The Famous French Actor François Joseph Talma

Talma. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In 1904, a marble statue was erected in Poix-du-Nord by the sculptor Fagel to one of the greatest actors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The actor’s name was François Joseph Talma. Another statue had been sculpted by Pierre Jean David and erected to Talma in 1837 in the vestibule of the Theatre Français opposite the great Enlightenment writer Voltaire.

Talma was born on 15 January 1763 in Paris. His father was a dentist, and, for a time, Talma practiced dentistry, but the stage was too big of a draw for him. It might have begun when he was young, as he had his first theatrical performance when he was eight years old. He played a part in the story of Tamerlane and was to close the play by announcing to Tamerlane the death of his son.

“The child’s story was told in a burst of sorrow, which surprised the audience. However, the curtain fell; and the little actors had dispersed to get rid of their robes, when Talma was missed, and was not found till after some search in a corner, still wrapped in his robe of tragedy, and weeping bitterly at the misfortune of the imperial dynasty.”[1]

Talma in the center dressed in Roman style. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Several years later, Talma’s stage debut happened at the Comédie-Française when he played the role of Seide in Voltaire’s Mahomet on 27 November 1787. Despite being lauded for his debut performance, Talma initially obtained only secondary roles, even though he had all the talent necessary for a leading man: He was striking in appearance and had a powerful, compelling trained voice. In addition, he was forward thinking. In the eighteenth century, no matter the time period being portrayed on stage, actors and actresses appeared in eighteenth century costumes. Talma objected to this and advocated for realism on stage. Thus, while acting in Voltaire’s Brutus, he appeared in a toga and sported a short Roman haircut, which resulted in some people claiming he introduced the male Neoclassical hairstyle.

Talma’s fame was finally sealed when he appeared in a tragedy written by the dramatist Marie-Joseph Blaise de Chénier called Charles the Ninth. Originally Chénier requested the leading tragedian named Étienne Meynier, but better known by his stage name of Saint-Fal, play the part. However, after waiting on Saint-Fal for some time, the actor returned the play with a sneer telling Chénier that young Talma might do well enough in the part. Chénier was angry, but he had seen Talma perform, and, so he went to him and Talma accepted the part. On opening night, all Parisians gazed eagerly upon Talma, and as he had “studied the character with his entire soul, the tragedy triumphed, and the fame of the actor was sealed.”[2]

By the 1820s, Talma was established as “the dominant personality at the Comédie-Française, where he alone could still successfully impose classical tragedy upon the public.”[3] People regularly noted that he was an outstanding actor. For example, the American actor, playwright, and author, John Howard Payne, maintained that although Talma’s face was not particularly remarkable, in action “it was amazing.” As a witness to Talma’s skillful acting abilities, he wrote:

“On a particular occasion we saw him give ample evidence of its power. There was a play attempted at the Français upon the subject of King John. Hubert was given to Talma. The play was in the course of turbulent damnation, when Talma rushed in from the murder of Arthur. He sunk into a chair, his elbows on a table, and his hands covering his face. The uproar was what our friend Dominie Sampson would call ‘prodigious,’ till Talma withdrew his hands and displayed a countenance of such ghastly horror that the tumult changed instantly into shouts of ‘Bravo, Talma!’ which continued until he left the stage, when the damnation recommenced.”[4]

Julie Careau. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1787, shortly after Talma began his career as an actor, he met Julie Careau. She was a French dancer at the Paris Opera who became a courtesan in the years before the French Revolution. The money she earned, she then used to speculated in real estate, primarily in the fashionable Chaussée d’Antin district, and acquired a small fortune.

When Careau became pregnant by Talma, they decided to marry. Unfortunately, Talma insisted on listing his real occupation as an actor. At the time, such an occupation was considered sinful, he could not take communion, and he could find no one willing to marry them. However, eventually the vicar of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette agreed to marry them as long as Talma registered as a bourgeois of Paris rather than as an actor. He agreed and the coupled married on 19 April 1791, and twelve days after their marriage, on 30 April, she gave birth to twin sons, who were baptized the next day as Henri-Castor and Charles-Pollux. Another child was born to the couple in 1794 but died.

While Talma was married to Careau, he began a relationship with an actress named Charlotte Vanhove. She had been married to a musician named Louis-Sébastien Olympe Petit. Despite Talma’s relationship with Vanhove, Careau did not want a divorce, although she finally agreed because she was ruined and humiliated. They divorced on 6 February 1801.

Charlotte Vanhove in her 50s. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Talma and Vanhove continued their intimate relationship and during the early years of the First Consul, Talma made a new friend in Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was an avid theatre goer who went to the theatre weekly and who sometimes saw plays more than once as indicated by the fact that he saw the tragedy Cinna twelve times. Because of his love of the theatre, Napoleon and Talma soon forged a friendship. Part of the reason for their friendship was that Talma taught Napoleon about the theatre and he appeared to be the theatrical personification of the First Consul. Napoleon in turn, supported the actor and brought him into his inner circle. One insight into the relationship between two men follows:

“A vain actor … is the vainest of vain men; and Talma was the vainest of vain actors. It would have been strange if he had not aspired to strut as a Napoleon on the stage when he saw Napoleon figuring as a sort of Talma on a throne. We have rejected the story that the actor coached the Emperor in imperial deportment; but credible witnesses attest that the Emperor instinctively adopted some of the actor’s mannerisms. The Emperor, too, frequently invited the actor to lunch, and kept ministers and generals waiting for their audience while he conversed with him.[5]

On 16 June 1802, Talma and Vanhove married, but a happy marriage was not in their future. Talma was a spendthrift and always in debt. In fact, his debts soon overwhelmed him, and this occurred despite Vahove’s money and Talma’s friendly relationship with Napoleon. Talma also took a mistress soon after his marriage to Vanhove. Her name was Madame Bazire, and they eventually had three children. Vanhove had requested a divorce from Talma soon after his affair with Madame Bazire began. Talma refused, and although she could not obtain a divorce, Vanhove was able to recoup much of her monetary losses from him. She then left him and went to live in a small hotel where she embraced the arts and wrote numerous books.

