Theater and Revolution: The Culture of the French Stage
Thoughts of the theater in France are apt to conjure up a frozen seventeenth century. Actors of the Comédie-Française, the house of Molière, strut the stage in period costumes and ringletted wigs, declaiming swatches of impeccable rhyming verse. It is an image which does less than justice to the Comédie-Française; and it ignores whole zones of French theatrical life: the Théâtre National Populaire, the boulevards, the provinces, dozens of little theaters, several remarkable ensembles, extraordinary performances of Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Jarry, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet. Nevertheless, the image retains a certain force, because a powerful mythology, nourished as much by its enemies as by its adherents, skulks behind it.
Change is a form of impurity, the myth says, and purity is a hard-won conquest, a victory over the graceless mess of unarranged life. For the opponents of the myth, approximations to the mess are bids for nature and liberty. Frederick Brown tells us that when Jean-Louis Barrault asked Charles Dullin’s advice about joining the Comédie-Française for life, Dullin referred him to La Fontaine’s fable about the wolf and the dog. The dog boasts of the benefits of servitude, and the wolf is about to sign up when he notices the collar around the dog’s neck. “Oh yes,” the dog says, “I do spend my time tied to a post,” and the wolf takes off.
We have only to imagine a comparable fixation on Shakespeare’s century to get a clear sense of the myth. The world of the Globe, unaltered, might seem quaint but it would not seem narrow or confining. To many French eyes, however, it has appeared wild, lacking in style, insufficiently pruned by discriminating taste. “It seems,” Voltaire said of Shakespeare, “as if Nature had amused itself by assembling in his head the greatest imaginable power and grandeur, and the lowest and most detestable forms of witless vulgarity.” The implication, as Frederick Brown nicely comments, is that Nature, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, “didn’t dare play jokes.” It is not that the Elizabethans entertained romantic notions about the value of profusion and disorder. It is just that they were not constrained by the dream of purity which has haunted French culture for the last three hundred years.
This dream, along with its antagonists and its often unlikely progeny, is the subject of Frederick Brown’s dense, complicated, and absorbing Theater and Revolution. From the dictionary of the French Academy, designed to “cleanse the language of impurities contracted in the mouths of the common people, the jargon of lawyers, the misusages of ignorant courtiers, the abuses of the pulpit,” to the curriculum of the nineteenth-century lycée, with its insistence on Latin rhetoric; from the language of Corneille and Racine to the austere stages of the twentieth-century avant-garde; from Mallarmé’s white page and Flaubert’s “book about nothing” to the bleached mimodramas of Marcel Marceau and Jean-Louis Barrault, the dream persists, Brown intimates, in a multitude of disguises.
Purity is all, a city besieged by potential corruption. For Etienne Decroux, Barrault’s master, the art of mime was a hermetic manner: “Here we have an art in which the only things that do not count are facts.” Even the famous French taste for theory and abstraction, I would add, is really a refusal to sully thought with the muck of mere evidence. Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his book on totemism, writes that what actually happens is only one of the logical possibilities of a situation. We have to admire the style of that, even if we cling to less elegant notions of significance.
Of course, there are several sorts of purity here. I’m not sure that Mallarmé’s idea of perfection, say, has much to do with that of Louis XIV, who founded the Comédie-Française “in order to render more perfect the performance of plays.” There are curious crossovers too. Mimes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were purity’s foes, harlequins, outsiders, misbehaving children in the noisy (but speechless) fairs and carnivals of the people’s Paris. But these complexities are also part of Brown’s subject. Major myths do follow curious courses, crop up in strange places; and the popular culture of one century often feeds the nostalgia of high art in the next.
