François-Joseph Talma (1763-1826),
a dentist and Napoleon’s favorite actor

by Xavier Riaud (*) , FINS




His career…


François-Joseph Talma was born in Paris on January 15, 1763. From the age of ten, he had a predilection for the stage. As he was in charge of the account of a tragedy full of unspeakable emotion, he burst into tears (Janin, 1826). In 1776, he went to England to see his father who had moved to London to practice dentistry. His uncle and brother also practiced dentistry in London, and then in Paris (Baron, 2003). Yet, despite the influence of his family’s profession, he was drawn more by the discovery of Elizabethan theatre. In England, he played as an amateur. Upon his return to France in 1785, he settled as a dentist for a while. He lived with his uncle on rue Mauconseil from 1782 to 1786 (Baron, 2003), but only practiced for 18 months (Lamendin, 2007).

Talma registered at the Royal School of Declamation & Song in 1786, renouncing dentistry. He made his debut at the Comédie-Française on November 27, 1787 and became one of its members in 1789 (Janin, 1826). There, he played Brutus and Voltaire’s (1694-1778) La Mort de César. He created the theatrical performance of the Chenier’s (1764-1811) Charles IX, Chenier being a French politician and writer. The play was a huge a success, so much so that the Church forbade the thirty-third performance of the play. On July 21, 1790, the play was performed again despite the ban. The company of the Comédie-Française became divided, split between the revolutionaries and the other members who refused to play with Talma. He became more and more politically involved - having no great affinity to Robespierre but befriending a young serviceman named Bonaparte. He was excluded from the Comédie-Française in 1791 and took refuge in a new theatre on “rue Richelieu”. The group soon took the name “Theatre de la République” and when the members of the Comédie-Française were imprisoned in September 1793, Talma was accused of having plotted against his former partners ( , 2010) . As he was included in the circle of Mirabeau’s friends and that of the Girondins, he only just escaped the guillotine (Janin, 1826).

He was subsequently sent back to the theatre, where his efforts and talent soon won unanimous approval. Talma showed innovation in his approach to costumes by proposing to play characters according to the dress code of their time ( , 2010) . In 1792, for example, when playing Proculus in Voltaire’s Brutus (1730), he dressed like a Roman rather than in contemporary fashion.

He returned to the Comédie Française in 1799 and officially became “Napoleon’s favourite actor”, notably thanks to his role in Cinna (1643), a play written by French playwright Corneille (1606-1684), in which Napoleon noticed his performance. In 1799, the theatre of rue Richelieu became the room of the Théâtre-Français ( , 2010) .

When it reopened, Talma played Rodrigue’s role in Corneille’s Le Cid. In 1807, he was appointed professor at the Conservatory. At the end of the same year, he became seriously ill and nearly died. In March 1808, he tried playing in comedies. He played in Plaute or the Latin Comedy written by Louis-Jean Lemercier (1771-1840), a French author (Janin, 1826). In September 1808, on the Emperor’s demand, he went to Erfurt to play in front of European crowned heads with other members of the Comédie-Française. He fascinated Europe with his great presence (Janin, 1826). From 1809 to 1810, he became ill again and did not peform much. In 1812, he had a love affair with Princess Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825) ( , 2010) . He reformed entirely the idea of costumes by following the advice of the French neoclassic painter David (1748-1825). He visited museums, consulted ancient manuscripts, sculptures and various monuments (Janin, 1826). Pioneer of an aesthetic revolution, he adapted political revolution to his theatrical ideas. He appeared on stage without his wig, without declaiming the tragic verse. He shook up conventions of tragic performances so much so that tragedy took on another shape: historical and political drama. The success of his performance in December 1821 in the tragedy Sylla (1824), written by French dramatic author Etienne de Jouy, should be particularly noted. His disguise as well as his wig allowed him to revive Napoleon, who had died a few months before.

A year before his death in 1825, Talma wrote his revolutionary vision of theatre in his Memoirs on Lekain and drama . Lekain (1729-1778) was a great French tragedian (Lamendin, 2007).

He died on October 19, 1826. The whole of Paris attended his funeral that was without religious ceremony on October 21. Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), a French writer, wrote a eulogy entitled Talma’s Death. Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), another French writer, gathered the tragedian’s papers and made the Memoirs of J.-F. Talma, written by himself published in 1850 ( , 2010) .

Talma was the faithful friend of Louise Desgarcins (1769-1797), a French actress whom he helped enter the Conservatoire/ory. He married Charlotte Vanhove (1771-1860), actress and the daughter of actor parents. His tomb can be found in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His grave can be found in the 724 P.A. concession of 1827, 12 th division, under the number 143 in the land registry, in the first rank of tombs at the back of the 11 th division, and is the 11 th from the Donon track (Lamendin, 2007).

