The People's Theater/Part I, Chapter II



The comedy of Molière can, if need be, satisfy the first needs of a People's Theater, but not for long. Speaking generally, he does not offer enough comedy. Laughter is a force, and intelligent satire of the vices satisfies the reason. But we cannot find in Molière the necessary springs to action. Classic comedy, especially, is cast into an extremely rigid form; its domain is that of common-sense, which reigns supreme. Beyond this it does not extend. Now, there is nothing so precious as common-sense; at a time when there seems to be so little, it would be unwise to assert the contrary; common-sense may lead us anywhere, even to heroism—we have proofs of that. But the people are like a woman: they are not actuated by reason alone, but rather by instinct and passion, and these must be nourished and directed. The emotions aroused by great tragic art are capable of producing deep and lasting effect. Have we in France a tragic repertory which can serve this purpose? Have we tragic plays which exalt the heroic powers of the soul, the vigor of the passions and the will?

The first that come to our attention are the classic tragedies of the seventeenth century.

A great to-do has been made over the success of certain productions; for example, Andromaque at Ba-ta-clan. This is what led M. Bernheim and his friends to declare that classic tragedy was a popular form. Let us inquire a little more closely.

"The experiment tried out at Ba-ta-clan," writes M. Larroumet, a champion of M. Bernheim, "was a brilliant success. Andromaque aroused unheard-of enthusiasm. The three thousand spectators lost not a single detail of the action, not a word of the dialogue. They caught and appreciated the elegance of Racine, his choice of words, his use of general terms, his delicate shades—everything."[1]

For my part I cannot imagine an "audience of three thousand" proletarians appreciating the "choice of words" and the "delicate shades" of Racine, like so many professors of rhetoric. He who wishes to prove too much, proves nothing. Again let us look into the matter and see under what conditions the play was produced. This time the play was not presented to the public by an anticlerical journalist, but a counsel of the assizes. Why a counsel? The critic of Le Temps tells us:

"Maître Félix Decori, the celebrated counsel, ought by reason of his position to be able to obtain a clear view of the art of Racine. There is not a theme in Racine's plays which does not appear on some page of the Gazette des Tribunaux. And the theme of Andromaque in particular is no other than a crime of passion. The adventure of Orestes and of Pyrrhus, of Hermione and Andromache, is simply this: a woman takes revenge on a man who refuses to love her, but is in love with another woman. She incites the man who loves her to kill the first. She, however, does not love the murderer, though she has promised to marry him. Maître Decori has only to recall some similar incident from his past experience, in which he will find a butcher and his wife, their assistant and a shop-girl. In fact, this is what Maître Decori actually did; and he concluded with these words: 'I have just told you the story of Andromaque.'"

Now I understand the success of Andromaque. But here you have merely given the people a story from the Petit Journal! Do you really think that is the subject of Andromaque? Is that the "delicate shades," the "elegance of Racine"? How could you have possibly failed to observe that in the art of Racine the subject is next to nothing, that the analysis of human souls, and the style, is everything? Do you not see that when you emphasize the melodramatic element, you are not increasing appreciation of Racine; you are merely making him ridiculous?

M. Faguet felt this, and in one of his most open-minded articles set forth with striking irony what the people saw in Racine's masterpieces. M. Faguet is certainly no friend of the popular theater movement and he has often shown his disapproval to readers of the Journal des Débats—who asked nothing better than to be convinced. He said that "the people's theater cannot exist, because up to the present it never has existed,"[2] thus admitting in advance there is no progress, and that nothing ever changes. Which is at least convenient. But M. Faguet is much too clever for me to attempt to disprove an assertion the truth of which he is better able to see than anyone else; the only revenge I wish to take is to borrow a little of his irony—especially when it suits my purpose.

"So you have taken it into your heads to consider Andromaque a melodrama?" he asks. "If so, you have seen that it can very well be so considered. We find an innocent woman being persecuted, and a ferocious tyrant. Here are the ingredients of melodrama, all the ingredients. And after many peripeties, in which the sympathetic character never once flinches, she is just about to commit a crime—but does not, remaining faithful to these two sentiments: maternal love and conjugal love. The ferocious tyrant is killed, the traitress stabs herself, the traitor goes mad, and the sympathetic character becomes Queen, and lives secure with her little boy who has been saved from drowning. This is pure melodrama, the king of melodramas."

Then comes a dénouement à la Diderot, introduced for the popular productions: the coronation of Andromache. "She mounts to the throne, Céphise brings her her son, whom Andromache takes on her knees and embraces. Curtain."

