The leading tragic actress of her time, especially noted for introducing a modern, natural style of acting.
Born Claire Joseph Lerys, she was the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress and a sergeant in the French army. Around the age of twelve while she was living in Paris with her mother she looked out the window at the house across the street and saw an actress rehearsing a part. She watched every gesture, hung on every word, and at the end of the performance took to bed with a high fever. When she recovered, she told her mother she was never going to sew again, from that day the theater would be her life. Her mother was upset by this, but Clairon would not be stopped or disuaded. On January 8, 1736, at the age of 13, Clairon gave her first performance at the at the Comedie Italienne in Paris. It was a total flop. She realized that starting out in Paris might not be that easy, and she got a job with a troupe of comedians on their way to Rouen.
The lives of actors at this time were not easy. An actress had to pay for her own costumes (and actors always dressed as though that were at Versailles, so the bill got to be pretty high), and they were hardly paid anything at all. Actors were also automatically excommunincated from the Roman Catholic Church, so they couldn't marry or bear legitimate children (the Church controlled all civil ceremonies). Also, for someone who cared, excommunication meant you were damned to hell. In light of all these things, young and pretty actresses often had rich lovers to support them.
Mme Lerys (Clairon's mother) followed her to Rouen, and they settled down to make a living (having given up sewing). Mme Lerys opened a lodging house with rooms to be let by the hour, and the young actress was soon being kept by various local men in their fifties. She was also sleeping with anyone else who interested her. While she was not known as a very good actress during this time, she was successfull enough with men to have found herself some powerfull protectors. Her reputation in Rouen was eventually ruined by some envious people who wrote a slanderous pamphlet about her legendary sex life. She went to Gand, but it seems that she didn't find either a rich lover or any work. So she went to Paris.
There she found a rich lover, M. de la Popeliniere, who introduced her into society. She didn't last long with this lover, but it didn't matter. She fit right in to the society she had been introduced to, she was sexual and she was interesting to talk to. Adept at attracting men, Clairon was not so good at keeping them. It soon became established, as it had in Rouen, that she had had every man in Paris who could pay (she was so expensive that at one point the prince de Souise, the duc de Luxembourg, and the marquis de Bissy, whose families were among the most noble and richest in France took shares in her) as well as some that couldn't. She made lots of powerful freinds, one of whom wrote her an introductory letter to the Comedie Francaise ordering them to take her in.
It was customary for a new actress to choose the part she wanted for her debut, and she usually took a secondary part. Clairon chose the title role in Phedre, which was such a difficult part it was normally only attempted by great actresses at the hight of their powers. No one has ever understood how she was so successfull, but her performance was one of the best ever given. She only ever played minor comic roles in the provences and it is unlikely that she ever even saw much good theater. However she did it, her performance brought down the house. Her talent was soon recognized by the public, and she became one of the best tragic actresses in Paris. She was also one of the hardest working actresses of her time. She didn't just practice her lines, but she lived with her characters every day. Friends said she called for her nightcap in the tones of an empress calling for a cup of poison.
Acting techniques at this time had developed over the course of a century, and had become rather stilted and stylized. Players were expected to deliver their lines in a singsong voice, using stylized gestures and occasional arbitrary shreiks. Players were also expected to act and dress as though they were at Versailles. Although they often portrayed kings and queens, the result was still unconvincing no attempt was made at local color or historical accuracy. For a long time Clairon did what was expected of her, and audiences applauded. This started to change when she took the playwright Marmontel as a lover (she still needed to take lovers for money, although she must have liked Marmontel for himself because he was penniless). Marmontel hated the way tragic verse was supposed to be recited. True feelings, he argued, should seem natural. Verse should be spoken with regard for meter, but also verisimilitude. Clairon listened. At first she only made slight changes in her style of delivery, but in 1752 she was booked to play Agrippina, Nero's mother, in Bordeaux. She tried the new style and met with incredible success. Later, in Paris she tried the style out again, this time also getting rid of the usual costumes- after much research she dressed in the style of that historical time period and place. Audiences loved it. Intellectuals loved it. Clairon had revolutionized theater in France.
She retired at the age of 42, and only played a few more times after that. She ran out of money in 1773 and had to sell all of her possessions (one of her lovers had spent her pension), and look for another rich lover. She met the margrave of Anspach in Paris, he fell in love with her and took her back to Anspach and set her up in a grand house to be waited on by dozens of servants. In 1786 the margrave had fallen in love with someone else, and Clairon moved back to France and bought herself a house outside of Paris. Then the revolution came, and she lost all of her money. In 1792, at the age of sixty-nine, M. de Stael fell in love with her, and Clairon promply got money out of him. In 1801 his debt caught up with him, but de Stael had legally bound himself to provide for her, and she sued and won. De Stael died in poverty within a year. In January 1803 Clairon herself caught a bad cold. She died within the month, forgotten but not poor.