Cabanès (1928) related that “Talma had a big mouth, thick and very regular lips and had in one word the profile of heroes and Caesars that he revived and made talk again on stage.”


« Napoleon’s favorite actor »


In the Memorial of Saint Helena (1822), Napoleon (1769-1821) said on November 6, 1817 of Talma: “I met Talma when I was First Consul. I always treated him with the distinction he deserved and as a man of superior talent, the first of his profession and of all aspects. I demanded him to be picked up every morning, and lunched together. Libellists had concluded that Talma was teaching me how to play my role of Emperor. Upon my return on Elba, I said to Talma during lunchtime and among several learned men: “Talma, they say that you taught me to have a good posture on the throne. Am I good at it?” (Las Cases, 1999). Las Cases (1766-1842), a French historian and the Emperor’s confident, remarked: “Talma refuted all these tales with nobility. He remained full of gratefulness and respect for the great man who had appreciated his personality and rewarded his superior talent with dazzling manner.” (Las Cases, 1999).

Yet, as he was staying in the Château de Malmaison for holidays, he was often guest at the First Consul’s table, and was fond of talking about drama with his host. From Talma’s accounts on theatrical needs and reforms, orders were issued in 1802 and 1803 which reorganized la Comédie-Française and allowed him to obtain subsidies from the government (B. M., 1968). Napoleon’s interest in the Comédie-Française was indisputable even during the Russian campaign, and on August 7, 1812, he signed the popular “order of Moscow” relating to the organization of the famous institution (Kovadchévitch, 1941).

When Bonaparte became Napoleon, Talma thought that he would have to give up seeing him regularly. However, a note from the first chamberlain Remusat (1797-1875) proved the contrary: “My dear Talma, I have much pleasure announcing you that our Majesty would be pleased to receive you in the morning during his breakfast. In that respect, you will have to present yourself in the Emperor’s apartment around half past nine in the morning and while our Majesty will have his breakfast, the palace’s prefect will follow the orders to make you enter.” From that moment, Talma went once a week to the Tuileries during breakfast time (B. M., 1968).

Napoleon never hesitated to criticize and advise Talma, and the actor always tried to apply his advice. As far as his performance of Caesar was concerned in Corneille’s Death of Pompey (1643), Napoleon shared with him his dissatisfaction: “You tire your arms too much. Empire chiefs are less lavish with movements; they know that a gesture is an order, that a look is death; therefore, they handle carefully gestures and looks.” Talma had brought some sobriety to drama that Napoleon admired and encouraged (B. M., 1968).

In autumn 1808 during the Erfurt negotiation, Napoleon, who wanted to apply to this meeting amazing celebrations and sumptuous entertainments, had asked Talma: “Come with us! You will meet a great number of kings!” The actor was indeed acclaimed by Alexander I of Russia (B. M., 1968).

Napoleon was extremely generous and Talma benefited greatly from his gratification and gifts. The tragedian, who valued the great man’s friendship over his generosity, remained faithful to the Emperor even when in exile. Moreover, he wrote him: “Sire, your kindness and the distinction with which you honoured me will never be forgotten by my heart. My memory will remain faithful to you and never, no never, will I be part of the range of ingrates you know”. The actor kept his promise. He never hid his pro-bonaparte feelings. Each year on May 5 - the anniversary of the Emperor’s death - he wore mourning clothes. The actor was never bothered despite the return of the monarchical regime (B. M., 1968).

Bibilography  :

Baron Pierre, « Dental Practice in Paris », in Dental Practice in Europe at the End of the 18th Century, conducted by Christine Hillam, Rodopi (ed.), Amsterdam, 2003.

B.M., « Napoleon amateur of theatre and admirer of Talma» [ Napoléon amateur de théâtre et admirateur de Talma] , in Hist. For all [Hist. pour tous] (Dir. A. Decaux), 1968 ; 96 : 570-571.

Cabanès A., Dents et dentistes à travers l’Histoire. [Teeth and dentists throughout history] Laboratoire Bottu (ed.), Paris, 1928.

De Las Cases Emmanuel, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène [Memorial of Saint Helena], Le Grand Livre du Mois (ed.), 4 tomes, Paris, 1999 (republishing of the first version of 1822). , François-Joseph Talma, 2010, pp. 1-2.

Janin Jules, Talma and Lekain, 1826.

Kovadchévitch M., The fate of French and Russian artists in 1812. The order of Moscow[Le sort des artistes français et russes en 1812. Le décret de Moscou,] Montlouis (ed.), 1941.

Lamendin Henri, Praticiens de l’art dentaire du XIV ème au XX ème siècle [The Practioners of the Dental Art from XIV to XX centuries] , L’Harmattan (ed.), Collection Médecine à travers les siècles [Medicine throughout the centuries Collection] , Paris, 2007.


(*) Dental Surgeon, Doctor in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and member of the National Academy of Dental Surgery.