Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Appendix III

The "Triomphe de Saint Thomas" at the Theatre

The best ideas are born by chance. One realizes afterwards that they were the terminus where many secret concatenations logically had to converge.

Ghéon and I were conversing at Meudon one day last September. The Dominicans of Liége and the Catholic students at the University had asked him to do a liturgical play for the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a miracle play of the Blessed Sacrament, for example. What subject should he choose? But why not, instead of a particular event, Saint Thomas himself? Not his life and his history, but his thought, his mission, his Triumph, after the manner of those paintings by Andrea da Firenze in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and by Francesco Traini in Saint Catherine's of Pisa? And Ghéon, in a flash, put together the plan of his trilogy: the Vocation, with the conflict of the false Virtues, and the accord of the true; the drama of Knowledge: Heraclitus and Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Averroës, then the composing of the Summa, and the ecstasy of the last days; finally, the Church's lament, and, before the final glorification of the saint, the marching past of the philosophical monsters presented to modern Man by the Devil, University professor. . . -- A foolhardy enterprise, was it not, in which the futility of the didactic genre was to be joined to the futility of allegory, and which could be directed only at the sparsest academy or college public?

Six months later, on March 6th last, I attended at Liége the first performance of Triomphe de Saint Thomas d'Aquin, "composed for the stage, as in days of old, in prose interspersed with verse." More than two thousand people were in attendance, among them, no doubt, few readers of the Summa. Everyone in the hall, with one accord, followed passionately the ideological adventures that were unfolding upon the stage. And at what moments did the audience burst out in applause? At the moment when, Averroës duly convicted of error, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas embrace each other, and again at the moment when, at the instigation of Common Sense, Friar Thomas with a Sign of the Cross makes fall the mass of False Faith and False Reason, and when these two demons take to flight . . .

In this astonishing play, published in the issues of La Vie spirituelle, ascétique et mystique between the Échelle de la Perfection of the Carthusian Guiges du Chastel and the Soliloque enflammé of Gerlac Peters, and which seems to bring together all the species of paradox, the reader marvels that so exact a scholastic compendium should be disclosed to us in such a pleasing language, and that the strict rigor of the doctrine served the poet so well. Theological, hieratic, its lyricism does not weaken, but takes on a more sonorous density.

Moi l'Épouse, moi l'Église
De la couronne promise
Pour le jour au jugement,
Rien ne fera que je doute,
Qui déjà pend à la voûte
Obscure du firmament.

Mais le Bien-Aimé qui veille
Sur les fruits de la corbeille
Que je Lui dois présenter
Quand, debout sur les nuages,
Il viendra comme l'orage
Déchirant le sombre été,

Est digne d'une louange
Plus nombreuse que les Anges
Qui croisent dans les hauteurs,
El d'un don plus magnifique
Que la chaine de cantiques
Dont le ceignent les Neut Choeurs:

Un peuple à sa ressemblance
Qui, d'entre mes bras, s'élance
Au terme fixé par Lui. . .

But what only the actual performance itself enables one to appreciate is the extraordinary quality of scenic action of this intellectual drama, as also the admirable plastic, decorative, and musical unity it is able to sustain (the students of Liége had had only a month to put on the play, and yet they gave us a spectacle of magnificent completeness). And there is also the grandeur and variety of the traditions it evokes. The sacred origins of the theatre were rejoined; Greek primitive drama met with Christian liturgical drama and mediaeval allegory -- and this without the least material imitation in the means (which are akin rather to the realism of our classical theatre), but from within, and because a spirit had been rediscovered. Hence the intensity of the religious emotion which, during the greater part of the performance, held the people in a state of peaceful contemplation. Then, in the middle of the third part, comes the satirical drama, the exhibiting of false Truths, treated with drastic -- and not unjustified -- simplifications, which persons accustomed to a passionate veneration of modern Thought will deplore, but which Ghéon has taken care to impute to the devil professor and stage-manager. There is universal Doubt with its egg-shaped head, Pure Reason and its sister Practical Reason, huge Cubist females, all the isms of our masters, even Modernism as a worldly cleric -- terrifying buffoonery, akin at one and the same time to Aristophanes, the revue, and the film.

"Extremes affect me," says André Gide. And me too, though perhaps in a different way. To bring together in a superior and perfectly natural unity extreme archaism and extreme modernness, the highest lyricism and the most familiar tone, the comical and the sacred, theological teaching and dramatic movement, is not only a proof of Henri Ghéon's rare mastery, a result and a confirmation of his conception of a catholic theatre-that is to say, universal, and in which all of the human is reconciled; it is also, for a whole category of human pursuits, in my opinion a very important sign.

Through this remarkable scholastic draft, we see what an entire intellectualization of drama -- imposed in this case by the subject matter itself -- can produce: and without departing from drama, but by being theatre more than ever. It is this that removes such a work as far from the "Philosophical Dramas" of Renan as from the mournful Tentation de saint Antoine. Shaping a matter that has the solidity of the things of the spirit, Ghéon, thanks to Intelligence and to Ideas, which, incarnate, are made the very springs of action, has achieved, together with a complete eradication of anecdote, an utmost purification of means, rendered at the same time more intense and incomparably more ample.

I have great admiration for Les Trois Miracles de Sainte Cécile and for Le Pauvre sous l'Escalier, so moving and so pure. Nevertheless I think that it is perhaps through the humility of his patronage plays, of his "jeux et miracles pour le peuple fidèle," that Henri Ghéon, by breaking with the theatre of our day and rediscovering the first conditions of a theatre genuine from the very start, assures dramatic art the most favorable chances of renewal. But the Triomphe de Saint Thomas is of such a quality that one must attribute to it from this point of view a particular significance. It represents a success of greatest importance in that quest for synthesis in the theatre, in that restoration through candidness and simplicity, of which Jean Cocteau's Antigone and Roméo are, to my mind, other victories.[171]

Speaking of minds of classical formation, Cocteau, in a note in his study on Picasso, wrote: "I consider it a misfortune that they can live in ignorance of our masters and look upon Picasso, no doubt, as a barbarian. . . . At least, let these foster-brothers see in my eulogy of our times that the worship of a ruin conceals from them the inimitable sound of the impact of intelligence against beauty."

These misunderstandings, which I, too, deplore, will not last for ever. Of all the paths along which contemporary art is engaged, one is directed towards the purity of creative intelligence. It is along this path that the promise of salvation lies: beset by death, a child of genius proved this to us by a masterpiece.[172] Those who advance along this road, in sometimes very different retinues, will indeed recognize each other in the end.


Appendix IV Apropos an Article by Montgomery Belgion