Geneva Chronicle

Emily Bilman

“Comedy, in Geneva, is not quite tolerated.” With this phrase, coined by d’Alembert in the Encyclopedia of 1751, the author satirizes the restrictive power of the Genevan government which forbade dramatic representations on stage until 1606. In fact, before the Protestant Reformation of 1580, pious farces, in which medieval religious mysteries were parodied, were played in Geneva. But the reformed Republicans forbade masques and the comedy of manners as early as 1539.

In the third volume of The History of Geneva written by André Thourel and published by L. Collin & Cie. in Geneva in 1833, it is written that religious controversy coupled with strict Protestant morals threatened the creation of theaters in Geneva for several centuries. Through Voltaire’s far-reaching influence, the Genevan governement officially allowed theatrical representations only in 1782.

Comedians would play Voltaire’s comedies in a barn in Carouge until the philospher opened a theater for the higher classes in his private home of Délices and later in his castle in Ferney. He mockingly wrote: “All is well; I corrupted the Council and the Republic.” But, his intra muros theater was shut down until, with the support of the King of Sardinia, he re-opened it in a popular venue in Carouge for the popular classes. From now on, the Genevan aristocrats would not be the only actors who amused themselves by acting in Voltaire’s comedies.

In the 18th century, Geneva became the stage of “particular comedies” as representations spread out to private houses throughout the city. The procedure was simple : an organiser in the troop would ask a home-owner if it would be possible to play the comedy in his place, in a flat, a tavern, or a cellar. A rental contract would be signed with the actors who were the home-owners with various professions like jewellers, librarians, dansers, teachers, engravers, apprentices, students etc. They would represent the Escalade of 1602 or Voltaire’s plays or Racine’s tragedies on their improvised home-stages. Yet, some actors who disobeyed ecclesiastical restrictions against excess in their plays were severely punished by the authorities through censure or fines and even imprisonment in case of certain indecent plays.

In utter contrast to the 17th century, today Geneva is the scene of many independent theaters subsidized by the government. The town’s “particular comedies” have all been replaced by many theater houses, both small and big, where classical and contemporary plays are staged. Besides The Carouge Theater and La Comédie, small stages like Le Poche, Pitoëff, Alchimic, La Parfumerie, Le Crêve-Coeur in Cologny abound throughout town and in the surroundings. In the last week of January, every year, the theater at Saint-Gervais stages week-long debates, plays, movies, and seminars about the Holocaust and its relation to current world-crises chaired by philosophers, writers, poets, stage and movie directors.

At the Alchimic, I had the opportunity to watch Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party”, and Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamasov”. Last season, in the Comédie, we saw King Lear, Faust in the original German, and Hölderlin’s “Hyperion” in their modern interpretations. The latter combined elements of Greek tragedy, Hölderlin’s poetry, a choir, and scenes from the French Revolution in a five-hour representation that included a warning against the nihilistic tendencies of modern youngsters.

Alberto Moravia’s novel, “Contempt”, was adapted to the stage in La Comédie and called “Cinéma Apollo” by the famous stage director, Matthias Langhoff who represented modern man’s despair, experienced by a film director on stage within the meta-representation of cinema scene within the time-span of a film. Other directors who contributed to La Comédie, established in 1911, include Benno Besson, Claude Stratz, Olivier Py, Anne Bisang, and Hervé Loichemol.

The coming season’s plays in La Comédie, “The Three-Penny Opera” by Bertrolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, ”Cassandra” by Christa Wolf and Michael Jarrell, “An Epistle to Young Actors” by Olivier Py, Alfred de Musset’s ”Lorenzaccio”, about young people’s wishes for change in our world after their bitter disappointments with the political class, show that, in contrast to the 17th century, comedy and tragedy, the once-repressed dramatic genres, are well-tolerated in Geneva today.

EMILY BILMAN is London’s Poetry Society Stanza representative and hosts poetry meetings and seminars in her home in Geneva. Her poetry book in French is entitled La rivière de soi. Her poems have been published in The London Magazine, Hunger Mountain, Offshoots VII & XII, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Iodine ; in America The San Diego Annual 2014 and Aois 21 Annual ; The Inspired Heart Vols. 1, 2 & 3, and Ygdrasil in Canada. Two academic books, The Psychodynamics of Poetry and Modern Ekphrasis were published in 2010 and 2013. Her most recent poetry books are A Woman By A Well and Resilience. The reviews can be read on the Troubador/Matador UK website and at