Thursday, 12 February 2015

Voltaire's private theatre at Cirey


Voltaire's "Petit théâtre" at the Château de Cirey looks like some paper model from a doll's house. It is the only private theatre to survive from the 18th century apart from the (altogether grander) Opéra at Versailles and Marie-Antoinette's theatre at the Petit Trianon. As it dates from 1735, it is actually among the earliest French theatres of any kind. Despite the prestige of French drama, the French lagged behind in theatre design: in 1748 Voltaire complained bitterly that the press of spectators on the stage of the Comédie-Française had reduced his tragedy "Semiramis" to farce.  It was to be another ten years before the Comédie was remodelled on Italian lines. Voltaire later build private theatres at Les Délices and Ferney, but only the theatre at Cirey, lovingly restored in 1999, now remains..

The tiny auditorium, nestling under the roof of the château, boasts five benches to accommodate a dozen or so spectators. On one side, a small box with painted rails commands the best views. It is balanced by a trompe l'oeil box on the opposite wall - partly plastered over in the 19th century. In what remains of the painting a jaunty abbé turns his back oddly away from the stage; he once admired the cleavage of his young female companion, but nowadays only her hand remains.

In Voltaire's theatre the stage was strictly reserved for the actors; this posed no problem - since house guests were dragooned into performing, spectators were in short supply. The blue curtain is again painted in trompe-l'oeil; the central medallion originally held cards - some of which still exist - in which the name of the play was displayed. Three sets of scenery, made of painted cloth stretched over wooden frames,.have been painstakingly restored. They represent a "rustic room", a "forest" (six frames) and an "exotic garden".
Although he was distracted by scientific reading and research Voltaire’s enthusiasm for the theatre did not diminish during his time at Cirey. He worked on his tragedy Mérope in 1737, then embarked on two new tragedies Mahomet and Zulime, to say nothing of a libretto and a couple of comedies

According to Madame de Graffigny, who stayed at the chateau for nine weeks in 1738 and 1739, guests were put through a punishing schedule: 

".You can't catch your breath here. Today we performed The prodigal child  and another play in three acts, which we had to rehearse. We rehearsed Zaire until three in the morning; we will perform it tomorrow …We must dress our hair, get our costumes fitted, listen to an opera; what chaos! …We counted up last evening that in twenty-four hours we had rehearsed and performed twenty-three acts – comedies, tragedies and operas

Worse was to follow; for three days in celebration of Mardi Gras Madame de Graffigny counted no less that thirty-seven acts over a three-day marathon which culminated in a performance of Zaire finishing at one thirty in the morning.  Léopole Desmarets, Graffigny's lover, left a comic account of  Madame Du Châtelet  and Voltaire in the lead roles; Émilie performed in a monotone, whilst an ill-tempered Voltaire required constant prompting and everyone muffed their lines.( see Carlson, p.52-3)

In 2009 Lauren Gunderson produced a critically-acclaimed play Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life  at the Petit Theatre at Cirey; her vision of the theatre at Cirey was a little grander than the real thing!:



Le petit théâtre de Voltaire" on the Château de Cirey websiste

Journal JHM Vidéos, "Petit théâtre de Voltaire" (25/06/09)

Marvin A. Carlson, Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century (1998)

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