By Robert V. Kenny
Mistriss SALLÉ toujours errante,
Et toujours vivant mécontente …Mistress Sallé, forever wandering and forever discontented …
Shortly after Marie Sallé’s return to Paris in the summer of 1735, at the end of what turned out to be her last season in London, the Abbé Prévost’s journal, Le Pour et Contre, gave an account of an incident at Covent Garden that would certainly have explained her reason for leaving London in a state of discontent. This incident had supposedly occurred during a performance of the ballet scenes in Handel’s new opera Alcina, choreographed by Sallé herself:
People unashamedly hissed her [onstage] in the theatre. The opera Alcina was being performed. Mademoiselle Sallé had composed a Ballet, in which she took the role of Cupid, a role she danced in male attire. It is said that this attire ill-suits her and was apparently the cause of her fall from grace. [Emphasis added.]On n’a pas eu honte de la siffler en plein théâtre. On jouait l’Opéra d’Alcine. Mademoiselle Sallé avait composé un Ballet, dans lequel elle se chargea du rôle de Cupidon, qu’elle entreprit de danser en habit d’homme. Cet habit, dit- on, lui sied mal, et fut apparemment la cause de sa disgrâce.1)
These events are widely assumed to have taken place at the première of Alcina on 16 April 1735; indeed, the Biographical Dictionary of Actors, following Prévost, states as a fact that on that date she was hissed by members of the rival opera company from the King’s theatre.2)
A pirated edition of Le Pour et Contre in the Hague had already published a different report of her dissatisfaction with England, followed by an epigram, two lines of which appear above as my epigraph: “Mademoiselle Sallé, unable to appear in England with the same satisfaction as before, when she received the applause of the Court and the City, has resolved to abandon the English and return to France. I am told that she has indeed left and is expected to arrive in Paris at any moment. Here is an Epigram on the subject of her return:
EPIGRAM on the Return of Mademoiselle Sallé
Mlle SALLÉ forever wandering,
And living forever discontented,
Still deafened by the sound of hissing,
Heavy of heart, light of purse,
Comes home, cursing the English,
Just as, on leaving for England,
She had cursed the French.Mademoiselle Sallé ne pouvant plus paraitre en Angleterre avec la même satisfaction que ci-devant, lorsqu’elle recueillait les applaudissements de la Cour et de la Ville, a résolu d’abandonner les Anglais et de retourner en France. On me mande qu’elle est effectivement partie, et qu’on l’attend à Paris à tout moment. Voici une Epigramme qu’on a faite sur son retour.
EPIGRAMME sur le retour de Mademoiselle Sallé
Mistriss SALLÉ toujours errante,
Et toujours vivant mécontente,
Sourde encor du bruit des sifflets,
Le cœur gros, la bourse légère,
Revient, maudissant les Anglais,
Comme en partant pour l’Angleterre
Elle maudissait les Français.3)
This news item must have been written around mid-June (NS) because on 2 July 1735 (NS) in Paris, les nouvelles à la main [manuscript news-sheets] carried a report which appears to show knowledge of this pirated Hague edition of Le Pour et contre:
La Sallé has come back from England, as discontented with the English as she was with us when she left. Here is an epigram that depicts her perfectly …La Sallé est revenue d’Angleterre, aussi mécontente des Anglais qu’elle l’était de nous quand elle partit. Voici une épigramme qui la peint au naturel …
The news-sheet reproduces the epigram with a slightly different second line: ‘Et qui vit toujours mécontente’ [‘And who lives forever discontented’].4) According to Prévost’s account, the hissing incident strongly suggested that Sallé, once the idol of London society, had fallen out of favour with it. This situation had been foreshadowed by other observers. In a letter of 9 January 1734 Mattieu Marais noted:
The English, who know little about dance, are growing tired of Sallé and say they had enough of her last year, and the ladies find her prissy [pimpesouée] and hoity-toity.Les Anglais, qui se connaissent peu en danse, se lassent de la Sallé et disent qu’ils en ont eu assez il y a un an, et les dames anglaises la trouvent pimpe-souée et faisant la milady.5)
The word ‘pimpesouée’ implies a woman who plays ‘hard to get’ and it may be that Sallé’s impeccable private life was partly responsible for the ladies’ resentment of a mere dancer whose moral standards were higher than their own. In early 1735, Prévost had printed some English verses indicating that Sallé had aroused displeasure not only for her financial success but, more dangerously, for expressing a low opinion of the English:
Miss Sallé too (late come from France)
Says we can neither dress nor dance.
