The People's Theater/Part II, Chapter I




Earliest Experiments in the People's Theater

The first men who appear to have conceived the idea of a new dramatic art for the new society, a People's Theater for the sovereign people, are among the precursors of the Revolution, the philosophers of the eighteenth century, whose epoch-making suggestions sowed in every corner of the earth the seeds for a new life: above all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Diderot—Rousseau, who was always preoccupied with the nation's education, and Diderot, so anxious to enrich life, exalt its powers, and unite men in a Dionysiac and fraternal joy.

Rousseau, in his admirable Lettre sur les spectacles,[1] that profoundly sincere work in which some have pretended to discover a paradox in order to escape the application of its stern moral—Rousseau, after having analyzed the theater and the life of his day with the pitilessly clear vision of a Tolstoy, does not however conclude by condemning the stage in general, for he perceives the possibility of a regeneration of dramatic art, provided it is given a national and popular character, as with the Greeks. He says:

"I see for these ills but one remedy, and that is that we write our own plays for our own theater, and that we have dramatists in preference to actors. For it is not good to witness imitations of everything under the sun, but only of what is fitting for free men. The Greek plays, based upon the past misfortunes of the nation or the present faults of the people, might well offer useful lessons to the audience. … But the plays of the Greeks had none of the nastiness observable in the plays of our own time. Their theaters were not built for purposes of personal aggrandizement; theirs were not obscure prisons; the actors were not under the necessity of levying contributions on the audience, nor to count the number of spectators out of the corner of their eye, in order to be sure of their supper. Their grave and superb spectacles, given under the open heavens before the whole nation, presented nothing but combats, victories, prizes—things capable of inspiring emulation and sentiments of honor and glory in the breasts of all the people. These great plays were a constant source of instruction."

But Rousseau had another, a far more original and democratic idea for a people's theater: People's festivals. I shall touch upon this point a little later on.

At about the same time Diderot, the most enlightened and broad-minded of the geniuses of the eighteenth century, and perhaps the most fertile, who was less concerned with the educational value of the stage than with the esthetic, said in his Paradoxe sur le comédien: "We have yet to discover true tragedy." And he added, in his Deuxième entretien sur le Fils naturel:

"Strictly speaking, there are no popular spectacles. The theaters of antiquity held as many as eighty thousand spectators at one time. … Think of the power in that great assemblage, when you consider the influence of one man on another and the immediate transmission of emotion in such crowds. Forty or fifty thousand people, gathered together, will not be restrained by motives of decency. … He who cannot feel within him an emotion arising from the fact that he is one of a great assemblage, must be vicious: his character has something solitary that I dislike. And if the size of this tremendous audience increases the emotion of the spectator, what will it not do for the author and the actor? How vastly different is our petty theater, wherein we amuse our audiences of a few hundreds at fixed times, and at fixed hours! What if we were to assemble the whole nation on holidays!"

And with his accustomed clear-sightedness and power he proceeds to sketch some of the artistic reforms which were to be the basis of the new theater. In the following lines Diderot saw a vision beyond not only the art of his day, but of our own:

"In order to effect a change in our drama, I ask no more than a broad stage, where, when the subject demanded, the audience might see a wide space with several buildings at a time—the peristyle of a palace, the entrance to a temple—different places where the audience might observe every event of the action; while one section should be hidden for the use of the actors. Such was, or might well have been, the stage on which The Eumenides of Æschylus was performed. Shall we ever have anything of the sort on our stage? There we can never show more than one action, while in nature there are many simultaneous actions, which, if performed at the same time, would intensify the whole, and- produce a truly terrible and wondrous effect. … We are waiting for the genius who will combine pantomime with dialogue, mingling dumb-shows with spoken scenes, and render effective the combination; above all, the approach, terrible or comic, to such simultaneous scenes."

Diderot's happy inspiration found a passionate echo in- the Shakespearians of the Sturm und Drang-periode: Gerstenberg, Herder, and the adolescent Goethe.[2]

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, an original man, nourished on Shakespeare and the Germans, disciple of Diderot and "monkey of Jean-Jacques," as he was called, brought together these various theories, and, in formal terms set forth in his Nouvel essai sur l'Art dramatique (1773) and the Nouvel examen de la Tragédie française (1778), demanded the establishment of a people's theater, inspired by and intended for the people. He reminded his readers of the mysteries of the Middle Age; and, combining the esthetic theories of Diderot and the Shakespearians with the moral ideals of Rousseau, he asked for a "theater as broad as the universe," which should also be "a moral spectacle"; for the first duty of the dramatic poet, he says, "is to mould the morals and manners of the citizens." And, practising what he preached, he wrote historical, political, and social plays: Jean Hennuyer, évêque de Lisieux, which introduced the figure of an apostle of tolerance at the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; La Mort de Louis XI, roi de France; La Destruction de la Ligue; and Philippe II, roi d'Espagne (1785).

After Mercier, other French writers have taken up the idea of a national theater, that is, a theater for the whole nation. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, in his Treizième Étude de la Nature conjures up an ideal French Shakespeare who should give to the assembled people the great scenes of the Patrie, and suggests the subject of Jeanne d'Arc. After having traced in a rapid and declamatory style the scene of Jeanne at the stake, he says:

"I should like to see this treated by a man of genius after the manner of Shakespeare, who would not have failed, had Jeanne d'Arc been English, to make a great patriotic play out of it; the celebrated shepherdess would have become for us the patroness of war, as Saint Genevieve is of peace. Such a play would be performed only in national crises, in the presence of the people, just as Mahomet's standard is displayed in Constantinople. And I have no doubt that the sight of her innocence, her services, her misfortunes, and the cruelty of her enemies and horror of her martyrdom, our people could not restrain themselves from crying out: 'War! War against the English!'"

