The Hôtel de Bourgogne was the first permanent and only theatre that existed in Paris for multiple years, and it included relatively uncommon characteristics. It was built following a narrow rectangular shape that was 102 feet long and approximately 43 feet deep, consisting of an open space on the ground floor called the pit in which the audience would stand and three levels of galleries running round three of its four walls.
The galleries that where perpendicular to the stage where partially divided into boxes, which were named loges. This where the theatre’s most expensive seats. The galleries that where parallel to the stage were built undivided. The higher ones where called the paradis, as a result of them being near the roof, or “heaven”. These seats were the most expensive ones in the theatre (excluding the pit that was free). Overall, the Hôtel de Bourgogne could hold up to approximately 1,600 audience members. It was not uncommon that audience members paid to sit on the lodges to be seen, more than to see the plays, since this was also the system used English private theatres.
The stage rose approximately six feet from the ground, without an authentic proscenium arch, though the lodges implemented a sort of frame that was 25 feet wide and approximately 17 to 35 feet deep. In the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, the stage’s scenery varied from play to play, but usually, the style of design was a miscellaneous mix of renaissance and medieval styles, called simultaneous settings.
A few scholars use this name to classify any medieval stage set-up, but at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, concurrent settings were considerably different. During the Italian Renaissance, the set was decorated in a manner in which a series of wings (called periaktoi) led the view upstage to a central vanishing point, partially on a perspective manner, resulting in an illusion of depth. At the Hôtel de Bourgogne however, there were no different fragments painted on the wings of one single setting, as it was the case in Renaissance decor. Instead, there was a mansion-like mural symbolizing a different location was on each wing.
For example, if an actor or actress walked towards the front of one of these wings, on which was painted a mansion, the audience recognized that he or she was in front of the mansion; if he or she walked towards another wing that had a mural of a valley, the audience recognized that he or she was in a valley. Laurent Mahelot was a French scenographer who created multiple simultaneous sets in the early 17th century. Finally, the Hôtel de Bourgogne’s auditorium as well as the stage where lit using candle and oil lamps, following the Italian Renaissance’s lighting methods.
The Hôtel de Bourgogne was the only perpetual theatre in Paris. However, companies could perform on other locations as long as they paid the Confrérie de la Passion its fee. There were various locations, with similar architecture to the Hôtel de Bourgogne’s, and very available because a particular sport called jeu de paume had lost some of its popularity. This sport was a type of tennis, and the courts where the game was played were long and narrow rectangles that included galleries along the main hall.
The theatre companies would construct a platform at one end of the court, transforming it into into a theatre. The French were on the right path to creating the proscenium arch theatre, significantly this can be seen in the auditorium’s characteristics, and it was noticeable in France prior than when identical structures were accessible to the public in either Italy or England.
It was in 1634 when an adversary to the Hôtel de Bourgogne was constructed, called the Théâtre du Marais. Its architecture was inspired on a tennis court, but it was then replaced in 1644 (when it first burned down) by a more elaborate building that could hold the complicated theatre machinery that had been growing progressively popular in France. This freshly built Théâtre du Marais had a height of 52 feet and was 115 feet long, 38 feet wide. Its auditorium included three levels of galleries running round its walls.
The first two galleries where separated into boxes and the top paradis was built as an open stadium seating. The rear wall also incorporated two levels of boxes and stadium-style seating at the top. The stage rose 6 feet from the ground, and it included a proscenium opening of 25 feet. It also contained was a second level acting space. This new Théâtre du Marais could hold up to approximately 1500 audience members.
Feeling threatened by the new Marais’ architecture, the Hôtel de Bourgogne was renovated in 1647 following the same fashion as the Marais. In the middle of the 1630s, there where little attempts of spectacles in either the Hôtel de Bourgogne or the Marais. The academy had urged play-writers to honor the solidarity of one singular place, which restricted plays to have only one set (with no variations). Whereas in the past, concurrent settings where used at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, after 1636 both theatres started to include relatively neutral settings. For comical plays, the set was a room with four doors and for tragical play, the set was a location in front of a palace.
Theatres that provided plays to the court were more problematic in their use of spectacle. Courtly audiences where familiar with the Italian-style scene transformations as early as the 1620s in momentary locations, but it became more conspicuous in the 1640s. It was in 1641 when Cardinal Richelieu ordered a theatre to be built in his home, which he named the Palais Cardinal. In this theatre, a ballet performed for the court and it included nine different settings that changed a vista. When Richelieu died in 1642, both his newly built theatre and his home were taken over by the crown, the two being renamed as Palais Royal.
