Elsa Lepoivre and the Comédie-Française in Victor Hugo’s “Lucretia Borgia.” Christophe Raynaud photo courtesy Service Presse, the Comédie-Française.
Correspondence between George Sand & Victor Hugo
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
Through April 1, 2019 at its salle Richelieu in Paris, the Comédie-Française is reprising Victor Hugo’s 1833 “Lucretia Borgia,” with Elsa Lepoivre, Gaël Kamilindi, and the troupe’s director Eric Ruf — who also designed the scenery — performing the principal roles, under the direction of Denis Podalydès, with choreography by Kaori Ito. When the play was reprised in early 1870 at the Theatre Porte-Saint-Martin, the Great Man’s Paris colleagues tasked George Sand with sending the author, exiled for 18 years in the Channel Islands, a personal account of the play’s triumphal return to the Paris stage. (Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.)
George Sand to Victor Hugo:
My great friend, I’ve just come from “Lucrèce Borgia,” my heart full of emotion and joy. I’m still thinking of all the poignant scenes, all the charming and devastating words, Alphonse d’Este’s bitter smile, Gennaro’s harrowing arrest, Lucretia’s maternal scream; my ears are still ringing with the acclamations of the packed audience shouting “Long live Victor Hugo!,” imploring you as if you could actually heed its call, as if you could hear it.
One can’t say, when it comes to an already consecrated work like “Lucretia Borgia,” “The play was a huge success,” but I’ll say it anyway: You have scored a magnificent triumph. Your friends at [the journal] Rappel — who are also my friends — asked if I would be the first to inform you of this triumph. I do believe I would like to be! Let this letter, therefore, bring you news of this beautiful evening.
This evening reminded me of another, no less beautiful. You probably were not aware that I was there at the opening night of “Lucretia Borgia” — 37 years ago to the day, they tell me.
I remember that I was seated in the balcony, as it happens sitting next to Bocage — the first time I saw him. We were, he and I, strangers to each other; shared enthusiasm made us friends. We applauded together; together we proclaimed, “Isn’t it wonderful?!” During the intermissions, we could not stop ourselves from speaking, from gushing, from reciprocally re-playing this scene or that scene.
Certain minds share a literary conviction and passion that immediately makes them part of the same soul and imbues them with a fraternity in art. When the play ended, when the curtain came down with the tragic cry “I am your mother!,” our hands immediately sought each other out. And they remained entwined up and until the death of that grand artist, that dear friend.
And now I’ve found “Lucretia Borgia” just as I left her 37 years ago. The play has not aged one day; no folds, no wrinkles. Its lovely form, as clear and firm as Paros marble, has remained absolutely intact and pure.
On top of this, here you have touched, here you have expressed with your incomparable magic the emotion that strikes us the most in the guts; you have incarnated and realized “the mother.” It’s as eternal as the heart.
“Lucretia Borgia” just might be the most powerful and high-minded of all your plays. If “Ruy Blas” is more happy and glittering, the idea behind “Lucretia Borgia” is the more tragically pathetic, the more striking, and the more profoundly human.
What I admire above all is the daring simplicity on which the robust foundations of the three principal situations are constructed. Classical theater proceeded with this same calm and strong vast scope.
Three acts, three scenes, all that is needed to pose, to bind, and to then unravel this surprising sequence of actions:
The mother insulted in the presence of the son;
The son poisoned by the mother;
The mother punished and killed by the son.
This superb trilogy had to issue from one single effort, like a grouping of bronze sculptures. And so it did, no? I even recall how you did it.
I recall under what conditions and in what circumstances “Lucretia Borgia” was, in a certain manner, improvised, from its beginnings in 1833.
Elsa Lepoivre and the Comédie-Française in Victor Hugo’s “Lucretia Borgia.” Christophe Raynaud photo courtesy Service Presse, the Comédie-Française.
The Théâtre-Française presented, at the end of 1832, the first and only performance of “Le Roi s’amuse.” This performance was a rough battle, progressing and concluding amongst a storm of catcalls and a storm of booing and bravoing. In the subsequent performances, which would triumph — the boos or the bravos? A big question, and an important test for the author….
But there were no subsequent performances.
