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.

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.

Legacies: From Brazil’s torched history to Hugo’s Guernesey, Patrimony, Dispersed

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right: From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4: 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.

Text by and copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak (revised, with a new ending)
Images Copyright 2012 Christie’s

(Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation to the DI & AV today by designating  your payment through PayPal to: paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Publisher Paul Ben-Itzak is also looking for an exchange — translation and editing services, communications, website management, arts consulting, DJing, theater teaching, English tutoring or other professional services for lodging — in Paris so that the DI/AV can further augment its arts and cultural coverage, and so that he can receive vital medical care. Please spread the word.)  

“I dedicate this book to this mountain of hospitality and liberty, to this corner of the old Normandy terrain where the noble humble people of the sea live, on the Ile of Guernesey, severe and gentle, my current refuge, my probable tomb.”

— Victor Hugo, “Les Travailleurs de la Mer,” introduction to Book 1, “L’Archipel de la Manche.”

First published by our sister magazine Art Investment News on April 4, 2012, the day that Christie’s Paris auctioned off 500 lots of art, correspondence, books, photographs, and other mementos and memorabilia belonging to the descendants of Victor, Jean, Valentine, and succeeding generations of  Hugos. Two days after another legacy was dispersersed – with 90% of the 20 million pieces of artifacts and documentation collected over 200 years perishing when Brazil’s National Museum, the largest institution of natural history in South America, went up in flames, not helped by the neglect of the federal and state governments – it seems appropriate to celebrate another national and international cultural legacy. Particularly one that demonstrates – the Brazilian catastrophe comes at a time when the most popular candidate in the imminent presidential election, convicted of corruption, has been ruled ineligible by the courts – the intimate connection between cultural and political heritages, between a Democratic civilization’s record and its perseverance. Former Brazilian environmental minister Marina Silva, cited in the Guardian, likened the catastrophe to “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” If it is a lobotomy, it’s a  conscious one, the consequence of en epoch which prizes commodities which don’t produce anything — e.g., Facebook — over substance, and where faceless entities impose fiscal ‘austerity’ at the expense of national treasures.

What happened when that most celebrated exponent of French Letters and values, Victor Hugo, went into exile on an island — part of France until nature detached it from Normandy – under British sovereignty, where residents had to pay a yearly tribute to the Crown of two chickens and were taxed not on their income, but on their fortune? He fell in love with the place. Choosing exile after Napoleon III’s 1852 coupe, Hugo stopped over first in Brussels, then shortly afterwards landed in the Channel Island of Jersey and, evicted from there after criticizing Queen Victoria, settled in Guernesey (as he spelled it) in 1855, refusing a general amnesty offered by Napoleon in 1859 and not returning to France until the regime abdicated after the Prussian War debacle of 1870. Compared to France under Napoleon III (whom Hugo dubbed “Napoleon le petit,” enthroning a soubriquet that stuck), he discovered in Guernesey a cradle of liberty, regaling at its four newspapers. “Imagine a deserted isle,” he wrote in his introduction to “Les Travailleurs de la Mer,” the Workers of the Sea (1866). “The day after his arrival, Robinson creates a newspaper, and Friday subscribes…. Arrive, live, exist. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be who you want to be. No one has the right to know your name. Do you have your own god? Preach him. Do you have your own flag? Fly it. Where? In the street. It’s white? Fine. It’s blue? Very good. It’s red? Red is a color. Does it please you to denounce the government? Get up on the podium and speak…. Think, speak, write, print, harangue — it’s your own business.” (By way of testifying to the importance of institutions of cultural preservation: I only know about Hugo’s two-volume work because I was able to score a 1900-vintage edition at a sale proposed by the Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library.)

