An Overview of its History, 1680 – Present

Created by royal decree, the Comédie-Française came into being when King Louis XIV ordered two rival troupes performing in the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Hôtel Guénégaud to merge in 1680. In 1681, the actors of the newly fashioned troupe signed an Act of Association; in 1682, the King began to give them an annual subsidy. In addition to this royal patronage, they also settled on a spiritual and artistic patron: Molière. The Crown granted the actors a monopoly on the public performance of the French-language repertory in Paris and its suburbs. The company adopted the Latin device “simul et singulis” (“together and individually”), and the emblem of the buzzing beehive.

Seating and staging reforms theorized by Voltaire and implemented by the actors he supported (LeKain, Mlle Clairon) marked the troupe’s history in the eighteenth century. In 1782 the Comédie-Française opened a spacious, modern theater in the Faubourg Saint Germain, known today as the Odéon theater. The Revolution of 1789 provoked the most serious crisis in the troupe’s history; unable to avoid the political tumult of the period, the actors split into royalist and republican troupes. They reunited in 1799, moving into a playhouse on the rue de Richelieu on the Right Bank.

In 1804 the players signed a new Act of Association, enhanced in 1812 by a Napoleonic decree that regulated the relation between the troupe and the government in power. In this period, the great actor François-Joseph Talma dominated the troupe. When he died in 1826 the troupe, deprived of its most famous performer, went into a brief decline.

Under the influence of the Baron Taylor, the company staged more plays in the Romantic style. On 25 February 1830, the premiere of Hernani by Victor Hugo resulted in a pitched battle between the supporters and opponents of Romanticism. The arrival in 1838 of a new star to headline the troupe, Rachel, led the company to return to its classical roots. In 1850, an administrative reform stipulated that the theater’s executive director would henceforth be an administrator designated by the state. The era of theatrical administrators had begun.

The company suffered a setback when a fire broke out in the theater in 1900. Émile Fabre (1915-1936) renewed the repertory, but the real rupture occurred with the arrival of Édouard Bourdet (1936-1940), a supporter of modern methods of staging. From 1946 to 1960, the troupe’s administrator was responsible for a second theater, the Luxembourg Playhouse (the old Odéon theater first opened in 1782). Since 1960, the company has been directed by actors selected from the troupe itself (Maurice Escande, Pierre Dux, Jean Le Poulain, Marcel Bozonnet, Muriel Mayette, Éric Ruf), or from the world of French theater more generally (Jean-Pierre Vincent, Antoine Vitez, Jacques Lasalle, Jean-Pierre Miquel). The renovated Vieux-Colombier playhouse opened in 1990, followed by the Studio-Theater in 1996. In 1995, the administrative and legal status of the Comédie-Française was modified so that it became an industrial and commercial public establishment. This decree confirmed the mission entrusted to the Comédie-Française since its origins: to enrich a repertory that is performed by a fixed group of salaried actors with a guaranteed state pension.

Agathe Sanjuan
Conservator, Bibliothèque-Musée de la Comédie-Française
(trans. Jeffrey Ravel)