The People's Theater/Author's Introduction

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The People and the Theater

A curious phenomenon has occurred during the past ten years. French art, the most aristocratic of arts, has come to recognize the masses. French artists have, of course, known of the existence of the people before, but they have considered them only as subjects of conversation, as material for novels, plays, or pictures.

"An admirable subject to treat in Latin verses."

But they never took the people into account as a living entity, a public, or a judge.[1] The progress of Socialism has directed the attention of artists to this new sovereign whose politicians up to the present had been its sole spokesmen: authors and actors. And they have discovered the people—discovered, I venture to say, in much the same manner as explorers discover a new market for their wares. The authors wish to import their plays, the State its repertory, actors, and officials. It is a comedy in itself, with a part for each. This is not a fit subject for irony, for no one is quite exempt from its shafts. And we must take men as they are, nor seek to discourage their conscious or unconscious efforts to combine personal with public gain—provided the latter is assured. But such is the case; and from this movement which progresses so quickly that bad is bound to come hand in hand with good, and personal with public profit, I wish to call attention to but two points: first, the sudden importance assumed by the people in art (or rather, the importance ascribed to the people, for they never speak for themselves; everyone assumes the rôle of spokesman for them); and second, the extraordinary diversity of opinion as to the nature of democratic art itself.

In fact, among those who claim to represent the aims of the people's theater, there are two diametrically opposed ideals: the adherents of the first seek to give the people the theater as it now exists, any theater so long as it is a theater; those of the second attempt to extract from this new force, the people, an entirely new theater. The first believe in the Theater, the others in the People. The two have nothing in common: one is the champion of the past, the other of the future.

I need not tell you where the State stands. By its very definition, the State always belongs to the past. No matter how new the forms of life it represents, it arrests and congeals them. But you cannot fix life once for all. It is the function of the State to petrify everything with which it comes into contact, and turn living into bureaucratic ideals.[2]

This point has been well borne out, occasionally, by the Œuvre des Trente ans de Théâtre. Thanks to its intelligent promoter, M. Adrien Bernheim, the classics have been produced in the outlying districts of Paris by actors from the great subventioned theaters. But at once M. Bernheim and his friends declare: "The People's Theater is founded!" Indeed? Re-baptize the bourgeois theater as the People's Theater! That is all! And so nothing has been changed; art alone is to remain stationary amid an ever-changing society; we are forever condemned to adhere to a lifeless ideal, to a theater whose thoughts, style, acting, possess nothing vital, to the degenerate tradition of a house of mummers!

Later on I shall give my opinion of the Trente ans de Théâtre enterprise, and try to refer to it with all the respect due to any sincere and generous attempt of that kind. But this attempt assumes a confidence in the essential rightness of our civilization in general and our theater in particular which I for one am far from sharing; and I shall do my best to destroy the illusion. I am well aware that it is shared by the thinking classes of today, but this only proves what we have known for some time: that the thinking classes cannot be depended upon. In vain they strive to change: but they are essentially conservative, they belong to the past, they can produce no new society or art: they will disappear.

Life cannot be linked with death, and the art of the past is more than three-quarters dead. This is true not only of our French art, but of all art. The art of the past does not satisfy us nowadays, and its effects are often detrimental. The first requisite to a normal healthy existence is that art shall continually evolve together with life itself.

I do not know whether the society of today will create its own art, but I am sure that if it fails to do so, we shall have no living art, only a museum, a mausoleum wherein sleep the embalmed mummies of the past. We have been educated to respect the memory of what has been, and we find it exceedingly difficult to tear ourselves loose. The past is wrapped in a haze of poetry, which softens everything to the indistinctly melting outlines of a distant view. But from these beautiful forms which once throbbed with vitality, the life has faded, or is fading from day to day. And if even a few masterpieces, more robust than the rest, still wield some of their pristine power over us, I am not sure that that power is beneficial nowadays. Nothing is good except in its place and time. You may believe that the good and the beautiful are absolute unchanging entities; but modes of expression vary according to each human mind; and the forms which were charming and noble in one century are more than likely, when carried over into another, to appear monstrous anachronisms. One of the dangers of art pointed out by Tolstoy arises perhaps from the fact that the forces of another day, when brought into an epoch where they do not belong, occasion serious disorders. It is not only in the domain of ethics that "a meridian decides the truth" and "a river fixes the boundary"; it is the same in art. Certain ages proscribed all representation of the nude, not only on moral but esthetic grounds. The sculptors of the Middle Age shunned the naked body as a thing deformed, believing that "clothing was necessary to bodily grace." The painters of the School of Giotto found "no perfect proportion"[3] in the female body. The men of the seventeenth century who knew most about Gothic architecture,[4] condemned it for the identical reasons which render it most beautiful in our eyes. A genius of the eighteenth century[5] considered it an insult to be compared with Shakespeare. A great Italian painter[6] spoke of Flemish art in derision, saying that it was "good for women, priests, and other pious people." Tolstoy's Moujik is disgusted with the Venus of Milo. It is possible that what is beautiful to the cultured few may seem ugly to the people, and that it fails to satisfy their needs, which are as legitimate as our own. Let us not blindly seek to impose upon the people of the twentieth century the art and thought of the aristocratic society of the past. And besides, the People's Theater has more important work to do than to collect the fragments of the bourgeois theater. It is not our intention to increase the audiences of the established theaters; we are not working for them: we have only to think of the welfare of art and of the people. One needs be a great optimist to believe that the general diffusion of artistic culture, taken as a whole, has anything to do with our plans.

Let us be brave enough to combat the proud superstitions clinging to that precious art of ours in which we take so much pride. Let us now see whether in all the dramatic impedimenta of the past there is anything for the people. And if we find nothing, let us be frank enough to confess it, without fear or prejudice.

  1. The poet Rodenbach wrote: "Art is not for the people. … To make the people understand it, art would have to be brought down to their level."
  2. Since these lines were written, time has confirmed my fears. The interference of the State in projects for popular theaters has put an end to them by the introduction of ruinous changes.
  3. Cennino Cennini, in 1437.
  4. Fénelon.
  5. Gluck.
  6. Michelangelo.