The history of Paris' Théâtre Montparnasse

  • 03, Oct 2018
  • Parisian theatre
  • Rupert Comer

Nestled behind the huge Montparnasse cemetery in Paris’ 14th arrondissement, the Théâtre Montparnasse is a veritable institution in a neighbourhood famous for its rich artistic and intellectual history. With a large stage seating 715 and a smaller one seating 200, the theatre continues to put on incredible shows and has managed to pick up over thirty Molière awards (France’s theatre equivalent of the Oscars) throughout the years. From Oscar Wilde to Harold Pinter, a whole range of dramatists and eccentrics have passed through its doors and its rich history tells us much about Montparnasse neighborhood and Parisian theatre in general.

theatre montparnasse facade

Early days

First opened in 1772, Théâtre Montparnasse at that time showed pantomimes and “parades”, which were short burlesque acts employing crude humour and sexual innuendos. They were performed outside the doors and aimed to entice passersby into the theatre to pay for shows. Once inside, spectators enjoyed plays lit by oil lamps that lasted long into the night, and they could even heat their dinner on a large stove in the centre of the room to eat during the interval!

french parade performance

An old drawing of a Parisian ‘parade’ performance outside a theatre.

New building

In the beginning, Théâtre Montparnasse was a rickety building made of wood and plaster. The ornate and imposing façade we know today, however, was not to be finished until 1886. Now unsurprisingly classified as a historical monument, the building was designed by French architect Charles Peigniet, who notably helped to create New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty.

statue of liberty paris

Gaston Baty years

From the 1930s the theatre went through a golden age with French playwright Gaston Baty and later Marguerite Jamois at its helm. An adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary was so successful that it was translated and shown on Broadway in 1937. Baty also put on a French version of The Threepenny Opera in 1930. A musical critique of capitalism by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, it was inspired by the ideas of the anarchistic Dada art movement. Bizarrely, the title is translated into French as The Fourpenny Opera.

theatre montparnasse top

Present day

Since 1984, Théâtre Montparnasse has been in safe hands under the direction of Myriam Feune de Colombi. Colombi used to play in France’s most celebrated theatre troupes, the Comédie-Française, which in the past has had the likes of Voltaire and Molière in its ranks. Bringing the theatre to life, she added a restaurant and a smaller venue to the site, which has helped to launch the careers of many French playwrights throughout the years. Located on the bustling rue de la Gaîté, the theatre’s onsite restaurant has a panoramic view of this charming Parisian street. The auditorium feels both intimate and imposing, and audiences continue to enjoy a varied and award-winning program.

theatre montparnasse salle

Come see a show!

What better way to take in such an emblem of Parisian theatre than to come and see a show? This time you can be transported to the roaring 1920s in Vienna, with Théatre Montparnasse’s adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s Legend of a Life. Performed in French but with English surtitles, you can enjoy a true Parisian theatre experience without having to worry about the language barrier. The play runs until January 2019 and tells the story of Friedrich, who living under the shadow of his father’s literary achievements, is forced to reconsider everything when secrets about this imposing paternal figure are unearthed. Zweig’s masterful work weaves psychological intrigue and literary prowess and the result is a show not to be missed.

See what's playing at the Theatre Montparnasse

legende d'une vie 2
legende d'une vie

Top and bottom: stills from a performance of Legend of a Life by Stefan Zweig at Théâtre Montparnasse.