Drieu's Theater Criticism of the Twenties: Rituals, Spectators, and Subtext

by Rima Drell Reck
Drieu's Theater Criticism of the Twenties: Rituals, Spectators, and Subtext
Rima Drell Reck
The French Review
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THEFRENCHREVIEW,Vol. 61, NO. 1, October 1987 Printed in U.S.A

Drieufs Theater Criticism of the Twenties: Rituals, Spectators, and Subtext

by Rima Drell Reck


event as spectacle, the writer as actor-author in a comedy of culture-these characteristic metaphors of modernist literature became the formative structures of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's writing during the initial years of his career.' He would later translate the startling juxtapositions of experimental art forms into terrifyingly ironic historical judgments, as when, in 1944, he described the disintegration of Hitler from the perspective of a disillusioned surrealist: "Ainsi va llHistoire, qui construit de vastes perspectives avec de sales petits bouts de dkcor" (Unpubl. journal, qtd. in Andreu 539). This view of a historical moment as a piece of bad theater had its roots in Drieu's adventure as a critic of Paris spectacles in the early nineteen twenties.

In that luminous moment when literary surrealism still remained-for a brief time-unpoliticized, Drieu, already a published poet, memorialist, and essayist, participated in the mock trial of Maurice Barrgs, published poems and fragments in SIC, Littirature, and L'Oeuf dur, and with his friends Aragon and Breton argued about the nature and direction of contemporary art forms. Stage pro- ductions were a favorite topic; the brilliant innovations of Cubist painting and the liberating accents of the new Dada-surrealist poetry had made existing theatrical forms-from the set pieces of the Comhdie-Francaise to experimental prewar theater-appear dull or irrelevant. After fighting in the war, Drieu explained in a 1922 interview with the Revue Hebdomadaire, "voulant avant tout m'accorder avec mon temps [. . .] je me suis jet; avec ardeur vers ceux qui exaltaient le moderne, vers ceux qui acceptaient toute notre kpoque, vers ceux mkme qui s'hallucinaient uniquement sur ce qui est propre cette kpoque" ("Rkponse" 93-94). He admired the surrealists for their individual poetic talents and for their conception of literature as independent from external forces. When Aragon returned from a summer visit to Berlin in 1922 convinced by the frenetic vitality of German music halls that real stage art was to be found where the "public" went, the ongoing discussion about contemporary art forms expanded in a new direction.'

Systematic criticism was an uncharacteristic venture for a surrealist. Breton's manifestos and Aragon's pastiches on literary works were both essentially modes of avoiding or subverting direct analysis. Drieu, by temperament and talent more a critic than an enthusiast, had already brought off some startling performances, including a 1921 review of Aragon's Anicet, ou le panorama


identifying the radical thrust of that first novel and predicting its author's literary future in two dazzling pages (NRFJuly 1921). A practical and theoretical text on the still uncanonized art forms of music halls and circuses, applauded by the public and lionized by his fellow writers, seemed a worthy enterprise in the modernist spirit.

In November 1923 Drieu initiated in the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise a series of articles entitled "Chronique des spectacles" dealing with a wide range of stage entertainments. Unlike the traditional dramatic chronicle dealing with formal plays as spoken literary exercises, Drieu's moody, impressionistic reviews of Paris music halls, circuses, and theaters analyzed popular rituals and their audiences using aesthetic theory, literary history, and an early form of semio- logical analysis. His open museum of arts included the plays of Racine, the medieval churches, the noblemen-actors of the Sun King's court, the surrealist poets, British chorus grls, American jazz singers, and the totems of primitive art. The chronicles, which ran from November 1923 through March 1924, viewed the stage performances of Paris and their audiences as an experimental laboratory of cultural forms. Drieu's text provided a reading of French society through its entertainments, while his subtext dealt with the surrealist debate over popular art. Drieu evoked the performances by juxtaposing diverse ele- ments-stage props and poems, dance movements and typewriters, paintings and autos-against traditional French arts. Writers and painters appeared in the text as characters on a limitless stage standing just behind the main one. The performances appeared doubled, tripled; they became mirrors of the essential forms of rituals and their participants. At moments the stage reflections disappeared, and the critic-observing-and-writing took center stage, his words the transposition of a secret verbal ritual accidentally overheard.

