Cover image for Medieval Roles for Modern Times: Theater and the Battle for the French Republic By Helen Solterer

Medieval Roles for Modern Times

Theater and the Battle for the French Republic

Helen Solterer


$94.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03614-4

$58.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03613-7

304 pages
7" × 10"
40 b&w illustrations

Medieval Roles for Modern Times

Theater and the Battle for the French Republic

Helen Solterer

“Solterer’s fascinating book explores the power of the Middle Ages in the French imagination from the early twentieth century through two world wars. She does justice to the full complexity and contradictions of that power in an investigation that is supported by prodigious research and superb writing skills. This book shows how fascists, monarchists, and the Popular Front were all able to claim medieval spectacles as celebrations of their deeply incompatible views of the nation and the republic.”


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Ranging from France to Russia to America in the throes of world war and revolution, Medieval Roles for Modern Times investigates how critics and creators made medieval culture a part of their modern world through theatrical role-playing. On both the Left and the Right across Europe, partisans used drama to express the ideological struggles dividing them. Helen Solterer explores the case of the Théophiliens, a Parisian youth group in the 1930s and 1940s whose members included Roland Barthes and Alain Resnais. The performances of the troupe—from the Adam Play to the Mystery of the Passion—captured the paradoxes of the French Republic as it was breaking apart.

The book focuses on two key figures of the Théophilien troupe: founder Gustave Cohen and actor Moussa Abadi. Under Vichy, Cohen went into exile in America, while Abadi went underground. He established a network for refugee families and taught Jewish children role-playing skills to help them evade detection by the Gestapo. Abadi helped save hundreds of children from deportation, and his story of theater and Jewish resistance has never before been published.

“Solterer’s fascinating book explores the power of the Middle Ages in the French imagination from the early twentieth century through two world wars. She does justice to the full complexity and contradictions of that power in an investigation that is supported by prodigious research and superb writing skills. This book shows how fascists, monarchists, and the Popular Front were all able to claim medieval spectacles as celebrations of their deeply incompatible views of the nation and the republic.”
“Helen Solterer conceives of Medieval Roles for Modern Times as a space in which compelling human stories from the worlds of French academic medievalism and twentieth-century theater play out amid the most appalling events: wars, the rise of fascism, and the Holocaust. She tells the story dramatically and fluently over a rich tapestry of footnotes that records her scholarly and historical research, her interviews of participants in this drama, and the ongoing work in related fields that she brings together here. Moreover, her book brings out new dimensions of scholars such as Gustave Cohen and Paul Zumthor, enabling us to understand better the social as well as the critical significance of medieval theater.”
Medieval Roles for Modern Times traces the history of the Théophiliens, who, in the turbulent period between 1930 and 1950, revived medieval theater for huge audiences in France. Solterer examines the Théophiliens’ theatrical aesthetic, the political and cultural conditions of their theatrical performances, and the radically different fates of the members of the troupe, scattered across the world by war and exile. Especially moving is her research on Moussa Abadi, who coached Jewish children hiding from the Nazis in the south of France, teaching them theatrical techniques so that they could protect themselves from arrest. An ethnographer, a reader of images, scenes, and voices, and a cultural detective, Helen Solterer is at the forefront of an important new methodology: the study of intersecting centuries, disciplines, and spaces, known in France as l'histoire croisée.
“Interviews along with numerous illustrations make this a work of exceptional interest to a broad audience.”
“[Medieval Roles for Modern Times] makes a valuable contribution to the increasing body of critical work dedicated to the understanding and appropriation of medieval cultural productions by people of radically different religious and political beliefs. . . . The book abounds with information relevant to a wide variety of readers, not just those interested in the Middle Ages or in the history of the theater. . . . The book is so enjoyable and well-written (many passages are so gripping they read like fiction) that it will also be quite approachable to a non-specialist readership. It is a fascinating book, full of interesting details and insights about French society and attitudes in the early twentieth century.”

Helen Solterer is Professor of French at Duke University. She is the author of The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (1995).


List of Illustrations


1. French Mysteries and Russian Miracles: Role-Playing, the Great War, and Bolshevik Revolution, 1905–1925

2. Gustave Cohen and the Drama of Belonging to France: Paris, 1933–1934

3. The Théophilien Troupe’s Coming of Age: Paris, 1935–1939

4. Theatrical Double Jeopardy: Paris, 1939–1944

5. La France Éternelle in American Exile: New York, 1941–1944

6. Moussa Abadi and Playing for Life: Nice, 1943–1944


Postwar Dramas: Paris, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, 1944–1952




