Sunday, March 25th 2012
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Daily Life at the Playhouse V: Business Operations at the Comédie-Française in C18 (part 2)

credit: Florian Gerlach (Nawaro)
credit: Florian Gerlach (Nawaro)
Bills inform also on commercial practices during the period and deals which were made with suppliers. Billets d’ordre (orders) written by actors or sometimes by the tailor Pontus on behalf of the company would be delivered across Paris by the premier Garçon de théâtre, an employee who was responsible for the day-to-day running of the playhouse. Invoices were sent afterward to the Comédie-Française which would never settle immediately.

Suppliers had to wait at least a few weeks if not a year for a payment in full (actors never chose a payment by instalments except for bills relating to scenery which were extremely high ).

More interestingly payment time would differ from one supplier to another and also from one invoice to another which suggests that suppliers had neither payment dates nor payments terms, and certainly did not impose payment on order. It seems that trade was based on trust. For instance, Desrues Brothers, clothes manufacturers, were ordered on 17th January 1760 to deliver various types of fabrics and were paid on 10th October. An invoice sent by Mr Rocquet ― who was specializing in golden or silver dyeing of fabrics ― on the 22d September 1764 was paid three months later (on 22d December 1764). White satin was ordered from Mr Lenormand, a linen shopkeeper, on 1st April 1772. Payment was made quite quickly: 368 liv. were paid on 29th May. In the 1780s, the Misses Gossel, marchandes de mode were finally paid with considerable delay, i.e. two years later. It usually took between three to six months to proceed to payments but it seems that the Comédie-Française prioritized invoices sent by Pontus who became responsible for designing clothes for the actors and the dancers. His work was very important, if not essential to the company. (Also it appears that he would subcontract orders or works to other suppliers from his own network. such as feather workers -plumassiers - or belt makers).

In 1753, actors had decided to include ballets in their shows - which usually consisted of only two plays. Ten years later, ballets had become a must for the Comédie-Française since they represented a major source of income for the company by attracting new customers. A constant flow of orders was made between the 1760s and the 1780s relating to dance costumes and walk-on part in tragedies, though payments were differed almost all the time. Trade was based on credit as was the common practice during the period. Similar means and time of payments relating to court spectacles can be observed in the 1770s. Jean Denis Papillon de la Ferté who was in charge of the management of the Menus Plaisirs often complained about excessive expenses. Despite his warnings, the Gentlemen of the First Chamber always wanted more sumptuous and munificent shows. Debts and deficits were excessively high at the end of the 1770s. He suggested that the state could no longer pay suppliers who had to wait a few years and who struggled to survive. In 1778, two and half million liv. were to be paid back and related to 1774, 1775 and 1776.

To avoid any embezzlement regarding payment orders, decisions were taken collegially by the members of the company. Once they had made a decision, the actors would sign the bill and the cashier would be requested to pay the supplier directly (he would also sign the receipt). Many invoices from the 1760s suggest that actors tried to negotiate with suppliers as much as possible in order to get discounts. Actors would decide on a sort of closing date and closing of accounts which would be discussed in committees.

Most orders reveal that final amounts were reduced by 1% up to 20% depending on the supplier. Rocquet for instance agreed substantial deals: e.g. 137 liv. 5 s. were moderated down to 126 liv.; 108 liv. to 90 liv., while cloth manufacturers were more difficult. Small amounts would be deducted (e.g. Buffault invoices: 259 liv. 7 s. 6 d. moderated to 255 liv. only; Desrues’: 1,567 liv. 18 s. 2 d. moderated down to 1,560 in 1769; 1,598 liv. 12 s. 6 d. moderated down to 1,598 in 1773).

Deals or preferential rates were gradually refused to the company who more often paid the exact amount, sols and deniers included. In the 1780s suppliers were perhaps less inclined to reduce rates because they were themselves facing economic problems. It does not seem that the Comédie-Française failed to pay its suppliers (except perhaps in the case of sets when actors tended to order more than they could afford).

Actually, the 1770s and the 1780s were thriving years. According to John Golder and W. D. Howarth the earnings of the actors between 1715 and 1750, “the company’s least profitable period”, were of 2,074 liv., but dramatically improved and peaked in the 1780s . Actors got rich thanks to the annual memberships and also the petites loges income (800 liv. per show that would not appear on the register relating to the daily income and thus which would be divided between the members of the company solely ). Thus, flow of orders never stopped, especially orders concerning theatrical productions which emphasized spectacular staging. Actors invested a lot of money in costumes and scenery. The number of invoices increased over the two decades as reflected by Pontus’ and Brunetti’s memoirs which multiplied over the years. Bills could be very high indeed: e.g.: 13,805 liv. in 1759 and an overall amount of 24,550 liv. in the 1760s, 57,245 liv. in the 1770s . The annual average spent on scenery doubled in 20 years partly because the company had to move to the Tuileries and order complete new sets (the old ones did not fit the new stage and were too small).

Sabine Chaouche

Sabine Chaouche


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