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Champmesle, Marie (c. 1642–1698)

Champmesle, Marie (c. 1642–1698)

French actress. Name variations: Marie Desmares; Marie de Champmeslé. Born Marie Desmares in Rouen, France, in 1642 (some sources cite 1641 or 1644; died in Auteuil, France, on May 15, 1698; sister of actor Nicolas Desmares (c. 1650–1714); aunt of actress Christine Desmares (1682–1753); married Charles Chevillet (1645–1701), who called himself sieur de Champmeslé or lord of Champmeslé, in 1666; no children.

Little is known about Marie Champmesle's family or childhood, except that she was born in Rouen in 1642. Because she became an actress instead of marrying young, the norm for aristocratic women, it is unlikely that Marie came from a wealthy family. It seems more likely that her roots were in the lower bourgeoisie; very few women pursued independent careers if they came from well-to-do families. Marie began acting in the early 1660s, making her first appearance in Rouen with Charles Chevillet, known as the lord of Champmeslé. They appeared in many plays together and married in 1666.

Marie quickly became known as a talented dramatic actress in Rouen. In 1669, she and her husband moved to Paris to further their careers, both performing at the Théâtre du Marais, where Marie appeared as Venus in Boyer's Fête de Venus. She had great success at Paris' Hôtel de Bourgogne as Hermione in Racine's Andromaque. Her friendship with one of France's most talented playwrights dates from this production. Jean-Baptiste Racine admired Champmesle immensely and would write some of his finest tragedies for her. Though she was also the original Berenice, Monimia, and Phédre in his works, her repertoire was not confined to Racine's plays, and many indifferent plays—such as Thomas Corneille's Ariane and Comte d'Essex—owed their success to "her natural manner of acting, and her pathetic rendering of the hapless heroine."

Desmares, Christine (1682–1753)

French actress. Born Christine Antoinette Charlotte Desmares in 1682; died in 1753; daughter of actor Nicolas Desmares (c. 1650–1714); niece of Marie Champmesle (c. 1642–1698).

Marie Champmesle's niece, Christine Desmares, to whom Denmark's king Christian V and his queen Charlotte Amalia of Hesse stood sponsors, was a fine actress in both tragedy and ingenue parts. Christine made her debut at the Comédie Française in 1699, in La Grange Chancel's Oreste et Pylade, and was immediately received as societaire. She retired in 1721.

When she and her husband left the Hôtel de Bourgogne, her Phédre, the culmination of Champmesle's triumphs, was selected to open the Comédie Française in Paris on August 26, 1680. She and her husband would remain as principal players for the next 30 years. With Mme Guérin as the leading comedy actress, Marie played the great tragic love parts. In addition to acting, Charles wrote many of the plays in which Marie starred; his Parisien (1682) gave Guérin one of her greatest successes. Champmesle attracted many admirers as the leading actress in the Comédie's tragic dramas; one devoted fan was the great French novelist Jean de la Fontaine, who dedicated his novel Belphégor to her. The French critic and poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux immortalized the actress in verse. Champmesle continued to work up until her death on May 15, 1698, at age 56.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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