Saturday, 1 August 2009

In search of the Théâtre du Marais

My on-going research into the theatrical world in mid-17th century Paris is rather like working on a jigsaw puzzle. My characters are involved in the Théâtre du Marais — the Marais Theater — a converted tennis court in the Marais district in Paris. There were a number of unused tennis courts in Paris — the sport had gone out of vogue mid-century — and the long shape and high ceilings made such a structure ideal to be recycled as a theater. Plus, such courts already had spectator stands built in.

As a novelist, one challenge is simply getting characters in and out of spaces. This is particularly challenging for the writer of historical fiction. What were these spaces like? What was the layout of such a theater at that time?

I've been lucky to find one clue — this model of a similar theatre at the time, the Hôtel de Bourgogne. (Built in 1548, it was the first public theater in France.)

The open space in the middle was the famous pit, where the often unruly spectators stood.

On each side are the galleries and boxes for the wealthy. They were too busy socializing with each other to care that their sight-lines were not very good. The galleries on the third level at the top were known as paradis, or heaven.

The best view, it seems to me, would have been from the amphitheater benches facing the stage.

French theater differed from the English in the use of Italian-style sliding painted panels — called wing-and-shutter scenery — that created a perspective effect. These flats were pulled back and forth by poles attached to wheeled machinery under the stage, turned by a crank. (Imagine the noise!)

Although on a typical night there would likely be around 400 spectators, such a theater could hold as many as 1500, half in the galleries, and half in the pit. As many as 50 rich noblemen could sit on the stage, milling around and talking — rather like going to a performance in a bar today.

On my last research trip to Paris, I came quite by accident upon the site of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. This time, a Net-wander has given me the information I've long been looking for: the site of the Théâtre du Marais. It was located at today's 90 rue Vieille du Temple, close to the Musee des Archives. Obviously, I need to return to Paris and have a look for myself.

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The model of the Hôtel de Bourgogne was made by Christa Williford, University of Warwick and Bryn Mawr College. See this site for more information.

1 comment:

AliB said...

1500 people in such a small space...would be my definition of hell! Fascinating series, Sandra and definitely deserving of another trip to Paris!