hugo two adeleLeft: Lot 19: By Charles Hugo (1826-1871) or Auguste Vacquerie (1819 -1895), “Portrait of Adele Hugo as a young woman,” circa 1856. Set of eight prints, one salt print mounted on card, seven collotypes mounted on cards. Pre-sale estimate for the Christies auction: 9,000-12,000 Euros. Few photographs from this period exist of Adele Hugo, the artist’s daughter, whose tragic story is recounted in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film “The Story of Adele H..” A copy of Grove Press’s complete script of the film is also on auction (est. 180 – 200 Euros), complete with a note from Truffaut to Jean Hugo: “For Jean Hugo, another screen between the reality and the fiction of today, with my gratitude and my loyalty.” Right: Lot 68: Edmond Bacot, “Les Misérables,” 1878. 10 large albumen prints mounted on cards of Cécile Daubray in the role of Cosette and Dumaine in the role of Jean Valjean, seven signed in red ink ‘Edouard Bacot’ (on the image); one signed and dated ‘Manday1878’ (on the image) and one titled and dated on the card. Env. 30.5 x 26 cm. Est. 3,000-5,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Convictions are fine, but what enabled Hugo to endure his exile from the soil which made him and the country in whose liberties he remained invested and so readily adapt to his new terrain was the family that surrounded him — initially at Marine Terrace in Jersey, then at Hauteville House in Guernesey. And whose members in their turn instantly took to the islands, notably Hugo’s son Charles, who, with August Vacquerie, set up a photographer’s studio in a side room at Marine Terrace in 1852. He had the eager backing of his father, who arranged to have the pioneering photographer Edmond Bacot send over books so that Charles could instruct himself. In Guernesey, on the third floor of Hauteville House, the room which Hugo called his ‘look-out’ was consecrated to a library. When Victor Hugo died in Paris in 1885 — a death so monumental that French officials didn’t just put the author in the Pantheon, they *moved* the Pantheon — if he left his oeuvre to France and the world, he left Hauteville House to his grandchildren Georges and Jeanne, all his immediate scions having preceded their father to the grave. When Georges died in 1925, Jean — Victor’s great-grandson, by then already an established artist and a cohort of Jean Cocteau — decided to give the bulk of Hauteville House’s remnants to the city of Paris.  But he hung on to some of the furniture, objects, books, and photographs, including the armoire in which Hugo stored his manuscripts as well as 50 original drawings by the author, who might have found full-time work as a caricaturist, draftsman, or painter had he not been so busy writing poems,  plays, treatises (against the death penalty, to recall one of his most celebrated causes), appeals (famously, a plea for mercy for the American abolitionist John Brown), novels  (“Les Miserables” was finished at Guernesey) and serving in national assemblies and local governments. (Hugo would later campaign for amnesty for the Communards of 1871, shortly after his return to France.) These sundry artifacts eventually made their way to Jean Hugo’s family home in Mas de Fourques, Lunel, near Montpellier, a dilapidated farmhouse — or so Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster, sister of Jean’s widow Lauretta, recalled in Lauretta’s 2005 London Independent obituary  — where peacocks were known to fall out of the trees and Lauretta produced a local victual called Muscat de Lunel. There she and her husband entertained the likes of Dali, Picasso, and Cocteau who, besides the peacocks, were likely to hear sheep being quartered outside their windows. (Also among the treasures were sketches by Jean’s first wife Valentine of Ballets Russes legends Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky.)

hugo three belgiumLot 179: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Souvenir de Belgique.” Charcoal, brush, and black ink, grey and brown wash heightened with white, on brown paper, in a painted frame, also made by Hugo. 157 x 594 mm. Est. 50,000-80,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

After Lauretta died, the seven children she’d had with Jean were confronted with a choice. “Raised among all these family souvenirs in the house of our father …, Jean Hugo, great-grandson of the poet,” they write in the Christie’s Paris catalog for today’s auction, “it was only after the death of our mother Lauretta that we heard the word ‘partage’ (in French, this can mean ‘divide’ but also ‘share’), which entrained the word ‘dispersion,’ which in turn made us pronounce the word ‘sale’ because, in effect: how to cut up into seven pieces the crown of Leopoldine?,” this last being one of Victor Hugo’s two, short-lived daughters, the other being Adele, immortalized by Isabel Adjani in Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film “The story of Adele H.”

