version in French
Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois
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.
into English by Alla Jacobs
Followed by the Author's Notes and Explanatory Notes
pupil of Melpomene
In this most
brilliant of careers
a clever joke or pun
an obnoxious fawn,
a miracle! O Fate!
For you my
fear has proved idle,
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.
Let this not upset anyone, a poetic idea always goes a little bit further
than the truth.
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.
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.
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