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.



At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 10:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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