Tuesday, May 15th 2012
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Daily Life at the Playhouse VI: On the Move (part 1)





Photo S. Chaouche - coll. Carnavalet
Photo S. Chaouche - coll. Carnavalet
Finding a place where trade and business operations could develop easily and peacefully was essential but problematic for actors had to face prejudices among their profession regarded as infamous. When king Louis XIV ordered that the Comédiens-Français leave the Hôtel Guénégaud in 1687, the troupe found a potential place by the Quai des Augustins and the rue de Savoie. However, the local priest of the Saint-André-des-Arts’ church complained vehemently. Actors had no option but to look for another place.

To open a playhouse in Paris was therefore quite difficult in the Early Modern period because most people did not want a company to settle on their patch. Bourgeois and monks were particularly afraid that morals and customs would be corrupted by libertinage or by licentious and vulgar manners (actresses were often depicted and regarded as courtesans ruining men and addicted to debauchery ). In their mind, the setting up of a playhouse was likely to have a negative influence on the everyday life of the local residents or for changing attitudes. It would attract crooks and robbers, public disorder and insecurity. They feared noise, road congestion and crowds which would invade the quartier late in the afternoon and early in the evening. Actors used to perform from 5 pm to 8 or 8.30 pm and spectators used to go to the cabaret or a café before or after the shows, as for example the Café Procope. Drunken people would often lose their temper in the vicinity of playhouses. Traffic-jams would lead to violent quarrels.

Nonetheless, although actors were persona non grata, they carefully considered and examined each potential area. They needed a big building with facilities such as an adjacent house to be able to store their equipment and clothes. In 1688, they informed La Reynie, the chief of police, that they had found a potential auditorium by the Quai des Augustins which they considered a perfect place. Indeed, local traffic was smooth and any brawl would be avoided. The Parisian police was in charge of public safety and public roads, and feared riots and gatherings.

Besides the playhouse would have two entrances: rue de Savoie and Quai des Augustins which was very wide. Several cabriolets and coaches would easily get around at the same time. Adjacent streets were also spacious which would clearly be advantageous. It would avoid the problems surrounding the Hôtel de Bourgogne, one of the oldest playhouses, which had been built rue Mauconseil, by the rue Montorgueil, that is to say in one of the busiest quartiers of Paris. The rue Montorgueil was usually very crowded because it was the way to Les Halles. Most middle-class Parisians lived on the right bank of the Seine. Though newly gentrified districts were developing on the west side of Paris, population remained very dense in the centre. Most inhabitants lived and worked there. Les Halles and the Saint-Honoré area were marketplaces for food and fabrics . Thus, the centre of Paris was intensely active. Numerous accounts tell how noisy and dirty it was, and how people used to live and work in the streets (peddlers, merchants’ stalls or workshops).

Consequently, choosing to stay in the faubourg Saint-Germain (since their previous playhouse was rue Guénégaud) was wise since this area offered easy access to the playhouse. They claimed that carriages could also park on the place du Pont-Neuf at some distance from the playhouse. This was therefore very practical and of no nuisance for the inhabitants. Actors also stressed the fact that the playhouse’s activities would neither obstruct nor disadvantage merchants and local trade. Twice a week, the locals benefitted from a food market, opened early in the morning until three o’clock in the afternoon. Finally, they took into consideration the location of the different parishes in the vicinity. They pointed out that being surrounded by the rue Pavée, the rue Gillecour and the rue de l’Irondelle, the playhouse would be at safe distance from their various parishes, since it would be located by the Seine. Religious processions or ceremonies would not be disturbed since none of them would reach the Quais. The actors begged the king to allow them to open their playhouse there and insisted on the need to have “a favourable location”. He rejected their demand so they had to find another place.

