Kennedy on Bara, ed. (2017)


Bara, Olivier, editor. Théâtre et Peuple: de Louis-Sébastien Mercier à Firmin Gémier. Classiques Garnier, 2017, pp. 599, ISBN 978-2-406-06864-8

Theresa Varney Kennedy, Baylor University

This volume of contributed essays, edited by Olivier Bara, successfully traces the origins of the combined terms “theater” and “people” from Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s writings through Firmin Gémier’s visions for the Théâtre National Populaire in France. The volume’s objectives are two-fold. First, the editor and contributing authors seek to broaden the traditional historical perspective that places the moment of popular theater’s inception at the turn of the century between the opening of the Théâtre du peuple by Maurice Pottecher in Bussang in 1895, and the founding of the first Théâtre National Populaire by Gémier in 1920. The volume builds upon research conducted by Romain Rolland, whose Théâtre du peuple (1903, 1913) attempted to identify the precursors of popular theater, and recent work by Gérard Noiriel, whose Histoire, Théâtre et Politique (2009) traces popular theater from Denis Diderot to Theodor Lessing to Rolland. In contrast, this volume’s unique contribution is its emphasis on the multiple, sometimes contradictory thoughts and practices linked to the development of popular theater over time. 

Second, the volume makes a break with the continuous linear historical perspective presupposed by Rolland’s term “precursor.” This volume emphasizes the convergent and divergent voices of popular theater at a time in which the theater audiences were growing and diversifying. In sum, this volume does not seek to present these authors as precursors of popular theater. Rather, it seeks to bring out the originality of each contribution to the general reflection of the complex relationship between theater and people—all against the backdrop of a nation in search of a new republican identity. Going beyond the traditionally recognized authors and genres (comedy, drama, tragedy), the book emphasizes how genres such as vaudeville, melodrama, circus, café-concert, opera, and Symbolist theater also contributed to developments in the theater-attending public.

The volume’s editor and contributing authors seek to emphasize the diverse viewpoints that characterize popular theater’s history, and the diachronical perspective is indeed an effective way to study these works and authors within their historical context. A brief introduction to each chapter situates each of these works historically and connects their common themes, dramaturgy, philosophy, and artistic movements. Part one focuses on the major political evolutions and the role of the people in revising theater practices immediately following the French Revolution. Pierre Frantz highlights the important role that Mercier and Diderot played in the theatrical revolution. Gauthier Ambrus discusses Marie-Joseph Chénier’s satirical tragedy, Charles IX, performed at the Comédie Française on 4 November 1789. Maurizio Melai analyzes the new voice given to the people in tragedies performed between 1819 and 1845. Patrick Berthier examines the popular characters and the “poissard” repertory at the Théâtre des Variétés between 1807 and 1820. Roxane Martin unpacks the terms “people” and “popular” in René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s melodramas. Sylviane Robardey-Eppstein examines the Théâtre du Cirque-Olympique as an “école du peuple.” 

Part two presents the Romantic period in France as the expression of a “utopian” or “ideal” public. For instance, Noémi Carrique describes François Guizot’s vision of Shakespearean theater as a model for French theater. Florence Naugrette reveals the tensions or disagreements that arose as Romantics attempted to represent both the “grotesque” and “sublime” qualities of a people. For instance, Victor Hugo’s so-called national, popular theater rejected esthetic forms it perceived as “grossières.” Other essays by Marion Lemaire and Marjolaine Forest focus on romanticized theatrical figures that gave a distorted view of reality. Lemaire shows how the press transformed the central character of the play Robert Macaire (1834) into a working-class hero. Forest explains how the representation of Marie-Jeanne, “femme du peuple” in Adolphe d’Ennery’s melodrama, attached a kind of religious significance to the hardships suffered by the people of France. 

Part three centers on theater against the backdrop of the crumbling of Republican dreams brought about by the Revolution of 1848. Sarah Mombert explores the relationship between Alexandre Dumas and popular theater. She shows how his historical theater (1847–51) represented the realization of an ideal republican theater, where the playwright placed “l’histoire à la portée d’un public peu lettré en lui donnant corps dans la matérialité de la représentation dramatique” (294). This period inspired new conceptions of the relationship between the theater and the public. For instance, Marine Wisniewski explores the explosion of the café-concert, a hybrid establishment combining spectacle and consummation. With its lower prices and accessibility, it invited a more diverse audience. But the café-concert did not remain a “popular spectacle,” despite its advertisement as such. By the 1860s, it merely projected an “image” or caricature of the French people, perpetuated by clichés and stereotypes. 

Part four discusses the theoretical controversies surrounding the nature of popular theater at the time of Gémier and the founding of the Théâtre National Populaire. Marion Denizot’s essay sets the tone for this chapter. Denizot argues that the concept of popular theater should be treated first as a “lieu de mémoire” and second as an “objet historique” (398). Since the history and development of popular theater is more complex than it would seem, Denizot proposes abandoning the unanimist approach in order to better understand the plurality and richness of its complex esthetic and institutional character.

The great many contributing authors featured in each of the four chapters successfully reflects the volume’s main objective of presenting a multiplicity of voices and perspectives. I would recommend this volume to scholars and students interested in a deeper understanding of the history and development of popular theater in France. The volume—a cornucopia of divergent and convergent ideas about what brings people and theater together—is thoughtfully constructed.