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.

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