There has been a theater on this site on the Rue de la Gaîté since 1817, and the present Théâtre Montparnasse dates from 1886. Note that the ornate nineteenth century façade includes two lovely caryatids, statues of half-naked women supporting the roof with their heads.
The theater was renovated in the 1980s and now has seven hundred and fifteen seats — nearly all of which were occupied on the night I was there.
The play I saw at the Théâtre Montparnasse was none other than L’Importance d’être sérieux by Oscar Wilde, better known in English as The Importance of Being Earnest. Since this is a play I know quite well in the original English, I thought I would also be able to understand it in French, which turned out to be true.
It sounded funny to hear it all in French, especially those parts that I know more or less by heart, like the scene in the first act when Gwendolyn says: “I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, Mamma.” To which Lady Bracknell replies: “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
Then Lady Bracknell sends Gwendolyn down to the carriage (“Gwendolen, the carriage!“) and interviews Jack to find out if his answers are “what a really affectionate mother requires. Do you smoke?” — “Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.” — “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.” etc.
Or the scene in the second act when Gwendolen says: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
A funny thing about this production at the Théâtre Montparnasse (directed by Gilbert Désveaux and previously tried out in Montpellier before they brought it to Paris) was that Lady Bracknell was played by a man, Claude Aufaure, who after a quick change of costume also played Reverend Chasuble at Jack’s country home.
The only trouble with this was that his two characters couldn’t both be on the stage at once, so they had to change the ending a bit and leave out Reverend Chasuble’s marriage to Miss Prism. Which is a shame, because in the original that is just the touch that brings all the threads of the plot together and raises them to a new level of absurdity.
From left to right: Matthieu Brion as the two servants, Lane and Merriman; Marilyne Fontaine as Gwendolyn; Arnaud Denis as Algernon; Claude Aufaure as Lady Bracknell and Reverend Chasuble; Mathieu Bisson as Earnest/Jack Worthing; Mathilde Bisson as Cecily; Margaret Zenou as Miss Prism.
The fresco in this photo is at the north end of the Rue de la Gaîté, at the corner of Boulevard Edgar Quinet, where a popular ice cream shop attracts long lines of customers.
As the name implies, the Rue de la Gaîté has always been a place of merriment and entertainment. In the eighteenth century the street was already lined with cabarets, ballrooms, theaters, restaurants and bordellos. Until 1860 the Rue de la Gaîté was just outside the city limits of Paris, which meant that the city tax on alcohol did not apply.
To this day there are five theaters on this short street (not cinemas, but real theaters with nightly live performances), and more nearby. And there are numerous restaurants and cafés which are always lively and crowded in the evenings.
The only establishments that do not seem to be thriving are the sex shops, which were popular in the twentieth century but have trouble competing with internet pornography in the twenty-first.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2017.
Théâtre Montparnasse, 31 rue de la Gaîté, 75014 Paris
Vélib’ bicycle station 14035
Métro : Gaîté, Edgar Quinet or Montparnasse-Bienvenüe
Location, aerial view and photo of Théâtre Montparnasse on monumentum.fr.