what plays to see in paris -- 6/01/18

Today's selection -- from The Other Paris by Luc Sante. In the 1830s in Paris, the theater was wildly popular, and the two kinds of plays to see were melodramas and plays about the recently deceased Napoleon:

"In 1792, when the restrictive laws governing theaters [in Paris] were over­turned, a mass of showplaces began opening along [the Farmers-General near Château d'Eau] thorough­fare, hastily rigged-up houses that might last for a season or two and then be replaced by something else. The more spectators came, the more the street itself began to fill up with open-air entertainments, food stalls, ambulatory commerce, and, naturally, pickpockets.

"The crowds were not only huge, but thoroughly mixed: the bourgeoisie and even the aristocracy came out to see. By the 1820s the boulevard had become a full-service, year-round, seven-days­-a-week entertainment district, the first of its kind in Paris. The principal theaters, many of them neoclassical affairs with colon­nades, stretched principally along the north side of the boulevard in a line that today would reach the center of Place de la Répub­lique. (Haussmann, who nursed a particular hatred of the boule­vard and its culture, not only razed all the theaters in 1862, but, like the Romans plowing salt into the ruins of Carthage, re­aligned the boulevard so that it would not correspond to that part of its course.) ...

Children of Paradise, opening shot

"Interspersed were cafés, restaurants, shops, and a wax museum, while a tree-lined allée running down the center of the boulevard sheltered wrestlers' huts, acrobats' tents, shacks con­taining assorted freaks and dime-museum attractions, magicians' open-air stages, lottery booths, and small shopkeepers' displays. In motion all along the boulevard were acrobats, stilt walkers, sword swallowers, clowns, strongmen, and stongwomen. Buses­ -- horse-drawn omnibus hippomobiles, that is -- began plying the route in 1828. By some unspoken general accord, the whole carnival stopped abruptly at Rue Charlot.

"It was called the Boulevard du Crime (a name devised by the press) not because of its omnipresent pickpockets and purse snatchers but because of its theaters' propensity for histrionic melodrama. In 1836, for example, you could take in The Horrors of Misery, The Wretched Woman, The Widows Three Daughters, The Orphans of Pont Notre-Dame, The Spot of Blood, The Tissue of Horrors. There were other sorts of fads as well; Georges Cain records a week in 1830 when almost every spectacle revolved around Napoléon: Bonaparte, Artillery Lieutenant; Napoleon in Berlin, or the Gray Frock Coat; The Schoolboy of Brianne, or the Little Corporal; and Military Glory in Seven Tableaux, among others. In the first six months of 1837, to choose a random year, there were 140 plays presented in Paris, three-quarters of them on the boulevard (the remainder were staged in the theaters of the upper classes, such as the venerable Comédie-Française and the Odéon). You can get a pretty accurate idea of what the place was like from Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert's great 1945 film The Children of Paradise. The crowds, the chaos, the side­shows, and the rivalries are all there, as is the Théâtre des Fu­nambules, given over to miming because it wasn't certified to present spectacles involving speech. (Many restrictive laws con­cerning theaters had returned after the revolution.) ...

"The balcony where the poorest members of the audience sat was indeed sometimes known as the paradis, although more of­ten the poulailler, the 'chicken coop.' Just like Bowery theater audiences impatiently yelling, 'Hoist that rag!' the crowds here shouted 'La toile!'' While watching, people ate fried potatoes, sausages, cooked apples and pears, all bought from itinerant ven­dors outside, and kids enjoyed dropping food and paper remains from the balcony onto the heads of those below. Those did not include the upper classes or the intelligentsia, who preferred the loges. Nerval, Gautier, Charles Nodier, the songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger, the actresses Mademoiselle Mars and Mademoiselle Georges (of the Comédic-Française and the Odéon, respectively), and the mezzo-soprano La Malibran were all regulars at the Funambules. As the director Nestor Roqueplan told Victor Hugo, 'Fashionable people go to the theater the way whores go to church.' "

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Luc Sante


The Other Paris


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2015 by Luc Sante


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