The Ways of Men by Eliot Gregory
Chapter 25 - La Comedie Francaise a Orange
Idling up through the south of France, in company with a passionate lover of that fair land, we learned on arriving at Lyons, that the actors of the Comedie Francaise were to pass through there the next day, en route for Orange, where a series of fetes had been arranged by "Les Felibres." This society, composed of the writers and poets of Provence, have the preservation of the Roman theatre at Orange (perhaps the most perfect specimen of classical theatrical architecture in existence) profoundly at heart, their hope being to restore some of its pristine beauty to the ruin, and give from time to time performances of the Greek masterpieces on its disused stage.
The money obtained by these representations will be spent in the restoration of the theatre, and it is expected in time to make Orange the centre of classic drama, as Beyreuth is that of Wagnerian music.
At Lyons, the cortege was to leave the Paris train and take boats down the Rhone, to their destination. Their programme was so tempting that the offer of places in one of the craft was enough to lure us away from our prearranged route.
By eight o'clock the following morning, we were on foot, as was apparently the entire city. A cannon fired from Fort Lamothe gave the signal of our start. The river, covered with a thousand gayly decorated craft, glinted and glittered in the morning light. It world be difficult to forget that scene, - the banks of the Rhone were lined with the rural population, who had come miles in every direction to acclaim the passage of their poets.
Everywhere along our route the houses were gayly decorated and arches of flowers had been erected. We float past Vienne, a city once governed by Pontius Pilate, and Tournon, with its feudal chateau, blue in the distance, then Saint Peray, on a verdant vine-clad slope. As we pass under the bridge at Montelimar, an avalanche of flowers descends on us from above.
The rapid current of the river soon brings our flotilla opposite Vivier, whose Gothic cathedral bathes its feet in the Rhone. Saint Esprit and its antique bridge appear next on the horizon. Tradition asserts that the Holy Spirit, disguised as a stone mason, directed its construction; there were thirteen workmen each day, but at sunset, when the men gathered to be paid, but twelve could be counted.
Here the mayor and the municipal council were to have received us and delivered an address, but were not on hand. We could see the tardy cortege hastening towards the bridge as we shot away down stream.
On nearing Orange, the banks and quays of the river are alive with people. The high road, parallel with the stream, is alive with a many-colored throng. On all sides one hears the language of Mistral, and recognizes the music of Mireille sung by these pilgrims to an artistic Mecca, where a miracle is to be performed - and classic art called forth from its winding- sheet.
The population of a whole region is astir under the ardent Provencal sun, to witness a resurrection of the Drama in the historic valley of the Rhone, through whose channel the civilization and art and culture of the old world floated up into Europe to the ceaseless cry of the cigales.
Chateaurenard! our water journey is ended. Through the leafy avenues that lead to Orange, we see the arch of Marius and the gigantic proscenium of the theatre, rising above the roofs of the little city.
So few of our compatriots linger in the south of France after the spring has set in, or wander in the by-ways of that inexhaustible country, that a word about the representations at Orange may be of interest, and perchance create a desire to see the masterpieces of classic drama (the common inheritance of all civilized races) revived with us, and our stage put to its legitimate use, cultivating and elevating the taste of the people.
One would so gladly see a little of the money that is generously given for music used to revive in America a love for the classic drama.
We are certainly not inferior to our neighbors in culture or appreciation, and yet such a performance as I witnessed at Orange (laying aside the enchantment lent by the surroundings) would not be possible here. Why? But to return to my narrative.
The sun is setting as we toil, ticket in hand, up the Roman stairway to the upper rows of seats; far below the local Gendarmerie who mostly understand their orders backwards are struggling with the throng, whose entrance they are apparently obstructing by every means in their power. Once seated, and having a wait of an hour before us, we amused ourselves watching the crowd filling in every corner of the vast building, like a rising tide of multi-colored water.
We had purposely chosen places on the highest and most remote benches, to test the vaunted acoustic qualities of the auditorium, and to obtain a view of the half-circle of humanity, the gigantic wall back of the stage, and the surrounding country.
As day softened into twilight, and twilight deepened into a luminous Southern night; the effect was incomparable. The belfries and roofs of mediaeval Orange rose in the clear air, overtopping the half ruined theatre in many places. The arch of Marius gleamed white against the surrounding hills, themselves violet and purple in the sunset, their shadow broken here and there by the outline of a crumbling chateau or the lights of a village.
Behind us the sentries paced along the wall, wrapped in their dark cloaks; and over all the scene, one snowtopped peak rose white on the horizon, like some classic virgin assisting at an Olympian solemnity.
