The Sun King was not amused. A roving band of Italian actors had just staged a send-up of his mistress, Madame de Maintenon. To make sure that his dignity was never again so rudely affronted, on Oct. 21, 1680, against the glittering backdrop of Versailles, Louis XIV decreed a union of France’s two main theatrical companies—one of them the ensemble bereft by Molière’s recent death—and airily conferred on them a monopoly as “the sole troupe of the king’s players.”
This week, as the stage master’s baton raps to ring up the curtain on the company’s 1,241st performance of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, there will be a trifle more preening than usual behind the footlights as the Comédie Française—that venerable French institution—celebrates its 300th birthday and its record as the world’s oldest flourishing repertory company. The occasion is being feted with a tricentennial postage stamp, an exhibition of costumes and sets from production high points at Paris’ Pompidou Centre, a film festival at the French cinémathèque featuring clips such as Sarah Bernhardt playing La Dame aux Camélias, and a series of
international guest drop-ins from the likes of Peking’s People’s Theatre and London’s Old Vic.
But perhaps the most appropriate festivity of all is this year’s $15-million 18-play season which promises to
be as explosive as any in the Comédie Française’s history. Coming up are a new staging of Carlo Goldoni’s La Locandiera, which is predicted to cause a scandal, and an extravagant version of Molière’s rare court entertainments to be mounted by the Brussels-based enfant terrible of ballet, Maurice Bejart. Says newly appointed administrator General Jacques Toja: “Posterity would find us guilty if we were more timid than our predecessors.” Indeed, that philosophy, plus an ability to swing with the changing political tides, have been the tonics that have kept the grande dame of French theatre on her feet.
Pampered and financed by Louis XIV, who summoned them to his assorted castles on a whim; saved from the guillotine by the fall of Robespierre; feted under Napoleon, who terrorized all his officials into becoming subscribers, by the end of the last century the Comédie Française had become a pinnacle of chic. Sarah Bernhardt’s tours de force were the talks of the town, while Victor Hugo’s scripts not infrequently provoked fisticuffs during performances between opposing political factions.
Rescued from a fire, then from fi-
nancial ruin during the Depression by a radio contract, the theatre fell under the stern gaze of the Nazi occupation, forced to bow to anti-Semitic strictures while trying to divert wartime Paris with Feydeau farces. At the liberation, it celebrated with a benefit for the Free French forces presided over by Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
The company has come to boast a repertoire of 2,800 plays. As well as cradling the French classics, the company has provided a showcase for playwrights as diverse and trendy as Jean Cocteau, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett.
Endowed with a budget half that given by the government to the French theatre as a whole, money is not a problem for the Comédie Française. Nor, given the fact that it turns away 400,000 subscription requests a year for its 892 seats, are audiences. However, as anniversary festivities are topped off this week with an aftertheatre gala at the Café de la Paix, graced by some of the biggest names in French theatre, one spectator will be conspicuously absent: the grand patron of the Comédie Française, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Sighs a spokesman: “Giscard loves de Maupassant and Mozart; he goes to opera all the time. But we can’t get him to like the theatre.” Marci McDonald
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