In 1789 Marie-Joseph Chénier dedicated his Charles IX ou l'École des Rois "To the French Nation," with these words:

"Frenchmen and fellow-citizens: accept the dedication of this patriotic tragedy. I dedicate the work of a free man to a free nation. … Your scene ought to change with the others that have just changed. A theater in which there are only petty females and slaves is no longer suited to a nation of men and of citizens. There was one thing lacking to your dramatic poets; it was not genius, and not subjects, but an audience. (December 15, 1789.)"

And again he says:

"The theater is an agent of public education. … Without her men of letters, France would stand where Spain stands at this moment. … We have reached the most important epoch of French history, for the destiny of twenty-five million men is about to be decided. … Free arts succeed the enslaved arts; the theater, so long effeminate and abject, will henceforward inspire only a respect of law, love of liberty, hatred of excess, and the execration of tyrants."[3]

Mercier's ideas were more directly influential upon Schiller in Germany. He read the Frenchman's books, translated them, and made them his inspiration. It is worthy of note that Mercier, in his Nouvel Essai, suggested to Schiller the theme of Wilhelm Tell, as Rousseau had suggested Fiesco.[4] And it is highly probable that Mercier suggested certain scenes of Don Carlos.[5] Nor must we forget the link that bound the early Revolutionary movement with the man whom the Convention made a French citizen, he who was in a way the great poet of the Revolution, as Beethoven was the great composer: the author of Die Räuber (1781–82), of In Tyrannos (Against the Tyrants), of Fiesco, "a republican tragedy" (1783–84), and of Don Carlos (1785), where he says he tried to show "the spirit of liberty at swords' points with despotism, the shackles of stupidity broken, the prejudices of a thousand years swept away; a nation demanding the rights of man; republican virtues put into practice"—the poet of the Ode to Joy (1785), drunk with liberty, heroism, and fraternal love.[6]

"The theater," declared Mercier, "is the most potent and direct means of strengthening human reason and enlightening the whole nation."

So thought the Revolution. It appropriated Rousseau's two ideas: popular festivals and education through the theater. The idea of a People's Theater was not the exclusive property of any one party, for we find men of opposite and antagonistic creeds united in an effort to establish a popular form of dramatic art. Mirabeau, Talleyrand, Lakanal, David, Marie-Joseph Chénier, Danton, Boissy d'Anglas, Barère, Carnot, Saint-Just, Robespierre, Billaud-Varennes, Prieur, Lindet, Collot d'Herbois, Couthen, Payan, Fourcade, Bouquier, Florian, and many another, defended the cause in words, on paper, and with deeds. Here is a brief summary of certain Revolutionary documents touching on the people's festivals:

In a report dated July 11, 1793, relative to the festival in commemoration of the 10th of August, David suggested that after the ceremony in the Champ-de-Mars—which was to constitute the chief attraction—"a vast theater should be erected, where the chief events of our Revolution shall be represented in pantomime." As a matter of fact, they performed a mimic bombardment of the city of Lille.[7]

But on the 2d of August, 1793, the Committee of Public Safety, "desiring to mould further the sentiments and character of the French into a truer form of republicanism," proposed a "regulation of dramatic performances," which was adopted by the Convention after a speech by Couthon. The Convention decreed that between the 4th of August and the 1st of September—that is, at the time when the festivals celebrating the 10th of August drew to Paris many thousands of people from the provinces—certain theaters, designated by the municipality, should three times a week perform "republican tragedies," such as Brutus, Guillaume Tell, Caius Gracchus … one of these performances being given each week at the expense of the Republic."[8]

In November, 1793, following up the celebrated discourse by Marie-Joseph Chénier on popular festivals, Fabre d'Églantine passed a measure providing for national theaters, which completed the scheme for popular festivals. A special commission of six members was actually chosen: Romme, David, Fourcroi, Mathieu, Bouquier, and Cloots. On the 11th of Frimaire, Year II (Dec. 1, 1793) Bouquier drew up the following resolutions in his Plan général d'Instruction publique (section IV: Du dernier degré d'instruction):

"Article I. Theaters … and festivals … are a part of the 'second degree' of public instruction.

"Article II. In order to facilitate this movement … the Convention declares that all former churches and ecclesiastical edifices which are at present empty shall belong to the Communes."

On the 4th of Pluviôse, Year II (Jan. 23, 1794) the Convention, under the presidency of Vadier, divided the sum of 100,000 livres among the twenty theaters of Paris which,

"according to the decree of August 2 have each given four performances for and by the people."

On the 12th of Pluviôse of the same year (Jan. 31, 1794) the Committee of General Surety recommended to the directors of the various theaters of Paris

"that they make their theaters schools of manners and decency … adding to their patriotic plays … others in which individual virtue should be set forth in all its grandeur."

Boissy d'Anglas, in a written appeal[9] to the Convention and the Committee of Instruction, dated the 25th of Pluviôse (Feb. 13), asked that

"plays should be made the vehicle of public appreciation, and that through them the prestige of the great men who had fallen should be emphasized, by showing their great deeds, which ought to be preserved for posterity. … In considering the theater as one of the properest instruments for furthering the development of society and rendering men more virtuous and more enlightened, you will, I am sure, not allow it to become solely an object of financial speculation, but make it a national enterprise. … Let this be one of the principal aims of your public service. … In this way you will be opening up a path along which the human mind can pursue its way to even greater heights than heretofore … and offer the people an ever new source of instruction and pleasure, and form the national character as you wish."

All these ideas for a national theater which should be a source of instruction were combined on the 20th of Ventôse, Year II (March 10, 1794) in a decree of the Committee of Public Safety, which is the true constitution and basis of the People's Theater.

