Friday, 1 May 2009

Theatre in the 17th century

What would it have been like to go to the theater in 17th century France? From what I've read, it would rather be like going to a baseball game today — but worse. People would be talking and yelling. Vendors would be lacing their way through the crowd. Some in the audience would actually be watching — but not many. (At least, now, at baseball games, people don't stroll onto the field. Not so in the 17th century theatre.)

The premium seats were the five or six rows set on either side of the stage: in short, on the stage. These were the banquettes, and they were the most expensive, and exclusively male. Members of the audience strolled freely from one side of the stage to the other, yelling out to friends on the other side.

As women began to appear in the audience, loges — or boxes — were created, which were rented for a season. These loges were treated like an extension of a person's home: one entertained there, people came and went. (Sometimes making themselves too much at home: there's a story related by comte de Bussy-Rabutin of a woman emptying her chamber pot onto the spectators below, much as she would have emptied it out a window of her house.)

The ground floor was the parterre (par terreby the ground). These people stood to watch the show, and it could get quite rowdy: as well as the usual pick-pockets, murders were committed. Meanwhile, vendors worked the crowds, selling macaroons, wine and bread.

When Royalty came, that was the show. All the audience watched the sovereign: Did the King laugh? Ah, how delightful! Did he frown? What a terrible show.

(I should note that although the world of the theater was a half-century advanced in England, the manners of the crowds would likely have been similar.)


Reference: The Contested Parterre; Public Theater and French Political Culture 1680 — 1791, by Jeffrey S. Ravel.

1 comment:

Anita Davison said...


The chamber pot incident was rather colourful, but apart from that, I believe an afternoon at the 17th C London theatre was similar. With the spectators receiving callers at their boxes and chattering loudly to friends during the performance. They heckled the players too and Nell Gwynn's oranges were thrown more often than eaten. Good fun though.