Reception and the Political
J’ai fait mon acte, Electre, et cet acte était bon.
Sartre, Les Mouches
Writing in 1946, Sartre addressed the question of why so many young French playwrights were looking to antiquity for their inspiration and argued that this phenomenon was a unique byproduct of the recent political history of France. In ‘The Forgers of Myth’ he comments:
Reading newspaper reviews of Katherine Cornell’s production of Jean Anouilh’s
Antigone, I had the impression that the play had created a certain amount of
discomfort in the minds of the New York drama critics. Many expressed surprise
that such an ancient myth should be staged at all. Others reproached Antigone with
being neither alive nor credible, with not having what, in theatre jargon, is called
‘character’. The misunderstanding I believe, was due to the fact that the critics
were not informed of what many young authors in France—each along differing
lines and without concerted aim—are attempting to do.1
Sartre sets out to explain the function of the return to classical myth in the development of a certain type of political theatre in France which, on the one hand, rejects the psychologism of what he calls the ‘theatre of character’, and, on the other hand, is wary of the ‘rebirth of the philosophic play’.2 He offers a genealogy for the emergence of this new genre with reference to his own biography. While a prisoner of war in 1940 Sartre had written a Christmas play which was performed within the German camp. He describes how its ‘appearance’ as a biblical story had ‘pull[ed] the wool over the eyes of the German censor by means of simple symbols’3 but that the prisoners had been well aware of its relevance to their situation. When the play was staged, Sartre experienced the revelation of ‘what theatre ought to be—a great collective, religious
1 Sartre (1946a), 324.
3 Sartre (1946a), 330.