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Summary Article: Comédie-Française
From The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

French theatre and theatre company. Formed in 1680 by a royal decree merging the troupes of Molière (d.1673) and of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, the Comédie-Française is proud of its uninterrupted tradition as the oldest European theatre company. For most of its first 100 years it performed in a theatre constructed in 1688-9 on the site of a tennis court in the rue des Fossés-St-Germain-des-Prés, now rue de lAncienne-Comédie. This was designed by François dOrbay with a large parterre, a U-shaped amphitheatre at the back and 3 rows of boxes, giving a total audience capacity of around 1500. Until the Revolution the company enjoyed a virtual monopoly on all new plays performed in the capital (shared for just some of the time with the Comédie-Italienne), and so the history of its repertoire is also the history of playwriting in France. The company has always retained a collective structure, with shares held by full members and decisions about repertoire and so on taken in common.

At first the main influence was wielded by La Grange, one of Molières main actors, together with Armande Béjart, Molières widow. Other important players were Baron and Noël-Jacques Hauteroche, both of whom followed Molières example by writing comedies for performance by the company. As Madame de Maintenons influence grew at court, life became more difficult for the company, who frequently had to close for periods of official mourning or religious observance. The accession of Louis XV brought easier times and the company was able to recruit powerful performers both in tragedy and in comedy, among whom were Adrienne Lecouvreur, MlleClairon, Lekain and the Poisson family. They were received in society and their finances established on a sounder footing. For the repertoire, they continued to rely on the plays of RacinePierre Corneille and Molière, but also enjoyed considerable success with the tragedies of Voltaire and the comédies larmoyantes of La Chaussée; their greatest success was The Marriage of Figaro, whose opening night in 1784 had been delayed for several years by the censor (see censorship). Between 1770 and 1782 the company performed in the Salle Des Machines at the Tuileries palace, before moving into a new building designed for them by Peyre and Wailly, the present Odéon.

From the opening of the new theatre in 1782 to the burning of the Salle Richelieu in 1900, the Théâtre-Français had a chequered career. During the Revolution the title of the theatre was changed to Théâtre de la Nation (1789). In 1790 it went through a stormy period of internal dissension occasioned by Chéniers historico-political tragedy, Charles IX, which led to Talma, Dugazon, Madame Vestris and other revolutionary members of the troupe leaving to set up at the Théâtre de la République (Salle Richelieu, formerly the Variétés Amusantes). The situation of the Comédie was made more difficult by the law of the liberty of theatres of 1791, which abolished its monopoly, and, in 1793, by the arrest and near-execution of the more conservative members as a result of performances of Layas moderate play LAmi des lois (The Friend of the Law) and François de Neufchâteaus Paméla. In 1798, the same François de Neufchâteau, now Minister for the Interior, arranged for the government to acquire both the old Comédie-Française (Odéon) and the Théâtre de la République, and to pay off the heavy debts incurred during the Revolution. A fire at the Odéon in 1799 brought the troupe together again. In 1800 the building of the Théâtre-Français became state property, and in 1802 a regular subsidy of 100,000 francs was established. An act of 1803 forbade the sociétaires to appear at any other theatre without special government permission.

Napoleon had a great interest in the theatre, seeing the Théâtre-Français (where he attended some 270 performances) as essential to national prestige. The decree of Moscow of 1812 set forth the new organization of the theatre and removed some of the administrative authority of the actors by installing an imperial commissar, whose job was to transmit to the actors the wishes of the surintendant des spectacles, even on such details as casting. After 1816 a not very happy attempt was made to revert to the organization of 1766. The theatre went through a difficult period - Tartuffe was banned and a series of rather dreary medieval tragedies was staged. Finally, in 1825, the new royal commissar, Baron Taylor, was appointed. Taylor had already been involved with the Panorama Dramatique, where he was co-author of the very successful adaptation of Maturins Bertram. A widely travelled man and a keen archaeologist, he also produced a series of volumes, illustrated by well known artists, called Voyagespittoresques de lancienne France. Taylor opened wide the doors of the Comédie to the romantic movement, and also to a much more elaborate conception of mise-enscène than had previously been contemplated at that theatre. In particular he was responsible for Henri III et sa cour (Henry III and His Court), Le More de Venise (The Moor of Venice) and Hernani. After the battle of Hernani (see Hugo), Taylor drifted off on long trips, leaving the company in a state of internal chaos which nearly led to its dissolution. In 1833 the Théâtre-Français abandoned its right to administer itself and a director was appointed, the first being Jouslin de la Salle, a former stage director, who saw himself as the saviour of the theatre and continued Taylors policy, staging Angelo (Hugo), Chatterton (Vigny), Les Enfants dÉdouard and Marino Faliero (Delavigne), and introducing the repertoire of Scribe. He had to resign in 1837 over an illegal ticket racket.

