A Drama of the French Working Class: Marcel Martinet's La Nuit

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The French poet Marcel Martinet has written a play which fully deserves to be called a drama of the French working class. This alone assures it the right to our attention. Martinet is a Communist who has passed through the syndicalist school of La Vie Ouvrière — that is to say, a good school. As an artist, Martinet studied in the worthy school of Romain Roll and; consequently one need neither expect nor fear from him purely propagandist productivity — for politics are only rarely to be found in a dramatic setting or poetic nature. Martinet is deeply psychological. All the problems of our great epoch pass through his individual consciousness and emerge fired with the light of his own personality, or, more correctly, he finds his way to the general and universal only through the medium of his own personal individuality. It is this that makes him an artist. Martinet is a product of the school of Rolland, but spiritually he has outgrown it. It is this that makes it possible for him to be a Communist.

During the war, Rolland, having raised himself "above the battle,” Inspired loyal respect for his personal courage in a period when mass heroism was covering the plains and villages of Europe with corpses, but when personal courage even in a modest measure was very scarce, especially amongst the "spiritual aristocracy." Rolland, refusing to "howl with the wolves" of his own country, lifted himself "above the battle," or, to be more precise, stepped aside from it and entrenched himself in a neutral country.

He continued during the thunder of war (true this was but faintly heard in Switzerland) to prize German science and German art, and to propagate cooperation between both countries. This program of activity was not, after all, so courageous; but in that period of raging chauvinism to carry it out needed at least a modicum of personal independence. And this he had. However, even then the limitations of his philosophy were clearly discernible as also, if one may term it so, the egoistic character of his humanitarianism.

Rolland entrenched himself in neutral Switzerland, but what of the others? The people could not be "above the battle,” because they themselves were its cannon fodder. The French proletariat could not go to Switzerland, and Rolland did not give it any plan of action. Holland's banner was designed exclusively for his personal use — it was the banner of a great artist brought up on French and German literature, above military age, and assured of the necessary means for passing from one country to another. The limitations of the Rolland type of humanitarianism were plainly revealed later, when the problems of war, peace, and cultural cooperation became the problem of revolution.

Here also Rolland decided to be "above the battle." He recognizes neither dictatorship nor violence, whether from the right or from the left. It is true that historical events do not depend upon recognition or nonrecognition, and that he as a great poet retains the right to give his moral and aesthetic criticism. For him, a humanitarian egoist, this was sufficient. But what of the masses? As long as the people slavishly suffer the dictatorship of capital, Rolland poetically and aesthetically condemns the bourgeoisie, but should the working class endeavor to burst the yoke of their exploiters by the only means in their power, by the force of revolution, they in their turn encounter the ethical and aesthetic condemnation of Holland. After all, the history of mankind is only material upon which to base artistic production or moral valuations! Rolland, the pretentious individualist, belongs to the past.

Martinet, in his relation to human history, is much broader, more realistic, and more human. He does not place himself "above the battle," but attacks the problems of war and peace, the liberation of human culture and cooperation between nations, not as a problem of personal values, but as problems of mass activity. He has dramatized the revolutionary activity of the oppressed in his last production, called La Nuit [The Night]. It is written in blank verse. It is written so finely that the verse is not a constraint on language, but a means of raising it above the ordinary, endowing it with a significance of form corresponding with the deeply historical significance of events. And so, at least on reading, one feels its necessity.

Is the drama realistic? Yes, fundamentally as a whole it is, as is also each individual figure in particular. The characters are alive. But through their personal existence in every stage of the drama is delineated the life of their class, their country, and of our present-day humanity. Above their heads flock unseen social forces, thus giving a symbolic meaning to the play.

The central figure is old Mariette, a peasant woman seventy years old. Round her are grouped peasants, men and women, from the northern parts of the country which have been devastated by artillery. With her wise courage, with her tender kindness, Mariette governs her little world completely. This is a French mother! This is a mother of the French people! She has ingrained peasant ideas, but she has already lived through an age of new history, through a series of revolutions, known many hopes and disappointments, and much suffering for her children. However, despair she did not know, and even now, in the years of the Great War, she does not want to know it. Her heart remains an inexhaustible source of tireless kindness.

Mariette's eldest son is at the front. With her remains her little, silent, heroic daughter-in-law, Anna Maria, whom the old woman in a tragic moment of tender confidence calls "a quiet little gray kitten." With them is the grandson, Louison, twelve years old, whose soul has become awakened and strong beyond his years in the awful strain of war.

