Theatres of Paris from the Late 1700s to Early 1800s

Theatres of Paris from the late 1700s to early 1800s were extremely popular, always open, and constantly full of patrons. Supposedly, they were also considered the “idol of Parisians,” but at the time, there were not more than about twenty theatres that provided public recreation for the French masses. Parisian theatres were also known to cater to military men. The guard could be seen at the Opera, and the Theatre Française was always full of soldiers, partly because it was supposedly the favorite of the famous General Napoleon who then became First Consul and later Emperor.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Author’s collection.

It is well known that Napoleon loved the theatre. In fact, between the period of the Consulate and the Empire, he attended over 370 plays and saw the tragedy Cinna ou la Clémence d’Auguste written by Pierre Corneille twelve times. However, despite his love for the theatre, Napoleon saw it as a political tool that he could wield and therefore decided to limit the number of theatres with a decree that was passed on 8 June 1806  limiting Parisian theatres to twelve.

In 1807, he made another decree and reduced the number to eight. Four of these were considered grand theatres and four secondary theatres. In addition, each theatre was also restricted to performing a specific repertoire. Among the theatres that remained opened after Napoleon’s decrees are five worth mentioning. They are the Théâtre Comédie-Française, Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Théâtre de l’Opéra, Théâtre des Variétés, and Théâtre du Vaudeville.

Théâtre Comédie-Française: It began as a state theatre with its own troupe of actors and was founded on 8 August 1680 by Louis XIV when he issued a decree merging the only two Parisian acting troupes into one. The theatre and its troupe moved several times: In 1689, it was established across from the café Procope; from 1770 to 1782, it held performances at the theatre in the royal palace of the Tuileries; and since 1799 it has been located at the Salle Richelieu at 2 rue de Richelieu.

Just after the start of the French Revolution, on 4 November 1789, Joseph Chénier’s anti-monarchical play Charles IX was performed with the young Tragedian actor François Joseph Talma in the role as King Charles IX of France. Violent political debates then ensued among the performers and ultimately the troupe split into two groups, the Republicans and the royalists.

In 1793, the Convention decided to control what was seen on stage. For instance, companies were forced to perform Brutus, Gaius Gracchus, William Tell, or a similar type pieces three times a week in order “to maintain in the hearts of Frenchmen the love of liberty and republicanism.”[1] One of these required plays was also to be acted at the expense of the Republic, and every theatre that dared to show a play that tended to revive royalty feeling was punished. It was “shut up” and its managements appropriately dealt with according to the law.

Théâtre Comédie-Française late 18th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Under Talma, the Republicans established a new theatre named “Théâtre de la République” located at today’s present site. The royalists took the title “Théâtre de la Nation,” but their troupe closed on 3 September 1793 by order of the Committee of Public Safety for allegedly putting on the seditious play Pamela. The play was based on an epistolary novel written by English writer Samuel Richardson in 1740. Of the incident, one historian wrote:

“It [Pamela] ran eight nights with great applause. Then came a warning from the Committee of Public Safety. Pamela was reactionary; that she should prove to be the daughter of a count did not please the Revolutionists. The play was interdicted on the 24th of August, withdrawn, Pamela made a commoner throughout the play, and replaced on the 2nd of September. Its new career was a short one. On this night at the repetition of the lines, ‘Ah, les persécuteurs sont les seuls condamnables, Et. les plus tolérants sont les plus rasionables!’a patriot cried, ‘Point de tolérance politique! c’est une crime!’ Confusion followed, the man was ejected. This was too much; by order of the National Convention … the actors and the author were thrown into prison, and the Comédie-Française, for the first time in its history, was closed.”[2]

The actors were gradually released from prison, and, on 31 May 1799, the new government made the Salle Richelieu available and allowed the actors to reconstitute their troupe. In addition, after Napoleon’s decree this theatre was reserved for tragedies and comedies.

Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe: This theatre was built between 1779 and 1782 and inaugurated by Marie-Antoinette on 9 April 1782. It was placed in the garden of the former Hôtel de Condé and originally intended to house the Comédie Française, but they preferred to stay at the Théâtre-Français in the Palais Royal. Reconstruction of the theater in 1808 was designed by Jean Chalgrin, the same architect of the Arc de Triomphe, and it was then officially called the Théâtre de l’Impératrice, but everyone continued to call it the Odéon, which burned in 1818.

