Page images

At the Comédie-Française there is no manager. That is the most characteristic thing in its organization. There is a master, indeed; but as that master is the State, and as the State can only make its power felt in certain circumstances and at a certain remove, the Comédie-Française is in many respects a selfgoverning institution. The building belongs, indeed, to the State. The State appoints the Sociétaires, or full members of the company, but only after receiving a recommendation from the committee of the theatre; and although the minister is entitled to disregard that recommendation, he rarely does so. The Comédie is in fact an independent, corporate body. If the State can appoint the members of the company, it cannot dismiss them. If the State owns the building in which the Société lives and works, it does not own the contents of that building. The scenery, the costumes, the library, the works of art, all belong to the Société ; and in theory the Société, if it came to being at loggerheads with the State, could take its stock-in-trade to another theatre, and act there without breaking any contract. The Comédie-Française could leave the Théâtre Français; but it would then have to pay rent, and it would get no subsidy.

I have said that there is no manager; but as the State in the last resort is obviously master, it can, if it insists, get its way. The Minister of Fine Arts, who represents the State in its dealings with the theatre, has more than one resource in order to make his power felt, without having to go so far as to threaten eviction or the withdrawal of the subsidy. He not only nominates the new Sociétaires, but he can improve the position of those who are already appointed. Moreover, he has a representative in the theatre. This is an official called the administrator; and though the powers of the administrator are in many respects limited by the constitution which makes the Sociétaires a self-governing body, there are other respects in which this official can be very annoying to the Sociétaires. The whole thing seems an impossible position; and when things go wrong it becomes so. On the other hand, we have here one of those rare things in severely logical France an organization which is entirely illogical, but which does in practice work.

It works because of the enormous prestige of the ComédieFrançaise, with its two hundred and fifty years of history and tradition. That prestige has made the Comédie-Française an

institution of whose honour the whole of France is jealous: it has made Parisians of almost every class consider the classical matinées of the Comédie-Française on the school half-holiday of Thursday to be an almost essential part of every child's education; it has made the pronunciation of French by a Sociétaire of the Comédie-Française the final standard for the speaking of the language; it has led modern authors to prefer the acceptance of a play by the Comédie-Française to the far larger possibilities of profit from its production at a boulevard theatre. It is that prestige which makes a Sociétaire of the Comédie-Française so proud of his position that he willingly accepts the constant rehearsal by which alone a frequently changing repertory is made possible, and also accepts the life-long engagement which is essential to the cohesion in style of the actors of a large and varied repertory, and the comparatively small financial reward which comes to him for his work.

There are, however, constantly recurring crises when the system threatens to break down. These crises usually come at the beginning of the year, when any vacancies among the Sociétaires are filled, and when the profits for the past year are made up and divided. For the Sociétaires are not only a body of governors, they are also a body of profit-sharers. The method of profitsharing, which dates right back to the origins of the ComédieFrançaise, is to divide the net profits of the year into twenty-four parts. One of these parts is reserved by the State. In theory this part is destined to be applied to such special expenditure as the Minister thinks fit; but in practice it enables him to add, on his own initiative and without following any recommendation from the committee, to the share of this or that Sociétaire. The remaining twenty-three parts are divided among the Sociétaires; but the division is not equal. It is only at the summit of the career of a Sociétaire that he (or she) becomes a "Sociétaire à part entière." Until that time he holds a number of douzièmes, or twelfths of a part entière, a number which begins at three and a-half, when he is first appointed, and is increased during his career according to his success or to the favour shown him by the Minister. It is in this way that the Sociétaire, though he cannot be removed by the Minister when once appointed, continues to depend upon the Minister for his advancement. For this reason the annual appointments are not only of interest to new candidates,

but also to those existing Sociétaires who do not yet hold twelve douzièmes, and among whom any douzièmes available may be distributed. At present the twenty-three parts are divided among thirty-two Sociétaires, and only eleven of these Sociétaires are "á part entière."

It need hardly be said that these thirty-two Sociétaires do not make up the whole company of the Comédie-Française. There is in addition another class of actors, engaged on salary for varying terms and known as Pensionnaires. Hierarchically these Pensionnaires are in a lower class than the Sociétaires, although it occasionally happens that a distinguished actor is engaged. Recently, for example, Le Bargy, having served the twenty years as Sociétaire, which entitled and, indeed, obliged him to retire and take his pension, unless he had been kept at his post as an exceptional measure, was re-engaged for a time as Pensionnaire. Generally it is after having served an engagement as Pensionnaire that an actor or actress is appointed to the Sociétariat.

