Johnston on Bara, Losco-Lena, and Pellois, eds. (2014)


Bara, Olivier, Mireille Losco-Lena, and Anne Pellois, eds. Les Héroïsmes de l’acteur au XIXe siècle. Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2014. Pp. 351. ISBN 978-2-7297-0884-9

Joyce Johnston, Stephen F. Austin State University

In their co-written introduction to Les Héroïsmes de l’acteur au XIXe siècle, editors Olivier Bara, Mireille Losco-Lena, and Anne Pellois explore changing visions of the nineteenth-century hero. The stage hero represented a residual of pre-revolutionary society as well as a valorization of a new era. With the decline in popularity of epic genres, the term “héros,” which had previously evoked a person of aristocratic origin endowed with exceptional qualities, expanded to include both common men who possessed heroic qualities, and morally ambiguous anti-heroes who revolted against injustice, at times by questionable means. The cultural impact of actors who became increasingly associated with the heroes they incarnated on stage forms the original departure point for Les Héroïsmes de l’acteur au XIXe siècle, a collection of essays which explores the many facets of nineteenth-century heroism. The preface by Jean-Claude Yon does justice to the importance of the research contained within by emphasizing the originality of this volume which centers on nineteenth-century theater actors. Indeed, the editors’ choice of the term acteur over comédien insists not on the profession of acting, but rather on the actor’s dynamic position within a broader social landscape.

Each of the four sections of this volume contains an introduction, thus effectively contextualizing the twenty-one essays. The opening section, Héroïsme–Héroïsmes, details the emergence of staged heroes who represent the collective values of a post-revolutionary society rather than the abilities of an exceptional individual. Through these roles, actors were transformed into stars and cultural icons. Essays on Talma, whose career spanned two epochs, and on critic Jules Janin, whose writings did much to reframe concepts of the heroic actor, open the volume. Stéphanie Loncle’s study of actress Rachel’s work in Scribe and Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur offers an intriguing analysis of the female artist and the concept of heroism. Additional essays on Spanish heroic actors, on Russian actor Mikhaïl Chtchepkine, and on Germany’s August Wilhelm Iffland, offer broader but worthwhile considerations of heroic actors in nineteenth-century Europe.

Section two, Héroïsmes populaires, explores the seemingly contradictory images of the heroic actor as either the embodiment of lost glory and refinement in pre-revolutionary society, or a man of the people who deviates from societal norms to achieve justice. Olivier Bara’s excellent piece on Bocage opens this segment and highlights the complexity of Bocage’s heroes who were grotesque and downtrodden, yet also powerful voices for Republican values. Marion Lemaire’s thought-provoking essay on Fréderique Lemaître’s lead role in Robert Macaire analyzes how this role hailed the great actor’s transition from melodramatic hero to a symbol of popular revolt. Essays on Mélingue and the hero in the works of Dumas-père further our understanding of heroes, actors, and the playwright’s role in their creation.

Héroïsmes consensuels, the third segment of this volume, focuses on Third Republic theater and the citoyen ordinaire. Essays consider actors Mounet-Sully, Constant Coquelin, Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleonora Duse, and their portrayals of commoner-heroes. Of note is Anne Pelois’s essay on Mounet-Sully which describes the actor as an incarnation of the Third Republic, a society, “assoiffée d’égalité démocratique et qui rêve secrètement et paradoxalement d’un grand homme pour l’incarner” (186). Essays by Romain Pana, Marine Wisniewski, and Christophe Damour examine aspects of gesture and the popularization of pantomime in theater, the café-concert, and cinema.

Héros impersonnels closes the collection with a series of essays on the evolution of heroes and actors into increasingly impersonal stage and screen entities. Livio Belloï’s chapter on early cinema examines the concept of cinematic heroism through an analysis of presence or absence of physical bodies on screen. Alice Folco probes the non-mimetic theatrical ideals put forth by Stéphane Mallarmé. The final three essays of the collection by Simona Montini, Mireille Losco-Lena, and François Thomas consider the role of the actor and the hero in the historical theater at the Théâtre libre, in the theater and cinema of André Antoine, and in the writings of sociologist Georg Simmel, respectively. This section of essays demonstrates that even as actors cast aside aspirations of stardom in favor of being part of a collective contribution to the mise-en-scène, they nonetheless continued to exercise power on the stage in productions which presented pressing social questions.

Les Héroïsmes de l’acteur au XIXe siècle reconsiders nineteenth-century theater and early film through an examination of the power of the actor during a time of political and economic change, and growing social conscience. The volume successfully ties together film and theater studies by examining the actor as agent both on and off stage and, as such, represents an important and unique contribution to nineteenth-century studies. This volume will be of interest to nineteenth-century theater scholars and generalists alike.