The Committee, which was that day composed of Saint-Just, Couthon, Carnot, Barère, Prieur, Lindet, and Collot d'Herbois, decreed that "the old Théâtre-Français shall be solely devoted to performances given by and for the people at certain times every month. The building shall bear the following inscription on its façade: PEOPLE'S THEATER. The troupes of actors already established in the various theaters of Paris shall be requisitioned in turn for performances to be given three times each decade. The repertory of plays to be performed at the People's Theater must be submitted to and passed by the Committee, Each municipality is commanded to organize productions which are to be given free to the people every ten years."

The Committee of Public Safety realized that the transformation of the old Théâtre-Français for the purpose of giving popular performances was only temporary. The founders of the People's Theater were right in thinking that there were obstacles, probably unsurmountable, to the establishment of a new form of dramatic art in an old building, whose material form, audiences, and traditions would always stand in the way of the development of a new art. And so they endeavored to find a new architectural structure.

On the 5th of Floréal, Year II (April 24, 1794), the Committee of Public Safety "called upon the artists of the Republic to assist in turning the Opera (now the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin) into a covered arena, where the triumphs of the Republic and national festivals might be held"; and on the 25th of Floréal (May 14) Robespierre, Billaud, Prieur, Barère, and Collot signed a decree for the conversion of the Place de la Revolution (now the Place de la Concorde) "into a circus, open on all sides and intended to be used for the national festivals."

The mere founding of the People's Theater was not sufficient: it had to have plays. The Committee, composed of Robespierre, Couthon, Carnot, Billaud, Lindet, Prieur, Barère, and Collot, appealed to the poets on the 27th of Floréal to "celebrate the principal events of the Revolution and compose republican plays." But the Committee was too busy with other things—the struggle against the counter revolution, and with the kings—to be able to devote its undivided attention to "the regeneration of dramatic art." It gave over this difficult task to the Committee of Public Instruction on the 18th of Prairial (June 6, 1794).

The Commission, of which the energetic and intelligent Joseph Payan was the soul, set to work in earnest. On the 5th of Messidor (June 23, 1794) it published a circular under the title of Spectacles, addressed to the directors and managers of plays, the municipal authorities, dramatists, etc. In this pamphlet, written in a declamatory and incorrect style, but burning with generous ambition, Payan declared war not only on the speculation indulged in by authors and directors, and on the scandalous immorality and huge profits of theatrical enterprise, but against the sluggish spirit of the times, and the servile condition of art. "The theaters are still encumbered with the rubbish of the old régime, feeble copies of the masters, wherein art and taste are set at naught, of ideas and interests which are nothing to us, and of customs and manners foreign to us. We must sweep this chaotic mass out of our theaters. … We must clear the stage, and allow reason to enter and speak the language of liberty, throw flowers on the graves of martyrs, sing of heroism and virtue, and inspire love of law and the Patrie." The Commission appealed to all enlightened men: artists, directors, and patriotic writers. "Think of the tremendous moral influence to be exerted by plays. We must erect a great public school wherein taste and virtue shall be equally respected." This was not an attempt, as has been said, to sacrifice art to politics. On the contrary, Payan, in the name of the Commission, vigorously protested against the mutilations made in the texts of certain plays by the Hébertistes, saying that the "first laws to be respected in plays are the laws of good taste and good sense." The grandeur of his conception of a popular art is even more strikingly evident in a decree of the 11th of Messidor, Year II (June 29, 1794), wherein he pitilessly criticizes not the anti-republican plays, but the republican plays written for the Festival to the Supreme Being, which degraded the subject by their mediocrity.

"There are many dramatists on the alert to detect the current of the fashion; they know the costumes and the colors of the season; they know to the day when to put on one's red bonnet, and when to take it off. Their genius has laid siege to and conquered a whole city, while our brave Republicans have barely opened the breach. … Hence the corruption of taste and the degeneration of art. While genius meditates and casts her conceptions into bronze, mediocrity, cowering beneath the egis of liberty, bears off the laurels of the moment, and gathers without an effort the flowers of an ephemeral success. … Let us inspire our young literary men with the idea that the road to immortality is a difficult one, and that if they wish to offer the French people works as imperishable as their glory, they must avoid mere barren profusion and unmerited success, for these kill talent and cause genius to dissipate itself with a few fugitive sparks shot into a night of smoke; hasty attempts to snatch the wreath of victory, made according to a fixed formula, can only result in the degradation of the work and the worker. The Commission deeply regrets that it is forced to point out the first steps along the path of good taste and true beauty by means of severe lessons, but since it assumes the greatest interest in the arts, the regeneration of which is in its hands … it feels it is responsible to the nation, to literature, to itself, to the poet, the historian, the genius, and should be guilty of gross neglect should it fail to direct the energies of genius. Let the young author, therefore, fearlessly … measure the whole extent of the field before him he must invariably avoid the line of least resistance in thinking, and shun mediocrity in every form. The writer who instead of lessons offers commonplaces; empty action instead of interest; caricatures instead of characters, is of no use to literature, to the moral welfare, and to the State: Plato would have banished him from his Republic."

The superb spirit of this passage shows into what hands art was then confided. Unfortunately the writers were not equal to the task: Payan himself was unable to write the work he announced in his decree of the 29th of June, on the regeneration of the theater. He was swept away on the 10th of Thermidor (July 28th) in the whirlwind which took with it, besides Robespierre and Saint-Just, the very genius of the Revolution. It is regrettable to have to confess that the artists of the time, especially the writers, could in no way be compared with the Revolutionary chiefs. This was especially true of the writers, for painting at least had its David, and music Méhul, Lesueur, Gossec, Chérubini—and the Marseillaise. This mediocrity grieved the Committee, and called forth bitter words from Robespierre and Saint-Just. "Men of letters in general," said Robespierre in his speech of the 18th of Floréal (May 7, 1794), "have dishonored themselves in this Revolution, and to the everlasting shame of their minds the people's reason has taken the first place." As has been shown by Eugène Maron[10] and Eugène Despois,[11] the year 1793 marks the beginning of the extraordinary developments of the vaudeville.