In front of Reims cathedral on a July afternoon in 1938, thousands of men and women gathered to mark an occasion of national significance as important as that year’s Bastille Day. The church, bombed by Germany during World War I, had been reconstructed painstakingly over some twenty years. Now, with the sculpted facade of Reims pieced back together, the shattered stained glass reset in the rose window, the coalition government was ready to resanctify it as a monument to France’s indomitable spirit. For the ceremony, they enlisted an amateur theater troupe called the “Théophiliens,” founded by a Sorbonne professor, Gustave Cohen. The group performed Adam and Eve—the biblical story of paradise lost and the necessity to labor on. These young actors were playing roles of an enterprising first man and coquettish first woman, roles created by Anglo-Norman poets around 1120 and adapted by Cohen in a fresh idiom for contemporary audiences. Surrounded by huge stone figures of prophets and apostles, the actors seemed to enliven the medieval world and, through their voices and gestures, to make it part of their own modern one. For the last remaining members of Léon Blum’s Popular Front, as well as spectators from other parties on the Left and the Center, their playing helped to make the medieval world present again, timely once more, part even of the campaign to confirm their values of freedom, equality, fraternity.

This book investigates the imaginative power of the Middle Ages for the generations who lived through the rise of the French Third Republic, and its fall. It was a power that had been activated many times before, surfacing and disappearing, returning and receding, in the long struggle over an egalitarian state. But during this Republic, creators and partisans alike harnessed it through revivals of increasingly paradoxical force. The first paradox was political: enacting medieval works such as the Adam play evoked a feudal world antithetical to its founding democratic principles. It required a special feat of imagination to reconcile the hierarchies of god and men with a Republic promoting a world open and equal for all. The second paradox was no less profound. Such revivals animated a religious spirit that ran counter to secular life. They reinforced a matrix of Christian faith that seemed to jeopardize the hard-won centerpiece of the Third Republic: the evacuation of all religion from the public sphere.

The “Théophiliens” group captures the force of theatrical revivals in all their paradoxical detail: the political resonances, the fervor, as well as the aesthetic experimentation. They also reveal the risks—their acting bearing the paradoxes that grew more and more explosive as the fight between Left and Right, socialist and fascist, intensified. To follow their activities play by play takes us into a world where such opposing visions of the Middle Ages fed the ideological conflicts polarizing France and Europe. It raises the questions of their uses and consequences. Retrograde and repulsive consequences, to be sure, but ones that proved inspiring, too. For all those living in a Republic hit by two world wars, why imagine their modern world by acting out a medieval one? To what double-edged ends?

In that hallowed setting of Reims, where kings of France had been crowned, it was Radicals and the last ministers of the Popular Front, and not the Right, as we might expect, who sponsored this medieval playing. They called on the “Théophiliens,” just as they had supported Communist writer Jean-Richard Bloch, whose group put on Birth of a Community, another spectacle celebrating the Republic and nation, at the Universal Exhibition the summer before. All these militants in Reims and Paris were putting into large-scale action what Antonin Artaud, the enfant terrible of avant-garde theater circles, had already declared in 1925: “Let us reclaim the mentality or even just the habits of life of the Middle Ages, really . . . then, I believe, we will have accomplished the only revolution worth thinking about.” Medieval culture together with July 1789 or October 1917? To make sense of this improbable combination means finding out how, in the course of the twenties and thirties, partisans on the Left came to conceive of medieval play as a revolutionary value.

At the same time, as the Théophiliens were enacting a medieval Republican vision for Radicals and Popular Front socialists, many different groups on the Right were claiming that the Middle Ages belonged to them. Conservatives were mounting their own versions of medieval spectacle, ones displaying a way of life rooted in a tradition of hierarchical rule and dedicated to maintaining it absolutely. The Young Christian Worker, the JOC, a Catholic movement of the center-right, galvanized crowds of amateur players to enact stories of sacrifice and devotion to a higher power. Before a packed Paris stadium in 1937, they animated medieval roles that looked more like chastened, obedient characters than the twelfth-century everyman and woman the Théophiliens had created.

Today, when we consider the Right’s claim to reviving the medieval, we are liable to think first of the activism of extremists. Those in the line of Charles Maurras and the Action Française, disenchanted with the French Republic, continued calling for a return to monarchy, heralding the Middle Ages, despite the papal condemnation of their movement. By the late thirties, a new brand of the Far Right had bullied its way into public view, proclaiming links between the Middle Ages and their revolution—a totalitarian one. We know too how fascist partisans were invested in the ritualistic shows engaging crowds, taking their cue from Hitler’s fixation on three thousand years of Aryan German culture. In Paris, among the intelligentsia, critic Robert Brasillach and writer Pierre Drieu la Rochelle promoted a heroic medieval France that was aggressively racially pure. They were on the lookout for ways to dramatize its glories at the moment when the medieval play of the Théophiliens was honoring the egalitarian Republic and nation at Reims, at the very time too when the government of Socialists and Radicals was on the verge of collapse.

