Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture

By Alex Hughes; Keith Reader | Go to book overview
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See also: Algerian war; cultural topography (Paris); existentialist theatre; feminism (movements/groups); Theatre of the Absurd


Further reading

h
Howells, C. (ed.) (1992) The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (a collection of essays which approach Sartrean philosophical thinking from a range of angles).

p
Poster, M. (1975) Existential Marxism in Postwar France, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (this puts existentialism in its historical context).

u
Ungar, S. (1989) '1945 (October 15): First Issue of Les Temps modernes, Sartre's Postwar Journal: "Revolution or Revolt?"', in D. Hollier (ed.) A New History of French Literature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (an essay contextualizing the postwar emergence of existentialism as a cultural, literary and philosophical movement, which focuses particularly on the roles played by Sartre, Camus and Les Temps modernes).

w
Wilson, S. (1993) 'Paris Post War: In Search of the Absolute', in Frances Morris (ed.) Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism, 1945-55, London: Tate Gallery (essay on art and existentialism).

existentialist theatre

The existentialist theatre, led by the philosophy's main exponents, Sartre and Camus, involved a series of plays in the 1950s and 1960s which sought to deal with issues arising from major existentialist themes. The Absurd, the need to resist or revolt against it, and the isolation, guilt and need for political responsibility engendered by it, are all preoccupations of Sartre's and Camus's theatre works, and also those of Jean Anouilh, who shares some of the themes, if not all of the political opinions, of Sartrean theatre. In terms of theme, the Theatre of the Absurd which followed existentialist theatre in the 1950s and 1960s dealt with similar material; Beckett's Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot), for example, is a prime example of the Absurd which features in existentialist philosophy. However, it is in the absurdist form it epitomizes that it exemplifies the radical difference in approach between the Absurdists and their existential predecessors. Whereas the Theatre of the Absurd employed absurdity not only in subject matter but also in structure and form, many existentialist plays rely on a formal, classical structure and dialectic. Hence, while many of Sartre's plays, such as In Camera (Huis Clos) and Dirty Hands (Les Mains Sales), discuss the issue of choice in defining oneself, the need for recognition and the need to revolt against absurdity, these ideas are formulated in a classical, structured way more reminiscent of Greek tragedy than of a new genre. This is due, partly, to a conscious effort to attempt to establish a new form of tragedy for the modern day, combining the ancient ritual of classical drama (inspiration also for prewar predecessors such as Giraudoux) with a new form of tragedy, based on the necessity of choice discussed from an existentialist viewpoint. Both Sartre and Camus sought to show the tragedy inherent in Absurdity and the necessary tragedy of choice in the life of mankind. However, whereas Sartre believed in the individual's responsibility to resist Absurdity for himself or herself, Camus believed that mankind should rebel collectively, and that an individual response was inadequate (an idea expressed in Caligula).

Existentialist theatre has always been popular with educated Parisian middle-class audiences, especially at the time the plays were written, many before subsidized state theatre arrived in France, when authors were obliged to rely on the goodwill of one of the private theatres. Perhaps because they used finely crafted language and situations to expound their philosophies and theories, Sartre's and Camus's works, even if they presented sometimes less than rounded characters and dramatic techniques, were as successful when first

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