By Dauphin Meunier
A FABULOUS being, in an everyday human form ; a face, not
beautiful, scarcely even pretty, which looks upon the world
with an air at once ironical and sympathetic ; a brow that grows
broader or narrower according to the capricious invasions of her
aureole of hair; an odd little nose, perked heavenward; two
roguish eyes, now blue, now black ; the rude accents of a street-
girl, suddenly changing to the well-bred murmuring of a great
lady ; abrupt, abundant gestures, eloquently finishing half-spoken
sentences ; a supple neck — a slender, opulent figure — a dainty foot,
that scarcely touches the earth and yet can fly amazingly near
the ceiling ; lips, nervous, senuous, trembling, curling ; a frock,
simple or sumptuous, bought at a bargain or created by a Court-
dressmaker, which expresses, moulds, completes, and sometimes
almost unveils the marvellous creature it envelops ; a gay, a grave
demeanour ; grace, wit, sweetness, tartness ; frivolity and earnest-
ness, tenderness and indifference ; beauty without beauty, im-
morality without evil : a nothing capable of everything : such is
Woman at Paris : such is the Parisienne : and Madame Réjane is
the Parisienne, is all Parisiennes, incarnated.
What though our Parisienne be the daughter of a hall-porter,
what though she be a maid-servant, a courtesan, or an arch-duchess,
she goes everywhere, she is the equal of every one, she knows or
divines everything. No need for her to learn good manners, nor
bad ones : she’s born with both. According to the time or place,
she will talk to you of politics, of art, of literature — of dress, trade,
cookery — of finance, of socialism, of luxury, of starvation — with the
patness, the sure touch, the absolute sincerity, of one who has seen
all, experienced all, understood all. She’s as sentimental as a song,
wily as a diplomate, gay as folly, or serious as a novel by Zola.
What has she read ? Where was she educated ? Who cares ?
Her book of life is Paris ; she knows her Paris by heart ; and
whoso knows Paris can dispense with further knowledge. She
adores originality and novelty, but she can herself transmute the
commonplace into the original, the old into the new. Whatever
she touches forthwith reflects her own animation, her mobility, her
elusive charm. Flowers have no loveliness until she has grouped
them ; colours are colourless unless they suit her complexion.
Delicately fingering this or that silken fabric, she decrees which
shall remain in the darkness of the shops, which shall become the
fashion of the hour. She crowns the poet, sits to the painter,
inspires the sculptor, lends her voice to the musician ; and not
one of these artists can pretend to talent, if it be her whim to
deny it him. She awards fame and wealth, success and failure,
according to her pleasure.
Madame Réjane — the Parisienne : they are interchangeable
terms. Whatever rôle she plays absorbs the attention of all Paris.
Hearken, then, good French Provincials, who would learn the
language of the Boulevards in a single lesson ; hearken, also, ye
children of other lands who are eager for our pleasures, and
curious about our tastes and manners ; hearken all people, men
and women, who care, for once in a way, to behold what of all
Parisian things is most essentially Parisian :— Go and see Réjane.
Don’t go to the Opéra, where the music is German ; nor to the
Opéra-Comique, where it is Italian ; nor yet to the Comédie-
Française, where the sublime is made ridiculous, and the heroes
and heroines of Racine take on the attitudes of bull-fighters and
cigarette-makers ; nor to the Odéon, nor to the Palais-Royal, nor
here, nor there, nor elsewhere : go and see Réjane. Be she at
London, Chicago, Brussels, St. Petersburg — Réjane is Paris. She
carries the soul of Paris with her, wheresoever she listeth.
A Parisienne, she was born in Paris ; an actress, she is the
daughter of an actor, and the niece of Madame Aptal-Arnault,
sometime pensionnaire of the Comédie-Française. Is it a sufficent
pedigree ? Her very name is suggestive ; it seems to share in the
odd turn of her wit, the sauciness of her face, the tang of her
voice ; for Réjane’s real name is Réju. Doesn’t it sound like a
nick-name, especially invented for this child of the greenroom ?
” Réjane ” calls up to us the fanciful actress — fanciful, but
studious, conscientious, impassioned for her art ; ” Madame
Réjane” has rather a grand air; but Réju makes such a funny
face at her.