What poses a challenge, then, is grasping the full political force of medieval revival across the spectrum—from Right to Left. Acting both religious and profane plays was a powerful means of expressing the struggle over the French Republic in all its fractious diversity. The question is how—through performance—the Théophiliens captured this internal conflict that was splitting the citizenry apart.

Medieval revival was also implicated in what was a conflict extending beyond France. With the threat of Europe-wide war looming large by the summer of 1938, any show of French culture was necessarily drafted for national service. At Reims, the Théophiliens were regaling their audiences with a play long identified as a first in the theatrical tradition for France—as well as for England. Framed by the cathedral, their Adam and Eve bolstered a specifically French pride of place, feeding a sense of international division that made little sense in the twelfth century or even in the fifteenth when the Plantagenet kings besieged the Valois.

For the generation that endured bombing, smashed cathedrals, and some four million French lives lost, nationalizing the Middle Ages had become a habit. It was already deeply engrained, especially since the Third Republic had been declared, and defeat by the Prussians had rallied intellectuals to make medieval art and literature a part of the ongoing campaign to defend the nation. The grandest drama, the Mystery of the Passion, was introduced to the public in this spirit after 1870, serving in the fight against German dominance—cultural and military. Epics had been dramatized at the National Theater of the Comédie Française in the first devastating months of the Great War in support of the soldiers mired in the trenches. Some twenty-five years later, the last leftist ministers and all those watching the Théophiliens before the Reims facade were primed to invest their Adam and Eve play with patriotic sentiment since, time after time, the ploy of creating and acting out medieval “nations” during wartime had already proved immensely powerful. With the outbreak of another world war on the horizon, what toll would it take again on veterans like Gustave Cohen? And on the newest generation as yet unscathed? The question will take us deeper still since the internecine conflict that would destroy the French Third Republic reinforced the habit of nationalizing medieval play.

Whatever different, opposing ways the Théophiliens’ Adam and Eve could be politicized in 1938, it relayed a religious imagination. Everyone at Reims knew all too well the Catholic framework of such medieval theatrical forms and its conflicted heritage. Under the aegis of the Popular Front, theater appeared ecumenical, open to all, as Jean Zay, the Minister of Education and Fine Arts, declared—“regardless of religious affiliation or philosophy.” In the efforts to turn Reims cathedral into war monument and national shrine, he was building on a long campaign to make the Middle Ages part of the French Republic—and thus to free it of all religion. Architect Viollet-le-Duc, known for restoring Notre Dame Cathedral in an anticlerical spirit, had attempted the same for Ancient French Theater, a collection of comic profane plays that he published in 1854. Philologist Gaston Paris had worked hard to ensure that public education required students across the country and the Empire to read Passion plays, alongside the Song of Roland. Zay, in turn, was campaigning for such drama to represent not only the French tradition, but the lay Republic, which had been separated legally from the Catholic Church. In this spirit, the Théophiliens enacted a medieval Adam and Eve story that had been progressively secularized.

However successfully the Left had plucked medieval drama from a religious matrix, they still had to contend with the widespread numbers of believers who revived plays as a devotional practice. An unlikely group of German villagers had set a standard, putting on a biblical drama every decade to fulfill a centuries-old vow. Around 1900, thousands of Europeans had flocked to Oberammergau in Bavaria to watch the whole town give themselves over to its drama of the Passion play, not only on stage but in their daily lives as well. French men and women had seen those Bavarians playing Jesus, John, or Mary Madeleine in their shops, in their long robes and long hair, going about their work. Enterprising Catholic clergy in France took a page from the Oberammergau playbook and, not to be outdone, began rehearsing schoolchildren, putting on a comparable mystery play in a working-class suburb of Lyon; others worked with children in the streets of Paris, the petits gars of Ménilmontant, training them to entertain the neighborhood that they shared with Edith Piaf. By 1930, almost every Christian community across France had medieval drama brought home to them, performed by fellow parishioners.

When the Théophiliens were performing, then, they were faced with those who believed whole-heartedly in the Christian terms of their medieval plays, the anticlerical who were allergic to them, as well as the religiously minded and atheists who adhered to Jewish and other traditions. How did their acting distill such a mix of attitude, one that transposed the heated discussions over secularization on the floor of the French National Assembly, as well as the debates over spirituality in Paris cafés?

All of them were equally confronted with the sectarian heritage of plays like Adam and Eve. Whether they were aware of it or not, such medieval biblical drama was linked to a tradition of Christian commentary grappling with its relation to Jewish exegesis; it also evoked the thirteenth-century genre of public disputation that had staged vehement doctrinal altercations in Paris between Catholics and Jews. And performances of the life and death of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, suffering, and resurrection in the Mystery of the Passion, bore the memory of attacks against Jews in cities across northern Europe, as indeed of their expulsion from the kingdom of France, starting in the late thirteenth century. So did biblical drama in general, since it had been composed and performed again in response to massacres of Huguenots sanctioned by the French king in 1583. With the Théophilien playing major pieces of Christian drama, from Adam and Eve to the Mystery of the Passion, how did it participate in this violent legacy associated with medieval religious culture?