hugo four guerneseyLot 25: 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. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

I like this term ‘dispersion.’ (Hugo’s descendents have apparently also inherited his knack for the well-chosen verb.) At first I found it depressing to conceive of this concentrated trove of Hugo memorabilia –  not just the artifacts of the writer and his descendants, but the reflections of his intelligence and culture represented by the books he collected and prized – being dispersed to disparate coins of the globe in all the 500 parts on auction today. Then I recalled that there are still places to find concentrated  Hugo cachets – notably the Victor Hugo House in Paris and the Bibliotheque National Française. (For a sampling – here of Victor Hugo’s artworks — check the BNF’s virtual exposition, Victor Hugo, l’homme ocean.) And then I considered that word dispersion, as well as the verb partage, in its meaning share. When I lived in France from 2001 to 2010, every weekend I’d scour the vide greniers (essentially neighborhood-wide garage sales: vide = empty; grenier = attic) for French memorabilia. The vintage carafes and ashtrays I amassed (I probably had the most ashtrays of any non-smoker in France), promoting various marks of pastis and regional aperitifs, were not just meaningless societal detritus but conduits into a cultural past I hadn’t grown up with but that I hoped to adapt and assimilate. And those were only carafes and ashtrays — repositories of popular culture, not high culture. (For the Frenchmen and women disposing of these quotidian objects, elevated in this culture and thus immune to their inherent charm for the budding Francophile, they were just junk cluttering up the attic.) Today at Christie’s, at estimated prices some of which are not much higher than what I paid for those carafes, one can acquire a morsel of the most important literary legacy in modern French history.

hugo five jerseyLot 26: “Jersey & Guernesey.” Two private albums with views of Guernesey and Jersey, and one on Venice. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo six chimney and leopoldineLot 174: Left: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), “Project for a chimney in the dining room at Hauteville House.” Brown wash. 278 x 228 mm. Est. 8,000-12,000 Euros. Right: Lot 161: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Portrait of Léopoldine, profile, or Fracta Juventus.” Pencil. 122 x 70 mm. Hugo’s daughter was just 19 years old when she passed away in 1843. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

But before they’re dispersed, let’s return these souvenirs one last time to the hearth of Jean and Lauretta Hugo in Mas de Fourques, as recalled and evoked by their children (in an introduction to the Christie’s catalog for this sale), the great-great-grandchildren of the Great Man:

“On winter nights, our father would get a book from the shelves and, seated near the chimney of the large library, a monocle fixed under his eyebrow, read us poems. We’d listen without budging, our large children’s eyes posed on him. The verses transported us to shipwrecks, skies, pits, valleys filled up with the songs of birds: ‘Oceano Nox,’ ‘Stella,’ ‘Booz asleep.’

“At the end of the evening, we’d leave the library to return to our rooms, but not before pausing for a long while before Saint Antoine, a painting previously stowed in the black cabinet of Hauteville House. This painting, close to the universe of Bosch, fascinated us. Naked bodies, buttocks in the air, suspended from tree branches, a character emerging from an earthenware jar, a bird with a long beak, a big fish with an arm running on muscled legs, a sort of inverted siren…. Alone in our rooms, our imaginations took flight in our dreams.

“Today, at the dawn of the millennium, the sale dispersing the souvenirs conserved in the family for so many years opens to present generations a day newly illuminated by this past.”

The idea could apply to the writings of Victor Hugo themselves. In “La vie devant soi” (All of Life Before You; Editions Mercure de France, Paris, 1975), written by Romain Gary under the pen name Emile Ajar, the adolescent narrator befriends an old man who sits in front of his Belleville apartment building every day. Even as the man starts to lose his memory, he clings to two books, his guides in life: In the one hand, the Koran; in the other, “Monsieur Hugo.”