An offer was made to the company. They could buy an auditorium rue de Montmartre on the Rive droite, near the rue Montorgueil. Actors declined the offer for the following reasons: the playhouse would face the church La Jussienne which would go against his Majesty’s orders. The entrance, rue de Montmartre would be impossible. The street, too narrow (15 feet only), would be dangerous. Carriages could overturn because of the gutter, right in the middle of the street. The final arguments are essential to the understanding of the impact of location on the success of the business. Actors claimed that they could not open a playhouse there for two reasons: coaches would have no other choice than taking the rue Montorgueil, crowded all day long. Road congestion would increase. The rue Tiquetonne, which was the only street linking the Marais and the rue Saint-Honoré would be totally blocked. However, the biggest inconvenience was the presence of the Hôtel de Bourgogne which was too close for comfort. Rivalry and concurrence could not be sustained. The Comédie-Française would quickly go bankrupt since profits would be divided in 23 shares whereas the Italians had to share their benefits between 15 actors.

Moreover, the French actors pointed out that they had to pay 20,000 livres of annual pensions unlike the Italians. It was impossible to make any profit. Locus negottii could have been therefore a casus belli. These two examples show how actors were concerned by their environment and by their location in Paris. They had a strong business sense and culture which guided them for securing the best location with regard to their main objective: the making of a profit. Hence, this mercantilist logic can help us understand that rivalries took root, not necessarily to protect a theatrical genre or a specific repertoire, or even the idea of the privilege granted by the king, but in quarrels relating to site preferences. The location was the starting point of all business operations and a major condition to the success of the playhouse as enterprise. The development of logistics and infrastructure, as well as trade with suppliers would depend on the appropriateness of the area and the ease of access to it. Theatre and commerce were interdependent.

This may explain why actors successively considered six locations and finally opened their playhouse rue des Fossés Saint Germain, at the Jeu de Paume de l’Etoile. The area on the Left Bank of the Seine was also populated by foreigners and by the lower-classes. The bourgeois, as well as the aristocrats were normally located on the Right Bank of the Seine. In the C17, all the playhouses had been built on the Right Bank (Hôtel de Bourgogne, Théâtre du Marais , Petit-Bourbon , Palais Royal ), except for the Théâtre du Guénégaud (by the actual Quai de Conti). Actors would fully enjoy their monopoly by being the only company established in that area. The Académie royale de musique had been located at the Palais-Royal since the seventeenth-century and the Italians would soon be banned from Paris . They would only come back in 1715.

The playhouse was ideally located, very close to the Saint Germain Fairground which was famous all over France and Europe for being a very important market place. It was a kind of annual trade fair over two months from 3rd February to April (it lasted 5 weeks). Merchants offered various products in two buildings including twenty-two rows. The fair had the great advantage of being a covered market. Shops were rented. The cheapest ones were located by the courtyard (two livres and ten sols) and rue de la Lingerie (three livres and 10 sols). Merchants had to pay four livres and fifteen sols on rue de Normandie, rue de Picardie, and rue de Paris. The most expensive rent related to rue de la Chaudronnerie which costed five livres. The place was a combination of crowds and abundance and therefore very lucrative and useful for developing business. The fair specialised in luxury products such as jewellery, China, books and engravings, musical instruments or novelty shops while the Saint-Laurent fair which took place in November and in the north of Paris specialized in common goods such as glasses, toys, fabrics, pastries, and sweet beverages. The ‘loges’/boxes were of different sizes but shops were generally small. The biggest shops had a room upstairs. The fairground was open day and night. Some people would just take a stroll during the day while others would mix with the riffraff by playing cards or going to cabarets in the evening. Customers would be mainly aristocrats and bourgeois, but this does not mean that the petites gens did not walk around. Most often the fair was compared to a show because of its numerous candles and lights illuminating the building and the adjoining streets, the colourful crowds of shoppers and elegant customers such as princes and princesses who did not want to miss new and rare products. Consequently, the market was a kind of tourist attraction for foreigners and the local inhabitants.

As stated by Daniel Roche, “the fairground had many advantages over small markets. It intensified demand, and even created it. […] It exhibited abundance, enabled merchants to develop trade relations but also links to other businesses.” (Histoire des choses banales, 61) Merchants had indeed long since understood the connections and interactions between trade, consumption of luxury goods and leisure activities.

