La Comédie humaine is the diary of American expatriate Claire Berlinski’s amazing journey onto the Parisian stage. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) If you missed the Introduction, we urge you to begin there.
I feared superstitiously that if I failed to keep my New Year’s resolution, all my previous schemes for self-improvement would come undone and within a month I’d be living on Marlboro Reds and bacon cheeseburgers. But still, I just didn’t want to do it. New Year’s Day came and went. Every day after that, I vowed I’d walk over to the theater—it was just two blocks away from me, after all—to ask if I could take lessons. “Tomorrow,” I wrote earnestly in my notebook. I wrote this six days in a row, underscoring “Tomorrow” ever more urgently.
TOMORROW, FIRST THING
TOMORROW. GO. JUST GET OFF YOUR ASS AND GO.
Every day, I concluded the weather to be unsuitable. The theater is, literally, two blocks from my apartment. No Space Shuttle was ever launched with more concern for atmospheric conditions.
Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of this magazine, Maria, wrote to introduce herself and Popula—a magazine, she said, with “an internationalist remit,” that would “be published on a new Ethereum-based publishing platform called Civil.” It would be, she said, “alt-worldly.” Might I like to write for it?
She threw out a few ideas. She said she’d studied French as an undergraduate, and “felt a very thick wall of cultural incomprehension, despite a ton of reading and study.” She thought it seemed like a culture into which it would be impossible to assimilate. She asked what I thought about that. My first reaction was that she was remembering Old Paris. New Paris isn’t like that. I’ve written about that, but I supposed I could write more about it. Perhaps, she wrote, I could write about being what she called a citizen of the world. “Now that the U.S. has gone insane, will the world even have us?” That’s a good topic, I thought. I’ve wondered the same myself. She added, “My only total ixnay is that zoo-animal feeling of American Writer Goes to Visit the Exotic Place.”
I liked the idea, and I liked that she didn’t like that Zoo-Animal kind of piece, and I liked that she said she loved me. I like it when editors flatter me lavishly. Unfortunately, that usually means they have no money.
I wrote back and told her I loved her too. Looking at my notebook, scrawled with ever-more insistent TOMORROWs, I suggested impulsively that Popula’s readers might like an account of my transformation from Old Claire—introverted Anglophone writer covered in cat fur and nicotine gum who refuses to leave her apartment unless the temperature is above 48 degrees, the wind is less than 32 knots, the sun angle and relative humidity auspicious, and the chance of lightning less than .2 percent at the time of my launch—to New Claire, the dazzling, unflappable, and highly improbable célèbre vedette of the Parisian Stage.
I asked how much she paid per word. I hit “send” and expected that she would say, “Not very much, but it will be great exposure for you,” and I figured that would be that for our love affair. My landlord doesn’t allow me to pay the rent in “great exposure.” I opened the window and sniffed the weather. The humidity definitely wasn’t conducive to an excursion to the theater—clearly, by the time I got there, my hair would be frizzy.
Tomorrow at 2:00 p.m., I wrote in my notebook.
The next day, to my surprise, the weather was radiant, and Maria had written back. She loved the idea—and offered me money to do it.
I’m not in any position to turn down work that pays. I’m not a professional actor, but I am a professional writer, and if you pay me to cover the story, I’ll cover it. Whatever it is.
But that meant I really had to do it. And now, since I’d be paid for it, it would be work. Work, after all, is what a body’s obliged to do.
The more I thought about it, the more awful it sounded. I figured that the only scene more uptight, self-involved, and pretentious in Paris would be the fashion scene, or maybe the art-house crowd. I kicked myself for pitching the idea. I could have suggested so many others, after all. I wondered if I should write back with a different one. Might Maria be just as excited by an in-depth exploration, say, of Paris’s sewers? They’re fascinating. They date from 1370. Victor Hugo wrote about them: “Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form … ”
I couldn’t do that, I figured. I’d come off as a flake. Besides, this was something really worth writing about. The French theatre tradition is genuinely unusual. It’s not the longest unbroken acting tradition in the world—that honor goes to China, with Japanese Kabuki in second place—but it’s the West’s longest uninterrupted theater tradition. Since 1690, when Molière and Racine were at their creative peak, not a single year has passed in Paris in which their works have not been played. Under Louis XIV, wastewater still drained in the open air. Voltaire remarked, bitterly, of Parisian priorities: “They will not begrudge money for a Comic Opera, but will complain about building aqueducts worthy of Augustus.” (Why a man who earned his living by his pen would complain of this schedule of priorities, I do not know.) If you want to understand French culture and literature—as well as the place of literature in French culture—the Comédie Française is the place to start.
Every French schoolkid can recite scenes from Molière and Racine. Come time for the annual baccalaureate exams, French Twitter lights up with hashtags like #niqueracine. Classic theater performs, for the French, the role of the King James Bible in English: Anglophones go to Church to expose themselves to the range and grandeur of their native language. The French go to the theatre.
