The outstanding event of the festival of Avignon this year was "The Satin Slipper" by Paul Claudel -- the full text, with all its global scope, 10 hours of performance plus intermissions.
But a lot else went on before the curtain rang down Thursday on the Festival, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. The Come'die Franc aise presented three new short plays by Harold Pinter. President Franc ois Mitterrand dropped by incognito to see them, but the performance was rained out.
The president did not miss a great evening of theater. Former minister of culture Jack Lang, who often speaks as if he were still minister of culture, was spotted at a performance of a play by Tilly, the gloomy hypernaturalistic young playwright whose trademark is the unpleasant presence of food being consumed on stage, as in the plays of Sam Shepard.
In that respect "Yy'a Bon Bamboula" was not disappointing. David Warrilow, the Anglo-American two-time Obie winner, created an hour of high art in the austere Gothic chapel of the Pe'nitants Blancs using an abstruse text by Robert Pinget to create a full-fleshed character study of a confused and desperate aging writer.
There was a production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" that proved Eugene O'Neill can lose a lot in translation. There was a fascinating production of a previously unknown play by Va'clav Havel, "La Grande Roue," soon to be seen in New York. On a typical day there were 11 performances, three concerts, six films, two press conferences and eight art exhibits, not to mention the more than 200 unofficial productions.
The July 25 premiere was "Magnificat," choreographed by John Neumeier for the ballet company of the Paris Opera, plus an orchestra, two choruses and soloists. (The Martha Graham Dance Company was to come later.)
For night owls there was a long program of films -- many showings are at midnight -- including a Kenneth Anger retrospective, a von Stroheim retrospective and the new "King Lear" by Jean-Luc Godard.
And yet the festival as a whole has always been devoted primarily to theater. This, along with the sheer quantity of what is offered, is one of the things that makes it unique. It also accounts for the fact that it is not at all an international festival, unlike Edinburgh, which mixes theater with the other arts, or even other, music-oriented festivals in France, like Aix-en-Provence.
No, Avignon is resolutely French. Shakespeare is performed in French, as are O'Neill and Kleist and Schiller and Chekhov. The Berliner Ensemble and the Royal Shakespeare Company have yet to be invited to the city of the French exile of the popes. No one would want to change that: Why create yet another international showcase when there are so many already?
What was to become the festival began in 1947 when Jean Vilar persuaded some actors from Paris to put on "Richard II" in the imposing courtyard of the 14th-century Palace of the Popes, aided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who erected the first stage and stands.
Avignon was a long way from Paris in those days; now it is only 3 1/2 hours by the superfast TGV train. Over the years the festival has expanded to utilize another half-dozen of the medieval cloisters and chapels that embellish this charming walled city on the Rhone. But even that wealth of performing space does not now suffice.
So the Municipal Theater, a railway station and two other auditoriums are now used by the festival during the hectic month when the entire city is a performance space. That it operates at all is something of a miracle. But the programming is on a computer that works and the only real mishap this year was caused by unseasonable thunderstorms that closed everything down one night by cutting the current, wreaking havoc with the schedule as well as box office receipts.
The first years of the festival are now legendary, with memories of Ge'rard Philipe and Maria Casares directed by Jean Vilar. From 1968 there are other memories -- those of the Living Theater when Julian Beck and Judith Malina joined forces with the students and intellectuals who were contesting the Gaullist establishment.
There followed a decade when it was fashionable to decry the festival as "old hat," despite some exceptional events such as Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach." But things gradually turned around, and in recent years the former critics have been among those clamoring loudest for a special edge in obtaining tickets.
Alain Crombecque, director since 1985, has steered the festival onto a literary and poetic course, with Peter Brook's "Mahabharata" and productions of texts by authors like Nathalie Sarraute who are not usually considered theatrical. Alternative directions for any taste are provided by the wide spectrum of the "off" -- the unofficial productions.
Established and budding companies from all over France rent every available space, including movie theaters, converted garages and high school courtyards, to put on everything from comic skits, plays for children and dance recitals to adaptations of Melville, Ce'line and Camus, as well as the plays of Beckett, Genet and Marguerite Duras. This year there are even the Cambridge Mummers performing Shakespeare in a nightclub.
The "off" also provides much of the street theater that is a part of the Avignon scene. All afternoon and into the night on the Place de l'Horloge, troops of actors in full costume stroll along, handing out flyers for their shows. There are also jazz bands, acrobats, mimes who follow the unsuspecting backpackers imitating every step, and motorcyclists with a flock of chickens advertising an avant-garde circus in a tent on an island.
And if the noise and crowds become oppressive, you can always explore the streets lined with Florentine palaces or retreat to the superb museum facing the papal palace with its beautifully displayed collection of Italian primitives. Or you can flee from the city to Villeneuve just across the river for a nouvelle cuisine lunch in a quiet garden.
But even the tourists who come only to see the sights, or the theatergoers who came too late to get tickets to the "in" and fill their visit with the "off," know that the heart of the festival remains the courtyard of the Palace of the Popes, where it all started. There is always a crowd of the curious on the square outside when the recording of the trumpets sounds to hurry the spectators to their places.
In the past, the performances in "la cour" were not always the best the festival had to offer, despite the magic of the place. But this year's mammoth production of "The Satin Slipper," directed by Antoine Vitez, generated almost unanimous enthusiasm from what must be one of the most critical and carping audiences anywhere.
It was a literary as well as a theatrical event.
Paul Claudel, who was born in France in 1868, combined the career of diplomat with that of a poet, like many South American writers, and indeed there is a South American exuberance in "The Satin Slipper," with its mixture of the mundane and the miraculous. His posts took him to the Orient and the Americas; he was ambassador to Washington during the 1920s. He died in 1955 and is one of those writers -- like Kipling -- who go completely out of fashion for several decades after their deaths.
In Claudel's case he was neglected because of his declamatory style and dogmatic Roman Catholic mysticism, and also detested by many because of his reactionary political stance -- he had praised both Franco and Pe'tain. And yet his theater, with its verse style that, paradoxically, recalls the visionary Whitman, could never be completely ignored. W.H. Auden wrote, "God will pardon Paul Claudel, pardon him for writing well."
"The Satin Slipper" has, as its central theme, a passionate love affair that is never consummated because of the demands of duty and monogamy. Its lyrical reiteration of these painful emotions could not be more opposed to the hedonistic ethos of what has been called the "me generation." (It may, alas, be perfectly suited to the AIDS generation.) What keeps the banner afloat is a vision of intense sexuality -- or perhaps we should say love -- denied and yet sustained over decades that bring decadence and death.
But the play also reveals a vision of history and the place of the individual in the larger picture. There is a Shakespearian richness and scope to the work, with passages of low comedy and historical parody alternating with the high rhetoric.
As directed by Vitez, the performance had a vitality that carried the text along. Most of the 10-hour presentations here in Avignon were done in two nights, each five hours long. I was lucky enough to see an "Inte'grale," or full show, beginning at 9 in the evening with the twilight still in the sky. The huge courtyard, open to the stars, was a perfect setting for this romantic drama.
There were moments that seemed needlessly repetitious, but it was a unique experience to be there. After the long night and the slow dawn, 3,000 spectators gave a 20-minute standing ovation to the exhausted cast in the bright sunlight of 9 in the morning.
Alex Karmel is a free-lance writer.