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The Comédie-Française

A change of scenes

 

The Comédie-Française, one of the few State theatres in France, has launched its 2015-2016 season. Éric Ruf is the new chief administrator and he means to shake "le Français" (aka the Comédie-Française) with a bold programming. Let's have a look at the history of this cultural symbol.

 

The first theatre in France

On the 21st of October 1680, a decree of King Louis XIV officialised the merger of the only two Parisian acting troupes of the time: the Troupe Royale and the troupe of Molière, who had died 7 years before. This is the birth certificate of the Comédie-Française, the most ancient cultural institution in France and oldest acting troupe in the world. It is nicknamed "le Français" and accounts today for 300 plays, mostly in French. Racine is played alongside Musset or Marivaux, but also foreign playwrights such as Shakespeare or Ibsen.

 

Molière's chair

With about 30,000 plays, Molière is still the most represented playwright of the history of the theatre. His status of figurehead is best illustrated in the entrance of the "salle Richelieu": it’s on the chair present among the audience that Molière drew his last breath. Ironically, he had just played his last leading role in the Imaginary Invalid, one of his most famous plays.

The chair is still used as a scene prop a century after the death of his glorious occupant, but it could have disappeared in 1799, when a severe fire broke out in the Odéon theatre, which hosted the troupe of "le Français" at the time. Luckily enough, the artefact had been lent to another theatre and thus escaped destruction. A copy is now exposed to the public and the true chair only appears onstage once a year, on January 15th, Molière's birthday.

 

An institution bound to political power

The Comédie-Française is a State-owned institution supervised by the Ministry of Culture and is the only State theatre in France to have a permanent troupe, composed of about 60 actors. They benefit from a peculiar status defined by Napoleon: members of the institution are employed as "pensionnaires" and can be granted the title of "sociétaire" after a year, which also grants a better wage.

Other feature of the Comédie-Française: its administrator is appointed by the President of the French Republic upon proposal by the Minister of Culture. This illustrates the close and ancient relationship between the Comédie-Française and the monarchy at the time. Éric Ruf, who has been a "sociétaire" actor for 21 years, is chief administrator since 2014. His function for the 5 years to come is to employ artists depending on projects and to define the program of the theatre.

 

A quiet revolution

Éric Ruf expressed his determination to deal a new hand to the Comédie-Française. The 2015-2016 program is plainly entitled "A season at the theatre" but illustrates his process: it ranges from tradition to artistic modernisation. You can enjoy "Romeo and Juliet" (directed by Eric Ruf himself), but also an adaptation of August Strindberg's "The Father" directed by filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, who is experimenting his first play as theatre director. You will also have the opportunity to watch Christian Hecq's talents as a puppeteer in an adaptation of Jules Verne's "20,000 leagues under the sea".

On the long term, the project started by Eric Ruf also includes the acquisition of an adjustable room, which is almost mandatory to modern dramaturgy. "When space is not correct, the meaning of work and the contact with the audience are prevented", said Eric Ruf, to whom the salle Richelieu, the most famous of the three stages of the Français, shows the problems of its age.

However, his reform ambitions may hit the cap of budget restrictions ordered by the French government in the field of culture. Because becoming the chief administrator of the Français is not only an exciting artistic adventure: it's also a calling that implies dealing with the power in place, just like Molière did in his time.

 

Photo credits: © Tommpouce