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  • Staging France between the World Wars: Performance, Politics, and the Transformation of the Theatrical Canon by McCready Susan
  • Colin Foss
McCready Susan. Staging France between the World Wars: Performance, Politics, and the Transformation of the Theatrical Canon. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016, 157 pp.

Susan McCready's Staging France Between the World Wars: Performance, Politics, and the Transformation of the Theatrical Canon brings together two major discussions into a slim and engaging volume. Detailing an account of theater in times of war, McCready situates this story within the larger stakes of her book, arguing that changes to the mainstream or canonical French theatrical tradition in the interwar period took place thanks to the institutionalizing efforts of a band of directors: Jacques Copeau and the Cartel des quatre (Gaston Baty, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet, and Georges Pitoëff). Convincingly, she claims that these directors normalized theatrical modernity through a gradual redefinition of who could claim authorship of a performance. Specifically, these interwar directors "shifted emphasis from the verbal to the visual," (10) implicitly and often explicitly posing the metteur-en-scène as a "theatrical artist in his own right, apart from the author" (xiii). McCready's description of the legitimization of stagecraft ends with Copeau fully realizing his efforts to transform theatrical institutions, through his appointment as director of the ComédieFrançaise in 1940.

The structure of Staging France subsumes the changes to theater performance wrought by the two World Wars within a broader history of institutions, showing how political events are internalized and processed by the stewards of cultural heritage. McCready's first chapter, "Subject to Interpretation," describes the theoretical tenets of the modern metteursen-scène Copeau and André Antoine, who viewed their performances as preserving authenticity, and defined authenticity as the returning of French classics to their historical and cultural specificity, unmooring them from their textual or verbal primacy. McCready focuses on this paradox—modernity [End Page 167] via historical sensitivity—as a central tension of a twentiethcentury querelle des anciens et des modernes. Another central distinction introduced in the first chapter, the preference of these interwar directors for French classics rather than contemporary plays, continues throughout the book.

In Chapter 2, "Mobilizing the Canon," we find that the classics took on nationalist importance during the First World War, when French theater was enlisted to celebrate national heritage, becoming a "source of inspiration for its soldiers" (22). McCready presents a wide range of performances during the interwar period performed in France and in the United States, where Sara Bernhardt and Jacques Copeau were on tour as a sort of evangelizing mission for the French war effort. Mixing textual analysis with contextual writings of directors, actors, and authors, McCready argues that the plays themselves mattered less and garnered less critical and journalistic attention than the way they were performed.

In chapters 3, 4, and 5, McCready offers a series of classic plays that were enlisted into the modernism of Copeau and the Cartel. These central chapters, which amount to a series of case studies of what could be called the visual turn of theater performance in the interwar period, allow McCready to showcase the various ways these directors applied their visual aesthetic and the equally varied responses they received from critics. Chapter 3 uses Molière as a litmus test for explaining the differing performance aesthetics of Copeau, Baty, and Jouvet. Chapter 4 uses productions of Racine and Shakespeare to introduce the politics of the interwar period, when directors de-politicized Shakespeare's foreignness against the backdrop of the fascist riots of 1934 and the Popular Front government of 19361937. Chapter 5 establishes the modernist directors as inheritors of the Romantic playwrights of the early nineteenth century, and ends with the modernist revival of Musset and Mérimée. With the dearth of quality contemporary authors to stage, these modernist directors reshaped Romantics into their own image.

How did modernism become mainstream? Chapter 6 suggests that by the 1930s the directors of the Cartel benefitted from the comparison with the more radical avant-garde, particularly that of Antonin Artaud. Their relatively modest innovations, their reverence—albeit a modern reverence—for the canon, and their desire...


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pp. 167-169
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