Founded in 1690 by Louis XIV, the Comédie Française is still going strong as the world’s oldest theater troupe.
Their repertoire consists mainly of classic French plays from the 17th and 18th centuries, but they also perform plays by more modern authors. For instance, I once saw them perform what was then a very new play called La Soif et la Faim (Thirst and Hunger) by the then-still-living playwright Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994).
That same season I also saw them perform plays by Racine (1639-1699) and Molière (1622-1673), as well as Jules Renard (1864-1910). But since all these performances were in the year 1966 I’m afraid I can’t recall too many details about them.
Jules Renard, by the way, was an often-quoted author who said things like:
“Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties.”
Or: “I am not sincere, even when I say I am not.”
Or: “It is not how old you are, but how you are old.”
In 2017, I decided to give the Comédie Française another try. I hadn’t been there for half a century, and in the meantime their main venue, the Salle Richelieu on Place Colette, had been thoroughly restored and renovated, and equipped with modern stage machinery.
It turned out they were playing a piece by the playwright Marivaux (1688-1763) called La Double Inconstance, so I bought a ticket for that same evening. On the way out I bought a copy of the text at the theater’s book-and-gift shop. Then I found a table at a pleasant sidewalk café across the square and read the first act of the play before show time.
I knew a bit about Marivaux because I had seen a play of his called Les Fausses Confidences at the Odéon two years before, so I knew that he wasn’t terribly difficult to understand but that it wouldn’t hurt to read the text first, so as not to get muddled by the twists and turns of the plot.
In the upper foyer of the Comédie Française I found this bust of Marivaux, along with those of other playwrights whose works are often performed here.
The Salle Richelieu seats 862 people, but it seems larger because it is a tall room with four balconies, shaped like an opera house in the notorious ‘Italian’ style. Unfortunately a spoken play is not nearly as loud as an opera, so understanding can be difficult. The first time I saw La Double Inconstance I was disappointed that I understood less than I had expected, even though I had already read the first act. But I liked the play so I read the rest of it and got another ticket for a day or two later.
Before the second performance I had a chat with one of the young ushers, and she said that if I had trouble hearing I could pick up a free amplificateur at the front desk downstairs. This turned out to be a headset that really did amplify the sound, more than I had experienced with other systems. So I understood a lot more the second time, and even came back a few days later to see the play a third time.
The play La Double Inconstance by Marivaux takes place in the palace of a prince who is apparently the absolute ruler in a small principality somewhere in Europe. This prince takes a liking to a charming young village woman, Silvia, and has her abducted to his palace. There she thinks she is being courted by a handsome young officer who once stopped at her house to ask for a glass of water. Not until the last act does this officer reveal that he is the prince himself, and that he wants to marry her.
Meanwhile Silvia’s boyfriend Arlequin has also been abducted to the palace and is gradually persuaded, through various stratagems, to forget about Silvia and marry an aristocratic lady named Flaminia instead.
I was reminded of the partner-swapping induced by a high degree of persuasion in Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte, and it is certainly possible that Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was familiar with Marivaux’s play.
At the end of the play there is a double wedding: Silvia marries the prince and Arlequin marries Flaminia, which might be considered a happy ending except that Silvia has quickly adapted to courtly life and may well have lost the naïve qualities that made the prince fall in love with her in the first place.
At the end of this production the director shows her interpretation by playing a recording of the beginning of an opera aria, not by Mozart as I was almost expecting, but of Lascia ch’io pianga (Let me cry) from the opera Rinaldo by Georg Friedrich Händel.
GPS 48°51’47.86″ North; 2°20’9.06″ East
Location, aerial view and photos on monumentum.fr.
(The theater is the building on the left with the large new white roof.)
My photos and text in this post are from 2017.
See also: Marivaux at the Odéon in Paris.