The Medieval Review 11.10.22

Solterer, Helen. Medieval Roles for Modern Times: Theater and the Battle for the French Republic. University Park, PA: the Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Pp. 287. $80. ISBN 978-0-271-03614-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
University of Illinois
symes@illinois.edu

Helen Solterer's new book describes how "medieval role-playing" became a vehicle for the expression of competing agendas and identities during the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the decades after World War I and during World War II. It joins a number of recent studies of medievalism in excavating the deep and often surprising ways that perceptions of the medieval past fundamentally shaped modern phenomena. [1] As such, it really should be read by scholars of modern Europe, particularly France; and it is to be hoped that readers of TMR will recommend it to their colleagues. But it should also be required reading for all those researching or teaching medieval drama and literature, since it illuminates the complex historical context that shaped the field of medieval theatre studies and one of its most influential practitioners, Gustave Cohen (1879-1958), whose even more influential disciples include Jacques Chailley, Roland Barthes, and Paul Zumthor.

As Solterer observes, a close look at Cohen's career and that of his student acting troupe "gives us a rare chance to analyze a full life cycle of medieval revival" (12-13). Her book follows the fortunes of this Belgian-born assimilated Jew, whose lifelong aspiration was to attain a place in the élite French academy. He did so, tellingly, through the twin avenues of distinguished service in the French army during the Great War and his reputation as a professor of medieval literature, credentials that eventually earned him a coveted chair at the Sorbonne in 1932. There, he was to become an activist for a type of theatre that would combine medievalism with elements of the avant- garde: a potent and ideologically malleable blend that had already been served up in Russia by his early collaborator, Nikolai Evreinov, who had mounted productions of several (pseudo-)medieval plays and spectacles in St. Petersburg before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. It was Evreinov, in fact, who had first revived Rutebeuf's thirteenth-century Miracle de Théophile, the play that gave its name to Cohen's troupe, the Théophiliens, after they performed it at the Sorbonne in 1933. This was followed by a production of Adam de la Halle's musical Jeu de Robin et de Marion (c. 1282), another play that Evreinov had pioneered in St. Petersburg, in 1907-8. Other repertory staples came to include adaptations of the Anglo-Norman Ordo representacionis Ade (colloquially known as the Jeu d'Adam, dating to the twelfth century) and the fifteenth-century Mystère de la Passion. Tracing the development of the troupe and its complicated reception, Solterer is able to show how these plays' potency and popularity in this troubled era can be ascribed to their ambiguity. For some, they evoked "a medieval world that could be freeing and open to all" (90), while others saw in them a fascist paradise of racial, religious, and cultural purity. Inevitably, it was the latter interpretation that won out, though the irony that this "modern Middle Ages" was largely the creation of repudiated Jewish intellectuals is nicely underscored.

Cohen himself spent the war years in American exile, largely in New York (where he was baptized a Catholic at St. Patrick's Cathedral) and at Mount Holyoke College (where he rubbed elbows with Marianne Moore and Wallace Stephens at a summer retreat for celebrity Francophiles). Meanwhile, members of the Théophiliens performed intermittently in Occupied Paris and the provinces, where war-weary "Pétainists would have seen their acting capturing 'ye olden days'" of a golden French past (141). Through it all, some members of the troupe attempted to deliver more sardonic messages, as when near-starving actors performed a sixteenth-century morality play about the dangers of gluttony for their equally famished compatriots. After the war, the Théophiliens were faced with a tricky transition from "acting their medieval repertory under the auspices of Abel Bonnard and the Vichy regime to acting in concert with Gaullist scenes of dignified and gratifying solidarity" (239). Again, they mounted the Adam play, this time in the southern portal of Notre-Dame-de-Chartres, stage-managed by American troops and attended by an audience of thousands. Yet "medieval role-playing in the public domain was compromised" now, Solterer writes (241). Although none of the group's members were fingered as collaborators, their individual and collective behavior was open to question, not least (Solterer hints) by the repatriated Cohen. But the tables were turned again when members of the troupe were sent to the Allied zone of Berlin to perform their newest addition to the "medieval" repertoire, an adaptation of the thirteenth-century Aucassin et Nicolette, played for "young Germans who had been fed on Teutonic myths and legends of Frederick Barbarossa by the Nazi Youth Corps just five years earlier" (251).

