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Before restoration

After restoration

Voltaire's Little Theater
Voltaire's Little Theater at the Chateau de Cirey is of special historic value and is one of the few remaining examples of the of the early theaters in France.

It is likely that there are thirty court and private chateau theaters in existence in France today, and many of these are in a critical state. Thus, it is fortunate that Voltaire's Little Theater at was restored in 1999.

Earliest Remaining Private Theater
The Little Theater at Cirey is one of the oldest stages in France and was built in 1735. Except for the prestigious Opéra de Versailles (1770) and the charming Queen's Theater in the Petit Trianon of Versailles (1780), there are no other private 18th century theaters in France. The little theater was used in the first half of the 19th century, and has undergone some changes.

The true architectural origin of the French theater dates from the second half of the 18th century. It is rare to find a theatrical structure used uniquely for plays before this date. Until the mid 1700's, there were few theaters and the existing ones were poorly designed for performances. It is paradoxical that France, a country which valued theater as a part of its national culture, was so slow to develop theatrical architecture comparable to Italy.

Voltaire himself complained about the state of affairs after the failure of one of his plays "Semiramis," performed in Paris in 1748. He attributed the failure of the play to the sad state of the performance hall of the Comedie Francaise. Although it would be ten years before the French would create theaters based on the Italian model, Voltaire moved quickly to build an appropriate theater at Cirey.

Despite its small size, Voltaire's Little Theater has all of the necessary characteristics for a successful performance. Voltaire designed the stage at Cirey to only be used by the actors. At that time in France, spectators who were more interested in being seen than watching the play, were allowed to sit at the left and right sides of the stage. There was box seating to provide the best view possible, and the theater had permanent scenery that provided a background setting for performances.

And most significantly, this is the only existing theater created by Voltaire, one of France's most noted writers of plays for the theater. The Théâtre des Délices and the Théâtre de Ferney which he created after his departure from Cirey no longer exist. Therefore the Théâtre de Cirey is of incomparable historic value.

The Theater
The little theater consists of a small room hidden in the attic where five banquettes provided seating for about fifteen spectators. There is a small raised stage. It is surrounded by a frame in fragile paper, painted in "trompe l'oeil" style. "Trompe l'oeil" is a style of painting in which objects are painted with realistic detail.

The stage curtain, made of several layers of material sewn together, is also painted in "trompe l'oeil." Its well-conserved blue color was a striking addition to the theater. The center medallion which dominated the stage is removable. The visible coat of arms could be replaced by another frame that held the title of the performance. Some of these frames were found during the restoration. Unfortunately, they were no longer legible.

When Mme du Châtelet was not acting a role in the play, she would sit in her own box which was bordered with a painted wooden railing. On the opposite side of the room, to create a symmetrical effect, there was a "trompe l'oeil" mural depicting another group of spectators in their box. This mural was partly covered with plaster during the last century due to a change in taste.

The original mural depicted a lecherous priest leaning over to observe the plunging neckline of a young woman. The woman's hand remains painted on the right side of the balcony. Amusingly, the one remaining person on the mural is also looking at the beautiful young woman and showing no interest in what is happening on stage.

The Scenery
There are three separate scenic decors. They are composed of painted canvas stretched over wooden frames.

* The rustic room
The rustic room represents a modest interior accentuated by "trompe l'oeil" painting techniques. The total effect is charming and realistic.
* The forest
There is also a forest scene composed of six different frames. All of the frames have a silhouette on the edge to reinforce the illusion of the forest setting. The painting shows careful attention to detail. There is a surprising freshness to the colors.
theatre * The exotic garden
The exotic garden consists of a forest of palm trees surrounding a pretty refreshing fountain.

Other props and stage accessories were discovered during the restoration including a large 18th century wooden coat of arms and a canopy bed.
Example of the Restoration
Click here to see an example of restoration done on the Rustic Room set.

Performances in the Little Theater
To enter the theater, one must climb the great stone staircase to an area hidden in the attic. Voltaire performed his own plays at Cirey and this charming little theater witnessed a frenzy of activity in the past. The actors were his guests. At times, there was a definite lack of spectators because everyone had a part in the play.

The schedule of daily activities was frantic. There were at least two rehearsals and two plays a week. Voltaire casted the roles. He even placed posters advertising the current plays on the doors of the chateau although the private performances were meant for the residents of the chateau.

Mme. de Graffigny, a friend of Voltaire, wrote of her visit to Cirey that she had no leisure time. Her life revolved around the theater and she had to think of her roles.

"We just finished the third act which was performed today, it is midnight , we are going to have supper....I am drained. It is hellish, yes hellish, the life we lead. After supper, Mme. du Chatelet will sing a whole opera...You can't catch your breath here. Today we are presenting "The Prodigal Child" and another three act play for which we must rehearse. We rehearsed "Zaire" until 3 am. Tomorrow we will perform it with "The Serenade." We must do our hair, change clothes, pull ourselves together, hear an opera. Oh! What hard work!"

Today this simple, refined theater, which was the object of an extensive restoration during 1999, retains its former ambiance.

Stage with curtain rising

Prize of Honor for Historic Residences

The restoration of Voltaire's Little Theater at the Chateau de Cirey received the Prix d'Honneur 1999 de la Demeure Historique (the 1999 Prize of Honor for Historic Residences), an association whose goal is to support the maintenance and restoration of private historic monuments. This includes private residences which are already classified, registered, accepted monuments and those residences which are likely to become historic monuments. The restoration, which required three months of thorough painstaking work, gave new life to the theater and its scenery.

The Little Theater is included in the tour of the chateau.

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Château de Cirey
33, rue Emilie du Châtelet
52110 Cirey-sur-Blaise

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Last Updated: March 19, 2015