Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

 

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words…: To read the complete translation on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, please click here.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurialVictor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click here.  To support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur. To read the complete translation — and trial report — on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, click here.

Space, the Final Frontier: Site-Limitless Work from Mantero and Fiadeiro

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager  is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on November 24, 2003. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

PARIS — Watching two recent performances here, from the Portuguese artists Vera Mantero and Joao Fiadeiro, I was reminded of the New York Times’s ludicrous statement last summer that “the proscenium stage is passé.” How could anyone be so unaware that the most crucial theater of operation for the choreographer is not the location in which the spectacle takes place, but the spaces of the body and the mind and where they meet in the vast landscapes of the spectator’s imagination?

Like Dance Theater Workshop, whose new theater was the subject of Gia Kourlas’s irresponsibly ignorant argument, the Theatre de la Bastille (whose curatorial niche in France is similar to those of DTW, P.S. 122, and Danspace Project in New York) has also been renovated, at a cost of about $900,000. But with all due respect of the costs involved, and my own personal ease in watching the second program of “Complicites portugaises” this past Saturday (the program concludes tonight) from the comfort of a re-upholstered seat, it was the many spaces that Vera Mantero probed in her 1999 “Olympia” that made this 20-minute show.

Here’s what Theophile Gautier (writing in the Moniteur Universel, and cited by ARTnews’s Jacques Letheve in 1960) had to say about Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in 1865, when the painting was exhibited at the Salon of that year:

“‘Olympia’ can be understood from no point of view, even if you take it for what it is, a puny model stretched out on a sheet. The color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent. The shadows are indicated by more or less large smears of blacking. What’s to be said for the negress who brings a bunch of flowers wrapped in a paper, or for the black cat which leaves its dirty footprints on the bed? We would still forgive the ugliness, were it only truthful, carefully studied, heightened by some splendid effect of color. The least beautiful woman has bones, muscles, skin, and some sort of color. Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”

The painting had its defenders, chief among them Zola (who, being Zola, couldn’t help pointing out the social commentary aspect, observing that the model was probably 16 and that her flesh already showed signs of male usage).

The disinterested expression on the face of the young woman — Victorine Meurent, a frequent model for Manet, including for his “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” — might be said to anticipate one stream of post-modern dance’s response to the formalism of ballet; the last line above from Gautier — Romantic ballet’s great defender, after all — might describe at least one out of four modern dance creations we see here in Europe. So it’s not surprising that one of this generation’s most intriguing choreographers working in the modern dance idiom would want to probe Manet’s “Olympia,” which she first encountered at the Musee d’Orsay here. (Look on the first floor.)

Rather than argue a point of view about the resulting painting, Mantero chooses to probe the perspective of the model confronting her proscribed space. She starts by dragging the bed on a tether vertically downstage from upstage right, while reading from an famous essay by Jean Dubuffet (Mantero’s other inspiration) written in the 1950s, “L’Asphyxiante Culture.” This seems to fortify her for the task at hand: Mounting the bed and finding her pose… and poise.

Mantero is of course nude (note to New York’s prudish Joyce Theater: The mother with her eight-year-old sitting next to me didn’t seem to consider this un- “family-friendly” theater) and, like Olympia, adorned with only high heels, a bracelet, and a flower in her bunned hair. She eventually takes the famous position, freezes in it for a few seconds, and then slowly becomes hyper-aware of her right arm, dangling listlessly over the pillow. Still maintaining her eye contact with the spectator, she fidgets it into various other positions, but can’t get settled. She sidles her legs and other hand around into different arrangements. She slides off the bed. She sits on its edge, back slumped, hands folded between her open legs like a TV zombie. (The position is not very fetching, but the one captured by Manet was not meant to be either.) Finally she gets the idea to remove the flower and toss her frizzy auburn hair about. She rises and walks tentatively, jerkingly around the room. Then she returns to the bed and perches stretched out along the top before — and we know what’s coming here — falling and disappearing behind it.

Mantero’s “Olympia” is witty but it’s also personal, an ultimately empathetic excursion into the point of view not of the painting artist nor the critics outside the art, but the actual ‘model’ who has not gotten enough credit for the painting, even though her candid expression and frank pose may be as responsible for the tableau’s ultimate success as Manet’s devise. Instead of considering the ripples outward provoked by the painting, Mantero, operating in one frame — the, er, proscenium one — has gone inside another, the canvas, using the choreographer-dancer’s understanding of the body and its language to try to understand the origins of this body’s once-controversial impact.

Joao Fiadeiro’s “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in” could also describe the manifesto of about one in four modern dance creations I see here. I was initially skeptical when the 1999 piece began with a soundscape consisting of those words plus a few others looped and looped and looped. “Are we going to have to listen to 50 minutes of this?” I cringed. But, as the speaker promised, with repetition — and some frequency modulation, no doubt — the words slowly became divested of any besides rhythmic distinction, a lulling drone background to Fiadeiro’s performance.