At the heart of Brown’s book is an opposition between a sanctuary of decorum, often represented by the Comédie-Française but sometimes simply an expression of political respectability, and a tumultuous popular world of circuses and melodrama and commedia dell’arte. The terms of the opposition change quite a bit, but the opposition itself remains. It is evoked with particular pathos and an extra layer of meaning in Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du paradis—paradise being the cheap seats in a boulevard theater of the nineteenth century. The film, made in Vichy France in 1943 and 1944, and starring Arletty, Pierre Brasseur, Maria Casarès, and Jean-Louis Barrault, depicts a universe of tumblers and mimes and ranting actors, an assortment of theatrical low life possessing all the disreputable, irrepressible gaity and passion of a nation apparently defeated and vigorously denied by its fastidious rulers—the right-thinking bourgeoisie in the story, but Pétain and the Germans to anyone in the audience who was not asleep. Charles Dullin recalls an old trouper of melodrama who makes the division between acting worlds in terms that are more simply theatrical:
A king of tragedy is immutable. There he stands decked out in titles of nobility, even when he doesn’t play his part all that well; an author of genius wrote his speeches, an old tradition enforces protocol, he always finds himself in decent situations. But a king of melodrama? They plunk a dented old crown on your head. They give you a broom for a scepter. You step into an arbitrary situation and expose yourself to the jeers of a public thirsting for blood….
“Thirsting for blood” is almost a pun (the actor’s blood, the blood of half a dozen unfortunate characters), as the following splendid statistics, cited from a journal called Le Pandore, indicate:
From October 15, 1825, to October 16, 1826, 107 suicides, 3 poisonings, and 9 arson attempts took place on the stages of the Opéra and the Théâtre des Italiens; 50 poisonings, 19 assassinations, 43 suicides and 37 arson attempts on the stages of the two Théàtres-Français; 175 assassinations, 55 thefts, 45 arson attempts at the Porte-Saint-Martin; and finally, on the stages of the Ambigu and the Gaïté, 195 assassinations, 300 poisonings with arsenic, corrosive sublimate, and other substances, 400 arson attempts, 780 robberies—150 of them armed, 200 by ladder, and 300 with skeleton keys.
These figures do not separate “serious” theaters from the others in any categorical way, although we may note that assassination was rife on the boulevards, while there was a high incidence of suicide at the Opéra and the Comédie-Française.
But the opposition of sanctuary to tumult is itself melodramatic, if Frederick Brown is right about the Manichaeism of the genre.
Melodrama ritualized the Terror. Its very core was a world view that allowed of no profane middle ground between virtue and evil, that pictured innocence hard put by enemies whose deviousness and implacability constituted a kind of brute nature transcending the merely human, a diabolical underground.
Melodrama in such plays as Pixéré-court’s “The Woman with Two Husbands” or “The Man with Three Faces” offered “a world bereft of neutrality.” Similarly the myth which sets the rigors of purity against the ragged joys of paradise is surely a simplification, enormously successful because so many people have needed it or fallen for it. In this sense the distinction between high art and low art is a victory for the art that is seen as low, a cultural melodrama sabotaging the very pretensions it parades.
I’m not sure what to make of all this politically. Culture is partly a matter of class, but the dream of purity has belonged, at various times, to right, left, and center. La Harpe, in the eighteenth century, was firm about the people’s crudity (“Partout le goût du peuple est grossier“), but the charter for the dictionary of the Academy, already quoted, named lawyers, priests, and courtiers as offenders along with the common people.
Brown wants us to see a resemblance between the tyranny of popular taste, with its refusal of middle ground, and the tyrannies of kings, emperors, and committees of public safety. It is true that melodrama, like the spies of Louis XIV and the visions of Robespierre, excavates secrets, seeks to arrive at a thoroughly transparent world. But once those resemblances have been noted, a whole set of distinctions seems called for. I wish I could shake off the feeling that Brown thinks crowds are all right in Les Enfants du paradis and the picturesque fairgrounds of history, but ugly and dangerous at any time as soon as they have political interests. I see no reason to conflate, as Brown does, the marches of the Popular Front in France with Communist infamies in the Spanish Civil War. When the students of paradise, in 1968, occupied the Odéon theater, Jean-Louis Barrault timidly tried to appease both sides, as if the myth of cultural purity permitted a third position, but Brown simply calls the students a “howling mob.”
