Sunday, June 26, 2005

Johnny can't understand the theater

Despite the loss of my laptop (I have given up on having it repaired in France -- thanks, Dell Europe), my research at the archives in Strasbourg is progressing. Something that entertained me was a controversy over theater in Alsace in the early 1930s. This controversy focused on the language of plays that were put on in the municipal theaters on Alsace.

Around 1929 or 1930 Parisian newspapers printed articles about theater in Alsace. These "metropolitan" papers painted a grim picture in which German replaced French and German performers and directors took precedence. The subtext of the articles was that France was losing the battle to win over Alsatians and to reintegrate them, and that they were drifting towards German nationalism.

The reports exaggerated reality. In the municipal theaters in the "recovered departments", less than 15% of plays were presented in German. Some of those were translations of French plays which were also presented in French during the same season. Few plays were presented in dialect, which did not rise to the level of high art whereto the municipal theaters aspired. (These are rough numbers -- I won't have access to my notes until I get home.)

The metropolitan newspapers, rather than reflecting on the reality of theater in Alsace, stirred up hysteria. The ongoing particularism threatened the Jacobin ideals of an indivisible and united nation. "Why can't Johann read (French)?" was a measure of national fears.

The commissioners general of Alsace-Lorraine promoted theater as part of the nation's efforts to reintegrate Alsatians-Lorrains after decades of German rule. As part of their repatriation, theater would introduce them to the foundations of French civilisation: language, aesthetics, politics. The Alsatians would be brought up to date on the development of French culture and learn to love the patrie as Frenchmen should. Various French theater companies profitted from cultural policies: many planned special stops in the recovered departments to benefit from government funds.

The theater could not satisfy all the government's objectives. Little more than a decade after the désannexion, most Alsatians did not primarily speak French. True, French outpaced German 3:1, but the two languages were fighting for the short end of the stick. A study in 1928 showed that 79% of Alsatians spoke Germanic dialects (Allemanic, Frankish or Judeo-German). Many dialect-speakers also knew some German and French, but only secondarily. Obviously Alsatians could not transition quickly; French could not be a vehicle for cultural reception. The municipal theater had to pick which objective of the cultural policy would be abandoned: language gave way to education in aesthetics and politics. The theater itself could not teach French.

German performances, even of French plays, posed their own problems. There were insufficient resources to mount German productions. Trained actors were in short supply, and productions hired Germans to deal with the shortfalls.

In Strasbourg, the quality of productions was also an issue. Germany gave the city a "national theater": in order to encourage Alsatians to love the Reich, German politicians crafted their policies to give Alsatians the highest standards of German Kultur. In order to show itself as a kinder benefactor to the provinces, French politicians promised to fund a high level of culture as well (sidenote: this is why the Annales started in Strasbourg). Strasbourg theater required additional resources, which were far beyond what other French cities received, to preserve its "national" character.

The trade-off of French for German annoyed many, even some inside the province. The urban bourgeoisie spoke French: many families sent their children abroad to French lycees and universities; others were the descendents of Alsatians who had left Alsace-Lorraine in 1871 and returned after the désannexion. They were celebrities in the interior. They spoke to Parisian audiences about the continuing longing of Alsatians for the patrie; they told how German was forced on school children. The bourgeoisie were also the bulk of the theaters' audiences and subscribers. They regarded German-language productions as a failure of reintegration. Financially the support of the bourgeoisie could make or break a production, and that limited the amount of German-language theater that could be produced.

Finally, autonomists turned the theaters themselves into battlefields of cultural politics. After a show trial in which a number of autonomists were unjustly convicted, Alsatians voted for clerical-centrist-communist coalitions in a number of cities. Strasbourg's communist mayor, Charles Hueber, and his fellows wanted more productions that expressed the particularism of Alsace and explored the excesses of French centralization. They commissioned a play, appropriately called Le malaise alsacien. It had almost no artistic merit, and the municipal theater wanted to pass on it. However, the coalition pressured the theater's board of directors, Gustav Stoskopf (a painter noted for his depictions of provincial life) in particular. The board relented, fearing the loss of its influence in cultural matters. The play flopped: the bourgeoisie stayed at home.

