History of theater for the people: cultural democratization at the inception of the French nation (19th – 20th C)

by Marion Denizot, Lecturer, Université de Rennes 2

In this presentation, Marion Denizot from the Université de Rennes 2 – Université européenne de Bretagne, discusses the role of theater in defining the French nation. More specifically, Denizot presents the argument that theater for the people, in essence publicly funded theater (in opposition to privately subsidized troupes), assists in unifying France as a cohesive nation. Denizot’s argument is contextualized in a detailed historical narrative. She outlines the social and political circumstances that allow for theater to adopt a civic mission, thus fostering a policy of cultural democratization. In turn, let us enumerate the major steps in this process.

Traces of theater for the masses can be found in the 19th century, when Maurice Pottecher created the Théâtre du Peuple, writing and directing plays for a targeted regional community. Pottecher was responding to a local need for theater, catering to a provincial population that could not access Parisian produced work. The plays were also a reflection of the population’s cultural background, specific to its geographic area. However, it was not until 1920 that such theater for the masses became publicly funded by the French State.

This date marked the birth of the Théâtre national populaire (TNP) founded by Firmin Gémier in Paris. The TNP sought to grant access to the French repertoire to as wide an audience as possible. The antecedents to André Malraux’s concept of cultural democratization, developed at the creation of the Ministry of cultural affairs in 1959, can be found in this original articulation of theater for the people. Though mandated in the TNP’s primary mission, this civic endeavor was not institutionalized until the arrival of Jeanne Laurent at the ministère de l’Education nationale in 1946. Hence, even before the creation of the ministère de la Culture, the French State invested in promoting theater for a more diverse socio-economic constituency. It is perhaps the statement of Jean Vilar, head of the TNP in 1951, that best epitomizes this new mission: theater as a “public service”, similarly to gas, water, and electricity – funded by the State, for the French people.

This endeavor, as tackled by Laurent between 1946 and 1952, was called “theatrical decentralization”. The centralized initiative of the TNP was outsourced to other French regions; troupes like that of Pottecher began receiving national subsidies, in addition to their traditional local funding. Upon Laurent’s departure from the ministry of Education, the decentralization movement loses its momentum. Malraux’s arrival in President’s De Gaulle’s government in 1958 comes with great promise for revitalization of cultural endeavors. Along with the creation of the ministry of Cultural affairs comes an explicit articulation of cultural democratization, namely granting access to culture to a larger and more diverse population. It is as such that cultural democratization and cultural decentralization become interconnected in their goals and objectives.

Theater appears as the evident art form to embody this intersection between the State’s cultural agenda and burgeoning creativity throughout France: “Theater, thanks to its educative mission, allows not only to anchor the Républiquem but also to create cohesion and connections”1 (Denizot). Culture, and more specifically theater, allows for the communion of French citizens, which in turn fosters the development of the French Nation.

Though the French Nation may be more cohesive due to the fact that theatrical venues are provided to a wider range of French citizens, it is important that cultural democratization not lead to cultural homogenization. Indeed, Denizot highlights the importance theater for the people placed on respecting regional specificities, in line with Pottecher’s work at the turn of the 20th century. By focusing on this aspect, which celebrates France as a diverse country, theater exceeds its cultural purpose (as a cultural practice) and fulfills its social and civic mission. All French citizens can feel implicated while viewing a performance that is a reflection of their cultural uniqueness. The French Nation is bonded by theater, and is further strengthened by its diversity.

However, is this conception of theater for the people and for the French Nation idealist? Denizot poses this question at the end of her discussion. Is the ambition to instate this new conception of democratized theater not overwhelming and unrealistic? Furthermore, might the theater directors named by the State manipulate the civic mission of decentralized theater in order to convey doctrinal and didactic lessons to the undereducated population they are targeting? Denizot responds: in Wagnerian logic, it appears that such fears of paternalism and ambition are overridden when the fundamentally radical nature of cultural democratization comes to light. Indeed, this movement revolutionizes the French Nation by seeking socio-economic inclusivity, and thus bypassing bourgeois values that had previously dictated cultural aestheticism. In essence, cultural democratization establishes not only the Nation, but also the République.

It is precisely this quality of theater for the people that serves as the greatest argument to defend its existence in the face of political contestation or skepticism. Culture is in the service of a political mission. Denizot thus dismisses the contemporary trend of changing referential systems when assessing the impact of cultural democratization and decentralization. Indeed, at an age when statistics are considered the only admissible results, a number crunch can reduce cultural initiatives to sterile data. Denizot notices this trend led by the elites in rule of highlighting the profits and economic benefits reaped from cultural endeavors, rather than underlining culture’s inherent values. As such, art and culture are no longer esteemed the founding elements of national identity.

Furthermore, the sweeping wave of globalization erases the fundamental connection between the people and their Nation; culture, held by the citizens, is therefore disassociated from the Nation. It is for this reason that Denizot contends that cultural and artistic endeavors such as theater for the people cannot be quantified: to resort to a purely numerical study of cultural democratization is to neglect the examination of how theater allows citizens to live together. Instead, these initiatives must be judged by the quality of their execution and sustainability of their impact. “Absent from electoral debates, culture – similarly to education – is assed based on its costs and not on the effects it has on individuals and national cohesion” (Denizot). The question should not be whether cultural democratization has failed in its mission, but rather how the French Nation has become stronger thanks to such publicly funded movements. As long as culture is subject to this trend, deep instability will persist in the realm of public theater and in the study of cultural democratization.

[Read the full paper in french]

1 All translations are my own.


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