[In April 1989, I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to do some research on a 1985 production of the Guthrie Theater. This was part of a multi-city project and it was my practice while I was spending a few days in such important U.S. theater centers as Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Houston, and Louisville, along with Minneapolis, to try to see performances at the theater where I was conducting my research and any other production house that was presenting something while I was in town. As it happened, the Guthrie was between productions, with a show having just closed and the next one in rehearsal. So I looked around and selected the experimental theater company Theatre de la Jeune Lune to see during my brief stay in the Twin Cities. Theatre de la Jeune Lune was in performance with a startling company-created production, 1789: The French Revolution, at the Guthrie Lab Theater . So on Sunday, 16 April 1989, I went over to the former warehouse along the banks of the Mississippi River.
[1789, described by Jeune Lune dramaturg Paul Walsh as “a reverie of music, spectacle and drama,” was written by Barbra Berlovitz Desbois, Vincent Gracieux, Felicity Jones, and Robert Rosen, with Christopher Bayes and Paul Walsh. The music was composed by Chan Poling and directed by Eric Jensen. The production was directed by Dominique Serrand, with sets designed by Vincent Gracieux, lights by Mark Somerfield, and costumes by Andrea McCormack.
[The Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a name reminiscent of Ariane Mnouchkine’s international experimental troupe, Théâtre du Soliel, was a nationally respected theater company based in Minneapolis. (It won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2005.) The company operated from 1978 to 2008 and was renowned for its visually stunning, highly physical productions. The troupe’s style was derived from clown, mime, dance, and opera, based on the teaching of Jacques Lecoq, the French actor, mime, and acting teacher with whom many of the founders had studied. The theater’s reputation also stemmed from the reimagined classics they staged and their productions of highly ambitious original work, as exemplified by 1789. I’ll give a brief history of the company after the production report, which I wrote within days after I saw the show. (I have lightly reedited this report to make it more accessible 28 years later.)]
In case it has escaped anyone’s attention, this is the bicentennial of the French Revolution. In various cities in America, there have been events to note this anniversary with nearly the solemnity and spirit with which we approached our own two-hundredth birthday thirteen years ago. Books have been published, speeches made, and visits from French dignitaries scheduled. The acknowledgement by the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a Minneapolis experimental theatre company, makes clear some of the disturbing problems of the French Revolution.
1789: The French Revolution (which carries an additional subtitle of Feast of Rage, Feast of Reason) doesn’t mean to make this point, and, indeed, tries to gloss over it in two ways, one intentional and the other, I imagine, inadvertent. The company says, on the words of composer for the project, Chan Poling: “We are here to celebrate a particular revolution, but the idea of revolution—of a class or of a mind—is being examined here as well.” Nonetheless, as a piece of theater, this sprawling, boisterous environmental production has some interesting ideas, particularly as an exemplar of the use of space as described in Richard Schechner’s Environmental Theater (Hawthorn Books, 1973).
The Guthrie Lab Theater, at 700 North 1st Street in Minneapolis [now the LAB Theater], in the old Warehouse District way over on the banks of the Mississippi, is a huge barn of a place, some 6,000 square feet of space. My guess is that the room is about 65 feet long and 35 feet wide, with a ceiling height of about 35 feet. You enter the arena—for that is what it feels like—from above, winding down a metal staircase in the corner of one end. As you descend, you pass a sort of double wooden bridge about 12 feet off the floor across the width of the room. The bridge, approximately one-third of the way from the entrance end, connects two catwalks along the two long walls, also at about 12-foot heights. Under the bridge is a small, wooden platform, about eight feet square and three feet high, jutting out into the space. At the far end is a kind of thrust stage, approximately 15 feet square, decorated with a huge, blue column and, at the rear, a flat, red proscenium arch and drape. This is the only color in the set (designed by Vincent Gracieux and lit by Mark Somerfield); all the other construction being raw wood, undecorated and plain.
The audience area is made up of two pairs of tiered platforms with metal folding chairs along the side walls between the bridge and the thrust stage. Each pair of platforms is split by an entrance into the space at about the middle of each wall. Other entrances are at either end—one under the bridge and the other through the false proscenium—and above on the catwalks.
Having been one of the first to enter the playing space, I took a seat that looked like a good vantage point. As more people came in, some stayed in the center, around the small platform, though there were seats available. This was the first I realized that spectators were allowed to stay in the playing area; no one said anything while we waited upstairs or as we entered.
The performance started rather abruptly as actors dressed in 18th-century costumes (by Andrea McCormack) moved into the space, threading their way through the spectators as through a milling crowd. Other performers entered onto the bridge as, below on the platform, a village representative of the “Third Estate”—the peasants—urged the citizens to tell him what issues to raise at the meeting of the three estates called by the king. More actors came in, gently moving the spectators aside as they made their way to the platform to talk with the delegate.
