Théâtre de l’Odéon, 1782-1793
In 1767, even before the troupe had moved into the Salle des Machines in the Tuileries Palace, the actors were lobbying the royal government for a new, state-of-the-art playhouse. At the end of 1769, the Court approved the construction of a new theater, but it took another twelve years (across two reigns), and numerous design revisions before the troupe opened its new building to the public on 9 April 1782. The Odéon theater differed significantly from the three previous venues in which the troupe had performed. The Guénégaud and the Fossés-Saint-Germain spaces had been part of the urban façade, indistinguishable from other structures along their cramped urban streets. The placement of the Salle des Machines, embedded in the royal palace of the Tuileries, alleviated urban congestion but re-emphasized the troupe’s royal privilege. While the Comédie-Française continued to enjoy a royal monopoly on spoken French drama in Paris until January 1791, the new theater, in its siting and its architecture, also emphasized the increasingly important role of critical public opinion in the affairs of the troupe. The Odéon project not only called for the construction of a new playhouse; it also necessitated the re-routing of streets and the creation of an ample plaza in front of the theater where carriages could discharge their passengers comfortably and pedestrians could easily approach the theater. The first sidewalks in Paris were built on the new rue de la Comédie leading to the Odéon theater. Figure 1 details the revised street plan in the Odéon neighborhood that was also an urban renewal project.
Figure 2 below makes clear how the architects and urban planners behind the Odéon design envisioned the new playhouse as a secular, classicizing “temple,” one that would emphasize the pre-eminent role the Comédie-Française and its repertory played in the construction of French cultural nationalism even before the Revolution. In 1788 the English traveller Richard Valpy commented that this façade gave the theater “the grandeur and majesty which the productions of a Corneille, a Racine, and a Voltaire seem to demand.” The spacious square in front of the façade, easily able to accommodate the carriage emerging from the right-hand portico, suggests the very different place this architectural monument occupied in the urban landscape of Paris.
The interior of the theater also marked a notable departure from previous Parisian audience spaces. Figure 3, a lateral view of the playhouse project from the late 1770s, suggests the new viewing spaces the architect would create in the audience hall. For the first time, the parterre now had benches that fixed spectators to a specific place and forced them to pay attention to the performance on stage. Stalls behind the parterre benches mimicked enclosed spaces behind the benches at the level of first and second loges, while the third level, less expensive, jammed five rows of benches onto a seating incline. The “paradise,” a new level of seating at the very top level of the playhouse, now displaced the parterre as the cheapest ticket in the house. Figure 4, a less polished sketch by the architect Charles de Wailly, gives a clearer sense of these seating options, although it omits the paradise. Figure 3 is also noticeable for its articulation of the new foyer and other public spaces on the right-hand side of the image in which spectators could mill about before, during, and after the performance. The decision to devote this much architectural space to public gathering areas testifies to the growing aesthetic and political importance of the theater-going public at the end of the Old Regime.
Figures 5 and 6 underline another innovation of the design of de Wailly. All three of the troupe’s previous venues had featured a “horseshoe” audience configuration that derived from the long, narrow, indoor tennis courts in which the first covered public theaters in Paris had been built in the early 1600s. Loge seating at all levels in these halls was inadequate; the loges directly facing the stage were too far away to hear the actors recite their lines, and the loges on the sides made it easy to see what transpired across the way, but difficult to follow the action onstage. As Figure 5 shows, before the decision was made to build the new Odéon playhouse some thought was given to modifying the rue des Fossés-Saint-Gremain-des-Près theater. In this drawing from the Comédie-Française archives, an unknown architect imagines fitting a flatter audience configuration in the auditorium of the old space. De Wailly’s design for the theater that opened in 1782 also rounded the horseshoe shape into a semi-circle that optimized the visual and acoustical experience for all loge occupants (Figure 6). De Wailly was not the first French architect to implement this innovation. Soufflot had utilized it in his 1750 Lyon playhouse, as had Victor Louis in Bordeaux in 1780. But the more audience-friendly seating arrangement in de Wailly’s playhouse contributed to greater audience satisfaction and increased box office revenues for the troupe.
Even the most cursory examination of the Comédie-Française Registers Project database reveals the substantial leap in box office revenue enjoyed by the troupe after the move into the Odéon theater. At its opening in 1782, the new playhouse could accommodate a total of 1913 spectators, an increase of almost 200 spectators over the Salle des Machines. Furthermore, ticket prices increased in many of the seating categories. The newly seated parterre, for example, increased in price from one pound to two pounds eight shillings. Spectators with only one pound to spend were relegated to the paradise, moving them further away from the stage and diminishing their ability to respond to the action on stage. Figure 7, the register page from the theater’s opening night in April 1782, suggests the multiplication of ticket categories and the price increases. The total box office receipt on this night was only exceeded twice before 1782; both these occasion were season-closing galas of Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Polyeucte.
Figure 8, the register page from the opening night a decade later in 1792, the last season in our database, shows several slight variations in pricing that corresponded to subtle seating changes in the hall, but overall pricing remained constant for over a decade after the troupe moved into its new playhouse.
Our database ends with the close of the 1792-1793 season, when the troupe split into republican and royalist factions and ceased to perform jointly until the very end of the 1790s, once the overt political strife in the capital had died down. Unlike its three predecessors, which have disappeared, this playhouse is still in use in Paris, although the current Comédie-Française troupe does not perform there.
Jeffrey S. Ravel