It is clear, though, that Brown wishes to defend human complication against would-be purifiers of all kinds, and eloquent phrases flash in the otherwise rather cluttered texture of his prose: “the complexity that attends human being”; “the moral riddles that necessarily haunt civilized existence”; “the individual responsibilities that attend ordinary life.” Amen to all that, although I wonder why we can’t dream of purity and cope with our riddles and complexity; as Mallarmé did, as Racine did, as the French bourgeoisie has always done. Indeed I wonder whether there isn’t something slightly melodramatic about seeing those options as alternatives.
Still, melodrama in this sense does abound in life, and Brown identifies among the purifiers of the world not only Louis XIV, Robespierre, and Napoleon, but also Jacques Copeau (“who cut a figure so gaunt that it seemed his aesthetics had cost him his flesh”), Charles Dullin, Meyerhold, the Surrealists, and Gordon Craig. Craig indeed is quoted as giving something like a purifier’s manifesto, a nightmare vision of the lapse of perfect style into the manic disorder of life. “Form broke into panic,” Craig wrote, and
up sprang portraits with flushed faces, eyes that bulged, mouths that leered, fingers itching to come out of their frames, wrists that exposed the pulse; all the colors higgledy-piggledy; all the lines in hubbub, like the ravings of lunacy.
It is as if a feverish Falstaff had invaded the Théâtre-Français.
But Brown’s net is cast so wide at this point that one begins to wonder what it is catching. Craig was not French, and neither was Meyerhold. The dream of purity begins to look like an international modern taste, or even simply a recurring cast of mind, found everywhere, but claiming special territorial rights in France. A similar vagueness hovers over Brown’s apparently specific title and subtitle. There are revolutions in the book only in the sense of those performed by a revolving stage—although Brown reverses the figure and speaks of “ideological images revolving on a fixed stage.” The stage is Paris, and the students of 1968 repeat in miniature the excitements of 1789. It’s hard to see how history can find a hold in such a static, aesthetic view.
And there is not as much theater in the book as there might be, because Brown has distended the notion to include expositions, classrooms, courts, cafés, and demonstrations, as well as fairs, carnivals, circuses, and films. “My book deals as much with the staging of culture as with the culture of the stage,” he says rather gnomically. What this means is that he has, in part, sacrificed the stage to a baggy notion of culture.
Brown anchors his story in three biographies: those of Charles Dullin, master actor and director of the Théâtre de l’Atelier between 1922 and 1940; Jacques Copeau, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française and director of the Théâtre du Vieux-Columbier between 1913 and 1924; and Jean-Louis Barrault, mime, director and persecuted hero of such plays as Hamlet (Shakespeare’s and Laforgue’s), an adaptation of The Trial and Claudel’s Soulier de Satin. These lives are thoroughly and intelligently told, even though Brown roots about rather erratically in theatrical history for 130 pages before getting to the first one, and even though he is rather given to condescending psychological diagnosis, informing us, for example, of the secrets Copeau kept even from himself, and describing him as “being of two minds about almost everything in life, including life itself.” Copeau indeed fares badly in this book, he is so busy hiding and running that it is impossible to see what his distinction consists of.
Dullin and Barrault come off rather better, but there is still a tilt toward psychology, toward an account of their struggles with blustering or absent fathers, which means that their theater tends to get short shrift. “I am concerned here, above all,” Brown says,
not with texts but with the diminished role of the written text, not with playwrights but with the nature of dramatic ritual, with the social implications of structural change in the theatrical arena itself, with the significance of the director’s ascendancy in modern Europe.
Fine, but surely that ritual, those implications, that ascendancy depend on work done in the theater, and it is the work we see too little of in this book.