With their immense variations of tone, theme, and synesthetic devices and their dazzling range of historical and literary references, Drieu's chronicles defined the prototypicalNRF essay of the early interwar years-that protean, Gidian, intellectual-cultural sonata that became the basic model for Roland Barthes's later virtuoso performance^.^Drieu's essays form a sequential, unified text with strong roots in surrealism and new patterns predicting the historical- aesthetic vein of criticism exemplified by Malraux's writings on art and his Antirnirn~ires.~

While a few years later Malraux would set out to find keys to the eternal image of man in the faces of Cambodian stone figures, Drieu-the quintessential rooted Parisian writer-looked to the more immediate, to the strangely blank faces in the stalls at the Comhdie-Frangaise and to the popular rituals of Paris. In the course of his critical inquiry into the psychology and sociology of spectatorship and its rituals and into the relation between popular and elite culture Drieu began to develop his own characteristic non-fiction form, a special strain of the French essay-meditation fusing literary and histor- ical commentary with cultural-political j~urnalism.~

Monthly reviews offered a challenging exercise in practical criticism and in literary infighting. Using the very substance of the productions, Drieu could confront the enthusiasms of his friends with the visible reality. He dissected the routines, assessed the dancing and sets, and compared the techniques of popular spectacles with the evolving theatrical enterprise of Jean Cocteau, whom Drieu admired for his fusion of painting, poetry, spectacle, and theater. When the evening's show lacked substance or form, he imagned ways of transforming it into a durable, authentically modern art. Drieu's speculations for improvement pointed in two broad directions: more intense physical and emotional involvement on both sides of the footlights, greater mythic and verbal conceptualization. Interestingly, Drieu's suggestions for exploiting the more violent dramatic potentials of ritual and his calls for objectified mythical speech and action on the stage suggested two major innovative directions theater would follow in the years to come: the non-verbal theater of cruelty of Antonin Artaud and the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht (Kenny). Applying his formidable intelligence to the criticism of popular art forms, Drieu also antici- pated significant later trends in the study of mass culture and entertainment.6

The initial and longest critique, a detailed analysis of a music hall revue at the Casino de Paris, establishes the form and methodology of the text. As Drieu in the act of writing creates an idiom for an unfamiliar subject, the text takes on the shape of a roman d'aventures of the voyage of criticism with all its inflections-setting out, discovery, stops, retreats, new beginnings. As he me- ticulously enumerates and describes the "numbers" of this Paris ritual-the chanteuse singing in English, the comic sketches, the rows of naked women, the ordered waves of dancers, the full troupe "freeze"-the prose list and its annotated commentary stretch the sense of time elapsed and minutes literally grow longer in the dark room. Watching this relentless array of horrors at first in amazement and then with a rising sense of dismay, Drieu wonders about the origins of such a bastardized show. Is it English, French, Ameri~an?~

(When he first visited the Casino de Paris right after the war in 1918, he attributed his impression of cultural fractionalization to his own disorientation.) All this is obviously enormously popular. The dark room is filled. Now the subtext rises to the surface: Why did his fellow writers urge Drieu to observe and write about the Paris music hall? The question is too unsettling to contemplate at this moment: the subtext disappears again. Drieu will face the evening alone, a critic armed only with his perceptions and his words.

Drieu concentrates on the visible subject as he carefully sets down the aggregates of signs: the physical accessories of expensive pomp, the grotesque gestures of poorly trained dancers, the deformed conceptualization of the tableaux, the connotative scams of predictable comic sketches and vaguely familiar musical forms, the dismal "modern" sets ineffectively influenced by the revolution in painting. How does all this appear to another spectator? The text suddenly veers away from the stage as the critic looks at the audience. The wildly staring eyes of the man seated next to him, trying to make out individual faces onstage, reflect a futile struggle. The critic defends himself by naming the groups on both sides of the footlights crowds, like a malediction: "Deux foules s'opposent aveuglbment, c'est la dbmocratie qui se fend par le milieu et qui expulse un plaisir bruyant, clinquant, et vague (italics mine)." They are all nothing more than "un Gtalage de corps tubs [. . .] de viande morte anonyme." The music hall performance itself is suddenly seen as a complicated machine of destruction, "un des laminoirs qui [. . .] kcrasent mieux les imes," a ritual of the 'other Paris," the one threatened by urban demolition, by invading barbar- ians, by the pursuit of novelty and money (NRF Nov. 1923: 590).

The spectacle, with its offending emptiness, anonymity, and vulgarity, ap- pears gradually to disintegrate as Drieu watches it. There is a pause, almost a respite; then the components of the evening suddenly reappear translated: the ultimate carnage left uncleared from the war, the two crowds of dead meat lost, blank-eyed, unable to find themselves or one another. As Drieu rereads the signs of the music hall revue, he recognizes it as an obverse ritual, one degraded from its original regenerative function by communion and participation to the level of a poorly staged ritual of death, a weak parody of mass murder that serves no one but the cash counters. Novelty and modernism have reached their apogee in a bloodless death pageant with bad music, few meaningful gestures, and a crushing quotient of boredom.