Yet she, as is agreed by most,
Dresses and dances at our cost.
She from experience draws her rules
And justly calls the English fools.
For such they are, since none but such
For foreign Jilts would pay so much.6)
In the following I propose to re-examine the supposed Cupid incident and suggest an alternative explanation for what happened.
First, it is important to note that, other than in Prévost (whose wording –‘it is said’ and ‘apparently’—indicates that he is writing at second or third hand), there is no reference to the Cupid incident in any other source. It is nowhere mentioned in the London press or in any contemporary French or English correspondence – including that of John Rich and the inveterate gossip Lord Hervey, who would surely have commented on it. As for the suggestion that the hissing on this occasion came from a rival company, Sallé seems to have been on good terms with dancers from the other theatres; in fact, the London Daily Post and General Advertiser had reported on 17 March 1735 that
The Celebrated Monsieur [George] Denoyer and Mademoiselle Salle, by Permission of the Masters of the two Theatres Royal, … agreed to dance together at each other’s Benefit.
The idea that hissing could have been provoked by Sallé’s costume as one of the fluttering cupids in Alcina’s garden is, in my view, equally far-fetched. In the London seasons of 1733-4 and 1734-5, travesty roles for women in dance, often as cupids or petits-maîtres, were commonplace, as can be seen from these selections from two seasons’ playbills in The London Stage.
Covent Garden, 16 March 1734. The Nuptial Masque or The Triumphs of Cupid and Hymen. ‘Cupid – Miss Norsa, the first time of her appearing in boy’s clothes.’
Drury Lane, 18 March 1734. ‘Minuet by Mlle Grognet (in Boy’s Cloaths);’ Prince of Wales present.
Covent Garden, 18 March 1734. ‘A Courtier by Miss Norsa in Boy’s Cloaths.’
Goodman’s Fields, 25 March 1734. ‘An Epilogue of thanks spoke by Mrs Roberts in Man’s Cloaths.’
Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1 April 1734. ‘Minuet by Mlle Grognet in Boy’s Cloaths.’
Covent Garden, 6 April 1734. ‘Mrs Kilby, the first time of her appearing in Boy’s Cloaths.’
Covent Garden, 29 April 1735 ‘Harlequin by Miss Norsa Jr., the first time of her appearance on any stage.’
Haymarket, 5 May 1735. Grognet benefit. ‘The Wedding (new) by Mlle Mimi Verneuil and Mlle Grognet in Man’s Clothes.
Covent Garden, 20 May 1735. ‘Afterpiece Minuet by Mlle Grognet in Men’s Cloths, and Miss Baston.’
York Buildings, 3 June 1735. ‘A Minuet by Miss Norsa in Boy’s Cloaths and Miss Oates.’
Haymarket, 9 July 1735. Aaron Hill Zara. Epilogue spoken ‘by Miss ___ in Boy’s Cloaths.’
Click here for an image of the actress Peg Woffington in a trousers role (London, 1746).
However, in dance (as opposed to opera) this kind of travesty was almost exclusively the preserve of very young girls and women.7) It was, for example, a specialty of Manon Grognet (‘la petite grognette’ as Mathieu Marais called her in 1733), who was currently dancing in travesty as a petit-maître at the Little Haymarket Theatre – but, as Marais had written, specifically contrasting her dancing with that of Sallé, ‘it’s a different kind of dancing, and there will be enough for everyone [c’est une autre danse, et il y en aura pour tout le monde].’8) What he was surely referring to was the difference between the ‘belle danse’ of the Opéra-trained Sallé and the sprightly commedia style that Grognet would have learned at the fairs.) As an adult, Sallé (aged twenty-six in 1735) never danced in male attire, and nothing in her entire adult career in London or Paris lends a shred of credibility to the idea that this woman of impeccable taste and judgment would have played a young male Cupid, so soon after the refined grandeur of her recent ground-breaking appearances as Galatea in Pygmalion, Ariadne in Bacchus and Ariadne, a Bridal Virgin in Apollo and Daphne, and the Bridal Nymph in A Nuptial Masque.
