Serge Lamothe in Madame Baudelaire’s living room

Serge Lamothe takes part in the celebrations of the 200e anniversary of the birth of Charles Baudelaire in a resolutely original way. In order to shed new light on the life and work of the great French poet, the Quebec writer, as prolific as he is versatile, has chosen to introduce us to the one who was the muse and lover of Baudelaire, a sadly unknown woman. .

“It is an attempt to rehabilitate the figure of Jeanne Duval, and perhaps also, despite all the esteem I have for her, a way of debunking that of Baudelaire”, explains the author of his play, Madame Baudelaire’s living room, which will be read by Alexis Martin on the occasion of the International Literature Festival (FIL).

“It is a mythical couple, continues Lamothe, it is a mad love, tormented, tumultuous, not to say stormy, almost always in extremes. All sources agree when it comes to qualifying their union as dynamite. For 23 years, they cohabited, separated, cheated, fought, they broke up and reconciled. In short, they tore each other as madly as they loved each other. “

The woman of his life

To his mother, Baudelaire wrote: “Jeanne is the woman of my life. He is the only being in whom I have found a little rest. She is my only joy and my only comrade. Descendant of slaves, Jeanne Duval was born in Haiti around 1820. Actor and dancer, she was more or less 22 years old when she met Baudelaire in Paris, probably in a theater. She died of syphilis, like Baudelaire, moreover, around 1860.

“He was his muse,” says Lamothe. She had a capital importance in his life and in his work. It is estimated that out of the hundred poems that contain The evil flowers, 25 are directly inspired by Jeanne! Victim of enormous prejudices – she was called debauched, alcoholic and perverse – she was hidden for almost a century and a half. Either the biographers were simply ignorant of its existence, or it was slandered in a brutal and, let’s say it, racist manner. “

When Serge Lamothe first read about Jeanne Duval, a few years ago, he admits to having been struck: “Having myself lived for several years in a mixed couple, I recognized something of my experience in that of Baudelaire and Jeanne. Despite the prevailing discourse which is one of openness, tolerance and acceptance, living in a mixed couple actually exposes a large number of prejudices which manifest themselves more or less blatantly, but constantly. “

It is little to say that the Parisian society of the mid-nineteenthe century condemned the love of Charles and Jeanne. “They had a big butt,” says the author. Showing up as a mixed couple in their time, in a Paris dominated by the well-meaning bourgeoisie, required audacity that made them, in my opinion, revolutionaries. »

For Baudelaire, adds Lamothe, it was certainly a way of expressing his dandyism, that is to say of displeasing with panache: “On the arm of this beautiful Haitian whom he affectionately called his big feline, he caused a scandal that he had to savor somewhere. I would dare say that they have both made transgression in privacy as well as in society a way of life. “

Approaching the present

To reconstruct the life of Jeanne Duval, we benefit, so to speak, only from the letters that Baudelaire addressed to his mother, Aupick, the latter having destroyed all of Jeanne’s missives. Serge Lamothe therefore had the opportunity to give free rein to his imagination: “Some areas are vague enough for me to allow myself to interpret a little. Purists may think that I deviated from the consensus a bit, but I really didn’t invent anything. Having said that, the couple are so current, so ahead of their time that they allow me to address the present. Their way of defying the norms, of ignoring the rules, that seems to me to be quite contemporary as an attitude. “

The journey of Jeanne Duval, an actress frustrated at not being able to play at the height of her talent, because confined to certain minor roles, as well to say condemned to embody an agreed exoticism, is not entirely without resonance at a time when the decolonization of the arts worries many.

“There is a moment in the room,” specifies Lamothe, “when Jeanne criticizes Baudelaire for portraying her in this way, let’s say exotic. She reminds him that she is not just that, that she is more than that. I have allowed myself to lend him this claim and I find that very plausible. I don’t want to assume anything, but I don’t think it’s much easier for a black actress today than it was back then. “

In addition to directing Marie-Madeleine Sarr and Emmanuel Schwartz in this public reading, which is of course a first step in the work towards a real theatrical production, Alexis Martin plays Nadar, a friend of the couple, an ex-lover of Jeanne. who was a photographer and cartoonist. “It’s quite a character,” explains Lamothe. His interventions shake up the dynamics of the tandem, modify the rhythm, bring an outside perspective, at times release the sharp tension that exists between Charles and Jeanne. “

Madame Baudelaire’s living room

Text: Serge Lamothe
Reading: Alexis Martin
A production of the International Literature Festival.
At the Outremont theater, September 29 and 30.

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