Drieu's analysis of the music hall revue illustrates several of the central points made by contemporary theorists of theater. His reading of the signs recognizes that rituals function as a fundamental form of social encounter and as a reflection of the inherent structure of a society (Schechner, Turner). His analysis of sets, audience reaction, patterns of presentation, connotative devices, and historical connections also anticipates major areas of inquiry in contemporary audience and performance theory: the psychology of stagecraft; the interrela- tionship between popular spectacles and changing public taste; the structural similarities between "twice-told actions" in disparate cultures; the political function of popular performances; the influence of audience consciousness of social issues on the choice of entertainment (Altick, Bradby, Demarcy, Descotes). However, Drieu's startling intuitions concerning contemporary ritual in the twenties are fundamentally poetic and painterly, rather than anthropologcal or productional. The dead meat on the stage and the disoriented gaze of the bewildered spectator are his literary mirrors of the relationship between audi- ence and performance, as well as of the more intangible relationship between the audience and itself. Combining the allusive and symbolic structures of poetry with a direct, practical analysis of stage forms, Drieu's text constitutes a hscursive, illustrated notebook that inevitably recalls the critical essays of Roland Barthes on popular arts, but with a grave historical dimension added.'

The published account of Drieu's music hall experience created something of a fuss among his friends. Impressed by his critical skill and also vaguely offended by his display of aesthetic independence, they began a new campaign, this time on behalf of the circus, proposed as more "natural" and 'simple" than the music hall and therefore a higher form of popular art. In reviews of two acrobatic performances, one at the Casino de Paris and the other at the circus,

The principal analysis of circus forms involves a featured acrobatic perform- ance at the Casino de Paris. Drieu starts out relaxed, at ease with the clear Cubist geometry of the set. There is nothing human visible:

Le dkcor est dipouillk, c'est notre aveu di.sespi.ri., plus de lignes, plus de couleurs, plus rien-mais tout a l'heure les jeux purs de la lumi6re pris dans les derniers pieges indestructibles: un visage, un corps humain. I1 y a un fond parce qu'il faut bien qu'il y ait un fond: un rideau gris, uni, iplis droits. Des appareils gymnastiques esquissent peut-&re un premier plan: nickel&, si abstraits, si gr&les, ce sont plut6t les entrailles du nhant. (NRF Jan. 1924: 97)

Then a face dimly glimpsed becomes clearer as Barbette, the star performer, comes on stage. She is a visual and poetic sign, the mythical Amtricaine of the era, with bobbed hair and narrow hips. As she performs, her physical control is the visible text of a female type, the woman who is sufficient unto herself. The acrobatic display is a study in abstract will, "la domination lointaine, absolue, soudain brisbe, sur n'importe qui ou n'importe quoi, par n'importe quel moyen" (98). Drieu reads the gymnastic performance as action idealized, reduced to its essence, so concentrated in its self-sufficiency, so indifferent to any objective that it becomes pure thought.

However, there are momentary flickerings of disruptive elements, an instant of less-than-perfect motion, a small touch of self-indulgence. Is it her essential feminineness-even stripped of the usual soft layers of fat and the normal beautiful clumsiness-that creates lapses of art and essence in the performance? Drieu begins to detach himself from his visual concentration, preparing to form his reading. The performance ends; the audience breaks into wild applause as Barbette moves to the footlights. She bows her head all the way down, then removes her wig. Her hair is cropped. There is a moment of existential wavering as Drieu waits for still another transformation, for the "third deceit" characteristic of the era-a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But the show is over. The beautiful American woman is a man. Drieu's shock, couched in the jerky rhythms of his prose, mirrors a key theme of the text: the corruption of popular art forms by fundamental physical and moral deceits.

