Children of Paradise

Theater and Revolution: The Culture of the French Stage

by Frederick Brown
Viking, 490 pp., $20.00

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 …

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