Border crossings, naturalization and change: the final years of the Comédie-Italienne in France, 1752-1779
Copyright © David Trott

(Program cover: A Shepherdess, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1750-52. Milwaukee Art Museum.
(Text minus notes and bibliography of paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Milwaukee, March 25, 1999)

Two of the major Italian contributions to European stage art were Commedia dell'Arte and opera. By virtue of visible masks, exagerated gesture, lavish spectacle and a mixing of the supernatural with the real, both theatrical forms shared a marked propensity for play-like, convention-ridden performances. By the mid eighteenth century, after countless waves of Italian performing artists had criss-crossed most of the continent, their values and practices were caught up in a vast process of cross-fertilization that would profoundly alter their own very nature. One small chapter in the explosion of cross-cultural innovation which the cosmopolitan thrust of Enlightenment ideology encouraged, was the disappearance of the theatrical company in France called the "Comédie-Italienne". I shall focus on three decades of this institution's evolution, more precisely on the years between 1752 and 1779.

Italian theatre, like Italian opera--one has only to remember the impact of Lully on French opera under Louis XIV--, had been an influential presence since the sixteenth century. Isabella Andreini died in Lyon while on tour, Molière shared the Palais-Royal with the company of Scaramouche, collaboration with the actors of Luigi Riccoboni led to some of Marivaux's greatest comedies. Yet, after these events which theatre history highlights as among the more momentous, details of what is usually called the "decline" of Italian theatre are more difficult to isolate. Martine de Rougemont says of this phase:

... it is probably the fact that its repertory [went] through as many changes as a kaleidoscope which explains the limited number of studies devoted to the Comédie-Italienne in the 18th century. Even though this company drew intense public interest in its lifetime, and during the second half of the century rivaled and occasionally outstripped the Comédie-Française, scholars have yet to figure out how to approach it. Parts of its history have gone into (broader) studies of commedia dell'arte in which developments of the old Italian theatre, prior to 1697 tend to dominate, or they become part of a history of French comedy in which the repertory of the Comédie-Française overshadows it, or other parts disappear into histories of opéra-comique in which fairground roots are seen as more interesting.

Let us concentrate, then, on a more Italian-based perspective, while picking up the thread of migration, naturalization and change to which I refer in my title.

In a single sentence, recalled from exile in 1716 following the death of Louis XIV, the Comédie-Italienne remained an important locus of cross-cultural and trans-modal exchange until it lost the final vestige of its original identity in 1793, by being re-christened "Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique". As the vagaries of history would have it, the three decades covered in this talk are framed within four dates, 1752 (the return of the Opéra-Comique troupe to the Paris fairgrounds), 1762 (the combining of the Comédie-Italienne and the Opéra-Comique into a single institution bearing the former's name but incorporating much of the latter's musical heritage), 1769 (the abandonment of the entire repertory of spoken, French-language comedies, including those of Marivaux, in favour of Commedia scenarios still performed in Italian and increasingly popular comic opera) and 1779 (the reversal of the previous decision, resulting in the recall of French comedies and the definitive axing of Italian improvisations). Circumscribed by the four dates, three intervals are discernable, during which a process of sorting, blending and trimming of the repertory took place.

[Interval 1. 1752-1762]

As Martine de Rougemont has already suggested in a broader sense, the situation of the Comédie-Italienne during this ten-year interval is glossed over in favour of more elaborate treatments of the changes that took place when Jean Monnet re-opened the Opéra-Comique at the St. Germain and St. Laurent fairgrounds. This was the time, under the influence of Charles-Simon Favart, that the shift from early fairground pièces à vaudevilles to comédies à ariettes took place. Less vulgarity and more refinement became the order, but also a move toward greater coherence and unity through adandoning the disparate juxtapositions of popular tunes in favour of the music of a single composer.

The popularity of this form increased markedly in 1752 after the co-incidental arrival at the Paris Opera of an Italian opera buffo company which performed Italian-style intermèdes on the stage of the Royal Academy of Music. The comparison between these lighter works and the more serious French repertory led to the famous reassessment of French music known as the "Querelle des Bouffons".

In part because the Opéra-Comique company lacked official status and remained confined to the short fairground seasons, the performers at the year-round Comédie-Italienne maintained an advantage, and aimed their traditional parodies more pointedly at the Paris Opera. Robert Isherwood comments: "Many of the opera bouffes with recitatives replaced by spoken prose were translated into French. They were performed mainly at the Comédie-Italienne, where their popularity was even greater than the original productions at the Opera."

