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A Day At The Paris Conservatoire by L. H. H.

1877

It was ten o'clock in the morning when we drove up to the door of the world-famous institution, but, early as it was, an animated throng already filled the wide marble-paved entrance-hall—former pupils in elegant attire; girl aspirants for future honors, accompanied by the inevitable mamma with the invariable little hand-bag; young men and old; celebrated dramatists and well-known actors, visitors, critics, etc.—all passing to and fro or engaged in conversation while awaiting the hour for taking their seats. Passing through these, we ascend a narrow staircase that gives one good hopes of a martyr's death should the theatre chance to catch fire, and we instal ourselves in a narrow and by no means comfortable box in the dress-circle. The theatre of the Conservatoire, though not very large, is very elegantly and artistically decorated in the Pompeian style, the stage being set with a single "box scene," as it is technically called, which is never changed, as plays are never acted there. Here take place the far-famed concerts du Conservatoire, for which tickets are as hard to obtain as are invitations to the entertainments of a duchess, all the seats being owned by private individuals. But what we are now here to witness is the competition in dramatic declamation, tragic and comic. The jury occupy a box in the centre of the dress-circle and opposite to the stage. This terrifying tribunal is enough to try the nerves of the stoutest aspirant for dramatic honors, comprising as it does among its members such powers in the land as Legouvé, Camilla-Doucet, Alexandre Dumas, the directors of the Comédie Française and the Odéon, and the great actors Got and Delaunay. An elderly gentleman comes forward on the stage and reads from a printed paper the name of each competitor and those of his or her assistants, and that of the play from which the scene that is to be represented is chosen. Each pupil selects a scene, and the persons who in French technical parlance are to "give the reply" (i.e. to take the other characters in the scene) are chosen from among the ranks of the pupil's fellow-competitors. Lots are drawn to decide the place that each one is to occupy on the programme, the first place and the last being considered the least desirable. Printed bills are distributed among the audience giving a list of the competitors, with the names of the plays from which they have chosen scenes, and (horrible innovation for the lady pupils!) the age of each one as well.

The competition is opened by M. Levanz, a young man of thirty, who took a second prize last year, and who has chosen the closet-scene from Hamlet (the translation of the elder Dumas) as his cheval de bataille. He has a marked Germanic countenance, decidedly the reverse of handsome, yet mobile and expressive: his voice is good, his figure tall and manly. He has evidently seen Rossi in Hamlet, and models his conception of the character on that grand impersonation. Next comes M. Bregaint in a scene from Andromaque: he is so bad, so very bad, that the audience are moved to sudden outbursts of hilarity by his grand tragic points. He is succeeded by a boy of sixteen, tall and graceful, with a fine tragic face of the heroic Kemble mould, and great blue-gray eyes that dilate or contract beneath the impulses of the moment—a born actor from head to foot. He fairly thrills the audience in the great scene of the duke de Nemours from Louis XI. This youth, M. Guitry, is undoubtedly, if his life be spared, the coming tragedian of the French stage. Then we have the first one of the lady competitors, Mademoiselle Edet, a tall, awkward girl of eighteen, with a flat face and Chinese-like features, dressed up in a gown of cream-yellow foulard trimmed with wide fringe and made with a loose jacket, whereon the fringes wave wildly in the air as she flings her arms around in the tragic love-making of Phèdre. Two or three others of moderate merit succeed, and then comes Mademoiselle Jullien, who gives the great scene of Roxane in Bajazet with so much intelligence of intonation and grace of gesture that the audience are moved to sudden applause. She is rather too short and of too delicate a physique for tragedy, but her face is expressive, her eyes fine, and there are intellect and talent in every tone and movement. She is nearly twenty-nine years of age, so has not much time to waste if she is to make her mark in her profession. Last on the list of tragic aspirants comes a gentleman of thirty-one, M. Aubert, who goes through a scene from Hamlet in a very tolerable manner. He was in the army, was doing well and was rising in grade when, seized by the theatrical mania, he relinquished his profession and turned his attention to the stage. Thus far, he has proved, practically speaking, a failure: he has won no prizes, and no manager will engage him. This is his last chance, as his age will prevent him, by the rules of the Conservatoire, from taking part in any future competition.

