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The Guénégaud Theatre in Paris (1673-1680)  
By Jan Clarke
Illustrated. 428 pp.
Publisher. US$129.95
ISBN-10: 0773483926 / ISBN-13: 9780773483927

Prior to this detailed work by Dr. Jan Clarke, the years between 1673 and 1680 were a blank page in the history of this famous Parisian theater, which was housed in the Hôtel Guénégaud. The Hôtel Guénégaud was the first performing house of the Paris Opéra in 1670, and in 1680 it fulfilled the same function for the Comédie Française. The years between the death of Molière in 1673 and the opening of the Comédie Française in the Guénégaud have been neglected mostly due to a paucity of information about the time period. Dr. Clarke, with a researcher's tenacity, has pored over the small record left to us. In doing so, she has shown the ability to create the kind of full picture out of small details that one normally associates only with archaeologists. The result is a work that is both compelling and precise in its recounting of this overlooked period in French theater.

The source material available to Dr. Clarke for this study was largely in the form of account books in the Archives of the Comédie Française. In spite of what might seem like dry material, the author has presented a gripping, engaging narrative of the history of this theater. She brings forward the personalities of key individuals and details of their activities and motivations, revealing vivid glimpses of French culture, society, and business dealings. She places the history of the theater into its social context. She has the rare ability to connect pieces of information so they can be presented as story, yet in no way does she ever blur the line between fact and speculation. Her work never departs from its factual, historic purpose.

In 1673, the death of Molière had an earthquake-like effect on the troupe of actors with whom he was associated at the Palais-Royal Theater. His death, combined with mounting debt, the departure of several actors, plus heightened competition with a rival acting company, all combined to leave the remaining actors shaken and uncertain of their future. Through precise, tireless scholarship, Dr. Clarke reveals the history of the next seven years as the company's fortunes change and carry it forward, often shedding new light on previous historic interpretations.

For example, the departure of several actors after Molière's death has historically been interpreted as evidence of a power struggle between two contenders for Molière's "head" role in the company. With a detailed reliance on the writings of those involved and other source material, Dr. Clarke carefully reinterprets this historic assumption and shows that the acting companies maintained a fierce equality among the actors, allowing for no leader or single person who was more in charge of the officers of the theater than any other. For the complex figure of the Orator, she is able to convey how it was the public could and would perceive this person as the leader of the theater while in fact, from the inner workings of the company itself, this was not the case.

The history of theater is definitively enhanced by this study. Teachers and students of theater studies will benefit from information that has been studied and revealed for the first time. Dr. Clarke is even able to create fact-based suppositions about the layout of the auditorium, a visualization that, until now, has been concealed by the curtains of time.

Sylvia Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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