Theater of Real Life

The “Father of Modern Drama” wasn’t Ibsen, or August Strindberg. He was Andre Antoine (1858…1943), a clerk for the Paris Gas Company and an amateur actor. Cercle Gaulois, for whom he played bit parts, performed traditional French theater: “well-made” plays based on logic, not emotion; stiff, declamatory acting; and spare-no-expense spectacle, often achieved with intricate machinery. To Antoine, theater had become ornate, inhuman, and empty.

Much to the relief of the company’s manager, who said he’d been a “pig-headed” nuisance for years, Antoine quit Cercle Gaulois and started his own group. He wasn’t always clear about what he wanted but knew what he didn’t. And he wasn’t the first to inaugurate many of his changes. Instead, Antoine borrowed ideas that might work, added many of his own, and forged a French revolution that became the “modern” theater.

On March 30, 1887, Antoine assembled a group of amateurs who shared his beliefs. They wanted to stage the new, realistic/naturalistic plays getting written but not produced. These works made acting and scenery resemble the “real” world. They stressed psychology, not types, and relished the details of daily life. They called their company the Théâtre-Libre (“free theater”) and started, literally, from scratch.

Antoine secured a wooden hall almost impossible to find: go to the Place Pigalle, Paris’s red-light district and home of the Moulin Rouge. Find the alley off the Passage de l’Elysée des Beaux Arts — now called the Rue Andre Antoine. Climb the four levels of concrete stairs at the end of the alley, and vwa-lah.

The theater seated 343. The stage was so small, wrote critic Jules Lemaitre, that “one might stretch out one’s hand to the actors over the footlights and put one’s legs on the prompter’s box.” The tiny space made scenic illusion, and the costly spectacles of the time, impossible.

Instead of sets painted on flats, most of which were laced with gold, Antoine wanted realistic, “slice of life” scenery. But he was so broke he had to borrow his mother’s furniture, which he often returned nicked and chipped. Rather than use stamps, which they couldn’t afford, the actors hand-delivered invitations to spectators and potential subscribers.

For the first season, the company collected 3500 francs from 35 subscribers — 1000 of which went to rehearsal space, including a bar, in the Rue Lepic, where the cast rehearsed during the “dry” hours of the early morning. “Théâtre-Libre,” writes J.L. Styan, “was the first of Europe’s modern laboratory theaters, and the system of paying its way by subscription sales had the incidental virtue of compelling the audience to share in testing new methods and new material for the stage.”

Also, since everyone in the audience came by invitation only, the company avoided the police supervision that hounded theaters open to the public.

Their first offering, four naturalistic one-acts, flopped. Rather than give up, Antoine got bullish. All summer he read plays and pushed subscription sales. He became expert on the “new” writing, and he befriended Emile Zola, who espoused observation of realistic detail and psychological accuracy. Antoine shored up ideas for his theater. In the fall, he acquired a larger space in Montparnasse. By the end of 1887, Théâtre-Libre had produced 17 plays, most of them quite short, some no more than 15 minutes long, and became a success. That the company was controversial, many say, didn’t hurt.

Here was lifelike theater, addressing contemporary issues. Today it’s still the norm. But in 1887 Paris, where most plays were farces or gaudy melodramas, it was stark, almost unthinkably radical. Antoine didn’t foment revolution on his own, however. His audiences, bored with the traditional stage, grew to relish the new aesthetic.

He wasn’t the first modern “director” but was in the vanguard. In classic French theater, ruled by the Paris Conservatory, actors faced front, assumed a fixed posture, and recited their lines. Antoine went the other way. He ordered his actors to perform with their whole bodies. He even let them speak when they moved — heretofore verboten. He not only encouraged them to talk naturally, “which is just as difficult to learn” as recital, he said, he encouraged them to listen to each other.

They could no longer employ superfluous gestures. Instead he made small details speak: “Returning a pencil or tipping over a cup,” he wrote, “will have as profound an effect on the mind of the audience as the grandiloquent excesses of the romantic theater.”

While “classic” actors played down to the audience, Antoine’s ignored them (they couldn’t even look at the prompter’s box, because that would break the illusion). He also became the first director to lower the houselights completely during a performance and also to eliminate the footlights: “in life light comes from above,” he told his critics, “not below.”

Antoine severed the bond with the audience even more. In a choice that brought gasps when introduced, his actors freely turned their backs to the house seats. Many who preferred the old ways deplored the changes. They called Théâtre-Libre “the Theater of Antoine’s Back.”

A nay-saying journalist said Antoine, who performed in almost every show, faced the rear wall because “a rich uncle threatened to cut him out of his will if he ever saw him on the stage.”

Classical French actors played “types” and hoped to grow some feature — long nose, bushy eyebrows, even large warts — that would get them cast as one. Antoine (and Germany’s Meiningen Players before him) said there are no types. Each character is unique, motivated by specific wants and needs and often buffeted by stray impulses and chance. In some ways as groundbreaking, Antoine made each actor part of an ensemble. He was one of the first directors to rehearse his cast as a group.

In all of his writings, Antoine claimed that, rather than inventing something new, he was peeling away excesses and returning to “the great traditions of the stage.” He imagined Shakespeare’s and Molière’s productions to be spare and realistic.

Ibsen spoke of the invisible “fourth wall,” through which the audience observes the action. Antoine was among the first to build a set before rehearsals, so the actors could become intimate with the space and the props they’d use. As his resources grew, he had scene constructors build the set with all four walls. After rehearsing for a while, the group would decide which wall to knock out, “so as to enable the audience to see what is going on.”

“For a stage set to be original, striking, and authentic,” he wrote, “it should be built in accordance with something seen — whether a landscape or an interior.” Antoine often turned that “accordance” into actuality: he put real books in bookcases, put real flowers in stage gardens, and, for a scene set in a butcher shop, hung real sides of beef from hooks.

Antoine worked in the theater until around 1914, then switched to film. Others, like Zola and Strindberg, take credit for the innovations, but modern theater owes a great debt to Antoine: as a director and an advocate of realistic designs and acting.

“Naturalism” was a fairly short-lived literary movement, based in part on Darwin’s theories of evolution, that took an objective, scientific approach to art (in this sense, “naturalistic acting” is a misnomer). Stage realism, as championed by Andre Antoine, has held sway for over a hundred years. In fact, 20th Century theater engaged in an ongoing attempt to demolish what has become, in many eyes, an eroded practice. In his preface to The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams wrote, “The straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes” had become “exhausted” and that the photographic approach to art had burdened the stage with deadening “realistic conventions.”

Williams made that complaint 61 years ago.

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Great article. Thank you. Off the main point of your article, but maybe worth mentioning and since you mentioned film towards the end, I think a point in time when stage and film might have first touched-the play Woyzeck by G. Buchner, 1836. Probably not the seed of mordern theatre, but maybe the antecedent of film. For instance- Many scenes, not acts, of varying lengths. What do you think?

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