Although Louis XIV officially founded the Comédie-Française by lettre de cachet in 1680, the administrative origins of the troupe date to the death of Molière in 1673. When the great playwright/actor passed away in February 1673, the government merged his troupe with a group of actors who had been performing in the Marais district. This new theatrical entity acquired the lease on an indoor performance space on the Left Bank that had been built in 1671 to house an opera company. The theater, large enough to accommodate substantial audiences and various types of theatrical machinery, was initially known as the Jeu de paume de la bouteille, but later acquired the title Hôtel Guénégaud, due to its location facing the end of the rue de Guénéguaud. Seven years after Molière’s death, the Sun King decided to merge the Guénégaud troupe with the other remaining French-language troupe in the capital, then performing at the Hôtel de Bourgogne on the other side of the river. The new troupe, now the only public Paris option for spectators interested in the plays of Molière, Racine, Pierre Corneille, and other seventeenth-century French language playwrights, began nightly performances in the Guénégaud theater on 25 August 1680. The Comédie-Française Registers Project database, however, begins with the receipts from the first performance of the Guénégaud troupe in the 1680-1681 theatrical season, on 30 April 1680.
The Hôtel Guénégaud is the least well-known of the four spaces in which the troupe played from 1680 to 1793. The only surviving contemporary image of the space, Figure 1, shows a view of the stage and four loges, arranged in two levels.
The pre-eminent modern student of this playhouse and the actors and performances it housed, Professor Jan Clarke, has offered a schematic overview of the theater space as it may have appeared in the 1670s, before the creation of the Comédie-Française (Figure 2). This rendering, which portrays the theater at the level of the first-row boxes, shows a ring of boxes surrounding a seated amphitheater at the top of the image, with the standing pit just below it. The stage is at the bottom.
The box office receipt registers from this period provide evidence that there were at least six different sectors of the playhouse, including seats on the stage itself, three levels of loges, the seated amphitheater, and the standing parterre. Figure 3, the register page from the first performance of the newly-created troupe, shows the pricing for these six ticket categories. The bottom half of the page, after the total receipt figure of 1424 pounds 5 shillings, is devoted to the troupe’s daily expenditures. This expense data has not yet been added to our database.
Beginning with the 1686-1687 season, the ticket category labels become more generic, making it difficult to reach definitive conclusions about the popularity and profitability of different seating areas. Figure 4, for example, the register page that records ticket sales for 11 February 1687, replaces specific names for categories with the generic “billet” (ticket) label, then adds handwritten qualifiers for two of the categories. Furthermore, the actor in charge of recording sales that day has added a fifth, handwritten category in between the first two “billet” categories which he has labeled “deux loges.” Similar handwritten additions to daily box office receipts appear throughout the registers in the 1680s. The troupe’s lack of specificity when recording ticket sales during the Guénégaud years, when combined with our imperfect knowledge of the audience hall itself, makes it problematic to analyze revenue data at more granular levels.
Jeffrey S. Ravel