One of the features of Madame de Maintenon’s school in its early years was that the girls were allowed to perform plays, to improve their public speaking abilities and expose them to great literature. This was common practice in boys’ schools at the time, but was unheard of in girls’ schools (insofar as they existed at all), where the curriculum consisted mainly of praying and sewing.
Molière’s comedies were considered too frivolous and controversial for the girls to perform, and Madame de Maintenon (the former Françoise d’Aubigné) was dissatisfied with the trivial plays proposed by the teachers, so she first let the girls perform some of the already-classic plays by the two great tragic dramatists of the 17th century, Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699). Unfortunately these plays all included love scenes, which the girls performed with such enthusiasm that Madame de Maintenon began to fear for the Salvation of their Souls, not to mention the reputation of her school.
To solve this problem she commissioned Racine, who was a personal friend and owed her a favor (since she had landed him a cushy job as Royal Historiographer at the King’s court), to write two plays for her school, plays that would be morally uplifting and not include any love scenes.
The first of these plays, Esther, was based on the biblical Book of Esther and was first performed by the older girls of the school, aged 14 to 17, on January 26, 1689, in the presence of the King and several members of the royal family. Although the girls were amateurs who had never performed in public, this was in many ways a professional production. The stage set and costumes were made in the King’s workshops in Versailles. It included original music by Jean-Baptiste Moreau, the Master of Music at the court, performed by the King’s musicians. Racine himself selected and coached the young performers, with the help of his friend Boileau (1636-1711).
Most of the spectators immediately assumed that Racine was not only re-telling a biblical story in Esther, but also commenting on events of his own time. Through his praise of religious tolerance, they assumed Racine was criticizing the persecution of the Protestant minority in France as mandated by Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau just three years earlier.
On a more superficial level, Madame de Lafayette wrote that everybody thought the play was an allegory. Esther was Madame de Maintenon, Vashti was the King’s former mistress Madame de Montespan, and the King was the King.
Despite these various interpretations, the King himself (Louis XIV) was delighted with the play, and he ordered it performed several more times in February 1689. He attended most of the performances himself, and brought along prominent guests and courtiers. So it happened that these performances of a school play became great events for fashionable society, and the young actresses were suddenly stars.
Madame de Maintenon was soon alarmed at the kind of attention the girls were getting from the young noblemen who came to see the play. And not only from the young ones. Her own cousin, the widowed 62-year-old naval commander Philippe de Villette (1627-1707), attended the play because his sixteen-year-old daughter Marthe-Marguerite was performing in it, but he took such a liking to one of the other girls, Marie-Claire de Marcilly, that he soon married her. Madame de Maintenon was furious about this, and Marthe-Marguerite even more so, since her new step-mother was a former classmate who was several months younger than she was.
In the film Saint-Cyr by Patricia Mazuy, part of the school’s performance of Esther is shown (with Moreau’s music) followed by the King’s applause, while the stony-faced Madame de Maintenon sits motionless beside him. In 2001 Isabelle Huppert was awarded a César as Best Actress for her portrayal of Madame de Maintenon in this film. (By the way, I recently saw Isabelle Huppert in a stage play at the Odéon Theatre in Paris, and was duly impressed — see my post Marivaux at the Odéon.)
The official name of the school building was Maison Royale de Saint-Louis, meaning the Royal House of Saint Louis. It was built in record time by up to 2,500 workers who worked in shifts, sometimes even at night by the light of torches, because Louis XIV was impatient to get it finished.
Because of this haste, some of the construction work was slipshod (aside from the fact that the building site was a swamp), so some of the walls caved in and had to be re-built more carefully a second time. But the final result was a substantial building that survived intact for two and a half centuries until the bombings of the Second World War (and was re-built in the 1960s).
Location and aerial view of the school on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.