AFP, published on Tuesday, January 11, 2022 at 5:39 p.m.
It is the oldest theater company in the world still in operation. Baptized “house of Molière” even if it has never set foot there, the Comédie-Française has been haunted by its tutelary figure for nearly 400 years.
Within this prestigious institution, a venerated relic: a wooden armchair, protected by a display case, on which Jean-Baptiste Poquelin died during a performance of the “Imaginary Patient” before succumbing later at home.
“It is somewhere the only object which remains to us of his theater”, explains to AFP Agathe Sanjuan, curator-archivist at the Comédie-Française.
Used by actors until 1879, the armchair “has such a presence that one almost has the impression that Molière is still seated there,” she smiles.
Throughout the house, we find busts of the playwright, which the actors touch to bring them luck, portraits of him or of actors from his troupe such as Miss Beauval, creator among others of the role of Zerbinette in “Les Fourberies de Scapin”.
His successors in the 20th century were Michel Galabru, Isabelle Adjani or Francis Huster.
Today in the corridors, we can come across Denis Podalydès, Guillaume Gallienne, but also the young generation like Christophe Montenez or Benjamin Lavernhe.
– Not a year without Molière –
The Comédie-Française was born in 1680 – seven years after the death of the playwright – when its former protector Louis XIV decided to merge his troupe with another.
“Le Français”, as it is sometimes called, will know four rooms before landing at the Salle Richelieu, near the Palais-Royal, where it has been performing since 1799. Either a few steps from the home where Molière died.
His death is reported in the most precious document in the possession of the troop: the so-called La Grange register, named after Molière’s right-hand man – and creator of the role of Dom Juan – who documented the troop’s activities.
It is kept in the French library-museum with other relics, a cap and a watch engraved with his name.
The archives show that “there is not a year that (the Comédie-Française) has not played Molière”, according to Ms. Sanjuan.
Inheritance from the “boss”, the house operates according to the sacrosanct principle of alternation, with a different show each evening, mobilizing its trades from morning to evening, with rotations.
“We are the leading theater in France (excluding opera houses, editor’s note) in terms of volume of activity: 400 employees, 70 professions, 60 actors,” indicates its general administrator, actor Eric Ruf.
If decorators and builders work in Sarcelles in the Parisian suburbs, costume designers, upholsterers, managers and others are in the Richelieu room, in a maze on several floors.
The costume part alone is available in different areas (including that of the appointed dressers for a group of actors or the costume management with 50,000 items listed).
“We make 50 to 70 costumes per creation,” says Sylvie Lombart, director of clothing services.
The costume designer Lionel Hermouet underlines the “psychological” side to the first fittings, some actors declaiming their text during the screening.
– Pensioners and members –
The house owes its longevity to a way of functioning where the actors are the big decision makers.
“The troop is like a self-managed cooperative; that has not changed since Molière,” says Mr. Ruf, in office since 2014.
When new actors join the troop, they are hired by the administrator as “boarders” for one renewable year.
Afterwards, they can be chosen to become “members” by a committee made up of seven actors with that status (and which also decides on salary increases).
In January 2021, the great actress Dominique Blanc became the 538th member since Molière’s first companions.
“The administrator hires, the actors release”, says an internal maxim: it is also the members who decide on the departure of certain actors, sometimes causing a stir.
“We always see it as violence, while it is a protection,” comments Eric Ruf, recalling that many actors have very long careers in the French.
While acknowledging the “pain” that this implies, he assures us that he “would always defend this principle because the longevity of this house is due to that. Otherwise, it would have stopped in 1700”.