The People's Theater/Part I, Chapter IV



Our century has witnessed the development of still another type of play, one that has been immensely successful: the Bourgeois Drama. An outgrowth of the Tearful Comedy of the eighteenth century, it kept pace with a profound social evolution: the rise of a certain class to a position of great power. It owes what I must confess—putting aside my personal feelings—to be its legitimate success to the fact that it interpreted the spirit, the problems, and preoccupations of the class in question. There is nothing more just than that art should interpret the life of the time. Unfortunately, the Bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, different from that of the sixteenth and seventeenth, takes less interest in practical than in abstract questions, especially in the matter of art. We are made uncomfortable in witnessing this in the theatrical productions which reflect it. Augier and Dumas fils, the spokesmen of the Bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, did not depict characters—as Molière did; or conditions—as Diderot tried to do; or to write personal and intimate tragedies and domestic dramas—or when they tried, they were not successful. They are interested primarily in certain domestic and social problems, which are merely stated, and not solved. It is only natural that such works should have impressed the audiences of the day, and no less natural that they should pass away with their time, if they are good as thesis-plays and not as transcriptions of life: for a social reform can render the thesis devoid of interest. This sort of play may be useful to society, perhaps even to the public, because it forces them to think, but it is a form which constantly requires new material, suited to ever-changing conditions. Since it is the mirror of a society subject to unending evolution, since it is the auxiliary and counsellor of lawyers and law-makers, since it treats the sores caused by the vices flourishing under the present organization, and since cleansing brings relief, practically all the subjects about which thesis-plays can be written go out of date every twenty or thirty years. Very few of them are based upon eternal truths, and if one or two such there be, I have perceived no touch of the genius in them that makes for immortality. The thesis-play is essentially a work of transition; what constitutes its power today is its weakness tomorrow; and if our People's Theater were to throw open its doors to it, we should require an entirely new repertory; for what do the people care about bourgeois problems, limited as they are to the Bourgeoisie? If we would perpetuate the type, we must keep it abreast of the times by adapting it to the most recent developments.

If the poetic drama is wanting in common-sense and truth, the bourgeois drama is wanting in poetry. It is too limited, too prosaic; it offers to a nation in a difficult and dangerous situation, requiring the very greatest development of her powers, no better nourishment than comedy. Of late years, a few splendid attempts have been made in France—not to mention other countries—to open the doors of the bourgeois theater to poetry and to the people, but although we can observe in them a more sympathetic treatment of the soul and the problems of the people, they are stigmatized for the most part by the touch of what is most unpopular and aristocratic. Le Repas du Lion of M. François de Curel is the most striking example.

I have little to say of our modern comedies. They show considerable talent, but on the whole they are thin and insipid, sentimental and corrupt. They reflect their public, a lazy and degenerate Bourgeoisie, without energy to love, hate, judge, or really desire anything. They drift uncertainly between flirtations and pornography, and occasionally include both in a disgusting and puerile combination. These plays have never truly represented the nation: they insult her. I remember the disdain and indignation I felt when I first came to Paris and discovered the art of the boulevards. I am no longer indignant, but my disdain has remained. These plays dishonor us because of their very fame. The theaters where they are produced are the vile pleasure-houses of Europe. Let them continue to pollute their cosmopolitan audiences, if they so wish—the snobs can defend themselves, and if they want the mud, let them grovel, there is no harm done. I am tempted to say to the actors what Timon said to Phryne and Timandra: "Continue to be what you are … and ruin those who wish to be ruined." But you must not contaminate the people. Do not attempt to pollute their sources of truth and life.

But I feel that in a theater which is open to all, where men, women, and children shall gather as one family, the public will be their own censor and command respect where respect is due. The instinct of self-preservation is too powerful for it to be otherwise: a healthy people will not allow itself to degenerate out of sheer light-heartedness, as if they were no longer of any use in the world.