The Odéon is known for premiering The Marriage of Figaro, a comedy in five acts, written by Pierre Beaumarchais. However, it was initially accepted for production by the Comédie Française in 1781. The official censor approved the text with minor changes, but at a private reading before the French court, the play so shocked King Louis XVI that he forbade its public presentation. Beaumarchais then revised the text and moved the action from France to Spain. After further scrutiny by the censor the piece was played in September of 1783 to an audience that included members of the Royal Family, and although the censor still refused to license it as a public performance, the king personally authorized its production.

It then opened at the Odéon on 27 April 1784 under the title of La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro. It was so popular it ran for 68 consecutive performances, earning higher box-office receipts than any other French play of the eighteenth century. Its popularity also resulted in it being translated into English by Thomas Holcroft, and under the title of The Follies of a Day – Or The Marriage of Figaro it was produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London in late 1784.

Scene from the 1784 La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Beaumarchais. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The play’s amazing popularity in France was also the reason its author Beaumarchais found himself confined at St. Lazare in an apartment called des Eveques. Supposedly, according to newspapers, the confinement was a result of his own bad behavior. His friends could visit him, and he could go out but only with the permission of M. Le Noir and only with a guard from the inspector of the Police. The reason he was confined and how it happened was printed in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette in March of 1785. It stated:

“On the very successful run of his last new comedy, ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ which has since been brought out at Covent-Garden theatre, under the title of ‘The Follies of a Day;’ its levities were attacked by some Abbes about the court with so much success as to prevent a great Personage, and some of her suite, from honouring the performance with their presence. This stung Beaumarchais’ pride so forcibly, that he retorted on the Abbes with great severity; in which he not only glanced at the caprice of the Q——, but handled the Archbishop of Paris with a roughness too much for a churchman to bear. The consequence of this was, that Beaumarchais, by the usual short procels there, was taken out of his bed at midnight and carried to the Seminaire de St. Lazar, with strict order to be closely confined, and fed with nothing but bread and water.”[3]  

Théâtre de l’Opéra: It served as the primary opera and ballet company for France after it was founded in 1669 by Louis XIV as the Académie d’Opéra. Soon after its establishment, it was placed under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Lully and renamed the Académie Royale de Musique, although it continued to be known as the Opéra.

After the French Revolution broke out and into the early 1800s, it underwent several more name changes with one being the Académie Royale de Musique, before being named in 1816 the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1821, the company moved to the Salle Le Peletier, which had a capacity to hold 1900 spectators and where it remained until the building was destroyed by fire in 1873.

Théâtre de l’Opéra to from 1794–1820. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One interesting sources of revenue for the Opera was balls. These began in 1716 but when the revolution erupted in 1789, they stopped and did not resume until 1800. One current historian remarked on these balls stating:

“Originally held twice a week, from midnight till 6.0 a.m. in 1776 they were doubled in number, and in addition, on the days when there was no spectacle at the Opera, balls were held (known as bals du jour) from 5.0 p.m. to midnight. The price of a ticket was 5 livres, a sum cheerfully paid by happy crowds of carnival revellers.”[4]

The opera was an extremely popular form of recreation among Frenchmen and those who attended performances were usually pleased. One satisfied English visitor to this venue in the early 1800s remarked:

“My first time of visiting the Académie Royale de Musique, (which, though a French opera, holds the same rank in the world of fashion in Paris, as the Italian opera in London) was merely accidental. I was preparing for one of the petits spectacles, when tickets were sent me for the box of the gentilhommes ordinaires du Roi … and I arrived … without knowing what pieces were to be presented. I was delighted to find I came in at the first of the “Devin du Village,” which was given as a prelude before “Oedipe à Colonne”… and the superb ballet of “Flore et Zéphire.” … The costume, the acting, and the machinery are all superior in splendour and arrangement to the opera of London. The dancing, which seems to constitute the most material part of both exhibitions, as it is executed in Paris, has no parallel in world. [Yet] the proscenium is more elegant, brilliant, and attractive in the London Opera House.”[5]

Théâtre des Variétés: This theatre owes its creation to theatre director Mademoiselle Montansier (Marguerite Brunet) who also took over the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in 1790. She was imprisoned for debts in 1803 and became unpopular with the government. She faced more problems when Napoleon’s decree of 1806 ordered her company to leave the Théâtre du Palais-Royal to make room for a company at the Théâtre-Français.

Théâtre des Variétés published in 1829. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Seventy-seven-year-old Montansier was unhappy and obtained an audience with Napoleon. He then intervened and protected and enabled her to reunite the “Société des Cinq” that directed her troupe resulting in the founding of a new theatre. It is the one which now stands at the side of the passage des Panoramas and was inaugurated on 24 June 1807.