Entertainments were a very good way to stimulate and support consumerism. Rope dancers, puppeteers, weird animals and freaks but also performers used to rent a loge. They attracted spectators, that is to say customers and thus consumers. After the shows, people liked to walk about and go window-shopping. In a report written in 1762, after the fire devastated the all the buildings, one of the fairground trustees, planning the reconstruction of the marketplace, insisted upon the absolute necessity of having entertainment within the new place: “It is very important for our good, that auditoriums be built. This was proved ages ago.” Indeed, when the fairground theatre were forbidden and closed in 1718, the loges were demolished. In the 1720s, companies opened a playhouse rue de Bussy and rue des Quatre-vents, not far from the Comédie-Française.

This move had a major impact on commerce since prices went down as well as goods’ and estates’ value. Merchants and landlords protested: “We have noticed that since entertainments were removed from the place, boxes were no longer used by merchants or they were let at a lower price. Merchants requested that an auditorium be built inside the covered-market.” Theatre is thus stated as being necessary to the development of commerce. By choosing the Saint-Germain area, actors from the Comédie-Française were very clever. The playhouse benefitted fully from its monopoly, being the only theatre with privilege on the left bank of the Seine, from its location with an easy access (the Pont-Neuf avoided the crowded Pont-Marie and Pont-au-change bridges), and also from its neighbourhood devoted to luxury trade. From the 1690s actors had the opportunity to find easily goods or products for stage-productions.

The quartier itself was conducive to business operations and orders. Many shops were opened by the Quai des Orfèvres and the Palais de Justice, by the Quai de la Mégisserie and the Quai de Conti (furniture sellers or booksellers). The Pont-Neuf was itself famous for its hawkers (flowers, oranges, medicines). The playhouse had a major ―and lasting― impact on the neighbourhood due to its success over a century. The “quartier” prospered. It attracted more shop-keepers, luxury goods merchants, book-keepers. Cabarets and posh places such as Cafés made their own profits. Hence the Café Procope is another good example of the interdependence of theatre, commerce, and their mutual influence on consumerism. The Italian Francesco Proppio Cutto began as a waiter in a tavern Rue de Tournon, i.e. by the Saint-Germain marketplace.

A few years later, he associated with a partner and rented a box at the covered-market. Business was so lucrative that in 1686 he decided to buy an existing tavern which he lavishly and expensively decorated and furnished. He chose to illuminate the rooms by placing mirrors all over the place which reflected the lights and crystal chandeliers everywhere. Upper and middle-classes would go there to enjoy themselves, have a coffee, the new beverage à la mode (he invented a kind of percolator, i.e. a coffee-machine), as well as soft drinks, liqueurs, Spanish wines, muscats, eau de Cédrat and cocktails with exotic names such la “Rossoly” which was a mixture of eau-de-vie and herbs such s coriander, aniseed, dill or “the liquour for perfect love”. He quickly bought the second and third floor of the building and considerably extended the place. He found his good fortune when the Comédie-Française settled rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

The playhouse was facing the Café and therefore Procope got a unique opportunity to have many more customers. He negotiated with the actors who allowed him to open a refreshment area within the playhouse but of course he had to pay for the privilege. The audience could drink liquours or soft drinks during the interval. It was the first contracted association between commerce and theatre. Procope could secure the loyalty of male customers who would go directly to his café after the performances to eat a sorbet or chat with the actors. Actors could offer a top quality service to their customers. This enjoyable customer experience would also secure the loyalty of the spectators. The Café Procope quickly became one of the most popular meeting places in Paris. Playhouses and cafés would later work more and more closely and be inseparable and even a preeminent element of the business which would be included in the conception and architecture of the playhouse itself. This became obvious when the theatre of the Salle Favart opened in 1780. Many shops had been included in the building to make of the playhouse more financially viable. Commerce helped playhouses in profit-making and they gained in economic strengths.

In the nineteenth-century, the combination of commerce and theatre would find its perfect form and would be achieved with the cafés-concerts and the revue which associated entertainments and consumerism directly in the auditorium. The bourgeois would come and listen to the singers or have dinner watching spectacular female shows called the “pièces à femmes”.

Sabine Chaouche

Sabine Chaouche



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