This all proceeded a little self-consciously I thought, since the spectators on the floor did not know whether to participate or act merely as living scenery, and the actors only dealt with them in a perfunctory way, never addressing them or confronting them except to make a path through them. Still, the idea seemed interesting: to explore the French Revolution by immersing the audience in the struggle perhaps the way many peasants got involved—swept up in the tide without really knowing the script. Unfortunately, this never developed.
After a few more similar scenes about the gathering of the representatives of the Third Estate and laying out the historical background, the second episode of 1789 moved on to Versailles for the assembly. Now the audience became the assembled delegates and spectators in the Salle de Menus Plaisirs, and members of the cast ushered those left standing to seats in the tiers, ending the commingling of the cast and audience for the rest of the performance. (The Salle des Menus Plaisirs was the hall in Versailles occupied by the royal department of the Maison du Roi responsible for the ceremonies, events, and festivities of the royal household. The meeting of the États généraux took place there on 5 May 1789.) Occasionally, at rehearsed moments, the actors playing delegates would turn to us and appear to invoke our participation, delivering remarks our way as if addressing fellow delegates in the galleries, but no real response was anticipated or, if it came, used. It was a phony audience-participation set-up, and probably little any spectator could have done would have changed the conduct of the performance. Again, it would have been interesting to see the company take some chances with real audience involvement, even risking an argument that might diverge from the written speeches. Failing that challenge, the fake direct address employed seemed very hollow, and I wished they had stuck with a conventional representational performance.
The end of the play brought one more attempt at contact with the audience. To emphasize the principle that the grain and food horded by the aristocrats and clergy belonged to the people who worked the land that grew it, the cast brought out baskets of French bread and passed them among the spectators. We were supposed to share the bread with one another, but it was an empty moment for me, as the baskets were passed around while the cast simply went back to the performance space and went on with the play, which by now had turned entirely sentimental.
It is in this sentimentality that 1789 loses its edge and renders the French Revolution a dreamy romance. I suspect that it is unintentional, but the play turns into the kind of feel-good experience that Godspell was, right down to the bread as a substitute for Godspell’s wine. At the end of the performance, as the cast laboriously decorated the floor with pretty, colored sand paintings of the slogans of the Revolution, a young man with a sweet tenor voice, sang the Declaration of the Rights of Man. (The music was composed by Chan Poling and directed by Eric Jensen.) It was a lyrical ballad, a lullaby, whereas, for my ears, what was called for was an angry, violent rendition, since the document, once passed by the National Assembly, was immediately trod into the ground by both the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries. The Declaration—a demand for rights—was, after all, born of rage and died in the Terror. It is not a sweet image. Instead of Godspell, the theatrical model might have been a kind of reverse Marat/Sade in which sweet music accompanied brutal word images.
The play’s intentional mollification of the truth of the Revolution is the conceit that the year 1789, ending with the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was idealistic and rational, that the Revolution sank into the Terror, anarchy, and civil war only afterwards. A note in program makes this clear, stating: “For about a year, both crown and people appeared willing to follow the lead of the patriots, but by the summer of 1790, political attitudes hardened and become irreconcilable. France began its downward slide into civil war.” Historically, this just was not so. The peasants and the middle class were butchering aristocrats and clergy—as well as each other—practically right from the start. The vaunted Declaration, however noble its sentiments, was never more than a piece of paper as far as the progress of the Revolution was concerned; it was never enacted or followed, unlike its models, the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
While the performances, by a company of 24 actors each playing multiple roles, were spirited and energetic, the performance style clashed with the language of the text. Drawn from written works by numerous chroniclers of the time, among them Jean-Baptiste-Joseph de Lubersac, Bishop of Chartres (1740-1822); Victor Hugo (1802-85); Jacques Roux (1752-94); Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-94); Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778); and Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just (1767-94), the text by Barbra Berlovitz Desbois, Vincent Gracieux, Felicity Jones, Robert Rosen, with Christopher Bayes and Paul Walsh consistently sounded like proclamations and speeches, from which it was most likely compiled. Nonetheless, the actors kept treating it like dialogue, and the resulting dichotomy made it all sound artificial without being theatrical. Here was another half-measure which was ultimately unsatisfying because the lines never sounded like anybody really talking, nor were they stylized theatricality.
Stylization and theatricality were not altogether out of director Dominique Serrand’s mind. There were scenes set at the Palais Royal, for instance, in which patrons of a Paris café staged revolutionary playlets. The patrons were costumed in bits and pieces of anachronistic clothing from the 1930s and ’40s. In addition, the make-up for the nobles and their clerical allies was often non-realistic: whiteface and black shadows, apparently to emphasize their inhumanity and soullessness. Performance, however, never matched these visual notes.
