Lecouvreur, Adrienne (1690–1730)

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Lecouvreur, Adrienne (1690–1730)

Celebrated French actress whose premature death left many questions. Born on April 5, 1690 (some sources cite 1692), at Damery, Marne, France; died on March 20, 1730, in Paris; daughter of Robert Couvreur (a hatter); mother's name unknown; mistress of Maurice of Saxony; children: three daughters, one of whom was the grandmother of Maurice Dupin de Francueil, the father of George Sand.

Adrienne Lecouvreur was the daughter of a hatter who established himself in Paris in 1702. Though she had an unhappy childhood, her talent was discovered when she performed in private theatricals while employed as a laundress. For a number of years, starting at age 14, she journeyed with traveling companies from town to town, acquiring in this haphazard apprenticeship a thorough knowledge of her art.

While on tour, the 16-year-old fell in love with a baron and became engaged, but she suffered the first of her many tragedies when the baron died. The youthful Lecouvreur had three more lovers: the noble Philippe le Ray, the actor Clavel, and the soldier Comte de Klinglin. Though her stationery would bear the motto Que Faire au Monde sans Aimer (What is living without love?), she was unsuccessful at amours throughout her short life, perhaps because she was an accommodating lover. She once wrote to Clavel:

Your welfare is far more precious to me than my own. So always follow the course that seems most pleasant to you. If ever I lose you and you are still happy, I shall have the joy of knowing I have not been a bar to your happiness.

Clavel took her at her word. Seeing before him an itinerant actress with no prospects, he married another woman who had a few thousand francs. But Adrienne's acting as well as her beauty became the talk of the provinces. Word of her potential drifted to Paris, and when Marc Antoine La Grand, sociétaire of the Comédie Française, came to see her act, he engaged her at once.

In 1717, age 25, Lecouvreur appeared at the Comédie Française in the title role of Crébillon's Electre and as Angélique in Molière's George Dandin. Her success was so great that she was immediately welcomed as a regular into the Comédie Française; for 13 years, she was the queen of tragedy there, attaining a popularity never before accorded an actress. She is said to have played no fewer than 1,184 times in 100 roles, of which she created 22. Soon recognized as the first French actress of her day, she excelled in both tragedy and comedy.

Lecouvreur owed her success largely to her courage in abandoning the stilted style of her predecessors; her delivery was natural, with a simplicity that delighted and moved her public. She revolutionized acting, diction, and costuming. When the popular actor Michel Baron returned to the stage at age 67, she gained a powerful co-conspirator in her attempt to change the stage traditions of generations. Lecouvreur's voice was soft, musical, and penetrating; she

spoke as people spoke and her emotions were astutely human. She put conversational meaning into the rhymed couplets, shunned theatrical costuming, and dressed as her characters might dress. When she was not speaking, contrary to the fashion of the time, she continued to act, replacing statuesque poses with inventive stage business. Until then, French actors recited grandiloquently or in singsong metric, then stood stock-still, blankly staring into the wings, while their fellow actor responded in like manner.

Despite the latitude in her lifestyle (she already had two illegitimate daughters), Adrienne's social successes were many. She was on visiting and dining terms with half of the court of Philippe the Regent (later known as Philip V, king of Spain), and her salon was frequented by many notables and artists, among them a young writer named François Marie Arouet, who preferred to be known simply as Voltaire. He adored her. One lovesick reporter for the 1719 Mercure joined Voltaire in praise:

Without being tall, she is exquisitely formed and has an air of distinction. No one on earth has greater charm. Her eyes speak as eloquently as her lips, and often they supply the place of words. In brief, I can compare her only to a flawless miniature. Her head is well poised on shapely shoulders. Her eyes are full of fire; her mouth is pretty; her nose slightly aquiline. Her face is wonderfully adapted to express joy, tenderness, pity, fear, sorrow.

But Lecouvreur was not as amused as her admirers; she wrote to a friend, "I spend three-fourths of my time in doing what bores me." Then, in 1721, she fell in love and became mistress to the military leader Comte Maurice of Saxony, one of the 163 children of Augustus the Strong, king of Poland. With Maurice, Adrienne had her third child, a daughter, who would be the paternal great-grandmother of George Sand. When the duchy of Courland lost its duke and Maurice, count of Saxony, spied a potential dukedom, Lecouvreur sold her plates, furnishings, and jewels to raise 40,000 francs for his illstarred adventures and brief sojourn as the duke of Courland. (Russia would not recognize him.)

Like his father Augustus, the count sought the comfort of other women. None was more dangerous than Françoise de Lorraine , duchess of Bouillon. When Maurice rebuffed the duchess, claiming he was still in love with Lecouvreur, Adrienne was thrilled; the duchess was not. In July 1729, Lecouvreur received an anonymous note, requesting her presence at the corner of the Luxembourg Gardens at 11 the following morning. There she met a young man in cleric garb, a hanger-on of the Bouillon household. Abbe Bouret warned her that the duchess had tried to bribe him, and produced the box of poisoned bonbons that he was to send her as a gift from a humble admirer. As Adrienne escorted the abbe and the candy to the police, they fed one of the bonbons to a stray dog; it died within 15 agonizing minutes. But the Bouillon family had a great deal of influence. Even though Bouret stuck to his story under cross examination, he was thrown in prison until he confessed that his accusations were lies.

The duchess of Bouillon, now happily cleared of all suspicion, or so she thought, attended a performance of Lecouvreur's Phedre, and mockingly applauded her rival from a box seat. When Lecouvreur came to the line, "I know my own faults; but I am not one of those brazen women who, calm even in the exposure of their crimes, can face the world without a blush," she turned toward the duchess. That night, when the duchess emerged from the theater, she became the center of gossip and was greatly humiliated. Many Parisians were convinced that she would find a way to revenge this latest insult.

On March 20, 1730, the 40-year-old Adrienne Lecouvreur was suddenly stricken seriously ill, and a priest was sent for. In the eyes of the church, however, she was an actress and therefore immoral. The priest demanded she denounce her allegiance to the stage, and banish all earthly thoughts, before he could grant Extreme Unction. But when he asked, "Do you place your hope in the God of the Universe?" she glanced toward Maurice and whispered, "There is my Universe, my Hope, my God." That day, denied the last rites of the church, she died suspiciously and unabsolved. Contemporary writers were convinced that she had been poisoned by the duchess of Bouillon; some declared that the poison was sent in a bouquet from another humble admirer. But the truth of these speculations has never been established.

Her remains were refused burial in consecrated ground. In protest, Voltaire wrote a poem about her death, expressing his indignation at the barbarous treatment accorded the woman whose "friend, admirer, lover" he was. His efforts landed him in so much hot water that he was obliged to leave Paris. Friends buried her secretly at night near the rue de Bourgogne.

Adrienne Lecouvreur is the most sympathetic figure in the history of the French stage. As an actress with a delicate, refined style she brought soul to a brilliant but artificial theater; as a gentle, lovable woman, her short life and sad end are filled with romance. In 1849, Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé made her life the subject of the well-known tragedy, Adrienne Lecouvreur, which achieved great acclaim because of the performance of the renowned actress Rachel in the title role.