The day after the opening night, “Le Roi s’amuse” was banned by “by proclamation,” and is still waiting, I believe, for its second performance. At the same time that “Rigoletto” continues to play day after day.
This brutal confiscation was a great wrong to the poet. It must have been for you, my friend, a cruel moment of anger and pain.
However…. At the same time, Harel, the director of the Porte-Saint-Martin, came to ask you for a play for his theater and for Mademoiselle George. The catch was that this play, he needed it right away, and “Lucretia Borgia” only existed in your head — the writing had yet to begin.
No matter! You as well, you wanted your revenge. You told yourself what you’ve never ceased telling the public since, in the preface to “Lucretia Borgia” itself:
“To give birth to a new play, six weeks after the banned play, is another way of reading the riot act to the government. Another way to show that it’s the one who is being penalized. A way to prove to it that art and liberty can sprout up in one solitary night under the very foot that maladroitly tries to crush them.”
You went to work right away. In six weeks, your new play was finished, learned, rehearsed, performed. And on February 2, 1933 — two months after the war over “Le Roi s’amuse” — the opening night of “Lucretia Borgia” was the most smashing victory of your dramatic career.
As easy as pie, this work was born a finished masterpiece, solid, indestructible and eternally durable. And it was applauded last night like it was applauded 40 years ago, like it will be applauded 40 years from now and for eternity.
The effect, huge from the first act, grew from scene to scene until it exploded in the final act.
Here’s what’s incredible: This final act, we already know what’s going to happen, we know it by heart, we expect the entry of the monks, we expect the appearance of Lucretia Borgia, we expect the knife being thrust by Gennaro.
And yet…i. We’re still taken aback, terrified, our breath taken away, just as if we didn’t already know what was going to happen; the first strains of “De Profundis,” interrupting the saloon song, send a shudder through our veins, we hope that Lucretia Borgia will be forgiven by her son, we pray that Gennaro won’t slay his mother. But no, you’re intractable, inflexible master; the crime must be expiated, the blind matricide must punish and avenge all these crimes, they also perhaps blind.
The play was admirably mounted and performed in this theater where it is at home.
Madame Laurent was really superb as Lucretia. I don’t under-rate Madame George’s beauty, force, and pedigree; but I must confess that her talent only moves me when the situation does. It seems that Marie Laurent can make me cry all by herself. She had, like Madame George, in the fist act, that horrible scream of a wounded lioness: “Enough! Enough!” But in the final act, dragging herself at Gennaro’s feet, she’s so humble, so tender, so supplicating, she’s so afraid, not of being killed, but of being killed by her son, that every heart in the theater melts like hers and with hers. No one dares applaud, no one dares move, everyone holds their breath. And then the entire audience rises to call for her and acclaim her at the same time as they do you.
You’ve never had an Alphonse d’Est as real and as handsome as Mélingue. He’s a Bonington, or, even better, a living Titien. One can’t imagine someone more princely, more like an Italian prince, more like a prince of the 16th century. He’s simultaneously ferocious and refined. He prepares, he conceives, and he savors his vengeance in an artistic fashion, with as much elegance as cruelty. We look on terror-stricken as he claws at the velour scenery like a magnificent royal tiger.
Taillade has just the tragic and fatal figure called for by Gennaro. He strikes exactly the right tones of lofty and ferocious bitterness, in the scene where Gennaro is both executioner and judge.
Brésil, admirably costumed in a fake hidalgo, has great allure as the Mephisto-like personage of Gubetta.
The five young lords — all artists of real value, lead by Charles Lemaitre, exhibiting pride in performing — look as if they might have stepped out of a painting by Giorgione or Bonifazio.
The direction is of an exactitude, that is to say a richness which revives more than anyone could ever wish all the splendor of the Italian Renaissance. Monsieur Raphael Félix has rendered you not just royally but artistically.
However — and he won’t fault me for telling you so — there’s someone who has celebrated you even better than him: the public, or rather, the people.
What an ovation for your name and for your play!
I was so happy and elated for you after this just and legitimate ovation. You deserve it 100 times over, my dear great friend. It’s not my intention here to sing the praises of your power and your ingenuity, but one can at least thank you for being the fine artisan and indefatigable worker that you are.
