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French Forum 30.2 (2005) 79-96

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Roland Barthes and the Myth of a National Theater

In the 1950s, at a time when television is in its infancy and Hollywood imports dominate the cinema, theater in France retains recognition as an essential and vital national forum. Looking back on these years Jean Duvignaud asks: "peut-on concevoir, aujourd'hui, l'importance qu'avait le théâtre dans ces années-là? Le théâtre avait gardé cette présence littéraire et intellectuelle qu'il avait en Europe et surtout en France depuis le XVIIe siècle" (1993, 63). After two wars and rapid modernization have swept away the class markers of the industrial age so vividly depicted in Proust's salons and Zola's explorations of society's grim underside, theater provides an arena to which French writers, politicians, and intellectuals hopefully return to contest competing visions for a new and more equitable society. The moment is ripe with opportunity, and rife with dissent.

The 1951 revival of the Théâtre National Populaire sparks a particularly heated public exchange. The popular imperative of the new theater resonates with a Marxist or at least marxisant rhetoric, disquieting the right while on the left inciting a contentious debate whose flashpoint is the identity of the "people" whom this theater ideally serves. The cast of illustrious interlocutors alone makes this episode in cultural history a fascinating site of inquiry: they include Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Vilar, and, among others, Roland Barthes. Questions of social class dominate the discussion, which often opposes a populism of universal aspirations to a skepticism towards the possibility of any authentically popular culture in a capitalist society still riven by class distinctions (Stafford 1996, 47). [End Page 79]

It is not, however, the contest over the meaning of a popular theater but a related question critics, directors, and intellectuals more often neglect to raise that invites the present reconsideration of the debate surrounding the Théâtre National Populaire. While the popular aspect of the theater garners frequent attention, its specifically national character, as distinct from yet imbricated with the popular, does not enjoy similarly thoughtful deliberation in discourse on and from this period. A loosening of the often obscured national strand in the tightly knotted discourse on the Théâtre National Populaire reveals the tensions that inhere in invocations of the nation, and of a national theater, in the period of rapid and often painful transition between colonization and globalization, between a metropolitan French culture that unabashedly proclaims sovereign legitimacy, even superiority, and an emerging global economy that permeates national borders and complicates the identities they purportedly contain. Of particular interest is the often-overlooked contribution of Barthes, who with emblematic ambivalence both endorses a national theater and observes the contradictions inherent in the confluence of mass culture and the nation in the 1950s. An investigation of these troubling but potentially productive tensions offers an illuminating perspective on a critical moment in French history, and sharpens contemporary assessments of a national theater's uneasy place in the global cultural economy of the twenty-first century.

Before reconsidering the revival of the Théâtre National Populaire in light of the critical pressure Barthes brings to bear on claims to the "national" and the "popular," it is useful to review a fundamental tension that subtends the modern popular theater movement in France more broadly. Since the ancien régime there have been calls for a spectacle that will unite the French people—in Rousseau's Lettre à d'Alembert, for example—but little consensus over who constitutes the audience this theater should serve (Bradby and McCormick 1978, 16). The fêtes révolutionnaires, often cited as the modern renewal of the popular spectacle in France, already raise the question of whose interests are at stake. Is it a universal, democratic spectacle that transcends social divisions to assemble the entire nation, or do those who are otherwise excluded from theater, the sans-culottes or the masses defined against a dominant class, demand an oppositional...


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