Napoleon’s Favorite Actor François-Joseph Talma

Napoleon Bonaparte. Author’s Collection.

Napoleon was an avid theatre goer who went to the theatre weekly and sometimes saw plays more than once. For instance, he saw the tragedy Cinna twelve times. He also had a favorite actor, François-Joseph Talma. The two men met while Napoleon was a general and forged a friendship. However, initially, their friendship consisted of Napoleon, Talma, and a third gentleman sharing ghost stories and tales about old castles.

Over time Napoleon and Talma’s relationship became closer. Part of the reason their friendship developed was that Talma appeared to be the theatrical personification of Napoleon and he taught Napoleon about the theatre. Napoleon in turn, supported Talma and brought him into his inner circle after he became First Consul. One insight into the relationship between Talma and Napoleon follows:

Caricature of Talma Giving a Lesson to Napoleon. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

“It would have been strange if he [Talma] 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.[1]

Talma and Napoleon were reputedly so close that they saw each other frequently, and when they did, they frequently discussed Napoleon’s favorite topic, tragedy. Tragedy was something that Napoleon loved, whereas the merits of comedy, he always disputed. In fact, he once said that if you preferred comedy it was because you were old, and if you loved tragedy you were “jeune” (young). On the subject of tragedy, “the actor frequently differed with the emperor; while the emperor as frequently dictated to the actor, greeting him with ‘Eh bien! Talma vous n’avez pas seu de vos moyens hier au soir.’”[2]

After the Coup of 18 Brumaire that brought Napoleon to power as First Consul, Talma feared that he might not see Napoleon as regularly as he had before. That proved otherwise as Napoleon attended everything that Talma appeared in, and, as Emperor, Napoleon made sure Talma visited him regularly, usually at breakfast time.

Although the two men were friends, Napoleon often evaluated Talma’s performances. Moreover, he was not above criticizing Talma’s acting. Once after disapproving of how Talma played Nero, Napoleon supposedly said:

“Ï should like to find in your play the struggle of a bad nature with a good education. I should like you also to make fewer gestures … I cannot praise sufficiently the simple and natural forms to which you have brought back tragedy. When persons of dignity, whether they owe their elevation to birth or to talent, are agitated by passions or pursue grave thoughts, they certainly speak softly; but their language ought to be true and natural.”[3]

Another time Napoleon critiqued Talma saying:

“I am surrounded by disappointed ambition, ardent rivalry, unexpected catastrophes, griefs hidden at the bottom of the heart, afflictions which burst forth outwardly. All this undoubtedly is tragedy. My palace is full of tragedy. I am assuredly myself the most tragic personage of the age. Well! Do you see us throw our arms aloft, study our gestures, assume attitudes, affect airs of grandeur? Do you hear us exclaim? No. We speak naturally; as every body speaks who is inspired by an interest in passion. And so, before me, have behaved the persons who have occupied the stage of the world, and also performed tragedies on the throne. These are examples to contemplate.”[4]

Talma. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In 1808, the Congress of Erfurt was held to reaffirm the alliance that had been previously concluded with the Treaties of Tilsit. The Congress occurred between Napoleon and the Russian Emperor, Alexander I. It happened in a small town in central Germany called Erfurt. Napoleon ordered Talma and his troupe to go with him telling Talma that “he was to play before ‘un parterre de rois.’”[5] While there, between 28 September and 13 October, Talma had roles in a series of plays that began with “Bajazet” and ended with “Cinna.” During Talma’s time in Erfurt, many people also came to see him perform. The famous writer, statesman, and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one who witnessed his performance. The day after seeing the play, Goethe met with Napoleon, and although he lauded the talent of the actors, he told Napoleon, the play he had seen was not one his favorites and stated that he would like to see another. When Talma appeared, Napoleon introduced the two men, and then purportedly the following ensued:

“’Well, Talma,’ said Napoleon; ‘what play are we to have this evening?’ ‘Your Majesty has only to command,’ replied the great tragedian. ‘Cinna,’ ‘Andromache,’ ‘Britannicus,’ and ‘Zaire,’ are studied and rehearsed.’ ‘Oh, none of those,’ hastily observed the Emperor; ‘I will have the Death of Caesar to-night.’ … ‘Herr Goethe,’ continued … [Napoleon] … ‘I am sorry that Talma’s acting does not please you; nevertheless, I cannot deny myself the pleasure of introducing him to you.’ The evident embarrassment of both poet and actor, as they mutually bowed to each other, drew an involuntary smile from the Emperor.

