Document Type


Date of Award



Historical drama, History and criticism, Paris (France), Paris Commune (1871)

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

George E. Wellwarth

Second Advisor

Allan S. Jackson

Third Advisor

Michael Jasenas


The present study is a comparative analysis of four dramas, all dealing with the same topic, namely the historical events known as the Paris Commune of 1871. Two of the plays were written in French, one in German and one in Norwegian. The first, Jules Vallès’ La Commune de Paris, is dated 1872; the other three are relatively recent works: Nordahl Grieg’s Nederlaget (1937), Bertolt Brecht’s Die Tage der Commune (1948-49) and Arthur Adamov’s Le Printemps 71 (1960). The latter three dramas are closely connected by reason of their respective mode and history of origin: Brecht used Grieg’s drama as the basis for his own version of the Commune, while Adamov in turn knew Brecht’s play and used some aspects of it in his dramatization. Only Vallès’ La Commune has remained an isolated work—forgotten for a long time—that remained unpublished for almost one hundred years.

This group of plays seems to offer a rather ideal subject for a study in comparative literature. It allows an investigation into such matters as literary relations and indebtedness of individual authors across the boundaries of national literatures, traditionally the concern of a positivistically oriented branch of comparative literature, which would illuminate especially the working methods of the writers in question and thus contribute to an analysis of the nature of literary creation. More important, however, at least to this writer, seems to be the opportunity afforded by these plays to undertake a study of a particular genre, namely of the historical drama. Since all four works deal with and try to present the same historical reality, a very brief and yet highly complex and much debated political phenomenon, a comparative study seems to offer fertile ground for an analysis of the relationship between history and literature, and specifically to research the conditions, limits, and possibilities of the genre “historical drama” in the framework of modern theatre. This emphasis on the representation of history in literature appears to be all the more interesting in the case of Brecht and Adamov, two major authors of dramatic literature in this century who represent quite opposing formal and ideological tendencies. Adamov, to be sure, changed from a position of avant-gardist writer of absurd drama to a Brechtian position of epic realism and open political commitment. This change—manifest in Le Printemps 71—will also be subject of the analysis.

A remark concerning literary criticism has to be made at this point. This study will not only discuss the plays and their relation to historical reality, but more specifically to a concrete concept of history, namely that of Marxism-Leninism. This approach is not an arbitrary choice that reflects my ideological preference; it is rather generated by the nature of the historical event itself as well as by the ideological content of the plays and the positions of their respective authors. With the exception of Vallès, who apparently had no systematic or comprehensive knowledge of the Marxist interpretation of history, all dramatists represented here consider themselves and are generally considered in literary history as “Marxist writers,” at least at the time of their writing their plays about the Commune.

Granted this premise, it seems only valid to judge the plays in terms of the ideological intentions of their authors, in other words to evaluate these intentions in the context of Marxist literature on the historical model and to ascertain the author’s accomplishment in view of their own ideological conviction. How exactly can this general principle be applied? Four criteria are suggested:

  1. Historical accuracy and completeness. Since exactness and comprehensiveness of the historical analysis are basic to any study of historical materialism, these points need to be considered in the dramatization of historical events.
  2. Political emphasis. The subject of this point includes the discussion of the political interpretation of the Commune, its essential lesson and meaning in the context of Marxist interpretation of the Commune.
  3. Historical tendency. By this I mean the analysis of the Commune within the context of historical development, i.e., the place of the revolution of 1871 in the international working class movement and its relevance to future events. This point would also need to incorporate an analysis of the author’s own politico-historical situation of the time of the writing of the plays.
  4. Dramatic technique and its correlation to the ideological content. This item will focus on the formal aspects of the plays and the matter of dramatic genre, again with reference to the underlying ideological basis of the literary works.

Obviously, these points do not constitute absolute criteria of literary evaluation but are rather closely connected to the needs of this particular study. I am aware that, from a point of view of literary criticism, such a focus on ideological content offers ample ground for controversy. Yet, the subject matter of this study clearly involves history, ideology as well as dramatic art and there seems thus little point in applying critical procedures that would exclude the consideration of such extra-literary issues as political emphasis or historical accuracy. Furthermore, the comparison of the ideological content in the four plays constitutes one of the most interesting and intriguing aspects of the topic of this study, at least to this writer: there are four plays, three of them written by Marxist authors, each dealing with a historical period central to Marxist thought, and yet each play is strikingly different. To explain the reasons for this diversity within a matter of seeming ideological agreement is one of the primary objectives of the present critical investigation.

The material of the study is ordered chronologically. After two introductory chapters dealing with the historical background of the subject matter and the literary and historical relations between the different plays, the dramas will be discussed and interpreted individually. Chapters 3 to 6 offer essentially close readings of the texts together with an analysis of historical and literary sources, and a comparison of the works in terms of the historical reality they try to portray in accordance with the criteria outlined above. The method of comparison is cumulative and concurrent, i.e., play 1 will be compared to play 2, plays 1 and 2 to play 3, and so on. An attempt has been made to keep repetitions, which cannot be avoided altogether in a study of this kind, to a minimum.