Hueber's policies also increased reliance on German theater companies, which further alienated audiences. The rise of Nazism in Germany turned the autonomists' theater politics into a failure: Alsatians stayed away from that which smacked of German nationalism.

The nation placed too much faith in theater as a vehicle for culture. It would not reach the popular audiences, and it entertained audiences who were already cultured and assimilated. It preached to the converted, not to the masses.

The theater controversy also shows the arrogance of France. Language had been an issue for German nationalists: where it was spoken, Germany could be found (that simplifies matters somewhat). In their eyes Alsatians spoke German and were properly German nationals. During the Reichsland period (1871-1918), French governments countered these claims, insising that Alsatians spoke a unique dialect, not German. While they were correct, they also obscurred the truth: Alsatians wrote in high German. The nationalists like Barres, who called for revenge, decried that Alsatians were not being taught their natural language, and they promised to restore dialect when they regained the provinces. The urgency of Gallicization surprised many who felt that France would not force them to acculturate, as Germany had done.

Was there a good reason for a quick assimilation of French? Nationalists of many nations argue that a citizen must speak the language of the nation. Some American insists upon this, even though treaties stipulate that some minorities have the right to retain their language. I think that the ability of a language to assimilate a foreign political culture must be examined according to each case rather than judged according to ideology. French nationalists argued that Alsatians must speak French in order to participate in national political and cultural life. They were wrong. Political concepts, as expressed in Alsatian "German" (whether or not it was dialect), resembled French political culture and not German.


Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Birth of the Suck

Over at Cliopatria, Manan Ahned pointed a website out to Ralph Luker that is soliciting opinions about why Disco sucked.

I could be the Disco apologist. The basslines could be proficient and energetic; the arrangements were complex; and the lyrics were no less idiotic than other popular music of the day. And when rock musicians attempted Disco, they could craft some excellent singles. Except for "I was made for loving you" -- that sucked.

The digs against Disco, however, resemble those against Cool Jazz. Cool Jazz was the feminine, caucasian, West Coast bastardization of what should be a late night, improvised, urban, hard-blowing, black, sweaty music. Cool Jazz was the commercialization of Jazz, standing opposite from Hard Bop. To make matters worse, albums by Brubaker, Bill Evans, and (worst of all) Chet Baker usually outsold African-American musicians who identified with the music (granted that the occassional work by a Coltrane could hit the charts). So what if Miles Davis put out the Birth of the Cool, Sketches of Spain, and Kind of Blue, the staples of the Cool Jazz record collector (if there were such a thing).

Cool Jazz could be complex and thoughtful. The arrangements harkened back to the big band era, slowing the tempo but using innovative combinations of horns and unique instrumental textures. Later records experimented with classical forms and, in some cases, complete improvisation. Some great cats came out from under the Cool Jazz label -- Charles Mingus, anyone? These qualities would find their way into Free Jazz, which (arguably, but only if you are a Marsalis brother or Stanley Crouch) took over the Jazz avant garde from Hard Bop.

If Disco : Soul :: Cool Jazz : Hard Bop, perhaps Disco is not as bad as people remembered. Elements were absorbed by Post Punk. However, Disco still sucks.

Friday, June 17, 2005

"La Samar"

As a conditional Francophile, I hate Paris. I go to the so-called City of Light for two reasons: to arrive and depart from CDG, and to arrive and depart from Gare de l’Est. Of course, I often must stay at least one night on every visit. The five-hour train trip to Strasbourg wears down the traveler who has already spent nine hours on an airplane. (I could fly through Stuttgart, but that would involve more flights, and I hate flying).