But I understand: all the heroism of the nation had been flung into the battlefield, the assembly, and the riot. Who would have been such a dilettante as to write while the others were fighting? Cowards were the only ones who cultivated the arts. But is it not too bad to think that that sublime tempest passed away without leaving the trace of a work which shall live through the centuries?

Fifty years later one man sounded the echo of those first blasts. Michelet, who has transmitted to us not only the story of those heroic times, but the very soul, for it was in him; Michelet, who wrote the history of the Revolution like a man who had really lived through it, carries on, as it were instinctively, the tradition of the People's Theater. He expounded his ideas to his students with his customary eloquence:

"You must all march at the head of the people. Give them that glorious instruction which was the whole education of the cities of antiquity: a theater truly of the people. On the stage of that theater give them their own legends, and show them their own deeds. Nourish the people with the people. … The theater is the most potent agent in education and goes far to establish closer relations between man and man; it is, I think, the fairest hope of our national regeneration. I mean a theater universally of the people, echoing every thought of the people, and extending to every hamlet. … Before I die I wish to see a spirit of national fraternity in the theater … a drama simple and vigorous played throughout the countryside, where the energy of talent, the creative power which lies in the heart, and the youthful imagination of an entirely new people shall do away with mere physical adjuncts, sumptuous stage-settings and costumes, without which the feeble dramatists of this outworn age cannot take a step. … What is the theater? It means the resigning of oneself, the abdication of egotism and aggrandizement in order to assume a better role. Ah, how much we need this! … Come, I beg you, come and find your souls again in the people's theater, in the people themselves."[12]

Michelet suggested certain subjects from our national epic literature which lent themselves to treatment in people's plays: Jeanne d'Arc, La Tour d'Auvergne, Austerlitz; above all, Les Miracles de la Révolution.

It was through Michelet that the artistic ideals of the Revolution and the thinkers of the eighteenth century have come down to those of us who are endeavoring to found a People's Theater.

But other countries have anticipated our efforts. In 1889 a Volkstheater was established in Vienna; it opened with Anzengruber's Der Fleck auf der Ehr! In 1894 Herr Loewenfeld opened the Schiller-Theater in Berlin. A year later it had six thousand subscribers. A company of thirty actors played a repertory of ancient and modern plays: from Calderon and Shakespeare to Ibsen, Dumas fils, and the contemporaries. The theater was so successful that two other Schiller-Theaters were established in the same city.[13]

The art department of the Maison du Peuple of Brussels, which, since 1892 had offered literary and musical entertainments, joined hands in 1897 with the Toekomst (The Future), a Flemish choral and dramatic society, founded in 1883, and instituted a series of performances in the beautiful festival hall of the Maison du Peuple, which holds three thousand people.[14] The plays produced were: The Weavers of Hauptmann, The Power of Darkness of Tolstoy, An Enemy of the People and The Master Builder of Ibsen, Beyond Human Power by Björnson, Dawn by Verhaeren, Philaster, translated from Beaumont and Fletcher by Georges Eekhoud, etc. At Ghent, the Vooruit offered classical concerts on Mardi gras and in 1897 produced Tannhäuser, as a protest against the orgies of the carnival. At Liège, a miner named Alphonse Bechon wrote Le Bribeu socialists ou les Martyrs de l'Ideie, a democratic melodrama, "en treus akes et in apotheose," written in the dialect of the section. This was performed in 1902 at the Maison du Peuple de Flemalle Grande.

Switzerland has never abandoned the tradition of the great people's spectacles.[15] During the past few years these have been successfully revived.[16]

In France, the first man who was able to realize the ideals of a People's Theater was Maurice Pottecher. On September 22, 1892, the one-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic, he produced a patois translation of Le Médecin malgré lui at Bussang, a little village in the Vosges. It was a great success. Three years later, on September 2, 1895, he inaugurated his People's Theater—Le Théâtre du Peuple—at Bussang with a play of his own: Le Diable marchant de goutte. The stage, which was fifteen meters wide, was constructed against the side of a mountain, at the end of a field. Two thousand people were present at the first performance. Every year the Bussang theater offers two "dramatic days," in August and September; admission is charged on one of the days, when a new play is performed; there is no admission for the other, when the play of the preceding year may be witnessed. The theater is assured a repertory, for every year M. Pottecher writes a new play, sometimes two; M. Pottecher also acts, together with his family, and a company of workingmen and tradespeople from the village. His talent, his artistic conscience, his marvelous perseverance, have brought him the success he deserves, and will reserve for him a place of honor in history as the founder of the first People's Theater in France.

At about the same time Louis Lumet went from neighborhood to neighborhood in Paris with his Théâtre civique,[17] whose function it was to offer artistic recitations and selections from plays, rather than integral performances.

In Poitou, the happy success of a topical play, a pastoral by M. Pierre Corneille, performed before a few peasants, led the author to found a People's Theater at La Mothe-Saint-Héraye. He organized this theatre in September, 1897, and made his début with La Légende de Chambrille. In September, 1898, he produced Érinna, prêtresse d'Hésus, a tragedy of classical model.

M. Le Goffic and M. Le Braz organized at Ploujean in Brittany (August, 1898) a production of an old sixteenth century mystery, La Vie de Saint-Gwénolé.

