Bonbonnière is Maastricht's former municipal theatre. It was built in around 1788, in a former Jesuit monastery church. The theatre itself was constructed in the baroque style, with a curved, painted ceiling, rounded balconies with decorative stucco, and lots of red velvet.
Bonbonnière is an intimate theatre which has been a source of great pride to the people of Maastricht for centuries. It was built in an abandoned Jesuit monastery church. The pope had disbanded this order at the end of the eighteenth century, reacting to pressure from a number of European monarchs who felt that the Jesuits had too much power. Dozens of Jesuit monasteries and churches were shut, including those in Maastricht. In 1852, the Jesuits returned to the city, but by then their church had been converted into a theatre. This was a bitter pill for them to swallow. They disapproved of theatrical entertainment, believing that actors and theatregoers had loose morals.
The French had previously built a ‘theatre’ in the city: a wooden shack on Markt. When the French left the city in 1678, it was instantly razed to the ground. Theatre lovers had to make do with performances on Markt or in the Dinghuis. After this, an old bowling alley on Lenculenstraat was used as a theatre.
In 1750, governor Van Löwendal encouraged the city council to convert the riding stable on the corner of Calvariestraat and Jekerstraat into a theatre. Despite expensive renovations, however, the building had some glaring issues. This theatre posed an extremely high fire risk, because it was lit by thousands of candles, candelabra, and oil lamps.
In 1786, supporters of building yet another new theatre founded a Society of Shareholders. This society obtained permission to convert the empty Jesuit church into a theatre. City architect Mathias Soiron added another floor, on which the theatre auditorium was built. The rococo stuccowork of the church ceiling made a beautiful ceiling for the theatre. The rest of the baroque interior came from the old ‘riding stable theatre.’ On the ground floor was the Redoute: a hall for balls and concerts. The wall was panelled in Louis XVI style. In addition, the hall was lavishly decorated with stuccowork. The new theatre staged its first performance in 1789.
To begin with, only French-language performances were staged in the theatre. In the wake of the French occupation, French remained the official language for many years. It wasn't until 1900 that Dutch-language plays hit the stage. Dialect theatre was also becoming increasingly popular. On 1 April 1907, the première of Kaptein van Köpenick by Fons Olterdissen was staged. It was a resounding success. A good many Maastricht dialect drama groups saw Bonbonnière as their home. Many Maastricht locals have fond memories of an evening of Maastricht theatre or cabaret at Bonbonnière.
On the exterior of Bonbonnière, you can't fail to notice the eighteen-metre-high fly tower. This was added by architect Frans Dingemans during the restoration of the theatre, in around 1955. The theatre was in need of modernization and extension, to accommodate new theatre technology.
Following this restoration, the theatre's origins as a church were less apparent. Like the church, however, the huge tower is built of marl. The pilasters that split the façade in three were continued in the tower. This was the old church entrance. The entrance to the theatre had been on the former rear of the church since 1789. Midway through the nineteenth century, a section was added to that entrance, which houses the theatre café and the foyer. The interior was also refurbished between 1955-1959. This was when Charles Eyck painted the ceiling.
Throughout all the renovations, care was taken to preserve the Belle Epoque ambience. At some point, for instance, the upholstery and carpets were renewed. Careful attention was paid to the colour schemes on the ceiling, so that the unique look was retained.
Despite extensive modernization and renovation work, in the mid-twentieth century there were still calls for a bigger, more modern theatre. The stage in Bonbonnière was, after all, a mere 8.5 metres wide, which wasn't big enough to stage big productions. Plus, the auditorium had just 565 seats. An official working group was assembled to investigate the options. In 1979, the decision was made to convert the Generaalshuis on Vrijthof into a large, modern theatre and music centre.
Theater aan het Vrijthof opened its doors in 1992. Since then, Bonbonnière has served as a venue for occasional drama, music, and cabaret productions. Maastricht wants this baroque theatre to remain in use as a celebration and events location, but finding someone willing to run it is not proving easy.