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no. 335

Saturday, 14 February 2004

George Alexander's production of
Justin Huntly McCarthy's romantic play,
If I Were King,
St. James's Theatre, London, 30 August 1902

If I Were King

Charles A. Buchel's poster for
If I Were King,
St. James's Theatre, London, 30 August 1902

(colour lithograph printed by Waterlow & Sons Ltd, London, 1902)

'Poet and brawler, jester and statesman, fighter and lover – these are some of the many sides of François Villon's character in Mr. Justin Huntly M'Carthy's romance and entertaining play. Advisedly I say poet first, for poetry is the dominant trait of his variegated personality: it is the one characteristic of which the audience is never allowed for one moment to lose sight. In his actions and in his words, when he wooes, when he fights, and when he administers justice, there is ever present that touch of fantasy and picturesqueness, the mark of those whom the muses love. And here lives the principal charm of the play; by the inherent poetry of Villon's soul a harmonious unity is made to pervade scenes which would otherwise appear disjointed if not extravagant, and the story becomes acceptable and well-nigh plausible of the man who falls asleep one night in prison a ragged, penniless outlaw, and wakes next morning Comte de Montcorbier, Grand Constable of France, decked in cloth of gold, the intimate of the king, the associate of the lords and ladies of the Court. None other than a poet at heart could be conceived adapting himself so readily as he does to such altered surroundings, to conditions of life so entirely contrary. He has lived in dreamland all his life, and thus when his most cherished dream comes true, he is not overwhelmed by the shock as an ordinary mortal would be.
'Withal the atmosphere is that of pure romance, despite the semi-historical setting, and a certain latitude of probability, or the reverse, must therefore be allowed; still each character is in itself consistent throughout, a quality by no means universal or even common in plays of this description.
'The scene is laid in France in the fifteenth century; the king, Louis, XI., cruel, miserly, superstitious and unscrupulous, is both feared and disliked by the people; his sometime ally, the Duke of Burgundy, has turned his most bitter enemy, and the Burgundian troops are at the gates of Paris. To avert the imminent danger of losing his crown, Louis places his reliance on soothsayers and astrologers; his counsellors are knaves or cowards working only for their own ends, to fill their pockets or sever their ambition.
'"O that a man would come to Court!" exclaims the fair Katherine de Vaucelles, one of the queen's ladies and the heroine of the play; the man who comes to Court and saves France is François Villon.
''The king has had a dream. He dreamed that he was a swine rooting in the streets of Paris, and that he found a pearl of great price in the gutter. He took it and placed it in his crown, where it shone so brightly that it filled all Paris with its light. But it made his crown so heavy that he plucked the pearl from its place and flung it to the ground, and would have trod on it, when a star fell from heaven and stayed him. This dream causes him much worry, for neither he nor his astrologers can explain it satisfactorily. So, accompanied by Tristan l'Hermite, a Provost of Paris, he goes in disguise to a low tavern, the usual haunt of the worst "cats and rats" in Paris. He finds the place filled with cut-throat looking men and girls of loose character. These are soon joined by their leader, François Villon, who relates how he has fallen in love at sight with a lovely lady to whom he has sent verses, and how he has been soundly beaten for his pains. The Lady is Katherine de Vaucelles, who has repulsed the king's advances and those of the Grand Constable, Thibaut d'Aussigny. Villon follows this up by reciting a ballad he has composed criticising the king's inaction:-

'"All French folk, whereso'er ye be,
Who love your country, soil and sand,
From Paris to the Breton sea,
And back again to Norman strand,
Forsooth ye seem a silly band,
Sheep without shepherd, left to chance -
Far otherwise our Fatherland
If Villon were the King of France!

'"The figure on the throne you see
Is nothing but a puppet planned
To wear the regal bravery
Of silken coat and gilded wand.
Not so we Frenchmen understand
The lord of lion's heart and glance -
And such a one would take command
If Villon were the King of France!

'"His counsellors are rogues, pardie!
While men of honest mind are banned
To creak upon the gallows tree,
Or squeal in prisons over-mann'd;
We want a chief to bear the brand
And bid the damned Burgundians dance;
God! where the Oriflamme should stand
If Villon were the King of France!

'"Louis the Little, play the grand!
Buffet the foe with sword and lance;
'Tis what would happen, by this hand,
If Villon were the King of France!"