Shortly after, M. Émile Loux-Parassac founded a Théâtre des Alpes at Grenoble, where he produced a play dealing with the life of the people of Vallouise. He introduced old airs, romances, and Alpine dances, as well as the Bacchu-Ber, or sword dance.

And finally, the various performances at Nîmes, Béziers, and Orange,[18] although they are almost ruined by the combined Provençal and Parisian influences, and fluctuating in their choice of plays from Les Précieuses ridicules to Le Châlet of Adolphe Adam, from the Phèdre of Racine to the Iphigénie of Moréas, the Œdipus of Sophocles to that of Péladan—these performances none the less serve the cause of the People's Theater in its manifold attempts.[19] There are other experiments: at Nancy and at Lille; in Flanders, in Limousin and Gascony, in Provence, in the Basque country; and at the People's Universities—the Émancipation of the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris produced Jean Hugues'[20] La Grève in 1900. Especially significant is the work of the Coopération des idées of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, founded in 1886 by workingmen.[21] M. Deherme, the true founder of the People's Universities, established in connection with this movement an eclectic theater in 1899.

The fault with all these attempts was that they were isolated, disconnected, without cohesion, without sufficient publicity and the strength to combat the traditional routine of actors and the indifference of the public. In March, 1899, a small group of young writers on the staff of the Revue d'art dramatique planned to organize at the Exposition of 1900 an international congress for the purpose of uniting the efforts of the world toward a true democracy of art. This convention was to have been preceded by a questionnaire sent to all who took any interest in the question, and asking the directors of all people's theaters for an account of their work and suggestions resulting from their experience. This would have afforded ample material for discussion at the convention. But for reasons independent of the wishes of these writers, the project, which was indeed too ambitious, had to be abandoned. Six months later, however, the plan was revived, only the field was more restricted, and the subject confined to the People's Theater of Paris.

On the 5th of November, 1899, the Revue d'art dramatique published an open letter to the Minister of Public Instruction asking him to lend his aid for the establishment of a People's Theater in Paris. This aid was to have taken the form of sending a delegate to foreign countries,—to Berlin, in particular— to study the organization of the existing people's theaters. At the same time the Revue offered a prize of five hundred francs to the person who contributed the best plan for a people's theater. The jury consisted of Henry Bauer, Lucien Besnard, Maurice Bouchor, Georges Bourdon, Lucien Descaves, Robert de Flers, Anatole France, Gustave Geffroy, Jean Jullien, Louis Lumet, Octave Mirbeau, Maurice Pottecher, Romain Rolland, Camille de Sainte-Croix, Édouard Schuré, Gabriel Trarieux, Jean Vignaud, and Émile Zola. The Committee met a dozen times in the offices of the Revue d'art dramatique, between November, 1899, and February, 1900. A delegation was sent to Minister Leygues. This gentleman recognized the importance of a People's Theater in Paris, but the only aid he offered was that of words; while he bent every effort to keep the projects of the People's Theater out of the hands of so advanced a party as the writers on the Revue d'art dramatique. They had asked for a delegate to study people's theaters abroad; the Minister appointed M. Adrien Bernheim. M. Bernheim was present at a meeting of the Committee in December, 1899, but agreement was impossible. M. Bernheim left for Berlin, and the Committee proceeded with its task. Much more solidarity in the Committee would have been necessary to struggle successfully against the meddling of the State; and the Committee disbanded at the end of three months, after having reported on the prize contest. Twenty manuscripts had been submitted, out of which four or five were of interest, while that of Eugène Morel was remarkable. Three prizes were awarded. Morel's work was published in December, 1900,[22] in the Revue d'art dramatique. To this day it remains the most original plan of its kind so far as the physical conditions are concerned. To the same review, Remain Rolland contributed a study on the moral conditions and repertory of the People's Theater, and on the 30th of December he gave at Louis Lumet's Théâtre civique, under the auspices of the Nouveau Théâtre, a people's performance of Danton, for the benefit of the tulle-making strikers. The play was preceded by an address from Jaurès. A year later, on the 21st of March, 1902, the author of Danton produced at the Théâtre de la Renaissance-Gémier, Le 14 Juillet, a "people's play." This was inspired by the artistic and civic ideals of the men of the Committee of Public Safety. "To revive the forces of the Revolution," the preface stated, "to awaken once more the heroism and the faith of the nation when it was in the midst of the republican struggle, in order that the work interrupted in 1794 might be taken up and completed by a people of greater maturity and more conscious of its destiny: such is our ideal."

The tentatives of the Revue d'art dramatique found an echo in the Chamber in M. Couyba's report on the Fine Arts budget for 1902, and in his speech of the 5th of March during the same year. But it was easy to see how Minister Leygues and his clever delegate, M. Bernheim, were laboring to direct the forces of democratic art into the coffers of the State. The plan was classic—like their repertory. But in spite of their political game, which was upheld by the bourgeois press, I very much doubt whether they will have the last word against the irresistible power of a movement which increases in proportion as it is opposed. The people can no longer be deceived. No one who is really concerned about the people's art will allow himself to be duped by any such trick; and their determination to establish a true People's Theater at Paris is not in the least shaken.[23]

But meantime, while we wait, with fewer illusions perhaps and more experience, for them to take up the temporarily interrupted projects, the People's Theater slowly develops, here and there. Among the more or less happy experiments undertaken in this period of reaction, we may point to the Coopération des idées, the Théâtre populaire of Belleville, and the Théâtre du Peuple of M. Beaulieu.

