By the 1760s the playhouse on the rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain-des-Près, frequently refurbished since its opening in 1689, was becoming increasingly inadequate to the needs of the troupe. While revenues had increased since the suppression of stage seating in 1759, the troupe members, administrators, and the critical public all realized that the space was an unhealthy fire hazard that failed to properly house France’s leading theatrical troupe. Major provincial towns such as Lyon had recently opened new, better-designed theaters, and the other privileged troupes in the capital were agitating for new theaters. In 1770, when the Paris Opera vacated the cavernous Salle des Machines in the Tuileries Palace, the Comédie-Française seized the opportunity to move into this suddenly available venue in the heart of Paris, just west of the Louvre.
The top image in Figure 1 shows an east-facing view of the entire Tuileries Palace complex as seen from the Tuileries Gardens in 1668. At the bottom, an overhead view of the palace’s playhouse, occupying the left third of the structure, is visible. This venue, designed by the Italian architect Lodovico Vigarani in the 1660s, was so immense, and its acoustics so problematic, that by 1700 it was hardly ever used. When the Opera needed a new home in 1763, the court assigned the royal architects Jacques-Germain Soufflot and Ange-Jacques Gabriel to reconfigure the space. Figure 2 shows an architectural rendering of their design made by Soufflot and Gabriel in 1763. Vigarani’s 1660s space had been so huge that the new performance space, intended to emulate the opera house that had just burned down in the Palais Royal, fit within the space previously dedicated to the stage itself. The left third of this drawing is the now inaccessible seating area from Vigarani’s earlier design; the right two-thirds of the drawing constitute the new seating area and stage.
Figure 3, containing early 1770s overhead views of the Soufflot/Gabriel theater from the perspective of the ground floor and the first row of loges, shows how even in this new configuration, the performance area was still larger than the space devoted to the audience.
Figure 4, a contemporary drawing by the artist Gabriel de Saint-Aubin of the famous coronation of Voltaire on 30 March 1778 at the end of the writer’s life, provides an interesting perspective of the edge of the stage, the loges, balconies, orchestra and the parterre towards the end of the troupe’s tenure in the playhouse. Here one gets a sense of the variable size of the loges at all three levels, as well as the smaller seating areas that overlook the edge of the stage. Figure 5, a document from the archives of the Comédie-Française detailing the seating capacity of the Tuileries space and a proposed new theater, indicates that the several dozen loges in the Salle des machines could hold anywhere from four to twenty or more people each, depending on size and location in the auditorium. The same document indicates that by the troupe’s calculations the maximum capacity of the playhouse was 1738 spectators.
The ticket categories recorded in the troupe’s receipt registers during these twelve seasons never varied. Figure 6, a reproduction of the entry for the 30 March 1778 coronation of Voltaire, indicates that during this period the troupe recorded box sales in thirteen different categories. The first nine categories in the list are sales of entire loges; while they thus record revenue generated by these spaces, we do not know whether each loge was filled to capacity on each night, nor is it evident how these nine categories map onto the many different loges listed in the document reproduced as Figure 5. The final four categories on the register page for 30 March 1778 record individual ticket sales at the three levels of the loges, and in the standing parterre.
Jeffrey S. Ravel