How, then, did this unlikely story arise? I believe there may be a clue in a letter from Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, to Diana, Duchess of Bedford, dated 24 June 1735, telling of an incident which did indeed take place at Covent Garden during a performance of Alcina. The King attended performances of this opera both on the opening night, 16 April, and on 14 May with the Queen and Princess Amelia. Since nothing unseemly was reported about the opening night (it surely would have been publicly noticed then), the incident recounted by the Duchess must have taken place on 14 May. While the Duchess could not be bothered to know the name of the performer in question, Sarah McCleave has identified her as Marie Sallé:
The famous dancing woman (I do not know her name) in the opera, the audience were so excessive fond of her that they hollered out “encore” several times to have her dance over again, which she could not do, because as she was coming on again, the King made a motion with his hand that she should not. At last the dispute was so violent that to put an end to it, the curtain was let down, whereby the spectators lost all after the third act.9)
The Duchess’s letter provides evidence not only that Sallé danced in Alcina until 14 May but, more importantly, that a full month after the première of the opera, far from being out of favour, Sallé was still immensely popular. As Alcina has only three acts, the Duchess’s meaning is unclear, but it seems likely that the incident took place at the end of the second act in the ballet of good and bad dreams, probably the ‘Entrance of pleasant dreams’ [Entrée des songes agréables], which Handel borrowed from the ballet he had written for Sallé in Ariodante in January 1735. The King’s gesture was clearly one of impatience, indicating that he wanted the evening to end soon. On the following day, 15 May, he was to prorogue parliament and on 17 May he would eagerly set out for Hanover and the arms of his mistress. He had sat through two acts and his mind was already elsewhere.
As the Duchess makes clear, the audience’s anger at the King’s peremptory dismissal of the popular dancer was so violent that the performance had to be brought to an end. Hissing there certainly was, and Sallé was indeed obliged to leave the stage, not because of her costume (which audiences over the three previous weeks had already seen without comment), but, according to the Duchess of Marlborough, in obedience to a gesture from the King which most of the audience would not have seen. Could it be that the noisy outburst at this aborted performance on 14 May was thought by some (especially those who heard of it at second-hand) to have been directed not against the King but against Sallé herself when she attempted to return to the stage to take her encore? Might it even be that her entrée was not a solo and that a cupid or cupids en travesti entered with her, adding to the confusion?
This explanation may perhaps be supported by the opening of the already quoted news item from the pirated Hague edition of Le Pour et contre:
Parisians have learned with a joy that is neither shocking nor insulting to Mademoiselle Sallé, of the unfortunate accident that befell her recently [emphasis added] in London, since this insult seemed to them to predict the prompt return of this famous dancer.Les Parisiens ont appris avec une joie qui n’a rien de choquant ni d’insultant pour Mademoiselle Sallé, le fâcheux accident qui lui est arrivé en dernier lieu [emphasis added] à Londres, puisque cet affront leur semblait pronostiquer le prompt retour de cette fameuse Danseuse.
This report seems to me entirely consistent with the incident described by the Duchess of Marlborough. The report that Sallé was being less favourably received than before by the Court (the King?) and the City (the raucous audience?), makes the ‘unfortunate incident’ sound very recent, far more like the ‘violent dispute’ which happened on 14 May than something which has hitherto been presumed to have taken place on 16 April and of which there is not a single mention in the English press.
Since the Earl of Egmont, a friend and confident of both King and Queen, noted in his journal for 14 May, ‘In the evening I went to Handel’s opera called Alcina’, it might seem odd that he made no mention of any disturbance. However, earlier in the day, he had had a long discussion with the Bishop of Salisbury concerning the unstable state of international affairs, and the King’s apparent indifference to it. The Bishop warned Egmont that ‘Sir Robert [Walpole] sees his situation and is very uneasy at it, and so is the Queen. […] It is a great misfortune the King is made believe the people’s affections are warm to him, none daring to tell him the truth.’11) Egmont might, then, have found nothing newsworthy in a rowdy demonstration against the monarch and in favour of a much-loved dancer.
