When I saw the beautiful old Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon from the year 1881 I knew I had to go and see something there, no matter what they were playing.
It turned out that they were doing a seventeenth century comedy by Molière (1622-1673) called Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies).
Although seventeenth century French comedies are notoriously difficult for us poor foreigners to understand, I decided to give it a try — with mixed results, as I will explain shortly.
Apparently the official name of this theater is now “Célestins, Théâtre de Lyon”. According to their website, the Célestins is a theater that is open to “all the publics” (tous les publics), in other words people from all levels of society and from all districts of the city and the region.
I understood the beginning of Les Femmes savantes all right (two sisters quarreling over a man they both liked) and also the end (the parents quarreling about who the younger sister should marry), but I got lost a few times in the middle and didn’t always understand what people were laughing about. In particular, I didn’t understand why the two pompous intellectuals, who had been great friends when they came in at the beginning of the third act, suddenly started fighting and throwing books at each other.
Later, when I read the text of the play, it all became clear. One of these intellectuals had publicly ridiculed a sonnet written by the other. This was based on a real incident, evidently, that had happened in the hothouse intellectual atmosphere of Paris in the 1660s. When Les Femmes savantes was first performed in the Théâtre de la salle du Palais-Royal in Paris in 1672, probably everyone in the audience knew what Molière was referring to.
When I saw Les Femmes savantes in Lyon 339 years later, the audience was very mixed and included a lot of young people, some of whom had the text of the play with them since they had evidently been reading it for school.
On the way out some of them already started looking up things they hadn’t understood, which was a consolation for me since I wasn’t the only one who missed some of the seventeenth century gags in the play.
For instance, I hadn’t understood what the girls’ uncle said about Lyon in the fifth act that brought about a happy end and enabled the younger sister to marry the man of her choice. Since the whole play took place in Paris, I was mystified by this one reference to Lyon.
So the next morning I found a small bookshop in the Old Town and bought a copy of Les Femmes savantes for all of three Euros. A footnote in this book explained that Lyon was an important banking center in the seventeenth century. The uncle claimed to have received a letter from Lyon saying that his brother’s two bankers had both gone bankrupt on the same day, so the family was destitute. This was a lie, but it had the desired effect that one of the suitors, a pompous intellectual favored by the mother, immediately decided not to get married after all, so the way was clear for the younger sister to marry the man she loved.
The picture on the front cover of the book is a small detail from a painting called Portrait de la marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher (1703-1770). The Marquise de Pompadour was the official “chief mistress” of the French King Louis XV. François Boucher painted several portraits of the Marquise de Pompadour, including this one from the year 1756 which is on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Théâtre des Célestins on monumentum.fr.
Historic post card views of the Théâtre des Célestins on Carthalia.
See more of my posts on the playwright Molière.