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.
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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).Review:
“Solterer’s book on theatricality and revivalism is an outstanding and original study of twentieth-century revivals of medieval French drama. She offers a major contribution to our understanding of the history of medievalism and the history of the production of knowledge. She reveals surprising relationships between the revival of medieval theater and important theoretical, ideological, and cultural movements in twentieth-century theater and dramatic theory, linking these to significant trends in contemporary culture. Solterer’s research gathers a wide range of topics and figures that are seldom considered together, using them to show how particular phenomena, such as a theatrical production or a critical publication, respond to profound beliefs about social class, national identity, and the relation of past to present.”
—Nancy Freeman Regalado, New York University
“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.”
—Dorothy Kaufmann, Clark University
“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.”
—Nancy Freeman Regalado, New York University
“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.”
—Alice Kaplan, Yale University
“Interviews along with numerous illustrations make this a work of exceptional interest to a broad audience.”
—C. B. Kerr, Choice
“[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.”
—Elizabeth Emery, H-France
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