I know what you’re thinking.
‘What in the world is the Victory of Samothrace’ doing outside of the Louvre?’
Well, this is just one of the many rather endearing quirks about Montpellier, a city I don’t think I would have visited had I not known someone who lives there…which I do.
But before I get to that, a bit about the theatre piece I saw on Thursday night:
I was intrigued by Melancholia Europa (Une enquête dramatique) primarily because of the title: really, talking about a melancholy Europe seems particularly timely to me…wonder why. The chance to finally have an excuse to go to the Cent Quatre – the former home of the city undertakers up until the end of WWII, then a garage until its refurbishing/reopening as an arts center in 2008 – only further added to its appeal.
And let me just say before I get into the rest of my thoughts on the show – which, spoiler, I was mixed on -, I really, really loved that space. I’m going to be heading back there again this week, so I will try and actually remember to take some photos of it. Suffice it to say that, as far as former warehouse/factory-turned-arts spaces go, this one seems to have a keen feel for its new identity. Not only are there several theatre spaces on the premises (there was at least one other show going on the same time as ours, I believe), the space also houses a café/resto/bar (though this is pretty standard), rehearsal spaces, galleries, and, of course, the ubiquitous organic food market. This last point merits its own discussion on the passage of the organic movement from fringe to part of the capitalist machine, but that’s for another time.
Anyway, the play.
The basic premise was that we were invited in to the offices of a group of journalists/researchers grappling with the question of fascism – its roots, how it manifests/spreads, how it has evolved…or not – through the lense of Hannah Arendt’s work on the banality of evil. Although the show referenced the emergence of neofascist movements both in France/Europe and elsewhere (especially the United States), the figures examined in detail were high-ranking Nazi officials, in particular Heinrich Himmler.
There is a word that describes what it is to catch yourself almost at the point of recognizing something that could resemble humanity in someone so absolutely evil. That word is “unsettling”.
Far from rehabilitating those like Himmler, however, the play presented little tidbits about their daily private lives in order to highlight the ordinariness – the banality, if you will – of these otherwise almost unthinkably evil people, the fact that what they did could happen again, easily, anywhere.
And although moments like this were thought-provoking and effective, I’m still a bit puzzled in terms of what, exactly, the show intends for its audience to do with them.
This might be because, given how incredibly Brechtian it was (and a bit of disclosure: I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Brechtian-style theatre…I think it lets its audiences off the hook far too easily), the play’s political bent, its call to motivate audience action was very apparent. At the same time, and I am going to sound like a broken record on this, I’m not sure that maintaining the frontal stage/audience relationship really worked for this. There were moments when I felt that I was more in a lecture hall than part of something that – from what I can gather – was meant to rouse up a desire to act. Maybe this is a personal bias, but as far as theatre – any theatre really, but political theatre especially – goes, I don’t want to feel safe or secure as an audience member. Maintaining a sense of spatial order, I think, allows for a certain distanciation on the part of the audience, which, although keeping very much with Brecht’s desired alienation effect, also allows for a certain sense of ‘Not I’isms to creep out. As in the ‘Yes I can observe the suffering of the working class, but I, a middle/upper class capitalist who has the means to buy a ticket for this show am not one of the contributors to the problem, seeing as I am here learning and observing. Then I will promptly return home to think about things. Whether anything comes out of this thinking remains to be seen’ kind of distanciation.
I’ll say this again probably, but, if working on Genet for so long has influenced me in any way it is in the fact that theatre should not make you feel secure in your position whether in the building/room itself or outside it. It is a balancing act, a threat of chaos. No one should be left unscathed from it.
But now on to more upbeat matters.
Unfortunately, given the very cold, very wet weather this weekend, there wasn’t much done in terms of outdoor exploring. Luckily, Montpellier is a small city, so I was able to see most of it – at least the older parts. The fact that there were Christmas decorations up made the whole city look like the coziest place ever, especially when those decorations involved strings of lights twinkling above narrow cobblestone streets.
Oh, and of course, the Christmas season also meant a visit to the local marché de Noël, where I finally got to try aligot – otherwise known as incredibly cheesy, buttery mashed potatoes – for the first time! I swear if it wasn’t so unbelievably unhealthy for you, I’d eat that almost every day to keep warm.
Come to think of it, I think I pretty much ate my weight in chocolate and butter this weekend, what with that Christmas market visit, plus breakfasts of crepes and Nutella, and stops for chocolat chaud and cake (the final café visit before my afternoon train back to Paris today):
Thankfully, the butter/chocolate overload was tempered by a dinner of roasted fish (dorade, for those wondering), roasted potatoes and chard on Sunday evening.
I’ll close out this post by mentioning what was, perhaps, one of my favorite quirks about Montpellier: the Place des Grandes Hommes. This is a sort of rotunda – adjacent to a mall – around which are displayed statues of great men (and one woman) who influenced history. Charles de Gaulle is there, of course, along with some others, like Lenin:
A truly unrecognizable FDR:
And of course, Mao Zedong, who, irony of ironies, is standing directly in front of a giant supermarket megastore (Casino is a supermarket chain, not, you know, an actual casino):
Silliness aside, though, Montpellier was really rather adorable, and it was nice to get away from the city for a bit, the cold weather notwithstanding. Now I’ve just got to think about working off all that butter and chocolate before I head back to California for the holidays…