I picture to myself the little Réju, scarcely out of her cradle,
but already cunningly mischievous, fired with an immense curiosity
about the world behind the scenes, and dreaming of herself as
leading lady. She hears of nothing, she talks of nothing, but the
Theatre. And presently her inevitable calling, her manifest destiny,
takes its first step towards realisation. She is admitted into the
class of Regnier, the famous sociétaire of the Théâtre-Francais.
Thenceforth the pupil makes steady progress. In 1873, at the
age of fifteen, she obtains an honourable mention for comedy at
the Conservatoire ; the following year she divides a second prize
with Mademoiselle Samary. But what am I saying ? Only a
second prize ? Let us see.
To-day, as then, though twenty years have passed, there is no
possibility of success, no chance of getting an engagement, for a
pupil on leaving the Conservatoire, unless a certain all-powerful
critic, supreme judge, arbiter beyond appeal, sees fit to pronounce
a decision confirming the verdict of the Examining Jury. This
extraordinary man holds the future of each candidate in the palm
of his fat and heavy hand. Fame and fortune are contained in
his inkstand, and determined by his articles. He is both Pope
and King. The Jury proposes, he disposes. The Jury reigns,
he governs. He smiles or frowns, the Jury bows its head. The
pupils tremble before their Masters ; the Masters tremble before
this monstrous Fetich,— for the Public thinks with him and by
him, and sees only through his spectacles ; and no star can shine
till his short sight has discovered it.
This puissant astronomer is Monsieur Francisque Sarcey.
Against his opinion the newspapers can raise no voice, for he
alone edits them all. He writes thirty articles a day, each of
which is thirty times reprinted, thrice thirty times quoted from.
He is, as it were, the Press in person. And presently the
momentous hour arrived when the delicate and sprightly pupil of
Regnier was to appear before this enormous and somnolent mass,
and to thrill it with pleasure. For Monsieur Sarcey smiled upon
and applauded Réjane’s début at the Conservatoire. He conse-
crated to her as many as fifty lines of intelligent criticism ; and I
pray Heaven they may be remembered to his credit on the Day
of Judgment. Here they are, in that twopenny-halfpenny style
of his, so dear to the readers of Le Temps.
” I own that, for my part, I should have willingly awarded to the
latter (Mademoiselle Réjane) a first prize. It seems to me that she
deserved it. But the Jury is frequently influenced by extrinsic and
carries with it the right of entrance into the Comédie Française ; and
the Jury did not think Mademoiselle Réjane, with her little wide-
awake face, suited to the vast frame of the House of Molière. That
is well enough ; but the second prize, which it awarded her, authorises
the Director of the Odéon to receive her into his Company ; and that
perspective alone ought to have sufficed to dissuade the Jury from the
course it took….. Every one knows that at present the Odéon is,
for a beginner, a most indifferent school….. Instead of shoving its
promising pupils into it by the shoulders, the Conservatoire should
forbid them to approach it, lest they should be lost there. What will
Mademoiselle Réjane do at the Odéon ? Show her legs in La Jeunesse
de Louis XIV., which is to be revived at the opening of the season !
A pretty state of things. She must either go to the Vaudeville or to
the Gymnase. It is there that she will form herself; it is there that
she will learn her trade, show what she is capable of, and prepare
herself for the Comédie Française, if she is ever to enter it….. She
recited a fragment from Les Trois Sultanes …. I was delighted by
her choice. The Trois Sultanes is so little known nowadays…..
What wit there is in her look, her smile ! With her small eyes,
shrewd and piercing, with her little face thrust forward, she has so
knowing an air, one is inclined to smile at the mere sight of her. Does
she perhaps show a little too much assurance ? What of it ? Tis the
result of excessive timidity. But she laughs with such good grace, she
has so fresh and true a voice, she articulates so clearly, she seems so
happy to be alive and to have talent, that involuntarily one thinks of
Chénier’s line :
Sa bienvenue au jour lui rlt dans tous les yeux.
…. I shall be surprised if she does not make her way.”
Praised be Sarcey ! That was better than a second prize for
Réjane. The Oracle gave her the first, without dividing it. She
The Yellow Book Vol.— II. M
got an immediate engagement ; and in March, 1875, appeared
on that stage where to-day she reigns supreme, the Vaudeville,
to which she brought back the vaudeville that was no longer
played there. She began by alienating the heart of Alphonse
Daudet, who, while recognising her clever delivery, found fault
with her unemotional gaiety ; but, in compensation, another
authoritative critic, Auguste Vitu, wrote, after the performance
of Pierre : ” Mademoiselle Réjane showed herself full of grace
and feeling. She rendered Gabrielle’s despair with a naturalness,
a brilliancy, a spontaneity, which won a most striking success.”
