The British have long been sniffy about French theatre, but classic playwrights from Moli�re to Marivaux deserve another look
We seem to have a love-hate relationship with French drama. We occasionally revive Racine and Corneille while sniffing airily at the way such neo-classic drama rigidly observes the unities. We also periodically dip into French farce while tut-tutting at its dubious taste, especially all those Feydeau jokes about stuttering and cleft palates. Temperamentally, I suspect we feel much closer to Russian and German drama than we do to its French counterpart. The vogue for everything French (plays, movies, fashion) seems to have faded. But it shouldn't be that way. Here are five dramatists at whom we should take another look.
The problem used to be one of translation; that has improved in recent years thanks to people like Tony Harrison, Christopher Hampton, Jeremy Sams and Ranjit Bolt. But there is something about Moli�re's blend of comedy and tragedy that we still find elusive. And certain plays remain neglected; we do Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, but why not take a look at The School for Husbands or The School for Wives, which deal with the archetypal Moli�re theme of whether to compromise with or confront society's rules? And I've never seen a British production of Georges Dandin ? a play about bourgeois marriage famously revived in France by Roger Planchon, who paid serious attention to the seething life below stairs. We still look to Moli�re for a jolly romp. In fact, most of his plays are socially subversive as well as funny.
Pierre Marivaux (1688-1763)
Again, the problem is one of tone. The French even coined a term, "marivaudage", to describe Marivaux's precious, mannered dialogue: Voltaire described it as "the art of weighing flies' eggs on scales made from a spider's web". But Timberlake Wertenbaker, Neil Bartlett and Nicholas Wright have successfully translated his plays. And they are eminently worth revival for their exploration of the metaphysics of the heart and the connection between class and passion. In plays such as The Double Inconstancy or The Game of Love and Chance, which Salisbury Playhouse is about to revive, the mask of pretence is stripped away and masters and servants swap roles with astonishing results. He's is a neglected comic master.
Eugene Labiche (1815-1888)
Labiche's reputation as a farce-writer has been overshadowed by that of Feydeau. But at least some of his staggering 175 plays are worth examination. An Italian Straw Hat, famously filmed by Ren� Clair, is one of the great comedies of chase and pursuit. And when Peter Stein ran Berlin's Schaub�hne, he had great success with Labiche. One particular play, The Piggy Bank, sounds wonderful: about seven members of the provincial bourgeoisie who break into their secret funds for what turns out to be a disastrous trip to Paris. I know Cheek by Jowl's Declan Donnellan was at one stage toying with reviving Labiche. Why not now?
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Obviously best-known as a philosopher and essayist, but also a dramatist of considerable skill. Vicious Circle, which used to be a small-theatre favourite, memorably shows three people locked together in a permanent hell. But Sartre also wrote a number of political plays about resistance to authority. I've always had a soft spot for Dirty Hands, which concerns the existentialist choice facing a young hero required to kill a communist party leader. And his response to Greek tragedy's Orestes story, The Flies, uses the hero's return to a plague-ridden Argos as a potent metaphor for France under German occupation. Doubtless some would say Sartre is dated. But why shouldn't plays be of historical interest?
Jean Anouilh (1910-1987)
It seemed like everyone did Anouilh after the second world war: now his star has sadly waned. But The Rehearsal, with its echoes of Marivaux, remains a minor masterpiece. And I'd love to see a revival of one particular play, Poor Bitos. It's all about a rich landowner who stages a party in which the guests are invited to come dressed as a figure from the revolution: the intention is to humiliate a communist deputy and despised scholarship-boy who arrives clad as Robespierre. What follows is a terrifying human fox-hunt that reveals a lot about class-antagonisms in post-war France. Anouilh's "pi�ces charmantes" may have faded, but his darker work merits revival.