Any play performed in the thirties also evoked the aesthetic battles over the modern. Reviving a twelfth-century play appears a tradition-bound exercise. The Théophiliens’ Adam and Eve seems more likely to satisfy conservatives in their search for what was antithetical to the modern, if not in the description of philosopher Jacques Maritain, a medieval form that was quintessentially antimodern.

Yet when these amateurs performed Adam and Eve in Cohen’s adaptation, in a juicy, colloquial language with updated characters, they were aligning themselves with an avant-garde. They were participating in a theatrical experiment bringing to life what poet Stéphane Mallarmé had long asserted: “The Middle Ages will always remain the incubator, as well as the beginning of the world as we know it, modern.” Playwrights, directors, and actors had been delving into medieval drama for decades, ever since scholars like Paris and Cohen had made its otherworldly cosmos available to the general public. Across fin-de-siècle Europe, from London to Saint Petersburg, some of the most radical ventures on stage personified holy men, charlatans, and courtly ladies. Around 1900, Viennese director Max Reinhardt had pioneered a ritual theater, beginning with a fantastical pantomime with two thousand characters in an incense-laden atmosphere that came straight out of fifteenth-century drama; his Miracle drew hundreds of thousands all over the Continent. Symbolist writers Maurice Maeterlinck and Gabriele D’Annunzio had already taken up the challenge, improvising plays on saints’ lives, taking their audiences back in time as a way to live their fin de siècle. In France, Alfred Jarry was devising a medieval comic opera around the character of Pope Joan at much the same time he was developing his iconoclastic Ubu, who won the hearts of avant-gardistes around Europe. Yet it was André Antoine, founder of the “Free Theater” and director of the national stage, who set a model for modernizing medieval drama and making it compelling to large, diverse audiences. “The people found in it not only their God,” as in the fifteenth century, he asserted, but they also discovered “their everyday life.” How had medieval scenarios become so thoroughly modern?

The Théophilien troupe opens up the movement by which modernizing medieval drama helped people to structure their day-to-day imaginatively. Their acting points to the ways such theatrical representation and performance responded to common preoccupations, both in high culture and populist circles. Around 1900, a variety of activists had begun turning to medieval forms to give communal shape to people’s fears and aspirations—from Maurice Pottecher, whose Théâtre du peuple engaged huge crowds with modern morality plays in his wooden barn in the Vosges mountains, to Yvette Guilbert, who trained young Parisians with miracle plays in the wake of the Great War. Building on all these various groups before them, the Théophiliens were activating the potential of modern theater as Minister Zay had just formulated it. “By reestablishing contact with wide audiences,” he had declared, “theater retrieves its primordial and fertile function of community-building. It can play an educational role in a regime of spiritual progress, constant intellectual and moral stimulation: what we call democracy.” Since such a conception of theater required little more than able-bodied men and women, papier-mâché for props, and a setting to dramatize, it offered a promising laboratory for shaping people’s imaginations, one within the reach of countless French—even more easily than the innovative media of cinema and radio. And it did so through experiments that overlapped with those in the theatrical avant-garde. As Cohen would claim in full flush of their performances, they undertook their work not out of any “interest in the exotic,” but as “an investment in modernism.” To what end the Théophilien performances contributed to making the medieval modern casts up the final paradox to investigate.

At the center of the Reims ceremony stood the young actors. They offer a collective situation in which to investigate how individual men and women put medieval drama to use during the 1930s—how their activities could condense in a particularly provocative way the various paradoxes informing the Republic.

Who was the group who had banded together around Gustave Cohen, the Sorbonne professor? Rising out of the wave of European youth movements, they typified the efforts of near every political clan and faith to organize their most junior members. Linked to the Scouts, they were even more tightly tied in with the professional theater milieu, with legendary director Jacques Copeau, who had chosen to cultivate a circle of disciples in drama. After the mass slaughter of the Great War, and the millions of walking wounded on European streets, all those born during the first decade of the twentieth century embodied for their elders the renewing vigor and confidence of youth.

Gustave Cohen’s students represented a cross section of this new generation. They came from all over the French-speaking world: Parisians from established families, newcomers from the provinces, Europeans attracted to the cosmopolitan capital, and the colonials just arrived from the outer limits of the Empire. Dozens of men and women converged on the university amphitheaters hungry for something other than routine textual analysis. Cohen was ready: adapting and transposing some major theatrical works of the Middle Ages and offering a chance to enact them. He pioneered making performance an indispensable element of teaching and criticism.