To think of what you had already accomplished in 1833! You renewed the art of the ode; you had, in the preface to “Cromwell,” penned the manifesto that served as the blueprint for the dramatic revolution; you were the first to reveal the Orient in “Les Orientales” and the Middle Ages in “Notre-Dame de Paris.”
And, since, what works and what major works! What ideas stirred up, what forms invented! What efforts, what audacities and discoveries!
And you don’t let up! You were aware yesterday in Guernesey that “Lucretia Borgia” was being reprised today in Paris, you had calmly and peacefully discussed the chances of this performance, then at 10 p.m., at the very moment that the entire audience was acclaiming Mélingue and Madame Laurent after the first act, you went to bed so that you could get up as usual at the break of dawn, and they tell me that at the very moment that I’m finishing up this letter, you are illuminating your lamp, as you resume tranquilly working on your latest creation.
Thomas Singleton, “Views of Guernesey,” circa 1870. Set of 12 prints: Eight large albumen prints mounted on cards; four unframed prints. Various dimensions, from 13 x 20 cm. to 27.5 x 39 cm. Part of Christie’s 2012 Collection Hugo sale in Paris. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012. To read more about the Collection Hugo sale — and what it revealed about the vast Hugo legacy — on the Arts Voyager please click here.
Victor Hugo to George Sand:
Hauteville-House, February 8, 1870
Thanks to you, I was there at this performance. Through your admirable style, I saw it all: the theater, the play, the dazzle of the show, the magnificent space, these powerful and tragic actors inspiring the shudders of the crowd, all those riveted heads, this people moved, and you, the embodiment of glory, applauding.
For 20 years I have lived under quarantine. The saviors of property have confiscated my property. The coup d’état has sequestered my repertory. My plague-infected plays are quarantined; the black flag hangs over me. Three years ago, they let “Hernani” out of jail only to send it back as quickly as possible, the public incapable to mount enough hate for this brigand. Now it’s “Lucretia Borgia”‘s turn. She’s free. But she’s already being denounced; she’s highly-suspected of being contagious. How long will she remain at liberty?
You’ve just given her a perpetual get-out-of-jail free card. You are the great woman of our century, a noble soul for everyone, a kind of living posterity, and you have the right to proclaim. I thank you.
Your magnificent letter could not have been more timely. My solitude is often strongly insulted; they say whatever they like about me; I’m someone who prefers remaining silent. Allowing oneself to be calumnied is a strength. For that matter, it’s natural that the Empire defend itself by any means possible. It’s my target, and I’m its target. From over there are sent many projectiles against me which, given that they need to traverse the sea, have, it’s true, a big chance of falling in the water. Whatever they may be, they only serve to affirm my thick skin, the outrage only hardens me in my certitude and in my will, I smile at their insults; but, in the face of sympathy, in the face of adhesion, in the face of friendship, in the face of the energetic and tender cordiality of the people, confronted with the applause of a city like Paris and the approbation of a woman like George Sand, this solid and pensive old fogey feels his heart melt. They love me just a little bit after all!
From a set of four salt prints after photographs taken in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands in which the poet took refuge in 1852 before moving to Guernesey in 1855: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” The prints were part of Christie’s 2012 Collection Hugo sale in Paris. Copyright and courtesy Christie’s images Ltd. 2012.
At the same time that “Lucretia Borgia” gets out of jail, my son Charles goes back in. C’est la vie. One must accept these things.
You, in your life, out of so many throes which have tested you, you would forge light. In the future you will guard the august aureole of the woman who protected Women. Your entire oeuvre is a battle; and that which is a battle in the present is a victory in the future. He who is with progress is with certitude. What touches us when we read you is the sublimeness of your heart. You spend it all on thought, on philosophy, on wisdom, on reason, on enthusiasm. And what a powerful writer you are! I will soon have something to celebrate, because you will soon have a success. I am aware that one of your plays is being rehearsed.
I’m happy every time that we exchange letters; my reverie has need of these sparks of light that you send me, and I thank you from the depths of my heart for having taken the time to turn towards me from the heights of this summit where you reside, great spirit.
My illustrated friend, I bow before you.
Excerpted from “Pendant Exil, 1852-1870,” Nelson, Editeurs, Paris. Victor Hugo returned to France on August 31, 1870, after the collapse of the empire of Napoleon III.