The Fourteenth of July and Danton/Romain Rolland and the People's Theater

The Fourteenth of July and Danton  (1918) 
Romain Rolland and the People's Theater by Barrett Harper Clark


It is perhaps a little surprising to learn that the author of Jean-Christophe has written at least sixteen full-length plays. Most of these, it is true, antedate the publication of the first parts of his epoch-making novel, but since nothing that comes from the brain of Romain Rolland can fail to possess significance and interest, a brief inquiry into his dramatic writings and theories on the drama will reveal an aspect of the man which has hitherto strangely enough scarcely been touched upon. His plays for a people's theater, and his book of projects, are as integral a part of his development as Jean-Christophe itself.

The life of M. Rolland seems to have been a perpetual struggle between conflicting mental forces: for years he read philosophy, and suffered agonies before he at last found himself spiritually; until the completion of Jean-Christophe he was a prey to doubts regarding the utility of art and the end of life. He applied in turn to the great master-minds of the world—Empedocles, Spinoza, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Tolstoy—seeking for a satisfactory philosophy of life. Small wonder, therefore, that his work should bear the imprint of the masters who have at one time or another been his guides and inspiration.

His two years' sojourn in Rome, from 1890 to 1892, awakened a passionate interest in the Italian Renaissance, which he immediately translated into plays. It is likely that Orsino, Les Baglioni, and Le Siège de Mantoue, plays of the Renaissance, were inspired by Shakespeare, for whose historical dramas M. Rolland professes a decided partiality. The plays are not published, but if we can judge from the fact that Mounet-Sully wished to produce Orsino, they must have shown some of the power of the later plays. At Rome he was associated with the aged revolutionist Malwida von Meysenbug, whom he had met at Versailles some time before, and doubtless the story of her eventful life had its part in shaping his ideals. Four other plays—three of them on classical subjects—belong to this period: Niobe, Caligula, Empédocle, and Jeanne de Piennes. It is probable that these also belonged to the writer's period of apprenticeship. At the end of M. Rolland's stay in Rome he went to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, in company with Malwida.

Even at this time he was already dreaming of a new theater in France, and his theoretical writings of later times bear unmistakable proof of the impression made upon him by the Bayreuth theater and Wagner's epoch-making ideas on art and the people.

After his marriage in 1892 Romain Rolland returned to Italy, where he gathered material for his thesis, which he presented and successfully upheld at the Sorbonne in 1895. His subject was The Origins of the Modern Lyric Theater. History of the Opera in Europe Before Lully and Scarlatti. This he published in book form in 1895. But in addition to his university studies and his lectures, he found time to experiment with the dramatic form, and in 1896 he published his Saint Louis. As this was later included in a volume called Tragedies of FaithLes Tragédies de la Foi— together with two other plays, he evidently conceived it as one of a series of works based upon a single underlying idea.

Saint Louis depicts, in the author's own words, "religious exaltation." In Saint Louis and the two other plays which accompany it—Aërt and Le Triomphe de la Raison—"One can observe the presence of the main currents and passions of the French youth of to-day." All three show "the ardor of sacrifice, but a sacrifice which is courageous, militant: a double reaction against cowardice of thought and cowardice of action, against skepticism and against the relinquishment of the great destiny of the nation." But in spite of this "program," M. Rolland is an artist far too austere to write thesis-plays; he has often spoken in contempt of them. Nor did he in the least appeal to the great public; for his plays have as yet not proved acceptable to them. Saint Louis is a beautiful poem, not a tragedy after all, but a triumph, for no hero may see the fruits of his labor, and if a temporary failure seems for a moment to cloud the sky, it is only temporary. This is the message of Saint Louis. The good monarch who, "dying at the foot of the mountain, sees Jerusalem only through the eyes of his army," is a figure of hope. Aërt takes us from the time of the Crusades to "an imaginary Holland of the seventeenth century." Aërt, the son of a murdered patriot, is imprisoned by his father's assassin; he makes a vain effort to rally the forces of the opposition, and at last, free from all that is vile in life, he throws himself from the window. Le Triomphe de la Raison belongs, so far as the subject is concerned, to the Revolutionary plays. As an afterpiece to Le 14 Juillet, Danton, and Les Loups, it shows the Revolution "devouring itself"—to translate literally the author's own comment. So far as it depicts the excesses into which faith can lead men, it is a tragedy, but there is an implication of progress in the characters whose fate is bound up with that of the Revolution, even those who fell prey to the blood-lust of the Girondist massacres.