I was telling myself all of this as I tried to work up the enthusiasm to walk out my apartment, turn left, and just knock on goddamned door of that verkakte theater. It will be so good for you. You will understand France, French, and the French so much more intimately. I opened the window and sniffed: Something about the atmospheric conditions felt wrong. I saw droplets of rain and high clouds. I sat down again.
What got me off my ass was checking my bank balance. It was horrifying. The anxiety that prompted vastly exceeded my stage fright. I had no choice but to march myself over there right then and there and cough up a story about becoming an actress.
I put on jeans, and a black cashmere-blend sweater I save for special occasions. (I hang it in a bag so that my cats can’t barf on it), locked the door, and set out down my wide, elegant staircase, admiring its wrought iron balustrade, as I do every time. It looks like this.
I’ll take you on a small detour. My neighborhood has some of the only remnants of truly medieval Paris, with tiny streets, unaffordable boutiques, cozy neighborhood restaurants, and, around every corner, another gem of medieval or classic French architecture. It’s historically known as a Jewish quarter, which it still is, but it’s even better-known now for its gay scene. A few weeks after I moved into my apartment, a heard my doorbell ring late at night. Surprised—the French don’t ring other people’s doorbell’s late at night—I opened the door. A man with severely high cheekbones, ice-blond hair in a side-parted Macklemore, a Hermès cravat, and aviator sunglasses surveyed me appraisingly. “Allo,” he said impatiently. “You are zee new one? You have just moved to zee building?”
“Yes, please call me Claire, it’s so nice to meet you” I said in French, extending my hand.
“Zee new woman.”
I couldn’t wait to learn where this was going.
“I tell my ‘usband, whairevaire zair are straight women, forcément, zair are straight man. They come in, how you say …like zee Noahz Ark–
“In pairs,” I said.
“In zee inpairs, oui!”
“ I’m sorry,” I said in French, “but my partner doesn’t live with me.”
“Mince!” he ejaculated, slapping the wall in frustration. “Catastrophe!”
“Mais qu’est-ce qui va pas!”
“La chaudière, ce soir, elle est tout d’un coup tombée en panne. ” His heater. That evening she had suddenly gone on the fritz, and on a cold evening, that was no joke. We both knew that if he called the repairman out in the middle of the night, it would cost a fortune. I offered to look at the chaudière to see if I could spot the problem, but he turned me down. This was no job for a straight woman. Only a straight man would know what do.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Merde, he swore. He would have to go out to look for a straight man. I wished him well as he swished back into the night, muttering to himself. Oh, la vache… franchement,
j’en ai ras le cul…
He never spoke to me again.
So that’s my neighborhood: historic, queer, arty, and very bobo. I turned the corner, and stood outside the theater, rubbing my hands together in the cold. I’d read about the theater’s history on the Internet. It was originally a mansion, built in 1676 by a squire of King Louis XV, and sold in 1753 by the Marquis de Savignier to Officer Dumas, an official at the court of Queen Marie Leczinska. Baudelaire lived here when he published Les Fleurs du Mal in 1858. It had been Cézanne’s studio at the end of the 19th century. The mansion then enjoyed a brief career as a chocolate factory, until it was taken over by the Théâtre Espace Marais. Despite its rarified historic pedigree, I read, “This small theater, designed by Michel Bouttier and Sissia Buggy, has a very contemporary allure. Spectators surround the stage: the immersion is thus very deep, the complicity between spectators and actors is emphasized, the closed doors even heavier … ” Its renown and prestige among critics and the public has grown since its opening, the site emphasizes; it performs the classics year-round—several companies share the theater; they take turns on stage offering the French classics repertory, from Jules Romains to Marivaux—and it has welcomed more than 300 foreign troupes. It has become, the website says, an important venue in the training of performing artists. I shouldn’t have read that before setting out.
The signs outside advertised upcoming performances of Molière’s École de femmes, making me feel guilty for having never read it. They were also playing Stefan Zweig’s La Confusion des Sentiments and Le joueur d’échecs. I vaguely thought I might have read Le joueur d’échecs at school, but I wasn’t sure. Cocteau’s Antigone was coming up—I’d read that—as was Molière’s Le malade imaginaire, which I’d read, thank God. Later in the season, the signs said, they would play l’Avare and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, both of which I’d read in some ancient college French class, although I’d have been hard-pressed to remember the plots.
I couldn’t quite figure out where to knock: There were a number of doors—a ticket booth, which was closed, and a big door that obviously led to the theater.
I chose the largest door. I knocked gently. Instantly, I heard hilarity and peals of laughter inside. I knew they couldn’t possibly be laughing at me, yet, but I felt left out and mortified anyway.
A disembodied male voice issued from the Intercom. “Rehearsal in progress,” it said pleasantly enough. “Please don’t disturb.” More peals of laughter. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, wishing I could sink into the earth, but I couldn’t leave: My bank balance was even more urgent. “I’m here to take acting lessons,” I whispered. “When should I come back?”
The voice hesitated: It sounded as if it wasn’t often asked the question. After something that sounded like the shuffling of papers, it told me, “Tomorrow at 18:30.”
Progress! I thought, and went home to wait until 18:30 the next day.
