Claire-Josèphe-Hyppolite Léris

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Entry by Jacques Jaubert, 2004

Born in Condé-sur-Escaut the 25th January 1723, Claire was the illegitimate daughter of an under-garment seamstress and a sergeant from the Mailly regiment, François Leris, who died shortly afterwards. Mother and daughter moved to Paris, and lodged not far from the Comédie-Française, where Claire would go to watch the performances. At thirteen years of age, she took her first lessons in the dramatic arts and began her apprenticeship with the Comédiens Italiens. At fifteen she completed her apprenticeship in the provinces.

From Rouen to Le Havre and from Le Havre to Douai, the young actress, who took the stage name Clairon (adding, for reasons unknown, "de Latude"), was rapidly successful on stage and received praise and protection in society Her vivacity and the effect of her voluptuous figure destined her for the roles of soubrettes. Glory, however, was reserved for tragedies in this period. Thanks to one of the gentlemen of the King's Chamber, who was in charge of the Comédie-Française, Mademoiselle Clairon obtained an "ordre de début" and for her trial did not hesitate to choose Phaedra. From the opening night (19 September 1743) her youthful audacity -she was twenty- paid off. Critics admired her deep, low voice and her sensuous air. From then on, for nearly a quarter of a century, she reigned over the theater. Louis XV called her to Fontainebleau, and Voltaire, envious at seeing her lend her talents to his rival Crébillon, seized her for a new performance of Mérope (1744) and numerous other works, including The Chinese Orphan in 1755. In order to add depth to her roles Clairon read historical works, examined ancient drawings and studied anatomy. She learned to alter her voice to resemble the unadorned oratory style of tragedy and chose historical costumes, banishing crinolines. Whilst Clairon's independence and non-conformism provoked scandals and intrigues in both society and backstage, as a friend of the encyclopédistes, she was applauded by Diderot, Marmontel and D'Alembert for the novelty of her acting which broke down conventions. More dogged was her battle for the honor of actors, then excluded from the Church and forbidden to take sacraments. In 1761, Mlle Clairon took her case to the King, sparking a polemic with the memoir Liberté de la France contre le Pouvoir Arbitraire de l'Excommunication (The freedom of France against the Arbitrary Power of Excommunication) commissioned from a lawyer. Imprisoned in 1765 at For-l'Evêque for having stood her ground before the Duke of Richelieu who wished to off-load a debt-ridden, dishonored actor onto the troupe, she refused to go on stage until she and her peers had not been relieved of their excommunication. The King did not give in. Neither did Mlle Clairon. Aged forty-two, in her prime, she abandoned the Comédie-Française.

The eminent Lords to whom she had been close, the d'Aumonts and the Choiseuls, failed to come to her assistance. Ill, she visited first Voltaire at Ferney and then her great love the Count of Vabelle in Provence, who wasted no time in distancing himself from her. Clairon returned to Paris and acted at the salons of Mme Du Deffand and Mme Necker. Weary of playing tragedy to salon audiences, she left France in 1773 to follow the young Margrave of Anspach to Franconia. She was responsible for the toleration of Catholicism in the Germanic principality where she spent thirteen years, apart from a few winters in Paris. She returned to France for good three years before the Revolution and witnessed the rehabilitation of theater workers on 25 December 1789. In her seventies, she conquered the affections of the Baron of Staël and wrote memoirs which included her reflections on the dramatic arts. She died in Paris on 31 January 1803 leaving one adopted daughter, Pauline de la Riandrie.

Mlle Clairon transformed theatrical oratory, reformed costumes and, along with Voltaire and Le Kain, cleared the stage of the seats which had previously obstructed it. At the expense of her career, she defended her peers against the tyranny of the lords and exclusion from the Church. She taught her art, forming Larive and Mlle Raucourt and conceived the idea of an Academy of Declamation. Her struggle for natural acting and her intellectual approach to the dramatic arts influenced Diderot, who praised her technicality in Le Paradoxe sur le Comédien. Others weighed her against the spontaneity of her rival Mlle Dumesnil, criticising Clairon for achieving a natural air through artifice. Emancipated and courageous, she was also a woman of the Enlightenment: close to the philosophes, a teacher and theoretician of her art, she enabled the novel ideas of her time to circulate in the world of the theater and remains in theatrical history the greatest tragedienne of her century.

(traduction de Cathy McClive)


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Catégorie:Historical figures Catégorie:Siefar dictionary

Claire-Josèphe-Hyppolite Léris
Also known as Le Clairon
Birth date 1723
Death 1804
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