Talma in a role. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Talma in the meantime had numerous women who were attracted to him. Supposedly, one of them was Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s pleasure-loving sister. Pauline and Talma met in the summer of 1812, and the attraction lasted for a while until a Major Duchand took Talma’s place in Pauline’s heart. When their correspondence ended, it didn’t seem that he was too heartbroken over Pauline as Madame Bazire seemed to comfort him just fine.

Women were not the only ones interested in Talma. He had warm memories of Alexandre Dumas’s father, who was a general in Revolutionary France and the highest-ranking man of African descent ever in a European army. As Dumas’s father had died and because the younger Dumas thought he had found his calling in Shakespearian plays, Talma, who was a leading actor at the time, gave the young mam free tickets to a theatre performance. Dumas was transformed by what he saw at the theatre, and thereafter his writings turned into such memorable stories as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Talma was amiable, friendly, and eager to please others. He was also described as generous and more likely to squander than horde, which was apparent by the debts that he acquired. Although he might remember his lines on stage, he suffered from habitual forgetfulness and regularly forgot people’s names. He also frequently held conversations with strangers on the street as if they were old acquaintances. As to some of his other habits and characteristics, a newspaper once reported:

“He rose early, and wrote or read until ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, at which time he received the visits of his theatrical colleagues, the litterateurs of Paris, and foreign writers who were desirous, during their stay in Paris, to see the ‘great actor.’ … It is a fact in history that during the convulsions in the south of France, when the bigotry and intolerance of the Priesthood worked upon an ignorant population to such an extent that the life of a Protestant was never in safety. Young, the author of Night Thoughts, lost a beloved daughter, to whose remains the Priesthood denied internment. The wretched father was compelled to bury the corpse of his child at night and unaided, in the garden … Talma, who was playing in the neighbourhood, visited the spot, shed tears over the grave … and, at a considerable expense, erected near it a tomb, bearing the inscription which at once recorded the fact and shamed the perpetrators.”[6]

Talma in the role of Titus in the play Brutus. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Prior to Talma’s death there were several press reports about his illness, and The Courrier de Paris published several lengthy articles. There were also reports about the clergy visiting him. There was also a newspaper article stating that the Archbishop of Paris, accompanied by a Grand Vicar, had visited him several times in the hope of reconciling him to the church, but, unfortunately, for them, Talma refused to see them. In addition, a report on the day of his death stated:

“It was not until five o’clock yesterday morning that Talma began to be convinced, by the extreme prostration of all his faculties, and the film that spread itself before his eyes, that his dissolution was approaching. He could no longer distinguish the person who surrounded him. He had two notaries called, in whose presence he confirmed the dispositions of his will, which had been made three weeks before. After this exertion, his remaining strength scarcely sufficed to mutter, in an almost extinguished voice, the single word, Adieu!”[7]

When Talma died on 19 October 1826, and papers declared, “the Death of Talma, the great Tragic Hero of the French stage,”[8] “Extraordinary Actor Dead,” and “Talma is gone!!!” Even the English were distraught, and English newspapers compared him to the actor who achieved fame on the stage of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane named John Kemble. They stated that Talma was to the French what Kemble was to the English theatre.

Talma’s own thoughts on death, were similarly reflected in what he said about acting:

“The actor, putting himself faithfully in the place of the personage he represents, should perfect the idea of the author of whom he is the interpreter. One of the greatest misfortunes of our art is, that it dies, as it were, with us, while all other artists leave behind them monuments of their works. The talent of the actor, when he has quitted this stage, exists no longer, except in the recollection of those who have seen and heard him.”[9]

The day after Talma’s death, on Friday, all theatres were closed until after his funeral. An autopsy was also performed to determine the cause of his demise. Surgeons found that there “was a complete obliteration for nearly two inches in length, of the large intestine, at about six inches from its termination. In other parts of the bowels there was a secondary inflammation observable.”[10]

On Saturday, his funeral took place at nine o’clock in the morning. Friends, relatives, and men of letters gathered and followed as his body was conveyed from his house to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. According to newspapers, attendees at the graveside ranged in number from 15,000 to 80,000 persons. He was interred as requested without a burial service, although there were a few orations, primarily panegyrics, given over his body that lauded his amazing theatrical genius.

References:

  • [1] Bell’s Weekly Messenger, Talma,” 30 0ctober 1826, 5
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] André Maurois, Titans: A Three Generation Biography of the Dumas. (New York: Harper & brothers), 50
  • [4] Gabriel Harrison, John Howard Payne, Dramatist, Poet, Actor …: His Life and Writings (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1885), 383
  • [5] Francis Henry Gribble, Romances of the French theatre (D. Appleton, 1913), 267
  • [6] The Examiner, “Talma,” October 29, 1826, 7
  • [7] Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 5
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] François Joseph Talma, Talma on the Actor’s Art (New York: Roorbach, 1883), 5
  • [10] Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 5

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