The Théâtre of Tennis

The First Tennis Court Theatre?

In Italy, as elsewhere, Jeu de Paume was a significant cultural and social phenomenon. Gioco della palla corda was enthusiastically embraced by the aristocrats of Renaissance Italy: the Medici in Florence, the Sforza in Milan, the Este in Ferrara and the Gonzaga in Mantova all constructed tennis courts on their sumptuous estates, which emulated the descriptions of villas in classical antiquity. It’s said that the San Antonio Altar of Padua’s Basilica del Santo may feature a bronze relief by Donatello which shows a court in the background of a depiction of the Miracle of the Repentant Son.

The World’s first book on tennis, Antonio Scaino da Salo’s Tratto del Givoco della Palla (Venice, 1555) was dedicated to Scaino’s patron, Alphonse d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. In converting Giuoco della Palla at Ferrara’s Ducal Palace during the 1547 carnival celebrations, the Este dynasty appear to have effected another first: the first C16th conversion of a tennis court into a theatre.

Converting courts into theatres was less prevalent in Italy than in France: searches for ‘Teatro della Palla corda’ or ‘Teatro della Racchetta’ yield fewer than a dozen results. Located next to the Opera del Duomo, Florence’s ‘Teatro della Palla a Corda’ (inaugurated 1779) now serves as a garage. Elsewhere, the Borgia Palace in Lucca (1642) converted a court into a theatre, Duke Ranuccio II Farnese had a Teatro della Racchetta in his Palazzo Sanvitale – and Palazzo Borromeo on Lago Maggiore’s tiny Isola Bella, features a Teatro della Pallacorda.

Tiepolo’s ‘Punchinello and the Acrobats’

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s work is discussed in this site’s “The Fine Art of Tennis’ section. Here we see one of his son Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s 104 ‘Pulcinella’ frescoes, which depict scenes from the life of ‘Punchinello’ – or ‘Punch’.

Acrobats perform on a tennis court’s tiled floor as smartly-dressed spectators watch from the galleries. Note the penthouse – and the timber-clad battery wall: the courts of Beaune and Chalons were dressed in this way. This work is now in Venice’s Ca’ Rezzonico Museum

Théâtre du Jeu de Paume

“The origins of French public Théâtre in the Jeu de Paume were to determine the elongated rectangular shape of theatre designs until well into the 18th century.”
The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre (2001)

This copperplate engraving depicts a performance of Balet Comique de la Reine for the court of Catherine de’ Medici. Produced and choreographed by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, it was staged on 15 October 1581 in the Great Hall of the Hôtel du Petit-Bourbon. The theatre’s “elongated, rectangular shape” is clearly evident.

Pierre Corneille

One of the great C17th French dramatists, Pierre Corneille’s (1606 – 1684) first play, Mélite (‘The False Letters’) 1625 saw its debut at Berthaud’s ‘Jeu de Paume Théâtre’ in Paris, December 1629. Corneille had good reason to understand both tennis and the theatre: the Jeu de Paume de Saint Eustache bordered the courtyard of his father’s home in Rouen’s ‘Rue de la Pie’ – and we know the acting troupes Lenoir-Mondory and Valleran performed there. It’s entirely likely that the man who would later be fêted as “The founder of French tragedy” used the court both for play and to see plays:

In 1683, the comedy ‘Le Triomphe des Dames’ by Pierre’s younger brother, Thomas, was staged at the theatre of the Hôtel de Guénégaud. In the interlude, the audience was treated to the ‘Ballet of the Game of Picquet’, in which the four Knaves, the Kings and the Queens appeared: the trains of the latter borne by four slaves: Tennis; Billiards; Dice; Backgammon.


In June 1643, aged 21, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière) abandoned his family and social class to pursue a career on the stage, founding the Illustré Théâtre with actress Madeleine Béjart. Within two years, though, the troupe was bankrupt: among other debts, they owed a reported 5000livres back rent for the theatre venue: Jeu de Paume des Métayers in Paris’ Marais district.

It was at this time that he began to use the pseudonym Molière: his father, Jean Poquelin, held the lucrative and respected sinecure of ‘King’s Upholsterer’ – and, in fact, had secured inheritance rights for his son. Although 1641 had seen the reinstatement of Royal recognition for the acting profession, polite society continued to look askance at actors. Jean-Baptiste sought to spare his family from public shame.