Sallé, however, may well have interpreted the King’s gesture as an unexpected sign of sudden royal disfavour, and she might even have taken the ensuing raucous demonstration to be directed against her rather than against the King. After the performance on 14 May there is not a single known mention of her by name in the London press or contemporary correspondence concerning the remainder of the Covent Garden season. There were altogether eighteen performances of Alcina, ending with a royal command performance for Queen Caroline on 2 July, but Sallé cannot have been dancing in London on 2 July 1735, or at any point after mid-June at the latest, for one very simple reason. What seems to have been hitherto overlooked is the crucial fact that Britain did not adopt the Gregorian revisions to the calendar until 1752, and until then the date in England (Old Style) was eleven days behind the date in Catholic Europe (New Style). Sallé must have already been in Paris well before 2 July (New Style) for the news of her arrival to reach the news-sheets and inspire the mocking epigram. The journey from London to Paris could take over a week, often ten days or more, depending on the state of the seas and the roads. This means that at the very latest Sallé must have left London around mid-June (OS) and performances of Alcina must therefore have continued without her.12) It could even be that Sallé walked out of Covent Garden immediately after the ‘unfortunate incident’ of 14 May; her ‘empty purse’ mentioned in the mocking verses would be the result of the loss of salary for the remaining nine performances. This view is supported by the fact that, when Alcina was revived, in November of the 1736-7 season, it was without either Sallé or the dances.
Sallé’s behaviour may seem an over-reaction to what might best be described as an unfortunate concatenation of misunderstandings. But it was in keeping with her hypersensitive and headstrong character. There has been no previous discussion of the fact that every one of Sallé’s seasons between 1730 and 1735 ended abruptly in some kind of irregular incident, violent altercation, and/or illness — Paris in August 1730; London in May-June 1731; Paris in November-December 1732; London in May 1734; London in May-June 1735. The nouvelles à la main dated 25 August 1730 reported that she and one of the directors (Claude-François Leboeuf) had argued on the stage of the Opéra, perhaps even coming to blows.13) In London, where she remained from November to the end of the 1730-31 season, Sallé received a glittering royal benefit on 25 March 1731. However, her name disappeared from the playbills from 3 May until 1 June, when there was a single announcement of ‘Dancing by Mlle Sallé’; then Rich’s company moved to Richmond, and Sallé, presumably, went back to France. No explanation seems to exist for this rather odd, month-long hiatus. In her letter to the Duchess of Richmond in 1731, Sallé made it abundantly clear that she did not like John Rich, whom she described as ‘a rude and unjust man at whose hands I have suffered too much ill treatment [un homme impoli et injuste, dont j’ai souffert trop de mauvais traitemens].’14) The last two lines of the epigram written about her two years later – ‘Just as on leaving for England/ She had cursed the French’ — would seem to be further confirmation of the fact that Sallé had left Paris in October 1733 in unpleasant circumstances. On 24 May 1734, Pygmalion and Bacchus and Ariadne were advertised, as ‘being the last Time of the Company’s performing this Season‘ (Daily Journal). However, according to Rich’s Register the audience was dismissed, ‘by reason Madem Sallé wou’d not come to the House.’15)
Whatever exactly happened in 1735, it is clear that the ‘unhappy incident’ (‘fâcheux accident’) was the culmination of a number of unfortunate events, and one from which she did not recover. It affected her health: Voltaire, who saw her soon after her return, wrote on 15 July to Sallé’s ardent but frustrated admirer, Nicolas-Claude Thiériot, ‘So, you are avenged; your nymph has lost her beauty [Vous voilà donc vengé de votre nymphe; elle a perdu sa beauté].’16) Sallé had not, however, lost the admiration of audiences in both countries. The pirated Pour et contre had recorded the ‘joy’ with which Parisians looked forward to her return:
It is not yet known whether she will dance at the Opéra, and the public display an impatience about this which does her credit.On ne sait encore si elle dansera à l’Opéra,et le public témoigne là-dessus une impatience qui lui fait honneur.
