In 1687 the Collège des Quatre Nations, affiliated with the Sorbonne, opened near the Hôtel Guénégaud. The University's leadership though it inappropriate to have their students housed and educated so near the nightly performances of the profane actors, so they demanded the expulsion of the Comédie-Française theater troupe from the nearby playhouse at the end of the rue de Guénégaud. The troupe then acquired a vacant tennis court and two adjoining buildings further south of the river on the rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain-des-Près, known today as the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. On 18 April 1689 they opened the new theatrical season in a playhouse on this site designed by the architect François d’Orbay. The façade of this new theater, like that of the old Guénégaud site, was indistinguishable from the other buildings on the narrow street. An engraving from the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert published in the third quarter of the eighteenth century shows the theater entrance at street level, with its two ticket windows and four entrances (Figure 1).
Once inside the building, spectators had very little space to socialize before finding their way to their seats. An overhead view of the ground floor (Figure 2) indicates the four doors leading from the street into the building (marked with an “R”), and the cramped spaces “L” and “M” that allowed access to stairwells leading up to the amphitheater and loges, or down to the parterre, or “pit” area of the auditorium, where spectators stood to watch the play.
A second overhead view of the entrance hall and auditorium (Figure 3), this time from the upper level of the building, illustrates the benches of the amphitheater (N) in back of the parterre. Both spaces are ringed by the loges, each of which has two rows of benches. Flanking either side of the playing area are enclosures (K) where spectators might sit on the stage in full view of the rest of the audience. These stage seats were not eliminated until 1759, thanks to a campaign led by the playwright Voltaire to increase the theatrical illusion within the playhouse.
There were three rows of loges in the theater by the 1750s, as the lateral view of the auditorium below makes clear (Figure 4). This image also shows the raked, seated amphitheater on the left. To its right is the slanted, open space of the parterre. To the right of the parterre are several more rows of bench seating, sometimes called the "parquet," then a small space for the orchestra. The actual performance space is to the right of the orchestra. On the far left of the engraving we see again how little room the foyer of the playhouse afforded spectators before and after the show and during intermissions.
One last view from the Encyclopedia, this time a tranversal view of the stage, offers another perspective on the space of the loges (Figure 5). Here we see the two benches in all three levels of the loges on either side of the stage. Scholars have estimated that the benches in the loges on either side of the hall accommodated four people each, for a maximum number of eight people in each loge. The loges at the back of the hall were slightly longer, and may have accommodated five people on each bench, or a maximum of ten in each loge.
These images should be understood as normative representations of the Fossés-Saint-Germain space from late in the eighty-one year period (1689-1770) during which the troupe performed in it. In fact, the troupe made innumerable modifications to the seating areas of the hall during this time that frequently changed the theater’s total seating capacity. These seating changes are not, however, reflected in the daily box office receipts recorded in the troupe’s official registers. In fact, the ticket categories remained remarkably constant in the registers from the opening of this playhouse in 1689 until the major seating change, the elimination of the open boxes on the stage, in 1759.
Figure 6, from a performance in the 1730-1731 season, shows the categories in which ticket sales were recorded each night. The “loge basse” category most likely refers to sales of entire loges on the first level, while the “loge haute” category does not distinguish between second and third level loges. “Billet à 4#,” or four pounds, does not distinguish between single tickets sold on the stage versus those in the first loges. “Billets à 2#” presumably refers to individual tickets in the second loge, “Billet à 1. 10” to tickets in the third loge, and “Billets à 1# to standing tickets in the parterre. But ticket sales in the amphitheater are not listed separately. In the case of entire loge rentals, it is impossible to know how many people actually occupied each loge, which makes precise attendance figures impossible to determine. Likewise, it is difficult to know exact revenue for each section of the theater on a given night, because of the way categories like “Billets à 4#” represent sales of stage seats and first loge places.
Figure 7, the register page for the opening night of the 1760-61 season, shows the changes in ticket sales categories after the seating reforms of 1759.
There are now five different categories of loges for rent, as well as a category for balconies. Individual ticket sales, the last four categories in the list, are now divided into places in the first, second, and third balconies, and parterre tickets. With the elimination of stage seating, it is now possible to identify receipts in the three loges and the parterre with greater precision, although the uncertain number of occupants in each loge rented in its entirety by a single spectator means that precise attendance figures still elude us.
Jeffrey S. Ravel