In 1966 I went to two plays at the Odéon Theater, but didn’t understand much of either one.
The first was Partage de Midi by Paul Claudel (1868-1955), the younger brother of the sculptress Camille Claudel. He was the one who committed his sister to an insane asylum, where she languished for the last 28 years of her life. Paul Claudel would no doubt turn over in his grave (in Brangues) if he knew he would be remembered primarily for what he did to his sister. But it is also true that his plays continue to be staged. In the 21st century there have so far been six new stage productions of Partage de Midi, for instance at the Comédie-Française and the Festival of Avignon, and one film.
The second play that I saw at the Odéon in 1966 was Les Paravents by Jean Genet (1910-1986). This is a play about the Algerian War of Independence that I did not understand at all at the time, but I later came back to it because it was made into an opera by the Romanian composer Adriana Hölszky. I saw the opera two or three times in Frankfurt in the year 2000, and gradually figured out what was going on.
In 2015 I decided to give the Odéon another try. They were doing a play called Les Fausses Confidences by Marivaux (1688–1763), a comedy about that quintessential French theme, marrying for money. After ordering my ticket online, I logged into amazon.fr and ordered a copy of the text. As usual, the postage from France to Germany cost more than the book itself, but it was worth it, because if I hadn’t read the play beforehand I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. As it was, I enjoyed the play — starring Isabelle Huppert, no less, and staged by Luc Bondy.
Among her many stage and screen roles, Isabelle Huppert played the role of Madame de Maintenon in the film Saint-Cyr (shown in English as “The King’s Daughters”), for which she won a César as Best Actress in 2001. See my post Racine’s Esther in Saint-Cyr-l’École.
The Odéon Theatre first opened in 1782. It is now one of the six ‘national theatres’ in France, which means that it is fully funded by the Ministry for Culture. The other five ‘national theatres’ are the Comédie-Française, the Théâtre de la Colline, the Théâtre de Chaillot, the Opéra-Comique (all in Paris) and the Théâtre national de Strasbourg (TNS).
Each ‘national theatre’ has a specific mission. In 1990 the Odéon became the Théâtre de l’Europe with the mission of “fostering joint projects with stage directors, actors, playwrights and other figures involved in the dramatic arts in Europe, to present new works and breathe new life into Europe’s artistic heritage”.
Since the most recent renovation (2003-2006) the theater now seats up to 800 spectators. In addition to this traditional building, the Odéon now has a second theater, the Ateliers Berthier in the 17th arrondissement, with a seating capacity of 390 spectators. The Odéon box office sells tickets for both venues (as does the Odéon website), so make sure you know which venue you have to go to.
Traditionally, the stage of the Odéon had a slope of 4%, which improved visibility for the audience, but during the renovation from 2003-2006 it was decided to make the stage completely horizontal for the “needs of contemporary scenography, and to simplify the reception of the spectacles from other theatres”. Also the stage is now at street level, “to facilitate the entry of the scenery.”
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Marivaux at the Comédie Française.