French Theater for Beginners

comedie francaise_3

Theater is hard, as any actor knows. Theater in French is even harder for a spectator new to the language.

I wanted to experience theater in Paris, though. I’d been a longtime theater reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and had even been a Tony voter, and I was eager to experience the glories of French theater for myself.

My first theatrical experience was at La Comédie Française, a few months after my arrival in Paris. I went to see the famous farce by Georges Feydeau, Un fil à la patte. (The phrase, which translates roughly as “a string at the paw,” can mean something like bird on a string, or being held by something, though the title in English is often “cat among the pigeons,” which isn’t quite the same thing.) This production (with a wonderful, elastic performance by the marvelous comic actor Christian Hecq) was the hottest ticket in town over the year-and-a-half or so that it played in repertory. And my French friends had urged me to see it, perhaps overestimating my ability to comprehend stage speech, since my progress in French had been quick, and I had become much better at understanding what people were saying to me.

(Here’s Christian Heck making his first big entrance, in a taped version of La Comédie Française production that aired on French television.)

La Comédie Françåise offers last-minute rush seats for its performances, and I waited for a ticket for that evening on a hot afternoon outside the theater on Place Colette, along with a few dozen other hopefuls.

I managed to get among the last seats available, this one for 5 euros. A couple of hours later, I took my place in the last row, with a view of the stage that might be called obstructed if you could actually see the stage. I had a better view of the beautifully decorated ceiling a few inches above my head. Still, I was game. The mood was expectant, the rows packed with couples and families and students and newly arrived Francophiles like me. The curtain rose. The play began. The audience roared with laugher. And I was lost. Every so often I caught a quick glimpse of an actor’s shoulder. A stray word or two sometimes made its way to my unaccustomed ears. But it was hopeless. I slipped out at intermission.

About a year later, I found and watched a rare DVD of a little-known movie adaptation of the play, from 1954, starring the divine Suzie Delair. It also featured the great Bourvil as the hapless Bousin, the notary-by-day and songwriter-by-night (the role played by Christian Hecq in the play that I couldn’t really see). As amusing as it was, it probably would have been funnier as a play in a theater.

A few weeks after my Comédie Française non-event, I took in another piece. Definitely not a farce: Madame de Sade, by Yukio Mishima. I was visiting my friends Gilles and Michel in Montpellier, and they suggested we see it, since they were acquainted with Marilú Marini, an Argentinean actress who appeared in it as Madame De Montreuil, the mother of Renée de Sade, de Sade’s wife. The morning of the performance, Gilles bought me a French translation of the play, so that I could read it beforehand. I read as much as I could in the hours before the play (I now read in French much faster and more fluently than I did then) and hoped for the best given my limited acquaintance with the text.

It was an outdoor performance, part of a theater festival in Montpellier. And while we had a terrific view of the action, I still couldn’t make out what the actors were saying. Understanding stage speech, or language spoken from the stage, is a different skill than participating in a conversation. Levels of language-learning might be classified in this way, in ascending order of competency:

  • Basic phrases
  • Checking out at a supermarket
  • Chatting with someone
  • Speaking on the telephone
  • Watching a news broadcast
  • Taking part in a dinner conversation
  • Seeing a movie
  • Attending and understanding a play.

I was still just barely at the speaking-on-the-telephone level, I could watch television news and figure out the headlines, and I had begun to make progress differentiating individual voices during a dinner conversation. It would take another nine months or so before I could attend a stage performance and figure out what was going on, and even get some of the jokes.

That performance was of Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice Chauve,” the bald soprano. It’s been playing in some form or another almost constantly since its premier in Paris in 1950 (since 1957, it’s been at Théâtre de la Huchette). I had bought a copy of the play, and had read it. When the performance started and the actors began speaking, I was delighted (even a bit astonished) to find that I understood what was being said (as much as you ever can in Ionesco).

Subtleties of expression and wordplay escaped me, certainly. But at least I knew that I had comprehended much of what I’d seen during a live theatrical performance.

Since that time I’ve attended other theatrical works, including even “Mamma Mia,” in which the lyrics to the ABBA songs had been translated into French.

Tonight I’m heading back to La Comédie Française. I have a ticket (fourth row, aisle, this time, not under the ceiling) for “La tragédie d’Hamlet,” which will be my first experience of Shakespeare in French. The celebrated actor Denis Podalydès is playing Hamlet.

At this point, it won’t be a matter of simply understanding a play in French. Now I can see how the French interpret a classic of the English theater.

3 thoughts on “French Theater for Beginners

  1. I quite agree with your order of skills to reach in a foreign language .
    If you like theater, and are in Paris, a must could be a Molière’s play in the Comédie Française . A great play, such as L’Avare, le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Don Juan, Le Misanthrope . We sometimes call French “la langue de Molière” …
    Oh, it’s Bourvil with a ‘u’, the great and soft and modest Bourvil . You probably know it by now, but in case here is HIS sketch, one of these national cornerstones all French share, about a man in charge of a lecture for the anti-alcoholic league in favor of ” L’eau ferrugineuse” . It’s alas full of wordplays, but you may be able by now, or get the missing ones from a friend . Everybody knows it .


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