There are many 19th century actors I wish I could go back in time to see. Benoît-Constant Coquelin (1841-1909) is one of the few non-English speakers to make the list.
Coquelin was the top French comic actor of his time; his fame was international. He might be best remembered today for his association with two plays by Edmond Rostand: he originated the title character in Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), and he rehearsing to play the lead in Chanticler in 1909 when he died suddenly several days before opening night.
Coquelin’s father was a baker in the seaside town of Boulogne-sur-mer, Pas-de-Calais. As a youth, Coquelin studied as the Conservatoire de Paris, and was first admitted to the company of the Comédie-Française at the unusually young age of 19, where he made an early hit as Figaro in The Barber of Seville, interpreted many of the key roles in the classics of Moliere, and created roles in original farces and other plays for over a quarter of a century. Throughout the 1880s he wrote numerous books and articles on the art of comic acting.
In 1886 Coquelin broke with the company to tour Europe and the United States. (The photo above was taken during that tour ca. 1888 by Napoleon Sarony). He returned to the Comédie-Française from 1890-1892 then broke with them for good to perform and travel with his own company. He brought two Moliere plays to Abbey’s Theatre in New York in 1894. In 1895 he joined the Renaissance Theatre in Paris. In 1897 he accepted the directorship of the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, which is where he presented Cyrano later that year. In 1900 he toured America for the third time, co-starring with Sarah Bernhardt in Cyrano.
Earlier I said that I’d like to go back in time and see Coquelin. Well, you almost can. A short film of his performance in Cyrano was made in 1900, accompanied by a cylinder of him speaking the lines, thus making it one of the first sound films. As it is also hand tinted, it is also one of the first sound color films! You can see it here on Youtube. An age of miracles! Just a few years later, around 1905, Max Linder began making his internationally popular comedy films, ushering in a different sort of era. There was a brief period of overlap between these two French comic geniuses. I wonder what they thought of each other? Something to look into.
As we say, he was rehearsing Coquelin when he died suddenly in 1909. I have not been able to learn the cause, but he was 68 years old by that time, a not common age in those days to be struck down by any number of common ailments.
His younger brother, Ernest Alexandre Honoré Coquelin, and his son Jean, were also actors. It is for this reason that Constant Coquelin was often referred to as Coquelin aîné, or “Coquelin the Eldest”.