The Miracle of Théophile, their first production, proved far more than a school play. In 1933, acting this story of a bargain between the devil and a Parisian clerk surprised intellectuals, as well as the professional theater world. According to one headline, the group “resurrected medieval drama.” Their performance was so impressive that Cohen’s students formed a group, taking their name from Rutebeuf’s thirteenth-century Miracle. Over the next twenty years, the group went on to produce a variety of religious and secular works, including the plays or jeux of Adam de la Halle, anonymous farces and other comic pieces, satirical sketches known as dits, the morality play the Condemnation of Banquet, the fantastical Aucassin and Nicolette, as well as the celebrated Mystery of the Passion. From Paris to Cluny, from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, they took their medieval playing far beyond the university amphitheater where they had begun. Some forty amateurs, in three successive cohorts, performed more than five hundred times, until 1952.

Cohen and the Théophiliens give us a rare chance to analyze a full life cycle of medieval revival, from its formative phase through its final activities. When they undertook their first performances, in May 1933, Hitler had just seized power and was boosting the confidence of fascist partisans in France. Five years later, when the troupe got the call from the government to perform in Reims, their performances were aligned with the Left, and whether or not they agreed with this stance, their work was caught up in the political polarization dividing the Republic. The phony war of 1939, invasion, capitulation, and German occupation made it impossible to remain apolitical. It seemed equally untenable to continue acting. Some members of the group left Paris, as did Cohen. Others went underground. Yet as a new authoritarian, collaborationist French State took hold, a second amateur troupe bearing the same name began to take shape. These “Théophiliens” were necessarily caught up in the double jeu, the double jeopardy of life under the Vichy regime. Whatever theatrical action they chose brought the political paradox to a breaking point: Was their French medieval playing, finally, Republican or not? They began acting for the general public, and during 1943–44 they did so under the auspices of Pétain’s French State. Even when the Vichy regime was violently falling apart, they were asked to perform for the Minister of Public Instruction, Abel Bonnard. By 1945, in the ruins of a liberated France, they were still performing, but they were acting in a very different political framework, once again before a cathedral, this time Chartres sandbagged against German and Allied bombing. De Gaulle’s provisional government did not miss the opportunity to call on them to represent their cause. Within several years, officials sent out the third postwar cohort to perform, in the name of a renewed nation, in occupied Germany and Latin America. All this play—straight through the demise of the Third Republic—epitomizes the entire range of political, religious, and aesthetic paradoxes that medieval revival animated. Théophilien acting gives us a clear case for gauging how young people reckoned with them in the battle over Republican values.

The Théophilien case is remarkable as well because it introduces various players who emerged, during the late forties and early fifties, as notable innovators. Paul Zumthor, poet and scholar, Jacques Chailley, composer, and Roland Barthes, public intellectual, were all members of the 1930s group, as well as Marcel Schneider, the novelist. The 1940s cohort included Roland Dubillard, dramatist and radioman, Alain Resnais, the filmmaker, René Clermont, the director, Paul-Louis Mignon, the theater critic; and the postwar one, Robert Enrico, the filmmaker, and Maurice Pons, the novelist and anti–Algerian War activist. Placing them and their work in this group highlights what an important crucible this medieval theatrical revival proved to be for these generations, and their first creative efforts to respond to a world in disarray.

To grapple with the full force of reviving medieval stories and characters, I have chosen to analyze the acting of this group. More than their texts—original manuscripts or latter-day adaptations—it specifies the dynamic ways young actors implemented what they imagined of the Middle Ages. It leads us to examine the methods put into practice, as well as a dimension much more difficult to grasp but no less crucial to consider—one that had a bearing on actors’ lives.

Psychosocial role-playing offers a powerful tool for analyzing how the long-refined methods of creating dramatis personae also serve as modes of development. In Jacob Moreno’s conception, roles enable people to envisage unfamiliar behaviors and put them to the test. The more frequently the role rehearsed, the more viable and comfortable new ways of behaving become. Such play shapes how individuals and group act—to the point even of provoking significant change in them.

Today social psychologists acknowledge the Russian dramatist Nikolai Evreinov as one of the pioneers who recognized the theatrical conditions of human behavior. He did so in a surprising way that is linked with modern revivals of medieval theater. In Saint Petersburg around 1900, he began exploring the process of creating dramatis personae in daily life by researching and performing French works. Like Cohen working with student actors, Evreinov aimed to try out in live-action thirteenth-century mise-en-scène, starting with Rutebeuf’s Miracle of Théophile and Adam de la Halle’s Robin and Marion. It is unclear whether Evreinov was drawing on Cohen’s earliest work at the turn of the century, or indeed whether the two men knew of each other. But we do know that Evreinov created what he called his “Ancient Theater” as a laboratory for testing a version of psychosocial role-playing.

Through this experiment in acting, Evreinov discovered an innate sense that he deemed as powerful as seeing and hearing. “The instinct of theatricalization may be best described as the desire to imagine oneself differently,” he claimed, “it is one of the mainsprings of our existence, of that which we call progress, of change, evolution, and development in most every department of life.” Evreinov was juggling terms of a free-thinking Darwinian, and in his eccentric, innovative way, he recast the survival instinct—theatrically. His Homo theatralis was a resilient species, capable of devising new images and behaviors—if need be.

