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Fires and Fire Precautions in the French Theatre

  • F. W. J. Hemmings (a1)

Extract

The ‘notice préliminaire’ to L.-H. Lecomte's unfinished Histoire des théâtres de Paris includes a list of eighteen major fires occurring between 1789 and 1900, each of which resulted in the total destruction of a theatre. The date of each disaster is given, as also the date at which the theatre was rebuilt, either on the same site or in a new location. But beyond these brief particulars, Lecomte gives little information on the circumstances and none at all on the probable causes of each catastrophe and the precautions taken subsequently to avert a recurrence. It is the purpose of this paper to flesh out the bare bones of Lecomte's statistics, and to extend the picture to embrace similar disasters befalling provincial playhouses in France over the same period. There had of course been spectacular fires before the Revolution at Paris theatres, notably that which destroyed the opera house located in the Palais-Royal on 6 April 1763 (incidentally severely damaging the palace itself), although, since it occurred during the Easter break, the theatre was fortunately empty at the time. The Opera was eventually rehoused on the same site, but on 8 June 1781 the building once more went up in flames and was reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. Again there were no victims among the spectators, since it was only when they had left after the evening's performance that the fire broke out; but many of the dancers were still changing into their outdoor clothes at the time and two of them failed to follow the example of the others and make their escape across the roof and down to the street. A total of a dozen or fifteen people perished as a result of this fire, including one elderly woman living in the Cour des Fontaines who died of shock at witnessing the fearsome spectacle.

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Notes

1. Paris: Daragon, 19051910. 8 vols.

2. See Demuth, Norman, French Opera: its development to the Revolution (Horsham, Sussex: Artemis Press, 1963), p. 239.

3. Métra, , Correspondence secrète, politique et littéraire (London: John Adamson, 17871790), IX, 401.

4. Sélis, Nicolas-Joseph, Lettre à un père de famille sur les petits spectacles de Paris (Paris: Garnéry, 1789), pp. 67.

5. Brazier, Nicolas, Chroniques des petits théâtres de Paris. Réimprimées avec […] notes par Georges d'Heylli (Paris: Rouveyre et Bloud, 1883), I, 46–7.

6. See Destranges, Etienne, Le Théâtre à Nantes depuis ses origines jusqu'à nos jours (Paris, Fischbacher, 1893), pp. 114–15, 122.

7. de Grimm, F.-M., Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique … 1770–82 (Paris: Buisson, 18121813), II, 385.

8. La Harpe, J.-F., Correspondance littéraire […] depuis 1774 jusqu'à 1789 (Paris: Dupont, 1801), III, 244–5.

9. Bachaumont, , Mémoires secrets (London: John Adamson, 17631789), I, 64.

10. Favart, Ch.-S., Mémoires et Correspondance littéraires … (Paris, Collin, 1808), II, 237.

11. Jauffret, Eugène, Le Théâtre révolutionnaire (Paris: Furne, 1869), pp. 417–8.

12. Brazier, , op.cit., II, 474.

13. Magnier, Pierre, Soixante arts de théâtre (Paris: Nicéa, 1956), p. 112. The incident occurred shortly after the shocking fire at the Bazar de la Charité (1897) when one of the primitive cinema shows went up in flames, resulting in considerable loss of life.

14. Rapport du Bureau central, 4 nivâse an VIII [24 December 1799]: see Léon de Lanzac de Laborie, Paris sous Napoléon. VIII. Spectacles et musées (Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1913), p. 3.

15. Lemaître, Jules, Impressions de théâtre (Paris: Boivin, 18881918), I, 1314.

16. Lemaître, Frédérick, Souvenirs publiés par son fils (Paris: Ollendorf, 1880), pp. 275–6.

17. Combarnous, Victor, Histoire du Grand-Théâtre de Marseille (Marseille: Imprimerie Méri-dionale), 1927, p. 80.

18. Carvé, , Souvenirs de théâtre, réunis […] par Robert Favart (Paris: Plon, 1950), p. 77.

19. Dumas, , Souvenirs dramatiques (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, n.d.), I, 244.

20. Giffard, , Nos moeurs. La Vie au théâtre (Paris: Librairie Illustrée), 1888, p. 234.

21. Magnier, , op.cit., pp. 41–2.

22. The lower figure is that given by Soubies, A. & Malherbe, Ch., Histoire de l'Opéra-Comique (Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, 18921893), II, 433–4; the higher by Genest, Emile, L'Opéra-Comique connu et inconnu (Paris: Fischbacher, 1925), p. 105.

23. The report was reprinted in extenso by Deschaumes, Edmond, Le Mal du théâtre (Paris: Dentu, 1888), pp. 268–74.

24. See ibid., pp. 274–5.

25. Germont, Louis, Loges d'artistes (Paris: Dentu, 1889), p. 165.

26. Lemaître, , op. cit., p. 13.

27. Cf. Guiches, Gustave's eye-witness account: ‘En plein coeur de la Maison, un cratère s'est ouvert et sans arrêt, il vomit les uns sur les autres des blocs de fumée rougeoyants comme d'énormes globes de feu enroulés par des spirales de flammes, criblés par des gerbes d'étincelles, tandis que des explosions sourdes et des éclatements font croire, à chaque instant, que la toiture va sauter en l'air ou que tout va s'écrouler et s'anéantir dans le brasier intérieur’ (Le Spectacle: trots étapes du théâtre et de la vie parisienne de 1887 à 1914 (Paris: Spès, 1932), p. 170).

28. Letter to André Bernheim, quoted in the latter's Trente arts de théâtre (Paris: Lemerre, 1908), IV, 335.

29. Antoine, , Le Théâtre (Paris: Editions de France, 1932), I, 199.

30. Id., Mes Souvenirs sur le Théâtre-Libre (Paris: Fayard, 1921), p. 156.

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Fires and Fire Precautions in the French Theatre

  • F. W. J. Hemmings (a1)

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