Friday, 12 June 2009


In the week after M. Panard and M. Fagan opened La Sylphide Supposee at the Théâtre de la Foire, my uncle Adraste took me back to the Théâtre Italien to begin my apprenticeship as an actress. M. Biancoleli's gamble with the farce at the Saint Laurent Fair paid back its principal with interest, for La Sylphide played thirty-four performances in the hôtel Bourgogne and became a staple in the repertoire of la Comedie Italienne. The old theatre was by now a familiar place to me, for Marie-Thérèse and I had become fast friends over the summer and together we explored its many mysterious corners and abandoned rooms, used to store the properties of productions long forgotten, though I never persuaded her ever to return to the stairway that led up to its terrifying tower.

We spent our days learning the four types of battemens, nine types of pas de bourrée, balloté, fouetté, caprioles and entrechats and the lazzi or comic routines of the repertoire. It was exhausting work but we were well fed and grew strong and supple. Our fair instructrice was the long-limbed and beautiful Mademoiselle Belmont who wafted over the stage floor in a cloud of lace and ribbon but could not sing in tune to save her life. She was tormented by jealous lovers and could never pick between them. She cried often. We were taught pantomime by our old Arlequin, M. Vicentini, who went by his stage name of Thomassin. His daughter Sidonie and son Joachim were about my age and studied at my side. Sidonie had an older sister Catine who had debuted earlier in the year. I learned to sing and declaim, and learned to speak Italian passably well, though all the players spoke French well. Our days were long and so I returned at night to my uncle's bookstore too tired to read, except on Sundays when I would take a little volume of poetry with me to browse in the cemetery after mass. Madame Riccoboni and her son returned from Italy the next year and returned to the stage with much celebration. I grew up among those happy, mad, passionate men and women, who wore down my reclusive and morbid solitary nature with their brilliant and implacable friendliness.

As I grew more graceful in movement and confident in conversation, I left my old hiding holes behind the bookshelves and under the tables of my uncle's shop for more companionable pleasures, walking with friends in the parks and joining my uncle in his coffeehouse meetings with other artists and performers. Before long I had a small circle of admirers of my own, solicitous young men whose names I no longer remember, whom I would meet secretly to exchange notes. They were every one a poet, dedicating their souls to Amor and their pens to Aphrodite and Isis in hope of inducting me into eleusinian mysteries. I would have been conquered if I were not already familiar with the sources of those 'original' lyrics, for they plagiarized the English mercilessly and I felt more pity than love for their small talents. But I could smile prettily and dance around them and confound them by replying in Tuscan. I don't believe I broke anyone's heart, because we were only actresses and they were knaves apprenticed to rakes and scoundrels. But we enjoyed our games of glances and chaste caresses and doubtful promises of fidelity, of being rêves poursuivis, pursued dreams, flowers of youth and beauty, the image of every brilliant quality and grace. We sublimated into sylphides ourselves, volatile spirits without substance or gravity, reflecting into the arms and vanities of the youths who loved us. We stole their affections and collected their laughter. We pirouetted mercilessly at the centres of their revolving loyalty, radiant suns that warmed their smiling lips across an abyss of nonchalance and the unapproachable stage. We banished tears and misery to the utter depths of the outside world, that place of streets and markets and flesh and grime, to inhabit the enchanted world beneath the chandeliers, its palaces and breathing gods, its banquets and musicians and everlasting applause. We were actresses of the Italian Comedy and for a magical age we ruled the world.


Osprey said...

Your touch is a sure as ever when it comes to conjuring up a lost time - and all with a few little black symbols. How is it that you pack a lost world into these crude little squiggles?

Ellen McCormick Martens said...

I agree with Osprey; word paintings, the stories are cinematic in my imagination ... thank you.

hba said...

A magical time the echoes through the ages - young men will always orbit around the suns of young ladies, and of them actresses shine the brightest :)