With the 1960s came the first pitfalls. First of all, there was immense grief, with the premature death of Gérard Philipe at the end of 1959. During the first years, the Avignon Festival had remained the festival of only one man, of only one company, of only one repertoire, of only one theatrical aesthetic. Vilar did not want to multiply the number of venues. He only devoted himself to the Cour d’Honneur. However, the public came and returned massively: the Festival had created a real bond of trust between the company and the spectators. The capacity of the Cour d’Honneur had been enlarged in 1956 and would continue to be enlarged thereafter.
In 1963, Jean Vilar saluted after his last performance: Thomas More or A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
The necessary consolidation of the Festival through a refoundation
Jean Vilar could have continued these moments of fusion between actors and spectators by organising this theatrical mass, but he was exhausted playing all the roles: director of the TNP, director and programmer of the Festival, sole director of the Cour d’Honneur and finally actor. He then decided to change his entire approach to the Festival and to refound it. 1963 was the year of his last appearance on the stage of the Cour d’Honneur. He played the title role in a play by Robert Bolt: Thomas More or A Man for All Seasons. He comes to salute, moved, alone in front of the crying spectators.
Jean Vilar renounces the TNP to better devote himself to the Festival
In 1964, he gave up the direction of the TNP and organised his succession in favour of Georges Wilson, in order to devote himself entirely to the direction of the Festival. He changed the nature of the Festival as if Avignon had reached its apogee and needed to be transformed to perpetuate itself. From this event that he had modelled to make it a consensual place between theatrical aesthetics and a loyal audience, he thought of making it a festival of encounters and confrontation open to other artistic forms and disciplines of the living spectacle. In 1965, the Festival sold fifty-four thousand tickets, which did not mean fifty-four thousand spectators, as each spectator came to see several plays. The Cour d’Honneur was still the only venue for the performances, with three works performed there, always by the actors of the TNP but directed by Georges Wilson or Michel Cacoyannis. The Cour d’Honneur was filled to capacity with up to three thousand two hundred spectators per performance.
Jean Vilar at the Verger Urbain V in 1964
Jean Vilar and Georges Wilson
Jean Vilar and Maurice Béjart in the Cour d’Honneur, during a rehearsal of Béjart’s ballet Messe pour le temps présent in 1967 © AFP
For its 20th edition, the Festival opens up to other arts
But it was for the 20th edition in 1966 that he increased the number of performances and opened the theatre festival to other disciplines, to music and dance. He invited Maurice Béjart. It was a smashing entrance to the Festival with an overflowing enthusiasm: the Ballet du XXe siècle. This company of magnificent performers who dance barefoot and in jeans immediately conquered the young public. In 1966 and 1967, theatre and dance shared the Cour d’Honneur. Concerts of classical and contemporary music were introduced. Even cinema made its appearance in the Cour d’Honneur in 1967 with the screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, a pre-revolutionary work that drew boos from the audience on the last night. Of course, this transformation, we could even say this revolution, wanted by Vilar was not without criticism. Vilar undoubtedly felt that youth was waiting for new artistic forms and it was necessary to assume the risk of displeasing some as we could read in some newspaper articles: “Ah! pity the poor people of Avignon stunned by the chinoiseries of Godard and the verbal delirium of Billetdoux, their famous festival is sinking into the abstruseness” Le Méridional.
New scenic spaces are being created
Avignon, complex and mysterious, hides behind many facades marvellous spaces which testify to the richness of its history: religious buildings, aristocratic hotels… Starting with the Cloister of the Carmelites, one of the magical places of Avignon which will impose itself from 1967 onwards as the second venue of the Festival. Then, the Cloître des Célestins, the Salle Benoît XII, the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs. The opening up of these new spaces added to the diversification of styles and gave the experimental theatre more room to manoeuvre in order to test other repertoires.
Reflections on cultural development policies
Jean Vilar launched the first colloquium on the cultural development of the country in 1964 and was passionate about cultural policy and the public service missions of the theatre. The colloquium was open to sociologists, academics, leaders of popular education movements, politicians and local elected officials. It discusses public cultural policies on a national scale, cultural decentralisation, the role of artistic education, etc. It can be said that Vilar, by transforming the Festival, showed great open-mindedness and was a revolutionary without knowing it. He had no idea that 1968 would come and plunge the Festival into a great misunderstanding that could have been fatal.
More in our future article:
1968 invites itself to Avignon