The People's Theater/Part I, Chapter V

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Greek Drama

Shakespeare, Schiller, Wagner

There remain the plays of the other nations. Great dramatists, the greatest in the history of the theater—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Lope, Calderon, and Schiller—have all been dramatists of the people in their day—at least in some of their plays. But differences of time and of race are most unfortunate. In spite of the compelling charm and melancholy majesty a play of Sophocles with its serene perfection of Greek art will always possess for a cultured few, and in spite of the intolerance of the admirers of what I may call the recent success of Œdipus the King, that success is for the most part due to erudition, superstitious respect and, above all, the prestige of an actor of genius. Without the name of Sophocles, and the poignant though almost wholly plastic emotion of Mounet-Sully's acting and the considerable impression produced by the mediocre music, neither the people nor the Bourgeoisie could have distinguished the sublime greatness of Œdipus the King from a host of melodramas of a bygone day.

And in spite of the great distance separating us from the moral and religious beliefs of the Greeks, we are nearer to the spirit of Sophocles than—I shall not say Lope and Calderon, whose bloody dramas, rapacious heroes and gentlemen-assassins will never be acceptable to us until the re-establishment of bull-fighting and gladiatorial combats (a possibility, indeed, but not one we particularly care to envisage)—to Shakespeare. Indeed, everything separates him from us, time as well as nationality. Nothing more surely proves our narrowness of mind, its inability without proper preparation to identify ourselves with a past epoch. The style, which in its own day was a transparent evil, exactly suited to the thought, actually obscures it nowadays, like an opaque and many-colored curtain, the strange design and color of which confuse and blind us. I once attended a popular reading of Macbeth by Maurice Bouchor. I tried to forget myself and become one of the people; but I felt ill at ease, and almost ashamed when I heard certain metaphors, the archaic grandeur of which, under the circumstances, assumed an obscure and impossibly absurd importance. Ought we then to divest Shakespeare of the charming and barbaric beauty of his style? That were a sacrilegious and perilous task, exceedingly difficult for those who love him. And it would not, besides, preserve the integrity of the rest. It would be necessary to cut, slash, and modify, both characters and plot, in order to make the plays suitable to our public. The English themselves have felt free to do this, and also the Germans, with all their boasts about exactitude, and their famous translations, "almost as good as the original"—what volumes this phrase tells of their appreciation! And we in France have all the more reason to accept such profanation, though without doubt the popular audiences in this country come nearer to appreciating certain sides of Shakespeare's work than the ordinary audience. They understand what is instinctive and violent in it; but still, how immeasurably far from his myriad-minded genius do they still remain! It is a pitiful thing to have to bring the works of a great man down to the level of the masses!

We should also be forced to mutilate the plays of the great poetic dramatists of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Among the popular dramas of that time, I should beyond all question put the Wilhelm Tell of Schiller, and the Prinz Friedrich von Hamburg of Heinrich von Kleist, the most powerful of German tragic writers. Kleist's work is passionate and grandiose; even nowadays it arouses great enthusiasm among German audiences, but it is the very apotheosis of the Prussian monarchical ideal, and we might be somewhat embarrassed to further that. But the play is valuable to us because it is an almost unique type of the patriotic drama, in the best sense of the term, without jingoism, and without the usual flattery of the base instincts of the multitude. As for the admirable Wilhelm Tell, vibrating with thick red blood and interpreting the honest genius of the heroic Bourgeoisie of the Revolution, it is an excellent popular play for the Germans. This was proved to me at various times, by productions at Altorf : the parts were played by the Bourgeoisie and the people of the Canton; the public gathers to witness the spectacle, participates in the action, and echoes as it were the burning words of liberty. I believe that popular art can show no nobler figure than Tell, the German Hercules, the athletic dreamer, slow to make up his mind, possessed with a great but silent power, in whose mind thoughts and emotions sleep as in a majestic lake, the surface of which the winds can hardly ruffle, but which, once aroused, is like the sea. But the German elements in the play—the cold dissertations, the stolidity of character in the people, the sentiment, and romantic simplicity—would have to be deleted. And what remains? The other plays of Schiller would be of no use to us.

Among the men a little nearer our own time, some have attempted to write directly for the people: Raimund and Anzengruber in Austria, Tolstoy and Gorki in Russia, and Hauptmann in Germany. But even among the plays of these dramatists, such works as The Weavers and The Power of Darkness, long-drawn-out cries of misery and spectacles of abject horror, seem intended rather to awaken the consciences of the rich than to encourage and amuse the poor, who are already sore pressed under the burden of their existence. Or, at most, they appeal to only a few among them, the radicals, the leaders of future revolutions. It is absurd to imagine that such pitiful spectacles could assume a place in the repertory of a people who have cast off the shackles of slavery. They are the nightmares which it is hoped they will shun. As for Anzengruber,[1] it seems that he wrote for a popular audience, and he has at least created a few popular types. Some of his plays are up-to-date by reason of their anti-clerical protest, but on the whole they are better adapted to the lower Bourgeoisie of Vienna than to the masses, for Anzengruber lacked the necessary genius to carry his local observations into the realm of the universal. He is an interesting example of a dramatist who avoided excess, and addressed the people without flattery and without contempt, exhibiting to them the spectacle of their own lives.

And finally, we come at the end of the century to the imposing name of the mighty Wagner. Wagner, the greatest composer since Beethoven, was at the same time the greatest dramatic poet since Schiller and Goethe. He has depicted unforgettable characters of superhuman dimensions, comparable to the heroes of antiquity: Siegmund, Siegfried, Brunnhilde. With one stroke he gave us a model play for a People's Theater in that brilliant fresco Die Meistersinger, a work overflowing with strength, humor, color, and movement. The people literally overrun it in their tumultuous joy, while the good humor of the masses seems concentrated in the heroic kindliness of old Hans Sachs, who stands for the profound and serene conscience of the people. Unfortunately, Wagner's drama is indissolubly linked with music, a consideration of which we have avoided, for it complicates our inquiry. I think it useless to enter into the question at this time. The musical education of the people has scarcely begun in France, and many years must elapse before its completion. Until that time let us not trouble ourselves with the Wagnerian music-drama, though we may admit that that form of German art has a splendid chance to take root in French soil. At all events, if we need music, let us first offer the people the virile meditations and healthy sorrows of the most heroic of men, allowing Beethoven to precede Wagner.[2] Wagner's plays, in spite of their grandeur, are full of unhealthy dreams, reminiscent of their source—the aristocracy of a decadent art which had reached the last stage of its evolution, almost of its life. What profit can the people derive from the abnormal sentimental complications of Wagner, the excessive eroticism, the metaphysics of Valhalla, Tristan's death-scented love, the mystico-carnal torments of the Knights of the Holy Grail? It all flows from sources tainted with neo-Christian or neo-Buddhist refinement, translated into decidedly mortal and physical action, and all set into a gorgeous framework, though the basis be rotten. In the name of Heaven, let us not give the people our diseases—no matter how complacently we may cultivate them ourselves! Let us strive to create a healthier and a better race!

  1. See M. Auguste Ehrhard's articles on Anzengruber in the Revue d'art dramatique, July-August, 1897.
  2. Certainly Meyerbeer and Adolphe Adam, so dear to the hearts of M. Bernheim and his associates.