As I waited, I watched clips from recent performances at the theater. It did not quite seem imaginable to me that I could do what the actresses on stage were doing. But I did wish I could. Yes, I’d really love to be able to do that. I allowed myself to fantasize about it.
“Claire Berlinski’s bravura performance of Phèdre l’Américaine left not dry eye in the house” …
“Her arms laden with the bouquets of roses thrown at her feet, the theater sensation Claire Berlinski receives us backstage, apologizing for the nicotine gum in her pompadour. In person, she is smaller than she appears on stage, and refreshingly down-to-earth. She tells us to take the roses, explaining that she can’t bring them home, because her cats will eat them immediately and then barf them up … ”
I knocked on the door at 18:30.
A small, friendly thing with a ringlet of brown curls opened the door. She introduced herself as Nathalie. She had the half-sad, half-eager eyes of a cocker spaniel, and she was wearing some kind of smock, with polka dots, and ballet shoes. “Come in, come in,” she said, ushering me inside, pushing aside the luxuriant, but dusty, wine-red velvet curtains at the entrance.
It smelled like history. Ancient, musty, as if there must be a ton of cobwebs and ghosts in the place. I could pick up undertones of tobacco, sweat, ladies’ perfume, and red wine, probably from the cave of the restaurant next door. She urged me to sit and told me she’d be “right with me.” I took a seat on one of the chairs in the front row and looked about: The walls were black; the thick velvet stage curtains were the same wine-red as the curtains at the door. The stage itself had a wooden floor; the ceiling was covered in an elaborate tangle of stage lights. It was a small theater: I counted three rows on the ground, three in the balcony. A tiny dog with bulging eyes was asleep on one of the seats. I whispered to him—“Hi, poochie!”—but he ignored me. I later learned he belonged to Michel, the director of another troupe, and that he was very old. My first instinct was that no more than fifty people could fit into the audience, but later, when I came back and counted them, I realized it could in fact seat 120. It was indeed designed to create the illusion of smallness and intimacy between the actors and the audience.
Nathalie came back and cheerfully invited me to her office, which was backstage, which was in fact in the basement. Behind the curtains, there was a ladder, down which she skipped and I carefully climbed to the dressing rooms. That’s where she kept the accounts, as well as the smoke machines and the wonders—row upon row of poke bonnets, hoop skirts, corsets, lace, feathers. I saw jazz-age flapperwear and military regalia; outfits one might use to smite evil, or channel dark energies from the void, or travel in a golden spaceship. I looked at the costumes longingly, even though they all smelled distinctly moldy.
Her closet-sized office, behind the costumes, was strewn with paper supplies and sticky notes. I had practiced my introduction in my head several dozen times. I lived in the neighborhood, I told her, and I wanted to take acting lessons, but I’d never acted before. I wasn’t sure whether my accent would be an impediment, but I really wanted to deepen my connaissance of French literature, and I was eager to learn but didn’t want to be an annoyance to the class, and when she kept nodding with interest—but didn’t say anything—I began babbling, telling her that I’d walked past the theater hundreds of times, but had never quite worked up the nerve to ask, and—
“It’s true of everyone!” she said. “We hear that every time! People walk by for years and they are too afraid to ask.” She laughed merrily. “But you see, we are not frightening!” It was true. She was one of the least frightening people I’d ever met. She reminded me of my kindergarten teacher. “They walk in and find out how warm we are, how welcoming, how chaleureux! And they ask, “Why did I wait so long?”
I was so glad to know that everyone else felt that way, too. That it wasn’t some foreigner thing.
She assured me that the theater welcomed everyone—boundlessly! She said the goal was to amuse ourselves, to “discover our inner creativity,” to “connect with ourselves and with others.” She waxed about the good times we would have together: I would discover my senses, she said, and “my range of emotions, my space, my energy!” The class was “superb springboards for exercises of exploration!” (That sounds better in French: “de superbes tremplins d’exercices à explorer”) … “And we are not mean or frightening at all!”
What about my accent, I asked? Would it be an impediment? “Pas forcément,” she said—not necessarily. Indeed, it could actually be helpful to be a non-native speaker, she says, because “it forces you to focus on enunciation.” I didn’t know whether she said that to be encouraging or if there was really something to that. I tried to think of American actresses who had made it big on the French stage, but drew a blank after Josephine Baker—and I’d never heard her speak French, actually. I’d only heard her sing it.
But I decided to take Nathalie’s word for it. I was flushed with relief. This sounded great. “Sign me up!” I said.
Ah. I knew there was a catch.
“Before you enroll—”
“To see if we’re right for each other.”
I had to pass an audition.
She saw my face and tried to encourage me: “It is good! It permits you to discover the spirit of the school, to meet the other students, to judge ‘le feeling’ between you and the professor, to appreciate the content of the course!” (She really used the words, “le feeling.” The French love using English gerunds this way.)
“Bien sûr,” I said. I realized she hadn’t yet spoken to me long enough to realize that I do, in fact, have a notable American accent.
I did not imagine I could pass. But I agreed to do it anyway. That way I could honestly say I tried my best.