Of the many examples of theatrical men and women that he considered, Evreinov was drawn to the medieval. Such figures were emblematic for him because they appeared to stand at an early, key phase of European culture. Evreinov’s choice example embodied a kind of theatrical primitive: the medieval actor. Simple in his practices, even childlike, this figure epitomized the capacity of experimenting theatrically with different images to make his own. Psychologically speaking, he demonstrated the potential and benefits of trying out roles. The “Ancient Theater” confirmed for Evreinov the formative model of the medieval actor and his practice.

However rough-hewn the Russian’s conception of psychosocial role-playing seems to us today, both in terms of psychology and theater—medieval theater—at the time, it had something visionary about it. More than Johan Huizinga, with his Homo ludens (1938), Evreinov had understood the importance of the time-honored notion of theatricalizing life for psychosocial development. Through his fanciful daring, Evreinov deepened the inquiry into acting, attempting to account both for theatrical method and psychological function. The experimental result around 1910 was a notion of role-playing steeped in French medieval drama. Two decades later, when Evreinov had emigrated to Paris, his brief work with Gustave Cohen’s amateur troupe put it to the test again: What was its influence?

To investigate the Théophiliens with such a criterion enables us to explore the paradoxes of medieval revival in live action. It details how they were made and personified over the course of many performances, and in activities that extended beyond the stage. In the process, it probes what was a social dynamic of acting in the public sphere. It opens up something more than the process of adopting behaviors in order to meet a community’s expectations, as sociologist Erving Goffman and his followers have long contended. Psychosocial role-playing broaches a messier activity, one rooted in the axiom that the “person” in our European and American societies takes shape continuously through what amounts to a series of dramatis personae. As Marcel Mauss hypothesized it in the same year as the Théophiliens performed at Reims, the person is an actor who is constantly personifying, whose character evolves with each successive mask assumed.

Running through all the Théophilien acting, then, is the question: What did it mean for these young amateurs to act as group members as well as individually. When they began making their medieval personae, stretching them out like so many bodysuits that they would try on for size, role-playing often took them beyond the clear boundaries separating actor from his persona. Beyond Diderot’s famous paradox of the actor, they were also improvising who they saw themselves becoming, and who others would take them to be.

Although the Théophiliens chose to act anonymously, they left enough clues that raise the issue of role-playing and identity. Their accounts challenge us to examine how medieval role-playing sharpened the struggles over Republican and national identity during this momentous period of two world wars. Such role-playing also brought out the dilemmas of secular and religious identity for the Jewish and Christian members of the troupe. Far from antithetical to the modern world, it provided an imaginative structure informing their choices and actions. By pairing actor and persona, I bring us closer to understanding the degree to which imaginative people draw on such characters to nourish and sustain their own public lives.

My investigation takes the form of a narrative, and it unfolds through the life-story of a group and its two principal figures.

Gustave Cohen was their intellectual leader. Born in Belgium into an assimilated Jewish family with little or no religious culture, he riveted his ambitions on France as a young man. His father’s birthplace, and the dreamed-of destination of his German-born grandfather, France represented the bastion of universal values, for him as for thousands of others across Europe. Through his academic training, Cohen campaigned single-mindedly to enter the French education system. Service in the French Army during the Great War helped him finally to gain admittance. By 1919, he was teaching at the University of Strasbourg, which had been recaptured from the Germans, and was recognized as a prolific scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature. In 1932, he reached the summit of the French university system when he was appointed to the chair of medieval literature at the Sorbonne.

Cohen was also an activist committed to the theater, as well as to the new media of radio and cinema. He frequented artistic circles, especially the Cartel, the avant-garde circle of Parisian directors that dominated the stage between the wars. His devotion to the French language also pushed him to cultivate relations with luminaries as different ideologically as Maurice Barrès and Paul Valéry. His erudition and professional network combined to make Cohen a public figure, one who spoke authoritatively with the moderate Right, intervening in debates in the press, participating in government commissions, and building a huge circuit of correspondence, including Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. A man of considerable charm, he was respected as one of the rare professors who befriended students. He was proud of being a maître, a master surrounded by his disciples, as long as he remained in the limelight. His charisma drew flocks of young people to his lectures at the Sorbonne and a select happy few to his home around the corner. The Théophiliens were the proof of his energetic commitment to a French Republican esprit de corps. Cultivating this group was a lifelong accomplishment that proved as influential as any scholarly criticism on his curriculum vitae.

