Performance reviews, pictures and advertisement: La scène (Paris, 1877-1888)

Cambridge University Library recently acquired the French periodical La scène: revue des succès dramatiques, décorations complètes, costumes coloriés, directed and illustrated by Jules Gaildrau and written by his colleague E. Grand, ranging from October 1877 to January 1888 (Rare books, 8000.a.95). The publication (43 issues in total) was intended to appear twice a month; in reality, though, it was more irregular, with fewer reviews in 1880-1882 and 1885-1888 (and no review at all in 1887). It is a very rare set, as far as we know, only held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

T. 1 no 1, 1877: Review of the opéra-comique Les cloches de Corneville (Robert Planquette), p. 1

La scène is a wonderful source recording the Parisian theatrical life of the second part of the 19th century, telling us of its “dramatic successes”, and including information such as the date and place of the first performance, the names of music directors, costume designers, dressmakers, set designers, as well as those of the actors. Each issue is made up of four pages of text summarising the plot and reviewing the performance of the actors or singers and the staging, with black and white illustrations of the different sets; four pages of advertisements; and a coloured plate divided into four levels featuring the actors in their costumes. The periodical was available for purchase (for 1 franc, and later 1 franc 50) at the head office as well as in bookshops, and customers could pay for subscriptions of three months, six months, or a year. In the later period, advertisements encouraged the retrospective purchase of a whole set of the publication.

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T.1. no 22, 1880: L’hippodrome: inauguration de la saison d’été

The Paris venues where the operas and plays on review were performed include the Théâtre des folies-dramatiques, Théâtre national de l’opéra-comique, Théâtre historique, Théâtre de la Renaissance, Théâtre des variétés, Théâtre de la Porte-saint-Martin, Théâtre français, Théâtre national de l’Odéon, Théâtre Ventadour, Théâtre du Châtelet, Théâtre des bouffes-parisiens, Théâtre des nouveautés, Théâtre de la Gaité… The colour representation of the costumes and that of the sets are a very helpful tool to visualise and imagine how the plays were performed. A very singular review is that of the opening of the summer season at the Paris Hippodrome on 2 June 1880: instead of operatic or dramatic performances, it praises the open-air venue (much more pleasant than stuffy theatres during the summer) with horse races and dressage but also magic tricks and circus-type shows, including acrobatics, clowns, performing dogs and monkeys (t. 1, no 22, 1880).

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T. 1, no 8, 1878: review of the drame Les Misérables (Victor and Charles Hugo)

The periodical tells us what the successful operas and plays of the time were: some were inspired by the work of famous authors (Marivaux, Voltaire…) or produced by celebrated composers (Offenbach, Lecocq, Messager…) and became classics, but others have been relatively forgotten. The controversial Hernani by Hugo, first performed in 1830, directed again in 1877 by Emile Perrin, is reviewed in t. 1, no 8, 1878. Literary successes could easily lead to dramatic success, as in the case of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, which was adapted for the stage by his son, Charles Hugo (t. 1, no 8, 1878). Although the drama in five acts only focuses on the first part of the story (“Fantine”), it uses a record number of twelve “tableaux”. The colour-illustrated gallery of costumes is not confined to a succession of individual characters, as was the case in Les cloches de Corneville, but features  small scale scenes where people interact with each other, with some props or elements of the set: Fantine on her deathbed assisted by Soeur Simplice ; Jean Valjean bending to lift Cosette’s bucket ; Eponine holding hands with her mother Thénardier ; Jean Valjean climbing the wall of the convent. The different sets of Les Misérables are by three designers (Chéret, Poisson, Robecchi) who created several urban and forest scenes, indoor settings, the majestic Arras tribunal where the false Jean Valjean is tried, and the garden of the Picpus convent where Cosette and her protector find shelter.

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T. 1, no 8, 1878: review of Les Misérables (Victor and Charles Hugo)

Other classics include the scandalous Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost, turned into an opéra-comique with music by Jules Massenet (t. 2, no 11, April 1884). The two opéras comiques Les mousquetaires au couvent and Les petits mousquetaires by Louis Varney are pastiches of Alexandre Dumas. Several plays and operas are adaptations of foreign works: the drame lyrique, Les amants de Vérone, by the marquis d’Ivry, inspired by Shakespeare, is t. 1, no 13, 1879. Les contes d’Hoffmann, the last issue of tome 1, no 24, 1881, exceptionally features two coloured plates instead of one. The review includes the set and costumes of an act that was omitted, and it refers the reader to the publishers Choudens and Calmann Lévy for the full libretto and notated music.

