Cossacks is the lowest depth, however; nay, it is said that the men who perform these Cossack parts receive higher wages than the mimic grenadiers and old guard. They will not consent to be beaten every night, even in play; to be pursued in hundreds, by a handful of French; to fight against their beloved Emperor. Surely there is fine hearty virtue in this, and pleasant child-like simplicity.

So that while the drama of Victor Hugo, Dumas, and the enlightened classes, is profoundly immoral and absurd, the DRAMA of the common people is absurd, if you will, but good and right-hearted. I have made notes of one or two of these pieces, which all have good feeling and kindness in them, and which turn, as the reader will see, upon one or two favorite points of popular morality. A drama that obtained a vast success at the Porte Saint Martin was “La Duchesse de la Vauballière.” The Duchess is the daughter of a poor farmer, who was carried off in the first place, and then married by M. le Duc de la Vauballière, a terrible roué, the farmer’s landlord, and the intimate friend of Philippe d’Orléans, the Regent of France.

Now the Duke, in running away with the lady, intended to dispense altogether with ceremony, and make of Julie anything but his wife; but Georges, her father, and one Morisseau, a notary, discovered him in his dastardly act, and pursued him to the very feet of the Regent, who compelled the pair to marry and make it up.

Julie complies; but though she becomes a Duchess, her heart remains faithful to her old flame, Adrian, the doctor; and she declares that, beyond the ceremony, no sort of intimacy shall take place between her husband and herself.

Then the Duke begins to treat her in the most ungentleman-like manner: he abuses her in every possible way; he introduces improper characters into her house; and, finally, becomes so disgusted with her, that he determines to make away with her altogether.

For this purpose, he sends forth into the highways and seizes a doctor, bidding him, on pain of death, to write a poisonous prescription for Madame la Duchesse. She swallows the potion; and O horror! the doctor turns out to be Dr. Adrian; whose woe may be imagined, upon finding that he has been thus committing murder on his true love!

Let not the reader, however, be alarmed as to the fate of the heroine; no heroine of a tragedy ever yet died in the third act; and, accordingly, the Duchess gets up perfectly well again in the fourth, through the instrumentality of Morisseau, the good lawyer.

And now it is that vice begins to be really punished. The Duke, who, after killing his wife, thinks it necessary to retreat, and take refuge in Spain, is tracked to the borders of that country by the virtuous notary, and there receives such a lesson as he will never forget to his dying day.

Morisseau, in the first instance, produces a deed (signed by his Holiness the Pope), which annuls the marriage of the Duke de la Vauballière; then another deed, by which it is proved that he was not the eldest son of old La Vauballière, the former Duke; then another deed, by which he shows that old La Vauballière (who seems to have been a disreputable old fellow) was a bigamist, and that, in consequence, the present man, styling himself Duke, is illegitimate; and finally, Morisseau brings forward another document, which proves that the REG’LAR Duke is no other than Adrian, the doctor!

Thus it is that love, law, and physic combined, triumph over the horrid machinations of this star-and-gartered libertine.

“Hermann l’Ivrogne” is another piece of the same order; and though not very refined, yet possesses considerable merit. As in the case of the celebrated Captain Smith of Halifax, who “took to drinking ratafia, and thought of poor Miss Bailey,”— a woman and the bottle have been the cause of Hermann’s ruin. Deserted by his mistress, who has been seduced from him by a base Italian Count, Hermann, a German artist, gives himself entirely up to liquor and revenge: but when he finds that force, and not infidelity, have been the cause of his mistress’s ruin, the reader can fancy the indignant ferocity with which he pursues the infame ravisseur. A scene, which is really full of spirit, and excellently well acted, here ensues! Hermann proposes to the Count, on the eve of their duel, that the survivor should bind himself to espouse the unhappy Marie; but the Count declares himself to be already married, and the student, finding a duel impossible (for his object was to restore, at all events, the honor of Marie), now only thinks of his revenge, and murders the Count. Presently, two parties of men enter Hermann’s apartment: one is a company of students, who bring him the news that he has obtained the prize of painting; the other the policemen, who carry him to prison, to suffer the penalty of murder.

