Monday, 12 July 2010

Bernhardt bombs

The great French actor Benoit-Constant Coquelin (1841-1909) (left), who created the role of Cyrano de Bergerac in Rostand's play, described to the American writer and artist Eliot Gregory (1854-1915) a meeting with Rostand and Sarah Bernhardt at which Rostand read his Rudel play, La Princesse Lointaine, aloud for the first time.
'I shall remember that afternoon as long as I live! From the first line my attention was riveted and my senses were charmed. The great actress ... accepted the play then and there.'
La Princesse Lointaine closed after 31 performances, and Bernhardt made a loss of 200,000 Francs. Monsieur Coquelin had a fairly clear impression of the production's failings:
'Between ourselves,' continued Coquelin, pushing aside his plate, a twinkle in his small eyes, 'is the reason of this lack of success very difficult to discover? The Princess in the piece is supposed to be a fairy enchantress in her sixteenth year. The play turns on her youth and innocence. Now, honestly, is Sarah, even on the stage, any one's ideal of youth and innocence?' This was asked so naively that I burst into a laugh, in which my host joined me. Unfortunately, this grandmamma, like Ellen Terry, cannot be made to understand that there are roles she should leave alone, that with all the illusions the stage lends she can no longer play girlish parts with success.
Ouch. But never mind the aging actress: as in the legend, so in this tale, it's the tender poet who suffers the worst, as Coquelin went on:
'The failure of his play produced the most disastrous effect on Rostand, who had given up a year of his life to its composition and was profoundly chagrined by its fall. He sank into a mild melancholy, refusing for more than eighteen months to put pen to paper.'
But the play Rostand came back with was Cyrano de Bergerac. Which only goes to show.

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