Although this theatre was a secondary one, it still made headlines and it did so in a big way in 1817 when numerous clerks decided to riot based on the behavior of a character in one of the theatre’s play. Between 26 and 32 rioters were arrested, imprisoned at La Force, and placed at the disposal of the Procureur du Roi. The Saunders’s News-Letter stated of the incident:

“A serious disturbance took place a few evenings ago at the Théâtre des Variétés during the representation of a piece, entitled, Le Combat des Montagnes. M. Calicot the principal character in this comedy, is a whimsical caricature of a shopkeeper’s clerk, who wears imposing mustachios, apes the manners, follies, and vices of those ranks of life to which he is a total stranger, and occupies an equivocal place in every class, without, in reality, belonging to any. This piece of well-directed satire roused the indignation of clerks of certain warehouses in Paris, who thought they could recognize their own characters in that of M. Calicot. They accordingly resolved to resent the insult that was offered to them. A plan of campaign was agreed upon, and the Théâtre des Variétés was to be taken by storm.

The number of gallant youths who had engaged in this expedition amounted to three or four hundred, and the entrance of Calicot was the signal for commencing hostilities. Cries of fury were sent forth from the pit; the orchestra was scaled, and the stage attacked; but the gendarmes did their duty with their accustomed coolness, and succeeded, without effusion of blood in repulsing the assailants, a dozen or two of whom were made prisoners.”[6]

Théâtre du Vaudeville: Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment that was born in France at the end of the 1700s. It was a comedy without psychological or moral intentions and based on comical situations that were originally a type of dramatic composition or light poetry, usually a comedy, interspersed with songs or ballets. Vaudeville would go on to became extremely popular in the United States and Canada in the early 1880s, but the idea of it changed radically from its French antecedent.

One nineteenth century historian remarked on how vaudeville got its name:

“Olivier Basselin, a fuller, in Normandy, at the beginning of the fifteen century, used to compose humorous songs, which he sung as he stretched out his cloth in the vaux or valleys on the banks of the river Vire. These songs became popular, and from being first called Vaux-de-Vire, afterwards assumed the name of Vaudeville.”[7]

The Théâtre du Vaudeville first opened on 12 January 1792 on rue de Chartres but is today known as the Gaumont Opéra cinema. Its founders were Pierre-Antoine-Augustin de Piis (dramatist and man of letters) and Pierre-Yves Barré (a vaudeville performer and songwriter). Together Piis and Barré mainly produced “petites pièces mêlées de couplets sur des airs connus, et des parodies.”[8]

Scene from the Théâtre du Vaudeville in 1830. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

It didn’t take long for trouble to happened at the theatre soon after its establishment. In March it was reported what happened on 24 February 1792:

“A Riot happened yesterday at the theatre de Vaudeville, between some partisans of Aristocracy and the mob Swords and poignards were drawn in the theatre, and several persons were dangerously wounded. One of the national guards is since reported to be dead.”[9]

During the late 1700 and early 1800s, when patrons entered any of these five theatres – Théâtre Comédie-Française, Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, Théâtre de l’Opéra, Théâtre des Variétés, and Théâtre du Vaudeville – they were greeted by glittering chandeliers. La Belle Assemblée remarked on it in 1806:

“The Theatres at Paris are lighted by means of a large circular chandelier, suspended from the ceiling; and illuminated by double, or triple circle of patent lamps. These chandeliers give a regular and steady light, without putting out the eyes of the audience, or detracting too much from the brilliancy of the scene.”[10]

After the revolution, all the Parisian theatres also operated using a “code of laws.” These rules were visibly displayed and used to maintain orde, but aoparently that did not always happen as noted by the riots mentioned above. However, one rule that patrons were supposed to observe involved theatre boxes that were let. A board was hung with the words “Loge loué” written on it. Those words indicated the box was private and only accessible to those who had rented it.