The Italians' fare during this period involved some four distinct thrusts: (1) musical parodies such as Pierre Bauran's version of a Pergolese piece, Le Maître de musique (1755), and Favart's Les Chinois (1756), in which costume and accessory reforms futher enriched this adaptation of the Opera original. It should be noted also that this was the time that Mme Favart joined the Comédie-Italienne; (2) a whole series of ballets-pantomimes choreographed by the actor-dancer Deshayes; (3) new, French-language comedies by long-forgotten or little-known authors: Louis de Boissy, le Prix du silence 1751, St. Phalier, Rivale Confidente 1752; Chevrier, La Campagne 1754; Gabriel Mailhol, Les Femmes 1753, Les Lacédémoniennes, 1754, Le Prix de la beauté 1755, La Capricieuse 1757 Ramir, 1757; St- Foix, Alceste 1752, Le Derviche, 1755; Yon, Les Deux Soeurs, 1755; Chévrier, Fêtes parisiennes, 1755; Voisenon, La Jeune grecque, 1756, Nina ou la mitaine enchantée 1758; Moissier, Nouvelle École des femmes, 1758. Equally forgotten actors performed in these and older works: Rochard, Chauville, Lejeune, Mlle Fulquier, Mlle Catinon; (4) and finally, this was the moment when the last of the early generation of Italian actors disappeared. Luigi Riccoboni had long since retired from the stage, Biancolelli-Trivelin had died in 1734 and Thomassin-Arlequin in 1739. Elena Baletti, Flaminia, retired in April 1752. Their replacement by new actors led to significant changes in some plays. According to the marquis d'Argenson's Notices sur les oeuvres de théâtre, the name of the heroine in Marivaux's Jeu de l'amour et du hasard was changed to Isabelle, instead of Silvia, and the valet was called Pasquin instead of Arlequin. At the moment of her retirement, Silvia's role in Le Jeu was thus already being "Frenchified" and the dropping of the name of Arlequin from the play's list of characters strongly implied the elimination of the character's mask and distinctively theatrical costume.

A second wave of Italian actors gradually took over: Carlo Bertinazzi, Carlin-Arlequin (arrived 1741); Carlo Veronese and daughters, Coraline and Camille. Antonio Collalto (1759). Clarence Brenner's list of the daily performances at the Comédie-Italienne suggest that the old scenarios weighed as heavily as the fresh ones which Carlo Veronese in particular attempted to inject in the Commedia repertory in the 1740s and 50s. In October 1759, Antonio Collalto, playing Pantalone, joined the company. Until Silvia's retirement around the middle of the decade, we find her occasionally sharing the same playbill with Mme Favart.

By this time also, the Italians had adopted the programming strategies of the Opéra-Comique; a medley of three one-act pieces representing different genres. For instance the première of Pierre Baurans' parodie of Pergolesi and Frederici's Serva Padrona, La Servante maîtresse, shared the limelight on August 14, 1754 with two other one-act works, Chevrier's spoken comedy La Campagne and Deshayes' ballet, Les Montagnards.

[Interval 2. 1762-1769]

Robert Isherwood describes the court and theatre-world manoeuvrings that led to the joining of the Opéra-Comique with the Comédie-Italienne. While the retention of the latter's name implied that it was taking over its less-recognized competitor, it would appear from the perspective of the 1793 re-christening of the institution that quite the opposite was the case. The result of this "fusion" in February 1762 was a company containing three, specialized "sub-companies": Italians for improvised Commedia scenarios; French players for spoken, French-language drama; musical theatre actors for comic opera. What Henri Lagrave called "galoping melomania" saw a significant increase in comic-operas in the repertory of the "new" Italian company. Two one-act opéras-comiques, Sedaine's Blaise le savetier (music by Philidor) and On ne s'avise jamais de tout, premiered on the opening program.

During the first month of operations, the enlarged company launched eight new plays (in addition to the two above: Le Peintre amoureux de son modèle, Le Maître en droit, Maréchal, Le Cadi dupé, Annette et Lubin and Les Troqueurs). Musical theatre dominates massively here; the five performers who were carried over from the Opéra-Comique troupe therefore either became extremely busy, or found a strong cohort of musicians, including Mme Favart, already established in the Italian company. As for the Italian component of the repertory in February 1762, eight canevas were performed twelve times in relation to the grand total of 100 performed works for the month. Furthermore, in comparison with the early months of the Italian Players when they first returned to Paris in 1716, none of the 1762 scenarios was played singly; rather they were included as parts of heavily charged programs of four different titles, suggesting thereby that the old, three-act form of improvised comedies imported by Riccoboni and his colleagues had been replaced by one-act works, a further sign of the diminishing importance of commedia. Things worstened in March for the Italian Players; of a further 100 performances, only four were improvised scenarios.

