from october to January, the Theatre du Champs Elysees in Paris will be occupied by the company of Roger Planchon’s Theatre de la Cite. This is an event of European importance, and a must for anyone preoccupied with the problems of trying to construct an authentic culture and create a meaningful art for the writhing world in which we live. The artistic and social adventure conducted by Planchon and his troupe offers us the example of a lucid, active response to a specific national and cultural situation. This situation is not ours, but in an age when mechanical means of diffusion and reproduction are dissolving clearcut frontiers between epochs and cultures, the examination of Planchon’s French experiment can be valuable for those of us who are trying to come to grips with an analogous situation in this country. I have spent the larger part of the past year working with Planchon’s company, and I offer an analysis and characterisation of their work, because it enables us to situate our own efforts towards the achievement of a responsible expression in the theatre and, by extension, in the arts in general. The theatre seems destined to become the focal point of the contradictions of our society as they express themselves in cultural form. In the clearest, most extreme manner, it is a witness to the lack of urgency, the artists’ feelings of gratuitousness, the stratification of the audience, the incompleteness of avant-garde attempts to clear the ground, the persistence of traditions gone ossified, the retreat into naturalism at one end of the scale and into myth at the other, which afflict so much of our poetry, novels, music, and visual arts, only in a much less evident way. This is the story of a theatre in a particular society; its meaning is neither confined to the theatre, nor to that society.
We in England have already had one opportunity of seeing the work of Planchon’s company. In the summer of 1960, they were invited to present “Les Trois Mousquetaires” at the Edinburgh Festival. The network of Arts Festivals which covers Europe every summer will one day merit the attention of ethnologists studying the customs of mid-twentieth-century Western civilisation. Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Salzburg, the Venice Biennale: the pattern is the same. A city becomes a hothouse for the exotic blooms of culture, a kind of Lourdes of the arts where the pilgrims gather beneath the stucco, and the devotees can meet and talk shop. The Arts Festival as we know it is Prize-Giving Day for the only kind of patronage we have. Over whiskeys in the Festival Clubs, impresarios sign contracts. And thus, after critical acclaim at Edinburgh, an impresario brought Planchon’s company to play three weeks at the Piccadilly theatre in London. Only, since it was off-season, they played to very poor houses. Again, the critics were enthusiastic. Tynan filled in some of the background of the company’s history, Wesker urged everyone to go and see it even if they didn’t understand French; but the kind of audience this theatre has been made for never got within miles of the Piccadilly. And the critics rarely went further than praising the audacity, the irreverence, the fertility of gags, and the pace of the production, without being able to explain why and how it got this way. Result: Planchon went back to France, having entertained a few thousand knowing spectators, but leaving us none the wiser about the meaning and direction of his work. We had seen it was entertaining, but we could not realise that it was also exemplary. Imported by a theatrical system ruled by the laws of the market, the production has become uprooted, become nothing more than an extremely well-made commodity among other well-made commodities.
“Les Trois Mousquetaires”, in pure box-office terms, is the biggest “success” of any production Planchon’s company has put on since 1958. They
To begin with, the way in which it was chosen is highly significant. Planchon has always been concerned with the reactions and preferences of his audience. In 1957, he sent out a questionnaire, inviting the spectator to choose, out of a list of plays, the three he would most like to see. Top of the list, above Shakespeare and Moliere, came “An adaptation of Alexandre Dumas”. “Les Trois Mousquetaires” has the same renown in France as “Alice in Wonderland” in England, but for significantly different reasons. In 1951, when another company put on an adaptation of the book in Paris, the reactions of the critics revealed these reasons nakedly:
We leave the theatre dreaming that we have seen the whole of France—the France of the nobles and the people—sparkling with wit, overflowing with life and battles; courtly, amorous, chivalrous, heroic and tender; the France of Roland and the Roman de La Rose, of Musset, of Le Cid and of Cyrano. And it is a rare thing, an unforgettable thing, to be able to contemplate, for a short moment, our France. . .
. . .The truth is that in France, our love for the uniform has not wavered; that heroism and individual courage, and, we must not forget, service to the State, and fidelity to the great leaders, still dwell in the very soul of our people. This kind of theatre pleases us because it is intensely French. In France we carry our hearts slung over our shoulders, like a rifle. And that is why “The Three Musketeers” (there are really four of them!) will continue to nourish the imagination of our youth for a long time . . .
In 1951, when the French were fighting in Indo-China, it was still just about possible to talk of “our love for the uniform”; by 1958, when Planchon put on his version of the “Mousquetaires”, the Indo-Chinese War had ended, but the Algerian War was entering into its fourth year, and “the uniform” was becoming a nuisance rather than an object of love; today, when the company is still performing a new version of the book, the generals are being arrested so fast that “the uniform” has become an object of suspicion, and the only person who supports himself on the crutches of such brazen rhetoric as I have quoted is De Gaulle himself. A large number of the sacred myths of France have become hollow verbalisations, signs without significance. Yet they go on being used, directing thinking and speech, stuffing out what has become a parody of political decision and action. This is the subject of “Les Trois Mousquetaires”. Planchon has taken a cap-and-dagger intrigue in the best Monte Cristo tradition, used it as a pretext to reconstruct a Western on the stage, to pillory Claudel and parody Brecht, to represent the English Channel by three turquoise silk flags, to perform the only stage-battle in cha-cha time in the world, to make Richelieu fry an egg as he plots against the English—and underneath all the gags and the restless burlesque, he has succeeded in provoking an astringent disrespect for “une certaine idee de la France”. When journalists reviewing a play flower into the kind of chauvinistic rhetoric I have quoted above, we may react simply with ridicule; when the same rhetoric comes constantly from the General’s lips and is taking the place of anything resembling government in present-day France, our reaction is rightly one of concern. In these circumstances, a play which demystifies the bases of such a rhetoric, by undermining a nostalgic national mythology, performs a valuable critical function.
The story of Roger Planchon’s life up to now (he is only 30), and the way he created his theatre, help to show why he puts on plays like this, and illuminate the direction of his work. Planchon is a country boy who has spent most of his life in an industrial city. He was born in the Ardeche, a savage, extremely backward farming area south of Lyon. The wild valleys and the rocky wooded hillsides make farming very difficult, and up to the War, the standard of living was very low. The War and its shortages and black markets raised the prices of food, and from 1939 to 1945, the farmers of the Ardeche enjoyed a boom. As soon as the War finished, however, things went back to normal, and for the majority of the peasants, the deception was too great. Bit by bit, they left for the big cities, and today the region is a favourite haunt of tourists and connoisseurs of peasant cooking, who relish the peaceful deserted landscape. The Planchon family gave up their farm and came to Lyon, where the father opened a bistro and Roger became a bank-clerk, at the age of 17. Within a few months he was reading the poetry of Henri Michaux to jazz in a cellar. With friends, he soon began to put on plays. They rehearsed in their spare time, and acted in halls and parks wherever they could. Some of them were taking part-time courses at the Lyon conservatoire, but most of their lessons on how to act came from going to the cinema, seeing a film two or three times over.