Beinecke: The French

This post concentrates on one element of the material I was looking through in the Beinecke library. Although not frequent, nor completely central to the current direction of my thesis, I couldn’t help but notice the odd reference to the French stage in both the William Smith and David Garrick papers.

In the second folder of the David Garrick papers lies a letter from Richard Berenger to the English Roscius. Berenger, now best known for his books about horsemanship, was living in Paris at the time and writes to Garrick with a view of the French stage. Before he gets round to this, Berenger’s preliminary remarks suggest that Garrick’s plans to come to Paris were public knowledge well before his departure later in 1751; that said, Berenger wittily says that Garrick should rather wait until “two-thirds of the French actors have first made a pilgrimage to Drury Lane, and can speak good English”. Such bantering disparagement then sets the tone for his critique of various French performers – views which echo many of those expressed by Garrick when he did eventually visit the Comédie française. Mme Dumesnil “has her degree of merit, but it is not the superlative”, while Mlle Clairon “gains great applause and yet not more than she deserves”.

Berenger's thoughts about acting (click to enlarge).
Berenger’s thoughts about acting (click to enlarge).

Berenger, however, does more than review the great performers of the day. He also offers his opinion on the well-known question of whether actors felt emotion when the were on the stage. In Berenger’s case, it is a resounding yes, since, without feeling, everything “is but a bare repetition of so many times, […] as different from true acting as the dead carcass from the living body”. Curiously, though, the letter does not stop here, but rather makes the observation, based on the widespread belief in a female propensity for strong feeling, that “women have eclipsed the men in my opinion”, even if “both the sexes excel in comedy rather than in tragedy.”

Berenger prefers comedy to tragedy as he finds an “affected formality and stiffness” on the French stage which vitiates “the tender sentiments of Tragedy”. Indeed, the technical rigour of the French stage, what this letter names as “general exactness”, is also evoked by other figures as a way of lambasting foreign practice. In the William Smith Papers, one finds a letter to Smith from Thomas Coutts accusing Kemble of a “false taste” as a result of having “form’d himself on the French stage”. Similarly, Smith himself writes a poem to Sarah Siddons warning her of (amongst other things) the dangers of being influenced by the French:

Let not a Barker’s false and Gallic Taste
Lay all your former well-earn’d harvest waste;
Tutor’d in France plain Nature HE defies,
Misleads your judgment and deceives your Eyes.

The idea that the French defied ‘nature’ is interesting as it is, to a certain extent, the reversal of the praise for French ‘refinement’ one finds earlier in the period. Indeed, both in the Berenger letter arguing that actors should feel and here in attacks on what is perceived as a ‘French’ calculation, the expression or restraint of human nature is the crucial motif.


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