The tragedy concours ended, a recess of an hour is proclaimed, and there is a rush to the refreshment-tables and a great consumption of sandwiches and cakes, of coffee and water (known as "mazagran") and of vin ordinaire. Under that vestibule pass and repass the literary luminaries of modern France. Here is Henri de Bornier, the author of La Fille de Roland, a quiet, earnest-looking gentleman, with clear luminous eyes and the smallest hands imaginable. Here comes Francisque Sarcey, the greatest dramatic critic of France and one of the most noted of her Republican journalists, broad-shouldered, black-eyed and stalwart-looking. Yonder stand a group of Academicians—Legouvé, Doucet, Dumas—in earnest conversation with Édouard Thierry, the librarian of the Arsénal. The handsome, delicate, aristocratic-looking gentleman who joins the group is M. Perrin, the director of the Comédie Française, the most accomplished and intelligent theatrical manager in France. There is an elderly, reserved-looking gentleman beside him who looks like a solemn savant out on a holiday. It takes more than one glance for us to recognize in him the most accomplished light comedian of our day, that embodiment of grace, vivacity, sparkling wit and unfading youth, who is known to the boards of the Comédie Française by the name of Delaunay. There are other minor luminaries, too numerous to mention.

We go up stairs and resume our seats, and the competition of comedy is begun. Scene succeeds to scene and competitor to competitor: the day wears on, and flitting clouds from time to time obscure the dome, bringing out the glare of the footlights that have been burning all day in a singularly effective manner. Of the nineteen competitors, the deepest impression is made by M. Barral, who plays a scene from L'Avare magnificently; by Mademoiselle Carrière, who reveals herself as a sparkling and intelligent soubrette; and by Mademoiselle Sisos, a genuine comédienne, only sixteen years of age and as pretty as a peach. It is six o'clock when the last competitor has said his say, and then the jury retire to deliberate respecting the awards. What a flutter there must be among the young things whose future destiny is now swaying in the balance, for success means fortune, and failure a disheartening postponement, and to the elder ones downright and disastrous ruin of all their hopes! Half an hour passes, and then, after what seems a weary period of suspense, the box-door is thrown open and the jury resume their seats. Ambroise Thomas, the president of the Conservatoire, strikes his bell and a dead silence ensues. In a full sonorous voice he begins: "Concours of tragedy, men's class. No prizes.—Usher, summon M. Guitry." The gifted boy comes forward to the footlights. "M. Guitry, the jury have awarded to you a premier accessit." He bows and retires amid the hearty applause of the audience. "Women's class.—Usher, call Mademoiselle Jullien." She comes out pale and agitated, the slight form quivering like a wind-swept flower in her robes of creamy cashmere. Is it the Odéon that awaits her—the second prize? for in her modesty she had only hoped for a premier accessit. "Mademoiselle Jullien, the jury have awarded to you the first prize." The first prize! Those words mean to her an assured career, a brilliant future, the doors of the Comédie Française flung wide open to receive her. She falters, trembles, bows profoundly, and goes off in a very passion of hysterical weeping. Then come the comedy awards. M. Barral gets a first prize, as is his just due, as does also Mademoiselle Carrière. "Usher, call Mademoiselle Sisos." She comes forward, her great brown eyes dilated with excitement, her cheeks burning like two red roses, a mass of faded white roses clinging amid the rumpled gold of her hair—a very bewitching picture of childish grace and beauty. "Mademoiselle Sisos, the jury have awarded to you a second prize." She laughs and blushes, and brings her hands together with a childlike gesture of delight. "Oh, merci!" she cries, and drops a courtesy, and then away she goes—happy little creature, thus consecrated artiste at sixteen! The other awards are given, the jury leave their box, and the audience disperse. The friends of the competitors crowd around the stage-door, and each of the successful ones is seized by the hand and congratulated and embraced, the youthful Guitry being especially surrounded. Two or three more years of study will land this gifted boy on the boards of the Comédie Française. The queen of the day, Mademoiselle Jullien, has stolen away overcome by excess of emotion, which, though joyful, is still exhausting to her delicate frame. Finally, everybody retires, the doors are closed, and the long, exciting séance has come to an end at last.