All the neighbors meet in the only remaining hut — that of Mariette. Homeless people, old men who have lost their sons, mothers whom the artillery of their own or a strange country has robbed of their children, flock there. They are surrounded by cold, snow, devastation, war. People who for four years have lived under the fire and thunder of war, tired of hoping, tired even of despairing, huddle to their common mother, Mariette, who, though with greater wisdom and greater goodness, lives and suffers just as they do.

But something has happened! The sound of the artillery has ceased. The people are enveloped in a sudden hush. What does this portend?

The astounding rumor that the war has ended pierces the cold and the storm. The enemy's soldiers have refused to fight! They have said: "We do not want to fight any more." They have arrested their officers, even — is it believable? — their emperor. He is in their hands, and the soldiers opposing them, after communication with the others, have also ceased fighting. Why should they fight? This is the cause of the sudden silence.

More and more soldiers, half drunk with fatigue, hope, and anxiety, appear at the hut and corroborate the news. It was the end.

Now begins something that has never happened before. The enemy soldiers have seized their emperor, and actually wish to hand him over to the opposing armies "for safekeeping.” Isn't it wonderful, eh? But the chief thing is that it has stopped. At last the end.

But now comes the Generalissimo Bourbousse. He is an old soldier with a natural, but partly affected, roughness, and with an affected, though perhaps partly natural, good naturedness. He is an insignificant figure, but in his very insignificance dangerous. Bourbousse intends temporarily to install himself and his staff in Mariette's little abode, and he asks his hosts to leave their house. But where should they go to? Around them is a plowed-up desert, covered with debris, with still unburied corpses, and steeped in cold and snow. Mariette protests, "for the war has ended,” she cries. Bourbousse explains that it is from here that he intends to complete the victory, but finally he gives Mariette and her family permission to remain in the attic.

The vanquished emperor suddenly appears on the scene. Some enemy soldiers have accompanied him here. Bourbousse welcomes the monarch, who has been beaten in more senses than one, for his body is covered with bruises. Having entered the enemies' headquarters, the emperor immediately regains courage. He Is no more among his own soldiers. He explains to Bourbousse that his, the emperor's, downfall deprives Bourbousse of the fruits of victory. With whom can the victor treat now? "Who," he asks, "will sign the treaty?" Surely not the revolution! Bourbousse becomes anxious, and rightly so. Thus they discover common interests. Will not, for instance, the example of the revolution be followed by the victors? "In any case,” continues Bourbousse, "his Highness can … hm … hm … make himself quite at home.”

Mariette's hut is given over to his highness, and the Generalissimo and staff climb to the attic. The old woman, her daughter-in-law, and grandson are thrust out of the house — out into the darkness, the cold, and the snow.

But the infection is already beginning to spread. There is unrest among the soldiery of Bourbousse. They seem to be waiting for something. They talk excitedly, and apparently, by accident, hundreds of them forgather under the roof of a partly demolished cafe. They want to understand what has happened. They shout for reasons, ideas, slogans, leaders. They nominate those who gained their confidence in the trenches. There is the honest old peasant Goutodiet; the openhearted, well-spoken Favrol; there is the young Ledru, with the eagle's glance, but without power. And this is where the real drama of the beginning of the rising of the suppressed class Is unfolded — without banners, without proper organization, under inexperienced and untried leadership.

Goutodiet was, with all his soul, for the solidarity of the working people, for the end of the war, for coming to terms with the enemy. He was an honest narrow pacifist, and the speech of this aged peasant in soldier's uniform was much better and more agreeable than the conglomeration of pacifist jokes delivered by Victor Meric. The mass welcomes Goutodiet, but is not satisfied, because the goal is not defined and the methods are not dear. Pacifism is passive; the substance of it is patience; it has hopes and fears, but no definite plan of action. It is the latter which is at present of most importance, because the masses have risen.

Favrol steps forward. His emptiness, his noisy irresponsibility are hidden under definite suggestions. He tries immediately to formulate a suggestion which he must have discussed more than once with the frequenters of the anarchist cafe, viz., to kill the officers, including Bourbousse, and then to think of what else to do. The soldiers become attentive; some agree, but the majority are frightened. The split causes the majority to lose their heads, and that leads to a demoralizing feeling of weakness.

