The Effects of World War One on French Theatre
At the turn of the century Paris was one of the capitals of culture and art to the outside world. However, the truth of the matter was that this taboo-ridden society was being run by an aristocracy that was repressing the arts. Naturally, when World War 1 broke out, the suppressed French society finally had a release and a rebellion against order arose. WWI specifically affected the theatre of French and it’s aftermath. From the ashes of war the avant-garde theatre grew and styles such as Dadaism and Surrealism were born. It was both the climate of culture before the war and the devastation of the war that lead to the outbreak of avant-garde theatre in France. Beginning around 1890, France moved into a period in society referred to as Belle Époque, which simply means “beautiful era”. At this time, Paris was the fashion capital of the world, and the members of society found it necessary to keep up their image of prestige. This desire for a perfect and cheerful life, kept the society from facing the reality of the modern society. One historian states that the “joy of life awoke in all social classes, the desire of new, extraordinary, sensational things” (Stein). During this period of time, French culture did make some advances, and the elements that we most associate the French society with were born in this era. The “Moulin Rouge” opened in 1885 and the Eiffel Tower was built for the World Fair in 1889 (Stein). Theatre of the day was particularly booming, twenty theatres were located in Paris and those twenty theatres employed around 2,788 individuals (Hobson, p.4). Audiences enjoyed the theatre because it was an activity that all classes of society could attend; the Belle Époque has been referred to as the “century for the masses”(Stein). However, not everyone has positive view of the Belle Époque, instead it is viewed as a façade that society put on to hide what was beneath. “Whereas on the surface it appeared that la belle époque was a period defined by harmony, peace, and hope, there was, in fact, a good deal of tension concealed beneath the surface calm caused by nationalism, colonialism, and a series of alliances between European nations” ("La Belle Époque"). This tension and the general attitude of the European society is what built up to the explosion of WWI. As far as the theatre scene during the Belle Époque, while it was popular to the masses some theatre critics of the day did not view this as a positive feature. Barbey d’Aurevilly stated “the popularity of the theatre meant that it appealed to the masses, and that mass audiences were incapable of appreciating artistic standards that would be acceptable to intelligent and educated people”(Hobson, p.7). In this era, art was held to a high prestige as highlighted in d’Aurevilly’s commentary, but there was a stifling set of rules for everything that created even more tension in the theatre world. “Similarly, artistic organizations adopted rigid conventions that regulated the arts with a very strong hand. Like society at large, artistic critics and the directors of the academies stressed inflexible, strict rules over any kind of original personal expression” ("La Belle Époque"). In other words, the artists were being told how to create their art, but even in this time of pseudo-utopia, some artists rebelled, as artists do, against the regulations. One historian states, “This ostracism not withstanding, many artists were true to their convictions and pursued their own visions even if it meant banishment from the coveted acceptance of the art world” ("La Belle Époque"). Probably one of the most notable theatre artists to accomplish this act of rebellion was Alfred Jarry. On the evening of December 10th, 1896, when the actor said his first line, “Merdre!” (Shittr!) In this opening performance of Ubu Roi, the audience erupted in an outrage. It took fifteen minutes for the mob to finally settle down enough for the actor...
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