The French word Gaîté means cheerfulness or happiness, and this historic theatre was certainly a cheerful place in the middle-to-late 1870s, when several of Jacques Offenbach’s comical operettas were performed here. Offenbach himself was the theatre’s director and impresario for two years, but he was not so happy with the theatre’s finances, so he quit and went on tour in America to pay off his debts.
The Théâtre de la Gaîté, as it is still called on the restored façade, has had several name changes during its long history. The word Lyrique was added at some point to emphasize its programming of operas and operettas, and to differentiate it from the other Théâtre de la Gaîté, which was (and still is) on the Rue de la Gaîté across the river in Montparnasse.
All you loyal readers of my post on Victor Hugo at the Place des Vosges might recall that the Théâtre de la Gaîté (this one) was where Hugo gave a speech in 1878, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the French writer Voltaire (1694-1778).
The address of the theatre is listed on the poster as the Square des Arts-et-Métiers. Tickets were available in five different categories, with prices ranging from 50 centimes to 8 francs. The proceeds went “au bénéfice des pauvres de Paris” (for the benefit of the poor of Paris).
Today La Gaîté Lyrique is no longer a theatre but rather — what?
I must admit that I had one of my ‘Mister Jones’ moments when I first entered the building. Mister Jones was a character in an early Bob Dylan song: “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
Early in the 21st century, after decades of neglect, the building was taken over by the city of Paris and totally rebuilt (except for the historic façade, entrance and foyer) for use as a “cultural establishment of the City of Paris” featuring “Musiques & futurs alternatifs”, meaning literally “musics and alternative futures.” It was opened in this iteration in 2011.
This sign at the entrance explains that La Gaîté Lyrique is now “the media place of post-internet cultures”, whatever that means.
(I have the distinct impression that the internet still exists, so it’s a bit early to speak of ‘post-internet’ anything, but perhaps some nice French person can explain this to me.)
The sign goes on to explain, sort of: “These artistic practices, born and transformed in the internet, at the intersection of the arts, the new technologies and societal issues, are displayed here, but also imagined, constructed, tried out and transmitted. A place of discovery for understanding our virtualized epoch, this is also a place of celebration, of creativity and of sharing.”
After reading this not-very-helpful explanation, I climbed the stairs to the first floor (one flight up, which would be called the second floor in the US) and found a large lobby with tables and chairs and a self-service café as well as a long queue of people waiting to get in to a space called the ‘small gallery’. I forget what was going on there (if I ever knew) but the queue included adolescents and young adults as well as families with children, so whatever was happening must have been something that appealed to all of these groups.
Also on the first floor is a ‘repair café’ dedicated to learning how to fix broken smartphones and tablets, rather than just replacing them when something goes wrong.
Elsewhere in the building there are three concert halls of various sizes, and a large historic foyer “dating from the time of Offenbach”.
Later I learned that the top floor (the 7th) is devoted to a co-working area for artists and cultural organizations “whose activity unfolds around the practices born or transformed by the internet and the new technologies.”
I also later learned that the Gaîté Lyrique offers various free activities for seniors, “to better navigate your digital tools”, for instance: “Come and ask your questions about your smart phone or tablet to a young student of the association Kocoya ThinkLab, over a cup of coffee or a tea.”
After getting somewhat oriented (or at least somewhat less disoriented), I went down to the ticket desk on the ground floor and bought a ticket for the “exposition-experience” AURAe by Sabrina Ratté, which was the current attraction in a large gallery area on the ground floor and in the basement.
Sabrina Ratté is a Canadian artist, born in Quebec in 1982, who now divides her time between Montreal and Marseille. For this exposition she created eleven large-scale abstract electronic artworks, most of which were constantly changing.
Some of these were projected onto double-sided screens. When I was there, a group of young people experimented with this and found that if they stood or waved their arms — or kissed — at the front side of the screen, their friends could see their silhouettes on the other side.
In one corner of the exposition-experience there was a place where you could put on goggles and have a look at augmented reality. I decided not to do this, my excuse being that the queue was too long — but I’m not sure I would have done it even if there had been no waiting time at all.
Next door to the Gaîté Lyrique is an uncomplicated bistro (where I had a nice lunch), and the building on the other side now houses a private Montessori school. The large building in the background, on rue Saint-Martin, is part of the Conservatory Arts-et-Métiers and the Museum Arts-et-Métiers — a fascinating museum dealing with the history of technology and inventions from the eighteenth century to the present day.
Right in front of the Gaîté Lyrique is a small square, dating from 1858, that was originally called the Square des Arts-et-Métiers. It is now named after the French politician Émile Chautemps (1850-1918). The column in the center of the square is also dedicated to the memory of Chautemps — even though he doesn’t seem to have ever done anything particularly memorable, looking back from just over a century after his death.
In this square I missed a photo opportunity because I didn’t have my camera ready when I caught a fleeting glimpse of a lovely young lady whose tote bag had a printed slogan in English: “Sex, drugs and croissants.”
My photos and text in this post are from 2022.
See more posts on the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.