Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Voltaire and Adrienne Lecouvreur

Oil, Attributed to Jean-Baptiste
Van Loo,
Château de Versaille
The Voltaire who first encountered Adrienne Lecouvreur in 1719 was still very much the brash young playwright, anxious to follow the recent success of Oedipe with fresh theatrical triumphs.  His newest play Artémire was written specifically with the Comédie Française’s latest acting sensation in mind.  It flopped, though  Hérode et Mariamne four years later fared better, again with Adrienne in the lead role. Voltaire struck up an amorous liaison with the Comédienne though – as so often with Voltaire – the sexual component of their relationship does not come down to us in any sharp focus. A couple of decorous complements in verse survive.  In one he assures Adrienne that his heart feels for her only "pure friendship", in another, he more suggestively exhorts her to embrace love in order to take her talent to its true perfection. Much later he described himself, as having been “her admirer, her friend, her lover”. Voltaire’s celebrated showdown with the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, the cause of his imprisonment in the Bastille and subsequent flight to England, took place against the backdrop of their intimacy. Adrienne opportunely swoons to enable Voltaire to avoid a beating; Voltaire taunts his aristocratic adversary from the safety of Adrienne’s theatre box.

Comédie Française in the late 18th century

The story of Voltaire and Adrienne concludes some years later with her death, aged thirty-seven  in 1730. She had been ill for some time, and her last performance - after a severe attack of dysentery - was as Jocasta in his Oedipe on 15 March.  She died five days later, with the playwright and his friend d’Argental, another admirer, at her bedside.   The rumour was that she had been poisoned but the postmortem arranged by Voltaire was inconclusive.  The cause of death was more probably peritonitis, brought on by typhoid.  When her former lover tried to arrange for her funeral at the church of Saint-Sulpice, to which she left 1,000 livres in her will, the curé M. Languet de Gergy refused; she was an actress, and as such excommunicate. Placed in a cab and taken under police escort to a patch of wasteland at the corner of the rues de Grenelle et de Bourgogne, she was cast without ceremony into a pauper's grave and sprinkled with quicklime. Voltaire himself penned her eulogy delivered by Grandval at the  Comédie française.  Seven months later, to Voltaire’s eternal bitterness, her English equivalent, Ann Oldfield  - whom he had seen and described as “Lecouvrier anglaise” - was buried with grand ceremony in Westminster Abbey.

  • Voltaire's poem:  On the death of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a celebrated Actress

