Marie Desmares

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Entry by Alain Couprie, 2004

Marie Desmares was born in Rouen, France, on February 18, 1642. Both legend and mystery surround her origins. Until early 20th c, she was thought to be the granddaughter of a president of the Normandy parlement; but as he thought she was beneath his son, he disinherited him and his descendants; Marie, in order to survive, was thus forced to go on stage from a very early age. The reality is that she belonged to the Rouen lower-middle class. Guillaume, her father, was a tax collector for the royal domain, and her mother, Marie Marc, was from a family of bailiffs. Nevertheless, there is something strange in her baptismal certificate: the mention spuria, i.e. illegitimate, was obviously noted but then crossed out. Her education was limited to basic apprenticeships. Her father probably died in 1652, victim of the plague. In 1657, Marie, 15 years old, married the country actor Pierre Fleurye, from Harfleur, who died in 1665. Now a young widow, she joined the troop of François Serdin that criss-crossed Normandy where she met Charles Chevillet, sieur de Champmeslé, eight months her junior, also an actor and son of a master-silk cutter from rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. She married him on Jan. 3, 1666. The next two years were those of any itinerant troop. The plague that ravaged Normandy during the summer of 1668 brought about Serdin's bankruptcy. The Champmeslés then went to Paris and the Marais townhouse where Marie took her first steps in La Fête de Vénus by Abbé Boyer. In 1670, the couple moved on to the Bourgogne theatre. Marie became the darling of the company and Racine's mistress. From Berenice to Phedra she created all the great Racinian tragic heroines. Her talent and success were unanimously acknowledged in other playwrights' plays, comedies and tragedies alike. No matter what the play, she drew such crowds that "more bad theatre was produced than all the counterfeit money of the whole kingdom altogether". The flattering quote is supposedly Molière's. In 1679, she moved to the Guénégaud theatre, and the following year, thanks to her fame, she became the first and most famous pensionnaire (contract player) of the Comédie-Française where she maintained her unquestioned sovereignty. "La Champmeslé" died most likely from cancer on Thursday, May 15, 1698, in Auteuil, at the home of her friend Jean Favier, dancer at the Opera. To receive a Catholic burial, she had to give up her profession, her last and most difficult role. She was buried two days later in the Parisian cemetery of Saint Sulpice.

"La Champmeslé" was clearly the greatest tragic heroine of the 17th century. Louis Racine, who never hesitated to say something mean or inaccurate to add to the "golden legend" of his father, called her in his memoirs a "school girl" who had to be taught everything. While she was trained on the job, like all the actors and actresses of her generation, she also had the benefit of the highly knowledgeable La Rocque's advice when he was at the Hôtel du Marais, that of the great Floridor at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and of course, Racine's, who was, as is well-known, full of wit and a master at words. Endowed with an exceptional voice that spanned a whole octave according to Lully, she constantly overwhelmed Court and City with her emotion and pathos. After her break up with Racine in 1677 and his withdrawal from the theatre in 1679, she continued to bring to life her former lover's tragedies as often as possible.

Her fame as an actress matched her reputation as a sexy libertine. A friend of Fontaine and close for a time to Ninon de Lenclos, she had open affairs that Charles was indifferent to, he who had a notorious reputation of debauchery. The theater was this childless couple's common passion and unifying link.

The interpretation of tragedy was changing at the end of the 17th and during the 18th century and this progressively effaced the memory of the actress. Voltaire, prejudiced against her, jeered at her histrionics. The 19th century made her out to be a character of "anecdotal comedy": in 1837, Ancelot and Paul du Fort produced a Champmeslé romanticizing her affair with Racine while Hippolyte Lucas went for vaudeville in his comedy La Champmeslé. Her name though will forever remain associated with Racine's as his dazzling interpreter.

(translated by Sheila Malovany-Chevalier)

Selected bibliography

- Couprie, Alain. La Champmeslé. Paris, Fayard, 2003.

Selected bibliography of images

- Anonyme. Portrait de la Champmeslé (huile sur toile), XVIIe siècle?, Paris. Musée de la Comédie-Française.


- «La Champmeslé est quelque chose de si extraordinaire qu'en votre vie vous n'avez rien vu de pareil. C'est la comédienne que l'on cherche et non pas la comédie; j'ai vu Ariane [de Thomas Corneille] pour elle seule. Cette comédie est fade, les comédiens sont maudits, mais quand la Champmeslé arrive, on entend un murmure et l'on pleure de désespoir.» (Mme de Sévigné, Correspondance, lettre du 1er avril 1672, éd. Roger Duchêne, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972, t.2, p.469).
- «Jamais Iphigénie en Aulide immolée
N'a coûté tant de pleurs à la Grèce assemblée
Que dans l'heureux spectacle à nos yeux étalé
En a fait sous son nom verser la Champmeslé.»
(Boileau, Epître VII [rédigée en 1677, publiée en 1683], in Antoine Adam (éd.), OEuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1966, p.127).
- «Les principaux débauchés ont été ou sont encore: le sieur Baron [...]; la femme de Molière[...]; le sieur de Champmeslé et sa femme, séparés l'un de l'autre par leurs débauches. Il y aurait de quoi faire un gros livre de leurs aventures amoureuses.» (Jean-Noël du Tralage, Recueil [vers 1695], in Raymond Picard, La Carrière de Jean Racine, Paris, Gallimard, 1961, p.270).
- «Cette femme n'était point née actrice. La nature ne lui avait donné que la beauté, la voix et la mémoire. [...] [Mon père] lui faisait d'abord comprendre les vers qu'elle avait à dire, lui montrait les gestes et lui dictait les tons, que même il notait. L'écolière, fidèle à ses leçons, quoique actrice par art, sur le théâtre paraissait inspirée par la nature.» (Louis Racine, Mémoires contenant quelques particularités sur la vie et les ouvrages de Jean Racine [XVIIIe s.], in Jean Racine, OEuvres complètes, éd. Raymond Picard, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1969, t.I, p.40-41).

Marie Desmares
Spouses Pierre Fleurye
Charles Chevillet, sieur de Champmeslé
Also known as La Champmeslé
Madame Chevillet
Birth date 1642
Death 1698
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire CESAR - Calendrier électronique des spectacles sous l'Ancien Régime et sous la Révolution
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