The Daily Journal of Tuesday 5 August (OS) reported that, to the delight of all Paris, Sallé was to dance in the new opera Les Victoires Galantes, the original title of Fuzelier-Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, premiered on 23 August 1735 (NS). It added,
We do not mind what shall be done upon the Rhine by Marshall Coigny, or in Lombardy by Marshall Noailles, but what Mademoiselle Sallé will perform on the stage of Paris.17)
The fact that her activities were the object of so much speculation may simply be the result of her ‘celebrity’ status, enhanced by prurient interest in the ‘virtue’ (i.e., chastity) of a mere dancer and perhaps also by the very unpredictability that I have been describing. Judges as severe as Voltaire seem to have been charmed by her charismatic personality. Proof that she still had a loyal following in London is suggested by the report in the Grub Street Journal for 19 August 1736 that Desnoyer, ‘the famous Dancer at Drury-lane theatre,’ had gone to Paris ‘by order of Mr. Fleetwood [the theatre manager]’ to try to hire Sallé for the winter season – something that certainly does not suggest any dimming of her star. But the hopes of Desnoyer and Fleetwood were to be disappointed.
Did Sallé ever return to England? Dacier notes that some of her contemporaries thought this, though he could find no evidence of it.18) An unsubstantiated and uncorroborated account, written some ten years after the event it claims to describe, was included in an anonymous article (Mémoires d’un Musicien) which appeared in three numbers of the Journal Encyclopédique in May-June 1756, just a month before Sallé’s death in obscurity:
Mlle Sallé, the French dancer in whom the most respectable morals were united with the rarest talents, caused admiration on the London stage for graceful qualities which the English had not hitherto seen, and which are created and acquired only in France. I had known her there; she seemed most content to receive me, and I was witness to her unhesitating sacrifice of over a thousand louis which ought to have accrued from her engagement with Handel, even though she was solicited by the greatest lords in London to break it off, which a caprice led them to speculate would be more desirable.Mlle. Sallé, Danseuse Françoise, qui scavoit unir les moeurs les plus respectables aux plus rares talens, faisoit assez admirer sur le Théâtre de Londres des graces que les Anglois n’avoient pas encore connues, & qui ne naissent, & ne peuvent s’acquerir qu’en France. Je l’y avois connue, elle parut fort aise de me voir, & je fus temoin du sacrifice qu’elle n’hésita point de faire de plus de mille Louis qui auroient dû lui revenir de son engagement avec Hendel, quoique sollicité par les plus grands Seigneurs de Londre de le rompre, pour en prendre un nouveau avec un entrepreneur qu’un caprice leur faisoit esperer plus agréable.19)
In a 1996 article by David Charlton and Sarah Hibberd, these few lines became the subject of scholarly speculation on the possibility of Sallé’s return to London, a discussion taken up and amplified by Sarah McCleave.20) Whatever the facts of this matter may be, one thing is clear: after leaving London in June 1735, Marie Sallé was never again to dance on the English stage.
About the author
Dr Robert V Kenny is Honorary Fellow in French Studies in the University of Leicester. His full-length study of Sallé’s uncle François Moylin (Francisque) and his travelling theatre companies in England and France will be published by Boydell and Brewer early in 2025.
- Antoine François Prévost, Le Pour et contre, 6 (87), pp. 286-7. Immediately before this story, the writer claims to have no idea what caused Sallé’s fall from grace. The whole article gives the impression of having been concocted from several sources or rumours.
- Highfill, Philip H., Jr., Edward A. Langhans, Kalman Burnim, eds., A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973-93, vol.13, p.183.
- Le Pour et contre (pirated edition), The Hague: Isaac van der Kloot, 1735, 6 (206), p. 72. Jean Sgard’s index confirms the fact that this news item and the epigram did not appear in the Paris edition. Jean Sgard, Le ‘Pour et contre’ de Prévost, introduction, tables et index, Paris: Nizet, 1969, p. 210.
