The Théâtre du Soleil is France’s most innovative and storied independent theater company, recognized as one of the great theatrical operations of contemporary times. Organized since 1964 as a worker’s cooperative, the some 75 members create collectively and rehearse, under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine, in such a way that the resulting theatrical creation belongs to all. This is even the case when there is a script by company writer, Hélène Cixous, whose latest effort for the Soleil combines a bracing adventure novel by Jules Verne, Magellania, with meditations on political commitment and on making art. Indeed, in the resulting theater-in-the-theater production, Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (The Shipwrecked of Mad Hope), the company not only presents a filmmaking crew making a film on the eve of World War I about the utopian hopes of a group of immigrants embarked on a ship to Australia, but also rehearses its own “mad hopes” as a theater devoted to making a difference on the political scene in France. The ship the Mad Hope, represented in the film being made in the fictional cabaret The Mad Hope, both enveloped in the Théâtre du Soleil’s spacious and cavernous playing space, rechristened “The Mad Hope,” thus casts off as a theatrical mise en abîme that can and should be read as an autobiographical pact with the audience, enticing spectators to review the history of the Soleil as well as the history of Europe and particularly the tensions between ideologies of “progress” and utopia.
This essay analyzes the unparalleled staging techniques of the Théâtre du Soleil and Ariane Mnouchkine that allow it to reel in its audience while also encouraging it to ask questions about art and politics. It also dissects the three main autobiographical layers of the production, as Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir is structured as an autobiographical quest, as a primer to the esthetic beliefs and working methods of the Théâtre du Soleil, and as an unfinished debate on some of the thorniest questions confronting Western democracies in our times.