'Upon this poem the whole play turns, for Louis takes Villon at his word; he resolves to follow the example of Haroun al Rashid, who picked a drunken rascal from the streets and ordered him to be told on waking the next morning that he was the Caliph and the Commander of the Faithful. The opportunity soon comes; at the instigation of Katherine de Vaucelles, who nourishes a deep and well justified hatred for Thibaut d'Aussigny, Villon wounds the latter in a fight following a trumped-up quarrel. Thibaut is negotiating with the Duke of Burgundy for the surrender of the king, and has also come incognito to the Fir Cone Tavern, in order to confer with one of his accomplices. He calls in the watch, and orders Villon to be hanged forthwith. But the king thereupon reveals his identity, and the entire company are arrested except Thibaut, who escapes to the Burgundian camp.
'In prison Villon is drugged, and while asleep transferred to the palace. When he awakes he is dressed in the most gorgeous clothing and treated with every honour and respect. Then the king explains to him his position. He is to have his chance; for one week he shall be, not king indeed, but the next thing to it, Grand Constable of France: he shall taste of honour, power, and wealth, but after seven days he shall be hanged for mocking the king at the Fir Cone Tavern. One chance only he has of saving his neck: "If the Count of Montcorbier win the heart of Lady Katherine de Vaucelles within the week, he shall escape the gallows, and carry his ladylove where he pleases."
'Villon accepts the bargain, sends a haughty challenge to the Duke of Burgundy, and loses no time in trying to win the lady. In this he has almost succeeded, but he considers himself in honour bound to tell Katherine who he really is, with the result that she thrusts him from her with contempt and loathing: "You have stolen my love like a thief; you have crucified my pride. I hate you. Go back to the dregs and lees of life; skulk in your tavern; forget, what I shall never forget, that so base a thing as you ever came near me."
'Villon's fate is sealed by these insults: he must hang to-morrow. But in the meantime he will serve France, and he goes forth to battle against the Burgundians.
'He returns victorious and lays the banners of Burgundy at the feet of the King of France; then he surrenders himself to take his punishment. But the people, exasperated by Louis' cruelty, threaten mutiny, and the king consents to spare Villon if someone will take his place on the gallows. No one dares to come forward save the poet's aged mother, whose sacrifice the king refuses to accept with these words: "By God's law you have given him life once, and by my law you may not give him life again." Then at the last moment Katherine de Vaucelles offers to give her life for his, revealing her love, and Louis, finding in some words of the poet the explanation of his dream, pardons him, saying: "People of Paris, I have tried that man's heart and found it pure gold; that woman's soul and found it all angel. Shepherd and shepherdess, go tend your sheep."
'The piece is admirably mounted; everything is done on the cost-what-it-may principle, to which playgoers of late years have become accustomed. The name of Mr. Percy Macquoid, R.I., is warrant for the historical accuracy of every detail of costumes and properties; the three scenes representing "The Interior of the Fir Cone Tavern," "The King's Garden," and "And Open Place in Paris," are signed W. Hann and W. Talbin, and are all three artistically beyond reproach.
'Mr. George Alexander, the manager, is to be congratulated on this production no less than Mr. George Alexander, the actor, on his impersonation of François Villon; Mr. Charles Fulton, through he has done better work than this, is a trenchant and duly humorous Louis XI.; Mr. Lyall Swete, an excellent Thibaut d'Aussigny, reveals his Bensonian [i.e. F.R. Benson] training by his clear elocution and sober gesture. Miss Julie Opp, whose place has now been taken in the cast by Miss Lilian Braithwaite, was a dignified Katherine de Vaucelles. A truly beautiful performance is that of Miss Suzanne Sheldon, as Huguette du Hamel, known as "the Abbess," one of the frequenters of the Fir Cone Tavern, who loves Villon, and proves it by thrusting herself between the poet and Thibaut d'Aussigny's dagger, and by taking for herself the death-blow indented for her love. She plays the part throughout with spirit and unobtrusive grace; her pathos rings true, and she overcomes many real difficulties with perfect ease, without a suspicion of overacting, despite the obvious temptations to which an actress of less talent and experience would very probably succumb.
'It is easy, no doubt, to prophesy after the event, but it was obvious from the first that a long run was in store for Mr. M'Carthy's play; it has met with the approval it deserved at the hands of the public, and although the hundredth performance took place several weeks ago there is as yet no sign of its waning popularity.'
(Max Roldit, The Playgoer, London, March 1903, pp.175-182)

If I Were King

The arrest of François Villon (George Alexander, centre left with halberd)
at the Fir Cone Tavern, Paris, in Act I of If I Were King,
St. James's Theatre, London, 30 August 1902

(photo: Gordon Smith, London, 1902)

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