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Home ›Studies› Mounet-Sully and Greek Antiquity in the theater during the Belle Époque
Mounet-Sully in Oedipus
SARONY Napoleon (1821 - 1896)
The descendants of the great Sully
LEANDRE Charles (1862 - 1934)
Title: Mounet-Sully in Oedipus
Author : SARONY Napoleon (1821 - 1896)
Creation date : 1890 -
Dimensions: Height 14.2 cm - Width 10 cm
Storage place: Orsay Museum website
Contact copyright: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Picture reference: 02-016520 / PHO1988-28-22
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The descendants of the great Sully
© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BnF image
Publication date: January 2019
CNRS Researcher Center for Research on Arts and Language
Of the international notoriety of Jean-Sully Mounet (1841-1916), known as Mounet-Sully, one of the most famous actors of the Belle Époque, testifies the Oedipus photograph taken in the studio of the New York photographer Napoléon Sarony (1821-1896) during a tour of the Comédie-Française troupe in the United States in the spring of 1894. Often caricatured in the press, the actor therefore appears in 1897 on the front page of the To laugh, humorous journal founded in 1894: it is sketched there, with his brother Paul Mounet (1847-1922) and two other personalities from the world of arts and letters, by one of the great designers of the time, Charles Léandre (1862 -1934), who regularly collaborates with To laugh with Forain and Caran d´Ache. This cover also evokes another great tragedy of Sophocles, Antigone, staged at the Comédie-Française in 1893, in which Mounet-Sully played the role of Créon opposite the actress Julia Bartet as Antigone and alongside her brother as the diviner Tiresias.
Sarony's photograph represents Mounet-Sully in a pathetic pose, at a key moment in Sophocles' tragedy: Oedipus has discovered the true cause of the plague ravaging Thebes. He is the culprit who caused this plague because of the murder of his father Laios and his marriage to his mother Jocasta. Seized in horror, he puts his eyes out.
Mounet-Sully's fame was due to his impressive game which frightened the spectators. The actor embodied the character so much that he ended up being possessed by it. On the other hand, Mounet-Sully's voice was an essential instrument in the search for expressiveness: it made the audience react by the extent of its register, from whisper to roar. Here, Mounet-Sully adopts a pose that must signify both his intense acting and the aesthetic of the antique theater that developed before 1900. The body is clothed in a chiton (long tunic) with well-marked folds and designs inspired by archaic art: Mounet-Sully had called on Léon Heuzey (1831-1922), one of the great French archaeologists of the 19th century.e century, who had given him advice on the drapery and clothing of the Greeks. Moreover, the pose recalls certain ancient statues, notably Laocoon, considered to be the very model of expressiveness. A living statue, Mounet-Sully expresses the most violent emotions through a swaying movement that unbalances the body, through the hands which grasp the hair in a movement of despair, through the open mouth which suggests the cry of pain, through the bloody eyes unnecessarily turned toward the sky. It is the mask of a hero at the height of misfortune that is presented here with extreme truth.
The notoriety of the actor and that of his brother is attested by the caricature of Charles Léandre, who imagines "The descendants of the great Sully". The minister of Henri IV covers with his coat four personalities bearing his name, but not related to him, as the caption indicates: “Mounet-Sully, and Mr. Paul Mounet who is Sully only by marriage, but who deserves it; Sully-Prudhomme, the illustrious author of Broken vase, and Miss Mariette Sully, the ideal Doll ". The young singer Mariette Sully (born in 1874), who had just triumphed at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in The Doll (1896), comic opera inspired by Sand seller by writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, is surrounded by the now forgotten Parnassian poet, Sully-Prudhomme (1839-1907), and an antique portrait of the two brothers. The link between the poet and Mounet-Sully is indeed real, since there is a sonnet by Sully-Prudhomme, "A Mounet-Sully", in which he thanks him for having read his verses.
Perhaps suggesting the goddess Athena by the two owls placed in the upper corners, Léandre represents Mounet-Sully and Paul Mounet in the manner of the Greek double Hermes: a double sculpted portrait of philosophers or poets linked to each other (Socrates and Plato, Sophocles and Euripides…) and looking in opposite directions. Léandre, trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, mischievously twists this academic model and presents a fanciful adaptation, in the spirit of the humorous cartoons flourishing in the satirical press. With their heads encircled in a red band, the two brothers are dressed in tunics revealing thick, folded arms in a familiar and undignified pose. Mounet-Sully, on the right, is drawn with plebeian features, bull's neck, prominent torso, in a posture that evokes a fort des Halles rather than the king of Thebes, while the slender body of his brother forms an unbalancing contrast. 'together.
Mounet-Sully was before 1914 one of the leading figures of the neo-antique movement in the theater. Leander's caricature attests to how much the actor was associated in the minds of contemporaries with Antiquity, as much, if not more, than with Ruy Blas, Joad or Hamlet. Thanks to his interpretations of Oedipus and Creon, the French actor contributed to the development of what is sometimes called a "theater-museum", that is, dramatic performances supported by archaeological documents. In 1894, Mounet-Sully participated in the founding of the Chorégies d´Orange with the performance of ’Antigone under "antique" conditions at the Orange Theater. In addition to this festival, which became annual in the 1900s, we can mention the representation of Persians from Aeschylus to the Odeon in 1896 by André Antoine, a realist director fascinated by Mounet-Sully in 1881 and who called on archeology to represent Greek tragedy. Sarony's photography is therefore set at an important and significant moment in the actor's career and in the history of theater during the Belle Époque.
Finally, these two images remind us that Parisian theater actors and lyrical singers were real stars in the Belle Époque: like Sarah Bernhardt, Coquelin elder and Julia Bartet, Mounet-Sully enjoyed international fame reinforced by theatrical tours of the Comédie-Française abroad, according to a practice that developed in the second half of the 19th centurye century. His interpretations were an opportunity to immortalize through photography the salient features of the characters he embodied. Illustrious in the role of Oedipus, which he would repeat until the end of his life, Mounet-Sully was thus admired by the greatest authors (Péguy, Cocteau). It also marked the American dancer Isadora Duncan, who found in him the idea of maximum expressiveness of the body in order to renovate the dance from top to bottom. In this way, Mounet-Sully opened up new avenues both for the representation of Antiquity on the stage and for the acting and art of dance.
- Belle Epoque
- French comedy
- The Butter Plate
- Heuzey (Leon)
- Mounet (Paul)
- Chorégies d'Orange
- Duncan (Isadora)
PENESCO, Anne, Mounet-Sully: the man with a hundred human hearts, Paris, Cerf, 2005.
HUMBERT-MOUGIN, Sylvie, Dionysus revisited: the Greek tragedies in France from Leconte de Lisle to Claudel, Paris, Belin, 2003.
To cite this article
Christophe CORBIER, "Mounet-Sully and Greek Antiquity in the theater of the Belle Époque"