Richelieu’s successor was Cardinal Mazarini, who changed his name into a more French version: Cardinal Mazarin. During King Louis XIV’s childhood, he was responsible for the prosperity of the country, the same way Richelieu had done with Louis XIII. Mazarin adored Italian opera, and didn’t hesitate to introduce that style to Paris. In order to accomplish the appropriate spectacular settings for these operas, Mazarin brought to Paris Giacomo Torelli, a very famous and talented scenic designer in Italy.
In 1645, Torelli created an innovative stage scenery with set transformations and special effects accomplished by the use of theatre machines. He did it in the palace next to the Louvre, called the Petit Bourbon, where numerous court functions had been staged in the late 1500s. He integrated his own version of the chariot and pole system of scene transformations to amaze the courtly audiences.
The Petit Bourbon’s most famous asset was the Great Salle. With 49 feet wide and 115 feet long and an apse that added additional 44 feet at one end, the hall’s dimensions were considered substantial by Parisian standards. The apse was decorated with fleur-de-lis during the Estates General of 1614 because it was the place where both the king and his courtiers sat. In this hall, the court was used to produce celebrations and ballets, where the princes and Louis XIV., when young, used to dance.
The following year he incorporated identical changes to the theatre at the Palais Royal. This resulted in Paris promoting two public theatres and two court locations that produced sensational ballets in which courtiers danced by 1646. Operas, along with “machine” plays that gave its sets (most of the time designed by Torelli) a protagonist role, impressed audiences not only with the use of chariot and pole changes but also by introducing appearances of the king on stage. The king frequently made grand entrances and also danced in the 1650s.
Even though Torelli acquired extraordinary fame, at the same time he gained powerful enemies. In response to Torelli’s newly obtained enemies, Cardinal Mazarin imported a rival Italian designer, Gaspare Vigarani, to develop an appropriate spectacle for the wedding of Louis XIV. Torelli’s Salle du Petit Bourbon was demolished, and in the Tuileries palace, Vigarani built a new theatre called the Salle des Machines, which became the biggest theatre in Europe. This enormous space was 252 feet long and 52 feet wide, including both a backstage area of 140 feet deep (space needed for Vigarani’s machines) and a proscenium opening of 32 feet.
Architects Louis Le Vau, François d’Orbay , and Charles Errard decorated and designed the Salle des Machines’s auditorium. It was sheltered in a pavilion placed at the north end of the palace, originally designed and constructed by architect Philibert de l’Orme for Catherine de Médicis. The auditorium could hold up to approximately 8,000 audience members. The unconventionally profound stage was placed in a gallery located between a new, more northern pavilion and the auditorium.
Nevertheless, the Salle des Machines was completed in time for Louis’ wedding, its first production only premiered until 1662, when Vigarani bestowed the king with his delayed birthday present, an opera called Hercules in Love. This was a spectacle that included multiple ballets, but it was mainly about the theatre’s complex technology and machines.
In the 18th century, there was transformation in the functional side of theatre as well as in its acting, architecture, design, and staging. French theatres in the 18th century appeared to be identical to eighteenth century English theatres. A clear similarity was their use of the pit, box and gallery system for their audiences. Another similarity that can be found is that both English and French theatres had cut back their forestage, concentrating all of the action within the scenic stage.
Pushing back the forestage created more space for audience seating, resulting in a great improvement since more room was needed. In the eighteenth century, both English and French theatre auditoriums extremely increased in size. French theatres also had their audience members removed from their conceited onstage seats. Until 1782, French theatres preserved its parterre smooth. It was after that year that they started incorporating benches for audience members to sit.
However, it appeared that a seated parterre was less active than a standing parterre, and forces had their hands full trying to silence the audience participation and noise from the standees in the pit. This resulted in the introduction of guards in the parterre that would demand order and keep the audience tranquil and silenced.
The shape of the French theatres’ auditoriums also changed in the turn of the century. They transformed into curved ‘horeshoe” shaped spaces and stopped building rectangular boxed atriums. This method of construction increased the amount of available seats, as well as it aided. Behind the proscenium arch, French theatres were narrow, almost effortless spaces. The aged Hôtel de Bourgogne had been utilizing the same scenic techniques for almost a century.
Neoclassical plays required one set singularly, as they were obligated by the solidarity of one singular place. However, as the century progressed there was a movement that was inclined to more complex settings and transformations of scene, significantly for plays written on alluring and distinct locales.
In conclusion, the architecture and stage design for French theatres has changed over the course of two centuries. It was influenced by outside Italian forces that introduced new machinery that thrilled Parisian people in the 17th century, with its stage transformations and its classicist construction. In the 18th century, France started to adopt a more English style of architecture and scenery, making more space in the auditorium.
So what is French theatrical architecture? It’s a combination new technologies invented by masterminds to thrill and amaze audience members, technologies that where brought to France by people outside the nation. It’s a multicultural style that was placed in the country’s capital, making Paris the greatest city we know today.
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