Then young Ledru steps forward. He is not afraid of revolutionary force. He recognizes that it is unavoidable, but the country would not at once understand the summary execution of the officers. Extreme measures which are not at first prepared for by evolutionary methods, which have no psychological motive, would cause a split among the soldiers. Premature use of revolutionary terrorism would isolate the people who took part in it. Ledru suggests that a representative organ of the revolutionary army be created first, that every hundred soldiers send a representative to the Soviet, and … here the curtain falls.

The revolution spreads in the army and the country. Everywhere soviets are being formed. In the capital a temporary government has already been set up of active men from the extreme left reserve of the bourgeoisie. Their task is to break up and paralyze the revolution — to control it themselves. For this they utilize the customary methods of democracy, the weighty authority of official statesmanship, the artistic web of lies, the distrust of the masses in themselves, the wait-and-see pacifism of Goutodiet, and the bloody adventurism of Favrol. Ordinary people, not geniuses, sit in the temporary government. Their task, however, is not to create anything new, but to preserve the old order of things. They have the experience and help of the ruling class to back them up. In this lies their power. Their first problem was to keep their feet when the first wave of the revolution passed over them, and to discover its weak, unguarded points — to plunder, weaken, and exploit the revolution, and to destroy the faith and morale of the masses before the second, more deadly, wave could arise.

The critical moment!

In the army, in the workers’ districts, the movement is spreading; soviets have been chosen, local conflicts with the authorities are going in favor of the revolutionaries, but the real enemy, the ruling class, is not done away with. The latter maneuver expectantly. It has a comfortable intelligence department in the capital; it has a well-known centralized mechanism; it has a very rich experience in deceit; and it is convinced of its right to victory.

After the partial success of the first attack against the old regime, it is necessary to place the movement on a higher level — to give it more of a national character — in order to assure an internal agreement, a common aim, and a common method of realizing that aim. Otherwise, of course, disaster is inevitable.

The local leaders, men brought out by circumstance — improvised revolutionaries, who have never before thought of the problems of mass movement — are buffeted like small pieces of wood on the waves of that movement, hoping against hope that circumstances according to their own logic would assure success for them in the future as in the past. For the solution of every difficulty, the dilettantes of the revolution can only put forward cliches instead of ideas. "The people who have risen are invincible”; "You cannot stop conscience with bayonets!" and so on. But the revolution demands not general phrases, but regulations corresponding to internal necessities and to the various stages of the movement. This is lacking. A fatal delay occurs in the development of events. Ledru, with political instinct, comprehends the logic of the revolution. Quite recently he resisted the empty boasting of Favrol, rejecting his proposal to shoot the officers. In the past they have limited themselves to the arrest of Bourbousse. Today Ledru feds that a fateful crisis is approaching. The masses do not realize that the chief difficulties are still to come. The enemy seizes, without a struggle, any unfortified position, and immediately afterwards pushes its tentacles further forward. Tomorrow the "good-natured" Bourbousse will again be leader of the armed forces of reaction and will crush the movement in its infancy. Ledru comes to the conclusion that there is needed a cry of danger, thunderous warnings, encouragement to ruthlessness. Now he is for decisive measures, the shooting of Bourbousse, but the logic of the revolution, which the young leader, with his finger on the troubled pulse of the masses, has already mastered, finds only a belated reflection in the minds of its semi-leaders

At the head of the mass there is no organization which can reason collectively, which can consider in common the relation of events to one another, and thus to intervene at the right moment. There is no revolutionary party. Unanimity only occurs in a movement as long as it meets no obstacles. As soon as the position becomes complicated, improvised leaders without experience, without a program, always begin to fight amongst themselves. Each one has his own course, his own method. There is neither discipline of thought nor of action. Difficulties, inadequacies, deficiencies — the consequences of war and of the revolution itself — stand out more sharply. Hesitation appears. Then follows loss of morale. Those who before kept their doubts secret now shout at the tops of their voices. There is nothing easier than to oppose the present difficulties with the problems of tomorrow. Those who have not lost faith endeavor to shout above the skeptics — but each in his own way. The masses grope about amid the growing difficulties and try to follow their leaders, but the dissension frightens and weakens them.

