François-Joseph Talma

Definition

Theater

  • (1763 - 1826) The greatest French tragedian of the Napoleonicera, sometimes considered the finest of all French actors. He madenumerous reforms to the theater of the day, not least by adopting historicallyaccurate costumes and a naturalistic acting style.

    The son of a French dentist who had moved to London to practise,the young Talma organized amateur theater performances for the Frenchcommunity, acquiring a love for the comparatively restrained Englishacting style. He returned to Paris in 1786 to become one of the firststudents at the newly opened Ecole de Declamation, where he trainedunder François-René Molé (1734 - 1802).

    Talma made his professional debut at the Comédie-Françaisein 1787 in Voltaire's Mahomet. He soon became known as a troublemakerbecause of his revolutionary ideas in both politics and the theater.He disliked bombastic acting, elaborate staging, and the use of contemporarycostume. In 1787 he stunned audiences by appearing on stage in a togawith bare arms and legs. Despite his unconventional ideas the strikinglyhandsome and spirited Talma became an immense star. The intensityof his performances led the critic Abbé Geoffroy to write:"His triumph lies in the portrayal of passion worked up to delirium,to insanity."

    In 1789 Talma played the king in Marie-Joseph de Chénier'santi-monarchical Charles IX, provoking demonstrations in thetheater with his passionate performance. He also fought a duel withthe royalist actor Naudet, who had avoided playing the role by feigningillness. The bitter divisions between monarchists and republicansled to the disintegration of the company in 1791.

    The following year, Talma and a number of likeminded actorsfrom the Comédie-Française joined those from the VariétésAmusantes to form a company in the Théâtre de la ruede Richelieu, which they renamed the Théâtre de la Révolution.It soon became France's premiere theater (partly because many royalistactors were in prison at the time). Talma continued to appear in worksby Corneille and Shakespeare, his usual companion in tragedy beingMlle Duchenois (c. 1777 - 1835).

    In 1803 Talma reunited the old Comédie-Françaiseat his theater and Napoleon, a great admirer of the actor, subsequentlyrestored the company's pensions and subsidies. Talma travelled withthe emperor throughout Europe, playing in 1803 in Erfurt, Germany,to an audience that included five crowned heads. He also had an affairwith Napoleon's beautiful sister Pauline, the duchess of Guastalla.After the return of peace, he was a frequent visitor to London, appearingat Covent Garden in 1817.

    Talma gave his last performance in 1826 in Delaville's CharlesVI, dying four months later. His last words were "Voltaire!...comme Voltaire...toujours comme Voltaire..."

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