On the stage, partly cleared of the debris of fifteen hundred years, trees had been left where they had grown, among fallen columns, fragments of capital and statue; near the front a superb rose-laurel recalled the Attic shores. To the right, wild grasses and herbs alternated with thick shrubbery, among which Orestes hid later, during the lamentations of his sister. To the left a gigantic fig-tree, growing again the dark wall, threw its branches far out over the stage.
It was from behind its foliage that "Gaul," "Provence," and "France," personated by three actresses of the "Francais," advanced to salute Apollo, seated on his rustic throne, in the prologue which began the performance.
Since midday the weather had been threatening. At seven o'clock there was almost a shower - a moment of terrible anxiety. What a misfortune if it should rain, just as the actors were to appear, here, where it had not rained for nearly four months! My right-hand neighbor, a citizen of Beaucaire, assures me, "It will be nothing, only a strong `mistral' for to-morrow." An electrician is putting the finishing touches to his arrangements. He tries vainly to concentrate some light on the box where the committee is to sit, which is screened by a bit of crumbling wall, but finally gives it up.
Suddenly the bugles sound; the orchestra rings out the Marseillaise; it is eight o'clock. The sky is wild and threatening. An unseen hand strikes the three traditional blows. The Faun Lybrian slips down from a branch of a great elm, and throws himself on the steps that later are to represent the entrance to the palace of Agamemnon, and commences the prologue (an invocation to Apollo), in the midst of such confusion that we hear hardly a word. Little by little, however, the crowd quiets down, and I catch Louis Gallet's fine lines, marvellously phrased by Mesdames Bartet, Dudlay, Moreno, and the handsome Fenoux as Apollo.
The real interest of the public is only aroused, however, when The Erynnies begins. This powerful adaptation from the tragedy of Aeschylus is the chef d'oeuvre of Leconte de Lisle. The silence is now complete. One feels in the air that the moment so long and so anxiously awaited has come, that a great event is about to take place. Every eye is fixed on the stage, waiting to see what will appear from behind the dark arches of the proscenium. A faint, plaintive strain of music floats out on the silence. Demons crawl among the leafy shadows. Not a light is visible, yet the centre of the stage is in strong relief, shading off into a thousand fantastic shadows. The audience sits in complete darkness. Then we see the people of Argos, winding toward us from among the trees, lamenting, as they have done each day for ten years, the long absence of their sons and their king. The old men no longer dare to consult the oracles, fearing to learn that all is lost. The beauty of this lament roused the first murmur of applause, each word, each syllable, chiming out across that vast semicircle with a clearness and an effect impossible to describe.
Now it is the sentinel, who from his watch-tower has caught the first glimpse of the returning army. We hear him dashing like a torrent down the turret stair; at the doorway, his garments blown by the wind, his body bending forward in a splendid pose of joy and exultation, he announces in a voice of thunder the arrival of the king.
So completely are the twenty thousand spectators under the spell of the drama that at this news one can feel a thrill pass over the throng, whom the splendid verses hold palpitating under their charm, awaiting only the end of the tirade to break into applause.
From that moment the performance is one long triumph. Clytemnestra (Madame Lerou) comes with her suite to receive the king (Mounet-Sully), the conqueror! I never realized before all the perfection that training can give the speaking voice. Each syllable seemed to ring out with a bell-like clearness. As she gradually rose in the last act to the scene with Orestes, I understood the use of the great wall behind the actors. It increased the power of the voices and lent them a sonority difficult to believe. The effect was overwhelming when, unable to escape death, Clytemnestra cries out her horrible imprecations.
Mounet-Sully surpassed himself. Paul Mounet gave us the complete illusion of a monster thirsting for blood, even his mother's! When striking her as she struck his father, he answers her despairing query, "Thou wouldst not slay thy mother?" "Woman, thou hast ceased to be a mother!" Dudlay (as Cassandra) reaches a splendid climax when she prophesies the misfortune hanging over her family, which she is powerless to avert.
It is impossible in feeble prose to give any idea of the impression those lines produce in the stupendous theatre, packed to its utmost limits - the wild night, with a storm in the air, a stage which seems like a clearing in some forest inhabited by Titans, the terrible tragedy of Aeschylus following the graceful fete of Apollo.
After the unavoidable confusion at the beginning, the vast audience listen in profound silence to an expression of pure art. They are no longer actors we hear, but demi-gods. With voices of the storm, possessed by some divine afflatus, thundering out verses of fire - carried out of themselves in a whirlwind of passion, like antique prophets and Sibyls foretelling the misfortunes of the world!
That night will remain immutably fixed in my memory, if I live to be as old as the theatre itself. We were so moved, my companion and I, and had seen the crowd so moved, that fearing to efface the impression if we returned the second night to see Antigone, we came quietly away, pondering over it all, and realizing once again that a thing of beauty is a source of eternal delight.