Academic journal article The Comparatist

Theatrical Terror: Attentats and Symbolist Spectacle

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Theatrical Terror: Attentats and Symbolist Spectacle

Article excerpt

The 1890s in Paris were a period of intense terrorism. There were more than a dozen bombings in the city between 1892 and 1894, attributed to a score of perpetrators, either identified as or assumed to be anarchists. The period of violent activity, known as "propaganda by the deed," both stoked public hysteria about every shady malingerer on the city streets and sparked popular support for--even idealizations of--the dynamiters in revolt against a corrupt political and social order. Ravachol (Francois Koenigstein), for instance, the first bomb-thrower to meet the fate of the guillotine, was immortalized in art as a martyr, in song and dance as a popular hero: "Dansons la Ravachole!" Among the literary and artistic avant-garde, there was enthusiastic support for anarchism's critique of pere, patron et patrie, not only in spite of anarchism's tactics of terror but because of them. Symbolists and decadents were equated with anarchists in the period press, not merely because of an analogous rebelliousness, but because symbolist and decadent litterateurs were making the "destruction of the old mold" both an artistic and a political principle (Montorgueil 1).

In such a climate, the Symbolist theater house the Theatre de l'OEuvre put on productions of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People in 1893 and Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi in 1896. Staged during and after the apogee of anarchist terror, the press characterized both productions as attentats ([bomb] attacks), their authors as "anarchists of art" who were "exercising a veritable terror over the public" (Fouquier 87). Ibsen's An Enemy of the People opened the initial season in 1893, and the Theatre de l'OEuvre presented it as a sort of anarchist manifesto: the poet Laurent Tailhade introduced the performance with a thirty-minute discussion declaring the virtues of revolt, which as a result brought the theater under police surveillance. As Richard Sonn notes with regard to Jarry's Ubu: "the play resembled an anarchist attentat in its violent assault upon the sensibilities of the audience, upsetting their expectations of theatrical decorum and dramatically involving them in the performance" (Sonn 77). Some have argued that such characterizations are due more to the political climate than to the content of the works (e.g., Weir 207-210), but I would suggest otherwise. Both Jarry and Ibsen attest to markedly anarchist sympathies, and their plays--while stylistically wildly different--make scathing critiques of corrupt authority and the illegitimacy of state power. In addition, part of what Ibsen's play dramatizes is the marginalization of the intellectual and the inefficacy of public speech; the hero, who wants his words to have the power of "dynamite," is utterly ignored and ultimately silenced. Jarry's Ubu has given up on speech altogether, bearing a destructive relationship to language, and relies on a theater of action and of violent gesture in a mode of confrontation with the public. The trajectory between the two plays and their productions at the Theatre de l'OEuvre reveals a shift in Symbolist theater from an emphasis on the word to a focus on gesture, which I will argue is tied to the Symbolist fascination for anarchist theories of action. The attentat became the Symbolist spectacle par excellence, an act whose polysemic eclat made it the model for a kind of theatrical terror.

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IBSEN AND SYMBOLIST THEATER

The 1890s saw the foundation of the earliest examples of avant-garde theater houses in Paris: the naturalist Theatre Libre (1887), followed by the symbolist Theatre d'Art (1890-1892), which gave way to the Theatre de l'OEuvre (1893), the most prominent site of symbolist theatrical productions. (1) Symbolist theories of theatrical representation sought to eliminate many aspects of traditional staging in order to let language evoke the decor and scene rather than materially executing them, achieving a scenic representation of the "Idea" through voice, stylized gesture, and radically nonnaturalistic set design. …

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