France and theater are inseparable concepts. Theatrical performances and operas produced by French directors have been known around the world for many centuries. The Paris Opera House is one of the most famous in Europe, and countless theaters constantly attract thousands of spectators. But where did it all start? How and when did France become a country of theater?
Where Did Theater Come From?
Elements of theater or performances were known in ancient games, carnivals, and religious rituals. In the early Middle Ages from the 11th century, performances in villages, and in cities were held by travelling actors and musicians who were called jugglers. In the 11th and 14th centuries, literary and theatrical societies (called ‘puy’ in French) appeared in French cities such as Cannes, Rouen, Arras. These societies united performers and amateur actors or just town people and allowed them to participate in performances.
The first official genre was liturgical drama performances took place in the 9th and 12th centuries. Usually, they were shoving episodes of the Gospel and were played in churches. From the middle of the 12th century, performances of semi-liturgical drama took place in the church and they were performed by actors or sometimes by jugglers. In 1262, a play Le Jeu De La Feuillée by Adam Haliet was performed in Arras. At that time, all performances were played in the main squares to give the opportunity to all people to enjoy the show. One of the most famous play of that time was directed by J. Bodel and it had a peak of popularity from 1167 until 1210. It was a play about St. Nicholas.
Another popular genre of that time was mysteries. One of the most popular mysteries was the mystery of the Savior’s suffering directed by Gréban in 1420. Several hundred performers attended the show; the use of simultaneous scenery, mechanical devices for stage effects were introduced. The performers of the mysteries were citizens, and the members of the workshops who joined the corporations. The most famous theatrical corporation in France was called the Brotherhood of the Sufferings of Christ. It operated from about 1370 to 1676.
First Theaters and Professional Performances
The above-mentioned corporations initiated the establishment of the theaters. In 1548, the first stationary theater in France, called Burgundy Otel, was established in Paris and operated until 1680. The theater was leased to amateur actors’ societies and later to professional provincial troupes. In this theater, the main genres of performances were mysteries, farce, moralism, satiety.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, in Paris, Bordeaux, Marseilles, the Basoche law firm and court clerk corporation and the Carefree Guys Association were famous for organizing satirical performances. 15–16 years there were a number of theater societies and groups in major cities and provinces. In the 16th century, the banning of mysteries in biblical plots gave rise to another popular genre of theater, with performances based on examples of ancient tragedies and comedies.
In the second half of the 16th century, troupes appeared in the royal and noble palaces, which organized mainly musical performances that were already much more professional. During this period, Italian wandering actors who toured in France influenced the development of French acting mastery.