The Théâtre de la Révolution includes the three Revolutionary plays I have just mentioned. They were written not as experiments for some vague stage dreamed by the author, but for theatrical production before the people, the masses of France. That they were not wholly successful matters little; Romain Rolland might well refer us to the "moral" of Saint Louis: he has opened a new field and laid before his countrymen—perhaps the world—an ideal which may well require half a century to bear fruit. The idea of writing a series of plays on the French Revolution was suggested to M. Rolland by a decree of the Committee of Public Safety, dated March 10, 1794:

1. That the Théâtre-Français shall henceforward be solely dedicated to productions given by and for the people at stated intervals each month:

2. That the building shall bear the following inscription on its façade: People's Theater, and that the various troupes of actors already established in the Paris theaters shall be requisitioned in turn to act in these popular productions, which are to take place three times in every decade.

A few weeks later there appeared another decree, inviting the poets "to celebrate the principal events of the French Revolution, to compose Republican plays, and picture for posterity the great epochs of the regeneration of the French, and give to history that solid character which is fitting for the annals of a great people who have fought victoriously for their liberty, in spite of the opposition of all the tyrants of Europe."

"All these projects for Republican art," says M. Rolland, "fell, on the 9th of Thermidor, together with the chiefs of the Republic."

When, early in 1903, Romain Rolland and a few associates began writing for the Revue d'Art Dramatique a series of articles on the people's theater, they were merely "following the tradition interrupted by the events of the Revolution; and it was but natural that one of them was led to select the Revolution itself as the natural subject for popular productions. The three plays were to have been part of a dramatic cycle on the Revolution—a sort of epic comprising ten plays. Le 14 Juillet was the first page, and Danton, the center, the decisive crisis, wherein the reason of the chiefs of the Revolution seemed to waver, and their common faith be sacrificed to personal hatred. In Les Loups, where the Revolution is depicted on the field of battle, and in Le Triomphe de la Raison, where it goes out into the provinces in pursuit of the Girondin proscripts, it devours itself." Thus M. Rolland.

The remaining plays are three in number, and inferior in dramatic and literary quality to the six just discussed. The first of these is an anti-war propaganda piece, Le Temps viendra, published in 1903, and inspired by the Boer war. La Montespan, a French historical drama, followed in 1904, and Les Trois Amoureuses, also based upon history, in 1906.

In order to grasp the full significance of M. Rolland's plays it will be necessary to consider his interesting book, Le Théâtre du Peuple. Ever since the early eighties M. Rolland had been a staunch admirer and in some ways a disciple of Tolstoy. The young Frenchman, however, expressed his doubts to the Russian, and in 1887 Tolstoy wrote a long letter which was, according to one of M. Rolland's biographers, a sort of preliminary sketch for What Is Art? And when that astounding book appeared, with its iconoclastic attacks on M. Rolland's idols, he was at first prone to disagree, but Le Théâtre du Peuple is ample proof that "literature for the people" had sunk deep into the Frenchman's heart. The theater, in common with most modern art, is a whitened sepulcher, rotten to the core, affected, aristocratic, anti-democratic. The evil is not only in the plays, but in acting and the physical arrangement of the playhouse itself. New plays must be written for the masses, plays which they can understand, plays which bring them together as a class and in which they can participate. M. Rolland briefly considers the dramatic masterpieces of the world, from Sophocles to the comedies of the boulevard, and finds them, with rare exceptions, unsuited to the people. Even Shakespeare and Schiller are lifeless: they belong to past epochs, and express ideas foreign to the French workingmen of the twentieth century. The playhouses, too, are built for a society divided into classes; these must be altered to suit the workingmen. Says M. Rolland in the preface to the first edition: "Of late there has been an attempt to found a People's Theater in Paris. Already personal and political interests have begun to make themselves evident. But we must unflinchingly destroy the parasites who seek a living at the expense of our theater. The People's Theater is not a fashionable toy; it is no game for dilettanti. It is the imperious expression of a new society, its voice and thought; it is, as a result of circumstances, the war-machine against an ageing and fossilized society. Let there be no misunderstanding: we must not merely open up new old theaters, bourgeois theaters endeavoring to appear new merely by calling themselves people's theaters. We must found a theater by and for the people, a new art for a new world."

Having tested the plays of the past and found them wanting, M. Rolland set himself the task of supplying plays for his projected people's theater. As we have seen, he went to the Revolution, and wrote plays which would appeal to the masses. But these plays must also be acted by the people, and M. Rolland proceeded to make the people a character, a great composite crowd, participating as The People. In Le 14 Juillet, The People are the protagonist, and the taking of the Bastille afforded him ample opportunity for utilizing them. In Danton they are rather implied until the last act, while in Les Loups and Le Triomphe de la Raison they hover in the background and determine the course of events: they are always near at hand, although they do not appear on the stage. M. Rolland must of course be a confirmed enemy to our star-system, and there is, even in the hero-play of Danton, a fairly even distribution of parts. The effect is at first somewhat disconcerting, and the plays seem a trifle discursive and rambling, but this is doubtless due to the fact that we are accustomed to the Sardou method of handling historical themes. There is no conventional plot, and the love-interest, as developed in such a play as Patrie, is conspicuously absent. In its stead there is greater breadth of touch, a solider framework, a broader canvas; and the artist, we instinctively feel, is better able to depict a great movement like the Revolution than if he were confined to raveling and unraveling a plot. Possibly M. Rolland's ignorance of or disdain for the tricks of the dramatist's trade has lessened the purely dramatic tension of occasional scenes, but, on the other hand, he has drawn characters—Hoche, Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, among others—which Sardou and the rest could scarcely have conceived. The lovable weakness of Desmoulins, the dynamic and superhuman power of Danton, have never been so vividly set forth as in these plays, and the Revolution, so often exposed as a series of more or less exciting events, stands forth as the most human of all stories.

While it is true that M. Rolland recognizes the motive power of the people in the first two plays of his Revolutionary cycle, and while they direct and influence practically every event, he is not blind to the excesses into which they fell, and the last two plays, Les Loups and Le Triomphe de la Raison, to some extent show the degeneration of the people. Les Loups is perhaps, from the purely theatrical viewpoint, the best play M. Rolland ever wrote; it treats of the moral decay of the Revolutionists, and the situation developed is as gripping as any of Henry Bernstein's famous second acts. A former nobleman is suspected of treachery by his fellow officers, and a pretext readily found to kill him. At the last moment one of his comrades discovers that he is innocent; however, in order to conceal the treachery of a successful Revolutionary general, he is sacrificed. Le Triomphe de la Raison is similar in theme.

No attempt at dramatic reform, no theory, no ideal—whatever its eventual worth—ought to obscure the fact that all of M. Rolland's plays are unsuccessful from the viewpoint of production. Good reading they undoubtedly make; literature they assuredly are, but they have not pleased audiences for consecutive days, weeks, and months. This does not of necessity damn them, but it should cause us to ask whether or not they belong to that class of hybrids, the closet-drama. M. Rolland's first mistake was in writing plays for a hypothetical and practically nonexistent public. The first edition of Le Théâtre du Peuple concludes with these words: "Do you want a people's art? Then begin by having a people!" France is in many ways an aristocratic country with an aristocratic art; it is but natural, therefore, that all reform should be slower than in younger countries; and M. Rolland in his impatience attempted the impossible. In trying to avoid what was conventional in the French drama, he restricted himself to a more or less formless medium, and the people who saw his plays missed what they were accustomed to see: a well-defined story.

What success would have attended his innovations in another country it is hard to say; what success will attend him if he perseveres, seems easier to predict. The past five years have witnessed a profound change in French thought and art, and perhaps Romain Rolland will once more find his faith justified in a new France where the people shall have a theater of their own. Meantime, his ideas have spread to other lands and there borne the fruit he had hoped would flourish in his own beloved France.

Barrett H. Clark.