I also groaned initially at the choreographer-dancer’s slow progression along a downstage arc, which he defined by laying masking-tape down as he slowly crawled along it. Finally Fiadeiro arrived at the copy machine planted upstage right (almost exactly where Mantero’s bed had been), squashed his face onto the glass, and hit the copy button. The result — it looked something like the Elephant Man — he stuck onto another stretch of tape strung above the lip of the stage, like a clothesline. More copies were run off, hung up, torn, folded over, crushed, chewed up, and spat out. The clothes-pins were actually clipped to the back of Fiadeiro’s white shirt, until he transferred them to and all over his face, before ejecting them by contracting his muscles. He then pinned one of the photocopies on the back wall upstage left, at the point of an arrow he’d taped there earlier, with the word “Me.” Tape-described and linked stick figures of a man, woman, and child followed, then a house, then a smokestack spiraling out of the house, curling into a gun held by another figure. Another spiral was taped up; when Fiadeiro kneeled at the small end it became the tongue of a frog snapping out to snag an insect.

Far from fitting the ‘site-specific’ definition touted as the only relevant modality by the New York Times, both these choreographers had created spaces that were infinitely ‘site-limitless’ on an apparently circumscribed playing surface — fresh works created on the archaic proscenium stage which Gia Kourlas, our most superficial of reviewers, would assign to oblivion. A true artist — and DTW’s motto, is, after all, “the work of artists” — does not require a fancy theatrical conceit to create and deliver work that is meaningful, breathtaking, and, yes, ground-breaking. All the artist needs is an innate curiosity and the talent to look for answers wherever the search takes him or her — sans limits.

Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.

Family Reunion: George Sand reviews “Lucretia Borgia” for Victor Hugo

lucrece borgia comedie francaise Christophe Raynaud de Lage oneElsa 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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com, 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.

lucrece borgia comedie francaise Christophe Raynaud de Lage twoElsa 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.

George Sand

hugo house views of guernseyThomas 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!

hugo one portraitsFrom 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.

Victor Hugo

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.

Celebrating 20 years of giving a voice to artists: Don’t stop the music — In Paris, a double-victory for ‘Double Coquette’

november 13 for repostMailys de Villoutreys and Isabelle Poulenard in “The Double Coquette,” directed by Fanny de Chaille from Antoine Dauvergne and Charles-Simon Favart’s score and lyrics as amended by Gerard Pesson and Pierre Alferi, with costumes by Annette Messager. Marc Domage photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on November 18, 2015, as part of the DI/AV’s extensive coverage of the artistic commnity’s response to the November 13 attacks which killed 130 people in the stadiums and music halls and on the cafe terraces of Paris and Seine-St.-Denis. The first line of defense in this war has been the police, whose numbers have been decimated so far this year by 30 suicides, the latest that of Maggy Biskupski, a 36-year-old officer who killed herself yesterday with her service revolver. Today’s playlist for memorial ceremonies in the city’s 11th arrondissement, hardest hit by the attacks, included Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Chanson de Prevert,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” This one goes out to the memory of Naomi Gonzalez, U.S. citizen and Mexican immigrant, gunned down on the terrace of “Le bon biere” at the age of 20.)

PARIS — They wanted to stop the music, and they did not succeed, as Parisians last night filled theaters re-opening after three days of national mourning. “We are very happy with your presence tonight,” the soft-spoken Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of the Theatre de la Ville and the city-wide Festival d’Automne, told the audience assembled last night at the TDLV’s Abbesses Theater in Montmartre (whose lively cafe terraces were more full than one might expect on any typically drizzly fall Paris evening, let alone four nights after this same terrain was turned into a killing field) for the opening of choreographer Fanny de Chaille’s production of Antoine Dauvergne and Charles-Simon Favart’s 1753 comic opera “La Double Coquette,” amended by composer Gerard Pesson and lyricist Pierre Alferi as a bisexual love story. “We are proud to re-open this grand theater in this grand city that we love so much, with a light work” that is not entirely irrelevant to defending the values targeted by those who massacred 130 people and wounded 350 more Friday in the worse terrorist attack on France in 70 years, concerned as the work is with “the liberty of our hearts and the liberty of movement.” But what moved me most, just three days after 89 people were gunned down in the Bataclan theater for participating in what their killers dubbed the “perversity” of an innocuous rock concert, was seeing the dozen musicians onstage, hearing their auburn violins resonate, and realizing just how precious music is.

(To receive the full article, as well as access our complete coverage of the Paris artistic community’s response to the November 13, 2015 attacks and our Archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 critics of performances and exhibitions from around the world since 1999, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36 by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.)