The People's Theater/Part I, Chapter III



The case is far different with the Romantic Drama. Our problem is not so much to render it accessible to the people, as to keep it from them if, as it seemed, they showed signs of liking it too well. I need not repeat that the Romantic Drama is a kind of melodrama; and all the purely verbal poetry with which it is garnished can only increase its perniciousness.[1] It is merely a lion's skin thrown over a bit of trifling nonsense. With all its superb intentions to supply the key to the universal enigma, depict and expound the whole world, "to observe everything at one time and in its every aspect"—as the poet naïvely proclaims in the preface to Marie Tudor—this form of drama requires very little ability in the writing. So far as observation is concerned, it relies on abstractions, as in the tragedies of Voltaire, wherein the author seeks to overwhelm one with a wealth of detail as meticulous as it is questionable. So far as thought is concerned, it is a motley harlequin of contradictory whims, in which the dominant note is an ordinary Naturalism—derived from the Encyclopedists—over which the Revolutionary stress and exasperated violence of German Romanticism have spread a thin veneer. Reeking with violence, bombast, bravura, striking metaphor, false science, and false thought, this type of drama is the swaggering bully of French art. The dramatists do not take the trouble to think, learn, or observe; their plays possess neither truth nor sincerity: they are masterly "bluffs." They are simply melodrama, exploiting the public, who swallow them out of sheer ignorance, deceived by the brilliancy of the style and the rank sentiment; for the people are easily moved without asking the reason why, and what is evil in them seeks out from under the pseudo-humanitarian and pseudo-religious varnish the bait of a gross materialism, and bites at it. The false brigands and false revolutionaries of this form are the first-born and most comely offspring of that Montmartre art which has since then so deeply influenced French thought. It is an art of literary coteries, abounding in talent, but scarcely ever reaching maturity, because it lacks restraint, sincerity, and self-criticism. All this Romantic upheaval smacks more of Bohemia than of the Revolution. In deafening the people with anarchistic declamations, these plays contribute more effectively toward keeping them in their present state of inertia than even the licensed purveyors of the Bourgeoisie. The poetic barrenness of the elder Dumas proves the essential emptiness of the melodrama type, stripped of lyricism, and standing naked before the world. I firmly believe that the Romantic Drama is a hindrance to the People's Theater we are seeking to establish in France. It has sent forth innumerable offshoots, which may be divided into two main branches: the dramas in Hugo's style, and those in the elder Dumas'. These latter, crude melodramas pure and simple, with their beggars in silks and satins, and braggart adventurers, have descended upon our outlying theaters like a swarm of locusts and stripped everything bare in their wake. The former, less bumptious as it were, aiming at something higher, have assumed a place in the so-called poetic drama repertory, where they have done their best to corrupt the taste of the Bourgeoisie—and succeeded. But it was an easy conquest. The bourgeois public is capable of judging only a work of average realism, with a basis of common-sense and a moderate dose of observation. It is beyond its depth in poetry, and cannot distinguish the false from the true. Caricature will probably be more acceptable to them, because it is more obvious. Through snobbishness they were forced to pretend to understand a language that was strange to them, and they went straight to the charlatans, and were deceived. The critics, who ought to have shielded them, abdicated to a man, for fear of making a stand against the current fashion, from indifference, from dilettantism, or from a lack of faith in ordinary common-sense; and absurdity ran riot on the stage, where it did not lack its illustrious interpreters. It may safely be asserted that at least one of these interpreters played a decisive part not only in the success but in the evolution of the form: the name of Sarah Bernhardt will best characterize this Byzantinized—or Americanized—Neo-Romanticism, rigid, fixed, and without youth; lacking vigor, and surcharged with both genuine and artificial ornament—and withal sad under all its gorgeousness, and tawdry in its color.

Of late, M. Rostand has deliberately revived the Romanticism of Hugo and the elder Dumas, and infused a semblance of new life into it with his southern brio, seasoning it with a little fashionable slang. But this brilliant and acrobatic poet, this gamin of Romanticism, is no more than a comic dramatist masquerading in the cloak of the tragedian. The author of Prince Long-Nose, escorted by his d'Artagnans, the clown Flambeau, called Flambard, the impossible Metternich—a Punch-and- Judy policeman—with all his amusing speeches, his nimble wit, his puns and poetic gasconades, has not yet touched true tragic sentiment except to prove that it is a closed book to him. Instead, he has eloquently flattered the public with the crude jingoism of L'Aiglon and the demi-mondaine piety of La Samaritaine. He has succeeded; and to some people success is the sole criterion. I am sure he can do better work, but he must beware. Success and fortune have estranged him from life, which he neither sees nor hears. His province is the rhetoric of life. I am sorry to have to criticize him, for he is a distinct power, and every power, be it of words, of metaphor, or of gaiety, is worthy of sympathy—and I am in sympathy with M. Rostand. But if he fails to put himself at the service of truth, we shall be constrained to combat him as a public menace. (It is not given to everyone to be a public menace!) How many poets there are who think they have served their country because they sang of heroism, devotion, and sacrifice! But if their faith has been only of the lips and not of the heart, if they have cared only for verbal felicity and not for serious and stubborn realities, if they have sought personal success and not the welfare of others, then they have rendered heroism, devotion, and sacrifice objects of contempt, and in no wise served their cause. The virtuosos of sentiment, who listen only to their own songs and sing for public applause, are vicious, because they habituate others to self-deception.

It is now a fashion—first introduced, I think, by M. Jules Lemaître—to urge that snobbishness should be encouraged by the public, as the ally of new ideas, bringing, as it does, money and public favor. Possibly this shameful practice is not unwarranted under actual conditions, but we shall have nothing to do with it in our People's Theater. A nation might conceivably do without beauty; but it ought not, it cannot dispense with truth. We do not ask them to respect and admire what they do not understand: that is all very well if you wish to form a nation of petty officials under a despotic leadership. We ask them not to accept anything they cannot understand, nor admire what they cannot feel. What odds if this is at first unfair to certain works of art? The people actually come nearer to a true appreciation of them in not accepting than do the snobs in applauding them; and, besides, they preserve intact their source of truth, whence springs all greatness of soul. At any rate, I should feel no anxiety for such a people. Well endowed, like our own, and sincere—if they are but relieved of the excessive burden of labor under which they now struggle, and given a chance to think—there is nothing to which they cannot attain. But false feeling and false thinking engendered by most of our present-day poetry would otherwise contaminate them with an ineradicable taint.

  1. It goes without saying that I do not here refer to the admirable aristocratic reveries of Musset, nor to the few cold and anti-popular plays of Aldred de Vigny—which, by the way, are vastly inferior to their reputation.