In 1838 Rachel was engaged and turned the classical repertoire into box-office. In 1840, Buloz (of the Revue des Deux Mondes) became director, introduced gas lighting, discovered the plays of Augier, and tried to interest the theatre in ancient and foreign repertoires. 1843 saw the disaster of Les Burgraves. In 1847 an attempt was made to create an administrator who would be an almost all-powerful civil servant independent of the company itself. Buloz lost his post with the 1848 revolution and was replaced by a protégé of Rachels, the actor Lockroy. A decree of 1849 established a commissar-administrator - in fact, Arsène Houssaye, a man of letters - and in 1850 Louis Napoléon fixed the rights and duties of the administrator by decree. Houssaye met with hostility from the company, but when they offered to walk out, he simply told them he would employ boulevard actors. The Théâtre-Français became very fashionable under the Second Empire, and Houssaye attached much importance to the presentation of new works. Under Empis (1856-9) there was a return to a more traditional repertoire. Édouard Thierry, appointed in 1859, introduced the repertoire of Sardou and Pailleron. In 1870 the theatre was set up as a field hospital, and the fall of the Empire brought considerable financial difficulties. After the Commune, Thierry was replaced by Émile Perrin, a former director of the Opéra, who brought back financial stability, introducing Tuesday subscription nights and Sunday matinées. It was also decided that actors should no longer be responsible for their own costumes in modern-dress plays. The troupe was now strong, but Perrin was criticized for attaching more importance to mise-en-scène than to literary quality. Perrin was followed by Jules Clarétie, whose administration lasted for 28 years.

In 1900 a disastrous fire caused the death of an actor and the wholesale destruction of stage and scenery at the Salle Richelieu. A year later the company moved back into the renovated theatre, following the fashion of the times by performing mainly comedy of an undemanding kind. They continued to perform throughout the First World War, travelling to the Front to entertain the troops. After the war, as Copeau and the Cartel directors tried to raise standards of production, the Comédie-Française lagged behind. An attempted improvement was the appointment of Bourdet as administrator in 1936, with four associate directors: Baty, Copeau, Dullin and Jouvet. During the German occupation the theatre's reputation rose again, partly thanks to Barrault's production of Claudel's The Satin Slipper (1943), but Barrault left with Madeleine Renaud in 1946 when they set up the independent Renaud-Barrault company. Since then the Comédie-Française, though strong in boulevard comedy, has continued to be a conservative force in the French theatre, claiming to preserve the traditions of 17th-century performance. In fact its styles have changed, both in acting and production, but always considerably after rather than with the times. There are now 40 full sociétaires, who elect new members as vacancies occur from the 30 pensionnaires, who are actors drawing a salary, not full shareholders. The current 350 technical and administrative staff account for the theatre's large subsidy, which is considerably higher than that of any other French theatre.

Despite many reconstructions, the theatre retains Victor Louis's basic lay-out with a horse-shoe-shaped auditorium and four shallow superimposed balconies. Originally designed to hold 2000 spectators, it now contains seating for a maximum of 892. The stage, too, has had the latest technology installed without altering the fundamental design of the original building. The main training ground for actors, the Conservatoire, until recently employed almost exclusively Comédie-Française actors as its teachers, which contributed to the company's conservative influence. After 1968 various reforms were introduced, notably in the Conservatoire, and a policy of performing more contemporary plays was initiated. In 1983 Jean-Pierre Vincent was appointed director, the first to come to the post from a decentralized theatre (Strasbourg); however, he left three years later without having been able to accomplish the reforms he deemed necessary to make the Comédie-Française into a representative national theatre. In 1985 Vincent was succeeded by Jean Le Poulain, a senior member of the company, who died in 1988. Further reforms were attempted by Antoine Vitez, who was appointed director in 1988, but his early death in 1990 came before he had achieved what he set out to do. Jacques Lassalle (director from 1990 to 1993) was equally unsuccessful in changing a company that remains self-consciously a ‘national treasure’, and which politicians, especially of the Gaullist persuasion, are determined to maintain as a monument to the national heritage. DB

The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, © Cambridge University Press 2000

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