The People's Theater/Part II, Chapter II

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Moral and Physical Conditions

Such, briefly, is the history of the first attempts to create a People's Theater in France. They are the direct result, as we have seen, of the great democratic traditions of the eighteenth century philosophers and the men of the Convention. There remains for us to state our conception of this new theater.

The economic aspects of the question have received adequate treatment at the hands of Eugène Morel.[1] Of course, I do not invariably agree with him. For instance, Morel believes in the theater for its own sake: "The more theaters the better. The more people, the better. I consider quantity, not quality." On the contrary, I think only of quality, and not at all of quantity. I have no faith in a theater without an ideal. I should not trouble my head about the people if I thought they might become merely another Bourgeoisie, as vulgar in their pleasures, as hypocritical in their morality, as stupid and apathetic, as the actual Bourgeoisie. Little would I care to prolong an art of empty nothingness, and a class of people which seems at the edge of the grave. But if I have much less faith in the absolute worth of art than Morel, and much more in a moral and social revolution of humanity, I cannot help admiring the originality with which he has attempted to solve the problem of popular art. His Projet de théâtres populaires, so far as material organization is concerned, is a genuinely original contribution, full of fertile ideas; his novel suggestions are rendered more valuable by a judicious sense of the practical requirements. I need not analyze that work here: it should be read from cover to cover. I shall content myself with exposing its principal outlines.

M. Morel places his People's Theater on a financial basis by means of subscriptions. "Taste can only be formed by the constant sight of beautiful things. Education requires repetition. In order to exercise any appreciable influence over the public, you must always have a public. Occasional festivals may be more imposing, but their influence amounts to nothing."[2] The subscriptions were for weekly performances. "This is the most regular form of subscription, the one best calculated to form the habit." And Morel proposes to issue 25-franc certificates the coupons from which may be used as tickets from week to week. By an additional payment of ten francs, an original purchaser may renew his subscription after he has used his first twenty-five tickets. I need not enter into detail as to Morel's methods of easy payment, which he has further simplified by reducing expenses. This he has done by discounting authors' royalties and suggesting a reform in the Public Charities' taxes, which under the present system make a People's Theater almost impossible to run. "And finally," he concludes, "we are not establishing a charitable institution; but we must have a system whereby very few families would be too poor to go to the theater; and, consequently, the theater, far from being a luxury, would actually develop a sense of thrift and economy."

The renewal of subscriptions under this system would naturally reduce the income for the following year, but now it will be seen that the People's Theater is not a single isolated institution. "The moment it succeeds the profits must go to the founding of another theater, in a different neighborhood. In this way, a play will no longer be performed only seven days, but fourteen, and the capital required for the foundation of the original theater replaced out of the profits of the second. The second, then, making use of the material as well as the actors of the first, will have no trouble in starting, and will be further enabled to profit by the experience of the one before it. The use of the same costumes and scenery in the second theater will further reduce the expenses." These theaters are to be organized not only throughout Paris, but in every province of France. "We wish to cover France with theaters." The theaters would be so closely allied that actors, costumes, and scenery would be common property, under the administration of a central committee and its representative, the director. The State would have nothing to do—except to lend its aid in collecting the subscriptions, and its influence to insure the carrying out of the principles laid down by the founders. It is asked for no endowment, and no guarantees. The People's Theaters are to be independent, and the State is only to stand by and see that they are well run.[3]

I have said enough of this plan to show its originality, and I may now proceed to study it more closely.

Supposing that the capital is secured and the public ready. What conditions are necessary to a real People's Theater?

I shall not try to lay down absolute rules of procedure: we must remember that no laws are eternally applicable, the only good laws being made for an epoch that passes and a country that changes. Popular art is essentially changeable. Not only do the people feel in a manner far different from the "cultured" class, there exist different groups among the people themselves: the people of today and the people of tomorrow; those of a certain part of a certain city, and those of a part of another city. We cannot presume to do more than establish an average, more or less applicable to the people of Paris at the present time.

