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  • Cultural Politics in Paris
  • Joan Templeton (bio)
The Forty-First Festival d’Automne, Paris, September 13–December 31, 2012.

The “Autumn,” as it is called in Paris, is France’s largest performing arts festival, taking place over three months (in comparison, the Avignon Festival lasts three weeks) and presenting artists from all over the world. While French cultural institutions are funded largely by the government and thus strongly connected to politics, the Autumn is particularly so. In the early 1970s, President Georges Pompidou and his Minister of Culture Jacques Duhamel, disturbed by the inwardness of post-war French culture and the French public’s ignorance of modernism, were determined to restore Paris to its pre-war status as the avant-garde capital of the arts. One plan was to create a cultural center housing a collection of modern art, which would open in 1977 as the Centre Georges Pompidou. Another was to found an annual festival of performing arts which would present work from around the globe. Michel Guy, a patron of the arts, was named General Director and inaugurated the first Autumn on October 13, 1972.

An aficionado of the New York avantgarde, Guy astonished his first audience with the work of a trio of young Americans: Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Wilson. The next year, Patrice Chéreau got his chance, and the year following, Peter Brook. Guy also brought in experimentalist directors like Giorgio Strehler and Luca Ronconi from Italy and Peter Stein and Peter Zadek from Germany. It was at the Autumn in 1976 that Wilson’s and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach had its French premiere. Guy ran the Autumn until his death in 1990 and was succeeded by Alain Crombecque, who built on Guy’s success until his own death in 2009.

At the same time that Guy and Crombecque earned the gratitude of two generations of theatregoers, the Autumn became a whipping boy for the right, which argued that the Festival’s devotion to the avant-garde made it elitist, and that the government had no business using public money — eighty-eight percent of the Festival’s costs — to fund it. Guy insisted that dividing art into works for the elite and works for the masses was both absurd and impossible, an argument that implicitly linked him to Jean Vilar, founder of the legendary TNP [End Page 69]

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I Look You in the Eye, in the Context of Social Blindness, directed by René Pollesch, Volksbühne.

Photo: Thomas Aurin. Courtesy Festival d’Automne.

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Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by Heiner Müller, Berliner Ensemble.

Photo: Barbara Braun. Courtesy Festival d’Automne.

[End Page 70]

(Théâtre National Populaire). From 1951 to 1963, Vilar offered free shuttle buses between Paris’s working-class suburbs and the TNP at Trocadéro, where, undeterred by criticism, he thrilled his audiences with splendid modern versions of classics.

This season’s Festival was the first under its third General Director, the surprising Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who began his career at sixteen when he founded a theatre company in his Paris high school. Upon graduation, he turned professional and was so successful that, at thirty-one, he was chosen to head the Comédie de Reims, a French national theatre. After only four seasons, he was offered one of France’s juiciest theatrical plums, the directorship of the Thèâtre de la Ville, at Chatelet. During the past six years, he has reorganized the theatre, making its offerings more varied and adding educational programs, all the while directing productions himself and keeping the theatre mostly full. That he accomplished all this during a severe financial crisis helps to explain his appointment — premature to some, welcome to others — at the age of forty-two.

Demarcy-Mota has taken pains to establish himself as a strong supporter of the Festival’s inclusive history. In an interview, he refuted continuing accusations of snobbery by claiming that the Autumn was not “élitiste” but “élitaire” (“Festival d’Automne à Paris,” Les Inrockuptibles, September, 2012). The word élitaire, invented by Antoine Vitez in 1972...


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