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  • The Waking of Medieval Theatricality Paris 1935–1995*
  • Helen Solterer (bio)

We know the original relation of the theater and the cult of the Dead; the first actors separated themselves from the community by playing the role of the Dead: to make oneself up was to designate oneself as a body simultaneously living and dead.

Roland Barthes 1

In his last writing, an essay on photography, Barthes chose to reflect on theatrical experience too. Looking to the Greeks and their customs of public drama, he recognized in acting a profound desire to establish a connection with the dead. Performance enables actors, as well as their audiences, to enter into a world that appears inert and cut off. At the same time, the moving, changing bodies in theater draw them into a world made vital again. Together they animate what is past. Barthes hits here upon an “ontological desire” that, in his view, distinguishes every theatrical event (C 13). At issue is the very process of engaging with some being or something from the past. It is a longing to come to grips with the past as death. Like the still photographs he considers throughout the essay, the theatrical exercises a powerful hold precisely by appealing to our wish to experience once more what is no longer.

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Figure 1.

Roland Barthes playing King Darius in the Sorbonne courtyard. Photograph courtesy of Editions du Seuil.

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Figure 2.

Playbill (with cover) for the mise-en-scene of Aeschylus’s The Persians, mounted by the “Groupe de Theatre antique de la Sorbonne” in 1936. Photographs courtesy of Juliette Jeandet.

This cool, abstract reflection on theatricality in La Chambre claire is also infused with some of Barthes’s own memories. It harks back to his university days when he was avidly involved in theater. In another late [End Page 357] autobiographical piece he returns to the same place in memory, recounting how he performed in classical and medieval plays with fellow students at the Sorbonne. His principal role was King Darius in Aeschylus’s tragedy The Persians, a ghostly figure summoned by his people from the dead (figs. 1, 2). “I risked losing track all the time. I was fascinated by the temptation to think of something else while I was intoning the prophecies of the dead king.” 2 Some fifty years later, this memory continues to fascinate him. In Barthes par Barthes, it is an image that details his life-long curiosity about the theatrical rapport between the living and dead. In fact, his King Darius is a defining image: playing a persona who appears to come back from the dead captures his very thinking about theater’s animating power. In the Chambre claire, he uses it again to recast the theoretical question of ontology in vivid social and personal terms. This image helps to spell out the many aspects that made theatrical experience so compelling for him: the encounter with a forbidding, static past, the wish to inhabit it, the fear and pleasure of live performance, the mystery.

Barthes’s memory-charged reflection reveals the affinities between his criticism and his youthful performances. In making this link explicit, it draws our attention back to between-the-wars Paris. Opening a window onto a 1930s student scene, it evokes one specific milieu where the passion for theater inspired great dramatic experimentation and debate. [End Page 358] In Paris, as across Europe, young people mobilized theatrically. 3 They were active in mounting amateur productions, scout rallies, civic pageants of all sorts. This was an era when the chronic crisis in the professional literary theater was complicated still further by these many ad hoc ventures of the neophyte. This was also the time when students took to political action in decidedly theatrical ways. Both as actors and spectators, they realized the mass spectacles typical of those years. As a standard slogan went, “theater mania” was gaining momentum. 4 And it was the young who energized this passion. However detached Barthes’s reflection on “the ontological desire” of theatrical events first appears, it resonates with these heady circumstances.

If we imagine his criticism...

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pp. 357-390
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