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Feel-bad theater in France.

The relationship of theater to what we might call national morale or (in its pathological form) chauvinism has become more deliberate and more negative in recent years. This does not refer to openly tub-thumping propaganda of the sort that is familiar from wartime. It is something more subtle--some might say insidious--a certain negative and depressing tone that permeates a show, and connects with a wider failure of morale that exists outside the ritual precincts of the theater.

The American theater has suffered relatively little from this negative genre, despite outstanding examples like the works of Arthur Miller, which combine a sanctimonious dismissal of American values--of capitalism in particular--with an implicit and strong suggestion that a baldly Darwinian cruelty lies at the very heart of American society.

Over the last half-century, "serious" British theater has all but dedicated itself to the proposition that British national pride and identity are little more than vicious forms of racism that deserve (along with the British nation itself) to be expunged and replaced with subjugation to "Europe," leavened with a proper sense of post-imperial guilt; Britain's very post-imperial existence is blasted and damned by the so-called (and unfortunately influential) "chattering classes," including most of the present crop of prominent playwrights, such as David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, Howard Barker, and the late "political" Harold Pinter. (The single outstanding exception among "serious" playwrights is the brilliant boulevardier Tom Stoppard, who has no truck with the British chattering-class addiction to national self-loathing.)

The last country where one would expect to find such feelings displayed on a high-status national stage is France. The emotional chauvinism of the French elite is notorious. A well-nigh unbreakable belief in the superiority of Francophone culture and France's mission civilizatrice has long been axiomatic even at a popular level in French society. Negativity in French theater and literature has tended to find outlets in the works of bargain-basement Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre, concentrating on personal pathologies and philosophical propositions such as "Hell is other people."

The works of Albert Camus--notably in his play Caligula--worked in similar metaphysical territory. Others, such as Henri de Montherlant, tended to concentrate on the complexities of religious matters. Amongst all this, the French sense of national amour-propre remained more or less intact, seeming to defy shattering defeats on the world stage, from the defeat and occupation of World War II, through Indochina, and climaxing in Algeria, the loss of which seemed to truncate a part of France itself.

Reveling in pessimism

It was something of a surprise to come upon a large-scale work of theater at Paris' Opera Comique--a musical, of all things--which appeared not just to confront the French sense of national worth, but to dissolve it in a wave of bitterness and blank pessimism. The title, Zazou, derives from an obscure wartime term used to describe a certain group of young people, who, according to the program, tried to escape the shame and resignation which haunted wartime France through extravagant and bizarre behavior. The badge of these "dissenters" was an eccentric costume roughly equivalent to what an older generation of Californians may remember as the "zoot suit." They are now dimly remembered for an odd demonstration in July 1942 in which a crowd of them, deliberately defying the Nazis, marched up the Champs-Elysees waving--wait for it--fishing rods. They were ignored by the police, who supposed they were simply a noisy mob of students.

Zazou sketches the life of one such young man through a series of rather banal incidents which, turn by turn, undercut the famous image of "La France Eternelle" marketed so successfully after the war by Charles de Gaulle. The young man falls in love with a girl whose father proves to be a collaborator. After the war, amid a kind of moral indifference, the father is never called to account for his betrayal. Following his somewhat toothless defiance as a wartime Zazou, the young man finds himself adrift after the war. His life has no direction, he has no work that can offer a place in society or even dignity, and he ends by leaving his lover alone and enlisting in the Foreign Legion. He is unaware that she is pregnant, and she does not tell him. Instead, she becomes briefly involved with a pro-tem protector and lover, a black American G.I. Too soon, the G.I. is sent home, and meanwhile the young man is posted to Indochina, where--the wartime defiance of the Germans now a dead memory--he deliberately allows himself to be killed at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The final scene of the show presents the girl--now a single mother with no prospects--downstage, singing the Georges Brassens song Il n'y a pas d'amour hereux (There is no such thing as a happy love).