  • What sight of woe thus harrows up my soul!
  • Must those love-darting eyes in anguish roll?
  • Shall ghastly death such charms divine invade?
  • You muses, graces, loves come to her aid.
  • Oh! you my gods and hers assist the fair,
  • Your image sure must well deserve your care.
  • Alas! thou diest, I press thy corpse alone;
  • Thou diest, the fatal news too soon is known.
  • In such a loss, each tender feeling heart
  • Is touched like mine, and takes in grief a part.
  • I hear the arts on every side deplore
  • Their loss, and cry, “Melpomene’s no more:”
  • What exclamations will the future race
  • Utter, at hearing of those arts’ disgrace?
  • See cruel men a burying place refuse,
  • To her whom Greece had worshipped as a muse;
  • When living, they adored her power divine,
  • To her they bowed like votaries at a shrine:
  • Should she then, breathless, criminal be thought,
  • And is it then to charm the world a fault?
  • Seine’s*banks should now no more be deemed profane,
  • Lecouvreur’s sacred ashes there remain:
  • At this sad tomb, shrine sacred to thy shade,
  • Our vows are still as at a temple paid.
  • I don’t revere the famed St. Denis more,
  • Thy graces, charms, and wit, I there adore
  • I loved them living, incense now I’ll burn,
  • And pay due honors to thy sacred urn.
  • Though error and ingratitude are bent,
  • To brand with infamy thy monument.
  • Shall Frenchmen never know what they require,
  • But damn capriciously what they admire?
  • Must laws with manners jar? Must every mind
  • In France, be made by superstition blind?
  • Wherefore should England be the only clime,
  • Where to think freely is not deemed a crime?
  • Oh! London, Athens’ rival, thou alone,
  • Could tyrants, and could prejudice dethrone;
  • In that blest region, general freedom reigns,
  • Merit is honored, and reward obtains:
  • Marlborough the greatest general of his age,
  • Harmonious Dryden, Addison the sage,
  • Immortal Newton, charming Oldfield there,
  • The honors due to real genius share.
  • The farce of life had there Lecouvreur closed
  • With heroes, statesmen, kings she had reposed:
  • Genius at London makes its owner great,
  • Freedom and wealth have in that happy state,
  • Procured the inhabitants immortal fame,
  • They rival now the Greek and Roman name.
  • Parnassian laurels wither in our fields,
  • And France no more a crop of merit yields:
  • Wherefore you gods do all our glories fade,
  • Why is not honor due to genius paid?
  • Translated by William F. Fleming in 1901 
Voltaire sent these verses from Rouen to his friend Thiriot in Paris shortly after Adrienne's death.  Frederick the Great later put them to music. It is hard for modern readers to appreciate the emotion underlying the stylized rhyming couplets  (the contrived English translation doesn't help). Voltaire is especially bitter at the perfidy of Adrienne's admirers who in life had bowed to her like "votaries at a shrine"  To Thiriot he commented that such indignation was pardonable in a man who had been her admirer, her friend and lover and who is, moreover, a poet. However, he feared official hostility and met largely with popular antipathy or indifference.  He was nervous about publicising the poem, limiting it to a few copies in private circulation, and only allowing it to appear in the 1732 Amsterdam edition of his works.  

 He embroidered the theme of the contrast between English and French treatment of actors and actresses in his dedication to  Zaire written towards the end of 1732 and also in Letter XXIII of the Lettres anglaises, composed at the same time or shortly before. He later claimed to have intervened with the actors of the Comédie and demanded that they strike, but to no avail.

  • Zaire  Epistle Dedicatory To Mr. Falkener, An English Merchant, Since Ambassador At Constantinople
    .....Your Oldfield, and her predecessor, Bracegirdle, in consideration of their having been so agreeable to the public when in their prime, their course finished, were, by the consent of your whole nation, honored with a pompous funeral, and their remains carried under a velvet pall, and lodged in your church with the greatest magnificence: their spirits, no doubt, are still proud of it, and boast of the honor in the shades below; while the divine Molière, who was far more worthy of it, could scarcely obtain leave to sleep in a churchyard; and the amiable Lecouvreur, whose eyes I closed, could not even so much as obtain two wax-tapers and a coffin; M. de Laubiniere, out of charity, carried away her corpse by night in a hackney-coach to the banks of the river; do you not even now see the god of love breaking his arrows in a rage, and Melopomene in tears, banishing herself from that ungrateful place which Lecouvreur had so long adorned?.

    Letters on the English Nation, Letter XXIII.
    ......The English have even been reproached with paying too extravagant honours to mere merit, and censured for interring the celebrated actress Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster Abbey with almost the same pomp as Sir Isaac Newton. Some pretend that the English had paid her these great funeral honours, purposely to make us more strongly sensible of the barbarity and injustice which they object to in us, for having buried Mademoiselle Le Couvreur ignominiously in the fields.
    But be assured from me, that the English were prompted by no other principle in burying Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster Abbey than their good sense. They are far from being so ridiculous as to brand with infamy an art which has immortalised a Euripides and a Sophocles; or to exclude from the body of their citizens a set of people whose business is to set off with the utmost grace of speech and action those pieces which the nation is proud of.


    Original French text of Voltaire's poem:

    cf. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/ann-oldfield
    "Ann Oldfield, celebrated actress of her day, was buried in the south aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey.... She died on 23 October 1730 and was buried in fine Brussels lace, a Holland shift, wearing new kid gloves and wrapped in a winding sheet. Her coffin lay in Jerusalem Chamber prior to the magnificent funeral on 27 October". 

No comments:

Post a Comment