There are at present forty-two Pensionnaires at the Comédie, in addition to the thirty-two Sociétaires, making a total company of seventy-four actors and actresses. This company, in the opinion of many critics and of most of the Sociétaires, is too large. Naturally, a theatre which plays a varied repertory must have a larger company than one which presents the same play every night; for the leading actors cannot be expected to perform on seven evenings and three afternoons a week in different plays-it is, by the way, one of the undertakings of the Comédie-Française to the State that it gives a performance on every day of the year. Nevertheless, a company of seventy-two is far more than enough to allow for this margin, and the result is that some of its members hardly ever appear at all.

This excess of personnel illustrates a quarrel which has arisen many times in the history of the Comédie-Française between the Sociétaires and the State. It has now broken out once more. The Sociétaires declare that the excess of actors and actresses is not an excess of talent, and that if some members of the company do not appear, it is because they are not competent to do so. Their engagement has been imposed upon the theatre by political influence; it was because they had powerful deputies as friends, and not because they could act, that the Minister of Fine Arts instructed the administrator to add them to the list of Pensionnaires.

For this is one of the matters in which the administrator can defy the will of the Sociétaires. He has the right to engage Pensionnaires. This right is in fact generally exercised after consultation with the committee, which represents the general body of the Sociétaires as a whole; but the administrator can override the committee, whose only means of redress is that it can cancel, at the end of two years, any engagement thus made against its will. Two years ago the case was presented of three ladies to whom the administrator was instructed to give contracts. The Sociétaires protested, and announced that when the two years were up they would cancel the contracts. The date arrived in January. With regard to two of the contracts the committee kept its word. It weakened on the third, and the weakening has been the cause or, at least, the declared cause of the resignation of one of the most talented of the younger Sociétaires, M. Fresnay. In resigning, M. Fresnay himself is breaking a contract; for, as a Sociétaire, he is bound for life, or at least until he is entitled to draw his pension after twenty years' service. If he persists in his resignation, the Comédie-Française will be obliged, on principle, to take legal action for damages against him, although its members have all-or nearly all-declared themselves to be in agreement with the principle on which he bases his resignation.

These resignations and these actions for damages are indeed not new in the history of the Comédie-Française. One such action is indeed pending now against Madame Huguette Duflos, who recently left the Français to appear in a revue on the boulevards. However, most of the resignations of the past, and notably those of Sarah Bernhardt and afterwards of Coquelin, who both had to pay heavy sums in damages, were resignations of artists who had become too big for the Comédie-Française boots. They resigned because artistically each wanted to shine alone, and because financially the success which each had made— largely owing to having belonged to the Comédie-Françaiseheld out the prospect of such enormously greater profits outside, that any damages to be paid were insignificant. M. Fresnay will be the first actor who has resigned because, as he has himself declared, he wants to come back.

The interference of political intrigue in the conduct of the *The theatre is colloquially referred to as "le Français," abbreviated from Théâtre Français and not Comédie-Française.

business of the theatre has always been and still is one of the causes of the constantly recurring disputes which arise within it; and this interference is all the more disturbing when the political power is a minister, who may change every few months, instead of an emperor or a king, who is at least in office until death or revolution. Another and since the war the main cause-is the growing disproportion between what a Sociétaire can earn at the Comédie-Française and what he might earn elsewhere. Indeed, this element even enters into the present quarrel over the engagement of the three superfluous Pensionnaires. If money were not thus uselessly spent on unnecessary salaries, the profits to be divided among the Sociétaires at the end of the year would be larger. The financial element is the main foundation of nearly all the other troubles. There are, indeed, difficulties which arise between actors, who are temperamentally almost as jealous of one another as are generals. Also the organization of a company in which each member has a certain right of precedence in his “emploi," or particular line of acting, is not always an easy matter. It is sometimes difficult to persuade a " chef d'emploi that he must not interpret a particular part to which he has a prescriptive right, but for which the author and ordinary common sense unite in preferring another actor. But these disputes are usually settled within the walls of the theatre, before they lead to a deadlock.

The financial difficulties are not so soon resolved. Attempts are constantly being made to turn them by giving frequent congés or leaves of absence to the Sociétaires, which enable them to accept profitable temporary engagements in the provinces or abroad. For although a member of the Comédie-Française is not allowed to appear in Paris on any other stage than that of the Théâtre Français without a special permission, which is only very rarely granted, and that only for the second National Theatre at the Odéon, there is nothing to prevent his acting outside of Paris if he can be released. These congés have, however, grave artistic disadvantages. Not only do they sometimes result in damage to the reputation of the Comédie-Française abroad, through its name being associated with inferior performances, but the constant absence from Paris of important members of the company makes rehearsals of new plays very difficult.

And yet the financial sacrifice which an actor at the ComédieFrançaise has to make is great, and is far greater now than it was

« PreviousContinue »