The performances are slick and professional: writer-director Jerome Savary as the collaborator, his daughter Nina as the unfortunate girl, and Alexandre Bronstein as her ill-fated lover. Despite occasional spots of exuberance--in particular a series of run-of-the-mill jazz numbers rather well-performed by the black G.I. played by Allen Hoist--the score, an anthology of songs of the 1940s, is remorselessly gloomy, thin, and downbeat, complementing a script that stresses the utter pointlessness and emptiness of every life in the story--and, by implication, the entire society in which it takes place.

As a simple theatrical experience, Zazou has a number of serious faults. The French appear to have learned nothing from the American developments in musical comedy structure over the past half-century. The result is a loose-limbed, almost arbitrary quality, resembling a series of sketches rather than a cogent narrative. The love affair, the collaborating father's escape from justice, the desertion, the illegitimate child, the brief fling with the black G.I. follow each other like a series of awkwardly strung-together incidents, depriving the show of any real sense of forward motion--and contributing heavily to the rather unpleasant slough of despond that is being portrayed onstage. One thought of the old Danny Kate joke: "First I was afraid I was going to die. Then I was afraid I wasn't going to die."

And yet, and yet--the show was a success at the Paris Opera Comique. I watched it from a box shared with a French couple approaching middle age. They were rapt, totally engaged in the dismal spectacle before them, and visibly moved by the finale which I found so depressing. This response was echoed in strong and extended applause from the large and well-filled theater. Where one might have expected a tinge of anger or resentment or at least reserve, there was only warmth and enthusiastic approval--a kind of collective embrace.

This radical difference in my response was of course partly cultural. Possibly unwisely, when the curtain calls (there were several) had finished, I remarked on the depressing aspect of the show as we were leaving the box. The husband, clearly fighting back tears, said, "You are not French. You do not understand."

But sharing a response is not the same as understanding. I did understand, because I had seen something similar in England, where anti-patriotic works had evoked, not quite the same sort of warmth, but a sort of gleeful chattering- class (radical chic) acknowledgment of a general failure to maintain the "Great" in Great Britain. The difference in Paris was that the Frenchman I spoke to was not gloating, but mourning the loss of something that had seemed to remain intact after the war, but whose decay and final failure--only recently acknowledged in events like the trial of the collaborator Maurice Papon--had been masked by the shrewd political rhetoric of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. The general's certaine idee de la France had survived for a whole post-war generation, only to crumble after his death and slowly reveal a real and unpleasant moral failure running all the way back into the occupation itself, when many Frenchmen--far more than anyone wanted to admit--had welcomed the Nazis until almost the end of the war.

What I had seen on the stage of the Opera Comique was in fact an acknowledgement of that failure, made all the more powerful by the fact that its terrible indictment of a whole French generation was probably inadvertent, if completely sound. Would writer-director Jerome Savary have mounted this show as an Englishman might have done, as a deliberate attack on an already tattered myth of a heroic nation? Almost certainly not. National self-flagellation, especially on the musical stage, is not a normal product of French sensibility. Adjectives which flow freely in the English press to describe such enterprises there--"courageous," "daring," and the like--simply do not apply here. It is rather a case of a theatrical instinct shaping material with an instinctive honesty and taste for the truth, even when that is unpleasant, but leaving it thinly sugared over with a half-insouciant texture of light entertainment. French kidding on the square, so to speak.

But was I being unfair to the French and their theater? I consulted Roger Lumont, a Parisian colleague and friend, an actor, director, and translator, thoroughly familiar with what Paris had to offer; he assured me my impression was more than fair. His own dinner-table comments on Parisian theater might be charitably described as lethal. Aside from the posh revivals of classics which appeared now and then in venues like the Comedie Francaise, he described a scene dominated by triviality, silliness, and generally catchpenny rubbish.

With a skeptical shrug, he suggested I try at least one more prestigious venue. Not far from where we stayed was the Theater du Rond-Point des Champs-Elysees, an approximate French equivalent of London's Royal Court Theater; here one might expect to see the best of any serious new work that was going.

