An unexpected movement named EAT (Écrivains
associés du théâtre/ "United
Playwrights") has surprised everyone just when
subsidised theatre was in need of a second wind, as
a brilliant period of invention in staging and reinterpreting
theatre classics draws to a close. Who'd have thought
that contemporary playwrights would come out of their
sacred seclusion in the laboratories, hothouses, monks'
cells and other nooks and crannies and small theatres
where they had been working for quite some time underground?
Without such places to fall back on - the laboratories
and showcases where this business of dramatic invention
was kept alive in the nick of time - they would probably
have become as rare as artisans working in gold-leaf
or viola makers. The EAT revolt, deemed incongruous
and uncalled-for at first, is actually a fabulous
adventure that exists as a dialogue. People were expecting
arguments and quarrelling, and instead it has been
one continuous conversation. It has lasted a year
and a half now and has spread to all theatre circles.
Yes, the theatre is where the eternal in us can speak
out, but that part of us will shrink even further
unless it is confronted on the stage with situations
from out times. Yes, it is the sign of a fragile era
that dooms itself only to the authority of the ancients.
Yes, the oppressive weight of the "culturally
correct", like a lid stifling emotion and pleasure,
must be removed. Yes there is an enormous need to
reconnect between directors and playwrights, between
the theatre and audiences. Yes it is time to call
the writers back from exile, back to the home that
was theirs for thousands of years.
In less than twenty months EAT has examined our institutions,
met with the various actors and partners involved,
criticised hypocrisies and those in "lifetime
positions", proposed new procedures, and promoted
progress. (See their "assessment" published
last summer by Actes Sud, Quoi de neuf? L'auteur
vivant!) Above all they brought to light a deep
need for change that in fact goes beyond the playwright
problem - such as the project for creating companies
within theatres. But for the winds of change to really
affect French theatre, a political gesture was needed
to open a bridgehead inside the impregnable citadels
of the subsidised world. It had to be a courageous
gesture clearly signalling a change of era and sharing
the undisputed power of the directors who run the
major public theatres. The mayor of Paris and the
Minister of Culture made that gesture on 21 November
last year when they appointed writer Jean-Michel Ribes
- current president of EAT - to be director of the
Théâtre du Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées.
This "storming of the Bastille", a "historic
event" as it was called by the media, foretells
the symbolic end of a period of thirty years of wandering
in the desert for playwrights.
This life on the sidelines of the theatre didn't always
have the panache of the avant-garde or literary salons.
It was miles away from liquor-laced samizdat readings,
resembling something far more austere - a kind of
solitary underground. The truth is that, although
no one was asking them for anything, those writers
excluded from the stage were continuing to work, moving
into unknown territory, digging their own way forward,
exploring the theatre's potential with total freedom.
People rightly said that contemporary French playwriting
was going every which way and that is couldn't be
"pinned down". Let's say that it was enriched
by much experimentation and by a variety of possibilities
that are waiting to blossom now from an invigorating
connection to the stage. Those underground years haven't
borne all of their fruits yet. The best is yet to
come, not long from now; very soon in fact. Having
come back into the fold, playwrights are bringing
with them new skills and new ways of approaching the
legends of our times.
More and more theatres are opening up to contemporary
plays, and more and more directors are priding themselves
on helping budding writers to blossom. We shall soon
see this true theatrical literature developing with
its audiences, and shall see that contemporary theatre
is theatre, full stop.