Here there appears on the scene a member of the temporary government, Bordiet Dupatois. An experienced demagogue, with a political knowledge not of a very high caliber, but with a practically flawless instinct for the division and demoralization of the mass and the corruption of its leaders. All the art of the French Revolution is at the disposal of Dupatois, who is fat, who pretends to be simple and a humorist, and who wears a coachman's cape inside out. He makes his way slowly through the crowd of soldiers, spies, and listens, chatters, flatters the revolutionaries, praises the leaders, makes promises, reproaches in a friendly fashion, and shakes hands with everybody. From the moment when he appears at the entrance of the revolutionary headquarters of Ledru, large numbers of soldiers, tired of waiting and uncertainty, already put their hopes in him, as if he were a harbor of safety. The uninvited guest Dupatois welcomes them to the revolutionary headquarters in the tone of a benevolent host, and praises Ledru in such a sly fashion as must inevitably shatter the young leader's authority. Favrol is already on the side of the temporary government. The honest Goutodiet is not heard of because events have become too complicated for him. He has become muddled and has melted into the "muddled crowd." Ledru understands the trend of events, but he now stands before the crowd, not as a leader of the revolution, but as a hero of tragedy. With him and around him there is no organization but a few of his hardened followers who are used to thinking and fighting together. There is no revolutionary party. The energy of the masses, which has been wrongly directed, has become an irritant poison directed against the parent growth itself, gradually weakening it. Dupatois is already firmly established. He transforms doubts, uneasiness, worry, fatigue, uncertainty, into political flattery. Amongst the crowd he has his paid and voluntary agents. They interrupt Ledru, protest, grumble, curse, thus creating the necessary atmosphere for Dupatois.

In the chaos of the stormy meeting a sudden shot is heard and Ledru falls dead.

The greatest moment for Dupatois approaches. He says a few complimentary words over the grave of his fallen "young friend," in which, admitting the latter's faults and foolhardiness, he pays compliment to the altruism of ideals destined to bear no fruit.

With this secretly insincere eulogy he succeeds in winning over even the most revolutionary of his opponents. The revolution is broken. The power of the provisional government is assured. Is not this a historical drama of the French proletariat?

The same peasants forgather at old Mariette's. With all her heart she was on the side of the revolutionaries. How could it be otherwise? Mariette — a mother of the French people — is France itself. She is a peasant, with mind and memory loaded and enriched by age after age of struggle and suffering. She remembers her sons fallen in the battles of the great revolution, which ended with a Caesarist dictatorship. She has witnessed the return of the Bourbons, the new revolution, new treacheries, internal strife amidst the working class itself, the hopes and disappointments of the Commune, its terrible downfall, the monstrous, cowardly, and crafty militarism of the Third Republic, the Great War, in which the best of their generation had been wiped out and the very existence of the French people threatened. … All this has old Mariette, a mother of the French people, lived through, felt, and thought over in her own way. She was a common peasant, who, by her experience and mother's instinct, had raised herself to the level of the working class, its hopes and struggles.

Absolutely on the side of the revolutionaries, Mariette gave them a mother's blessing, awaited their victory, and hoped for the return of her eldest son from the trenches. But the revolution was shattered, and all the sacrifices had been in vain. Bourbousse is again head of the army. The delusion of brotherhood with those who deposed their emperor is dispersed like smoke.

The enemy is retreating, and the enemy must pay in full for the devastation he has caused!

Forward! To arms!! Bourbousse is in command, and after a considerable lapse in the development of events, after the internal strife, this persecution of the retreating enemy, this "forward" movement, seems to the people who are being hoodwinked like a way of surmounting the crisis — a way out of the cul-de-sac The peasants, both men and women, turn from Mariette, though she had upheld their spirits during the blackest months of the war. She had raised their hopes in the revolutionary days to an unaccustomed degree, and so doing had deceived them, and they revenge themselves mercilessly upon her for their shattered dreams. One after another leaves the house of the old peasant woman with words of bitter reproach upon his lips.

Mariette is alone. Her grandson, Louison, is sleeping restlessly upon his bed. Her daughter-in-law, Anna Maria, breaks her heroic silence to tell old Mariette that she (Anna Maria) is on her side. She has been with her during the war, during the times when revolutionary hopes ran high, and she is with her now in the bitter days of defeat and isolation. Mariette clasps her quiet, gray kitten to her heart. Anna Maria goes up the steps to her room, and Mariette sits near the bed where her grandson, the future France, lies under the oppression of a nightmare — the new France, which is growing under the thunder and lightning of this most terrible epoch.

And there, on the floor above, is Anna Maria — the new French mother who will relieve the old, tired Mariette.

A knock on the door is heard. Three men enter carrying a fourth — the corpse of the first-born son. He had perished during the strife of the last few days, during the persecution of the revolutionary army of the enemy, after the destruction of his own revolution.