Although Cohen could rightly be called the book's protagonist, its hero is really one of Cohen's former students, Moussa Abadi (1905- 1997). A Syrian Jew from Damascus who studied at the Sorbonne in the 1930s, Abadi specialized in roles that must have seemed darkly suitable to his contemporaries, including the heavily-freighted part of Judas in the Théophiliens' Mystère de la Passion. He went on to work with a more professional Parisian troupe, touring Latin America and the United States in the title role of Jules Romain's Dr. Knock, about a modern snake-oil salesman who resembles the medieval con-artist in Rutebeuf's Dit de l'herberie (another of the roles for which Abadi was known in his student days). But when the Germans moved toward Paris, Abadi moved south, eventually finding a job in Italian-occupied Nice, where he taught at a Catholic girls' school and directed pupils in scenes from the plays he knew so well. At the same time, he became a member of the Resistance, helping to create a support system for Jewish families in the region. So when Nice passed to the Germans in the summer of 1943, that network became the means of identifying children at risk of deportation by the Gestapo. With the laudable assistance of the local bishop, Paul Rémond (1873-1963), Abadi--working under an assumed name and the title "School Inspector for Lay Education"--was able to place over five hundred Jewish children in Catholic institutions throughout the diocese. Furthermore, as Solterer argues, it was thanks to Abadi's training that these children were able to avoid detection and almost certain death for the next two years. They had to learn to answer to new, Christian-sounding names and to display a familiarity with Catholic ritual and doctrine. Some even found themselves impersonating medieval people, as when one of the newly-christened students at the Cours Saint-Geneviève was cast in the title role of an inspirational new play, Le Mystère de Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (The Mystery of Joan of Arc at the Stake).

So there are many fascinating stories embedded in this book, and they warrant further attention. But is Solterer's larger argument warranted, that "medieval role-playing" must be seen as "so much a part of Vichy life" (232) and of the French Republic's twentieth- century history? Clearly, the idea of the Middle Ages is crucial to many national and ethnic identities and has been for centuries; in France, this identification can be traced back to the early nineteenth century and it clearly intensifies after 1870. Medievalism was (and is) a powerful source of artistic inspiration, too, across all media. But even someone as sympathetic to Solterer's project as the present reviewer will find aspects of her argument untenable. For example, she wants to show that Evreinov reinvented not only medieval plays but a type of medieval theatricality "that made every place a potential site for role-playing" (54) and recognized "how popular life was shaped and driven through theatrical action" (57). This leads her to assert that plays without any discernible medieval content can still count as medieval drama. Although this methodology can yield some interesting insights, it is too dependent on tenuous connections and analogies to be trustworthy. Would anyone witnessing or participating in Evreinov's theatrical Storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 have recognized it as "medieval"? To what extent was Cohen's personal devotion to "The Theatre of Belonging to France" (Chapter 2) really a "medieval" theatre? For that matter, how does his donation of X-rays (taken of his war-wounded flesh) to the national archives help "to promote his medieval vision of Republican life" (59)? This would have been a more powerful thesis had it not been forced to explain so many things. The book would also have benefited from a more tightly and coherently structured narrative. Solterer has done an admirable amount of historical research, including oral interviews, but she does not have the historical training to interrogate and arrange this material as rigorously or effectively as it deserves.

Solterer is more astute when it comes to the analysis of specific events and their wider significance. In her summary of the Théophiliens' postwar activities and their meaning, she writes that "[m]edieval role-playing meant looking back twice, at a totalitarian regime through a long-ago culture whose scenarios had been used in the propaganda of the French State to cloak vast human destruction" (259, emphasis original). Thereafter (and up to the present day), the paradox is still being played out, as "the French Middle Ages" must be "characterized officially and intellectually as compatible with the Republic" and yet remains available to more radical political movements on the Right, while a more insidious idea of the "medieval" fuels hate-crimes and the discourse of xenophobia.

Helen Solterer is to be commended for her assiduous devotion to her subject. This book is the result of many decades' work and reflection, and it will reward patient readers in many fields of study.

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Notes:

1. E.g. Elizabeth Emery and Laura Morowitz, Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in fin-de-siècle France (Aldershot, Eng. and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003); Claire Sponsler, Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004); Allen Frantzen, Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004); John Ganim, Medievalism and Orientalism: Three Essays on Literature, Architecture, and Cultural Identity (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Modern Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Stephanie Trigg, Medievalism and the Gothic in Australian Culture (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006); Michael Alexander, Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007); Stefan Goebel, The Great War and Medieval Memory: War, Remembrance, and Medievalism in Britain and Germany, 1914-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul, eds. Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of "the Middle Ages" outside Europe (Baltimore, 2009); and Michelle Warren, Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier's Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).