I could mention many more plays in which the popular morality is similiarly expressed. The seducer, or rascal of the piece, is always an aristocrat — a wicked count, or licentious marquis, who is brought to condign punishment just before the fall of the curtain. And too good reason have the French people had to lay such crimes to the charge of the aristocracy, who are expiating now, on the stage, the wrongs which they did a hundred years since. The aristocracy is dead now; but the theatre lives upon traditions: and don’t let us be too scornful at such simple legends as are handed down by the people from race to race. Vulgar prejudice against the great it may be; but prejudice against the great is only a rude expression of sympathy with the poor; long, therefore, may fat épiciers blubber over mimic woes, and honest prolétaires shake their fists, shouting —“Gredin, scélérat, monstre de marquis!” and such republican cries.

Remark, too, another development of this same popular feeling of dislike against men in power. What a number of plays and legends have we (the writer has submitted to the public, in the preeeding pages, a couple of specimens; one of French, and the other of Polish origin,) in which that great and powerful aristocrat, the Devil, is made to be miserably tricked, humiliated, and disappointed? A play of this class, which, in the midst of all its absurdities and claptraps, had much of good in it, was called “Le Maudit des Mers.” Le Maudit is a Dutch captain, who, in the midst of a storm, while his crew were on their knees at prayers, blasphemed and drank punch; but what was his astonishment at beholding an archangel with a sword all covered with flaming resin, who told him that as he, in this hour of danger, was too daring, or too wicked, to utter a prayer, he never should cease roaming the seas until he could find some being who would pray to heaven for him!

Once only, in a hundred years, was the skipper allowed to land for this purpose; and this piece runs through four centuries, in as many acts, describing the agonies and unavailing attempts of the miserable Dutchman. Willing to go any lengths in order to obtain his prayer, he, in the second act, betrays a Virgin of the Sun to a follower of Pizarro: and, in the third, assassinates the heroic William of Nassau; but ever before the dropping of the curtain, the angel and sword make their appearance —“Treachery,” says the spirit, “cannot lessen thy punishment; — crime will not obtain thy release — A la mer! à la mer!” and the poor devil returns to the ocean, to be lonely, and tempest-tossed, and sea-sick for a hundred years more.

But his woes are destined to end with the fourth act. Having landed in America, where the peasants on the sea-shore, all dressed in Italian costumes, are celebrating, in a quadrille, the victories of Washington, he is there lucky enough to find a young girl to pray for him. Then the curse is removed, the punishment is over, and a celestial vessel, with angels on the decks and “sweet little cherubs” fluttering about the shrouds and the poop, appear to receive him.

This piece was acted at Franconi’s, where, for once, an angel-ship was introduced in place of the usual horsemanship.

One must not forget to mention here, how the English nation is satirized by our neighbors; who have some droll traditions regarding us. In one of the little Christmas pieces produced at the Palais Royal (satires upon the follies of the past twelve months, on which all the small theatres exhaust their wit), the celebrated flight of Messrs. Green and Monck Mason was parodied, and created a good deal of laughter at the expense of John Bull. Two English noblemen, Milor Cricri and Milor Hanneton, appear as descending from a balloon, and one of them communicates to the public the philosophic observations which were made in the course of his aërial tour.

“On leaving Vauxhall,” says his lordship, “we drank a bottle of Madeira, as a health to the friends from whom we parted, and crunched a few biscuits to support nature during the hours before lunch. In two hours we arrived at Canterbury, enveloped in clouds: lunch, bottled porter: at Dover, carried several miles in a tide of air, bitter cold, cherry-brandy; crossed over the Channel safely, and thought with pity of the poor people who were sickening in the steamboats below: more bottled porter: over Calais, dinner, roast-beef of Old England; near Dunkirk — night falling, lunar rainbow, brandy-and-water; night confoundedly thick; supper, nightcap of rum-punch, and so to bed. The sun broke beautifully through the morning mist, as we boiled the kettle and took our breakfast over Cologne. In a few more hours we concluded this memorable voyage, and landed safely at Weilburg, in good time for dinner.”

The joke here is smart enough; but our honest neighbors make many better, when they are quite unconscious of the fun. Let us leave plays, for a moment, for poetry, and take an instance of French criticism, concerning England, from the works of a famous French exquisite and man of letters. The hero of the poem addresses his mistress —

Londres, tu le sais trop, en fait de capitale, Est-ce que fit le ciel de plus froid et plus pâle, C’est la ville du gaz, des marins, du brouillard; On s’y couche à minuit, et l’on s’y lève tard; Ses raouts tant vantés ne sont qu’une boxade, Sur ses grands quais jamais échelle ou sérénade, Mais de volumineux bourgeois pris de porter Qui passent sans lever le front à Westminster; Et n’était sa forêt de mâts perçant la brume, Sa tour dont à minuit le vieil oeil s’allume, Et tes deux yeux, Zerline, illuminés bien plus, Je dirais que, ma foi, des romans que j’ai lus, Il n’en est pas un seul, plus lourd, plus léthargique Que cette nation qu’on nomme Britannique!