Brown writes with a floating irony which can be very engaging. “Officialdom shook none but dead hands,” he says of the Second Empire, where frightened men were driven to “stultify themselves for dear life.” “Loving Paul Claudel was a feat attempted by few and accomplished by fewer still.” And in the following description of Dullin we do, vividly, see the actor at work:
Short-winded, he rationed the wind he had in his syncopated diction and to such effect that it would carry his voice through long evenings. Hoarse, he made up for threadbare vocal chords with his tongue and teeth, so that his speech, though it would always sound whiny, had a kind of plosive character—what musicians call “attack”—as if he were gnashing into sonority the language he couldn’t sing.
At other times Brown’s anxiousness not to say anything without being witty produces mere fuss or strain. The “period undergarments” worn at the Comédie-Française figure “less importantly in the drama of institutional life than the dirty wash aired backstage.” More seriously, arguments tend to hang in the air. “Proper folk did not necessarily rejoice when Baron Haussmann reduced most of its [the Boulevard’s] theaters to rubble in 1862; nor did they mourn their disappearance.” What did they do? I take it some of them didn’t care and some of them missed the boulevard theaters in a mild way, but I’m not sure why we have to tease these meanings out of the book’s silence. The French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, Brown says, were afraid that anything might be possible, and by the end of the century they were right. But then what was wrong with their fear, and how did they come to be right? Art Nouveau invades Louis Napoleon’s “well-made city,” creeps up “junglelike” on Haussmann’s spacious work. But what does that mean? In these perspectives history, when it is not repeating itself, simply shifts like vegetation, cannot be accounted for. The only point at which Brown seriously links theater to the historical world around it is in his brilliant chapter on melodrama.
But the main attraction of Theater and Revolution is not what it says, but what it finds, the hoard of treasures it displays. There is material enough for half a dozen books here and readers may well construct arguments quite different from those Brown offers. I see in melodrama, for example, more life than Manichaeism, an energy of the imagination which gilds that dented old crown and demands all those a son attempts and assassinations because they are theatrical events, because the actors can die and burn again and again. One evening in the early nineteenth century Frédérick Lemaître, hero of the boulevards and Les Enfants du paradis, calmly announced on stage, “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret that we are unable to murder a gendarme this evening, as the actor who plays that part is indisposed. But tomorrow we shall kill two.” Brown sees the line as evidence of the “desert of mutual hatred separating haves and have-nots,” but that is surely to miss the style of the joke, and to forget, as Lemaître did not, that the gendarme and his killers were actors.
Above all in Theater and Revolution, scattered into all kinds of corners and half-hidden by Brown’s irony, there are signs of a colossal love of theater. Jacques Copeau’s grandfather plays dominoes with Lemaître, and tells his grandson tales of the great man, instilling in Copeau a taste for hamminess that his austerity could never vanquish. Jean-Louis Barrault stands on an empty stage on which Dullin has just played Volpone, and then curls up and sleeps in Volpone’s bed, like Balzac disappearing into one of his novels. Dullin recalls his grinding days on the popular circuit: “I can remember the departure, with Fontaine, alias d’Artagnan, mounting the footboard last and a whip cracking in the wind. I hear the bells of melodrama and, despite everything, this life still seems to me infinitely seductive.”
“We don’t need a machine to lower Gods from the flies,” Dullin said. “What we need are Gods.” The gods are those not of purity or catholicism but of theatrical belief. Without them, all acting, even the best, is a sorry deception. With them, as Frederick Brown implies, there is theater everywhere, a release from the mystifications both of ordinary life and of shows which have only their machinery to recommend them. The central image of Claudel’s Soulier de Satin pictures the world not as a stage, with men and women merely players, but as a theater, with actors and audience caught up in a carefree spirit of carnival. God is not the hidden spectator of Pascal and Racine but a jovial, if capricious, ring-master, leading even the children of paradise to paradise.