‘Herr von Goethe’s opinion, … has great weight among his countrymen. They will, doubtless, be materially influenced by his judgment of Talma’s talent.’ ‘Permit me to observe, Sire,’ said the actor, evidently piqued at the thought of any doubt being cast on the stability of his high reputation, ‘that I perform before French audiences, and that the different of national taste—’ ‘Is, doubtless, considerable,’ interrupted Napoleon; ‘that is obvious to every one. … Goethe now seized the opportunity of throwing in a few words … ‘Your Majesty … has been pleased to place me in some degree of embarrassment. I beg to assure you that I fully appreciate and highly admire M. Talma’s incomparable talent.’ The actor’s countenance brightened up, and Napoleon smiled. ‘Ah! Herr Goethe, you have spoiled my jest,’ said he; ‘I am sorry for it. Did you observe gentlemen … how pale Talma turned. I was rejoicing in the expectation of an improvised tragic scene.’”[6]

Talma in a role. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

That night, Napoleon was completely absorbed in the play, Death of Caesar, and Talma’s role. In fact, Napoleon knew the play by heart and knew it so well that if Talma or any actor made the tiniest error, Napoleon was aware. When Talma delivered the line, “The friendship of a great man is a gift of heaven,” Emperor Alexander rose from his seat and bowed to Napoleon. Napoleon then took Alexander’s hand saying, “These words give expression to my feelings.”[7] Supposedly, after this exchange, Talma forgot anyone was watching him and immersed himself in his part to the point that he carried his audience away with him. His triumph in the last scene was claimed to be so glorious and the audience’s applause so magnificent that “he was crowned by Goethe and Germans … as loud and enthusiastic as any he had ever received at the Theatre Français,”[8] which, of course, also greatly pleased Napoleon.

In 1814, Napoleon fell from power and was sent to the island of Elba. He left Elba in February of 1815 and enjoyed a hundred days where he thought he might once again be Emperor and in control of France. However, after his loss at Waterloo, he found the French people and the legislature had turned against, and he abdicated on 22 June 1815. Three days later, he left Paris and settled at Josephine’s former palace in Malmaison as Coalition forces swept through France intent on restoring Louis XVIII to the French throne. While at Malmaison, Talma went to see Napoleon one last time.

“’Talma! the Emperor exclaimed, in an almost cheerful tone, ‘you are here?’ And he stretched out his hand to the man who had just entered. ‘Yes, Talma, sire,’ the visitor replied, pressing the Emperor’s hand to his lips. ‘I have come here in this disguise to bid your Majesty good-bye.’ ‘It is good-bye for ever, Talma!’ replied Napoleon; ‘I shall never again admire you in your great characters. I am about to set out on a journey which I shall never return. You will be an emperor for many evenings yet, but it is different with me! My part is played out, Talma!’ ‘No Sire. You will never cease to be the Emperor!’ Talma replied … ‘although you possess no crown and no purple.’ ‘And no people,’ the Emperor added … ‘I have no people, Talma! They have all forsaken me, they have all betrayed me.’”[9]

Napoleon’s Mother, Letizia Ramolino. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Supposedly, at that point, Talma reminded Napoleon of his great success at Erfurt, the friendship he had forged with Alexander I, and the moment the two great men had shared. Talma and Napoleon talked for a few minutes more, until the carriage arrived to take Napoleon away. It was then that a door opened, and Napoleon’s mother, Maria Letizia Ramolino, a tall, majestic, and grey-haired woman entered the room. One newspaper described the scene as a tragedy, the kind of tragedy that Napoleon would have loved to see performed on stage:

“Talma in breathless excitement, stood immovable and congratulated himself on being permitted to witness so interesting a scene. Napoleon’s mother passed Talma without noticing him. She saw nothing but her son, who stood in the middle of the room, fixing his gaze with an indiscribable expression on his parent. They stood opposite each other — mother and son. The Emperor’s countenance remained unchanged … For a while they stood opposite each other without speaking. Two large tears rolled down [Letizia’s] cheek. Talma, who was standing in the background, wept bitterly, but Napoleon showed no sign of emotion. At length [Letizia] raised both her hands, and stretching them out to the Emperor, said, with a clear and sonorous voice — ‘Farewell, my son!’ Napoleon pressed her hands in his, and looked long and affectionately at her face. Then with a voice as firm as his mother’s … he exclaimed, ‘Farewell, my mother!!’”[10]

References:

  • [1] Francis Henry Gribble, Romances of the French theatre (D. Appleton, 1913), p. 267.
  • [2] William Oxberry, The Theatrical Banquet, or the Actor’s Budget; consisting of monologues, prologues, addresses, tales … together with Collin’s Evening Brush, and a … collection of theatrical anecdotes, comic songs, etc (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1820), p. 184.
  • [3] The Nation v. 79 (New York: J.H. Richards, 1904), p. 293.
  • [4] Belfast Commercial Chronicle, “Literature,” November 15, 1826, p. 4.
  • [5] p. 293.
  • [6] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, “Napoleon at Erfurt,” December 25, 1841, p. 4.
  • [7] ibid.
  • [8] ibid.
  • [9] Falkirk Herald, “Incidents of Napoleon Downfal [sic],” March 6, 1862, p. 6.
  • [10] ibid.

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