Another rule was that universal attention be paid by the audience to those on stage the moment the curtain rose. It was also expected that no one would interrupt the performance. One visitor to France in the early 1800s wrote about the marked attention given by French audiences to the actors and actresses on stage:

“The theatres of other countries assemble spectators, but an audience is only to be found in a French theatre. — Through the whole five acts attention never flagged for a moment; not an eye was averted — not an ear unattending: every one seemed to have the play by heart, and every one attended, as if they had never seen it before.”[11]

There was also a rule about gentleman wearing coats. According to La Belle Assemblée, once when the coat rule was broken Parisians demanded the breach of decorum be immediately rectified. Whether alcohol was involved is unclear, but the alleged event happened on 8 August 1802 at the opera and was reported as follows:

“The theatre being very full, and the weather uncommonly hot, two gentlemen in the centre boxes were of a sudden observed to be sitting without coats! the audience perceiving this, rose up and demanded the coats to be put on. After much clamour, the desire was apparently complied with, and the performance resumed. As the coats had in reality not been put on, but only thrown over the shoulders, so in less than five minutes they were again thrown off. Open war now ensued between the audience and the enemy; the latter completely repulsing the former in every successive attack. During the heat of the battle, one of the enemy, after having discharged a tremendous artillery of oaths at the audience, followed it up by a parley, which in the English language set them all completely at defiance. I will not pretend to repeat a speech which probably the major part of the audience did not understand. But the great concourse of English then on the theatre of war, justly feeling this unexpected attack on their national manners, immediately joined all their force to that of the audience, in the expulsion of the enemy. The consequence was, the allies were victorious.”[12]

As to the audiences who inhabited these theatres in the late 1700 and early 180s, a general description was provided:

“The gratification of an audience must be in proportion to its discrimination. Judgment, is by no means wanting in a Parisian audience. I may perhaps be necessary to state the grounds of this observation.

The principal Theatres expressly profess the cultivation solely of one branch of the Scenic Art: consequently each has a greater chance of arriving at perfection. The particular province of each individual Theatre, being clearly ascertained, the general bill of fare is at once unequivocal.

The public, therefore, having the choice, will naturally prefer the particular species of performance best adapted to their taste and understanding.

Audiences consequently fall insensibly into their proper stations. And this, being nearly on a level among themselves in point of judgment, are the more capable of applauding, or condemning with proper discretion and discernment.”[13]

Theatre attendees in the 18th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Today, all the theatres mentioned remain open in some form or another but the rules that patrons of the late 1700 and early 1800s observed are likely no longer in force. For instance, none of them require a gentleman to wear a suit coat. There are also not just eight theatres. Instead there are about 140 theatres or venues that offer entertainment ranging from stage productions and historical reconstructions to musicals and much more. Moreover, there are still productions performing Beaumarchais’ famous La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro that was so popular when it first opened in 1784.

References:

  • [1] The Scots Magazine, “France,” October 1, 1793, 39
  • [2] Modern Language Notes v. 18 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1903), 211–12
  • [3] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, “Saturday’s Post,” March 31, 1785, 1
  • [4] F.W.J. Hemmings, Theatre and State in France, 1760-1905 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 20
  • [5] T. C. Morgan, France v. 1-2 (Paris: H. Colburn, 1817), 92–93
  • [6] Saunders’s News-Letter, “French Theatre,” August 14, 1817, 3
  • [7] The History of Paris: From the earliest period to the present day; containing a description of its antiquities, public buildings, civil, religious, scientific and commercial institutions … To which is added, an appendix: containing a notice of the church of Saint Denis; an account of the violation of the royal tombs; important statistical tables v. 2 (London: A. and W. Galignani, 1825), 506
  • [8] G.J.F. de Langlade, Répertoire de la nouvelle législation civile, commerciale et administrative; ou analyse raisonnée des principes consacrés par le Code de Commerce (Paris, 1824), 587
  • [9] Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, “Sunday’s and Monday’s Posts,” March 6, 1792, 2
  • [10] La Belle Assemblée, Or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, Addressed Particularly to the Ladies (London: Bell, 1806), 40
  • [11] T. C. Morgan, 68
  • [12] La Belle Assemblée, Or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, Addressed Particularly to the Ladies (London: Bell, 1806), 100
  • [13] Ibid., 40

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  1. Hels on April 16, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    In the past I have been very interested in Napoleon’s connection to the musical world, but I am even more interested now in his love of the theatre. Thank you 🙂

    Of course Napoleon saw it as a political tool that he could wield; he treated everything as a tool he could use! But it was a bit surprising to see that he decided to limit the number of theatres via Imperial decrees in 1806 and 1807. I am guessing that the number of theatres was reduced and their repertoires were limited so that he could maintain close control of the theatrical world. For example, you note that Salle Richelieu could only put on comedies, so there would be no further risk of seditious political comment.

    I must say.. that the Parisian theatres operated using a code of laws seems overdoing it, doesn’t it?

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