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(officially, Théâtre Français), the oldest national theater in France.
The Comédie Française was founded in 1680 in Paris by a decree of Louis XIV that joined Molière’s company, which had earlier merged with the Théâtre du Marais, and the troupe of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The members of the new theater included M. Champmeslé, M. Baron, C. La Grange, and A. Béjart.
The Comédie Française had a monopoly on dramatic performances and received a subsidy that enabled it to hire the best actors, thus assuring its position as France’s major theater. But its development was hampered by the conservatism of the royal court. There was a growing demarcation in the theater in the 18th century between the court-gentry and the democratic-Enlightenment varieties of classicism. Such democratic “Voltairean” actors as A. Lecouvreur, M. Dumesnil, H. Clairon, and H. Lekain retained the classical norms but sought psychological insight into their characters.
During the Great French Revolution, the Comédie Française was renamed the Théâtre de la Nation. Political struggle within the troupe led to a split. F. J. Talma, J. B. Dugazon, and F. M. R. Vestris left the Comédie Française and founded the Théâtre de la République. In 1799 the troupe was reunited, and the theater took its former name.
The Comédie Française staged Hugo’s progressive romantic dramas on the eve of the July Revolution of 1830. Before the Revolution of 1848 the actress E. Rachel played roles that resounded with heroic themes. In the 1820’s, the theater began presenting plays that counterposed the glorification of bourgeois morality to romanticism—the works of E. Scribe in the 1820’s and of E. Augier, A. Dumas fils, and V. Sardou in the 1840’s and 1850’s. The theater’s principal players in the 19th century and early 20th were M. George, A. Mars, Sarah Bernhardt, and J. Mounet-Sully.
Realistic acting traditions were developed primarily by the comedians—for instance, E. F. J. Got and C. B. Coquelin. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Comédie Française began to stage works by the critical realist playwrights: H. Becque, A. France, J. Renard, and later E. Fabre. In the 1930’s such directors as J. Copeau, L. Jouvet, C. Dullin, and G. Baty worked with the theater. Many leading actors and directors of the contemporary French theater began their careers at the Comédie Française, including M. Bell, J. Yonnel, B. M. J. Bovy, B. Bretty, J.-L. Barrault, M. Renaud, and P. Dux.
By remaining true to classical traditions, the Comédie Française has avoided formalist and decadent tendencies. The works of such playwrights as Corneille, Racine, Molière, Marivaux, Beaumarchais, and Musset are widely represented in its repertoire. The principal actors of the theater in the 1950’s and 1960’s were J. Meyer, M. Escande, L. Seigner, and J. Bertheau. The Comédie Française frequently tours abroad; it performed in the USSR in 1954, 1964, 1969, and 1973.
REFERENCESMokul’skii, S. Istoriia zapadnoevropeiskogo teatra, vol. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1939.
Boiadzhiev, G. N. Teatral’nyi Parizh segodnia. [Moscow] 1960.
Istoriia zapadnoevropeiskogo teatra, vols. 3, 5. Moscow, 1963–70.
Valmy-Baysse, J. Naissance et vie de la Comédie-Française. Paris, 1945.
Bretty, B. La Comédie-Française à l’envers. Paris .
E. L. FINKEL’SHTEIN