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First French public theatre plans unearthed

Dr John Golder (MA 1970, PhD 1980)

Dr John Golder (MA 1970, PhD 1980)

Drawings of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, France’s first custom-built public playhouse

Drawings of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, France’s first custom-built public playhouse

1 December 2010

Dr John Golder (MA 1970, PhD 1980) reports on a chance discovery that revealed the answer to an unfinished student project 32 years on.

In 1968, when drama lecturer Richard Southern first ignited the interest of my friend David Illingworth (BA 1967, MA 1970) and me in the Hôtel de Bourgogne, France’s first custom-built public playhouse (we were enrolled in a Master’s program on Classical French Theatre in the French Department) our best efforts to build a model of it came to very little. Although the playhouse, erected in 1548 – almost 30 years before Richard Burbage’s Theatre, the earliest English playhouse –, was in operation for 235 years, until 1783, the numerous refurbishments that it underwent had provided us with no architect’s plans or technical drawings.

So it was more in hope than expectation that, in 1969, in an article about changes made to the theatre’s auditorium in 1760, we wrote: ‘If only we could find the drawings that [architect] Girault is bound to have made at this time, we should no more problems with this playhouse.’

What, one wonders, were the odds that 32 years later, in 2001, those very plans, by Louis-Alexandre Girault, should have fallen unexpectedly into my hands? I was working in the Archives Nationales in Paris, researching, not the Hôtel de Bourgogne, but another French theatre, when by mistake I either ordered or was bought a weighty portfolio of architectural drawings all purporting to be of the Comédie-Française. Although it was not material I needed, I couldn’t resist taking a quick look … until there, unidentified, undated and randomly interleaved amongst the Comédie-Française plans, were what I recognised instantly to be drawings of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.

Drawings of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, France’s first custom-built public playhouse

The five floor-plans and one side elevation I discovered are published, alongside a lengthy article on their significance, in the final issue for 2009 of the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Suffice it to say here that the drawings show us for the first time how the actors reconfigured their forestage and auditorium in order to accommodate those spectators whom they now decided, in 1760, after over a hundred years, to dispossess of their privileged benches on either side of the forestage. They also show that the footprint of the 1548 playhouse – three times as long as it was wide, that of a regulation jeu de paume (real-tennis court) – was never modified and, with its three tiers of audience boxes aligned against the side walls, it remained an appalling shape for a playhouse. And they reveal, again for the first time, the extent and arrangement of the ancillary spaces: subterranean storage areas, the substage machine room, the actors’ greenroom, scene dock and administrative offices. 

Two things mar the pleasure derived from this chance discovery. One is that in the 1860s the Baron Haussmann drove the rue Etienne Marcel through what had once been the Hôtel de Bourgogne, leaving visitors to Paris nothing more than a plaque high on the wall of no.29. And the other is that David Illingworth’s death in 1976 denied us the opportunity of completing the model we started building in Bristol’s French Department 43 years ago.     

Dr John Golder is Senior Honorary Research Fellow in Theatre at the University of New South Wales.