Posted by Bruce Miller
Until a few minutes ago, this post was going to be about the great work that John Moon is doing to upgrade the entrance to our theatre. Most of you know John as an actor in The Clean House (see photo above and to the right) or as the director of our current, brilliant production of This Wonderful Life.
What some of you may not know is that John is also on our Board. In fact, he’s a former President of the Barksdale Board of Trustees. To our great benefit, John has assumed Board leadership of our commitment to improve and upgrade our Willow Lawn performance facilities.
Sometimes, when I'm writing for this blog, my meanderings don't go the way I think they will. In this instance, I wrote the title, and as I typed the word “foyer,” my mind began to race. I knew that “foyer” was the word selected by the Barksdale powers-that-be in 1996 to indicate the lower lobby I intended to write about. Nonetheless, before I could stop myself, I began Googling to make sure that "foyer" was the right word. Thankfully it was, and is.
But Google can be a harsh mistress. The deeper I followed her into lingua-land, the more questions I had, and the more discoveries I made about this slightly out-of-the-ordinary word, "foyer."
How would readers pronounce it?--I asked myself. How would I pronounce it if I weren’t thinking about it? Why is the correct pronunciation open to debate? Where did the word originate? What does it actually mean?
I know. I’m a freak. I’m sorry. But first things first.
This post is now going to be all about the word “foyer” and how it relates to theatre history. I’ll get to John’s wonderful upgrades soon. I promise.
“Foyer” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an anteroom or lobby especially of a theater; also, an entrance hallway.” Adding more fuel to the fire—a little foreshadowing here—Answers.com posts this definition: “a lobby or anteroom, as of a theater or hotel; an entrance hall; a vestibule.”
Dictionary.com weighs in with a similar theme: “the lobby of a theater, hotel or apartment house; a vestibule or entrance hall.” That's a photo of the "foyer" of the National Theatre of Prague to the right.
"Foyer,” therefore, seems like the perfect word to indicate the lower lobby of Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn. After all, our upstairs lobby is our official “lobby,” and the lower lobby is the “anteroom” or “entrance hallway” through which one must pass if one is intent on reaching the “lobby" proper. From all accounts the word “foyer” seems to conjure up images of theatre. So, “foyer” it is.
But … actually, the phrase selected in 1996 to serve as the moniker for this illustrious space was “entry foyer.” The official name of this room is the “Galeski Entry Foyer” (more on “Galeski” soon, I promise, when I actually begin writing about John’s upgrades).
Now that I know what “foyer” really means, saying “entry foyer” seems akin to saying “entry entrance hallway,” which I think we all can agree is redundant. So, at least for me, this room will henceforward be the “Galeski Foyer”—the word “entry” being ... silent.
Now's when the fun really begins. How do we pronounce it? Here’s what I thought I knew.
There’s the American pronunciation: foi'ər ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/audio.pl?foyer001.wav=foyer ). Go ahead. Click it. It’s cool. It rhymes with “lawyer.” Well, almost.
And there’s the French pronunciation: foi'ā' ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/audio.pl?foyer002.wav=foyer ). It rhymes with Charles Boyer, except you’re probably not old enough to remember who Charles Boyer is.
So, based on what I thought I knew, I figured if you wanted to sound like “Joe Sixpack” you could use the American pronunciation, and if you wanted to sound like “the cultural elite” you could use the French pronunciation. To me, it was Red State Blue State simple.
Of course I was wrong.
If you really want to sound like an Ahtistic Directah, you would use the real French pronunciation: fwä'yā' (listen for the third pronunciation after clicking http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=foyer&submit=Submit ). But if you really went around saying that, not only would you sound snooty, you'd also run the risk of sounding stupid.
In French, the word “foyer” doesn’t mean what it means in English. In modern French, the word “foyer” means “home” or “hostel.” The most common use of the word “foyer” in modern French is in the phrase “femme au foyer,” which means “housewife.”
You see, “foyer” meaning the entrance hall that leads one to the lobby of a theatre is not a French word at all. It’s an English word. Who knew? The correct English pronunciation is foi'ā' ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/audio.pl?foyer002.wav=foyer ). Don’t take my word for it. Go to London and ask anybody.
Here's where the theatre history kicks in. In days of yore, early London theatregoers of means enjoyed a social meeting room that they could adjourn to when they wanted to warm up during intermission. The common feature of these rooms was a large, roaring fireplace. The theatres themselves were not adequately heated, being relatively cavernous spaces, so social rooms with hearths were provided for the upper crust. They were located off the lobby and you went there to get nice and toasty before you returned to your seat for Act II.
The English chose the word "foyer" as the name for these rooms because, at the time, referencing a little French every now and then was cool among the socially elite. And the Old French word "foier" meant "fireplace" or "hearth."
As more theatres were built, designers began to open up the "foyers" to everyone, not just the wealthy few. In more and more theatres, audiences began entering the "foyers" from the street. They'd enter, warm up, then proceed into the lobby, and finally into the theatre itself. Check out the fireplace to the right, located in the "foyer" of the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway.
Today, in modern French, the word for “fireplace” is “cheminée," the Old French word “foier” no longer exists, and the modern French word "foyer" means "home" and has nothing to do with theatres. So when we correctly pronounce "foyer" as foi'ā' ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/audio.pl?foyer002.wav=foyer ), we do so because that's how they say it in England, not because that's how they say it in France.
Of course, we're in the United States of America, and you can pronounce “foyer” anyway you want. All American dictionaries list the American pronunciation first and the English pronunciation second, indicating that both pronunciations are perfectly acceptable. I guess it's just another case of po-tay-to / po-tah-to.
But wait a minute. Isn't there a large fake fireplace in the upstairs lobby of Barksdale's Willow Lawn facility? Doesn't that mean that the real “foyer” at Barksdale is the upstairs lobby, and the downstairs lobby is more appropriately called a …