Review: ‘Sartre on theater’

edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, translated by Frank Jellinek (London, Quartet Books, 1976. £6.50)


W. D. Redfern


This collection is a translation of Un théâtre de situations, published by Gallimard in 1973. The editors, now major shareholders in Sartre, honestly admit that Sartre on theatre is largely spontaneous, and that his statements on it ‘do not have the weight of his specifically literary writings.’ This collection is indeed something of a ragbag, embracing seminars, interviews, lectures, reviews of productions, and two excerpts from L’idiot de la famille concerning the nature of acting, which extend Sartre’s study of this phenomenon in Kean, While it would be nonsense to claim that everything Sartre touches turns to gold, the theatre clearly stimulates his mind greatly.


Sartre’s initiator was Charles Dullin, who set him off reading up the history of the theatre and Hegel’s Aesthetics, from which Sartre derives his abiding interest in the theatre as the representation of a conflict between competing rights. This politico-dramatic aspect of the theatre has always been what Sartre values most, far above the mere renovation of forms, which can appropriately be left to the servants.


Nevertheless, he has done much to transform the fixation on psychological case-studies so prevalent in mainstream theatre since the late nineteenth century, and which he equates with an outdated naturalism. His own world-view and taste links him more with Greek tragedy, the theatre of Shakespeare or the Spanish Golden Age. He defines ‘character’ on the stage as ‘only the hardening of choice, its arteriosclerosis’; and psychologism as the attempt to freeze and stereotype human development, to make it abstract and atemporal: in short, to render it harmless. Against this dominant tendency he defends his own preference for myths, in these terms: ‘Myths are subjects so sublimated that they are recognisable to everyone, without recourse to minute psychological details.’ Similarly, he wishes to shift the stress from causes (determinism) to purposes. He categorizes true pessimism as not the one which critics often attribute to his plays, but the one which seeks to deny undeniable needs. Such a pessimism is indistinguishable from mystification. Now, he knows that ‘any demystification must be in a sense mystifying. Or rather that if a crowd has been to some extent steeped in mystification, you cannot trust to that crowd’s critical reactions alone. You have to give it a countermystification. And to do that the theatre must not renounce any of the sorceries of theatre. Exactly as the Jesuits worked during the Counter-Reformation.’ In this way (and it reads disconcertingly like Mère Pipe’s rabble-dazing speech in Tueur sans gages), theatrical magic and tactical lying in politics are conjoined. Les mains sales, with its magnetic hero and its sucker juvenile lead, its insistence on role-playing, its stress on the plasticity of truth, marries these twin preoccupations of Sartre. (Included is a fascinating long interview in which many of the probably insoluble ambivalences of the political import of Les mains sales are aired. Despite his professed dread of crustaceans, Sartre here dances an intricate Lobster Quadrille of assent and dissent with his interlocutor: the conflict of rights is enacted in the wings, too). It could be that Sartre displays a sharper sense of dialectics on stage, or in interviews, than in his philosophical writings, where seriality lays its deadening hand, and simultaneity, or even interchange, is impossible.


He is highly conscious of the basic dichotomy of the theatre: ceremony and ceremonial, political and artistic event or social sortie and bourgeois rite. His dilemma is that, despite his longing for a unified popular audience, what he gets is a hall full of middle-class monads. His solution: to upset this public as much as possible, never to reassure or cosset it. (While he admires Beckett’s En attendant Godot for its effrontery, he judges rightly that it does little to unseat its viewers and probably confirms them in their desire to see as few changes as possible imposed on society.)


He sees theatrical climax not as a purgative catharsis, but as an indigestion. He wants us to leave the theatre feeling heavier, with thought, with anxiety, with guilt-feelings, than when we went in. The prime instance is Les séquestrés d’Altona, where he swings back to the Racinian tradition: the weight of the past, of the choices made for us and without our consent, as against the Cornelian tradition of self-affirmation he for so long supported. The dominant theme in that play of the ‘counter-finality’—the way in which our acts produce results we neither expected nor desire—refers also to Sartre’s frequent experience as a playwright: that, once performed and received, the play becomes an object out of the author’s control. Indeed, it is this element of risk that possibly attracts Sartre most to the theatre.


Yet all the time he emphasizes the need in the theatre for a distancing effect, as a change from the fishy complicities of readers with novelists; he wants stylization and generalization. It is easy to see why he has little time for so-called participative theatre, ‘happenings,’ where the needed magic distance is telescoped or abolished. The editors maintain that 1968 brought Sartre, and the idea of politically committed theatre—perhaps politically articulate would be a more suitable term—back into relevance after the decade or so of Absurdist theatre. Successful revivals of Nekrassov, Le diable et le bon Dieu and, in 1976, of Les mains sales, help to confirm this view. It is hard to disagree with Sartre’s contention that most theatre on offer is, more than figuratively, insane: ‘The characters’ heads have been cut off, they have been deprived of their will, of action, of any concept of the future.’


Is Sartre’s development as a playwright linear or, as he said of the structure of Les séquestrés d’Altona, spiral (which clearly leaves room for tail-chasing as well as for the coiling of springs)? There are many constants, some bifurcations, some flat self-contradictions (especially in connection with Brecht), and not a few iddés recues insufficiently examined.


This collection, with material on all the plays, is a reliable tool. Sartre is contested by critics and audiences, and he fights back. He is cut down to size, yet remains a giant. Often a clumsy, bull-headed, tedious giant, but one all the same, and he makes most contemporary French playwrights look pretty puny.