Roland Barthes and the Myth of a National Theater

By Scheie, Timothy | French Forum, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Roland Barthes and the Myth of a National Theater


Scheie, Timothy, French Forum


In the 1950s, at a time when television is in its infancy and Hollywood imports dominate the cinema, theater in France retains recognition as an essential and vital national forum. Looking back on these years Jean Duvignaud asks: "peut-on concevoir, aujourd'hui, l'importance qu'avait le theatre dans ces annees-la? Le theatre avait garde cette presence litteraire et intellectuelle qu'il avait en Europe et surtout en France depuis le XVIIe siecle" (1993, 63). After two wars and rapid modernization have swept away the class markers of the industrial age so vividly depicted in Proust's salons and Zola's explorations of society's grim underside, theater provides an arena to which French writers, politicians, and intellectuals hopefully return to contest competing visions for a new and more equitable society. The moment is ripe with opportunity, and rife with dissent.

The 1951 revival of the Theatre National Populaire sparks a particularly heated public exchange. The popular imperative of the new theater resonates with a Marxist or at least marxisant rhetoric, disquieting the right while on the left inciting a contentious debate whose flashpoint is the identity of the "people" whom this theater ideally serves. The cast of illustrious interlocutors alone makes this episode in cultural history a fascinating site of inquiry: they include Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Vilar, and, among others, Roland Barthes. Questions of social class dominate the discussion, which often opposes a populism of universal aspirations to a skepticism towards the possibility of any authentically popular culture in a capitalist society still riven by class distinctions (Stafford 1996, 47).

It is not, however, the contest over the meaning of a popular theater but a related question critics, directors, and intellectuals more often neglect to raise that invites the present reconsideration of the debate surrounding the Theatre National Populaire. While the popular aspect of the theater garners frequent attention, its specifically national character, as distinct from yet imbricated with the popular, does not enjoy similarly thoughtful deliberation in discourse on and from this period. A loosening of the often obscured national strand in the tightly knotted discourse on the Theatre National Populaire reveals the tensions that inhere in invocations of the nation, and of a national theater, in the period of rapid and often painful transition between colonization and globalization, between a metropolitan French culture that unabashedly proclaims sovereign legitimacy, even superiority, and an emerging global economy that permeates national borders and complicates the identities they purportedly contain. Of particular interest is the often-overlooked contribution of Barthes, who with emblematic ambivalence both endorses a national theater and observes the contradictions inherent in the confluence of mass culture and the nation in the 1950s. An investigation of these troubling but potentially productive tensions offers an illuminating perspective on a critical moment in French history, and sharpens contemporary assessments of a national theater's uneasy place in the global cultural economy of the twenty-first century.

Before reconsidering the revival of the Theatre National Populaire in light of the critical pressure Barthes brings to bear on claims to the "national" and the "popular," it is useful to review a fundamental tension that subtends the modern popular theater movement in France more broadly. Since the ancien regime there have been calls for a spectacle that will unite the French people--in Rousseau's Lettre a d'Alembert, for example--but little consensus over who constitutes the audience this theater should serve (Bradby and McCormick 1978, 16). The fetes revolutionnaires, often cited as the modern renewal of the popular spectacle in France, already raise the question of whose interests are at stake. Is it a universal, democratic spectacle that transcends social divisions to assemble the entire nation, or do those who are otherwise excluded from theater, the sans-culottes or the masses defined against a dominant class, demand an oppositional, revolutionary theater whose necessity springs from a divided French society and the demand for change? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Roland Barthes and the Myth of a National Theater
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.