Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: French Theater 1630–1700


Theater in Paris

  • French theater developed much later than in Italy, England, and Spain; this was due to the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants (1562–98).
  • The Hôtel de Bourgogne—Paris’ first public theater—was built in 1548 by the Confrérie de la Passion, an association of Paris merchants and tradesmen formed in 1402 to produce religious plays.
  • The Confrérie monopolized the costly Hôtel de Bourgogne by charging a fee to companies; as a result, traveling companies often avoided Paris, which lacked a stable theater company until 1629.
  • In 1634 the Théâtre de Marais was built in a converted tennis court.
  • Popular recreational facilities were often utilized as theater structures due to being enclosed and containing a gallery for the audience.
  • France’s dramatic tradition began with Alexandre Hardy, but theater was not popular until the 1630s when middle and upper classes began regular attendance.

State Patronage

  • French theater expanded due to patronage by leaders such as Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), the chief minister for Louis XIII (r. 1610–43).
  • Richelieu awarded a subsidy to the theater company occupying the Marais, and built a theater in his private palace, renamed the Palais Royal when the monarchy took it over after Richelieu’s death.
  • Italian stage design dominated early theater, and Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) merged Paris’two leading theater companies in 1680 to form the Comédie-Française—Europe’s first national theater.

Theaters and Audience

  • Paris public theaters were rectangular, long and narrow, with an auditorium for spectators and capabilities for sophisticated effects.
  • Auditoriums were comprised of a pit (parterre) for standing spectators and an amphithéâtre (with sloped seating boxes for better vision), and were illuminated by candlelight.
  • Early on, scenic practice mimicked conventions of medieval drama until Italian scene design was adopted.
  • Audiences—comprised of various social classes—were unruly and allowed to sit on stage, where they distracted actors.

Neoclassicism and French Drama

  • During the 1630s and 1640s French authors championed “rules” drawn from Aristotle’s Poetics.
  • Neoclassical theory demanded dramatic unities and were applied particularly to tragedy.
  • Le Cid (1636), written by France’s leading playwright, Pierre Corneille, was attacked for failing to observe neoclassical principles of verisimilitude, decorum, and purity of genre endorsed by the Académie française.
  • Playwright Jean Racine (1639–1699) was foremost among the promoters of neoclassicism.
  • French comedy matured with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière (1622–1673), an artist, actor, and company manager.
  • Molière’s troupe settled in Paris in 1643 and by the 1660s established itself in the Palais Royal under an annual subsidy from Louis XIV.
  • Molière, influenced by the Italian commedia dell’arte, contributed farces—spectacles, ballets, and the comedy of manners that satirized French society.
  • Tartuffe (1664–69), written by Molière, examined religious hypocrisy on a comic level, and was banned for five years.

The Decline of Court Influence

  • Paris became Europe’s theatrical capital by the end of the seventeenth century.
  • The Comédie-Française, under composer Jean-Baptist Lully (1632–1687), led the most successful theatrical company, whereby French opera became successful.
  • Theater arts thrived due to the splendor of Louis XIV’s court, and declined once this monarch moved his court outside Paris to the Palace of Versailles in 1682.