Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"Un Des Plus Jolis Théâtres Hors De l'Italie & Point De Spectacle": The Design and Construction of the First Proper Theatre in Antwerp (1711-1746)

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"Un Des Plus Jolis Théâtres Hors De l'Italie & Point De Spectacle": The Design and Construction of the First Proper Theatre in Antwerp (1711-1746)

Article excerpt

Anvers, h première &la plus grande ville du Brabant, &à qui on pourroit donner des titres encore superbes, surpasse toutes les autres villes quej'aye vues, à l'exception de Naples, Rome, Venise; nonseulement par L· magnificence de les bâtimens, par la pompe de ses Eglises, & par L· larguer de ses rues spacieuses, mais aussi par les manieres de ses habitans, dont les plus polis tâchent à se conformerà nos manières françoises.1

From the late 1660s onward, the Spanish or Southern Netherlands were often the stage for skirmishes or even open war between Louis xiv's attacking army on the one hand and the Spanish and Dutch defenders on the other. Despite these troubled times, however, all things French became more fashionable than ever, including personal manners, music and theatre, as the Frenchman Jean-Francois Regnard describes in his 1681 description of the city. In 1661, the first commercial theatre building of Antwerp, called the Almoners? Theatre or Theatrum Musicale, had opened its doors, but, in 1682, attention drastically shifted from Dutch- spoken plays to French operas, almost exclusively those by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The owners and organizers of the 1661 theatre were the city almoners, rich citizens appointed by the city council to oversee the care of the sick and the poor. In both Amsterdam and Brussels the profit from the theatres was used to benefit the poor; the Antwerp theatre was founded with the same goal. Opera proved even more profitable than ordinary plays, and, from 1682 onward, the almoners would focus on this new genre. Dutch and French plays and circus acts remained welcome, but priority was given to opera. The almoners also controlled every other theatrical performance in town; any company wishing to perform a play had to donate part of the income to the almoners.

The theatre of 1661 was hardly worth that name as the almoners had simply rented the ground floor of one of the largest guild houses of the city and erected a stage there. The tiny auditorium was divided into a standing area, a small amphitheatre, and, from 1695 onward, a handful of boxes on either side of the room. On a crowded night, fewer than 200 spectators could be accommodated. With the growing interest in drama and opera, die theatre quickly became too small, and a new location had to be found. The almoners knocked on die door of the city council and stated their case: they wanted "une place propre pour représenter leurs commedies et opera avecq plus d'esclat, et machines"2 and "un Téatre . . . plus grand et orné de plus de décorations et machines,"3 in short, a larger, better theatre. Part of the profit the almoners had made already had been put aside for this new theatre. The city council recognized all this and came up witli a simple solution. During die sixteenth century, Antwerp had been one of the richest and largest cities in Western Europe. Religious troubles and die Eighty Years War changed all that. Antwerp was conquered by Spanish troops in 1585, and the river Scheldt, die main economic artery of the city, was closed. Many left the city and moved to die Nordi, contributing to the Golden Age of the Northern Netherlands. Antwerp would never fully recover, and the economy was never restored. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, a large hall, called the Tapestry Hall, had been built to advance the trade of tapestries, a main export during the Middle Ages, and to better display and store them. With the decline of commerce, the building had become too large, and two of its six long, narrow naves were standing unused. The city council proposed that the almoners use a part of these two naves for their new theatre,

In the late summer of 1709, the almoners left their old theatre following a conflict over the rent. In October, the city council officially granted them the use of a part of the Tapestry Hall, and the almoners constructed a small makeshift stage, which they began using in the fall of 1709. …

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