BUSSANG, France – Hundreds of productions have been staged at the Théâtre du Peuple, a 126 year old playhouse in this village 45 miles from the border with Germany. But as good as the actors are, they are often overshadowed by the theater’s unusual backdrop: a steep forest, visible directly behind the stage.
Framed by a wooden wall like a painting, the view brings nature into the action – and visitors can’t get enough of it. This summer, two hours after “And Their Children After Them,” a new production by Simon Delétang, the otherwise simple set was lifted to reveal the trees behind it. The scene drew oohs and aahs from the audience, followed by spontaneous applause.
This indoor-outdoor setup in the Vosges has carried the Théâtre du Peuple (or Volkstheater) through many incarnations. Founded in 1895 by the playwright and director Maurice Pottecher, who was inspired by visits to Richard Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, it became known outside Paris as a pioneering example of “popular theater” and attracted audiences from all social classes. Decades before the post-war French government push to decentralize a cultural scene concentrated in the capital, Pottecher convinced local workers to attend and appear in his plays.
While lay people are still cast in a production every year, professional actors have long since taken on most of the roles, and the Théâtre du Peuple is now sitting on a curious artistic fence. On the one hand, the founder, nicknamed Le Padre, lingers in the background – literally because he is buried in the garden of the theater with his wife, actress Camille de Saint-Maurice. His motto “Through art for mankind” still adorns the stage arch to this day.
On the other hand, Pottecher’s own pieces, which formed the majority of the repertoire from 1895 until his death in 1960 and were strongly moralistic, have long since gone out of fashion. “Every director comes with the thought that it would be great to perform Pottecher again, but when you read it, it is not possible: it is out of date,” said Delétang in an interview in Bussang.
Instead, the artistic directors are appointed by the Verband des Théâtre du Peuple, a local governing body, for four years and given a free hand. Delétang, who ran a small theater in Lyon, Les Ateliers, from 2008 to 2012, had no professional experience in Bussang when he was appointed four years ago. His contract was recently extended to 2025.
The current season, which runs through Saturday, suggests that Pottecher’s legacy is now mostly in the experience of visiting the Théâtre du Peuple rather than the shows themselves. Before a recent performance of And Their Children After Them, there were locals to be found picnicking in the theater’s garden, a long tradition, while Delétang and the show’s actors tended the bar and made themselves available for a chat.
In this sense, Bussang is a forerunner of the generation of rural festivals such as the Nouveau Théâtre Populaire that have sprung up across France over the past decade and that emphasize accessibility.
The programming of these events couldn’t be more different. While recent events have fostered collective decision-making and diversity, the Théâtre du Peuple just welcomed its first female director, Anne-Laure Liégeois, for a production of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” in July. On the stage, Bussang’s productions are also smoother and more geared towards the standards of publicly funded French theaters – apart from the green backdrop. “And their children after them” and “Our need for consolation is insatiable”, the two productions that will be offered in August could have fit into the line-up of some top-class Parisian theaters.
“Our need for comfort is insatiable” emerged last year in response to the pandemic. After the 2020 season of the Théâtre du Peuple was canceled, Delétang directed and performed this 40-minute show, based on an autobiographical essay by Swedish writer Stig Dagerman, as a kind of compensation. Praised as the “electric rock oratorio”, it was shown here for the first time outdoors with live music by the band Fergessen last summer.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been transferred to the main stage, where it ends up clumsily. Dagerman’s meditation on life and depression, written in 1951, has a deeply self-centered effect on the interpretation of the Théâtre du Peuple. Elegantly dressed, his feet shoulder-width apart, Delétang seems to embody the desperation of a dandy rather than a greater discomfort.
It doesn’t help that Dagerman in his essay repeatedly falls back on the naive idea of complete freedom from the shackles of society as the ultimate “liberation”. In the past year, this could possibly have been understood as channeling the desire for an exemption from lockdowns. The public debate in France has continued; This summer it was about whether mandates in the vaccination record violate personal freedom or not, and in this context Delétang’s ode to self-determination took on a completely new meaning – an unfortunate coincidence, since the season was programmed months ago.
“And their children after them” adheres more closely to Pottecher’s humanistic ideal. The play is based on a Goncourt Prize-winning novel by Nicolas Mathieu, who grew up in the Vosges. Like the book, it follows Delétang’s staging of a group of friends in the 1990s in a rural part of eastern France that is increasingly being left behind by deindustrialization.
Though it starts with Nirvana’s 1992 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ends with France’s standout victory at the 1998 World Cup, the stage version of “And Their Children After Them” often leaves historical context aside to focus on teenage horniness . Anthony, the main character, desperately wants to go to parties and sleep with girls who, in turn, grapple with their own sexuality.
Delétang designed the production for the senior class of a renowned Lyon drama school, ENSATT, and offered everyone the chance to shine. Very few scenes are played in the traditional sense. Instead, the 13 actors take turns telling the story and loosely playing the main characters. For example, to indicate a kiss, two actors describe it to the audience without touching, just closing their eyes to signal joy.
It turns out to be a wise directional choice to avoid excessive nudity and problematic gender dynamics, and the young cast takes Mathieu’s text with a solid sense of rhythm. The downside is the lack of exercise for over three hours, since Delétang’s static stance in “Our need for consolation is insatiable” is reproduced here by every performer.
Counterintuitive, since the teenagers from Mathieu’s novel are often in the forest, Delétang also decides not to open the back wall of the Théâtre du Peuple until the very end, when the characters are reunited at a fair. At this point, is it entertaining to see a motorcycle ride out of the forest within sight? Yes sir. What better ways to make the most of the Théâtre du Peuple’s surroundings? Probably. One more reason to return to Bussang.