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  • "Sublime Vehemence":The Legacy of Shelley's The Cenci in fin de siècle Symbolism
  • James Armstrong

Percy Bysshe Shelley's play The Cenci received its first production from the Shelley Society in 1886, but, five years later, Paul Fort's Théâtre d'Art produced the play in Paris, erroneously billing it as a world premiere. Though Fort's production of The Cenci was not the first performance of the play, it had lasting consequences both inside and outside of the French-speaking world. In resurrecting The Cenci, Fort shaped the future careers of numerous artists, including playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, director Aurélien Lugné-Poe, and ultimately Lugné-Poe's protégé Antonin Artaud, who would later produce his own version of The Cenci in 1935. Fort also provided a link between the Romantic movement and the nascent Symbolist movement of the 1890s. This link has never been fully explored but speaks to the far-reaching impact of Shelley's writing on artists who (on the surface at least) seem very different from him.

Various misconceptions surround Shelley's 1819 play, which from its first publication was both widely read and frequently misunderstood. Fort and his company tried to debunk certain myths surrounding The Cenci, including the notion that it was a closet drama not intended for performance. More importantly, the production positioned both the play and its author as Romantic ideals that could be emulated by the Symbolists. The actress Georgette Camée, who played Beatrice Cenci in Fort's production, reportedly captured the "véhémence sublime" the Symbolists believed Shelley had intended for the role. In doing so, she helped provide a bridge between the historical Shelley and the Shelley of artists' imaginations in a dawning new era.

The Romantic outcast Shelley had always been a hero of Fort's, and the young Frenchman likened himself to the great English poet (Lewisohn xi). However, it was The Cenci in particular that seemed to speak to him and other artists as they attempted to break out of Naturalism [End Page 82] and into a bold new form. Fort's company had previously dabbled in Naturalism as well as Symbolist drama, but after the production of The Cenci, Fort announced his Théâtre d'Art would be absolutely dedicated to Symbolism's new style. Though the play was largely passed over in Shelley's England, it influenced fin de siècle Symbolists in France, inspiring Fort, catapulting Camée to critical renown, securing the premiere of Pierre Quillard's breakthrough play La Fille aux mains coupées (The Girl with Severed Hands), and helping to launch the directing career of Aurélien Lugné-Poe. The seeds planted in Shelley's Romantic verse tragedy would bear fruit in the avant-garde dramas of Symbolism.

I. The French Premiere of The Cenci

Paul Fort's Théâtre d'Art was inaugurated in 1890 when—while still a pupil at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris—he established the Théâtre Mixte. The name implied a mixture of different types of theater, but the company also mixed theater with other art forms, including music and poetry. In this way, it could be seen as similar to Shelley's own theater, which frequently contained verse prologues and epilogues declaimed from the stage without any intention of mimesis.1 The group's first presentation at the Salle Duprez in June 1890 featured a verse prologue by Marc Legrand followed by a verse one-act play by Legrand entitled Pierrot et la Lune (Pierrot and the Moon). The company also performed Le Florentin (The Florentine), a seventeenth-century play by Jean de La Fontaine and Marie Champmeslé, which Fort described as "Théâtre oublié" or "forgotten theatre" ("Théâtre Mixte" 3). Apparently, the piece was as little known in Fort's day as it is now.

After the first presentation of the Théâtre Mixte, Fort teamed up with the poet Louis Germain, who had recently formed his own company, the Théâtre Idéaliste (Henderson 90). Together with Germain, Fort produced a second program of theater, this time featuring the oneact verse drama Caïn...