Original version in French

Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois



EPISTLE*
to Mademoiselle Lavoy, a young actress
who made her début in Paris
on 2 February 1775 in a tragic role,
having never previously performed in theatre.


Translated into English by Alla Jacobs
Followed by the Author's Notes and Explanatory Notes


 

Young pupil of Melpomene
What kind of treacherous hope has brought
You to the stage today, tell me?
Without a mentor or support,
Without experience in this art,
With talent for unique resort,
And goodness in your candid heart,
Here to find happiness you thought.

In this most brilliant of careers
In which your way you strive to find,
Licentiousness helps one to pierce
While modesty is left behind.
Roads that used to lead to glory
Now lead to nothing but remorse
And the nine daughters of Memory
Alas! are turning into whores (1).

Soon, in a clever joke or pun
Some playboy in a witty mood
Will in a jolly way poke fun
At your desire to be good;
Amid the tinsel and haughty crowd,
In circles of the opulent,
They’ll scorn, of their ignorance proud,
Your modesty and your talent,
Uttering blasphemy aloud.

As sometimes an obnoxious fawn,
A light and graceful nymph pursues,
And fearing not the thunder of Zeus,
Offends the God before his throne
And dares his sanctuary abuse;
Thus, to the same brutishness prone,
Those spoilt children of luxury,
Slaves of their own base desire,
Will with their filthy mouths sully
The flower to which they can’t aspire.

But what a miracle! O Fate!
You’re playing Hypermnestra’s role! (2)
Already a delightful state
Is being born in my stunned soul;
Each spectator becomes Lynceus,
All see you through your lover’s eyes;
And the cabal of your enemies
After a long agony dies
And into applause disappears
Before a stage caught by surprise.

For you my fear has proved idle,
Vice no longer is our idol;
A decent man, the Frenchman dares
Uphold the good, and show he cares.
The King has brought us happiness,
His good deeds do us all inspire.
The Queen (3), a generous patroness
Of arts, has adorned her empire
With music, games and merriness.
Her joy is everyone’s desire.
She deigns a smile at your success;
Your purity she does admire:
Minerva honours innocence.
How well she deserves our incense!
The wicked cannot spoil the triumph,
Under her reign, of true talents.


Notes of J.-M. Collot d'Herbois

*This Epistle was sent to Mlle Lavoy in the first days following her début. It has been copied by several persons into their albums but it has only been published once, in the Lettres sur les Spectacles, and in a very distorted form.

(1) Let this not upset anyone, a poetic idea always goes a little bit further than the truth.

(2) Mlle Lavoy enjoyed great success in the role of Hypermnestre, which is one of the most difficult in character. Mr Lemierre paid her a compliment, which adds a great deal to her glory since authors do not always concur with the audience in such matters.

(3) The Queen came to see her play in Zaïre.

 



EXPLANATORY NOTES

 

Melpomene. In Greek mythology, she is the Muse of Tragedy. Mademoiselle Lavoy, being an aspiring tragic actress, is therefore figuratively described as a pupil of Melpomene.

Nine daughters of Memory. In Greek mythology, the Muses were nine. They were daughters of Mnemosyne, or Memory, and Zeus.

Fawn, nymph. A fawn pursuing and attempting to ravish a nymph is a common theme of several Greek myths. In such stories, the nymph invariably appeals to the Gods for help in the critical moment, or takes refuge in the sanctuary of a temple. Violation of the sanctuary was considered an offence to the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, and it took a particularly brutal and impious character to commit it.

Zeus. Supreme deity in the ancient Greek pantheon. Zeus struck down with thunderbolt and killed those who displeased him.

Hypermnestra and Lynceus. According to a Greek myth, Hypermnestra was one of the Danaïds, fifty daughters of Danaüs, who were given in marriage against their own and their father’s will to their fifty cousins. The girls’ father Danaüs ordered his daughters to murder their husbands in their sleep on the wedding night. All of the Danaïds obeyed their father’s order, except Hypermnestra who was moved by pity for her husband, the beautiful Lynceus. She therefore did not murder him but instead woke him up and helped him to flee. She was thrown into prison by her father for her disobedience. Hypermnestra’s sisters were punished for their crime in the afterlife. They must endlessly carry water in jars perforated like sieves trying to a fountain in the underworld. The story served as a canvas for the tragedy Hypermnestra by Antoine-Marin Lemierre, 18th century French dramatist. This tragedy written in 1758 became Lemierre's first stage success.

The King, the Queen. Under the Ancien Régime, the monarchy and the rich nobility of the court were the main sources of sponsorship for the arts. The King and the Queen in particular were equivalent of the modern State funding and distribution of grants to theatres and talented individuals. Collot d’Herbois, as a man of theatre, has a professional interest to encourage the monarchy to invest in this sphere. He therefore tries to use every occasion, in this instance a poem to published in the press, in order to encourage the monarchy to continue to promote the arts by praising the royal couple in that sense. It is important to understand that he makes this effort on behalf of the theatrical fraternity, for the benefit of the whole profession, and in the final analysis, for the good of the nation, given that the theatre plays a major educational role at that time.

Minerva. Roman goddess of wisdom, patroness of arts and sciences. Minerva was born withou a mother, out of the head of Jupiter (Zeus). Unlike most goddesses, she did not get married and did not take lovers but remained chaste.

Zaïre (Zara). A play by François Marie Arouet de Voltaire.


 

J.-M. Collot d'Herbois d'après une miniature d'Isabey

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