School of Theatre Studies
Centre for Academic Practice



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Part Three

The Palais Cardinal: Theatre of Luxury

Christa Williford

Part Three Images

Theatre art in France encompassed much more than the lively productions staged at the adaptable, functional public playhouses. In fact, one of the most important theatres of the century began its life as a private, court space in which plays were staged only for the most important invited patrons. This theatre was known as the Palais Cardinal theatre, named so after the grand palace within which it stood [SLIDE 1]. The Palais Cardinal was none other than the majestic Parisian home of Cardinal Richelieu, first minister of King Louis XIII.

Cardinal Richelieu [SLIDE 2] is one of the most familiar personalities of French history. Immortalized in literature as well as in history, Richelieu appears in novels such as Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers as a heartless, calculating villain who took advantage of a weak French monarch and the French people for personal gain. Despite his well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness, Richelieu has also long been admired for having the administrative talent to truly unify France and then to establish the absolute power of the French monarchy that Louis XIV would later inherit. It was under this absolute monarchy that French arts and literature rapidly gained prestige throughout Europe, and under which theatre artists such as Molière were—within limits—allowed to thrive.

Richelieu did not just drastically affect the French political climate; he played a more direct role in shaping the direction of French theatre and dramatic literature. Similarly to many of today’s political figures, he shrewdly recognized the value of spreading propaganda through artistic means. [To use more modern terminology, he helped create “brand recognition” for the French nation and the French monarchy by “marketing” them (as well as himself) along with the highest levels of achievement in all the arts.]

In order to standardize and publicize the superiority of the French language and literature, he founded the French Academy, an organization that still exists today. Among the French Academy’s first orders of business was a published critique of Corneille’s The Cid, attacking the popular play for its lack of attention to the classical unities (time, place, and action) and for depicting characters who behaved in ways not appropriate to their social station. Although it was devastating to Corneille, the Cid controversy, as it has come to be called, was a perfect opportunity for Richelieu to see his own ideas about a new, superior, neo-classical French literature, upholding high standards public morality, find a wide audience among the reading public.

Although the Cid marks the most famous occasion on which Richelieu shaped dramatic literature, his interest in drama was not fleeting. He commissioned numerous plays and theoretical writings. One of these, The Practice of Theatre by Abbé d’Aubignac harshly depicts the quality of theatre in the early seventeenth century, reserving special criticism for bad performances, bad plays, poor stage sets, and disorderly audiences. Richelieu patronized the actors at the Marais theatre, possibly because they often performed the more genteel art of tragedy rather than raucous comedies or improbable tragicomedies so beloved in the days of Mahelot at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. So strong was his apparent desire to reform French drama that he was even rumoured to have written plays himself.

Part of Richelieu’s plan for consolidating French power was amassing great personal wealth, and with this constructing gigantic, lavishly decorated homes filled with paintings and sculpture, most of which elevated the monarch to mythological status through the use of classical or Biblical allegory.

The greatest of these, the Palais Cardinal, was located in Paris, very near the king’s palace at the Louvre [SLIDE 3]. With a low but imposing façade, the Palais Cardinal surrounded two large courtyards and adjoined a magnificent garden. In this palace [SLIDE 4] Richelieu was to build not just one, but two theatres, the larger of which would come to have an illustrious history of well over a century.

As contemporary accounts attest, the magnificence of the larger theatre’s original architecture was indeed a display of Richelieu’s power and patronage. Fortunately, we have a good deal of evidence about what the theatre looked like, despite the fact that the space itself has long disappeared. By far the largest purpose-built theatre in Paris when it was finished in 1641, the Palais Cardinal could house around 1200 people when full.

Like the Bourgogne and the Marais theatres, Richelieu’s theatre was rectangular in shape, but rather than a standing parterre (inappropriate for Richelieu’s more elite audience) a stepped, classically-inspired amphitheatre was constructed in stone, stretching from near the stage to the back of the auditorium [SLIDE 5].