Moussa Abadi was a leading Théophilien actor. Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Syria, he was initiated early on into the ideology of freedom and fraternity coming from France. He thrived on the schooling under the French protectorate in the Middle East. As soon as chance and a scholarship permitted it, he left Damascus for Paris in 1932 never to return. Theater sparked a passion in him. So did the fight against fascism. Within months of his arrival, he was acting with Cohen’s group, demonstrating and writing in the Socialist press against the fascist threat to young people. Abadi’s playing attracted attention from his peers, as well as from directors and critics in drama circles. He was known increasingly too for his activism for the Popular Front. The Théophilien performance in Reims in 1938 gave him a chance to prove his two commitments simultaneously in public. When Nazi Germany invaded France, and threatened Abadi personally, he was reluctant to abandon either one of them. He chose to improvise a type of resistance that drew from his theatrical training and his experience playing medieval roles.

Each man, in turn, brings to the fore the paradoxes at the heart of the Théophilien revival.

For Cohen, no matter how well he “led” his students, he was confronted with the double jeopardy of “acting medieval” as the Third Republic was fought over violently. The more hateful the struggle between Socialists and fascists, and the more violent the anti-Semitic attacks, the more dangerous his position became: How did this intellectual of Jewish origin personify the battle to make the Middle Ages part of a secular modern French Republic? Cohen’s part in the Théophilien revival reveals the hard choices facing such a public figure, especially someone so invested in belonging to France. It is one, too, that makes us think of his contemporary and fellow medievalist Marc Bloch, who remained in Nazi-occupied France, who entered the Resistance and was shot to death by Vichy’s militia on 16 June 1944, a copy of fabliaux, saucy medieval tales, in his back pocket. Cohen’s part in this story asks us to reflect on the differences: his decision to seek exile in America, and to help found the major French institution abroad in New York City. With such a complex figure, provoking sharp judgment along with affection, it is important to weigh his part with an even hand.

For Abadi, no matter how committed he was to fighting for the Republic and staying his ground, he was subjected to years of persecution under Vichy. How could his theatrical experience serve him?

Once Abadi saw his adopted country defeated and in the hands of German occupiers, he left Paris, but he refused to leave France. Following Cohen, he made his way to the Unoccupied Zone of the country, to the resort town of Nice, where he met up briefly with his mentor. Over many eerie months, to keep going Abadi continued to play medieval roles. Then, under cover, he launched his principal activity: operating a clandestine network for hiding Jewish children, together with Dr. Odette Rosenstock, his companion and wife-to-be, with the help of Bishop Paul Rémond. When German troops and the Gestapo overran Nice on 8 September 1943, this team went into action against a particularly cruel campaign of deportation. Abadi’s unarmed work in the Jewish Resistance saved more than two hundred girls and boys from death.

Abadi’s part in the Théophilien story takes us to the limit of our inquiry: a religiously minded Jewish actor who used medieval roles to enact the secular, universal values of the French Republic at the very time when they had failed him. Of all the members of Cohen’s group, he took the greatest risks with what he had learned from their theatrical work, because he took action under pressure of arrest and deportation.

Both men challenge us to reckon with the most far-reaching consequences of such theatrical revival. In their different experiences, they were sensitive to a populist ethos of community-building that they characterized as medieval. Cohen and Abadi believed in a Middle Ages as an integral part of their secular, egalitarian, and modern Republic, and they acted accordingly. Whether this belief was finally tenable in the Third French Republic and sustainable in their lives suggests the ultimate paradox of the Théophilien revival.

Investigating this case of medieval revival required a method corresponding to the questions raised and the people involved—some of whom are still alive. Archives were a starting point. But discovery after unexpected discovery made clear that surviving official documentation offered only one type of material for analyzing the use of Théophilien acting.

The papers of Gustave Cohen were catalogued in the National French Archives, where he had deposited those covering the period 1914–38 in the spirit of public service. For those of his later life, the trail was less clear, stumping even his remaining relations. What is missing today may well turn up yet through further detective work or cleaning out family houses.

A “Théophilien” archive was in the process of being assembled at the French National Library, in the department dedicated to the dramatic arts. Around 1970, curator Marie-Françoise Christout, a Théophilien from the postwar generation, had begun collecting rehearsal notes, reviews, and photographs of the amateur group. In keeping with Auguste Rondel, one of the first patrons to champion amateur theater, she had created their collection alongside the prestigious ones of professionals, such as Jacques Copeau and Nikolai Evreinov. Over months working through archival boxes still to be catalogued, I recognized that what had begun as performances of medieval drama was thoroughly institutionalized. Cohen and several members of the group were intent on establishing the Théophilien name and their accomplishments. The process continues today with the last donations still coming in.

