LASSALLE, EUGÈNE (baptized Eugène-Jean-Baptiste), actor, school administrator, professor, and author; b. 20 May 1859 in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, France, son of Jean-Prosper Lassalle, a collector of indirect taxes, and Mélanie Barthèlémy; m. first Onésime Fouré (d. in France); m. secondly 16 March 1908 Marie-Louise Doëlling, widow of Antonin-François Landreau, in Montreal; one son survived him; d. 1 March 1929 in Montreal.
After studying at the Petit Séminaire de Bordeaux, Eugène Lassalle made his theatrical debut in Angers in 1877 under the direction of actor Émile Marck. He continued his career in France from 1878 to 1886 and then directed French theatrical and operatic companies from the Balkans to Central Asia for the next seven years. In 1898 he would be given the title of officier d’académie for his work in disseminating French culture abroad.
After returning to France in 1893, Lassalle performed first at the Grand-Théâtre in Bordeaux, and then at Le Havre, Reims, Montpellier, and Paris. On 14 Aug. 1906 he signed a three-month contract with the Compagnie des Théâtres de Montréal (better known as the Théâtre des Nouveautés), whose artistic director was Jean Prévost. He was offered a salary of 1,800 francs (about $360) a month, which was apparently the going rate for a leading role in Montreal at that time. He began performing there on 3 September in the role of Mathis in Le juif polonais, by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. The next day La Patrie wrote: “M. Lassalle is an artist of great merit. He literally takes hold of his audience [and] makes them shiver with excitement.” The Théâtre des Nouveautés extended the contract to 2 May 1907, but a dispute arose between Lassalle and the management, who wanted him to play Scarpia in Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, a role with which he was not familiar. The theatre rejected the alternative solutions he proposed and dismissed him on 6 April 1907. He took his case to court and eventually won a settlement of $110 from his former employer.
Lassalle now abandoned his acting career. In the fall of 1907 he set up a school of elocution in Montreal, with support from representatives of the city’s political, literary, and media circles, including legislative councillors Trefflé Berthiaume* and Jean-Damien Rolland, Montreal mayor Louis Payette, writer Jean Charbonneau, and journalists Godfroy Langlois and Ernest Tremblay. The school’s founding took place in the context of a major campaign to improve the quality of French spoken in Quebec, a campaign energetically led by Le Nationaliste, a Montreal newspaper under the editorship of Olivar Asselin**. On 3 April 1908 the province granted letters patent to the Conservatoire Lassalle, “a national school of elocution, french diction, and of the dramatic art.” The government of Lomer Gouin considered that it was an educational endeavour of national scope, and awarded the institution a large annual grant, which would enable it to offer its courses free of charge. From its first year of operation, the school had dozens of students, including Juliette Béliveau, Camillien Houde*, Paul Coutlée, and Laura Lussier. The courses dealt mainly with diction and elocution and were given three evenings a week. As a practical exercise, Lassalle and his students produced the great French classics that were too seldom seen in the province’s theatres, such as Jean Racine’s Athalie (1908) and Britannicus (1913). For this new championing and presenting of French culture abroad, the French government awarded him the title of officier de l’Instruction publique in 1911. Lassalle also taught elocution at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal from 1913 to 1916 and in 1918.
Lassalle even became an author, producing, among other things, his own version of the Passion of Christ in 1926 and 1927, with professional actors. He had been experiencing health problems for several years, however. He died at his home on 1 March 1929, at the age of 69.
An editorial in La Patrie paid tribute to his contribution. “Professor Lassalle’s work was not solely a matter of promoting correct oral French. The students at his school drew from the store-house of French literature as a whole and thereby could not help acquiring the attitude of our overseas cousins, which strives for clarity and irony.” From 1929 to 1988 the conservatory was guided in turn by Lassalle’s wife, his stepson Georges Landreau, and Georges’s daughter Marcelle Landreau (who was better known by her stage name of Nicole Germain). It would celebrate its 90th anniversary in 1998. Now a private school, it graduated many classes of elocution teachers. It also provided the province of Quebec with its first professional theatre school (where numerous actors would learn their trade), some 40 years before the opening of the Institute of Music and Dramatic Art of the Province of Quebec.
Eugène Lassalle is the author of Influence du théâtre français à l’étranger (Athènes, 1887); L’opérette française en Asie centrale, récit du voyage de la première troupe française dans la Transcaspienne et le Turkestan (Tiflis [Tbilissi, Géorgie], 1891); De Batoum au Thibet (Tiflis, 1892); L’art de mettre en scène (Bruxelles, 1896); Les monologues Lassalle sérieux et comiques, recueil pour dames, messieurs, jeunes filles, jeunes gens, fillettes et petits garçons, choisis parmi les auteurs français et canadiens-français (Montréal, 1914); Comédiens et amateurs; le théâtre et ses dessous (Montréal, 1919); and Aimons, rions, chantons en France et au Canada; méli-mélo (Paris, [1924?]). In 1926 he also wrote and produced La Passion, a religious drama having 100 characters and walk-ons and a 30-voice mixed chorus, a work that was apparently never published.
ANQ-M, P565; TP11, S2, SS2, SSS1, dossier 966 (1908) (E.-J.-B. Lassalle c. Cie des théâtres de Montréal). Arch. Départementales, Gironde (Bordeaux), État civil, Saint-André-de-Cubzac, 30 mai 1859. Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec (Montréal), Div. des coll. spéciales, Programmes de théâtre, 6.5 (théâtre des Nouveautés), saison 1906-7. Le Devoir, 28 mai 1913. Le Passe-Temps (Montréal), 22 févr. 1908. La Patrie, 4 sept. 1906, 2 mars 1929. La Presse, 9 avril, 6, 13 juin 1908; 29 mars 1927. BCF, 1924. Baudoin Burger, “Les spectacles dramatiques en Nouvelle-France (1606-1760),” Arch. des lettres canadiennes (Montréal), 5 (1976): 44. Jean Charbonneau, Discours . . . à l’occasion du Xe anniversaire du conservatoire Lassalle en la salle de la bibliothèque Saint-Sulpice le 3 décembre 1916 (Montréal, 1917). DOLQ, vol.2. Historique du conservatoire Lassalle, école gratuite d’élocution française: incorporé le 3 avril 1908, reconnu d’utilité publique par le ministère des Affaires étrangères de la République française et par le gouvernement de la province de Québec ([Montréal, 1919?]). Georges Landreau, Le conservatoire Lassalle présente les diverses maladies de notre langage ([Montréal?], 1960). Petit Séminaire de Montréal, Distribution des prix, 1913-16, 1918. G.-É. Rinfret, Le théâtre canadien d’expression française: répertoire analytique des origines à nos jours (4v., [Montréal], 1975-78), 2: 312.