hugo seven profile and judgeLeft: Lot 166: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Veiled profile.” Brown wash. 315 x 206 mm. Est. 3,000-5,000 Euros. Right: Lot 159: Victor-Marie Hugo, “Caricature of a Judge Wearing a Hat.” Brown wash. Est. 1,500 – 2,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eight caricatures women's visagesLot 170: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Caricatures: Two visages of women.” Pen and ink and brown wash. Est. 2,500-3,500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo nine always cryingLot 175: Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885), “Celui-ci pleurait toujours” (This one is always crying or is still crying). Brush, brown wash. Est. 8,000-12,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo ten jean hugo faustLot 359: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Faust Magicien,” 1929. 31 painted glass plaques for a magic lantern by Jean Hugo, eight other glass plaques by Jean Hugo, and one other plaque showing the reproduction of a Diane Chasseresse painting. Est. 10,000-15,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eleven jean hugo faust magicianLot 359: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Faust Magicien,” 1929. 31 painted glass plaques for a magic lantern by Jean Hugo, eight other glass plaques by Jean Hugo, and one other plaque showing the reproduction of a Diane Chasseresse painting. Est. 10,000 – 15,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twelve jean hugo mosquito menLot 389: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Mosquito Men,” circa 1937. Gouache and watercolor on paper. 1 & 2: 8.2 x 13 cm. 3: 11.8 x 15 cm. Est. 1,000-1,500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo thirteen vallottan the chargeLot 369: Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), “L’Anarchiste” and “La charge” (pictured above). (Vallotton/Goerg 104; 128.) A set of two woodcuts on wove paper, 1892 and 1893, years when anarchism was in vogue in some sectors in France. As with all pieces described in this article/gallery, interested parties should read full lot descriptions and any condition report. Est. 800-1200 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo fourteen riviereLot 371: Henri Riviere (1864-1951), “Le Lavoir au Haut-Trestraou,” 1891. Woodcut in colors with hand-coloring. 24 x 35.6 cm. Like some other Impressionists and post-Impressionists, Riviere was known for emulating the style of Japanese prints of the epoch. Est. 500-700 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo fifteen vallotton seaLot 372 Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), “La Mer,” 1893. (Vallotton Goerg 112.) Woodcut, signed in pencil. Est. 800-1,200. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo sixteen valentine hugo karsavinaLeft: Lot 315: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), Tamara Karsavina in “The Fire Bird.” Pastel on blue paper. 24.6 x 13 cm. Est. 1,500-2,000 Euros. Right: Lot 311 Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), Tamara Karsavina in “The Golden Rooster.” Charcoal on tracing paper. 31 x 22 cm. Est. 300 – 500 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo seventeen valentine hugo karsavina and nijinskyLeft: Lot 307: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), “Nine studies of dancers for Karsavina and Nijinsky.” Pencil on tracing paper. 38 x 27 cm. Est. 600-800 Euros. Right: Lot 306: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968), “Four studies for Nijinsky.” Pencil and colored crayon on paper. Largest piece 27 x 21 cm. Est. 600-800 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo eighteen valentine hugo sylphidesLot 309: Valentine Hugo (1890-1968). Study for “Les Sylphides.” Pencil on tracing paper. Jean Hugo’s first wife, Valentine was renowned for her sketches of Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russes. Est. 300-500 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo nineteen valentine hugo cocteau auricLeft: Lot 338: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “Portrait of Georges Auric.” Pen, India Ink, and watercolor on paper. 16 x 11 cm. Never mind the impression you might have that one has to be a big spender to collect art by masters; this one is estimated pre-sale at just 100-150 Euros. Imagine! To be able to own for that little a Cocteau, and one depicting Georges Auric, who composed the music for Cocteau’s signature films “The Blood of a Poet,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Orpheus,” as well as John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” Max Ophuls’s “Lola Montes,” and Jean Delannoy’s “Notre-Dame de Paris.” Right: Lot 334: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “Le Centaure et les femmes.” Pencil on paper. 29 x 23 cm. Est. 1,000-1,500 Euros. Both images ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twenty cocteau chessLot 332: Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), “The Chess Match, Jean Hugo and Pierre Colle.” India ink on paper. 32 x 21 cm. Est. 2,000-3,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

hugo twenty-one jean hugo maries tour eiffelLeft: Lot 357: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Study for a tapestry intended for a fire screen for the Vicount de Noailles,” dated and inscribed on the reverse, 1929. Gouache on paper. 20.5 x 18 cm. Right: Lot 388A: Jean Hugo (1894-1984), “Three characters for ‘Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel,’ play by Jean Cocteau.” Three pieces. Above piece titled ‘A Director’ at lower right. Gouache on paper. 29.5 x 22 cm. Est. 5,000-7.000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