An embarrassing dud

The current show was a seasonal entertainment, called Mezze, from the Middle Eastern or Greek term for hors-d'oeuvres. It was in fact nothing to do with the Middle East or Greece; rather, the name signified a review-like selection of--so said the billboard--the best that Paris had to offer in the way of comic and eccentric entertainment. This would be a good gauge for quality; of all the genres to be found in the theater, the anthology of light entertainment is one of the most difficult for performers, directors, and writers, with unique demands on technique, charm, and the degree of skill that conceals these demands under a sheen of apparently easy, almost carelessly slick performance.

The first view of the theater foyer buoyed my hopes. It was sleek, comfortable, and--judging from familiar faces and eavesdropped conversations--a generous percentage of that evening's audience were in "the business," that is, the theater. It was a fair bet that the cast would be "up" and give us a good show.

The full auditorium itself was encouraging: a wash of palpably receptive good humor flowed through the audience. I relaxed into my seat as both emcees--there were two, one "smart," one "dumb"--loped from the wings to the center-stage microphone. What followed, alas, trashed my best hopes for the evening.

There is a peculiarly French brand of humor--Americans will know it from the Monsieur Hulot films--which draws laughs from clumsiness, repeated lunging into mistakes, missed opportunities, and inadvertent chaos. The verbal by-play between the two emcees aimed at this, and drew, not full-throated laughter, but the sort of repeated and uneasy mass giggles that are usually provoked by in- jokes, understood only by the theatrical part of the audience and bypassing the rest. The laughs were broadly signaled, and the in-group dutifully obliged.

The "acts" introduced in the midst of this somewhat tedious routine varied from inconsequentially empty material that played on an irritating non-sequitur quality--most prominently a shambling lout mumbling nonsense for (alas, unsuccessful) comic effect--to amusing acts which seemed to have come from a circus. The best of these, genuinely amusing, was no more than a thick-set man brilliantly imitating the physical movements of a dog, put through various acrobatic paces by a pretty woman in a red dress. The man's acrobatic skill was impressive, and as he leaped and curveted around his pretty red-headed mistress, the laughs were solid. The fact that this was the high point of the sketches gives an idea of the general level.

Another bit of relief from the general torpor was a black man in African costume who appeared at the edge of the stage and delivered a mildly satirical monologue on everyday life and politics. He gave way to a running gag in which the lesser of the two emcees (playing his role as crass and stupid) interrupted the flow of sketches with the gradual seduction of a pretty young woman while pretending to audition her. The comedic climax of this was a moment in which she played the piano and he stopped her, murmuring, "Non, non, pas trop de notes." ("No, no, not too many notes'), unfortunately, a very old gag adapted from an incident in the life of Mozart. This did not much alleviate the show's warmed-over flavor, which grew stronger as the evening wore on.

Perhaps conscious that most of the evening was not really top-drawer, the director inserted and then repeated a musically bright and (in the circumstances) desperately welcome number in which a chorus of kitchen maids (Why kitchen maids? Don't ask.), fitted out with bizarre costumes made of brooms and rubber gloves, performed a loud, brassy, and energetic song and dance number which--for a few moments at any rate--lifted the general mood and pumped a blast of much-needed theatrical oxygen into the audience. It was the real high point of the evening; everybody in the theater, on and off stage, seemed aware that it was the high point of the evening, and as an almost gracious gesture, the number was repeated as the finale, to enthusiastic applause which I could only welcome as an expression of gratitude and relief.

The thorough mediocrity of most of what I had just sat through was bad enough for the audience. For the performers, it must have been soul-destroying. Leaving the theater, it was hard to resist the impression that the lack of social pride that I had sensed in the other show had, on a merely professional level, somehow infected the directors of the Theater du Rond-Point. I could only guess at what might have so affected the cast that they were willing to present such stuff, and that a theater whose reputation was one of the best was willing to stage it.

But theater is an evanescent and flexible medium, almost always prone to renew itself. This visit to the Paris theater may have been awkward, but was probably not terminal. It was still possible to give these talented performers the benefit of the doubt. After their ordeal in these shows, one might feel that there was nowhere to go but up, live in hope, come back another day, and try for better luck next time.

Herb Greer is a freelance writer based in London.
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Title Annotation:THE ARTS
Author:Greer, Herb
Publication:World and I
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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