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The World Theatre Festival, Nancy, 1963–88: a Critique and a Retrospective

  • David Looseley

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Unlike Avignon, still active after more than forty years, the once notorious Nancy Festival has slipped unobtrusively into history. David Looseley sets out here to trace this itinerary. After reviewing the festival's origins and its importance for the experimental theatre of the 1960s, he examines what became of it in the bleaker decades which followed, and assesses the meaning of its decline. David Looseley, who teaches in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Bradford, is currently engaged in research funded by the Leverhulme Trust into the politics of culture in contemporary France. His published work includes a book on the theatre of the twentieth-century French dramatist Armand Salacrou.

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Notes and References

I wish to thank the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Bradford for enabling me to take leave of absence through Leverhume's ‘grants to institutions’ scheme in order to research this article. Thanks are also due to the following for their invaluable assistance: Professor Robert Abirached, Lew Bogdan, Yves Breton, Professor Adrien Duprez, staff of the Ministry of Culture's documentation centre and of the Nancy Municipal Archives, and Jack Lang, who provided me with some essential documentation. Special thanks go to Mme Colette Flon, an early member of the festival team and currently in charge of winding up the affairs of the CUIFERD, not only for patiently and courteously replying to my interminable enquiries or consulting others, but also for permitting access to festival archives and, more importantly, to her own fascinating collection of documents.

1. Lang was first appointed Minister of Culture in May 1981 after Mitterrand's election to the presidency. He remained in office until March 1986, at which time a different majority was voted into the National Assembly. In May 1988, Mitterrand was re-elected President and the following month a slim Socialist majority in the Assembly was returned.

2. Quoted in Bredin, Jean-Denis and Lang, Jack (with notes by Antoine Vitez), Éclats (Paris: Simoën, 1978), p. 237. All translations from this and other sources are my own.

3. For further reading on the festival's history, see Éclats, conversations between Bredin and Lang on the latter's experiences at Nancy and Chaillot, which usefully cover the years 1963–77, though the perspective is at times somewhat hagiographic. Also Grünberg, Roland, Nancy sur scènes: au carrefour des théâtres du monde (Festival Mondial du Théâtre/Ville de Nancy, 1984). Grünberg was one of the first Festival organizers, and was responsible for the presence of Grotowski in 1964. His book is a limited edition of photographs and other documents concerning the festival from 1963 to 1983, providing an invaluable source. Future references to this (abbreviated NSS) and to Éclats will appear in the text. Finally, see my article, ‘Jack Lang and the Politics of Festival’, to be published in the first number of a new journal French Cultural Studies (Alpha Academic), probably Spring 1990, in which early festival theory and practice are examined in more detail.

4. These figures are based on lists of participating troupes reproduced in NSS, p. 15–16.

5. Theater and Revolution in France since 1968 (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1977), p. 17.

6. For discussion of the group's treatment of the play, see the TUN's and the festival's journal, Théâtre et Université (hereafter abbreviated TU), No. 6 (April 1966), special number on Henri Monnier. Much of the preceding analysis of festival theory is based on a number of texts (mostly by Lang) appearing in the journal in its successive guises. See my article, referred to in Note 3 above, for further details.

7. ‘Festival et texte imposé’, TU, No. 6 (April 1966), p. 1–2. Footnotes indicate that troupes could vary the sex of the protagonist and the type of community to which he or she belonged.

8. Abirached, Robert, TU, No. 15 (1011 1968), number partly devoted to press reports on the 1968 festival, p. 3–5.

9. ‘Le Festival de Nancy à la recherche d' “autre chose”’, Le Monde, 22 April 1969, p. 19.

10. Alexander, C., ‘La Revanche aux trois visages’, L'Express, 19–25 04 1971, p. 53. The version of this quotation given in Éclats, p. 83, is slightly inaccurate.

11. TU, No. 18 (April–May 1971), p. 3.

12. ‘Raisonnement par l'absurde’, Le Monde, 5 May 1973, p. 27.

13. See his review of the 1973 festival: ‘Nancy, suite ou fin’, in Sandier, G., Théâtre en crise des années 70 à 82 (Grenoble: La Pensée Sauvage, 1982), p. 368–71. For 1975 and 1977, see ‘Nancy 75: d'intéressantes clartés’, ibid., p. 371–6, and ‘Nancy 77: la crise’, ibid., p. 379–83.

14. TU, No. 18 (April–May 1971), p. 3.

15. Centre d'informations et d'études d'économie humaine en Lorraine (CIEDEHL), ‘Le Public du Festival mondial de théâtre de Nancy’ (May–June 1975).

16. See Le Monde, 18 December 1979, p. 1 and 18; 25 December 1979, p. 1 and p. 15.

17. ‘Festival du théâtre à Nancy: lever de rideau samedi’, L'Est Républicain, 19 May 1983.

18. ‘Rideau baissé à Nancy: la fin du Festival mondial du théâtre’, 18 April 1985. In a letter to me dated 10 February 1989, Professor Duprez wrote: ‘The public reacted perfectly well to the 1981 and 1983 festivals, with attendances almost identical to those of preceding festivals which had been successes’. He does, however, acknowledge elsewhere (in April 1985) that audiences had generally been getting smaller over recent years: see p. 152 of the present article.

19. Lang, J., ‘Plaidoyer pour un festival’, TU, No. 10 (1967 festival edition). Lang, expressed further reservations about the TDN in his doctoral thesis, L'État et le théâtre (Paris: Librairie Générale de Droit et de Jurisprudence, 1968), p. 322–5.

20. 18 April 1985.

21. ‘Enfants de choeur soviétiques’, Le Monde, 19 June 1984, p. 26.

22. ‘Les Rares Passager d'un navire fantôme’, Le Monde, 23 June 1984, p. 15.

23. L'Est Républicain, 18 April 1985; and Le Républicain Lorrain, 29 April 1985.

24. Letters to me dated 21 December 1988 and 10 February 1989.

25. Ibid.

26. Letter to me dated 11 March 1989.

27. Letter dated 21 December 1988.

28. See, for example, Lebæuf, Paul, ‘Du théâtre? Quel théâtre?’, L'Est Républicain, 14 12 1988.

The World Theatre Festival, Nancy, 1963–88: a Critique and a Retrospective

  • David Looseley

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