The writer of the above lines (which let any man who can translate) is Monsieur Roger de Beauvoir, a gentleman who actually lived many months in England, as an attaché to the embassy of M. de Polignac. He places the heroine of his tale in a petit réduit près le Strand, “with a green and fresh jalousie, and a large blind, let down all day; you fancied you were entering a bath of Asia, as soon as you had passed the perfumed threshold of this charming retreat!” He next places her —

Dans un square écarté, morne et couverte de givre, Où se cache un hôtel, aux vieux lions de cuivre;

and the hero of the tale, a young French poet, who is in London, is truly unhappy in that village.

Arthur dessèche et meurt. Dans la ville de Sterne, Rien qu’en voyant le peuple il a le mal de mer Il n’aime ni le Parc, gai comme une citerne, Ni le tir au pigeon, ni le soda-water.

Liston ne le fait plus sourciller! Il rumine Sur les trottoirs du Strand, droit comme un échiquier, Contre le peuple anglais, les nègres, la vermine, Et les mille cokneys du peuple boutiquier,

Contre tous les bas-bleus, contre les pâtissières, Les parieurs d’Epsom, le gin, le parlement, La quaterly, le roi, la pluie et les libraires, Dont il ne touche plus, hélas! un sou d’argent!

Et chaque gentleman lui dit: L’heureux poète!

“L’heureux poète” indeed! I question if a poet in this wide world is so happy as M. de Beauvoir, or has made such wonderful discoveries. “The bath of Asia, with green jalousies,” in which the lady dwells; “the old hotel, with copper lions, in a lonely square;"— were ever such things heard of, or imagined, but by a Frenchman? The sailors, the negroes, the vermin, whom he meets in the street — how great and happy are all these discoveries! Liston no longer makes the happy poet frown; and “gin,” “cokneys,” and the “quaterly” have not the least effect upon him! And this gentleman has lived many months amongst us; admires Williams Shakspear, the “grave et vieux prophète,” as he calls him, and never, for an instant, doubts that his description contains anything absurd!

I don’t know whether the great Dumas has passed any time in England; but his plays show a similar intimate knowledge of our habits. Thus in Kean, the stage-manager is made to come forward and address the pit, with a speech beginning, “My Lords and Gentlemen;” and a company of Englishwomen are introduced (at the memorable “Coal hole”), and they all wear PINAFORES; as if the British female were in the invariable habit of wearing this outer garment, or slobbering her gown without it. There was another celebrated piece, enacted some years since, upon the subject of Queen Caroline, where our late adored sovereign, George, was made to play a most despicable part; and where Signor Bergami fought a duel with Lord Londonderry. In the last act of this play, the House of Lords was represented, and Sir Brougham made an eloquent speech in the Queen’s favor. Presently the shouts of the mob were heard without; from shouting they proceeded to pelting; and pasteboard-brickbats and cabbages came flying among the representatives of our hereditary legislature. At this unpleasant juncture, SIR HARDINGE, the Secretary-at-War, rises and calls in the military; the act ends in a general row, and the ignominious fall of Lord Liverpool, laid low by a brickbat from the mob!

The description of these scenes is, of course, quite incapable of conveying any notion of their general effect. You must have the solemnity of the actors, as they Meess and Milor one another, and the perfect gravity and good faith with which the audience listen to them. Our stage Frenchman is the old Marquis, with sword, and pigtail, and spangled court coat. The Englishman of the French theatre has, invariably, a red wig, and almost always leather gaiters, and a long white upper Benjamin: he remains as he was represented in the old caricatures after the peace, when Vernet designed him.

And to conclude this catalogue of blunders: in the famous piece of the “Naufrage de la Meduse,” the first act is laid on board an English ship-of-war, all the officers of which appeared in light blue or green coats (the lamp-light prevented our distinguishing the color accurately), and TOP-BOOTS!

Let us not attempt to deaden the force of this tremendous blow by any more remarks. The force of blundering can go no further. Would a Chinese playwright or painter have stranger notions about the barbarians than our neighbors, who are separated from us but by two hours of salt water?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/paris/chapter18.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07