On December 3, 1899, the People's Theater of the Coopération des idées opened its doors at number 157 Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Since that time there has been a series of almost continuous performances. Unfortunately the hall was too small—seating as it did only from three to four hundred people—and inconvenient. The strange mixture of all sorts of plays is also open to criticism. Among the dramatists represented were Corneille, Racine, Molière, Marivaux, Regnard, Beaumarchais, Musset, Ponsard, Hugo, and Augier. Courteline is a favorite, together with Tristan Bernard, Labiche, and Grenet-Dancourt. Rostand and Pailleron are also performed, and even the lightest comedies of Capus, Meilhac, Porto-Riche, Véber, and Francis de Croisset. Among the more truly popular plays may be mentioned Maurice Pottecher's Liberté, which was seen at the opening performance; Les Mauvais bergers, L'Épidémie, and Le Portefeuille of Mirbeau; Brieux's Blanchette, Descaves' La Cage and Tiers état; François de Curel's La Nouvelle idole: a number of plays of Jean Jullien (among them Le Maître), Ancey, Marsolleau, Trarieux, Henri Dargel; Jean Hugues' La Grêve, and Romain Rolland's Les Loups. I have already said enough of such indiscriminate eclecticism to enable me to dispense with further criticism. Even for the cultured few this is sufficiently thin fare, but it may prove fatal for a new and ignorant public: they risk being overwhelmed by so great a collection of contradictory and varied styles and sentiments. But we cannot deny the vitality and good spirit behind this artistic venture. During the first three years of its existence the little society produced about two hundred plays, of which thirty were in more than three acts, some of them entirely new. Nor were actors wanting. There were sufficient for four companies at one time, recruited from among the audiences of the Coopération and the various troupes of people's actors who lent their aid from time to time, and the students from the Conservatoire who acted Horace with others from the Comédie-Française. This is a true People's Theater in the making; all that lacked was a larger and more accessible hall.

There was another attempt to form a People's Theater. The Théâtre populaire was opened in September, 1903, in the very heart of the workingmen's quarter in Paris: number 8, Rue de Belleville.

The director of this theater, M. E. Berny, is an intelligent and daring young man, part of whose inspiration was doubtless derived from the projects exposed in the questionnaire of the Revue d'art dramatique. The hall, which was provided with a single gallery, held between a thousand and twelve hundred spectators. In case the experiment had succeeded, it was planned to add two more galleries, which would have enabled the theater to accommodate between eighteen hundred and two thousand. The prices ranged from twenty-five centimes to one franc fifty. A subscription plan enabled the theater to risk a few rather daring experiments. These subscriptions were fifteen and twenty francs for twenty performances. The workingmen were allowed to pay for the subscriptions in weekly instalments. Block subscriptions were likewise offered to the various syndicates, workingmen's associations, and People's Universities. The theater offered Thursday matinees to students at greatly reduced prices: twenty-five and fifty centimes. The repertory changed from week to week; it was eclectic, and endeavored to supply the moral needs, a purpose which no People's Theater worthy the name can afford to lose sight of. M. Berny did not hesitate to go to the classic drama, but he selected his plays with discretion and taste, for he tried at first not to break away too abruptly from the people's cherished melodrama. He succeeded gradually in developing the taste of his audiences by giving them modern plays, forcing them to think, and he called upon living writers for plays dealing fearlessly with present-day problems.

M. Berny's theater opened September 19, 1903, with Courteline's Monsieur Badin, Mirbeau's Le Portefeuille, and Romain Rolland's Danton. Eugène Morel delivered an introductory address on the People's Theater before an audience composed—at last!—entirely of the people.[24] M. Berny also produced Daudet's Sapho, Maupassant's Boule de Suif, Jean Jullien's Le Maître, Émile Fabre's La Rabouilleuse, and Sardou's Madame Sans-Gêne. During his first season he produced sixty-one plays (one hundred and fifty-five acts in all), with ninety-three actors, before 135,000 spectators. His theater, ideally situated in the center of the workingmen's quarter, where the inhabitants are wide-awake, rapidly gathered to itself an interested and exclusive clientele of people. I have more than once enjoyed the opportunity of watching these audiences—especially at performances of Madame Sans-Gêne and at the premiere of a Jean Jullien play. I was struck by the keen interest displayed everywhere about me, often taking the form of audible expression, where someone would agree or disagree with a character. I am told that at Danton the audience roundly berated the Revolutionary figures who displeased them: Vadier, Fouquier-Tinville, etc. At one performance of Madame Sans-Gêne I saw them on the point of hissing Napoleon when he reproached the heroine for being a washerwoman. They always took sides, they were incapable of remaining neutral. This Belleville People's Theater has a public of quick intelligence. I watched especially the young men and women, people with splendid faces, but many of them pale and pinched and worn with the fatigue of constant labor. Beneath the transparent and mobile faces there seemed to float great waves of desire, and care, and changing moods of irony. A truly intelligent class—almost too intelligent—with a touch of the morbid: the people of a large city. And this public might in a few years' time become the ideal audience: intellectual and passionate.

A few weeks after the opening of this Théâtre populaire, M. Henri Beaulieu, an actor of talent, opened on November 14 a second Théâtre du Peuple, in the Théâtre Moncey, in Clichy. It was an advance-guard experiment. The price of seats ranged from fifty centimes to two francs. A hundred free tickets were to be distributed on certain days of the week among the poor children of the primary schools, and to certain workingmen's societies, soldiers, etc. There were Thursday matinees of French and foreign classics, in a subscription series costing ten francs for twelve performances. A subscription series for the premieres of new and original works (of which at least six were promised) was an inducement offered to the "cultured few." The other arrangements of the theater were modeled after the Berlin Schiller-Theater: the payment of dividends to the actors, suppression of the ushers' nuisance, a maximum charge of ten centimes for the checking of wraps, and the installation of a permanent exhibit of pictures, models, photographs, etc.