The first requisite of the People's Theater is that it must be a recreation. It must first of all give pleasure, a sort of physical and moral rest to the workingman weary from his day's work. It will be the task of the architects of the future People's Theater to see that cheap seats are not instruments of inquisitorial torture. It will be the task of the dramatists to see that their works produce joy, and not sadness and boredom. The greatest vanity or else downright stupidity are the only excuses for offering the people the latest products of a decadent art, which produces evil effects sometimes even on the minds of the torpid. As for the sufferings and doubts of the "cultured," let them keep these to themselves: the people have more than enough already. There is no use adding to their burden. The man of our times who best understood the people—Tolstoy—has not always himself escaped this artistic vice, and he has bravely humbled himself for his pride. His vocation as an apostle, that imperious need of his to impose his faith on others, and the exigencies of his artistic realism, were greater in The Power of Darkness than his fundamental goodness. Such plays, it seems to me, discourage rather than help the people. If we offered them no other fare, they would be right in turning their backs on us and seeking to drown their troubles at the cabaret. It would be pitiless of us to try to divert their sad existences with the spectacle of similar existences. If certain of the "cultured few" take pleasure "sucking melancholy as a weasel sucks an egg," we at least cannot demand the same intellectual stoicism from the people. The people are fond of violent acts, provided they do not, as in life, crush the hero. No matter how discouraged or resigned the people are in their lives, they are extravagantly optimistic where their dream-heroes are concerned, and they suffer when a play turns out sadly. But does this mean that they want tearful melodramas with uniformly happy endings? Surely not. The crude concoction of lies that forms the basis of most melodrama merely stupefies them, acting as a soporific, and contributes, like alcohol, to general inertia. The factor of amusement which we have desiderated in this art should not be allowed to take the place of moral energy. On the contrary!

The theater ought to be a source of energy: this is the second requisite. The obligation to avoid what is depressing and discouraging is altogether negative; an antidote is necessary, something to support and exalt the soul. In giving the people recreation, the theater is obliged to render them better able to set to work on the morrow. The happiness of simple and healthy men is never complete without some sort of action. Let the theater be an arena of action. Let the people make of their dramatist a congenial traveling-companion, alert, jovial, heroic if need be, on whose arm they may lean, on whose good humor they may count to make them forget the fatigue of the journey. It is the duty of this companion to take the people straight to their destination—without of course neglecting to teach them to observe along the road. This, it seems to me, is the third requisite of our People's Theater:

The theater ought to be a guiding light to the intelligence. It should flood with light the terrible brain of man, which is filled with shadows and monsters, and is exceeding narrow and cramped. We have just spoken of the need of guarding against giving every product of the artist to the people; I do not wish, however, to imply that they must be spared all incentive to thought. The workingman does not as a rule think while his body is working. It is good to exercise his brain and, no matter how little he may understand, it will afford him pleasure, just as violent exercise is always gratifying to any normal man after prolonged inaction. He must be taught, then, to see things clearly as well as himself, and to judge.

Joy, energy, and intelligence: these are the three fundamental requisites of our People's Theater. So far as a moral purpose is concerned—lessons, that is, in virtue, social solidarity, and the like—we need not bother much about that. The mere existence of a permanent theater, where great emotions are shared and shared often, will create at least for the time being a bond of brotherhood. In place of virtue, give them more intelligence, more happiness, and more energy: virtue and moral lessons will take care of themselves. People are not so much downright bad as ignorant: their badness is only the result of ignorance. Our great problem is to bring more light, purer air, and better order into the chaos of the soul. It is enough if we set the people to thinking and doing; let us not think and do for them. Let us above all avoid preaching morality; only too often have the truest friends of the people made art repellent to them by this means. The People's Theater must avoid these two excesses: moral pedagogy, which seeks to extract lifeless lessons from living works (a stupid thing to do, for the keenly alert will immediately scent the bait and avoid it), and mere impersonal dilettantism, whose only purpose is to amuse the people at any cost—a dishonorable thing, with which the people are not always pleased, for they can judge those who amuse them; and often there is a mixture of disdain in their laughter. No moral purpose, then, and no mere empty amusement, in and for itself. Morality is no more than the hygiene of the heart and the brain.[4] Let us found a theater full to the brim with health and joy. "Joy, the abounding strength of nature … joy, which turns the wheels of the world's docks; joy, which revolves the spheres in space; joy, which brings forth the flower from the seed, and suns from the firmament!"

Such are the moral requisites—moral in the sense I have just indicated—of our new Theater. We must now consider the very important question of physical requisites.

