Thursday, December 12th 2013
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E-quick learning: French Theatre c17-18

Theatrical genres

  • Farce
  • Pastorale
  • Tragi-comedy
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Opéra-comique
  • Drama
  • Opéra/ Académie Royale de musique
  • Ballets and court spectacles
  • Italian Comedy

Organisation of performance

  • In the afternoon, e.g. Marais from 2 o’clock, 3 times a week, on Sundays, Tuesdays, Fridays; Petit-Bourbon, Molière’s company performed on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, & Saturdays.
  • Streets would be very crowded around playhouses (‘traffic-jams’: cf. Regnard).
  • Billboards of different colours: red = Comédie-Italienne, green = Comédie-Française, yellow =Opéra. 
  • The « Aboyeurs » (the barkers), at the entrance, would advertise the performance of the day and invite people in.


  • Space:
Pit (students, merchants, artists, bourgeois)
Boxes (aristocrats)
Stage (aristocrats)
Even wings. 1759: stage = empty
  • During the performance: auditorium and stage were lit up by candles (no darkness)
    Intervals: « chauffoirs » room where members of the audience would chat, and warm themselves up; « limonadiers » selling lemonades (refreshments)
  • Selling: e.g. fans, calendars etc.

The Actor

  • The actor, as a person, was treated as a pariah.
  • Usually from lower classes or middle classes.
  • His profession and even his ‘art’ were seen as dishonest, and often wildly and vigorously condemned.
  • His position in society: marginalized.
  • He had to forfeit basic rights (running the risk of seeing one’s partner disinherited upon marriage, of being ostracized)
  • Excommunicated by the Church (Molière was buried under cover of darkness with local priests refusing to have anything to do with him).


  • First part of the C17: several places represented on the stage (« Décor simultané »)
  • Later: « Palais à volonté » (Classicism and theatrical rules): only one set for the whole play .
  • Italian influence (machines: « Tragédie à machines » such as ‘Andromède’ by Corneille)

Costumes in tragedy

  • Actors: responsible for supplying their own wardrobe and choosing what they would wear for each performance
  • In general costumes = lively colours (to be seen by the audience). Comedy: inspired by fashion.
  • Female costume: inspired by the fashion of the Court; long, heavy dresses which hindered movement; gloves and handkerchief

Performances and acting

  • Rules established by orators of antiquity such as Cicero or Quintilian
  • Influenced by Court etiquette
  • C17 acting was based on imitating passion and not really “feeling” it
  • C18 acting: actors moved away from tradition and innovated on stage
  • Too much self-consciousness and control of gestures were progressively rejected
  • The violent and passionate expression of emotions became a priority on stage


  • ‘Mis à l’étude’ (lit. put to study)
  • ‘Les rôles à la main’ (parts in hand)
  • Rehearsals also ‘particulières’ (individual) or ‘petites’
  • Final rehearsals ‘grandes’, ‘complètes’ or ‘générales’
  • ‘10 o’clock precisely (as the starting-time for rehearsal) of 5-act plays and 11 o’clock for 3- and 1- act plays’; later in the century, 11 o’clock

Sabine Chaouche

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