Since the name of this theater means ‘Theatre of the Old Pigeon-House’, I used to think the theater building was just that, an old pigeon-house (dovecote) that somebody decided to re-purpose after a sharp decline in the demand for pigeon meat. Considering the size of the theatre, I thought it must have had room for thousands of breeding pigeon pairs, enough to keep the entire population of Paris supplied with pigeon stew for hundreds of years. In my imagination dozens of poorly paid workers toiled for months with buckets and mops to scrub away the centuries of encrusted pigeon droppings so the building could be transformed into a theatre.
I was disappointed to learn that not a single pigeon has ever been bred in this building.
We 21st century folks tend to experience pigeons mainly as an urban nuisance (‘rats of the sky’), but in the Middle Ages their meat was considered a delicacy (and their droppings made excellent fertilizer). In earlier centuries this street was in fact the location of a dovecote that belonged to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des Prés. The Abbey raised pigeons here until sometime in the 17th century, when the name of the street was changed from Rue du Colombier (‘Street of the Dovecote’) to Rue du Vieux-Colombier (‘Street of the Old Dovecote’).
From the street, this looks just like an ordinary apartment building, which in fact it is. The theatre box office, café and lobby are on the ground floor, underneath the apartments, and the actual theatre is at the back in a separate building.
The theatre was built in 1899 and was originally called l’Athénée Saint-Germain. Under that name it was used sporadically by small amateur companies that performed melodrama and popular plays, and was also rented out for meetings and lectures. In 1913 it was taken over by the drama critic Jacques Copeau (1879-1949), who changed the name to the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier (named after the street it was on, to help people find it) and assembled a group of talented actors including Charles Dullin (1885-1949), who is mentioned repeatedly for various reasons in the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir, and Louis Jouvet (1887-1951), who went on to become a prominent film star and theatre director.
The Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier had its ups and downs throughout the 20th century, including nearly being demolished in the 1970s. Since 1993 it has served as the second venue of the Comédie-Française, in addition to the older and larger Salle Richelieu in the Palais-Royal.
The play I saw at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier was an adaptation of Faust, by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), in the classic 19th century translation by the French poet Gérard de Nerval.
Faust is a long, sprawling work that Goethe kept coming back to for most of his adult life. By 1828 he had lost interest in it, but according to the program booklet his interest was re-awakened when he read Nerval’s translation.
Another thing I learned from the program booklet was that in the 328-year history of the Comédie-Française, this was the first production ever staged by magicians. Valentine Losseau and Raphaël Navarro were two of the three founders of the French “new magic” movement in 2002. They adapted Part 1 of Goethe’s Faust for this production and included a steady stream of magic all the way through. The nine actors from the Comédie-Française were all pledged to secrecy and are all credited with manipulation magique in addition to their roles in the play. All this magic fits in very nicely with the text, since Faust’s pact with Méphistophélès, the devil, involves a great deal of paranormal activity in any case.
I first read Faust as an undergraduate (majoring in German) in New York. Since then I have re-read most of it at one time or another and have seen four operas based on the Faust story:
- Faust by Charles Gounod (1818-1893), which I have seen several times in Frankfurt (in the original French) as staged by Christoph Loy, tells the story of Faust and Gretchen (Marguerite in French) from Part 1 of Goethe’s Faust.
- Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), which I have seen in Frankfurt and Karlsruhe (in the original Italian), includes scenes from both parts of Goethe’s Faust.
- La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is a “dramatic legend” which I saw in a staged version at the Opéra Bastille in Paris (see my post Ten days, eight operas, seven venues), as well as in concert performances and more recently in a staged version at the Frankfurt Opera, directed by Harry Kupfer.
- Doktor Faust by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), which I saw in Stuttgart, is based on the medieval Faust legend, which was also Goethe’s source.
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.