In Paris, art, music, and entertainment are a significant part of its culture. Theatre in France goes all the way back to the to the 1100s when plays started to become popular for entertainment purposes. Before this, they were for religious education.
Even though French theatre existed in the Middle Ages, King Louis XIV shaped France into a European cultural center during the Renaissance. By the end of the 1600s, Paris was the theatrical capital of Europe. That aspect of the city never died completely. Even today, theatre makes up a large part of Parisian culture.
King Louis XIV and French Theatre
The conditions that made it possible for theatre to explode in France during the 1600s were a combination of high-quality writers, the building of stable performance venues, and King Louis XIV support for all of it. Under the King’s rule, the theatre became immensely fashionable.
The King agreed with the attitudes of Prime Minister Richelieu about theatrical expression. Both fell in love with the theatre and undergirded its development and popularity. In fact, King Louis XIV created his own troupe and called it the “King’s Comedians.” His troupe performed at the Hotel de Bourgogne in Paris.
In those days, the Roman Catholic Church viewed theatre as disgraceful, and the actors as esteemed as an ordinary street bum. It was the King that stood up for the dignity of the acting profession and put the views of the church on the back burner.
Later during his reign, other troupes began competing with the King’s Comedians kicking off different genres of theatre. Moliere and his theatre troupe were one such competitor. During these times, French theatre saw influences from Italy and Spain begin to shape the forms of acting as well.
Popular Ancient Theatre Genres
Theatre in France was first written in Latin, starting with religious plays. Secular genres soon followed but were shunned by the Roman Catholic Church. That didn’t stop them from becoming mainstream though. Styles popular in France during the Middle Ages included:
- Pastourelle: A romance involving a shepherdess and a poet knight.
- Sottie: A short play where fools explore the thoughts and observations of contemporary events and people.
- Mystery: Plays focused on Bible stories and performed in churches.
- Miracle: A play featuring the life story of a saint, either real or fictitious.
- Farce: A comedy based on extravagant, larger than life situations.
- Passion: A play portraying the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
- Morality: Allegorical dramas that taught moral lessons or personified moral qualities.
The End of the Classic Form of Theatre
After a long run of acceptance, in the late 1600s, King Louis XIV came under the influence of Madame de Maintenon, his second wife. He no longer supported theatre in France. She was a pious woman whose views about theatre were much like the church.
The change in views left the industry at the mercy of the church once again with devastating consequences. Combined with major conflicts in religious circles and the death of influential authors, the classic form of theatre died out at the turn of the century.
However, this didn’t end in a total demise of theatre. New forms of theatre emerged focused on politics, while stage and costume design in France improved, following after English models. In fact, the following century is often called the most significant age in French theatre.