- Ludics in Surrealist Theatre and Beyond by Vassiliki Rapti
The very notion of a surrealist theater remains today difficult to grasp, even for the most knowledgeable and astute critic. After all, André Breton defined the movement in 1924 in his first Manifesto as a poetic project. Automatism was at the center of its aesthetics: it called for the free expression of the unconscious and of the most hidden human desires and fantasies through the language of poetry. Breton was first and foremost a poet whose main literary references ranged from Nerval to Lautréamont and Rimbaud.
The author must therefore play the challenging role of devil's advocate. She does it with both audacity and expertise. Her central argument revolves around the notion of a "ludic theater" dominated by the passion for games and by a playful attitude toward language. Undoubtedly, these characteristics defined in many ways the mindset of the surrealist poet from Robert Desnos to Philippe Soupault. One can think here of the famous Rrose Sélavy. Games underlined the power of chance in the constitution of the poetic imagination and the sense of the fundamental unpredictability of meaning in surrealist literature and art.
The author starts by analyzing the presence of theater in André Breton's writings, in particular in his most famous work, Nadja. She addresses the theatrical theme in this largely autobiographical narrative by focusing on the close [End Page 413] relationship between Breton and the actress Blanche Derval, to whom he wrote several letters expressing his personal admiration. A photographic portrait of the actress is indeed included in the book. It refers to her role in a play by Pierre Palau called Les Détraquées, which Breton saw at the Théâtre des deux Masques in Paris in February 1921. It is clear that the book Nadja demonstrates Breton's and the surrealists' interest in popular culture, from B-movies to unsophisticated and sensationalist theatrical performances known in France as "Grand-Guignol" since the end of the nineteenth century. I am not so sure, though, whether these interests truly went beyond a certain perverted attraction for the low life and the social outcasts. In other words, surrealism celebrated underground forms of culture a long time before the Beat generation and the counterculture of the nineteen sixties. The main character of the book, a young woman with supernatural power, is the perfect incarnation of this kind of marginal existence that fascinated Breton and his followers.
Moreover, theater only plays a minor role in the development of Nadja's narrative. The book is much more an exploration of both the city of Paris (of Breton's favorite streets, squares, shops, and neighborhoods) and of a personal relationship between the narrator and a young woman who suffers from a lack of psychological balance. Eventually, it turns into an assault against the medical establishment, and particularly, against the psychiatric treatment of so-called mad people which Breton considered profoundly oppressive.
Rapti attempts to convince us that Nadja was a comedian in her own way and that the theatrical metaphors about her abound. But Breton actually portrays her first and foremost as an almighty gaze that can see through reality and perceive details that are invisible to others. From this perspective, she is much more of a voyante, in the exact sense given to the word by Rimbaud. She is therefore capable of deciphering the signs of the world around her in order to interpret them in a profoundly poetic manner.
The author then moves to the world of Roger Vitrac, who, with Antonin Artaud, founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry. She studies his performance of Les Mystères de l'Amour in 1927, and a year later, of his own Victor ou les enfants au pouvoir. It is clear that Roger Vitrac was influenced by surrealism and that he shared part of its history. But as the author herself recognizes, a play like Victor ou les enfants au pouvoir belongs much more to the field of bourgeois theater than to that...