Small wonder that the invitation sent out to Carlo Goldoni in Venice to write scripts for the Comédie-Italienne at first appeared to be such a good idea. He arrived to produce Italian scenarios for the company in 1763. We can view this as a last-ditch effort to infuse energy into a rapidly-changing tradition. Goldoni himself, like Riccoboni before him, had other goals; while still in Italy, he had abandoned the Commedia tradition which we associate with him because of his famous Servant of Two Masters. This soggetto, first appeared in Paris, in Jean-Pierre Mandajors', Arlequin valet de deux maîtres, during the summer of 1718. Although written and published in French (in Nouveau Théâtre italien), it was performed/improvised in Italian at the Comédie-Italienne during the first half of the eighteenth century. Did this subject influence Goldoni's Truffaldino servitore di due padroni in the Italy of the 1740's? Quite probably, but the details are unclear. What is known, is that the work was re-written by Goldoni with full dialogues, then reconverted into scenario form. The fluctuation we have here was between the French and Italian languages, geographically between France and Italy, then back to France again, and back and forth between scenario and fully dialogued versions of the subject.

Goldoni's L'Amour paternel, ou la suivante reconnaissante, which premiered at the Comédie-Italienne on February 4, 1763, was, according to Brenner, performed in Italian. It was more than a scenario outline, however, as the publication of this play, in prose, the same year by Duchesne would suggest. On the other hand, his scenario Les deux italiennes, received by the Italians in 1763, was not performed. Goldoni's popularity seems to have peaked around the end of the year, with Les Amours d'Arlequin et Camille, which had a 14-performance run between September 1763 and February 1764.

[Interval 3. 1769-1779]

With the dismissal of the "sub-company" of French-language actors in 1669, there remained two "strings" of performers: Italians for Commedia dell'arte improvised scenarios [Tuesdays and Fridays, "off" days in terms of the small audiences that attended]; increasingly-important musical theatre actors for comic-opera [the latter now faced stiff competition from the emerging boulevard theatre Companies]. Robert Isherwood considers the accelerating shift toward musical theatre at the Comédie-Italienne to be one of the most significant developments to emerge from the company in the second half of the eighteenth century:

"Not only had the Comique lost the marketplace and moved into the status of a privileged theater, but the genre itself had become radically transformed. Gluck's alleged revolution at the Opéra was less a departure from the tradition of Lully and Quinault than were Grétry and Marmontel from Lesage and Gillier. (...) abandoning the vulgar banter of Arlequin, the episodes of street life, the folklike vaudeville aire known to all, and the caustic thrusts at privileged culture, the Opéra-Comique ceased to be a popular theater."

Philippe Vendrix specifies that the move to heightened refinement was particularly apparent in the art of Grétry and Philidor who achieved a new blending of text and music: "[Grétry] developed a new musical style based on declamation and on subtle connections between the text and its musicalization. Philodor even succeeded in adding new colour to the sound produced by the little orchestra of the Théâtre-Italien."

While the thrust to adapt has received most attention from the point of view of the opéra-comique genre, we must try to focus on the non-musical changes in progress. The dropping of French-language actors from the Italian company reflected a crisis in the viability of conventional, dialogued comedy that Beaumarchais acknowledged a few years later when he sought to bring back "franche gaité" to his Barbier de Séville in 1775.

Henri Lagrave has studied this crisis within the Comédie-Italienne from the perspective of its effect on the French-language plays of Marivaux: «It was proposed that the French repertory of the Comédie-Italienne should be transferred to the Comédie-Française... but the "Romans" haughtily refused», with the notable exception of a command performance at Trianon of Marivaux's La Mère confidente by the Comédie-Française, done September 21, 1776, for the Queen.

Given the absence of actors specializing in French-language comedies, it is noteworthy that the performers who remained in the Comédie-Italienne occasionally ventured into the neglected French repertory. Marivaux's Arlequin poli par l'amour (French text) and Romagnesi's Arlequin toujours Arlequin, both French-dialogued plays with numerous openings toward Italian-style lazzi and moments of improvisation, were performed, the latter with a degree of popular success.