To ground all the activities of Cohen and the Théophiliens meant widening the investigation in France and elsewhere. There were signs of them in the massive Archival series of Education and Public Administration records for the sequence of governments in the thirties. At the University of Paris, Stephen Steele had discovered the Rector’s records of the group. Deep in the records of the Vichy regime, the dossiers of “Fighting France,” “Free France,” as well as in the scribbled notes of the provisional authorities in liberated Paris, I sought evidence of their work. In this country too, at the U.S. National Archives, Jeffrey Mehlman and Laurent Jeanpierre had trailblazed through the hundreds of reports done on foreign aliens during World War II; thanks to their sleuthing, I unearthed Cohen’s file from his years in exile, 1941–43, to discover that his activism proved of interest to the Office of Strategic Services—the precursor of the CIA.

In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Nikolai Evreinov left rich and colorful traces of his “Ancient Theater.” The collection at the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum brought his theory and practice of role-playing into focus. Across these vast fields from France through Russia and America, all this material helped to document the political and social implications of the Théophilien revival.

Yet to explain fully how Cohen and this group used medieval role-playing in French public life meant that I had to go further. The surviving members of the group were the principal ones who could detail their practice. Thanks to Christout’s encouragement, and her address book, I interviewed thirteen Théophiliens, from all three generations, as well as a few others who still preferred anonymity. This trail of interviews took me from Paris to Montreal and back again, and it lasted for more than a decade.

Through all these conversations over the years, I was struck by the Théophiliens’ passionate recall and was alert to the importance of approaching it advisedly. What they told me is bedeviled by problems that characterize all projects about this contested period, ones that continue to spark major debate. Memory is marked by pitfalls of all sorts, the natural consequence of age, and the deliberate censorious result of discretion, malaise. History is framed by the challenges of representing the choices people made at a time of vicious ideological polarization, as well as during years now called routinely in France “dark.” Add to that the peculiar phenomenon of the “reunion” that often generates more bursts of enthusiasm and misty-eyed nostalgia than specifics.

The test has been to balance judiciously what the actors said today, indeed what Cohen wrote retrospectively in his increasingly exaggerated style, with what remains accounted for in the existing record. In the few instances where that balancing was impossible, I have made the unverifiable element clear and have given the reader the choice to consider its import. Nowhere has that balance proved more challenging than in assessing the fundamental, ephemeral practice of medieval role-playing during wartime. The work of Moussa Abadi as actor and activist epitomized the value of role-playing, especially under cover, and the difficulty in gauging it accurately.

It had taken Abadi some fifty years, and the persistent entreaties of some of the “children” he saved, to speak about his actions in 1943–44. In 1995, with Odette Rosenstock Abadi, he gave a videotaped account of his work for the Jewish Resistance, a Holocaust testimony for the Association Témoignage pour Mémoire in Paris, and the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University.

When I wrote to Madame Odette Rosenstock Abadi in late June 1999, nearly two years after his death, she answered the next day by telephone, curious to hear any further details about her husband, the actor. She was in the process of putting their papers in order and ready to pass something of them on. In her apartment, chock-full of filing cabinets, she told me about how central theater was for him, how vital their work hiding the children. “For me, they had no connection. I had the impression of living them separately, like distinct phases,” she said. “But for him, they were parts that made up his whole life.” As I quickly transcribed some of the files that Madame Abadi had set out for me, I asked myself what could link his acting and his clandestine activism.

Several weeks later, when news of her death broke, I was shocked, and moved to undertake one final inquiry. The the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation (CDJC) in Paris, put me in contact with the “Abadi children.” Seven of them, each in a different way, provided some of the wherewithal to evaluate Abadi’s methods of role-playing with them in 1944 occupied Nice. Their accounts enrich Abadi’s own testimony as the ultimate, unlikely evidence of such role-playing in wartime France. If we must remain cautious about the accuracy of such memories and testimonies, they stand as a powerful version that makes their experiences intelligible and valuable.

Throughout my research, I kept returning to a phrase that held the force of a maxim: “la rage à faire vivant,” the passionate need to make something come alive. Roland Barthes coined the expression near the end of his life, in his discussion of the distinctiveness of theater in relation to photography. It seems fair to say that it is shot through with his own theatrical experience, starting with his acting side by side with the Théophiliens. This rage captures the force of revival for all those engaged by it. I have written with an eye to conveying the compelling vibrancy of the Théophilien actions because it is at odds with that of medieval revivals we observe today: the kitsch of touchy-feely re-creation in European villages, the fantasies in the line of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, the digital games. I have thought through reasons why it spoke to young people so powerfully, what exactly its role-playing enabled them to do. They were impassioned by a project of modernizing a past aesthetic, a prospect of giving a national tradition new life. Along the way, they were overtaken by an activity that helped them place themselves in their world at a time when they were implicated in increasingly venomous political discourse, assailed by growing violence in the streets of France. It ended up feeding contrary ideologies of community from socialist all the way to fascist that contributed to breaking up the group. With their future darkened by war, their medieval role-playing provided for them, imaginatively speaking, a livelihood—a means of living in their modern times. In a rare, singular instance, it especially offered help in playing for life.

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