It was M. Beaulieu's idea—by no means the least original of his project—to send companies from his theater into the Socialist and labor centers of the provinces, and into the neighboring countries: Lyons, Saint-Étienne, Lille, Brussels, Geneva, etc.

His repertory included a large number of thesis-plays, but always of an artistic character. Among others, he was to have produced Hauptmann's The Weavers, Heijermans' The Good Hope, Émile Fabre's La Vie publique, Octave Mirbeau's Les Mauvais bergers, Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness, Anatole France's Crainquebille, Ajalbert's dramatization of the Goncourts' La Fille Élisa, Verhaeren's Le Cloître, Brieux' La Robe rouge, Sudermann's Honor, Romain Rolland's Danton, comedies of Courteline, etc. The theater opened with Zola's Thérèse Raquin, and offered as the first season's novelty Lucien Besnard's comedy L'Affaire Grisel.

But success did not respond to the effort. The situation of the building—in the Avenue de Clichy—was not so good as that of the Belleville theater. One of the first cares of the founders of any new people's theater should be the study of the neighborhood in which they plan to begin, and the hall in which the plays are to be performed. In a city the size of Paris, with its manifold complexities, there is as much difference between one neighborhood and another as between two provinces. I do not mean that one cannot change one's public; on the contrary, I think that this is the purpose of all true art; art, that is, that refuses to pander to the public. But of course this transformation requires much time and trouble. M. Beaulieu spared no pains, but time and funds were limited. He found, too, a spirit of the bitterest opposition. The neighborhood of the Batignolles is like a little provincial town, and the people were hostile to everything that came from the outside. The Bourgeoisie refused to come to a theater where they could not reserve seats in advance, and the few who did come looked at the scale of prices in the box-office and said: "It must be poor if the seats are so cheap!" But the worst enemies of the venture were the people themselves. They refused to be merely the people. They said to M. Beaulieu:

"People yourself! We're as good bourgeois as you!"

I presume that if he had wished to force them to go to his theater he would have had to call it Theater of the Bourgeoisie![25]

Here we come to the most difficult part of our problem, one which threatens to destroy all attempts to establish a people's art at Paris. The people of Paris seem to have lost all sense of class distinction. The demoralizing atmosphere of a city rolling in luxury, pleasure, and business, appears to have debilitated all the inhabitants. Or, to be more exact, there are two peoples in Paris: the one that has just emerged from a state of downright poverty, and is at once taken into the Bourgeoisie. The other is vanquished by its more fortunate brothers, and is in a state of abject misery. The first will not have a people's theater, and the second obviously cannot attend one. The Bourgeoisie tries to annihilate one and assimilate the other. But it is our political and artistic ideal to bring together these two peoples and give them a collective sense of their party. And in this respect we agree with the aims of Syndicalism. Not that we are endeavoring to set one class against the other, but because we wish to establish the greatest harmony among the various forces of the nation; to this end, we would have each of the constituent elements—above all, that in which the strength is greatest—preserve intact its individuality. Just as, while we are striving to found a new Europe in which the thought of the Occidental races shall be common to all, we wish each race, far from losing its character and forgetting its past glory, to bring what is most glorious and lay it on the common altar of humanity.

  1. Lettre à d'Alembert, 1758.
  2. Herder, in defending Shakespeare in 1773 and holding him up as the ideal dramatist, showed that his plots were not Greek in spirit, but belonged rather to the Middle Age. He said: "A sea of events, where the moaning waves follow each other; that is Shakespeare. Acts of nature come and go, act and inter-act, no matter how dissimilar they may be; create and re-create, and destroy in turn, in order to realize the ultimate intention of the Creator."
  3. Discours de la liberté du théâtre, June 15, 1789.
  4. See Albert Kontz, Les Drames de la jeunesse de Schiller, Leroux, 1899.
  5. Eighth Letter on Don Carlos, 1788.
  6. Goethe kept much farther aloof from the Revolutionary spirit, although one can trace its influence in Egmont (1788) where the dying hero says: "People, defend your rights! In order to save what you hold dear, die joyfully. I give you an example!" But the man who preferred injustice to disorder, he who could parody the Revolution in Der Burgergeneral (1793) and Die Aufgeregten (1793), was evidently unable to understand art for the people.

    And yet, toward the end of his life, he began to have some ideas on the subject. We find traces of them in his Conversations with Eckermann. "A great dramatic poet, if he is at the same time productive, and is actuated by a strong noble purpose which pervades all his works, may succeed in making the soul of his pieces become the soul of the people. I should think that this was something well worth the trouble. … A dramatic poet who knows his vocation should therefore work incessantly at its higher development, in order that his influence on the people may be noble and beneficial." (April 1, 1827.)

    And I notice in certain of Goethe's writings, for instance Wilhelm Meister (II, III, and following), short descriptions of people's performances. In a mountainous district (Hochdorf) some factory workers have converted a barn into a theater; there they act a comedy full of movement, but without characters: two rivals abduct a young girl from her guardian, and quarrel over her. A little farther on, he describes a sort of improvised popular production out-of-doors: a dialogue between a miner and a peasant.

