Memory is an odd thing, especially when it comes to theatre.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately for several reasons, chief of which is the fact that, as it is the 50th anniversary – to the month – of May 1968, several events and expositions have been popping up around the city commemorating this very pivotal moment in Parisian/French history.
But what does commemoration serve when an event of this kind is concerned? An event rooted primarily in anti-establishment rhetoric, crying for change in the way things are done, cries that – yes – turned violent, but when is that not the case when the people dare to speak out and law enforcement answers with guns and batons (we can add tear gas to this now, useless canisters of tear gas flung into otherwise peaceful clusters of protesters who dare to sit down in the shade for a minute). I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to say that, ultimately, the wished-for upending of the status-quo was never truly realized. Not really. Instead what we get now is neat repackaging of slogans and posters at 5eu a pop, and perhaps a fleeting moment in front of an image of a student alone in a deserted street throwing a paving stone at a cloud of smoke and the mechanized enemy behind it, imagining that we too could imbibe some of his Force™, his Fervor™, his Revolutionary Spirit™.
Last Monday, May 8th, the Odéon theatre held a ‘restaging’ (link to an article, in French, for those who want to know more) of sorts of its occupation by students and artists in May of 1968. The idea was to re-evoke the spirit of the event – a giant happening of sorts – while paying tribute both to the event that was, and arts (especially theatre’s) central role in it. The audience gathered, pleasantly, tickets in hand, for what promised to be an otherwise non-eventful evening of nostalgia and ‘playing-at’ revolutionary occupation.
And then, when the spirit of 1968 came to them in a form of a group of current university students – many of whom are still on strike protesting against proposed reforms in university admissions, among other things – who attempted to pass the metal barriers surrounding the theatre in order to enter into the space, but ultimately resigned themselves to remaining outside (security guards were rather on point that night), the tone shifted. Several speakers and invitees began to question whether or not it was not a bit obscene to be celebrating this way when, in a weird twist of fate, 1968 came to find them again. Would it not be best to invite the students in, let the new generation speak on its desire, its attempts to create, as the event organizers evoked of the protesters of 1968, a new sort of utopia?
No. It would be too risky for the theatre, at least according to management.
I wanted to start off by evoking this event before getting into the show I saw this week at Nanterre. As part of their spring festival (this one titled Mondes Possibles, or Possible Worlds), the theatre programmed a reprisal/adaptation of a rather legendary 1968 production : Paradise Now, staged by the Living Theatre in Avignon, and rendered rather infamous at the time for the scandal it provoked.
Rather than go into a plot breakdown – because really, there isn’t one – I’ll just briefly sum up the general gist of it as being a sort of giant happening. The idea is to eventually bring the audience in through several ritualistic, trance-like ‘movements’. Late-60s spiritualism (rife with cultural appropriation and all) is very much present here.
This production was originally programmed to be staged outdoors, but given the rather unpredictable weather (last weekends sunny skies quickly gave way to clouds and rain again this week), was instead staged inside the rest design shop. As we all filed in and took our places around a makeshift stage (a large, white, painted floor flanked at the back by a large black curtain acting as a sort of flimsy wall between this space and the space of the shop), the actors began to move about us, then began speaking, repeating phrases such as “I do not have the right to travel without a passport”, “I do not need money” and “I am forbidden from taking off my clothes”, first calmly, neutrally, then with increasing fervor and anger.
As you can probably imagine, eventually the point came when the actors stripped down to their underwear (or entirely), and it was at this point that the following phrase “Théâtre Libre! Faites ce que vous voulez!” (“A free theatre! Do whatever you want!”) was pronounced for the first of what turned out to be many times. Each time the phrase was chanted throughout the 1h50min production, the actors all stopped, looking around at us, as though waiting for someone to answer the call.
And though there was a part of me that did feel a bit of a tug to react, I also couldn’t help but wonder whether they actually meant what they were saying, in the literal sense (my friend that accompanied me confessed to feeling similarly). The idea behind the phrase was, of course, to divest oneself of cultural norms and obligations, to throw aside established order and convention in the embracing of spontaneity, of creation, of a return to something more utopian, more human. But was the intention behind the phrase really to spur this into action? If this was an actual happening, with no time limit to adhere to – and if it was not weighted down by the memory, history, the rhythms of what came before it – I would say that maybe, yes, yes it was. Give people enough time, and maybe the change will happen. But see, there was a wall clock directly across from me, a wall clock that I glanced at from time to time, and that served as a reminder of the fact that this little ‘revolution’ was only temporary.
So, what was this then? A return of sorts, yes, but, at least for me, a somewhat hollow one. 1968 repackaged again. Perhaps some of this had to do with the fact that I was familiar enough with the original production to know what ‘beats’ to look out for in this revival, and therefore couldn’t get into the spirit of things. I would contest though that the format of a 1960s ‘happening’ itself no longer corresponds to the way we interact anymore, how we form connections with one another. It’s not inconceivable to imagine a similar kind of event that corresponds better to life as we live it now in 2018, but this was not necessarily it.
And anyway, there was actually a moment where it could have been done, a definitive break with convention, a step towards the ‘revolution anarchiste’ the piece also called for. Upon the performance’s conclusion, we were all lead outside by the actors into the parking lot that is itself adjacent to a very large – and at the time rather empty – park. The spirit of the crowd and the actors had turned jovial again, everyone was dancing together, clapping and humming along to a rhythm that had been established an hour beforehand. If only, at that moment, instead of heading back inside and signaling that the time for theatre was over, they had all lead us into the park and let whatever wanted to happen, happen. But this time sincerely letting it.
To be clear, I am very glad I attended this show. Honestly, even though I saw it on Friday, I’m still trying to think it over in my head a bit (which is to say…apologies in advance for the rambling haha).
Anyway, other than that, the week was rather quiet, with the exception of an unexpected but very pleasant reunion with a former supervisor of mine from the theatre camp I used to work at over drinks on Thursday, pie-baking on Saturday, and generally doing a lot of nothing, something I haven’t done in a rather long time.