The People's Theater/Part II, Chapter V

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



The Social Play
Rustic Drama
Legends and Tales
The Circus

What We Might Have In a People's Theater

I have thus insisted upon the historical drama because I confess to an especial fondness for it, and why should I not speak of what I know best ? Besides, it was necessary to defend not the form itself (because we have no historical plays in France) but the disrepute into which some of the Romantics have thrown it. The historical drama is only one field open to our People's Theater. Let us open the way to others.

First among these is the social drama, with which a generation of vigorous dramatists have been so busily concerned. Following in the footsteps of Ibsen, Björnson, and Hauptmann, poets of the north, Jean Jullien, Descaves, Mirbeau, Ancey, Hervieu, Brieux, François de Curel, and Émile Fabre have given sufficient proof of the vitality of this type of drama, which is of all types the most needed nowadays, for it is rooted in the suffering, the doubt, and the aspirations of the present generation. It goes hand-in-hand with actual deeds. There are those who criticize it for this very reason, claiming that it is no longer disinterested art. But I admire it because it is not, and I have furnished reasons for my preference. Happy is the age of quiet, when quiet works may be written! But when the age is a troubled one, and the nation is in the throes of struggle, it is the duty of art to struggle with it, inspiring and guiding it, protecting it, and combating prejudice. I have heard people complain of the violent excesses into which art will fall if it takes this road. This is not the fault of art, but of the wrongs which it will have exposed, which must be done away with. It is not the purpose of art to reconcile and pacify, but to intensify life, render it stronger, greater, and better. Art is the enemy of all the enemies of life. If love and peace are its aim, there are times none the less when hatred is in order. "Hatred is a good thing," once remarked a workingman of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to a lecturer who had been bursting his lungs trying to prove that all hatred is bad. "Hatred is just, for it rallies the oppressed to give battle against the oppressor. When I see a man domineering over other men, my indignation is aroused, and I hate him. I hate him, and I feel that my hatred is right." He who does not hate evil cannot love good, and he who can look at injustice without attempting to rectify it is neither a true artist nor a true man. The gentlest of the poets, Schiller, he who took the most serene view of his own art, did not hesitate to plunge into the fray, and set himself "the task of attacking vice, and wreaking vengeance upon the enemies of religion, morality, and the social order."[1] But in art it is not necessary to combat evil with evil, but with light. The evil that is seen face to face, the evil that is conscious of being seen, is more than half conquered. It is the function of the social drama to throw the imperious power of reason into the uncertain scales.

There are many other types of drama which up to the present have been seldom seen in our theaters. The rural drama, the poem of Earth, impregnated with the odor of the fields and overflowing with peasant humor and rich language, is a precious mine. It preserves what is poetic in the life of the small communities and records for posterity their vanishing individuality. Pouvillon, in certain of his pastoral tragedies; Pottecher in his comedies of the Vosges country; the Swiss René Morax in his vigorous and quietly sentimental plays of the Var district—these dramatists furnish us with splendid examples of this type of play. And finally come the greatest of these poets, Mistral, the Provençal Homer, whose language is as harmonious as his ancient soul.

We must likewise make use of the rich Celtic treasure lying hidden in our soil, and bring to life once more the forgotten legends and popular tales. Our plains and woods were once peopled: there is no part of our land without its collections of fabulous romances, its beautiful and quaintly humorous stories. The people of the large cities have long since broken with the past; they no longer belong to the great family; but the country people are for the most part far different. You will find among them the purest types of long ago, such as are sculptured on the portals of Gothic churches. Nor is the resemblance confined to externals: the races of today are morally close akin to those of past ages, more so than you would think. Who knows in how many of their souls there still exists the forest of the fairies, of the Sleeping Beauty, of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Tristan and Iseult; of Puss in Boots, of Tom Thumb and the Four Sons of Aymon; and the echo of Roland's horn? Let us revive the stories of the past. Who, be he old or young, does not take pleasure in hearing them? We still remember the stories of our youth and think regretfully of the time when we listened to them. But they are ever alive. We have been silently awaiting for eight centuries—ever since Marie de France—the return of the Blue Bird.

Legendary material in drama requires the aid of music. Music indeed has a most important part to play in poetic and rustic drama. L'Arlésienne is the finest example. We may say that music has not yet received the treatment in our drama which it deserves. The poets have dispensed with it, partly through sheer ignorance, and partly through fear and jealousy. Music and poetry are two wings of the lyric drama. He who neglects either, can fly only with great difficulty.

And why relegate pantomime, which is pure action, to the circus? The spectacle of action is a powerful spring to action, good as well as evil; it is absurd to neglect it. The circus at Rome kept alive the pleasure derived from action—a pleasure we know little about nowadays, but one which is a fundamental need of all great nations. The Greeks cultivated bodily as well as mental exercise. Let us give the body its proper place in art. Our Theater must be a Theater of men, and not merely of writers.

How many are the new types of drama which might flourish in our People's Theater! But it would be a vain task to describe the shadows of the future.[2] Nothing counts but actual achievement, and it is not yet time for us to enter a new continent. Each may start forth on his quest; he is sure to return laden with booty. Let us dare to raise art to the height of that tragedy which is now being acted in the world at large. The words of Schiller on the occasion of the first performance of Wallensteins Lager (October, 1798)[3] may well be our guide and inspiration:

"The new era which opens for us today will encourage the poet to leave the beaten path of yesterday, and transport you out of your everyday existence up to a higher, a nobler stage, not perhaps unworthy of this sublime hour when our efforts are all bent toward the future. Only a great subject is capable of stirring mankind to the depths. The mind, if fettered and cramped, degenerates, but man advances as his horizon widens. And now, at the end of this century, when reality itself becomes poetry, when we are witnesses of gigantic souls striving onward toward a great prize, when men fight for the highest interests of humanity, liberty, and power—now, I say, the art of the drama may evoke the shades of the past in order to take flight to more distant summits. It can do this, and it will unless it rests content to be an object of shame before the eyes of the whole world."

We must not complain of our destiny. Fate has given us plenty to do. Ours is a happy age, for we have great tasks to accomplish. Happy the man who succumbs beneath the weight of so glorious a fatigue! This is far better than succumbing to the boredom of doing nothing at all, or sadly contemplating the work of others. Let us not say what the melancholy author of the Caractères [La Bruyère] was forced to say in his worn-out age: "Everything has been said, and we have come too late." Nothing has been said of our new society. Everything waits to be said. Everything waits to be done. To work!


  1. Preface to Die Räuber, 1781.
  2. Just a word on another type of drama which is dead in the France of today: the Improvised Comedy. In the provinces, where the mind is quicker and the spirit wider awake, it is not necessary that the plays be written down in their entirety. It might even be well to allow the fancy a little free play, and let the people act at their ease round a given theme or story. This is what the Italians do in their Commedia dell' arte, which is still in existence among the peasants. To those who consider improvisation outside the province of art, let me quote not only Michelet—who declares that "it would be a pity to let the Southerners have complete texts, because a theme alone suffices"—but Goethe, who remarked of Wallensteins Lager that "this sort of play demands the introduction of something new at every performance, in order to hold the attention of the spectators." (Goethe to Schiller, Oct. 5, 1798.)
  3. See the magnificent appeal of Mazzini To the Poets of the 19th Century (Ai poeti del secolo XIX, 1832).