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BENOÎT CONSTANT COQUELIN (1841-1909)

FRENCH actor Benoit Constant Coquelin, known as Coquelin aîné, was born at Boulogne on the 23rd of January 1841. He was originally intended to follow his father's trade of baker (he was once called un boulanger manqué by a hostile critic), but his love of acting led him to the Conservatoire, where he entered Regnier's class in 1859. He won the first prize for comedy within a year, and made his debut on the 7th of December 1860 at the Comédie Française as the comic valet, Gros-René in Molière's Dépit amoureux, but his first great success was as Figaro, in the following year. He was made sociétaire in 1864, and during the next twenty-two years he created at the Français the leading parts in forty-four new plays, including Théodore de Banville's Gringoire (1867), Paul Ferrier's Tabarin (1871), Émile Augier's Paul Forestier (1871) L'Étrangère (1876) by the younger Dumas, Charles Lomon's Jean Dacier (1877), Edward Pailleron's Le Monde où l'on s'ennuie (1881), Erckmann and Chatrian's Les Rantzau (1884). In consequence of a dispute with the authorities over the question of his right to make provincial tours in France he resigned in 1886. Three years later, however, the breach was healed; and after a successful series of tours in Europe and the United States he rejoined the Comédie Française as pensionnaire in 1890. It was during this period that he took the part of Labussière, in the production of Sardou's Thermidor, which was interdicted by the government after three performances. In 1892 he broke definitely with the Comédie Française, and toured for some time through the capitals of Europe with a company of his own. In 1895 he joined the Renaissance theatre in Paris, and played there until he became director of the Porte Saint Martin in 1897. Here he won successes in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) Émile Bergerat's Plus que reine (1899), Catulle Mendès' Scarron (1905), and Alfred Capus and Lucien Descaves' L'Attentat (1906). In 1900 he toured in America with Sarah Bernhardt, and on their return continued with his old colleague to appear in L'Aiglon, at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. He was rehearsing for the creation of the leading part in Rostand's Chantecler, which he was to produce, when he died suddenly in Paris, on the 27th of January 1909. Coquelin was an Officier de l'Instruction Publique and of the Legion of Honour. He published L'Art et le comédien (1880), Molière et le misanthrope (1881), essays on Eugene Manuel (1881) and Sully-Prudhomme (1882), L'Arnolphe de Molière (1882), Les Comédiens (1882), L'Art de dire le monologue (with his brother, 1884), Tartuffe (1884), and L'Art du comédien (1894). His son, Jean Coquelin, was also an actor, first at the Théâtre Française (début, 1890), later at the Renaissance, and then at the Porte Saint Martin, where he created the part of Raigoné in Cyrano de Bergerac.

This article was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition. F.T.M. Cambridge: University Press, 1911.

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