One possibility might have been to go all the way in performance with the formality suggested by the language, or reduce the language to more colloquial speech. It might even have been interesting to see the citizens speak and behave colloquially while the aristocrats and clergy behaved with stylized formality. (Dramaturg Walsh’s note addressed this possibility in passing when he wrote that the production “emulates the revolutionary search for a language that is at once new and old . . . .”) Speechifying quickly becomes enervating, and all the energetic running around in the world will not vitalize it.
Ultimately, I was disappointed because the possibilities were so great and my expectations kept being raised, then dashed. With the dimensions of the Guthrie Lab, the scope of the French Revolution—even a single year of it—and the stature of characters like kings, counts, bishops, revolutionaries, poets, painters, and orators, not to have flown, but to have stayed earthbound, is a shame.
[The Theatre de la Jeune Lune (French for “Theater of the New Moon”) was founded in France in 1978 by Dominique Serrand, Vincent Gracieux—both native Parisians—and Barbra Berlovitz—a Minneapolitan—who were later joined by Robert Rosen, all graduates of the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Actor Steven Epp joined Jeune Lune in 1983. (All these artists were participants in 1789, which was part of Jeune Lune’s tenth anniversary season.) The company’s name was inspired by the verses of a poem by Bertolt Brecht which reads, “As the people say, at the moon’s change of phases / The new moon holds for one night long / The old moon in its arms “ (These verses are on several sites concerning Theatre de la Jeune Lune, including Wikipedia, as well as a 2008 profile of the company in American Theatre, but I was not able to identify the poem further—except that it was apparently written in 1919.) According to Jeune Lune’s board chairman, the company saw itself as “the new moon forming out of the old.”
[In Jeune Lune’s early years, the company worked part of the time in Paris and part in Minneapolis. It permanently settled in Minneapolis in 1985 and, in 1992, moved into the Minneapolis Warehouse District. AP reporter and native Minnesotan Patrick Condon depicted the nascent company as ” a band of outsiders running the show—a motley crew of actors, writers and musicians in their 20s out to smash traditional notions of how to stage a play.” The company was in “complete chaos, and that’s what was great. . ., Serrand recalls. “We wanted to change theater but we didn’t have a clue how to do it.” In 2001, the five founders officially became co-artistic directors, a collaborative directorate that gave everyone an equal voice in company decisions.
[The troupe was highly regarded for its hallmark practice of integrating Lecoq techniques of improvisatory and dynamically physical performance into the interpretations of Molière, Shakespeare, and Mozart, making for a characteristic performance style “with movement as a primary element of expression and character development.” The company also employed innovative scenic designs as well as an acting style reminiscent of silent film star Charlie Chaplin and mime Marcel Marceau, combined with components of Commedia dell’arte and circus arts (including clowning). Epp described Jeune Lune’s production approach: “We dissect the body in its movement, power and playfulness, and glean from that ways to apply that physicality to whatever material we’re working with, to galvanize the role and find what’s pertinent to a contemporary audience.” As the company stated in the program for 1789, its credo was: “We are a theatre of directness, a theatre that speaks to the audience, that listens and heeds its response. We believe that theatre is an event. We are a theatre of emotions—an immediate theatre—a theatre that excites and uses a direct language—a theatre of the imagination.”
[In addition to reimagining classic plays and operas, Jeune Lune was known for its company-created original works. Most notable was its 1992 creation of the Brecht-styled Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream, a fictionalized account of the making of the 1945 French film Les Enfants du Paradis, written by poet Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné. The production was conceived as an inauguration of the troupe’s newly acquired permanent performance space in downtown Minneapolis. The troupe used Brecht’s characteristic Epic Theater style by paralleling scenes from the film’s 1830s setting and the movie’s filming in the 1940s. The audience, seated on the stage for the prologue, was encouraged to participate as witnesses to the events portrayed in the movie. The Jeune Lune production received critical praise, winning the 1993 ATCA New Play Award (now known as the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and Citations).
[In 2005, the Theatre de la Jeune Lune was awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award; they also received international praise when both Serrand and Gracieux were knighted by France in the Order of Arts and Letters for their contributions to French culture. In spite of critical acclaim, however, the company struggled in its later years to retain its audience. By 2007, four of the five founding members had either left the company or stepped down from their leadership positions, leaving Serrand as the sole artistic director. The company had also accumulated a debt of over $1 million and fought to stay solvent. In June 2008, the Theatre de la Jeune Lune board of directors voted to sell its building and shut down its current operations.]