[After 1779]

With the dropping of the last Italian performers in December 1779, and the rehiring of a company of French actors, the Comédie-Italienne still found itself with two "strings" of performers, but the mix was different. The refocussed Comédie-Italienne had ambitions of becoming the "second company" of the realm (after the Comédie-Française). Lagrave quotes their stated ambition ("compliment d'ouverture de la saison 1780-81 [5 avril 1780] to perform the (almost) full range of plays (except tragedy and opera), running from drame, through vaudevilles, comedies, comic-operas to ballets. This was reflected by the staging of six plays by Louis-Sebastien Mercier, several of which had been performed in the 1770s in the provinces or at Boulevard theatres because of Comédie-Française opposition: La Demande imprévue (23 May 1780), Le Déserteur (25 June 1782), L'Indigent (22 November 1782), La Brouette du vinaigrier (12 October 1784), L'Habitant de la Guadeloupe (15 April 1786), Nathalie (27 November 1787).

Lagrave calls the year 1779 "une véritable Année Marivaux" (p. 52). Five of his plays were performed a total of 50 times that year. The Jeu de l'amour itself was poorly performed, all the actors except Mlle Pitrot (who played Silvia's rôle) were singers instead of actors... Arlequin-Pasquin was played by the singer Valleroy (not by Carlin, judged by Lagrave to be too old for the rôle).


The case of Italian theatre in France offers fertile ground for a study of the the assimilation process by which a national brand of theatre, Commedia dell'Arte, adapted to a different, foreign setting, gradually lost its distinctiveness, finally to blend in with the evolving theatrical practices of its host country, France. By way of caution, such a study requires qualification, for the evolutionary thrust which saw the disappearance of Commedia in Italy itself cannot be forgotten; nor can the shift in France from the stylized, convention-ridden performance codes of the early part of the century to a visually more persuasive performance code heralding the later age of stage naturalism.

In summarizing the fate of the Comédie-Italienne near the start of this paper, I described the institution as a locus of cross-cultural and trans-modal exchange. In retrospect, that space now comes into clearer focus as an intersection through which paraded widely varying groups of practitioners, impressarios, individual artists, audiences. They brought with them an extraordinary range of tastes and an unprecedented heterogeneity of visions. They were caught in the middle, between more tradition-bound monopolies, the Opéra and the Comédie-Française, and the less-regulated, short-lived stage enterprises of the early fairground companies and the Boulevard theatres which followed them.

"Passing through" the Comédie-Italienne had always meant what I called in an earlier article "a clash of styles" ("A Clash of Styles: Louis Fuzelier and the 'New Italian Comedy', The Science of Buffoonery: Theory and History of the Commedia dell'Arte, ed. Domenico Pietropaolo, University of Toronto, Italian Studies 3, Dovehouse Editions, 1989, pp. 101-15.) It is significant that some of these enounters produced that elusive quality which scholars and critics sense, without being able to fully circumscribe it, in the plays of Molière and Marivaux. François Moureau points out in his study of Dufresny that they also led to an early blend of dialogue and music, before fairground theatres developed their brand of comic operas. For the final years of the Comédie-Italienne, the clashes--for they were many--pitted comic opera against Commedia, French plays against Italian, dialogue against music, scripted texts against scenarios. Beyond the level of differing genres (a more literary concern), the artists and practitioners invariably found themselves "stretched" by the competing performance values swirling around them at that time.

Relatively unhearalded in relation to Noverre, the actor and ballet-master, Deshayes, produced a stream of ballets-pantomimes at the Comédie-Italienne at the same time as Diderot was theorizing expressive gesture in his writings of the performance of bourgeois drama. Goldoni ran the gamut of textual possibilities in moving back and forth between script and scenario, French and Italian. Actors set aside traditional Comedia performance values, as the Arlequin rôle became progressively more Frenchified. The surviving Italian actors during the 1769-1779 interval moved into that repertory through performances in the 1770's of scripted French plays, in the absence of the French actors from the company. In switching back to spoken French dialogue in 1779, it was the group of lyric artists who had difficulties in coping with speaking parts.

The borders crossed in this presentation have been geographic, generic and linguistic; the process of naturalization, both a question of adapting to a different culture, and a shift in performance paradigms from the stylized figures of specialized, individual performers, toward the creation of an overall illusion of naturalness offered in visual tableaux and smoother blendings of sung and spoken dialogues. The changes may have rendered the Comédie-Italienne unrecognizable; nevertheless, its chaotic, open-endedness is perhaps a more accurate reflection of theatrical evolution in 18th-century France that the less radical developments of the Opéra and the Comédie-Française.


March 1999

University of Toronto at Mississauga