Wooden benches on these steps seated the majority of a typical audience, but additional accommodation was provided by gilded double balconies on either side wall. At the back wall was a small arcade, the exact appearance of which is unknown [ANIMATION 1].

Comfortable seating (when compared with the provisions at the public theatre) and the absence of separate entrances or box divisions set this private, luxurious theatre apart from its public counterparts. Elaborate Italian-style décor gave the room its elegance. A magnificent 'trompe l’oeil' painting of a Corinthian colonnade on the low ceiling gave the impression of great height [SLIDE 6]. The stage was just as luxuriously equipped as the auditorium. Framed by the first known permanent proscenium arch in France, it had expensive stage machinery designed for simultaneous changes of perspective painted sets. The theatre’s original equipment included sets and lighting designed by the famous Italian designer Giovanni Bernini.

At the opening of Richelieu’s theatre the cardinal, the royal family, and prominent members of the court were all present for the performance. The royal family was, naturally, given pride of place, most likely on a specially erected platform on the steps of the auditorium [SLIDE 7]. Other specially invited guests entered by using special-issue tickets, and sat as near the royal family as their social position would permit: noblemen and women, followed by ambassadors, specially chosen foreigners (even high-ranking prisoners of war), court officers, and distinguished soldiers.

A surviving painting that depicts another performance at the theatre [SLIDE 8] shows a similar practice. Here the select group of ticket holders take their places on the side balconies in order to watch the 'play within a play' of Richelieu and his royal guests viewing the dramatic spectacle from a position in the center of the auditorium.

Although a rather mediocre play, the opening night production of Mirame did provide the opportunity to demonstrate some of the new stage machinery at the theatre. The play was performed before a single perspective set, but the action called for several alterations, including water effects and lighting changes.

As both iconographic and descriptive evidence affirm, the set for Mirame—here documented in an engraving for the first edition of the play [SLIDE 9]—was painted in perspective. If we are to believe that, as in the famous painting of the theatre, all of the guests except for the royal party took their places in the balconies, then the perspective lost its effectiveness for all except for the cardinal and his most honoured guests.

A view of the stage from the balcony is, not surprisingly, unimpressive [SLIDE 10]. The view of the royal family from their position at the center, however, would have been particularly good [SLIDE 11, ANIMATION 2].

The opening of the Palais Cardinal theatre did not end with the performance. A curtain was lowered in front of the stage, and then thirty-two pages entered bringing twenty gilded silver bowls with a sweet lemon dessert and preserves for the queen and her ladies. While the queen enjoyed her refreshments, two costumed dancers entered to roll out a golden carpet from the stage to the royal scaffold. The curtain then rose before a stage decorated in perspective as a great hall; at the far end of the stage was a throne for the queen, and there were seats beside it for the princesses in her company and benches for the other ladies of the court. The queen crossed to the stage on the carpet and was seated on her throne to watch the court ladies dance for the rest of the evening. We are told the cardinal sat a little behind her in a long, red taffeta cloak with an ermine collar.

This ceremonial ritual was to be repeated the following month at a second command performance. The act of stepping onto the stage with members of the royal family and the court was perhaps the clearest illustration of Richelieu’s intentions for his theatre—to use its stage to mirror the orderliness and beauty of his vision of the French nation under his benevolent influence and patronage.

Richelieu was only to make use of his new theatre for two years. Following his death in 1642, the Palais Cardinal passed into the hands of the royal family and became the Palais Royal. Louis XIII, however, never lived there, for he died soon after Richelieu. The political leadership of France passed into the hands of his queen, who served as regent during the minority of the young Louis XIV, and Richelieu’s successor as chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin.

The ensuing years were fraught with turmoil, culminating in the period of civil war known as the Fronde, during which nobles fought against the constraints Richelieu had introduced. Thus, France’s own political history reveals that the power and stability portrayed on the stage of the grand theatre was but a rather fragile illusion.