The last shred of hope is shattered about the poor old head. The three men who have just entered place that which had once been her son by the side of the bed where the grandson lies asleep. But no — the grandson is not asleep. On the contrary, he has heard all. Beautiful is the tragic dialogue between himself and his grandmother.

They both (the past and the future) bow at the bedside where the "present" lies dead.

Louison again lies dreaming.

Mariette feels that she has no more strength to bear her sufferings. She has nothing to expect — nothing to live for; and she feels that it is now time to quit the old life and to go forward into the night which lies brooding outside her window. But in that inexhaustible bourn of hope and kindness, the mother's heart, the old woman again finds herself. She has a daughter-in-law and a grandson, and a new life is built up upon the ruins of the old. It must be, it shall be, better than the past life is the watchword.

The night passes. …

The old woman climbs heavily up the stairs to her daughter-in-law and calls; "Anna Maria, it is time to get up — it is already dawn!"

With this the play ends. It is a veritable drama of revolution; a political tragedy of the working class; a tragedy of all its past and a warning for the future. No other proletariat but the French is so rich in historical memories, for no other but the French has had such a dramatic destiny. But this very past weighs down upon it like a terrible threat for the future. The dead are like a chain fettering the living. Each stage has left behind it not only its experiences, but also its prejudices, its formulas deprived of content, and its sects who refuse to die.

Goutodiet? We have all met him. He is a worker with the instincts of the petty bourgeois, or a petty bourgeois attracted to the workers' cause — the democrat, the pacifist, always for half measures, always for going half the way. He is Bourderon, the father of the people, whose honest limitations have in the past proved more than once a brake on the revolution.

And we all know Favrol, knight of the phrase, who today preaches a bloody settlement in order tomorrow to show himself in the camp of the victorious bourgeoisie. Favrol is the most widespread, the most multifarious, and in all its variety the most uniform type in the French working-class movement. He is Hervé, the shouter, the vulgar reviler, the anti-militarist, "without a fatherland," the preacher of sabotage and direct action — and then the patriotic oracle of the concierges, the journalistic tool of the drunken chauvinism of a petty bourgeois clique. He is Sebastian Faure, the libertine, the pedagogue, the Malthusian, the smooth-tongued orator, the anti-militarist, always furnished with a program full of promises freeing him from the necessity of undertaking any practical step, and always ready for a shameful deal with the "prefect," if the latter only knows how to flatter him.

Verbal radicalism, a policy of irreconcilable formulas which in no way lead to action, and consequently sanction inaction under the cloak of extremism, have been and remain the most corrosive element in the French working-class movement. Orators who begin their first phrase and do not know what they are going to say next; adept bureaucrats of journalism whose writings bear no relation to actual events: "leaders" who never reflect on the consequences of their own actions; individualists who, under the banner of "autonomy" — whether of provinces, towns, trade unions, organizations, newspapers, or what not — guard inviolate their own petty bourgeois individualism from control, responsibility, and discipline; syndicalists who not only have no sense of what is needed, but who are instinctively afraid to say what exists, to call a mistake a mistake, and to demand from themselves and from others a definite answer to any question, and who mask their helplessness under the accustomed wrappings of revolutionary ritual; great-souled poets who wish to deluge the working class with their reservoirs of magnanimity and confusion of ideas; stage artists and improvisors who are too lazy to think, and who feel hurt that people exist in the world who are able and accustomed to think; chatterers, players with words, village oracles, petty revolutionary priests of churches struggling one against the other — it is here that is to be found the terrible poison in the French working-class movement; here is the menace, here the danger!

Martinet's drama speaks out on this in bold language, making the highest truth of life, historical truth, correspond with artistic truth. Speaking through the medium of artistic creation, the drama is a call to the proletarian vanguard for internal purification, increased unity, and discipline.

The last act takes place in an atmosphere heavy with tragedy; the play as a whole is called La Nuit. Superficially it may appear to be imbued with pessimism — almost with despair. It is in fact inspired by a deep uneasiness, by a natural anxiety. France has been drained of blood. The best of her generation lie buried. Mariette's first-born son did not return from the war to set up the new order. But there is the grandson, twelve years old at the end of the war and now, therefore, sixteen.

In such a time months appear as years. Louison personifies the future. About his young head, waking with feverish energy, is breaking the dawn of tomorrow, and it is this that is meant by that last exclamation of Mariette's, bespeaking peace and hope. But it is essential that Louison should not repeat the history of Ledru. Remember this, you, the best workers of France! Martinet's drama is not a gloomy prophecy, but a stern forewarning.