Montesquieu

Rica to ***1


Yesterday I saw some­thing rather sin­gu­lar, although it occurs every day in Paris.

All the peo­ple assem­ble in the late after­noon,2 and go per­form a sort of scene which I have heard cal­led Comedy. The prin­ci­pal move­ment is on a plat­form which they call the stage ; on either side you see men and women in small nooks which are cal­led loges, who toge­ther per­form silent sce­nes much like those that are prac­ti­ced in our Persia.3

First an aggrie­ved mis­tress expres­ses her lan­guor ; then ano­ther with scin­tilla­ting eyes and an air of pas­sion feasts her eyes on her sui­tor, who gazes at her in the same way ; all the pas­sions are pain­ted on the faces, and expres­sed with an elo­quence that is only the more bold for being silent. There only half of the actors is visi­ble, and they usually out of modesty have a muff to hide their arms. Down below is a group of peo­ple stan­ding,4 who make fun of those who are up on the stage, who in turn laugh at those who are below.

But those who take the most trou­ble are some young men who are cho­sen for this effect at an early age, to sus­tain the fati­gue : they are obli­ged to be eve­ryw­here ; they pass through pla­ces known only to them, climb with sur­pri­sing agi­lity from one sto­rey to the next ; they are ups­tairs, downs­tairs, in all the loges ; they plunge, so to speak ; you lose sight of them, they reap­pear ; often they leave the site of the scene and go per­form in ano­ther one.5 You even see some who, by a mira­cle one would not have dared ask of their crut­ches,6 walk and cir­cu­late like the others. Finally you go into rooms7 where a pri­vate comedy is per­for­med : you begin with curt­sies and conti­nue with embra­ces : they say the sligh­test acquain­tance gives a man the right to smo­ther ano­ther.8

Everything I am tel­ling you takes place in much the same way in ano­ther place which they call the Opera : the only dif­fe­rence is that they speak at the one and sing at the other. One of my friends took me along the other day to the dres­sing room where one of the prin­ci­pal actres­ses was dis­ro­bing. We made such good acquain­tance that the next day I recei­ved this let­ter from her :

Monsieur,

I am the most unfor­tu­nate mai­den in the world. I have always been the most vir­tuous actress at the Opera. Seven or eight months ago I was in the dres­sing room where you saw me yes­ter­day ; as I was dres­sing as a pries­tess of Diana, a young abbé9 came and found me there and with no res­pect for my white dress, for my veil and ban­danna,10 he stole my inno­cence. When I exag­ge­rate the sacri­fice I have made for him : he laughs, and contends he found me quite pro­fane. Meanwhile I am so pre­gnant that I dare no lon­ger appear on the stage : for when it comes to honor I am unbe­lie­va­bly deli­cate, and I always main­tain that it is easier to get a pro­per girl to lose her vir­tue than her modesty. With my deli­cacy you of course unders­tand that the young abbé would never have suc­cee­ded had he not pro­mi­sed to marry me. Such a legi­ti­mate moti­va­tion led me to neglect the usual lit­tle for­ma­li­ties, and begin where I ought to have ended up. But since his infi­de­lity has disho­no­red me, I no lon­ger want to stay at the Opera, where bet­ween us I am hardly paid enough to live on,11 for now that I am get­ting older and beco­ming somew­hat less attrac­tive, my wages, which are still the same, seem to dimi­nish by the day. I have lear­ned from a man in your reti­nue that a good woman dan­cer is much appre­cia­ted in your coun­try, and that if I were in Isfahan my for­tune would qui­ckly be made.12 If you wan­ted to grant me your pro­tec­tion and take me with you to that coun­try, you would have the advan­tage of hel­ping a girl who by her vir­tue and conduct would prove her­self not unwor­thy of your kind­nes­ses. I am…

Paris this 2nd day of the moon of Chalval 1712

The asterisks are a convention to indicate that the real name is being hidden as a matter of editorial discretion.

At the Comédie Française performances took place at 5:30 in the afternoon.

Chardin speaks of women dancers or “mimes” in Persia whom he compares to theatre actors in Europe (II, 247-248 and V, 71-73).

At the Comédie there were no seats in the pit.

Presumably he means young fops who are flitting all over the place.

Presumably he refers to men’s canes, which were much in style.

This refers either to one of the two backstage foyers at the theatre, which was then on the Rue des Fossés Saint-Germain, or to the dressing rooms of the actresses.

Perhaps an allusion to the embarrassing familiarity manifested by Oronte in Molière’s Le Misanthrope (I, 2). The place itself seems to elicit affection ; indeed they say that the princesses who reign there are not difficult ; and aside from two or three hours per day when they are quite hostile, you can say that the rest of the time they are amenable, and that this is a sort of madness that easily leaves them.[[The sense seems to be that they are aloof during the performance, when they are playing queens and princesses, and are courtesans the rest of the time.

The abbé could wear a collar and was presumed to be preparing for the priesthood, but had not necessarily pronounced any vows.

The virginal bandanna, like the veil and white dress, are part of an opera costume : the vestals, says Bernard Montfaucon, “wore their hair bound with a ribbon,” and the priestesses were veiled in various manners (L’Antiquité expliquée, vol. II, p. 32 and 41-42).

On 13 January 1713 Louis XIV imposed a regulation that fixed the number of artists at the Opera and their pay : there would be two women dancers at 900 livres each, four at 500 livres, and four at 400 (Louis Travenol, Histoire du théâtre de l’Académie royale de musique en France, Paris, 1757, vol. I, p. 120), which is a bit more than those of an humble parish priest (300 livres).

Chardin observes that in Persia women dancers were public women (II, 249-252) : “in the Orient, dancing is not respectable, or infamous if you prefer, and none but public women do it” (IV, 140 ; cf p. 194.) They could, however, be well paid and showered with presents at court.