From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 3, pages 103-108


and I served in this capacity with happiness and love. I still remember how I wrote a detailed essay in which I described twelve pictures representing the story of Joseph. A few of these ideas were executed. *

Along with all these praiseworthy accomplishments of boyhood I wish to mention a brief moment of shame, which I encountered amid the artists' circle. I was well acquainted with the the pictures, which were brought to the various rooms. My youthful curiosity left nothing unseen or uninvestigated. One time behind the stove I found a small, black chest. I wasted no time in trying to find out what was inside and without thinking I slid back the bolt. * The paintings contained within were not of the type one placed on exhibit and I quickly returned them to their chest but I was not fast enough. — "Who gave you permission to open up this chest?" he said in his King's Lieutenant's voice. There wasn't much I could say, and he pronounced sentence with great seriousness. "You shall not enter this room for eight days," he said. — I bowed and exited. I obeyed this command to the letter and Seekatz, who was still working in that room, became quite annoyed — he was used to having me around — and as a small joking gesture of obedience I placed the coffee, which I customarily brought him, on the doorstep. He had to get up from his work and retrieve the cup himself and he found this such an unpleasant experience that he became quite angry with me.


At this point it seems necessary to give certain details in order to make it clear how I would have been able to help in such situations with relative ease when I had not yet learned the French language. Here my innate gifts enabled me to grasp the resonance and pitch of a language, it's rhythm, accent and tone, and its individual characteristics. Many words were familiar to me from studying Latin; Italian helped even more. By listening to servants and soldiers, guards and visitors I managed, if not to involve myself in their conversations, at least to form meaningful questions and answers. But my innate gifts were less important than the advantage given to me by the theater. * I received a free pass from my grandfather, which with the disapproval of my father but the approbation of my mother, served me daily. I sat in the theater pit before a foreign stage and made do with action, mimicry and modes of expression while I understood little or nothing of what was being said above me, thus my entertainment came from the gestures and conversational tones. I understood comedies the least because the actors spoke so quickly and the topics concerned matters of everyday life, the phraseology of which was unfamiliar to me. Tragedies were easier to understand with their measured pace, the rhythm of the Alexandrine verses, and the commonality of expression. It wasn't long before I took Racine, which I found in my father's library, to hand and recited the works to myself with great enthusiasm, in a theatrical manner whereby my mouth formed words as my ears had heard them


even though I could not understand everything I recited in its context. I learned passages by heart and repeated them like a talking bird. It was easier for me than when I had learned bible verses, which are mostly incomprehensible for a child. I customarily recited those verses in the tone of a Protestant minister. The French comedies in verse were very popular. The plays of Destouch, Marivaux and La Chausseé were preformed frequently and I still remember many of the main characters. * I remember much less about Moliere's works. I was most impressed by "Hypermnestra" by Lemierre *, which as a new work premiered and was performed repeatedly with great care. I was most charmed by "Devin du Village *," "Rose et Colas," and "Annette et Lubin." I can still recall the beribboned young men and women and their stage actions. It wasn't long before it elicited in me the desire to take a look around the theater. There were so many opportunities. I didn't always have the patience to listen to an entire play. Sometimes I wandered the corridors and in the milder seasons I played games with children my age in front of the door. A handsome and cheerful boy from the theater company played with us. I had seen him in small, incidental roles. He was best able to make himself understood by me since I knew how to use my French on him. He stayed close to me because there were no other boys his age or nationality with the theater or in the vicinity. We met when the theater was closed and


he seldom left me in peace even during the performances. Most of all he was a little boaster who chattered charmingly and incessantly and knew how to tell so much about his adventures, his trade, and other singular matters that he kept me extremely well-entertained and I learned more from him in four weeks about language and communication than one could possibly have imagined. And so it was that people thought I had achieved a foreign tongue immediately as though by inspiration.

In the first days of our acquaintance he escorted me into the theater and led me through the hallways where the actors and actresses spent their time between performances, dressed and undressed. The space was neither convenient nor comfortable. The theater company had been set up in a concert hall so there were no specific compartments behind the stage for the actors. In a fairly large adjoining room, which had previously served for card parties, both sexes intermingled and seemed to have no more shyness among themselves than they had with us children when they donned or changed their clothing in the open with no sense of propriety. I had never seen such a thing before, however with repeated visits it soon seemed quite natural to me.

It wasn't long before I developed a special interest. I continued to have a relationship with the young boy, whom I will name Derones *. Aside from his tendency to exaggerate he was a boy of good manners and artful character. He introduced me to his sister, who was a couple years older than us. She was a pretty girl, well developed with


regular features, brown coloring with dark hair and eyes. She had a silent, maybe even tragic nature. I tried to make myself attractive to her but I was unable to draw her attention. Young girls always think they are far more advanced than boys and they assume an aunt-like attitude towards younger boys who show them serious interest. I had no relationship with his younger brother.

Sometimes when his mother was in rehearsal or in society, we went to their house to play or otherwise entertain ourselves. I never went without a flower, a piece of fruit of something else to offer the fair girl. She always accepted these items with graciousness and thanked me most courteously, however I never saw her sad expression brighten and I never saw any sign that she took any interest in me. I believe I finally discovered her secret. The boy showed me a pastel portrait of a handsome man his mother kept behind her bed, which was decorated with elegant silk curtains. I noticed the man's subtle expression. He's not my Papa but he's as good as a Papa; and although he praised the man and told me many things in his customarily detailed and boastful manner, I believe I had found out that the man was indeed the girl's father but that the other children belonged to a friend of the house. This explained to me the girl's sad demeanor and for this reason I liked her all the better.

My inclination towards the girl help me endure the deceits of the brother, who often exaggerated beyond his capacity. I had to listen to tales of his great deeds, such as his doing


battle without wanting to hurt someone: It was all in the name of honor. He knew how to disarm an opponent and then forgive him: He was so good at fencing that on one occasion he took his opponent's sword and threw it up so high in a tree that it could not easily be retrieved.

What delighted me very much in my visits to the theater was that, with the free pass given me by the Chief Magistrate himself, all places were open to me including seats in the proscenium.

This was arranged in the French style, deeply set, with seats on both sides. The stage was skirted by a low barrier and the seats mounted one row behind the other with the first seats only slightly raised above the stage. These seats were places of honor and were usually occupied by officers. I will not say it destroyed all illusion but the proximity to the actors limited some of the enjoyment. Every use or misuse, as Voltaire so vehementaly described them, I witnessed with my own eyes. At times when more troops arrived and marched through the city, the theater would be very full. High-ranking officers sought out the places of honor, which were usually already taken. Rows of benches and chairs were placed on the stage itself. There was little else the heros and heroines could do other than reveal the mysteries of their craft in cramped quarters between the uniformed officers and the enlisted men. I myself had seen "Hypermnestra" performed under such circumstances.

The curtain did not fall between acts. I also wish to mention a strange practice, which I


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Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks