The People's Theater/Part I, Chapter I
THE THEATER OF THE PAST
I begin by agreeing that we have the elements of a popular comic drama; of this Molière is the keystone. In some ways he apparently belongs more to the people than to the bourgeosie. The ideas of our class are not always in perfect accord with Molière's. If we were frank, we should sometimes confess to a feeling of revulsion, antipathy, which we none the less restrain for fear of making ourselves ridiculous by criticizing a classic. Our animal spirits have so decreased that we take little pleasure in the rough-and-tumble exploits of a Scapin or a Sbrigani, beatings and clysters, vulgar exhibitions, and above all in the brutal harshness of the often cruel vigor that is directed against weak and strong alike, sparing neither age nor infirmity, nor anything deserving of pity. The Great King roared with laughter when Lully, clad in mufti, jumped out over the end of the stage, and smashed a clavecin to bits with his feet and fists. Saint-Simon tells of the monstrous and inhuman tricks played by the attendants of the Duchess of Burgundy at Versailles, incidents revealing the savagery of the Court. Molière's actors were true interpreters of the spirit of the time. Today the people no longer enjoy these things. But we must be careful to distinguish the peoples of various nations, if I may believe what was told me of a popular production of Georges Dandin in Russia. The play aroused the ire of the peasants, who sympathized with Dandin and were indignant at the tricks played upon him by his wife. We are not quite so bad as that; for Le Mariage forcé is one of the greatest successes at our People's Universities. At Gérardmer I saw a performance of Le Médecin malgré lui under the direction of Maurice Pottecher; and though the actors were only the young inexperienced boys and girls of the village, the play seemed more appropriate than as if it were on the boards of the Théâtre-Français. The experiments with Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Le Malade imaginaire, under the auspices of the Coopération des idées and in the outlying theaters, were no less successful. These works seem to be of the people, by reason of their broadness, their robust light-heartedness, and their Rabelaisian spirit. But let us not hasten to conclude that this is all that is required. I once saw a production of Le Malade imaginaire, offered by the Trente ans de Théâtre; it was successful—though the sentimental declamations of Musset the same evening were received with more applause. Never before had I realized the monstrousness of the play, not only because certain actors saw fit to exaggerate their already exaggerated sense of comedy, but because when the play was exposed to the light, I could see at once that part of the classic convention which is hidden beneath the buffoonery of genius. At the Comédie-Française we are used to this, and do not notice it; but the people are not, and they are surprised. More than once have I observed that my neighbors, as at the People's Universities, were ill at ease at these plays, and saw the suspicion creep upon them that their bourgeois amusers were treating them like children in their endeavor to reach the level of that particular public. And this feeling spoiled all the pleasure—a real pleasure, of course, for who can resist the laughter of Molière?
If the people were to get nothing from Molière but the low comedy, he would not be worth while: they might perhaps profit by the language, but would remain untouched and unenlightened. I fear such is the case nowadays: the classical masterpieces of Molière leave them unmoved; I have seen them sit, politely bored, through a performance of Le Misanthrope—an admirable piece of salon psychology—or Les Femmes savantes, wherein comedy borrows some of the dignity and nobility of tragedy. I am aware that the production of Tartuffe at Ba-ta-clan in November, 1902, was a tremendous success; it was not, however, due to Molière, but to M. Combes, or his mouthpiece—the anti-clerical journalist who took it into his head to draw a parallel between the mishaps of Orgon, and the Congregations affair, and "in the person of Tartuffe denounced the eternal enemy, declaring that the struggle ought to continue, and that it was more necessary at present than ever before." As one critic naïvely expressed it: "The man in black is an object of horror to the French public. We never tire of denouncing and hating him." Such considerations are, of course, foreign to art, and I have cause for believing that if Tartuffe had been left to stand or fall on its own merits, it would have proved much less successful. In spite of its savor and its vigorous power, the form of the play is not sufficiently free; it smacks of its century; long speeches abound, and a vast amount of topical religious discussion, which is quite lost on the people. They despise religious hypocrisy, of course, but I doubt whether they understand it, especially under the disguise it assumed in the days of Les Provinciales.
But let us not quibble over the worth of Molière: he has contributed generously. From one or the other aspects of his comic genius he has succeeded in pleasing all classes for two centuries, and he often resembles them by reason of his fraternal joyousness. This is a rare phenomenon, practically unique on our stage. Molière's style is not rare in France, but no matter how great the talent of the successors of that great man, not one of them possessed his opulent mixture of opposed temperaments; he had two natures, as it were, one that analyzed life with ironic finesse, another that reveled gaily in it. Observation on the one hand, and vigor on the other. After him, and according to which of the two sides of Molière they relished, the public was divided, and art degenerated. Later I shall take occasion to say what I think of our modern comedy.
- ↑ In Le Temps, Nov. 24, 1902.