Sardou At Marly-Le-Roy by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Near the centre of that verdant triangle formed by Saint Cloud, Versailles, and Saint Germain lies the village of Marly-le-Roy, high up on a slope above the lazy Seine-an entrancing corner of the earth, much affected formerly by French crowned heads, and by the “Sun King” in particular, who in his old age grew tired of Versailles and built here one of his many villas (the rival in its day of the Trianons), and proceeded to amuse himself therein with the same solemnity which had already made vice at Versailles more boresome than virtue elsewhere.

Two centuries and four revolutions have swept away all trace of this kingly caprice and the art treasures it contained. Alone, the marble horses of Coustou, transported later to the Champs Elysées, remain to attest the splendor of the past.

The quaint village of Marly, clustered around its church, stands, however-with the faculty that insignificant things have of remaining unchanged-as it did when the most polished court of Europe rode through it to and from the hunt. On the outskirts of this village are now two forged and gilded gateways through which the passer-by can catch a glimpse of trim avenues, fountains, and well-kept lawns.

There seems a certain poetical justice in the fact that Alexandre Dumas fils and Victorien Sardou, the two giants of modern drama, should have divided between them the inheritance of Louis XIV., its greatest patron. One of the gates is closed and moss-grown. Its owner lies in Père-la-Chaise. At the other I ring, and am soon walking up the famous avenue bordered by colossal sphinxes presented to Sardou by the late Khedive. The big stone brutes, connected in one’s mind with heat and sandy wastes, look oddly out of place here in this green wilderness-a bite, as it were, out of the forest which, under different names, lies like a mantle over the country-side.

Five minutes later I am being shown through a suite of antique salons, in the last of which sits the great playwright. How striking the likeness is to Voltaire,-the same delicate face, lit by a half cordial, half mocking smile; the same fragile body and indomitable spirit. The illusion is enhanced by our surroundings, for the mellow splendor of the room where we stand might have served as a background for the Sage of Ferney.

Wherever one looks, works of eighteenth-century art meet the eye. The walls are hung with Gobelin tapestries that fairly take one’s breath away, so exquisite is their design and their preservation. They represent a marble colonnade, each column of which is wreathed with flowers and connected to its neighbor with garlands.

Between them are bits of delicate landscape, with here and there a group of figures dancing or picnicking in the shadow of tall trees or under fantastical porticos. The furniture of the room is no less marvellous than its hangings. One turns from a harpsichord of vernis-martin to the clock, a relic from Louis XIV.’s bedroom in Versailles; on to the bric-à-brac of old Saxe or Sèvres in admiring wonder. My host drifts into his showman manner, irresistibly comic in this writer.

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The pleasures of the collector are apparently divided into three phases, without counting the rapture of the hunt. First, the delight a true amateur takes in living among rare and beautiful things. Second, the satisfaction of showing one’s treasures to less fortunate mortals, and last, but perhaps keenest of all, the pride which comes from the fact that one has been clever enough to acquire objects which other people want, at prices below their market value. Sardou evidently enjoys these three sensations vividly. That he lives with and loves his possessions is evident, and the smile with which he calls your attention to one piece after another, and mentions what they cost him, attests that the two other joys are not unknown to him. He is old enough to remember the golden age when really good things were to be picked up for modest sums, before every parvenu considered it necessary to turn his house into a museum, and factories existed for the production of “antiques” to be sold to innocent amateurs.

In calling attention to a set of carved and gilded furniture, covered in Beauvais tapestry, such as sold recently in Paris at the Valen�ay sale-Talleyrand collection-for sixty thousand dollars, Sardou mentions with a laugh that he got his fifteen pieces for fifteen hundred dollars, the year after the war, from an old ch�teau back of Cannes! One unique piece of tapestry had cost him less than one-tenth of that sum. He discovered it in a peasant’s stable under a two-foot layer of straw and earth, where it had probably been hidden a hundred years before by its owner, and then all record of it lost by his descendants.

The mention of Cannes sets Sardou off on another train of thought. His family for three generations have lived there. Before that they were Sardinian fishermen. His great-grandfather, he imagines, was driven by some tempest to the shore near Cannes and settled where he found himself. Hence the name! For in the patois of Proven�al France an inhabitant of Sardinia is still called un Sardou.

