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A PARIS THEATRE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY IJohn Lough Since 1680, when Louis XIV ordered the amalgamation of the two existing French companies of actors, the ComMie Fran,aise had been the Paris theatre. Until the Revolution it enjoyed a monopoly of the performance of those plays, inherited from the previous century, which it still considered worth performing , and, save for most of the comedies of Marivaux, almost all new plays of any value were first produced on its stage. It was to the ComMie Fran,aise that a serious theatre-goer would make his way-for the greater part of the century to the theatre on the Left Bank, in what is now known as the Rue de I'Ancienne Comedie; then, when these premises became unusable in 1770, to the Tuileries Palace; and finally, from 1782 to the Revolution, to the new building, opposite the Luxembourg Gardens, which, although twice ravaged by fire, still stands, bearing the name of the Theatre de l'Odeon, or, more accurately, that of ComMie Fran,aise, Salle Luxembourg. Unlike his counterpart in the Paris of our day, an eighteenth-century theatre-goer did not take his pleasures between 9 P.M. and midnight. It was in the early evening-generally at 5, but sometimes as late as 6 o'clock-that the curtain rose in Paris theatres. This was preceded by dinner, formerly taken at midday but by 1789 served as late as 3 P.M., at least in the polite society of the capital; supper followed the return from the theatre about 9 P.M. When a would-be spectator had fought his way ·through the mud and smells of the narrow streets of eighteenth-century Paris, or had arrived more comfortably in his carriage, he entered the candle-lit theatre. Where one sat (or stood) depended on one's sex as well as one's purse. For a woman the choice was severely restricted, as some parts of the theatre were strictly reserved for men. In the 1760's a writer pointed out that no woman could gain admission to the ComMie Fran!;aise without paying 30 sous-and that for a seat where she could scarcely hear or even 289 290 JOHN LOUGH less see the actors. Female spectators had to choose among the three rows of boxes which were, of course, also available to men. The first row of boxes, which could be hired either as a whole or in single seats, were among the most expensive parts of the theatre and were generally occupied by ladies of the aristocracy. For men there was a wider choice. They might accompany ladies to the boxes, but if they came to the theatre on their own or with male companions, they might well decide to go to one of two other parts of the theatre which it is difficult for the playgoer of today to visualize-the parterre (or pit) and the stage itself. Only when it moved to its new theatre in 1782 did the Comedie Fran9aise at last provide seats for the spectators in the pit; in doing so it more than doubled the price. Until that date the parterre, always the preserve of male spectators, had offered a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, although to remain standing, often in a dense crowd, for hours on end cannot have been very comfortable, and as the floor was not inclined, the view of the stage was often poor, especially when a small spectator found himself squashed behind a tall one. None the less this all-male section of the audience played an important part in the life of an eighteenth-century theatre, as it had done in the age of Moliere and Racine, since the spectators in this part of the house generally formed a good half of the total audience. Sometimes they were a mere handful, when the play was bad, or the weather too hot or too cold, or there was competition from outside, whether from another theatre or from some form of public spectacle. But during the first run of a popular play or the successful revival of an old one as many as six or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 289-304
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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