Review: ‘French theatre today’

by Garry O’Connor (London, Pitman, 1975. £ 3.50 cased, £ 1.95 paper)


David Bradby


The format of this elegant little book is promising. Leafing through the pages, the reader’s attention is caught by chapter headings in a bold, modern type face, by charts, lists of productions, extracts from plays and a map. It is all very seductive, suggesting plenty of readily assimilated information, and the unsuspecting reader dips into his pocket for the comparatively reasonable sum of £1.95.


But what can he really expect from a text which, in less than a hundred diminutive pages, attempts to cover Audiberti, Claudel, Giraudoux, Artaud, Sartre, Césaire, Michel, Yacine, Montherlant, Adamov, lonesco, Weingarten, Vian, Tardieu, Arrabal, Beckett, Genet, Duras, Adrien, Atlan, Haim, Grumberg, Ehni, Cousin, Benedetto, Vinaver, Anouilh, not to mention chapters on organization and finance, directors and actors? It turns out to be a publisher’s dream but a reader’s nightmare. The publisher has a book that can be marketed as the final solution to the problems of the student of French, since it has something to say about almost every modern French playwright. But the bewildered reader is subjected to a whirl of partial truths and superficial judgements. Why didn’t the author write a book about French theatre today (since this is his title) instead of going back to the prewar period? Why did the publisher not insist upon a more restricted area, as in Peter Ansorge’s admirable book in the same series?


The book starts out fairly well with a useful chapter on finance and organization. None of the statistics quoted is the result of original research, but it is certainly the first time that this material has been translated into English. After that, the text plunges wildly out of control, full of inaccuracies, like the statement that ‘Bérenger becomes a rhinoceros’ (42), absurd generalizations, for example ‘Genet is drugged with a fantasy of universal evil’ (59), and unargued asides, such as the statement that Brecht’s Exception and the rule ‘does not succeed in convincing in the theatre itself’ (sic 41).


The longest piece on a single author is the seven-page account of Sartre’s theatre. This is particularly strange, since of all ‘contemporary’ authors, he is the least ‘contemporary’. Not only did he write the last of his original plays in 1959, but these plays, which seemed so new in the fifties, have hardly been revived since and now seem quite extraordinarily old-fashioned. In their dramatic principles they reveal an absence of innovation and we can see, with the advantage of hindsight, that they have had almost no influence at all on the development of French theatre today.


Not that Garry O’Connor tries to argue the opposite. In fact he hardly argues at all. His book reveals a failure, at any level, of coherent dramatic analysis. Of the seven pages that he lavishes on Sartre, one whole page is spent telling the story of Les mouches. The chapter on Beckett is equally devoid of discernible critical method. What can it possibly add to our understanding of Beckett’s work to know about Dr Oliver Sachs’s descriptions of the pathological conditions of Perseveration, Hypokinesia, Catalepsy and Festination? Perhaps there is a way of using this type of material in an analysis of Beckett’s work; but it is patently inadequate to comment that ‘These are strikingly akin to the behavioural characteristics of Beckett’s characters’ (53).


Where he discusses a playwright who has covered the whole period from the forties to the seventies, O’Connor will arbitrarily ignore a whole tract of his work, as is the case for all of Adamov’s plays written after 1962. Where a writer is genuinely contemporary, like Jean-Claude Grumberg (not J.L. Grumberg as stated) he only has space to outline a couple of plots and add a sentence or two of the type one expects from a brief theatre review in an evening paper.


The one thing he is good at is the occasional anecdotal detail. It is interesting, for example, to read on page 62 that Grumberg sold Dreyfus to a Broadway producer for 18,000 dollars. But this piece of information is not set in its context or followed up with other relevant details.


There are too many misprints. The one which I shall remember, because it made me laugh, is the great comic actor Jean Bouise, who is twice named Bouix.