The sun is off the front of the house by this time, so we migrate to a shady corner of the lawn for our apéritif, the inevitable vermouth or “bitters” which Frenchmen take at five o’clock. Here another surprise awaits the visitor, who has not realized, perhaps, to what high ground the crawling local train has brought him. At our feet, far below the lawn and shade trees that encircle the ch�teau, lies the Seine, twisting away toward Saint Germain, whose terrace and dismantled palace stand outlined against the sky. To our right is the plain of Saint Denis, the cathedral in its midst looking like an opera-glass on a green table. Further still to the right, as one turns the corner of the terrace, lies Paris, a white line on the horizon, broken by the mass of the Arc de Triomphe, the roof of the Opéra, and the Eiffel Tower, resplendent in a fresh coat of yellow lacquer!

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The ground where we stand was occupied by the feudal castle of Les Sires de Marly; although all traces of that stronghold disappeared centuries ago, the present owner of the land points out with pride that the extraordinary beauty of the trees around his house is owing to the fact that their roots reach deep down to the rich loam collected during centuries in the castle’s moat.

The little ch�teau itself, built during the reign of Louis XIV. for the grand-veneur of the forest of Marly, is intensely French in type,-a long, low building on a stone terrace, with no trace of ornament about its white fa�ade or on its slanting roof. Inside, all the rooms are “front,” communicating with each other en suite, and open into a corridor running the length of the building at the back, which, in turn, opens on a stone court. Two lateral wings at right angles to the main building form the sides of this courtyard, and contain les communs, the kitchen, laundry, servants’ rooms, and the other annexes of a large establishment. This arrangement for a summer house is for some reason neglected by our American architects. I can recall only one home in America built on this plan. It is Giraud Foster’s beautiful villa at Lenox. You may visit five hundred French ch�teaux and not find one that differs materially from this plan. The American idea seems on the contrary to be a square house with a room in each corner, and all the servants’ quarters stowed away in a basement. Cottage and palace go on reproducing that foolish and inconvenient arrangement indefinitely.

After an hour’s chat over our drinks, during host has rippled on from one subject to another with the lightness of touch of a born talker, we get on to the subject of the grounds, and his plans for their improvement.

Good luck has placed in Sardou’s hands an old map of the gardens as they existed in the time of Louis XV., and several prints of the ch�teau dating from about the same epoch have found their way into his portfolios. The grounds are, under his care, slowly resuming the appearance of former days. Old avenues reopen, statues reappear on the disused pedestals, fountains play again, and clipped hedges once more line out the terraced walks.

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In order to explain how complete this work will be in time, Sardou hurries me off to inspect another part of his collection. Down past the stables, in an unused corner of the grounds, long sheds have been erected, under which is stored the débris of a dozen palaces, an assortment of eighteenth-century art that could not be duplicated even in France.

One shed shelters an entire semicircle of treillage, pure Louis XV., an exquisite example of a lost art. Columns, domes, panels, are packed away in straw awaiting resurrection in some corner hereafter to be chosen. A dozen seats in rose-colored marble from Fontainebleau are huddled together near by in company with a row of gigantic marble masques brought originally from Italy to decorate Fouquet’s fountains at his ch�teau of Vaux in the short day of its glory. Just how this latter find is to be utilized their owner has not yet decided. The problem, however, to judge from his manner, is as important to the great playwright as the plot of his next drama.

That the blood of an antiquarian runs in Sardou’s veins is evident in the subdued excitement with which he shows you his possessions-statues from Versailles, forged gates and balconies from Saint Cloud, the carved and gilded wood-work for a dozen rooms culled from the four corners of France. Like the true dramatist, he has, however, kept his finest effect for the last. In the centre of a circular rose garden near by stands, alone in its beauty, a column from the fa�ade of the Tuileries, as perfect from base to flower-crowned capital as when Philibert Delorme’s workmen laid down their tools.

Years ago Sardou befriended a young stone mason, who through this timely aid prospered, and, becoming later a rich builder, received in 1882 from the city of Paris the contract to tear down the burned ruins of the Tuileries. While inspecting the palace before beginning the work of demolition, he discovered one column that had by a curious chance escaped both the flames of the Commune and the patriotic ardor of 1793, which effaced all royal emblems from church and palace alike. Remembering his benefactor’s love for antiquities with historical associations, the grateful contractor appeared one day at Marly with this column on a dray, and insisted on erecting it where it now stands, pointing out to Sardou with pride the crowned “H,” of Henri Quatre, and the entwined “M. M.” of Marie de Médicis, topped by the Florentine lily in the flutings of the shaft and on the capital.

