The French Actress Mademoiselle La Clairon

The French actress Mademoiselle Clairon, better known as La Clairon, was the stage name of a woman whose real name was Clair Josèphe Hippolyte Leris (sometimes spelled Lerys). She was born about a month and a half early on 25 January 1723 to François Joseph Desiré Leris and Marie Claire Scanapiecq. Her father was a sergeant in the Régiment de Mailly and her mother an ordinary working woman.

The French Actress Mademoiselle La Clairon: Mademoiselle Clairon, Author's Collection

Mademoiselle Clairon. Author’s collection.

When La Clairon was twelve, she and her mother left Condé-sur-l’Escaut, Hainaut, where La Clarion was born. They settled in Paris. One person described La Clairon’s life with her mother in Paris, stating:

“The future queen of tragedy was at this time … a delicate sensitive child, with a confirmed dislike to needlework, in consequence of which she spent the greater part of her days ‘trembling beneath the blow and threats of her mother,’ whom she describes, rather undutifully, as ‘a violent, ignorant, and superstitious woman.'”[1]

Fate stepped in after neighbors complained about the mistreatment of La Clarion by her mother, and, so, instead of beating her daughter, her mother began locking her up in a room that overlooked the street. Opposite this room was the famous Comédie-Française, and one day La Clairon’s saw from afar a performance by Mademoiselle Dangeville. La Clairon soon began to imitate her and then began to give performances to visitors. Visitors were so impressed by her skill, they thought she had been taught by masters.

Mademoiselle Dangeville, Courtesy of British Museum

Mademoiselle Dangeville. Courtesy of British Museum.

La Clairon eventually revealed her secret to a kind neighbor, and she in turn took her to a live theatrical performance. The next morning, to everyone’s amazement,

“[La Clairon, repeated] with scarcely a mistake, a hundred verses of the tragedy, and two-thirds of the after-piece … She lisped like Grandval, she stammered like Poisson, she mimicked to a nicety the coquettish airs of Mlle. Dangeville, and the cold and dignified manner of Mlle. Balicourt.”[2]

Those who saw La Clarion’s performance were amazed, and their praises fell so thick and fast upon her, she boldly declared her intentions to be a star of stage and theatre. However, her mother was not impressed and did everything to break her daughter’s resolve to be an actress. For two months, her mother subjected her “to a course of such rigorous discipline … that Claire’s health became seriously affected.”[3] Still La Clairon would not give up, and, finally, her resolve won out and a neighbor presented her to a prominent actor.

The actor was so impressed, he told others, and, shortly thereafter, on 8 January 1736, La Clairon made her stage debut at the Comédie Italienne in Pierre de Marivaux’s play, L’Île des Esclaves. Her debut was a small role, but more roles followed. Soon she appeared in “Rouen, the nursery of the Paris theatres.”[4] There she danced ballet, sang in comedic operas, and acted in parts suitable for her age. Her hard work paid off and she soon became a favorite. At the age of sixteen, Rouen’s pronounced her “to be the most charming soubrette the Norman capital had ever possessed.”[5]

Mademoiselle Clairon as Celebrated Actress of the Comedie-Française, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Mademoiselle Clairon as celebrated actress of the Comédie-Française. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

After Rouen, La Clairon appeared in Lille, then Ghent, and finally Dunkirque. It was reported that while appearing in those cities, all sorts of scenes, adventures, and follies befell her. Because of all these scenes, adventures, and follies it was claimed a dozen volumes could have been written about her. However, this was also time when she honed her acting skills, and it was those skills that resulted in her receiving requests to appear in Paris.

La Clairon’s debut in Paris occurred at the Opera in March of 1743. She did not want to just appear in comedic roles as she thought herself a great tragedienne. She thus acquired a serious role at the Comédie-Française. Her peers were “convinced that she would be hissed on her debut.”[6] However, their opinions did not deter her. She was anxious that her performance be top-notch, but according to one source, she refused to rehearse. Thus, when the day came and the curtain rose:

“All Paris flocked … to the Comédie-Française. in the expectation of having a good laugh … but scarcely had she given utterance to the first few lines of her part when the entire audience rose enthusiastically; it was no longer little Clairon … it was Phedre herself, in all her sovereign splendor, in all the majesty of passion … From this time forth Mademoiselle Clairon was surnamed Melpomene, and became the idol of the Parisians.”[7]

Her reputation was solidified, and she was considered the heroine of the Comédie-Française. But her star was not just brilliantly shining in France, as indicated by the following remarks:

“Foreign theatres summoned her by the voice of kings and queens. Garrick came to Paris expressly to see her … So delighted was he with the talent of the actress, that he caused a design to be engraved representing Mademoiselle Clairon arrayed in all the attributes of tragedy, her arm resting upon a pile of books on which might be read the names of Corneille, Racine, Crebillon, and Voltaire.”[8]

Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, the well-known painter of the Queen Marie Antoinette and the princesse de Lamballe, once described La Clairon stating:

“I had pictured to myself that she was very tall; but on the contrary she was short and very thin, and held her head very erect, which gave her a dignified air. I never heard anyone speak with so much emphasis, for she retained her tragic tone and airs … but she struck me as being clever and well informed.”[9]

The Princesse de Lamballe in 1782 by Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Louis Petit de Bachaumont, a French writer who supposedly wrote the gossipy Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la République des Lettres, is said to have noted of La Clairon:

“[T]he mere announcement of her name is sufficient to draw a crowded house; so soon as she appears the applause is enthusiastic; her acting is a finished work of art.”[10]

La Clarion also soon discovered she had many male admirers. One summer’s day when her mother was away, an admirer bribed a servant and appeared in her room. At the time, she was busy studying, and she was surprised when the door burst open and a lovelorn poet appeared. “Casting himself, on his knees before her, besought her, in impassioned accents, to reciprocate the flame which was devouring him.”[11] Her response was a cry for assistance, and “with brooms and shovels drove the wretch into the street.”[12] Because of La Clairon’s ignominious treatment of him, her ardent admirer got even by writing a cruel pamphlet against her “and the sobriquet ‘Frétillon’ stuck to her for life.”[13]

Another fan of La Clairon’s was Voltaire, who also happened to be the first person Madame Tussaud created a wax portrait of on her own. Voltaire appreciated La Clairon’s talents as much as she appreciated him. According to one newspaper, her first visit with the great Enlightenment writer proved to be rather dramatic. Supposedly, she threw herself at his feet, exclaiming, “Oh, my protecting God!”[14] Voltaire was so astonished at her actions, he too fell on his knees before her, “and said, gravely, ‘Now that we are both on a level, how are you?'”[15]

As queen of the stage, La Clairon was said to rule with “despotic sway” that once focused on Élie Catherine Fréron, a French literary critic whose career fixated on countering the influence of the French Enlightenment in a movement now called Counter-Enlightenment. Fréron apparently disliked La Clairon because of her preference for Voltaire and he decided to seek satisfaction with his pen. He wrote about an actress named Mademoiselle Doligny, whom he favorable contrasted by describing Le Clairon as “an abandoned woman, destitute alike of heart, soul, or intellect.”[16] When La Clairon read his assessment, she was so filled with rage, she demanded immediate justice from the king. In early 1765, Louis XVI complied and signed a warrant to commit Fréron, who was arrested. Two days later the following appeared in print:

“The quarrel between Fréron and Mademoiselle Clairon … makes a great noise both at court and in the city … Glorious times these, truly, when a journalist, a man, moreover, possessed of more than one title to respect, should be threatened with imprisonment for expressing an opinion about an actress, or, what was an alternative much more humiliating, that he should owe his pardon to the actress whom he had offended … Strange as it may appear, this ridiculous affair was not only debated before the king, but was carried to the feet of the queen also. Marie Leczinska, who loved to show clemency, ordered that Fréron should be pardoned, but … In the end, however, Fréron was saved from imprisonment by a combination of three circumstances, viz, the gout … the clemency of Marie Leczinska but chiefly because … Mademoiselle Clairon herself was sent to For l’Evêque [by order of the king]!”[17]

Élie Catherine Fréron, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Élie Catherine Fréron. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At For l’Evêque Prison there was no cell but rather an apartment magnificently furnished. One journal provided the details of her punishment and maintained that she turned it into a triumph:

“[A] crowd of carriages besieges the gates of the prison; she gives, we understand, divine suppers; in short, is leading, at For l’Evêque, a life of princely luxury.”[18]

La Clairon Led to the For l'Evêque Prison, Courtesy of Wikipedia

La Clairon Being Taken to the For l’Evêque Prison. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After a week of feasting and partying, La Clairon returned home and spent thirteen more days as a prisoner at her home. Shortly thereafter, the king requested her reappearance on stage. As she was unhappy, she replied:

“It is not … the king who ought to solicit my re-appearance at a theatre he never visits; it is the public; I await the orders of the public.”[19]

Unfortunately, the fickle public was now against her, and, so, one day, she packed her bags, called for her carriage, and left Paris. Her days of triumph on stage were essentially over. The girl who had Paris fall at her feet, now found herself suffering extreme poverty.

“Mademoiselle Clairon, who had lived as a queen and sultana, who never deigned to hold a needle in her fingers, and had seen all the grand seigneurs of an entire generation humbly kissing the dust at her feet, found herself, at the age of sixty-five, reduced to the necessity of mending, with her own hands, her ragged dresses, of making her own bed, and sweeping out every morning the dust of her poor and solitary chamber.”[20]

It was around this same time that age caught up with her. Someone described her as a “withered old woman, feeble and sickly, but still retaining something of her majestic manner.”[21] In 1799, La Clairon wrote her Mémoire, which was published in 1882 and was a fanciful recounting of her life. A few years later, on 29 January 1803 in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, she died at the ripe old age of eighty. She was buried at the Vaugirard Cemetery, but in 1837, her remains were transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

References:

  • [1] Williams, Hugh Noel, Queens of the French Stage, 1905, p. 277.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 280.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 281.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 280.
  • [6] Eclectic Magazine, Volume 30, 1853, p. 376.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 377.
  • [9] Vigée-Lebrun, Louise-Elisabeth, Souvenirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun, 1879, p. 73.
  • [10] Eclectic magazine, p. 377.
  • [11] Williams, Hugh Noel, p. 284.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Sporting Magazine, Volume 36, 1810, p. 189.
  • [15] Ibid. 
  • [16] Eclectic Magazine, p. 378.
  • [17] Ibid, p. 378-379.
  • [18] Ibid., p. 379.
  • [19] Ibid., p. 380.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Williams, Hugh Noel, p. 350-351.

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