- The French national theater. The oldest and most renowned ofEurope's state-subsidized theaters, it is also known as the Théâtre-Françaisand La Maison de Molière. Louis XIV founded it bydecree in 1680, and a company was formed by merging the troupes fromthe Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Théâtredu Marais (with which Molière's Théâtrede Guénégaud had already merged). The new company converteda tennis court into a theater and used this for their performancesuntil 1770. They subsequently played at the Salles des Machines inthe Tuileries until 1789, when they moved to their new theater, theOdéon, on the Left Bank.
In the same year, however, the French Revolution split thecompany in two: the conservatives, under François-RenéMolé, became the Théâtre de la Nation, while themore revolutionary became the Théâtre de la Républiqueunder François-Joseph Talma. The two groups reunitedin 1803 at Talma's Théâtre de la Révolution.
Following a decree issued by Napoleon in 1812, the Comédie-Françaisewas reorganized along lines proposed by Molière in 1658. Thesemake it a cooperative in which the actors hold shares. A new memberis hired at a fixed salary on probation as a pensionnaire;he or she may become a sociétaire only when a full memberdies or resigns. Sociétaires are eligible for a pensionupon retirement. The Comédie-Française underwent somereorganization in 1945, with the administrative head now being appointedby the minister of education.
Although the theater's repertory is based on the French classics,modern plays are also produced. The Comédie-Françaiseis acclaimed for its splendid ensemble performances led by the nation'smost famous actors; in the 20th century these have included SarahBernhardt and Jean-Louis Barrault. More recentlyforeign directors have sometimes been invited to give the companya more international outlook, including the Englishman Terry Handswho since 1972 has directed such works as Richard III, TwelfthNight, and Murder in the Cathedral.