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A question of mine on Sardou’s manner of working led to our abandoning the gardens and mounting to the top floor of the ch�teau, where his enormous library and collection of prints are stored in a series of little rooms or alcoves, lighted from the top and opening on a corridor which runs the length of the building. In each room stands a writing-table and a chair; around the walls from floor to ceiling and in huge portfolios are arranged his books and engravings according to their subject. The Empire alcove, for instance, contains nothing but publications and pictures relating to that epoch. Roman and Greek history have their alcoves, as have mediæval history and the reigns of the different Louis. Nothing could well be conceived more conducive to study than this arrangement, and it makes one realize how honest was the master’s reply when asked what was his favorite amusement. “Work!” answered the author.

Our conversation, as was fated, soon turned to the enormous success of Robespierre in London-a triumph that even Sardou’s many brilliant victories had not yet equalled.

It is characteristic of the French disposition that neither the author nor any member of his family could summon courage to undertake the prodigious journey from Paris to London in order to see the first performance. Even Sardou’s business agent, M. Roget, did not get further than Calais, where his courage gave out. “The sea was so terrible!” Both those gentlemen, however, took it quite as a matter of course that Sardou’s American agent should make a three-thousand-mile journey to be present at the first night.

The fact that the French author resisted Sir Henry Irving’s pressing invitations to visit him in no way indicates a lack of interest in the success of the play. I had just arrived from London, and so had to go into every detail of the performance, a rather delicate task, as I had been discouraged with the acting of both Miss Terry and Irving, who have neither of them the age, voice, nor temperament to represent either the revolutionary tyrant or the woman he betrayed. As the staging had been excellent, I enlarged on that side of the subject, but when pressed into a corner by the author, had to acknowledge that in the scene where Robespierre, alone at midnight in the Conciergerie, sees the phantoms of his victims advance from the surrounding shadows and form a menacing circle around him, Irving had used his poor voice with so little skill that there was little left for the splendid climax, when, in trying to escape from his ghastly visitors, Robespierre finds himself face to face with Marie Antoinette, and with a wild cry, half of horror, half of remorse, falls back insensible.

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In spite of previous good resolutions, I must have given the author the impression that Sir Henry spoke too loud at the beginning of this scene and was in consequence inadequate at the end.

“What!” cried Sardou. “He raised his voice in that act! Why, it’s a scene to be played with the soft pedal down! This is the way it should be done!” Dropping into a chair in the middle of the room my host began miming the gestures and expression of Robespierre as the phantoms (which, after all, are but the figments of an over-wrought brain) gather around him. Gradually he slipped to the floor, hiding his face with his upraised elbow, whispering and sobbing, but never raising his voice until, staggering toward the portal to escape, he meets the Queen face to face. Then the whole force of his voice came out in one awful cry that fairly froze the blood in my veins!

“What a teacher you would make!” instinctively rose to my lips as he ended.

With a careless laugh, Sardou resumed his shabby velvet cap, which had fallen to the floor, and answered: “Oh, it’s nothing! I only wanted to prove to you that the scene was not a fatiguing one for the voice if played properly. I’m no actor and could not teach, but any one ought to know enough not to shout in that scene!”

This with some bitterness, as news had arrived that Irving’s voice had given out the night before, and he had been replaced by his half-baked son in the title rôle, a change hardly calculated to increase either the box-office receipts or the success of the new drama.

Certain ominous shadows which, like Robespierre’s visions, had been for some time gathering in the corners of the room warned me that the hour had come for my trip back to Paris. Declining reluctantly an invitation to take potluck with my host, I was soon in the Avenue of the Sphinx again. As we strolled along, talking of the past and its charm, a couple of men passed us, carrying a piece of furniture rolled in burlaps.

“Another acquisition?” I asked. “What epoch has tempted you this time?”

“I’m sorry you won’t stop and inspect it,” answered Sardou with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s something I bought yesterday for my bedroom. An armchair! Pure Loubet!”

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