Shall I follow her through each of her creations, from her début
in La Revue des Deux-Mondes, up to her supreme triumph in
Madame Sans-Gêne ? Shall I show her as the sly soubrette in
Fanny Lear ? as the woman in love, ” whose ignorance divines all
things,” in Madame Lili? as the comical Marquise de Menu-
Castel in Le Verglas ? Shall I tell of her first crowning success,
when she played Gabrielle in Pierre ? Shall I recall her stormy
interpretation of Madame de Librac, in Le Club ? and her dramatic
conception of the part of Ida ?—which quite reversed the previous
judgments of her critics, wringing praise from her enemy Daudet,
and censure from her faithful admirer Vitu. The natural order
of things, however, was re-established by her performance of Les
Tapageurs ; again Daudet found her cold and lacking in tender-
ness ; and Vitu again applauded.
Her successes at the Vaudeville extend from 1875 to 1882 ; and
towards the end of that period, Réjane, always rising higher in
her art, created Anita in L’Auréole, and the Baronne d’Oria in
Odette. Next, forgetting her own traditions, she appeared at the
Théâtre des Panoramas, and at the Ambigu, where she gave a
splendid interpretation of Madame Cézambre in Richepin’s La
Glu and at Les Variétés as Adrienne in Ma Camarade. Now
fickle, now constant to her first love, she alternated between
the Variétés and the Vaudeville ; took an engagement at the
Odéon ; assisted at the birth and death of the Grand-Théâtre ;
and just lately the Vaudeville has won her back once more.
Amidst these perambulations, Réjane played the diva in Clara
Soleil. The following year she had to take two different parts in
the same play, those of Gabrielle and Clicquette in Les Demoiselles
Clochart. Gabrielle is a cold and positive character ; Clicquette a
gay and mischievous one. Réjane kept them perfectly distinct,
and without the smallest apparent effort. In 1887, she telephoned
in Allô-Allô, and represented so clearly, by means of clever mimicry,
the absurd answers of the apparatus, that from the gallery to the
stalls the theatre was one roar of laughter and applause ; I fancy the
salvoes and broadsides must still sometimes echo in her delicate ears.
Réjane’s part in M. de Morat should not be forgotten ;
all, the inimitable perfection of her play in Décoré (1888). Sarcey’s
exultation knew no bounds when, in 1890, she again appeared
in this rôle. Time, that had metamorphosed the lissom critic of
1875 into a round and inert mass of solid flesh, cruel Father
Time, gave back to Sarcey, for this occasion only, a flash of youthful
fire, which stirred his wits to warmth and animation. He shouted
out hardly articulate praise ; he literally rolled in his stall with
pleasure ; his bald head blushed like an aurora borealis. ” Look
at her ! ” he cried, ” see her malicious smiles, her feline graces,
listen to her reserved and biting diction ; she is the very essence
of the Parisienne ! What an ovation she received ! How they
applauded her ! and how she played ! ” From M. Sarcey the
laugh spreads ; it thaws the scepticism of M. Jules Lemaître,
engulfs the timidity of the public, becomes unanimous and
universal, and is no longer to be silenced.
In 1888, M. Edmond de Goncourt entrusted Réjane with the
part of Germinie Lacerteux. On the first night, a furious
against the author was waged in the house. Réjane secured the
victory sans peur et sans reproches.
Everything in her inspires the certitude of success ; her
voice aims at the heart, her gestures knock at it. Réjane
confides all to the hazard of the dice ; her sudden attacks are
of the most dare-devil nature ; and no matter how risky, how
dangerous, how extravagant the jump, she never loses her
footing ; her play is always correct, her handling sure, her
coolness imperturbable. It was impossible to watch her precipi-
tate herself down the staircase in La Glu without a tremble.
And fifteen years before Yvette Guilbert, it was Réjane who first
had the audacity to sing with a voice that was no voice, making
wit and gesture more than cover the deficiency. In Ma Cousine,
Réjane introduced on the boards of Les Variétés a bit of dancing
such as one sees at the Elysée-Montmartre ; she seized on and
imitated the grotesque effrontery of Mademoiselle Grille-d’Egout,
and her little arched foot flying upwards, brushed a kiss upon the
forehead of her model ; for Réjane the ” grand écart ” may be
fatal, perhaps, but it is neither difficult nor terrifying.