  7. A fortress was especially erected on the banks of the Seine.
  8. The first of these popular performances was given August 6 at the Théâtre de la République. Brutus was the play, and the announcement bore the inscription: By and for the People.
  9. Quelques idées sur les arts, sur la nécessité de les encourager, sur les institutions qui peuvent en assurer le perfectionnement et sur divers établissements nécessaires à l'enseignement public, addressées à la Convention nationale et au Comité d'instruction publique, par Boissy d'Anglas, député du département de l'Ardèche.
  10. Histoire littéraire de la Convention.
  11. Le Vandalisme révolutionnaire.
  12. Michelet, L'Étudiant (lecture-course of 1847–48).
  13. For the Schiller-Theater see p. 102, note 1, and the articles of Jean Vignaud: Un théâtre populaire à Berlin in the Revue d'art dramatique (Oct. 5, 1899), and of Adrien Bernheim in Le Temps (1902).
  14. On the performances at the Maison du Peuple of Brussels, see Jules Destrée, Les Préoccupations intellectuelles, esthétiques et morales dans le parti ouvrier belge. (In the Mouvement Socialiste, Sept. 1 and 15, 1902.)
  15. As early as 1545 we find a Guillaume Tell performed at Zurich. The movement for people's productions which was so strong at Bâle, Berne, and Zurich during the sixteenth century, was practically abandoned during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but with Schiller's Wilhelm Tell it was revived and pursued with the greatest enthusiasm. Herr Stocker's book, Das Volks-theater in der Schweiz (1893), is a detailed study of this movement, which inspired the establishment of many Dramatische Vereine in the very smallest towns.—"The people's theater is one of the most vital and original traditions of Swiss art," writes M. René Morax. "Switzerland indeed never had any other theater. Neither national crises nor the nefarious blight of the Consistories could keep the Swiss from taking pleasure in these great spectacles, which included the plays of Ruff, the companion of Zwingli, the author of the first William Tell play from the beautiful tragedy of Theodore de Bèze, to the Charles the Bold of Arnold Ott." (Journal de Genève, May 5 and 8, 1907.)
  16. I do not here refer to the traditional performances, like the Oberammergau Passion Play, and the Maggi (May festivals) of Tuscany, which have continued without interruption from the fifteenth, and perhaps even the fourteenth century, to our own days. These are written and played by the peasants around Pisa, Lucca, Pistoia, and Siena.
  17. This was founded on July 3, 1897, by the little Enclos group: Louis Lumet, Charles-Louis Philippe, J.-G. Prod'homme, and Charles Max.
  18. The Roman theater at Orange was reopened in 1869, I think, with the singing of a cantata, Les Triomphateurs, of Antony-Réal, and the Joseph of Méhul. Adam's Le Châlet was given in 1874; Les Précieuses ridicules in 1886; then followed a series of classic or pseudo-classic tragedies: Œdipus, Antigone, Alcestis, The Phœnician Women, Athalie, Phèdre, Horace; and the Orphée and Iphigénie en Tauride of Gluck. Lately there were three series of productions within a few weeks, and the variety of programs was disconcerting. In 1903 alone there were performances of La Légende du cœur by Jean Aicard, Œdipe et le Sphinx, by Joséphin Péladan, Citharis by Alexis Mouzin, Iphigénie by Jean Moréas; Horace, Phèdre, The Phœnician Women, Orphée, etc. In place of these antique imitations and absurd transpositions of parlor tragedies, I should like to see genuine Provençal plays, like Mistral's La Reine Jeanne.—See Léopold Lacour's articles, Au Thâtre d'Orange and Le Présent et l'avenir (in the Revue de Paris, Sept. 1, 1903), and Les Théâtres en plein air (in L'Art du Théâtre, Oct., 1903).

    The performances in the arena constructed by M. Castelbon de Beauxhostes at Béziers have up to the present been exclusively musical; at first they were devoted to the music of M. Saint-Saëns (Déjanire and Parysatis) with few exceptions (such as the Prometheus, music by M. Gabriel Fauré, and libretto by MM. Jean Lorrain and Ferdinand Hérold). The more recent productions, at Nîmes, have not been so distinctly alive. M. Mounet-Sully acted in Œdipus there, which was preceded by a prologue from the pen of M. Maurice Magre.

  19. See La Revue universelle, July 6, 1901.
  20. Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 6th cahier of the 3d series.
  21. "A few workingmen, coming to the conclusion that the very brief education given to their children was far from sufficient and therefore somewhat dangerous, and wishing to avoid the oppression of the electoral organizations—where much is said and little thought—came together with their books and their ideas, and agreed to meet regularly one night a week for the purpose of discussion. They first met in the back part of a wine merchant's shop, in 1886, Rue des Boulets." (Henri Dargel: Le Théâtre du peuple à la Coopération des idées, in La Revue d'art dramatique, April, 1903.) Such was the beginning of the Coopération des idées, the name of which was taken from a paper started by M. Deherme in 1894.
  22. Eugène Morel, Projet de Théâtres populaires (published by the Revue d'art dramatique).
  23. I need only to recall the press campaign carried on for many years by Camille de Sainte-Croix, Lucien Descaves, Gustave Geffroy, Jean Jullien, Octave Mirbeau, and the studies and questionnaire of Georges Bourdon in the Revue bleue. Ever since the stormy performances of Thermidor at the Comédie-Française in 1890, M. Camille de Sainte-Croix has not ceased his demands for a republican theater on behalf of the republican people of Paris. He saw that the people were excluded from the State theaters because of the reactionary spirit of the so-called upper classes. Since 1900 he has labored to secure a State appropriation for the establishment of four large people's theaters, devoted to dramatic and lyric, classic and modern productions, one for each of the outlying districts of the city. He submitted a report of his inquiries to the Chamber and Municipal Council. The State at once appeared interested—but this was merely in order to suppress it the more effectively.
  24. Eugène Morel, Discours pour l'ouverture d'un théâtre populaire, in the Revue d'art dramatique, Oct. 15, 1903.
  25. Perhaps it will not be amiss to state the extraordinary effect of some of these plays on the audiences of the Batignolles. They were frankly hostile to Thérèse Raquin; they misunderstood La Vie publique; the irony of Boubouroche was too much for them. On the other hand, they enjoyed La Robe rouge, Honor, Le Dépit amoureux, and, above all, The Weavers and La Fille Éliza.