At the end of the Second World War, France, like other European nations, suffered considerably from deprivation and shortages. Cultural creation and its diffusion, heavily dependent on totalitarian regimes, suffered a rupture during this war period. With the return of freedom, there was a strong desire to live again in peace in a better world. The French thirst for culture and seek to give meaning to this new world, particularly through the arts. They are discovering a taste for the theatre and the public is becoming more receptive to new theatrical forms but also more curious and demanding. The artists themselves aspire to a renewal in theatrical expression and writing, but also in scenic representation.
In this context, Jean Vilar, as an actor and stage director, was one of those who expressed this revival through a stripped-down aesthetic that was mainly oriented towards the classical repertoire. His ambition is to address a popular audience of all social classes and to get rid of the bourgeois theatre of the 19th century.
René Char in 1947
Jean Vilar around 1943 (Maison Jean Vilar)
Summer 1947: an exhibition of modern painting is scheduled at the Popes’ Palace
The Avignon Festival was born from an idea by René Char, a French poet and Resistance fighter friend of Albert Camus, which he inspired in Jean Vilar.
In 1947, Christian and Yvonne Zervos, a couple of collectors and merchants of contemporary art, founder of the Cahiers d’Art editions, were looking for a prestigious place to exhibit their funds in order to reconnect with social and artistic life after the war years. They prepared an ambitious exhibition of modern painting in the Grande Chapelle of the Popes’ Palace, presenting nothing less than works by Braque, Giacometti, Miró, Chagall, Kandinsly, Matisse and Picasso.
In the spring of 1947, René Char, who was organising this exhibition with the Zervos couple, asked Jean Vilar, actor and theatre director, to present Thomas Stearns Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral in this imposing place. The play, which he had successfully premiered in France two years earlier, is set in 1170 in the palace of the archbishop of Canterbury and lends itself wonderfully to the palace décor. It is a religious historical drama about the conflict between the temporal and the spiritual, the good of the people and the human conscience.
Jean Vilar, little known in 1947, proposed three theatrical creations performed outdoors
At the age of 35 in 1947, Jean Vilar was known to only a few. During the war years, he had run a travelling theatre company, as author and adaptor, Les Comédiens de la Roulotte, and then as author, director and performer in his own company, La Compagnie des Sept.
Not appreciating the mediocre acoustics of the Popes’ Palace for the dramatic declamation, Jean Vilar refused to let René Char produce T. S. Eliot’s play there, but in return he offered him three creations instead of a single performance, but performed outdoors and not in the palace’s rooms.
This time, it was Zervos who declined the proposal due to lack of budget. The Popes’ Palace is the property of the municipality of Avignon. Having become a military barracks during the French Revolution, then the headquarters of an infantry regiment until 1900, it was only opened to the public in 1907 after some initial restorations which were then continued but then interrupted during the war. Major changes were needed to accommodate theatre performances. The municipality, which was in the midst of reconstruction after the bombings of April 1944, also wanted to revive the town through culture and give it a new breath of influence. It then decided to contribute with a grant which was supplemented by the Ministry of Youth, Arts and Letters and a personal contribution from Jean Vilar.
Performance of The Tragedy of Richard II in the Honour Courtyard
The theater in the Honour Courtyard
The contemporary art exhibition lasted throughout the summer of 1947 and from 4 to 10 September 1947, “A Week of Dramatic Art in Avignon” took place. Three plays will accompany the exhibition in different places:
- A classic, “The Tragedy of Richard II” by Shakespeare in the Honour Courtyard of the Popes’ Palace,
- a contemporary work “La Terrasse de midi” by a young author unknown at the time, Maurice Clavel at the City Theatre
- and a contemporary classic “Tobie et Sara” by Paul Claudel in the orchard of Urbain V.
Nearly 5,000 spectators will be at the rendezvous in the three venues. The Honour Courtyard of the palace will host Jean Vilar as Richard II and young actors such as Michel Bouquet, Bernard Noël, Maria Casarès, Silvia Montfort and a young beginner actress of barely 20 years old… Jeanne Moreau.
Can the success be repeated the following year?
