The Incredible History of La Comédie Française

The Incredible History of La Comédie Française
When Gone with the Wind actress Vivien Leigh was immersed in her studies as a young woman, she had a teacher who left an indelible mark on her named Mademoiselle Antoine at La Comédie Française. The Oscar-winning actress said of that time, “When I was at school at Paris, I had special lessons from Mademoiselle Antoine, an actress at the Comédie Française, and I was taken to every sort of play. I felt very grand.” Gone with the Wind was one of several book-to-film adaptations starring Leigh, including Anna Karenina and A Streetcar Named Desire. Her explosive career, with tinges of literary leanings, had its early start at an oft-overlooked place in Paris: La Comédie Française. La Comédie Française is the oldest active theater company in the world; it was founded in 1680. It’s also one of the few state theaters in France, and it has an incredible history.   Film poster for Gone with the Wind, 1939. Public domain. Literary Connections of La Comédie Française  Vivien Leigh is not the only famous name that was touched by the influence of La Comédie Française. In fact, this stalwart Parisian institution has deep literary ties.   La Comédie Française has been known under many different names. It’s been called “Théâtre de la République,” “Théâtre-Français,” and “La Maison de Molière,” thanks to its ties to the famous French playwright of the same name. Molière was the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; he was not only a playwright but also an actor, a poet, a writer, and is regarded as one of the most important French writers of all time. Born in Paris, on Rue Saint-Honoré, in 1622. The writer’s most famous works included “The Misanthrope,” “The School for Wives,” “Tartuffe,” “The Imaginary Invalid,” and “The Bourgeois Gentleman.”  Molière is regarded as the patron of French actors, and he passed away at 51 years old in 1673, years before his troupe was dubbed “Comédie Française.” In 1680, his troupe gave its first performance, performing works by the late Molière.   While Molière is undoubtedly one of the most famous French literary names tied to the theater, there are other noteworthy writers, too. Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola, for example, had their work presented onstage at this French institution.  Molière (1622-1673) in the role of Caesar in “The Death of Pompey,” portrait by Nicolas Mignard. 1658. Public domain. History of La Comédie Française  Founded in 1680, the theater was the product of a decree from Louis XIV to merge the two Paris acting troupes of that era: the troupes from the Guénégaud Theatre and the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The theater La Comédie Française was frequented by members of the French upper class and nobility. Primarily because, at the time, a theater ticket was extremely expensive and common people could rarely afford it. In 1790, La Comédie Française did something bold and daring for the time: It put on a play with a cast of only women. This was groundbreaking at the time. The play was “Le Couvent, ou les Fruits du caractère et de l’éducation” by Pierre Laujon.

Lead photo credit : La facade de la Comedie-Francaise, seen from the Avenue de l'Opéra, 2007. Photo Credit: Dottore Gianni

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Anne McCarthy is a contributing writer to BBC News, Teen Vogue, The Telegraph, Dance Magazine, and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster and is the Editor in Chief of Fat Tire Tours’ travel blog. She lives in New York City.