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T. 1, no 24, 1881: review of the opera Les contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach)

The reviews stress the variety of genres performed at that time, from “opéra” (bouffe or comique) to “drame” (lyrique), “comédie” and “vaudeville”. Interesting statistics could be made to discover which genres, themes or periods (contemporary / historical) -as well as from which theatres- were selected in the review, and thus considered as the most “successful”. Exoticism was certainly a very popular vein, as it appears in the three successive reviews of the opéra-comique Fatinitza (Eugène Scribe / Franz von Suppé), the play La Vénus noire: voyage dans l’Afrique centrale (Alexandre Artus) and the opéra-comique La jolie persane (Lecocq) (t. 1, nos 18-20, 1879-1880).

La Vénus noire is the story of Mme de Guéran, the wife of an explorer, who goes to Africa in search of her missing husband, in the company of a female explorer (Miss Poole –who according to the painted costumes, only wears a hat, shoes and a dress of leaves in the fifth tableau) and three suitors. They rescue M. de Guéran who was prisoner of the black Venus, Walinda. The Queen of the Amazons is depicted in the eighth tableau wearing a gold helmet and revealing ornaments, on top of her leopard skirt and cape, while holding a spear. In the third ballet, another Amazon is featured wearing a leopard print skirt and holding a spear, but with a feather necklace, silver spiked ornaments and a shield. The Amazons combine attributes of the African warriors and the Sudanese female dancers featuring in the play and the ballet which are also depicted in the plate of costumes.

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T. 1 no 19, 1879: review of La Vénus noire (Alexandre Artus)

Who was the readership of such a periodical? In the 19th century, the popular théâtre de boulevard attracted a diverse audience with different categories of seating. Theatre lovers willing to purchase single issues or a subscription would find in La scène a review of the plot and performance as well as a pleasing reminder of the costumes and sets of the operas and plays they attended. However, the advertisement included in the review suggest that it must have been initially intended to reach performers and professionals of the stage.

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T. 1 no 1, 1877: Review of Les cloches de Corneville (Robert Planquette): cover pages 1 (5 ads) and 3 (10 blank ads spaces)

While the review itself was of four illustrated pages, the design of La scène suggests important ambitions as far as advertisement was concerned: it was to take up three whole pages (and even more in the first issue, as ads also appeared on the front page). The cost of the publication could be offset not only by its sales, but also by the funds brought in by announcements: the use of one advertisement box cost 20 francs, or 400 francs for 24 issues. One can also imagine that in terms of notoriety, the different Paris theatres could have an interest in having their performances reviewed in La scène.

The cover page of the first review, Les cloches de Corneville, was divided into two sections. The upper part featured practical information such as the title of the journal and that of the play reviewed, the issue number, the price and places where the periodical could be purchased etc. The lower part, which covered more than half the page, was dedicated to advertisement. In the first issue, it is the only advertisement space to be filled, but lines drawn on the cover pages 2, 3 and 4 show on each of them 10 boxes for potential adverts. By the second issue, the lower part of the cover page featured a set of the play, and the advertisement moved to the cover page verso.

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T. 1 no 2, 1877: Review of Cinq-Mars (Gounod) covers pages 1 and 2

The first issue of La scène contains ads for suppliers of French and international theatres: two real and artificial jewel makers, a costume maker, and a fabric dealer, as well as a cosmetic merchant. Later ads include providers of theatrical props and accessories (chandeliers, statues, mirrors, scientific instruments, luggage, weapons, musical instruments etc.), theatrical furniture (“fauteuils, strapontins”…). We also find advertisements for more specialised publications such as “Le code du théâtre: lois, règlements, jurisprudence etc.”, by Charles Le Senne, a Paris lawyer, “membre de la Société des auteurs”.