From 1645 when the Illustré Théâtre took up residence at the Jeu de Paume de la Croix Noire, Paris, to 1658, when his troupe occupied Rouen’s Jeu de Paume des Braques, Moliere staged performances in Théâtres du Jeu de Paume across provincial France – including Toulouse; Montpellier; Poitiers; Narbonne, Age; Pézenas; Grenoble; Lyon; Vienne; Lyon; Avignon; Bordeaux.

Recalling performances of Molière’s plays Voltaire reflected ruefully upon the limitations of their production

‘…there was no worthier accommodation than a tennis court: the audience standing in the pit – and the dandies sitting onstage, among the actors.’

Moliere died in 1673. He wasn’t given the last rites: two priests refused to attend and a third arrived too late. The parish priest of Paris’ Saint-Eustache refused him a religious burial; only when Louis XIV personally interceded would one of the greatest, most famous actor-playwrights of the century finally be put to rest – albeit in an area of the cemetery reserved for unbaptised infants.

In France the name ‘Théâtre du Jeu de Paume’ survives both in Paris and the provinces: click on the link below the map to see the French courts later converted to theatres.

Courts converted to theatres

For a more detailed overview, visit Jeu de Paume Théâtres and click on “Places”

The University of Warwick School of Theatre Studies performed a survey of Tennis Courts in Tennis Courts in 17th Century Paris seventeenth century Paris and offers computer models of French tennis court theatres.

A bird’s-eye view of five tennis courts in Paris’ Rue de Vaugirard: two open and three covered. At least one was later used as a theatre (1615, Quesnel, Archives Nationales)

London’s Tennis Court Theatres

Freshly restored to the throne, Charles II granted Letters Patent to two companies for the performance of ‘legitimate drama’: the Duke of York was patron of The Duke’s Company, led by William Davenant; The King’s Company, meanwhile, was led by Thomas Killigrew. Scrambling to secure a venue, both chose a solution that had met with success in France: former tennis courts.

On November 8, 1660 – just two months after receiving the Crown’s mandate – Killigrew opened Gibbon’s Tennis Court at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It would be a further seven months before Davenant’s new venture – Lisle’s Tennis Court Theatre – would open, on June 28 1661.

Also referred to as ‘The Duke’s Playhouse’, or ‘The Opera’, Lisle’s Tennis Court Theatre featured the first ‘moveable’ scenery ever used on the British public stage – and the first proscenium arch. Running in grooves and on rails, wings or shutters enabled smooth changes between – even within – acts. Such innovations caused a sensation – prompting the King himself to make his first-ever visit to a public theatre.

Tuscany’s Prince Cosimo III visited the Lisle Theatre in 1669; his official diarist left us this account:

“[The pit] is surrounded within by separate compartments in which there are several degrees [steps] of seating for the greater comfort of the ladies and gentlemen who, according to the liberal custom of the country, share the same boxes. Down below [in the pit] there remains a broad space for other members of the audience. The scenery is entirely changeable, with various transformations and lovely perspectives. Before the play begins, to render the waiting less annoying and inconvenient, there are very graceful instrumental pieces to be heard, with the result that many go early just to enjoy this part of the entertainment.”

In 1683, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was the site of the public beheading of Lord William Russell, son of the first Duke of Bedford. Russell was implicated in the “Rye House Plot” – an attempted assassination of Charles II. Jack Ketch, the executioner, made a poor job of it: after the first stroke, Russell looked up and cried “You dog! Did I give you 10 guineas to use me so inhumanely?” It took four axe blows to separate head from body.

Lisle’s Tennis Court Theatre became the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1695; it presented the first paid public performances of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1700) John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (January 1728), and in 1740 and 1741 Handel’s final two operas. It was demolished in 1848.

On 7 May 1663, just two-and-a-half years after the opening of The Lisle Theatre, the King’s Company moved to the new Theatre Royal in Bridges Street.

Gibbon’s Tennis Court was destroyed by fire on September 17, 1809

The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorkshire

Built by the actor-manager Samuel Butler in 1788, The Georgian Theatre Royal is Britain’s most complete Georgian playhouse. Its relationship to the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, is immediately apparent, arranged as it is in rectangular form: sunken pit, boxes on three sides and a small gallery above. Few theatres can rival The Georgian Theatre Royal’s sense of intimacy: offering a capacity of 214 it’s only 10.7m from the most distant seat to the stage. The proscenium width is 4.72m and it’s only 6.4m to the back wall.



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