Once more delighting us with Marquise in 1889 ; playing
such child-like grace the Candidate in Brevet Supérieur in 1891 ;
immediately afterwards she took a part in Amoureuse at the Odéon.
The subject is equivocal, the dialogue smutty. Réjane extenuated
nothing ; on the contrary, accentuated things, and yet knew
always how to win her pardon.
Now, it so happened that in 1882, after having personified the
Moulin-Rouge in Les Variétés de Paris, Réjane was married on
the stage, in La Nuit de Noces de P. L. M., to P. L. Moriseau.
On the anniversary day, ten years later, her marriage took place in
good earnest, before a real M. le Maire, and according to all legal
formalities, with M. Porel, a sometime actor, an ex-director of
the Odéon, then director of the Grand-Théâtre, and co-director
to-day of the Vaudeville….. But to return to her art.
Just as the first dressmakers of Paris measure Réjane’s fine
figure for the costumes of her various rôles, so the best writers of
the French Academy now make plays to her measure. They
take the size of her temperament, the height of her talent, the
breadth of her play ; they consider her taste, they flatter her
mood ; they clothe her with the richest draperies she can covet.
Their imagination, their fancy, their cleverness, are all put at her
service. The leaders in this industry have hitherto been Messrs.
Meilhac and Halévy, but now M. Victorien Sardou is ruining
them. Madame Sans-Gêne is certainly, of all the rôles Réjane has
played, that best suited to bring out her manifold resources. It
is not merely that Réjane plays the washerwoman, become a great
lady, without blemish or omission ; she is Madame Sans-Gêne her-
self, with no overloading, nothing forced, nothing caricatured. It
is portraiture ; history.
Many a time has Réjane appeared in cap, cotton frock, and
white apron ; many a time in robes of state, glittering with
diamonds ; she has worn the buskin or the sock, demeaned herself
like a gutter heroine, or dropped the stately curtsey of the high-
born lady. But never, except in Madame Sans-Gêne, has she
been able to bring all her róles into one focus, exhibit her whole
wardrobe, and yet remain one and the same person, compress into
one evening the whole of her life.
The seekers after strange novelties, the fanatics for the
mists of the far north, the vague, the irresolute, the restless,
will not easily forget the Ibsenish mask worn by Réjane in
Nora of The Doll’s House; although most of us, loving Réjane
for herself, probably prefer to this vacillating creation, the
firm drawing, the clear design, the strong, yet supple lines of
Why has Réjane no engagement at the Comédie-Française ?
Whom does one go to applaud on this stage, called the first in
France, and from which Réjane, Sarah Bernhardt, and Coquelin
the elder, all are absent ? I will explain the matter in two words.
The house of Molière, for many years now, has belonged to
Molière no more. Were Molière to come to life again, neither
he nor Réjane would go to eat their hearts out, with inaction and
dulness, beneath the wings of M. Jules Claretie—although he is,
of course, a very estimable gentleman. Were Réjane unmarried,
Molière to-day would enter into partnership with her, because
she is in herself the entire Comédie-Française. I have already
said she is married to M. Porel, director of the Vaudeville, where
she reigns as Queen. I am quite unable to see any reason why
she should soon desert such a fortunate conjugal domicile.
Notwithstanding the dryness and the rapidity of this enumera-
tion of Réjane’s rôles, I hope to have given some general idea of
the marvellous diversity and flexibility of her dramatic spirit and
temperament ; it seems to me that the most searching criticism of
her various creations, would not greatly enhance the accuracy of
the picture. This is why I make no attempt to describe her in
some three or four parts of an entirely different character. Besides,
I should have to draw on hearsay ; and I desire to trust only to
my own eyes, my own heart. Needless to say, I have not
had the good luck to see Madame Réjane in each of her
characterisations since her first appearance. Her youthful air has
never changed ; but I have only had the opportunity of admiring
it during the last few years. I confidently maintain, however,
that she could not have been more charning in 1875 than she is
to-day, with the devil in her body, heaven in her eyes.
Dauphin Meunier. “Madame Réjane.” The Yellow Book, vol. 2, July 1894, pp. 197-206. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/YBV2_meunier_madame/