Regarding the architecture of the hall, Morel is in favor of the trapezoidal form, like the Bayreuth Theater and the Maison du Peuple at Brussels. M. Gosset, an architect, proposes a series of semicircular steps in the form of an amphitheater, divided into two or three floors. I myself have no preference. The essential point is that all the seats be equally good. This is why none of our old theaters, so odiously aristocratic, could be used as People's Theaters, even with considerable changes. We might however use our circuses. Nor shall we achieve a true brotherhood among men or develop any truly universal art until we have done away with the stupid system of orchestra seats and boxes, and the resultant antagonism between classes. I would have at most only two kinds of seats: first, practically all the seats in the hall, and then a few reserved at the back for families. The workingman who returns home late has no time to dress, and he may not feel altogether comfortable if he is forced to show himself in his everyday clothes: the reserved seats will allow him to see without being seen. I am not sure but that this condition would help the people in the matter of pride in their personal appearance: this would not be one of the least advantages of our People's Theater.

As for the stage, it should be so constructed as to allow masses of people to act on it: fifteen meters wide (with a movable proscenium arch in order to make the opening smaller on occasion), and twenty deep. Morel demands a perfected system of machinery, with Versenkungen as used in Germany, England, and America; the revolving stage, the use of which allows the poet free rein. Surely there is no reason why an entirely new theater should not have these latest mechanical devices, unless their installation should require too great an outlay. But I cannot help remarking that, for my part, I do not insist on them. Georges Bourdon writes that "this great mechanical evolution will perhaps appear only a tiny advance in the near future." I believe that an almost total suppression of mechanical devices would be a decided step in advance, and just as influential in the evolution of the art of the stage. I recall Michelet's words: "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 will do away with mere physical means, sumptuous stage-settings, and costumes, without which the feeble dramatists of this outworn age cannot move."

Art would have everything to gain if it cast aside this childish luxury to which it has become enslaved, that is valueless except to those whose brains are withered and people who can in no wise feel the true emotions of art. Certain performances given by the Œuvre des Trente ans de Théâtre have very easily done without stage-settings; and we know that rehearsals without costumes and scenery have frequently produced an impression a hundred times more profound and lasting than the most elaborately contrived production. I have often tested this out for myself, in our regular Paris theaters as well as in People's Theaters like that at Bussang. Scenery is a convention, and the only ones who are ever deceived are either the very simple, or those who are least so. The latter do not interest me at all, and as to the former, well, the people have no monopoly of them: for while the masses are more simple than we, they are not more childlike. Simplicity is either a very rare natural gift—such simplicity as we find in the people—or else it is merely the result of lack of experience in theater-going. But we maintain that the people are used to going to the theater, or that they soon will be; it is therefore futile to count upon their simplicity: in this year of 1903, the simplest public is that thronging the boulevards, night after night, to see a comedy of M. Capus. After all, I am not so much opposed to the use of scenery and elaborate costumes as to the scandalous and useless excesses they entail, which no well-organized society should tolerate, and which have nothing to do with art. My People's Theater shall have nothing but a large hall, like the Salle Huyghens, or a public meeting-place like the Salle Wagram—preferably with a slanting floor, allowing every spectator a full view; at the end of this hall there must be a high and wide platform.

As I see it, there is but one primary physical requisite for a real People's Theater: the stage and auditorium must be large enough to accommodate large masses of people.[5] The other requisites are corollaries of this. Plays performed before thousands of spectators must be adapted to the sight and hearing.

In his Essais sur la musique,[6] Grètry draws an interesting sketch of a new theater wherein he attempts to reconcile his minor art of graceful sentiment with the democratic aspirations of his time. He gave proof of his common-sense in indicating the necessary relations existing between architecture and the drama. These pages are well known to musicians, but it will not be amiss to bring them to the attention of literary men:

"Why does one so often hear people coming from the theater say 'What a bore!' It is not always that the play bored them, or that the actors were poor, though they are invariably blamed; it is above all because there is very rarely established any true relation between the constituent elements of the performance, stage, and plays produced on the one hand, and the means of producing them on the other. Take a large hall, if you will, but let the orchestra be correspondingly large, and not play soft plaintive airs. If I must guess what the orchestra is playing, I am bored. Great mass effects and sweep are what are needed; and everything that is to be seen and heard at close range must be eliminated. Plays in which the love interest assumes a prominent place—plays of intrigue, that is, with familiar and pastoral subjects, can only be made effective by means of a thousand details of facial expression, asides, and so on; just as no musical composition can be properly understood or interpreted except by a thousand trills, pizzicati, and arpeggios; all these details, if set forth within the framework of a small stage are effective, but if performed in a large hall, are quite lost. Can we have auditoriums for our musical tragedies? Yes, but the poet must remember these points: first, he must treat only well-known stories, for in these the language may be brief; second, he must introduce only great masses, broad tableaux set off with much pomp, marching, sacrifices, combats, dances, and pantomimes—but each of these must be short, as they are only accessory to the principal action; third, that every lyric must be simple and contain no more than a single thought. If he observe these rules his work will gain in power, rapidity, and variety, elements demanded in all large spectacles. The composer will write music only of a broad and simple character; harmony and melody must have sweep, and all detail which would be in place in more intimate music must be eschewed. Very few complicated basses, unless the theme be simple; no roulades in the singing; and almost always must the words correspond exactly with the music; that is, in syllabic combination. Everything must be large, for remember, this is a picture to be seen from a distance. You must paint with a broom. Since the words intended to be sung express but one idea, and since the composer has only to think of the unity of his composition and is not forced to fill it with affected quips and turns, he will usually adopt such a meter or rhythm that he shall require no other throughout the whole piece. Gluck realized this, and he was truly great only when he limited his orchestra and his singers to simple unity."

