Friday, December 21, 2012

Toulet in Algiers, Part 3

In the latter years of the 19th century the theatre was already the path to fame and fortune for those who wanted to live by the pen. Toulet already smitten by the “divine odeur des coulisses” since his days pursuing actresses in Mauritius, and he relished the idea of a dramatic career. When he suggested a verse play for Molière’s birthday to the the Fautrier regulars the idea was enthusiastically adopted by Louis Martin and Antoine Cotoni. (This collaboration foreshadowed another, longer-lasting partnership with Maurice Sailland in Paris 15 years later.) In order to have it ready in time they agree to share the work. They knocked off the Servante de Molière in 11 days. This hastily constructed piece inevitably suffered from its haste, and from the unequal talents of its three collaborators. Martin admits that only Toulet’s lines displayed anything of real talent; “ours” (he and Cotoni) he says “were but poor glass beads compared with Toulet’s pure crystal.” In fact, it is to Martin’s memory that we owe what few lines exist of the piece (26 in all), the manuscript being long lost. The Vigie Algérienne announced it for the 16th of the month, along with Molière’s Le malade imaginaire.
It was played on Wednesday January 16th 1889, directed by Gaston Coste,  with enough acclaim to have it re-staged on Friday 18th and Sunday 27th January. The piece was well received and the three authors had to take a curtain call at the end of the evening. This did not stop Toulet noting in his Journal that his scene was poorly articulated, like verse in a foreign language. “That offended me. I criticised the piece in the Moniteur, “(he took a whole column to do it) “and I praised it apart from my scene, the which I took a gleeful pleasure of savaging and rubbishing.” The theatre critic of the Vigie wrote, on January 21st, that the three authors deserved equal credit for braving the boards for the first time with the Servante de Molière. Only Cotoni and Martin were accredited on the publicity, allegedly because the youthful authors did not want it trumpeted that it took three people to compose so minor a piece.
Martin recalled that although the original manuscript disappeared, Cotoni took a copy with him when he departed for Lyon to continue his medical studies, where apparently he managed to stage it again in the théâtre des Célestins, with an actor named Duquesne playing the part of Molière. This manuscript disappeared on Cotoni’s unexpected death in 1890, a death that considerably upset Toulet. When he heard of it he wrote to Martin from Caresse (in 1891): « …Mais enfin, t’expliques-tu qu’une quantité  considérable de vieillards imbéciles continuent à vivre, et que celui-là, jeune et brillant, s’en soit allé ? C’est la qui donne une haute idée de la Providence ! Pauvre Coto ! »
Their initial success encouraged the budding playwrights to try again and in mid-March Toulet and Cotoni presented Martin with a new one-act piece called Madame Joseph Prudhomme. (This time Toulet and Cotoni shared the credits). It did not match the standard of the first, and was in prose. It was published in the Revue Algérienne on April 1st, and dedicated by the authors to Louis Martin, who incidentally thought it a meagre piece. The théâtre des Nouveautés put it on on Friday April 5th, 1889, after l’Oeil  crevé, an operetta by Hervé, in a benefit for an Algerian actor called M. Hyacinthe. On this occasion, the plaudits were reserved for the actors. It was repeated on April 6th, then disappeared forever from the programme. This time the Vigie critic was silent on the piece. Soon after Toulet was no longer welcome in the Nouveautés . His ill temper was already closing doors to him. On April 16th he had quarrelled with one Alfred Coste, the brother of the Gaston Coste, the director. Toulet went as far as to strike him, hoping thereby to provoke a duel. But, as he related, “Cet ignoble capon ne veut rien savoir de duel”.
These two short works were to be Toulet’s only dramatic ventures until Le Souper Interrompu, published posthumously by Le Divan in 1922.
We know little of Antoine Cotoni, although Toulet dedicated a sonnet on the subject of Don Juan to him. (Vers inédits: J’ai vu Don Juan vieillard, mais touours amoureux...).
Joseph Casanova too was studying law in Algiers. However, literature attracted him more and he settled in Paris around 1890, where he remained till his death on 26th August 1947.  He contributed to many journals and if I give special mention to the Chroniquer de Paris, that appeared weekly for a dozen years before the Great War, it is not so much to point up the abundance of his production as to note that it was he who brought Toulet on board.
With time and age, a different aesthetic gradually separated Toulet and Casanova. Their Algerian intimacy, maintained by their correspondence, was easily re-established in Paris. But the exigencies of existence, not to mention the clash of personalities, gradually eroded this relationship – Toulet was quick to take offense, to Casanova’s surprised resignation. The latter never ceased to speak of Toulet with other than admiration and respect. Toulet, on the other hand, was able to write to his friend thus to Casanova (8th December 1910) : “ Mon pauvre Casanova, je n’ai pas à disputer de votre mégalomanie, mais à vous rappeler seulement que, parmi d’autres choses que vous m’avez empruntées, sinon rendues, il y a une nouvelle qui devait, m’aviez-vous dit (mais il n’en fut rien) passer sous votre signature  au « Paris-Journal » et vous rapporter quelque argent. Vous aviez ajouté que vous ne vous sentiez pas capable d’en faire une, ce que j’avais aisément cru.  Je le voudrais encore quand vous m’affirmez, en votre français, qu’elle est à ma disposition.  Il ne vous reste, dans ce cas, qu’à me le faire tenir, et cesser de m’écrire.”
Casanova was responsible for the A.B.C. du soldat français, described by Martineau as a “vibrant manuel d’édification patriotique,” and for La Tournée du Grand-Duc, (1920), that echoes the title of La Tournée du Petit-Duc, a light frothy libertinous novel that Toulet wrote in collaboration with Willy (only Willy’s name appeared as author.) Casanova’s work adopted a far more moralistic tone. A decade after Toulet’s death Casanova, in L’Etrange Confidence (1929),  put some of Toulet’s verse into the mouth of one of his characters.

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