As Voltaire rightly indicated, one of the things they were talking about by the mid-18th century was Marie Sallé (c.1730-56). Sallé had an unlikely career. She was born to a lowly family of itinerant actors and tumblers – her uncle was a renowned Harlequin – and the family performed on the Parisian fair circuit, mostly in pantomime and tumbling acts. At the time, the fairs were popular gathering places for the lower orders of society, but royalty and the aristocracy also flocked to them, eager to see irreverent parodies of their favourite operas and ballets. It required considerable ingenuity to be a fair performer in the early years of the century, however, since both the Paris Opera and the Comédie Française jealously guarded their privileges, and fair performers were variously banned from singing and even from speaking onstage.
In response, they invented clever circumventions: planting people in the audience to sing the words, playing tunes from well-known popular songs with lyrics that the audience could fill in, and placing placards with boldly-lettered words onstage. But the greatest weapon the fair performers possessed was pantomime. Virtually impossible to censure or regulate, it flourished and developed into a sophisticated mute theatre. Indeed, the fairs were so successful that in 1715, they were finally permitted to make a deal with the Paris Opera: in exchange for a fee, they were allowed to perform plays called opéras-comiques, which mixed song, dance and speech in ways akin to today’s musical theatre. Nor were the fairs to only such venue in the city. The following year, the Italian performers of commedia dell’arte returned to Paris and established the Comédie Italienne; the two theatres merged in 1762 as the Opéra-Comique under royal patronage – and became a serious rival to the Paris Opera. Thus Marie Sallé came of age with a major cultural shift in Parisian theatrical life: the Opera was increasingly mired in its own prestige, whereas pantomime, vaudeville, and circus forms were becoming more and more vital.