The most significant dramatist of turn of the century France was Alfred Jarry. The impact of his plays, primarily Ubu Roi, was writ large upon contemporary audiences and has continued to be a major influence on, among others, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Young Ones.
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Avant-garde theatre in France after World War I was profoundly marked by Dada and Surrealism. The Surrealist movement was a major force in experimental writing and the international art world until the Second World War, and the surrealists’ technique was particularly well-suited for poetry and theatre, most notably in the theatrical works of Antonin Artaud and Guillaume Apollinaire.
Theatre in the 1920s and 1930s went through further changes in a loose association of theatres (called the “Cartel”) around the directors and producers Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, Gaston Baty, and Ludmila and Georges Pitoëff. They produced French works by Jean Giraudoux, Jules Romains, Jean Anouilh and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as Greek and Shakespearean plays and works by Luigi Pirandello, Anton Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw.
Inspired by the theatrical experiments in the early half of the century and by the horrors of the war, the avant-garde Parisian theatre, “New theatre”—termed the “Theatre of the Absurd” by critic Martin Esslin in reference to Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Fernando Arrabal—refused simple explanations and abandoned traditional characters, plots and staging. Other experiments in theatre involved decentralisation, regional theatre, “popular theatre” (designed to bring the working class to the theatre), Brechtian theatre (largely unknown in France before 1954), and the productions of Arthur Adamov and Roger Planchon. The Avignon festival was started in 1947 by Jean Vilar, who was also important in the creation of the “Théâtre national populaire” or T.N.P.
The events of May 1968 marked a watershed in the development of a radical ideology of revolutionary change in education, class, family and literature. In theatre, the conception of “création collective” developed by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil refused division into writers, actors and producers: the goal was for total collaboration, for multiple points of view, for an elimination of separation between actors and the public, and for the audience to seek out their own truth.
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