The astounding death of Ludwig II of Bavaria is very well-known, and the enigma it presents and the innumerable texts attempting to resolve it. It seemed to me, rereading some of these texts, that it would be interesting and auspicious for the great work of the theater, to invent an historical news flash of that order and then to write a play to reveal its secret.
Reading these books on the king’s death plunged me back in the atmosphere of that family who, unable to create masterpieces, wished to be them, and even if they ended as awfully as could be, as they must.
I had to invent the story, the place, the characters, the leading figures which could distract and satisfy the taste for recognizing the public prefers to knowing, doubtless because it requires less outlay of attention.
The fine study by Remy de Gourmont in the Literary Portraits gave me the style of my queen. She should have the easy pride, the grace, the fire, the courage, the elegance, the sense of destiny, of the empress Elizabeth of Austria. I borrowed one or two phrases that are attributed to her.
The true misfortune of these princes, superior to their task, is they are rather ideas than beings. Besides it often happens that another idea kills them. I thought then of presenting two ideas in confrontation and the necessity they find themselves in to take on flesh. An anarchistically-minded queen, a regally-minded anarchist, if the crime waits, if they talk, if it’s not the knife in the back on the pier at Lake Geneva, our queen will not take long to become a woman, not long will our anarchist be in becoming a man. They betray their causes to make one of them. They become a star-configuration, or better still a meteor which flames a second and disappears.
For some time I have sought to know the causes of a certain degeneracy of the drama, of a failure of the active theater in favor of a theater of talk and decoration. I found them in cinematography, which on the one hand causes the public to see heroes played by young artists, on the other accustoms these young artists to speak softly and move as little as possible. This brought about that the very foundations of theatrical conventions have been shaken, the great players have disappeared who with their mannerisms, their voices, their masklike faces of old animals, their mighty lungs, their own legends, formed the indispensable relief against the sloping boards and long footlights which devour nearly everything. The old Orestes, the old Hermiones have gone out of fashion, more’s the pity, and lacking caryatids to bear them up, the great roles have also disappeared. We have instead substituted, without even being aware of it, for their speech talking and production values. Talking and decoration have thus acquired a position the Sarah Bernhardts, the de Maxes, the Réjanes, the Mounet-Sullys, the Lucien Guitrys never dreamed of. On the boards where these ancestors evolved, the décor took care of itself and never spoke louder than they did.
That is why I so much admired the Richard III of the Old Vic Theater in which, from the way the women walked to Laurence Olivier’s manner of dragging his foot and putting his hair up, everything was a discovery, the backdrops looked like old backdrops, the costumes old costumes, the actors conventional actors, although they were not at all and the merest detail had been invented to show off the genius of an actor who kept his relief from one end to the other, without flattening the acting of his comrades.
The appearance of the tragicomedian is the real novelty of the theater of our time. By enlarging to extremes the bounds of comedy he joins again without ridicule the sublime grimaces the cinema has deprived us, Mr. Jean Marais gave us its premiere example in Les Parents terribles. in which he decided on an acting style free of taste, in short living, shouting, suffering, moving the same way he believed his illustrious predecessors did.
One other example of this undertaking was the Britannicus in which he invented an unforgettable Nero.
Without Edwige Feuillere, worthy of the greatest roles, without Marais, who has proved himself, I could never have dared to stage this mechanism exhausting for modem actors.
P.S. —I should add that a great role has nothing to do with a play. Writing plays that have great roles is one of Racine’s feats. The ladies Sarah Bernhardt and Réjane, gentlemen de Max and Mounet-Sully won fame by a multitude of mediocre plays in which great roles were only pretexts for showing off their genius. To marry these two strengths—the humane play and the great role—is this not the way to save theater and return its efficacity to it?
The undertaking is dangerous. It is true that the true public stays away from a too-intellectual theater. But a weighty elite fallen from the habit of violent action, lulled by phrases, may take this trumpetcall reveille quite badly and mistake it for melodrama.
No matter. It must exist.
P.P.S. —I emphasize the psychology more or less heraldic of the characters no more is psychology properly speaking than fabulous animals (Lion carrying its banner. Unicorn seeing itself in a mirror) look like real ones.