Monday, March 29, 2021

Mademoiselle Clairon

The 18th-century French actress Hippolite Clairon was famous for her portrayal of classic heroines, but she also inspired contemporary dramatists to write parts specifically for her.

According to the biographer Frederick Hawkins, "Many tragedies were written in the hope that she might appear in them, and nearly all of those in which she did appear received at least a temporary vitality from her disciplined art and intensity of passion."

Voltaire was a particular admirer of hers, and he penned the role of Idamé in L'Orphelin de la Chine expressly for Clairon. That play was based on a Yuan-era zaju play from China, but ended up being re-adapted by dramatists all over Europe, including Arthur Murphy.

The admiration between Voltaire and Clairon was mutual. Hawkins claims that in Clairon's eyes Voltaire "had always been a sort of demi-god. On his side, the aged philosopher was quite prepared to view her as a demi-goddess, especially after witnessing in his little theatre the superb combination of art and truth which her acting had presented."

Clairon began her career at the Comédie Italienne, debuting in a small role in a play by Marivaux. She became famous, however, at the Comédie-Française, playing many of the parts exalted by the neoclassical French stage, including Racine's Phèdre.

She survived the French Revolution, but like many artists who were associated with the old regime, she fell on hard times after the change in government. Her economic need became a boon to historians, and she published her memoirs in 1799, quickly selling out the first edition.