Cherbourg’s historic theatre, from the year 1882, faces onto the city’s main square, the Place Général de Gaulle. In the center of the front façade are the busts of three men: Corneille, Boieldieu and Molière.
Two of these, Corneille (1606-1684) and Molière (1622-1673), are unsurprising. Corneille was best known for his tragedies and Molière for his comedies, so nineteenth-century French theatres liked to display busts or statues of both men to show that they performed both genres (unlike earlier theatres which specialized in one or the other).
But Boieldieu? I couldn’t even place him, at first, but after a while I recalled that there is a square in Paris called Place Boieldieu, in the 2nd arrondissement right in front of the Opéra Comique. So I hypothesized that Boieldieu might have been a composer of comic operas — which later turned out to be correct when I looked him up.
François-Adrien Boieldieu was born in 1775, so he was in the same generation as Auber (1782-1871) but a generation younger than Grétry (1741-1813).
Like Auber and Grétry, Boieldieu was a prolific composer of comic operas and was very popular in his lifetime, but his works are seldom performed today, and I’ve never seen any of them. I have also never seen any of Grétry’s operas, and only one by Auber, namely Le Domino Noir, which was revived by the Opéra-Comique in 2018. (Most people today know ‘Auber’ only as the name of a Paris subway station on the RER A line.)
Boieldieu, in any case, has by now been totally forgotten, so today he seems to be an incongruous choice for the front-and-center position on the façade of the Cherbourg theatre, between the two famous seventeenth-century playwrights Corneille and Molière.
Pierre Corneille wrote tragedies that everybody has to read in high school in French-speaking countries (is this still true?), but they don’t seem to be performed very often anymore; at least I’ve never managed to see one.
I’ve never even read one of his plays all the way through, I must admit, but I’ve been meaning to give him another try, now that I am not as young and impatient as I used to be.
Molière, on the other hand, seems to be just as popular today as he was during the reign of Louis XIV, three-and-a-half centuries ago. Thus far I have seen and/or read four of his plays, and am starting to read a fifth one:
- Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies) at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon.
- L’Avare (The Miser) at the Odéon in Paris.
- Le Bourgeois gentilhomme at the Royal Opera in Versailles and in a very different staging at the Lucernaire in Paris.
- I’ve never seen Tartuffe, but I once bought a used copy in Paris and promptly read it there. (See my post on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and scroll down for Tartuffe.)
- And I’m just starting to read Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), having found an old French paperback in one of the public bookshelves here in Frankfurt.
This theatre was closed when I was there in July 2021, both because of the summer vacation and because of the coronavirus pandemic. They made use of the enforced closure to do some renovation work both inside and out, which is why there is some scaffolding on the right wing of the building, and various pieces of construction equipment parked out in front.
Since the building was closed, I don’t have any photos of the inside (and I don’t use other people’s photos without getting their permission), but I see from the theatre’s website that the auditorium still has its original horseshoe-shaped layout from the year 1882, known in France as a théâtre à l’Italienne. In fact, this theatre is often referred to locally as “l’Italienne”, to distinguish it from the other two Cherbourg theatres, la Butte et le Vox. In recent years these three theatres have been combined into one organization called Le Trident, which has the status of a scène nationale, meaning ‘national stage’.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, a scène nationale is not at all the same as a théâtre national or ‘national theatre’. Both of these are designations accorded by the Ministry of Culture in Paris, but with very different degrees of exclusivity. There are only six ‘national theatres’ in France, five in Paris and one in Strasbourg. But there are over seventy ‘national stages’, including one in the ‘overseas department’ of Guadeloupe.
Although the theatre itself was closed, the café in the left wing of the building was open. Since it was a warm summer evening (warmer than it looks in my photos), I ordered a coffee and read the local newspaper at one of the outdoor tables.
Location and aerial view of this theatre on monumentum.fr.
My photos and text in this post are from 2021.