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T.2 no 19, 1888: Review of Surcouf (Robert Planquette), cover pages 1 and 3

Other ads for publications available by subscription could have appealed to a more general readership who may not have had direct or easy access to Paris and its theatres, but were interested in literature, culture, and self-improvement. As early as the second issue a large and recurrent advertisement appears for a prize-winning course by correspondence for adults entitled “L’Echo de la Sorbonne: cours complet d’enseignement secondaire en trois années”, which lists subjects and their teachers. The announcer must have bought that space for 24 issues, but those advertisements stop from issue 25 onwards. The course is depicted as “indispensable à tous les chefs de famille, à tous les chefs d’institution”, with the admission that is was “rédigé plus spécialement pour les jeunes filles”. The Minister of Public Instruction himself is supposed to have taken a subscription! The whole Echo collection totals twelve volumes, that is 39 issues of 8 pages each, all including a literature and a science lecture. One can see how the subscription format of the illustrated lectures (1500 images in total!) might also have appealed to readers and subscribers of La scène.


Among the periodicals advertised in La Scène, the weekly newspaper La sentinelle: journal de politique et de littérature étrangères, dealt with “questions politiques, sociales et militaires”, but also “le mouvement littéraire étranger”. Le courier du monde élégant: revue littéraire, artistique et encyclopédie la famille, put a stronger accent on fashion. Its premium subscription included the delivery of real size fashion patterns. An interesting advertisement is that of Larousse for the Dictionnaire analogique of Boissière, “destiné à venir au secours de la mémoire quand on veut exprimer une idée et que le mot propre est oublié, ou même est toujours resté inconnu”. Other instructional or literary works were promoted, such as, both the two-parts drama and the (much longer and costly) original novel Les Misérables sold by the Marpon and Flammarion booksellers. Merchandising was already rife, as in the promotion of the licensed perfume “Eau de Montecristo, recommandée et adoptée par Alexandre Dumas”. The number of advertisements grew throughout the years, filling the dedicated blank spaces almost entirely: in the last issues of the periodical, only one box remains “à louer”.


Here is the full list of the plays reviewed in the periodical:

Tome 1

  1. 1877: Les cloches de Corneville (Robert Planquette)
  2. Cinq-Mars (Gounod)
  3. Le régiment de Champagne (Jules Claretie)
  4. La tzigane (Strauss)
  5. La cigale (Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy), together with La surprise de l’amour (Marivaux / Ferdinand Poise)
  1. Une cause célèbre (Eugène Cormon)
  2. 1878: Le petit duc (Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy / Lecocq)
  3. Hernani (Hugo)
  4. Joseph Balsamo [Cagliostro] (Dumas)
  5. Les Misérables -Fantine (Hugo)
  6. Coco (Eugène Grangé and Alfred Delacour / Clairville)
  7. La croix de l’Alcade (Henri Perry)
  8. 1879: Les amants de Vérone (Shakespeare / marquis d’Ivry)
  9. La Camargo (Lecocq)
  10. Le droit du seigneur (Voltaire / Léon Vasseur)
  11. Madame Favart (Offenbach)
  12. La Petite Mademoiselle (Lecocq)
  13. Fatinitza (Eugène Scribe / Franz von Suppé)
  14. La Vénus noire (Alexandre Artus)
  15. 1880: La jolie persane (Lecocq)
  16. La fille du tambour-major (Offenbach)
  17. L’hippodrome: inauguration de la saison d’été
  18. 1881: Les mousquetaires au couvent (Louis Varney)
  19. Les contes d’Hoffmann (Barbier / Offenbach)

Tome 2

  1. / 25. 1882: La Mascotte (Edmond Audran)
  2. / 26. Le jour et la nuit (Lecocq)
  3. / 27. Les Rantzau (Pietro Mascagni)
  4. 1883: La princesse des Canaries (Lecocq)
  5. Lakmé (Léo Delibes)
  6. Madame Boniface (Paul Lacôme)
  7. Le roi de carreau (Théodore Lajarte)
  8. François les bas bleus (André Messager)
  9. 1884: Fanfreluche (Gaston Serpette)
  10. L’oiseau bleu (Lecocq)
  11. Manon (abbé Prévost / Massenet)
  12. Babolin (Louis Varney)
  13. Le grand Mogol (Edmond Audran)
  14. Le château de Tire-Larigot (Gaston Serpette)
  15. 1885: Rip (Robert Planquette)
  16. Théodora (Massenet)
  17. Les petits mousquetaires (Louis Varney)
  18. 1886: La fauvette du Temple (André Messager)
  19. 1888: Surcouf (Robert Planquette)

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi

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