The realization grows that popular and elite audiences may share a fascination with purely "showy" spectacles, with the accessories rather than the substance of stage art. Clearly, Drieu is out of sympathy with the witty and sometimes grossly sensual or deliberately epicene playfulness of much surrealist art. He does not share the sensibility we have come to call "camp." After the Barbette incident, his critical voyage enters its roughest seas as he is forced to face the unfortunate resemblance between Paris audiences at a popular sentimental play, gaping at the elaborate historical costumes and titillated by the facile intrigue, and his artist friends scurrying from one bad show to another. Beginning to reach the limit of his tolerance for popular spectacles, Drieu looks around him at the play. His evocation of the dreaming faces in the audience combines the signs of music hall, melodramas, and circuses: "I1 faut voir la t6te

tumblers pass one another in a high wire display:

Les traphzistes gambadent de branche en branche, par familles. Les jongleurs conquirent leur dexthriti, si vaine, en maniant le boomerang. Les iquilibristes traversent le pont de l'ine avec armes et bagages. Les acrobates rattrapent un instant le rythme de cette jeune homme v6tu de peaux qui errait dans les bois et qui [. . .] se trouvait aussi bien sur ses mains que sur ses pieds. (343)

The surrealists are wrong, Drieu concludes. Parisians come to the circus not in a nai've search for insight; they come "pour se dkbarrasser de 1'Histoire et de sa penshe lente." The popular spectacles of Paris provide no art, only escape, oblivion, an acceptable way to achieve spiritual deadness. The subtext com- pletely covers the text as Drieu finds himself overwhelmed by "le pernicieux mensonge du music-hall et du cirque" (345). In romanticizing public taste his artist friends have become supremely and blindly condescending. Popular taste is not charmingly nai've and natural; it is grossly self-interested and wallows in the trivial.

The breadth and intensity of Drieu's experiment in criticism led inevitably to a theoretical and artistic dead end. The meticulous, savage attention he directed at popular shows would have exhausted all but the most serious and complex art forms. He was forced quickly to confront the dilemma facing "the serious intermittent critic," to use Renata Adler's term: to write authentic criticism the critic must have a sustained high level of art about which to write. In five intense months Drieu literally wore out the enterprise of spectacle criticism, reducing the spectrum of performances observed to a handful of striking images. His visions of the contemporary music hall as a metaphor for French society and of the circus as a paradigm of the literary scene would reappear in his essays and novels.

Drieu was doubly disappointed. The reality of popular arts was not worth the critical effort. A more subtle discouragement came from the realization that the surrealists were betraying the ideal of art's freedom from constraint. Aragon in his drift toward a vague populism, others in their apolitical remoteness from the world outside their own esoteric circles not only romanticized the level of public taste; by defending the popular and the new for its own sake, they risked compromising themselves by all manner of dangerous engagements. The little quarrels with Aragon over the evening's entertainments became a larger disa- greement over the issue of art's relation to society, presaging the imminent drift of the early surrealist movement into literary factionalism and practical politics.

In March 1924 Drieu apologzed to his readers for abandoning the series: "Vous comprendrez que je cesse cette chronique: je fuis la tristesse qui s'accu- mule pour le moment dans les lieux ou les hommes s'assemblent" (346). His passionate disavowal of the Paris rituals of the early twenties, the logcal conclusion to a sustained dialogue between the writer-as-critic and the writer- as-spectator, functioned also as an exercise in literary self-definition, for as Drieu rejected, image by image and movement by movement, what had appeared to be the only still lively forms of contemporary French art besides painting, he cleared the terrain for a subsequent redefinition of literary genres within his own work. In a series of implied dialogues-between his own observations and the aesthetic judgments of his poet and painter friends, between contemporary French culture and the foreign influences that threat- ened it, between rituals and their spectators, between prose and poetry, gesture and painting-Drieu had recorded a unique critical adventure.

Drieu could not find in the casinos and music halls of Paris the noble primitive art his fellow surrealists chose to believe was there. In stagework with no content he sorely missed the play of the mind and of the passions. He expressed his impatience by criticizing the form of the productions, but his fundamental discontent was with a lack of meaning that extended to the very fabric of French life. Discouraged by the theater of rigorous spoken text, Drieu had hoped to find in less traditional popular spectacles the vivid emotions- the "blood"-of strong human intentionality. However, his conception of the possibilities of theater was limited to things he already knew, to Cubism, surrealism, and the innovations of Jean Cocteau. It would take Artaud, an early fellow surrealist with practical experience on and behind the stage, to elaborate a design to free French plays from their stifling naturalistic strictures.

The falling prose rhythms of Drieu's last spectacle review marked the begin- ning of his inevitable break with the surrealists and the opening notes of the most complex and controversial part of his career, his work as a political journalist. Drieu's analysis of Parisians and their entertainments-one of the most striking confluences of literary art, cultural theory, and historical analysis to come out of the interwar years-culminated in a condemnation of the French national character. He would be drawn, in just a few years, to more radical forms of public rituals, to parades and political demonstrations and the sound of armies marching across Europe.


