Tuesday, 29 September 2009

La Marquise: beloved of playwrights

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I've been reading quite a bit about the French 17th Century actress Marquise du Parc: she known for having enamoured the three great men in theater at the time: the playwrights Molière, Corneille and Racine.

So who was this beguiling creature?

A marquise she certainly was not, for she was raised on the streets. But her parents — likely her Italian charlatan father — had the gumption to name her Marquise-Thérèse. If they had only lived to see how she had lived up to her name!

It was Molière who spotted her, dancing and performing acrobatics in the market square in Lyons, while her father sold dubious "remedies" and pulled teeth. Over ten years older than the 20-year-old, and in a settled relationship with a member of the troupe, it's said that the Marquise gave Molière the cold shoulder, preferring, instead, jolly du Parc — known as Gros René, "round in every way" — the fat comedian of Molière's troupe.

They were married, and the Marquise du Parc joined the travelling troupe. This was in the spring of 1653, and by the fall she had attracted the attention of yet another writer: the poet Sarazin. It was through Sarazin that the troupe got their first important royal commission, invited to play before the Prince de Conti.

She was known to be beautiful, and from the one portrait we have of her, her features were Romanesque, true to her Italian ancestry. She was said to swing her hips in a mincing way and to have a queenly and imperial bearing. She was natural and unaffected.

She would have a lifetime of courtships by star-struck writers and actors and painters, and although, no doubt, a flirt, she was never unfaithful to her husband. In Rouen, it was the staid, very-married, older (at 52) and distinguished Pierre Corneille suffered a terrible infatuation over her, writing her love poems, begging her to overlook his wrinkles, but reminding her that he could make her famous.

In Paris, with Molìere's troupe, she played comic roles, but in 1665, she was given a role in young Jean-Racine's tragedy, Alexandre. Abruptly (and unethically) Racine took his play to rival theater, the Hôtel de Bourgogne. A year later, likely at Racine's urging, the now-widowed Marquise du Parc left Molière's troupe to join their rivals ... and Racine, who was, by this time, her lover.

Jean Racine was about six years younger than the Marquise, and far, far poorer. Indeed, she was, to him, a glamorous, rich, older actress. They might have even secretly married -- in any case, they weren't to have long together, for the Marquise died eighteen months later.

The Marquise had, for friends, the "witch" Catherine Monvoisin (known as La Voisin) and Voisin's maid-midwife, Manon. They all, no doubt, shared the 17th century passion for fortunetelling and charms. This milieu would have come naturally to the Marquise, who was the daughter of a charlatan. Catherine Monvoisin, however, was a professional in this respect, a favorite with many members of the Court. (For this she would be burned at the stake.)

Shortly after the Marquise became involved with the impoverished, young writer Jean Racine, she was courted by Louis de Rohan, a handsome, young aristocrat (much to the dismay of his family). He wished even to marry her, and it's possible, if not likely, that she got pregnant by him. At some point — perhaps she was dumped by Rohan? — she reunited with Jean Racine. However, no doubt, the "growing" evidence of her infidelity must have been a strain on the couple.

How things went bad is not known. The Marquise died. On her deathbed, she'd apparently asked to see Catherine and Manon (the midwife), but Racine had not allowed them close to her. After her death, the Marquise's step-mother and her step-sisters claimed that Racine had poisoned her and stolen her expensive jewellery. Later, when Catherine Monvoisin was herself arrested, she accused Racine. A warrant was prepared for his arrest, but it was never acted on.

These, then, are two mysteries that will never be solved.
One: what was it about her that so attracted these three playwrights -- the geniuses of the French theater? And Two: how and why did she die?

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