Performers as ‘Women of Dubious Moral Character’

Mademoiselle Clairon
Mademoiselle Clairon

Performers were in the Eighteenth-century public imagination scandalous women with a scandalous life. Being performers made those women being public, but not only their careers and their performances on stage were followed by the public, as well their private life and more specifically, their liaisons with noble (and powerful) men were the subjects of the gossips of the public. Theatre was at the centre of the Parisian life, even if it is difficult to know who was attending theatre and with what frequency, however what is sure is that the number of seats doubled during the second half of the century. Once the monarchy allowed permanent commercial theatres to establish themselves, competitive pressure forced salaries up, at least for name performers. It is interesting to notice that because they were the most represented among the performers, historians are using the term actress as a generic word that concerns dancers and singers as well. Even now, academics are writing principally about actresses, including in this word all the performers at the time.

Because becoming a performer was shameful for the person and his/her family, most of the performers were coming from theatrical families or had humble origins. There is very few examples of performer (especially female) that were coming from rich or powerful families and they most of them seems to have a form of disgrace already to make it more acceptable. The family of the sister Saint-Val lost its fortune and so they have been forced to find another way to have a decent life. Moreover, in spite of the idea of the sexual embodiment of the actress, she was not supposed to start entering the performing world with happiness. Male supplicants were hired because of their talent and they could be proud of it. Female in Eighteenth-century were supposed to seek for a domestic life more than anything else, whatever was their social rank. By consequence, wanted to be a performer made them atypical and inapprehensible, so they had to look modest and shy, seeking to be an actress because they did not have any other option than the sacrifice of their domestic dreams for the sake of their family.

It was quite easy to do the difference between a good and a bad performer. Critics could be quite sharp with the bad performers, especially when actresses without talent got roles because of their high connection. Even their connection and their pretty face did not help bad actresses to have success; the famous ones like Mademoiselle Clairon or Sophie Arnould may had connections but they earned their fame because of their great talent. Moreover, performing was seen as an added value for a kept woman. It was quite often that patrons made their mistresses start a career as performer. For the patron, it was basically a way to give himself prestige and show his power: on stage each performer had to wear his own clothes and jewellery, for women it was a way to show their wealth and the prodigality of their patron.

Almost every performer was at some level a femme galante in the Eighteenth-century. As seen previously, the status of the actresses from the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne was different than the ones from the private theatres. As they earned more money, being courtesans was not for them a way to survive. Some of the other ones, especially the ones with very little talent and that were on stage only to have a better value for their patron, were courtesans in the sense prostitute. Some even had started as a basic prostitute, on the streets or in a brothel before finding a rich patron.

To have an actress or a performer in general was a must have for every man in France during the Eighteenth-century (and after). First of all, an actress was usually a beautiful, young and attractive woman. Been on stage, seen by every one and so recognized as beautiful by every spectator could be seen as an highly increase of her value. Even if they probably did not though of them in that way, performers were basically objects, possessions that patrons were displaying all over the stage to show their wealth (especially when performers were wearing the expensive clothes and jewels gifts of their patrons).

Moreover, the image of the performer itself was attractive because she was considered as a sexually available, fulfilled with sins and perversions, and by extension dangerous. In an ending eighteenth century, when libertinism was a highly developed way of life, it was de bon ton to have at least one performer as mistress.

Finally, the performer was a way for the man to show is power. The more successful or beautiful was the actress, the more expensive she was. Her patron was paying for her house, her staff, her clothes, her debts and he could even pay for her debts. In exchange there was obviously sexual favours but the actress used to wear on stage the gifts of her patron (dress or jewellery) and could indicate that he was at the origin of the present. The leading actresses of the Comédie Française (and some of the lesser theatres) were among the most celebrated women of the Eighteenth-century.

The Parisian Theatres

The interior of the Comédie-Française
The interior of the Comédie-Française

The most famous theaters of Paris were the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne, the two historical theater of France. However, they were not the only ones providing performances, there was as well the Théâtre des Italiens, the Théâtre Français du Faubourg Saint-Germain and a wide range of private theaters like the Théâtres du Boulevard du Temple. An actor at the Théâtre Français du Faubourg Saint-Germain and one at the Comédie-Française did not have the same pay neither the same opportunities. Indeed, since Louis XIV made the two theatres and the Opéra into royal companies, the actors in the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne were named as the the king’s actors’.  By consequence, all the performers were under the supervision of the First Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. The companies were symbol of good taste and had some help from the Crown and, most important, the monopoly of some works.

The Comédie-Française is created in 1680 by a royal ordinance of Louis XIV to merge the only two Parisian troops at the time, the troupe of the Hotel Guénégaud and the one of the Hotel de Bourgogne. Also called Théâtre-Français, the troupe had the monopoly of playing in Paris and of French authors such as Molière and Racine. The First Gentlemen of the Bedchamber was the one responsible of the choice of the actors for the plays if the author was dead. Being a member of the Comédie-Française was very prestigious and a way for actors to secure a salary and a life pension when retired. Moreover, it was gender-neutral until the end of the eighteenth century: women had an equal involvement and decisional power than men through the general assembly of the Comédie Française.

The first Italian troupe arrived in Paris at the end of the sixteenth century. Under the protection of the king, the troupe proposed to the French public commedia dell’arte in Italian before opening its repertoire to the greatest French dramatists of the period. In 1716, they started having the protection of the Duc d’Orléans, the Regent of the French kingdom, an annual pension of 15,000 livres and a repertoire including French plays and operatic works. Concurrenced by the Opéra-Comique of Jean Monnet, the two troupes were fusion in 1762 under the name of Italian Comedy or Comic Opera Italian. But a 1779 decree banned Italian plays, most of the Italian actors went back home and the French ones stayed, changing the name for Opéra-Comique.

Finally, in the 1760s the royal government allowed Jean Nicollet, to open the Gaieté, a private theatre. This stage was not depending on royal subsidies and direct state supervision. By consequence, actors did not have a fixed salary or the possibility to have a pension when they will retire, contrary to the official theatres. Not allowed to stage the famous and classic pay of the French play writers, it was a way for the government to maintain the boundaries between high art and popular diversion.

Because of the French Revolution, the Comédie-Française changed its name in 1789 for the Théâtre de la Nation. The Revolution gave actors civil rights, but it put an end to the privileged position of the Comedy. In 1791, the troupe split up in two groups: the actors loyal to the king and the ones in favor of the Republique (leaded by the famous actor Talma). The first group kept the traditional room and the second created the Théâtre de la République, rue Richelieu. The 3rd of September 1793, the Comité de salut public closed the Comédie-Française and imprisoned the actors because of their choice of plays, judged too royalist. Charles Labussière, employee at the Comité de salut public, saved them from the guillotine.  Robespierre’s fall makes their liberty; but ruined, without theater, the actors were dispersed into ephemeral troops from Paris and the provinces. Finally, in May 1799, the troupe is reunited in the theatre rue Richelieu and have not move since.