"But," continues M. Faguet, "see how many of our classic tragedies contain the necessary elements of melodrama, with the sympathetic character in danger, the sympathetic character triumphing in the end, virtue rewarded and vice punished. I have seen Phèdre and Athalie produced before popular audiences, and received respectfully and coldly. In Phèdre the audience cared only for the innocent victim, Hippolytus. They were not truly aroused until the discussion scene between Hippolytus and Theseus, in the fourth act, and Théramène's speech. Athalie was another matter. The only effect produced was of wonder. The popular audience was astonished, and again astonished, straight up to the end. Quite natural. What did the popular public do? What would you have them do? They looked for the sympathetic character, and found it not, as Racine has neglected or scorned to introduce one. They said to themselves: 'I see: Joad is an old rascal, but clever; Athalie is an old harradan; Abner is a fool pure and simple. But with whom may I sympathize? When is he coming on? I am waiting for him to stir me!' And the popular public waited for him to the end of the last act; they cared not a jot about Athalie's murder, Joad's triumph, or Joas' coronation. And neither did I, because I had become one of the people, and I gradually concluded: 'This play is admirable, but admirable and interesting are two different things; as regards dramatic interest, the people are right; it is not an interesting play!'"

I call your attention to these last lines, so lucid and so frank. And they are true not only of Athalie, but of the great majority of our classic masterpieces. The fact that Racine is not popular proves nothing against the people, nor against Racine. They belong to two different worlds, and there is no reason for bringing them together. The great art of Racine is serenely impersonal; at the base of it, seen as through limpid water, appear human souls and emotions—especially weak souls and feminine emotions. The author does not take sides; he seems scarcely to care about the events which are to ruin his heroes; he does nothing for them; he merely allows them passive submission in the face of a superior and dominating power. He is not The Master whose thought the crowd, especially the French crowd, loves to feel dominating them; nor does his gospel particularly move them. The plays of Racine are the work of a dilettante of genius, a disciple of art for art's sake, who is in no wise interested in action, and who in consequence can exert no influence—unless it be upon artists like himself, the aristocracy, which are always limited.

With Corneille it is different. Here we are in the presence of a power addressing itself directly to the will, a man speaking to men, with a great sweep of action which continuously binds the public to what transpires on the stage. Certain delicate souls may perhaps be shocked at the insistence shown by the man who talks straight into your face, and who will not stop until he has seized, held, and wearied you with his endless chatter. But the people like to be led. Never do they seem ill at ease at a play of Corneille's; never, as at a tragedy of Racine's, do they remain strangers to what is happening on the stage, and merely witness the exterior of interior dramas. Corneille throws them at once into the midst of the action. He realizes that the first law for a great dramatist is to speak for everyone. The robust Norman belonged temperamentally in more ways than one to the people: his love of talk, his sanguinary violence, his sudden transports of anger, his brusque reversals of feeling, his instinctive savagery so thinly veiled behind the expression of general ideas—Horatius, for instance, stabbing his sister in the name of reason.[3] His full-length characters, the victims of sudden occurrences transforming them from top to toe, are essentially proletarian. The complete change that takes place in the souls of Cinna, Émilia, Augustus, is almost inexplicable to the bourgeois mind, which is slow and reflective; but quite natural to passionate unsophisticated souls.[4]

And yet not one play of Corneille is altogether adapted to the needs of the people. For several reasons:

The language. It is a fact that the form of a tragedy or a drame "dates" more quickly than that of a comedy; at least, it sooner ceases to be understood by the public. It is not so realistic, and depends less upon the observation of human nature; it is more subjective, more personal; it bears the imprint of the epoch and the nation more unmistakably. The poet's imagination receives its nourishment from the atmosphere of the century, from the esthetic conventions with which he has been surrounded. Nothing goes out of fashion more readily than a poetic metaphor—when the poet has lived in court life or in salons, the intellectual baggage of which changes completely every ten or twenty years. And so his images often become unintelligible except to the cultured few, who find a charm in the unusual and surprising—be they of the strange burning variety of Shakespeare, or delicate and out-of-date, as with our classic writers. Besides, Corneille's style is particularly obscure. Except at the culminating points in the action, it is abstract, involved, incorrect, and occasionally enigmatic; even in his day people spoke of the Cornelian jargon. This is not always, however, an unsurmountable obstacle to popular appreciation, since the people listen only for the thundering passages, and it is the general impression which affects them. But this ought to be realized as a matter for regret, this stupid fascination of mere words, disarming reason; it has caused innumerable tragedies in history; and the function of the People's Theater, far from encouraging sluggishness of mind, is to combat it unceasingly, in presenting to the people only what they are able to understand.