'The research for this article was supported by a summer grant in 1985 from the University of New Orleans Research Council. An earlier version was presented at the Third Colloquium on Twentieth-Century French Literature, held in Baton Rouge in March 1986.

Aragon's description of 'l'expressionnisme et le cubisme appliquk au bars et music-halls [cornpark] au mPpris du joli petit cuicuicui de nos artistes" made the music hall seem an authentic repository of the modemist vision. See his article 'Le demier &ti." in Littirature Nov. 1922; also Pierre Daix's analysis of the Berlin trip in Aragon, une vie achanger 134-35.

Susan Sontag describes Barthes's form as 'complex, comma-ridden and colon-prone. [. . .] A style of exposition [. . .] whose parent tradition is to be found in the tense, idiosyncratic essays published between the two world wars in the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise" (ix). On the basis of their use of the same discursive-analytical form, strikingly similar music hall and theater analyses, and semiological reading of spectacles, I suggest that Barthes knew and was influenced by Drieu's 'Chroniques des spectacles."

'Drieu's Mesure de la France (1922) is the earliest book-length essay in what I call the Drieu- Malraux vein; it appears to have strongly influenced the younger Malraux. Malraux's La Tentation de I'Occident (1926) and 'D'une jeunesse europknne" (1927) share obvious, striking similarities with Drieu's Le Ieune Europien (1927).

In 'En marge 11" (Rivolution Nationale 15 July 1944), Drieu described his political-historical writings as essays or meditations written in the margins of newspapers and journals. This form, natural to him from his early days in school, was in fact a major, integral part of his writing.

See in particular Altick, The Shows of London, and Descotes, Le Public du thiitre et son histoire.

The recent volume Histoire des spectacles in the EncyclopPdie de la PlPiade is interesting in this connection. In the preface, Guy Dumur writes, 'Le cirque et le music-hall ont trouvb iune Ppoque relativement ricente une autonomie qui obligeait iles &&ti ipart" (vii).

Compare Drieu's analysis of the music hall with Barthes's essay, 'Au music-hall," in Mythologies.

Works Cited

Adler, Renata. 'The Perils of Pauline." New York Review of Books 14 Aug. 1980 26-35. 
Altick, Richard. The Shows of London. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. 
Andreu, Pierre, and FrhdPric Grover. Drieu La Rochelle. Paris: Flammarion, 1979. 
Aragon, Louis, 'Le dernier 6th." Littirature Nov. 1922. 
Barthes, Roland. 'Au music-hall." Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957. 199-201. 
Bradby, David, Louis James, Bernard Sharratt, eds. Performance and Politics in Popular Drama. 

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. Daix, Pierre. Aragon, une vie a changer. Paris: Seuil, 1975. Damase, Jacques. 'Le Music-hall." In Histoire des spectacles, Guy Dumur, ed., 1543-1575. Demarcy, kchard. ~lements d'une sociologie du spectacle. Paris: Union Ghnhrale d'~ditions, 19. 3. Descotes, Maurice. Le Public du theitre et son histoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France ' 54.

Drieu La Rochelle, Pierre. 'Chronique des spectacles." Nouvelle Revue Fran~aise Nov. 1923: 558-

596; Dec. 1923: 729-735; Jan. 1924: 96-99; Feb. 1924: 209-13; Mar. 1924: 342-346. ---. 'En marge 11." Rivolution Nationale 15 July 1944. ---. Le Jeune Europien. Paris: Gallimard, 1927. ---. Mesure de la France. Paris: Gallimard, 1922. ---. 'Rhponse iPierre Varillon," in 'EnquGte sur les maitres de la jeune litthrature." Revue

Hebdomadaire 4 Nov. 1922: 93-94. ---. Unpublished journal. Cited in Andreu and Grover 539. Dumur, Guy, ed. Histoire des spectacles. EncyclopP&e de la PlPiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. Kenny, Neil. 'Changing the Language of the Theater: A Comparison of Brecht and Artaud." Journal

of European Studies 13 (pt. 3) no. 52 (1983): 169-186. Malraux, AndrP. La Tentation de l'occident. Paris: Grasset, 1926. ---. 'D'une jeunesse europhenne." AndrP Chamson et al. Ecrits. Les Cahiers Verts, 70. Paris:

Grasset, 1927. Richet, MichGle. 'Le cirque." In Histoire des Spectacles, Guy Dumur, ed., 1520-1542. Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology.Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1985. Sontag, Susan. 'Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes." In A Roland Barthes Reader, Sontag, ed. New

York: Hill and Wang, 1980. Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theater. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publication, 1982.

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