Monday was one of those stays. My wife stayed with me as long as she could – as long as a graduate student’s income allows – and our two bunnies were probably feeling a bit abandoned. My role was to convey her to the airport, and then return to finish my archival research (yes, I fit it in between bottles of Riesling). We stayed in the Latin Quarter, in one of several haunts we like near the Sorbonne. Balzac described the area as “one of the poorest and dingiest back-streets in Paris.” For us the Latin Quarter has the appeal of interesting shops and lots of bookstores.

Monday afternoon was no different. We avoided most of Paris, staying within the arrondissement for the most part. Our only divergence was to walk down river to see my favorite building in Paris, La Samaritaine, the last great grand magasin, a relic from the revolution of commerce and fashion begun by Haussmann’s demolition of old neighborhoods. Between the imposing weight of the monumental architecture and the voluminous, sloped roofs of the apartment buildings, the art deco "La Samar" stands out as a breath of lightness at the Pont Neuf. The interior (apart from the bottom floor, which now looks like every department store) is gorgeous, with the grand staircase in the center, light railings, and art nouveau decorations on the roof, and the glassed dome on top. Perhaps La Samar owed its survival to the fact that, as architecture, it accomplished best the aesthetic of the grand magasin: steel, light, levity, space. We walked down the staircase, looking at the (seemingly outmoded) furniture and fashions, until we were forced out by the overpowering aromas from the fragrance section. At least I bought a cool pair of striped socks.

On Tuesday the store management announced the La Samar would close “to bring fire emergency measure up to standards”. It is feared, by both business analysts and labor leader, that the closure will be permanent.

Is it the end of an era? The grands magasins changed how people shopped, taking the wares from the stodgy shopkeepers who guarded them behind counters and put them in reach of the customers, who intoxicated by the abundance of textiles in their reach and the beautiful salesgirls, succumbed to new styles and passions. They gave Emile Zola and other writers new social groups to analyze: the patriarchal family that sits atop the company; the male managers who prey upon the poor salesgirls; the wealthy woman who, despite her money, is overcome by kleptomania; and finally the white-collar workers who, with their brains and modest incomes and not much else, could emulate the lifestyle of the entrepreneur. The grands magasins brought the joy of fast shopping to the masses; one could ask why fast food was not the next step.

The grands magasins stand out less in contemporary Paris. Almost every arrondissement has been transformed, first by Haussmann, but always remade as new immigrants and new inspirations settled in the city. Now they are tame. Tourists are glad to hike up Montmartre or walk along the Rue Pigalle, the former haunts of prostitutes, drunken artists, and soldiers on leave. Even the Latin Quarter is accessible, as well as attractive, to yours truly. Perhaps the process set forward by Haussmann, which made the grands magasins possible, also led to their decline.

Sadly I took no pictures of La Samaritaine. I only have the socks that I bought. And they’re dirty, so you won’t get to see them.

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)


Friday, June 10, 2005

Drinking, drinking, drinking ...

I am still posting my travel diary over at Reise-Krise. I have four posts so far on things I have done, and should have some more up soon. If you have written any blog posts that my interest me, please e-mail the text to me.

Administrative note: I have changed commenting to "members of Blogger only". I am sick of anonymous people who leave half-assed comments that show that they have not read the post in full.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I hate our freedom

That's right, I'm off to France. The dusty archives call, but so do many other pleasures. I get to drink bottles of (Tokay) Pinot Gris, stare for hours at the Gothic wonders of the Strasbourg Muenster, watch the lights glisten off the Îll River, hike through Vosges Mountains. And yes, I'm saying this to make all the Americanist jealous. You can't have as much fun when you are studying in DC or Worcester. Ha!

I'll post a few things here while I am gone (including finishing my thoughts on Jahrtausendfeier), but I switch into diary mode while I am away. I will post regularly at Reise-Krise. I should start postings on Monday. Until then, check out the wealth of stuff in the current History Carnival, courtesy of Sharon Howard. I also recommend Geitner's post on how American political parties campaigned to Hispanos in Los Angeles in the 1850s.