However, the idea of a festival or even another Art Week in Avignon being repeated the following year was by no means a given. The Theatre had invited itself to an art exhibition organised for one year only. The balance sheet of this Dramatic Art Week in Avignon was not really convincing: 40% of the tickets were free by invitation or distributed to all and sundry in order to avoid playing in front of a too sparse audience. The conditions of comfort were rather rudimentary for the public as well as for the actors: Garden chairs, some rented and others lent by Avignon residents, to accommodate the spectators. Cylindrical drums filled with concrete, on which are placed railway rails and wooden beams as trestles on which platforms are placed to serve as a stage in the Honour Courtyard. It was extremely dangerous, and several actors even injured themselves. There was a great deal of improvisation and a sense of resourcefulness.
What then made Jean Vilar return to the Popes’ Palace in July 1948 for a second event called the Festival of Dramatic Art in Avignon?
It is undoubtedly the meeting of the will of Jean Vilar, this mythical place which is the Honour Courtyard of the Popes’ Palace and the need of a whole population to find peace, freedom, culture and humanist values after the deprivations of the war.
Jean Vilar as Richard II in the Honour Courtyard in 1949
(Agnès Varda – Ciné Tamaris)
Jean Vilar as Richard II
Giving the theatre a new, more popular impetus
In the words of Jean Vilar himself, the Popes’ Palace was completely unsuitable for theatre. But Vilar knew how to use the strong lines of the palace’s architecture with its 30-metre high walls. The gothic arches were used for the entrances and exits of the actors who emerged in the white light of the lighting. But also, the enthusiasm of Avignon inhabitants hosting actors and technicians and especially the public eager for renewal, joined the desire of Vilar to open the theatre to another dimension. Vilar wanted to reach a new audience, wider, more popular, more real. That is to say, not this audience of insiders who were more likely to watch themselves at the theatre than watch the show. He wanted to appeal to a young audience with a completely different spirit. It may have been the spirit of the country’s post-war willingness to renovate, but in any case he wanted to break the architecture of the 19th century bourgeois theatre with its dressing rooms and class differences. He wanted to facilitate access to the theatre and create a different relationship between the theatre and the audience in a spirit of rigour and high standards. This was the new idea to which the audience aspired in the post-war period.
Vilar knew that the obstacle was not only financial. To mobilise young people in the summer, he called on all those who were on holiday and programmed the second edition in July. He relied on youth organisations to attract a different audience, to invent a different climate, a different approach. He adjusted the opening hours, reduced the entrance fees, banned tips, provided free documentation, etc.
The beginnings of Popular Theatre
In 1948, during the second edition, the first positive articles appeared in the press.
“From now on, every lover of the theatre, and quite simply, every man in search of a moment of beauty, must know that he must go to Avignon once a year, as the Gypsies go to the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Let the rich go there by sleeping, or by long-nosed car and rent the most expensive seats, that is their duty. It is to their advantage that the economically average poeple give up their holidays in Brittany or Normandy and make the time and place of their departure coincide with one of the dates of Avignon. Finally, let the poor go there on foot or by hitchhiking, begging for bread or stealing chickens along the way, their fatigue, their anguish, all their misery, will be erased by one evening in Avignon.”
From the outset, the Festival was centred on creation and this principle still structures the programming today. Creation does not necessarily mean new plays, Jean Vilar wanted new productions of classic texts, such as those by Shakespeare. Thus the great English playwright became the most faithful guest of the Popes’ Palace.
Jean Vilar in front of the walls of the Popes’ Palace
(Agnès Varda/ succession Varda)
Jean Vilar meets young people in 1955 in the Urban Orchard V
The first years are not easy
Vilar had to conquer an audience, convince his actors to embark on this adventure even though he had no real means of production. Public aid is scarce, and the actors themselves are usually housed with the locals. The Auberge de France on the Place de l’Horloge served as a canteen for Vilar’s teams. A stage set for the Honour Courtyard had to be designed as quickly as possible: a theatre stage of the size of the monument. He called on the soldiers of the 7th Engineering Regiment, then stationed in Avignon. Army lorries were used to unload rails and planks to build the floor of the stage that would accommodate the actors. This same regiment was later called upon to set up a dance stage on the banks of the Rhône River for Maurice Béjart in 1968. It is difficult today to imagine what the material conditions were like in the early years of enthusiasm.