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Marie-Agnes Gillot: Notre Dame de l’Opéra de Paris, Grande in Ballets Petit & Bejart

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

In tonight’s return to the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire of Maurice Bejart’s “Bolero,” Marie-Agnes Gillot will dance the lead role. Gillot retires from the Opera March 31. Special thanks to DI supporter NR for enabling our ballet coverage.

PARIS — As spectacles go, you can’t get much more spectacular than Roland Petit’s 1965 ballet “Notre-Dame de Paris,” created for the Paris Opera Ballet and performed by the POB from etoiles to corps with gusto last night at the Garnier, as its opening production of the season. Because we have rather been plagued by new story ballets in recent years (“Othello,” “Pied Piper,” “Snow Maiden,” and more Draculas than there are corps maidens to feed them), I would like to comment on what Petit, a past and present master of spectacle, teaches us about how to make the form not just work, but work on our emotions. It’s in the details….

In “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on the Victor Hugo novel more typically translated in the U.S. as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we are provided with the potential for grandeur and intimacy, and Petit delivers on at least one of these levels, and the more important one. And in the Paris Opera dancers, who have this story and that poet in their blood memory, he couldn’t have found better vessels.

What struck me — and I use that word “struck” literally, for it hit me like a blow — most about Petit’s choreography for the four principals, as they were interpreted last night, was that it is Quasimoto who emerges as the most human of the quartet. As portrayed by Wilfried Romoli, Quasimoto is not so much “a hunchback,” as dehumanizing as reducing a man to such a description can be, but a noble soul trapped in a body that can’t quite meet, or can’t quite rise to, the elevated level of his soul and aspirations and heroic and romantic inclinations. He does, in fact, and often, regularly straighten his spine and rise, but can only remain erect for a fleeting moment, before, almost ritually, collapsing on bent knees, his right arm pulling his shoulder down (the hunch is communicated not by an artificial lump in the actor-dancer’s back, but by the way he carries and arrays the rest of his body, most notably the arms and a constantly drooping shoulder), his lower arm left to swing, lifelessly and out of his control, back and forth, its fingers splayed.

The most compelling moment arrives in a sort of role-reversed Rose Adagio: Technically Quasimoto is lifting heroine Esmeralda’s arm and hand so that she can lift one leg up and stand on just one pointe; in reality it’s Esmeralda who is lifting him so that he can stand up straight, as becomes clear when they release and he automatically crumples and re-hunches. (A sharp contrast with the arch deacon Frolo’s treatment of Quasimoto, manifest in his constantly pushing him down into a hunch.)

This passage is delivered in what is also the ballet’s romantic pay-off, the final duet between Quasi and Esmeralda, who he has secured — only tenuously, it turns out — in the church, having just saved her from the gallows. Both Romoli and Marie-Agnes Gillot, last night’s and the opening night’s Esmeralda, deliver. In her first appearance, aptly telegraphed by a solitary tambourine (played with gusto by a soloist of the Orchestre Colonne, as was the entire Maurice Jarre score, conducted by Paul Connelly), Gillot’s Esmeralda struck me as rather cold and constrained for a Gypsy Dancer. It might also have been her white tight short skirt designed by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose costumes overall affected me as almost too sleek and modern for a tale driven by such raw individual and crowd passions. (Rene Allio’s stage designs were much more appropriately medieval.) As the ballet progressed, however, Gillot displayed that greatest and rarest of acting gifts: She seemed to be responding and reacting to her progressive partners and in a way suitors, her temperament changing based on what they gave her….

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