- This news and a half-remembered part of the epigram were also contained in a letter from Mathieu Marais to the President of the Dijon Parlement, Jean Bouhier, dated 3 July (New Style), and, according to Emile Dacier, the verses appeared in London in the General Advertiser of 10 July (Old Style), although I have not been able to verify this. Editor’s note: I have seen this in British Library ‘Latreille Collection’ Add. MS 32251, fol. 231v; also in Walter Eisen, Margret Eisen, and Otto Erich Deutsch, Händel-Handbuch, vol. 4, (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1985), p. 253; both sources claim it appeared in several newspapers after the opera season ended on 2 July 1735. A search for Sallé in the Burney Newspapers throughout July 1735 in Gale primary sources online yields nothing on the dancer. An additional manual browse of the twelve surviving issues of the London Daily Post and General Advertiser for July 1735 (a most likely source), does not yield anything on Sallé – but six of these issues have articles cut from them. The George Frideric Handel Collected Documents project does not include any references to this epigram for July 1735. See Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greenacombe and Anthony Hicks (eds.), The George Frideric Handel Collected Documents 1734-1742, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
- Quoted in Emile Dacier, Une Danseuse de l’Opéra sous Louis XV, Mlle Sallé (1707-1756). Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1909, p. 144. Henri Duranton’s edition of these letters gives ‘trop louée’ instead of ‘pimpesouée’. Dacier’s reading sounds more likely.
- Antoine François Prévost, Le Pour et le Contre, 1735, vol.6 (76), p.22-3. Jean Sgard confidently dates this number no later than February/early March 1735. See Sgard, Le ‘Pour’, p.32.
- Indeed, back in Paris in January 1733, a titillating travesty role by the opera singer Mlle Le Maure as ‘l’Amour’ in Louis de Boissy’s comedy Les Etrennes (in the act ‘la Vue’ of Pierre-Charles Roy’s Ballet des sens, première 5 June 1732) was held up as the very antithesis of Sallé’s more elevated and noble style. Dacier, p. 102.
- Mathieu Marais, Letter of 1 December 1733, in Correspondance littéraire du président Bouhier, ed. Henri Duranton, vol. IX (2): Lettres de Mathieu Marais. Saint-Etienne, 1981.
- Letters of a Grandmother 1732-1735. Being the Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough with her Granddaughter Diana, Duchess of Bedford, ed. Gladys Scott Thompson (London: Jonathan Cape, 1943), p.151. Quoted in Sarah McCleave, Dance in Handel’s London Operas, Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester, 2013, p.1.
- The French word accident regularly has the broader meaning of incident.
- J. Perceval. Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Manuscripts of the Earl of Egmont: Diary of Viscount Percival afterwards first Earl of Egmont …volume 2, 1734-1783 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1920-23), p. 177.
- She probably returned to France with the company of her uncle Francisque, wh had been performing a season of French drama at the Little Haymarket theatre until early June. The company included Manon Grognet, but there is no justification for Deirdre Kelly’s statement that she and Sallé travelled ‘openly’ together, or for the inferences drawn from this supposed fact. See Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Vancouver, 2012), p. 34.
- Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 26700.
- McCleave, Dancing at the English Opera, p. 37.
- The London Stage, Part 3, vol. 1, p. 401.
- Letter 490, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire … nouvelle édition (Paris: Garnier frères, 1880), vol. 33, pp. 505-506.
- The original report inverts ‘of’ and ‘on’. This must surely be an error.
- Dacier, p.253.
- Journal encyclopedique, 14 (1756), 47-48, as translated in David Charlton and Sarah Hibberd, ‘“My father was a poor Parisian musician”: a memoir (1756) concerning Rameau, Handel’s Library and Sallé’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 128, No. 2 (2003), pp. 161-199, [47-48 in the original], p. 197.
- See Charlton and Hibberd, p.197; McCleave, Dance in Handel’s London Operas, pp.119-20.
The next post will be a report on an aspect of Sarah McCleave’s ‘Fame and the Female Dancer’ project.