The People's Theater/Part I, Chapter VI

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New York: Henry Holt, pages 45–48


The Plays of the Past Offer No More than a Series of Popular Readings. No Material for a People's Theater. Readings are Not Enough: We Must Have a Theater

We have now come to the end of our rapid survey of the past. What remains of all the wealth that has been? A very few plays, not one of which we can use in its entirety: a repertory of popular readings, but no plays for a People's Theater.

Then why not resign ourselves, with Maurice Bouchor and many others, to the reading of plays in cut versions, accompanied by explanatory remarks, summing up the whole with a neat moral? In the first place, because—I say it frankly—we must consider not only the good of the people, we must respect art and the products of great minds. Among all man's creations, which alone give meaning to his existence, I have an unbounded admiration for the theater: it is man's statue, shaped by himself out of his own imagination, a flaming image of the universe, itself a greater universe. The equivocal dramatic reading is only a pale reflex of the actual theatrical performance, which stands in much the same relation to it as the photograph to the original, the pianoforte transcription to the orchestral symphony. It cannot be denied that this is popularizing art, but if popularizing means vulgarizing, then we are opposed to popularization. It is our purpose to infuse new blood into art, and expand its narrow chest by giving it the health and strength of the masses. We are not offering the glorious products of the human mind to the people; we appeal to the people to serve the cause of art.[1]

But we believe we can better serve the cause of art through the medium of the People's Theater than by popular readings. No matter what charm the reader brings to his work, that work is still only a sort of primary education, thrusting as it does the teacher between art and the public. In spite of all, the reading is a sort of preachment—intended as such by the reader, for he wishes gradually to initiate the people into the wonders of art; but so careful is he, that he selects what he considers the best of the theater and gives it to the people without the dangers of actual theatrical production, without the flesh-and-blood suggestiveness of acting which he considers bad for his audience. But it seems to me that he merely substitutes one danger for another, for the men and women of the Bourgeoisie are just as anxious to read and lecture as to act; they are born with the innate desire of exhibiting to a complacent audience their petty talents; speaking pieces and playing the piano. I am not sure which is worse, but I do know that there is more of the amateur spirit in the drawing-room than on the stage. I have often noticed the irritating effect produced by the reader in his effort to avoid placing a work of art fairly and squarely before his audience. He is forced to make humiliating explanations, and he little realizes that nothing is so offensive to the people as to be treated like children. They are furious when they perceive a bourgeois reader condescending to stoop to their level. This is what I object to in public readings, for the reader treats the people as if they were little children learning to walk. Put them in a theater and they will be forced to walk by themselves ; and there is no better practice. The drama is a living example, contagious and irresistible; it exists in an atmosphere of glory, it is a battlefield where the people are thrust into the midst of human action in pursuit of the hero, for they admire him and wish to emulate him. The eloquence of the orator is the only rival to the theater in its effect on the masses; the public reading is nothing compared with it. The reader appeals to the senses indirectly; he touches only the brain, for he fears the rude shock of physical action. But this is cowardly. We must see to it that the physical well-being of the people is looked after, for this is the basis of our whole civilization. It is the glory of the theater that it deals directly with the instincts, and portrays them vividly. Of course, we must try to perfect man—despite his character—by appealing to his intellect, but it is better to go straight to nature, for the truly great man is he who is great naturally, without realizing it. We recognize the temporary value of public readings : they are for the time being excellent propaganda. The entertainments where a little declamation and a bit of music are served up in a heterogeneous mass are perhaps necessary to stir the sluggish minds of the people who, through long attendance at cheap "shows," have lost the power of prolonged concentration. Let us take the readings for what they are worth : as a sort of supplementary night school, a preparatory course to the appreciation of true art. They are provisional quarters, constructed in great haste, erected for use until the permanent building shall be ready for occupancy. But let us not rest content with these wooden huts, and mistake the architect's shed at the foot of the cathedral for the cathedral itself.

  1. We must not forget Dickens, whose success as a public reader, first at Birmingham in 1853, but principally between 1858 and 1870, both in England and America, induced many others to follow in his steps. Certain Frenchmen, however, were before him. In 1848 E. Souvestre spoke before the workingmen of Paris in his Lectures publiques du Soir (see Sainte-Beuve: Causeries du Lundi, I, 275). At about the same time, Carnot offered V. Duruy the position of "Reader to the People" (see Paul Crouzet: Littérature et Conférences populaires).