With very few reservations (necessary only because Grètry wilfully limits musical drama to his own capacity) these are sound reflections, profound even, and are as applicable to the drama as "they are to music; we have only to apply them. Yes, "Everything that is to be seen and heard at close range must be eliminated."—"Great mass effects and sweep," and "You must paint with a broom." Farewell, complicated psychology, insidious and vicious and obscure symbolism—the whole art of the boudoir and drawing-room! Or, rather, let it continue its moribund existence in the out-of-date theaters. But it will be ostracized from our art, as something tiresome and absurd. Our People's Theater is led to seek by force of circumstances the freedom of the Greek theater. Broad action, faces with elementary and conventional features, but vigorously molded; the basic passions, throbbing to simple but forceful rhythm: frescoes, not easel-paintings; symphonies, not chamber music—a monumental art for the people, and by the people.[7]

By the people! Yes, because there can be no great popular work except where the poet's soul collaborates with that of the nation, and receives nourishment from the passions common to all. The bourgeois critics maintain that nothing so attracts the people as novels and plays in which the heroes are of the upper classes, because the description of a richer society makes them for the time being forget their own misery. This is possibly true, so long as the people are reduced to the condition in which they now live; but the moment they become conscious of their own personality and realize their civic dignity, they will blush at the thought of having read that servants' literature. It is the duty of those who love the people to develop their taste. The people must not of course see only themselves represented in their drama, but they ought to be raised from the humiliating position they have so long occupied on our stage. They must no longer be depicted as skulking valets, spying out their masters' secrets. Let them participate as citizens of the universe, in the great spectacle of the universe! Let all classes be shown on the stage, just as all should be in the auditorium, but as brothers and equals, and not as rivals. Let the people be shown the great men of the world, kings, ministers, and conquerors—not because they were the people's masters, but because they represented the State—the commonwealth of which they, the people, are today the inheritors. In a word, let everything be presented to the people, but only on the condition that they see themselves somewhere in it, and through the present and the past become part of the universe, and that all forms of human energy may flow through them toward the common weal.

  1. Letter from Eugène Morel to Georges Bourdon (in the Revue bleue, May 10, 1902).
  2. I do not altogether agree with Morel. One has only to recall the profound and lasting effect of a few occasional spectacles on the mind of a child unused to entertainments of the sort. It is true, however, that they do not form the habit. I think it necessary to introduce regular festivals as a matter of education.
  3. It is interesting to compare this with the organization of the Schiller-Theater of Berlin. This theater is based on the subscription plan. Subscriptions are payable quarterly and cost five marks; one ticket entitles the bearer to five seats (including program, cloak-room fees, etc.). There is no State endowment. The capital is supplied by stockholders, who are the trustees, the president of whom is the director. His salary is 10,000 marks a year. If the profits exceed 5 per cent on the capital, they are given not to the stockholders, but to the actors and employees who are most deserving. The director, Herr Loewenfeld, guarantees his company—in December, 1899, there were twenty-two men and twelve women—salaries not exceeding 8,000 marks, one month's vacation a year, and costumes for the actresses. I have already stated that at the end of the first year Herr Loewenfeld had 6,000 subscribers. The Schiller-Theater gave 380 performances in eleven months: 319 evenings, 49 matinees, and 12 performances for students; 37 plays were produced, of which two were new; 25 evenings were devoted to poetry readings, one to the recitation of fables, and one to Christmas stories. No play may be performed more than twelve times, and the programs change daily. The theater is used during the day for expositions and lectures. The Freie Volksbühne of Vienna began by renting productions from other theaters, and giving Sunday matinees.
  4. "The ineffable joy we feel when we are perfectly healthy timid and spirit," (Schiller to Goethe, Jan. 7, 1795.)
  5. The people's performances and festivals of Switzerland deserve further study. Many useful things may be learned from them, in particular what they call the "chemin de cortège." This is a long and winding pathway, which leads from one of the large doorways on either side of the stage (and off-stage), and comes down, outside the proscenium. This is where armies enter, combats are fought, and cavalry charges introduced. In this way large mobs of people can easily be manipulated without confusion and the illusion is the better preserved. In outdoor performances this "chemin de cortège" is often an ordinary country road, and leads in from the woods and fields. The Swiss use scenery even in their outdoor productions, but the mixture of paint and natural scenery is shocking to me. I know that Maurice Pottecher agrees with the Swiss, and believes that this produces beautiful effects. Possibly some happy combination will one day be found, but with a new art of scene-painting, and real architectural structures, and a special science of outdoor optics. But up to the present, the results have been atrocious. There is nothing lovelier than the natural horizon, prairies, far-off hills, harmonizing with a wall or two towers (as in certain of the Swiss Festspiele).
  6. Bk. IV, Ch. IV. The volume was printed at the expense of the State, by the Committee of Public Instruction, on the suggestion of Lakanal.
  7. Here again we may profitably turn to the performances in Switzerland, some of which, like those at Lausanne, are given before 20,000 spectators. Here are a few points which struck me:

    1. It is not true, as some musicians have maintained, that these huge theaters cannot be used except for musical productions. If the acoustics are normal, the spoken word carries as far as the sung declamation, and much better than the orchestra, which, in outdoor theaters, should be reduced to the woodwinds and brasses: stringed instruments are almost lost.

    2. It goes without saying that the actor cannot observe the usual rules for speaking. He must stand well forward and articulate clearly. Consequently it is necessary to simplify the action, eliminate long dialogues. Dialogue must be clearly marked. There must be few words, and few gestures, but these should be expressive; vigorous concentration of action, passion, and style.

    3. Music is a great help—but in the background. It ought to be merely the basis of the fresco, the support to the action, the atmosphere. It should impregnate each scene with the proper color, and never attract attention to itself, on pain of ruining the play. In a word, the music must be intelligently and disinterestedly administered. (But of course I am demanding an impossibility!)

    4. A theater of this sort requires powerful fresco effects. Great masses of the people are used, as individuals are in our ordinary theaters. Group dialogues must be introduced, double and triple choruses, but care should be taken not to return to neo-classic archaism, as Schiller did in his Braut von Messina. Each group should also be allowed the greatest liberty within itself. Individual conflicts should little by little give way to mass conflict. Broad sweeping lines. Vigorous dramatic struggle. Large light-and-shade effects. It is impossible to describe the overwhelming effect of absolute silence succeeding a tumult. The Greeks realized this. The instinct of the Swiss peasant also.

    5. We are beginning to see experiments in this monumental and statuesque art, and a new dramatic art is emerging. It seems as if Diderot's theory of "double action" is at last being realized (see p. 66). The great size of the Swiss and Bavarian theaters (especially at Oberammergau) are such as to allow various episodes simultaneously on different levels of the stage. Here the Virgin in tears seeks her son, while there we see Christ in a street of Jerusalem, bearing His cross. Cæsar is seen going to the Capitol, while inside the palace the conspirators are making their preparations. These are different aspects of the drama, all happening at the same time. The play is immensely richer in effect, and the sight of Destiny reaching out for blind man is truly terrifying and magnificent.

    I do not mean that the people must necessarily participate in the action, or that popular dramas require actors from among the people. This is a most complex question, involving not only esthetic but moral problems. In the case of exceptional festivals there is nothing more natural than that the people should participate—as in Switzerland, where all the rôles are played by the people or the bourgeois of the Canton without distinction of class. In a case of this sort, the dramatic action is a real action, and participation in it is no more than the duty of a citizen. But in the case of a regular theater, participation on the part of the people is in many ways inconvenient, and more trouble than it is worth. It keeps them from their work, or else imposes an unreasonable amount of it on them; but above all, it is likely to render them vain and insincere. Art gains nothing; or if it did, it would be at too great cost. Here I agree with Maurice Pottecher, who uses actors from the people for extraordinary festivals, but is opposed to using them for a Parisian People's Theater. "Why go to the trouble, in a city which has already so many professionals? At best you would have only a few mediocre amateurs, and increase the number of cheap actors." (Le Théâtre du Peuple, in the Revue des deux Mondes, July 1, 1903.)