And besides, Corneille's whole dramatic system is antagonistic to the popular audience. He offers them a minimum of pleasure. There are few characters, few events, and no scenic trappings: a plot developed through abstract speeches. His plays are based upon the old Humanities, Latin discourses, legal discussions, and bourgeois rhetoric. There is nothing to attract the living people who suffer because of their cramped position. There is nothing for their avid and childlike imagination. One feels that Corneille's art is the expression of a society "of dry imagination and rigid reason,"[5] which is absolutely opposed to the people. This is strikingly demonstrated in the ideas, the subjects, even the characters, many of whom seem foreign and utterly strange. I do not necessarily mean the mad fury of certain characters, the sharp edge of which is now dulled; or the stone-age passions—the "point of honor," for instance (more striking still in the Spanish plays, leading the heroes of Calderon to the commission of absurdly atrocious crimes). Nor do I refer to those dead parts of the soul revealed by the poet, the insufferable gallantry and cold politeness of love-making now so hopelessly outmoded. The very essence of Corneille's art is practically dead for us of today. It was a political art, intended for statesmen, patriots, and those interested in the theory of government and revolution. As has been said, it reflects the generation of great ambitious men, laid low, not without difficulty by Mazarin and Richelieu, whose dominant passion was government, and who in thought and sometimes in action, after trying all forms of politics and contemplating all things, contributed to the elaboration of the powerful machine of the State in the seventeenth century. It was for them that the discussions in Cinna, Sertorius, and Othon were written. No matter how clear-sighted and penetrating these discourses were, what possible interest do they offer us of today? Undoubtedly, our own age, like Corneille's, is a political one, and we have resolutely set ourselves to solve our problems of government and society, to find a new formula which shall satisfy our moral and intellectual needs. But our present-day problems are not the problems of two centuries ago, and as for politics, we are interested in nothing that does not immediately concern us. The reasoning of Cinna and Maximus is as valid as it ever was, but (as is almost always the case with Corneille) it is an aristocratic sort of reasoning, a thing apart from practical affairs, and consequently disdained by the people. And they are right. These discussions and reasonings lead almost invariably to the apotheosis of monarchy, and a victorious peace after long wars. We can easily understand why Napoleon used Cinna to further his ends, when he had Talma play it at Erfurt before the vanquished kings. Nowadays such plays ring false. As for forcing the people to accept them as art, and not taking into account the ideas set forth in them—well, it is a very dangerous sort of dilettantism.

But there are some few of Corneille's plays that may perhaps be acceptable to the people. There is Horace, in which the sturdy heroism of the principal character is well calculated—maybe too well—to stir the people. Even the trial at the end is not without a certain grandeur, which appeals rather to the people than to the ordinary public. Unfortunately, the language is too often obscure and the action slow and uninteresting. The ardent spirit of youth in Le Cid, its freedom of form, its abounding vitality, arouse irresistible enthusiasm. And yet I am not sure whether the particular problem of chivalry which the dueling gentlemen of the court of Louis XIII are called upon to solve has not become a trifle archaic for the workingmen of the Faubourg-Saint-Antoine. Possibly Nicomède is the play best suited to the people, for the hero belongs to a class dear to their hearts: a good and joyous giant, a Gallic Siegfried, alone among his enemies, frustrating their plots, poking fun at their weaknesses, and all with an air of ironic bravura—and finally triumphant. The figures about him are altogether picturesque: the beautiful savage Laodice, the old king, a liar and a coward, the French knight Attale and the Anglo-Saxon diplomat Flaminius. The play is ingeniously constructed and the action more interesting than most tragedies—at least, the interest is sustained by more surprises, and rises steadily up to the end. Why is the style more obscure than ever and more replete with jargon? Like Horace, Nicomède could not be produced without cuts and many explanations. Finally—and we need proceed no further in our inquiry—we may say that unless we alter them beyond recognition, we have no use for our seventeenth century tragedies on the stage, and must relegate them to the library.[6]

  1. In Le Temps, Oct. 27, 1902.
  2. Journal de Débats, July 20, 1903.
  3. "C’est trop, ma patience à la raison fait place. (Horatius kills Camilla.)"
  4. Certain passages in Corneille show a succession of passions as rapid and unexpected as the mimicry of a semi-barbarous Japanese actor:

    "Ma haine va mourir, que jai crue immortelle;
    Elle est morte, et ce cœur devient sujet fidelle;
    En prenant desormais cette haine en horreur,
    L’ardeur de vous servir succède à sa fureur."


  5. Gustave Lanson.
  6. Maurice Pottecher, who is in a position to observe the popular public, is of the same opinion: "I do not think it possible to use our classical tragedies; they belong to an aristocratic form of art which seems out of place in a people's theater. Popular actors are not intended to speak the language of Corneille and Racine." (Le Théâtre du Peuple, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, July 1, 1903.)