Wednesday, November 15, 2017


In 1916 Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The prize was actually awarded for 1915. It was in recognition of Rolland’s epic ten volume novel Jean Christopher. This was before he wrote his monumental anti-war play in 1919 titled Liluli. Rolland was accomplished in both literature and music. He also had a passion for freedom, Shakespeare and history. He believed “history is compelled to maintain the tie between all the thoughts of the human spirit.” All of these interests come together in Liluli.

His early work as a dramatist commenced in 1895, but he continually divided his literary works between novels and plays. In 1903 his book Le Théatre du people (The People’s Theatre) studies past attempts in France of establishing a theatre for the masses and features Rolland’s suggestions towards pioneering a new theatre for the people. He was active in working with others to create his vision of a people’s theatre, but it never developed as he envisioned.

When World War One commenced, Rolland was in Switzerland. He appealed to major writers in Germany and Belgium to denounce war and appealed to all intellectuals to unite against this invasion.  His efforts made him unpopular in France, but they added to his reputation in neutral countries.  His writings after this time consistently pleaded for the freedom and dignity of the human spirit.
In 1918-19 when Rolland wrote the satire Liluli, he divided the world of the play into two ridiculous and anarchistic societies which have little hope of achieving peace. There is a quotation in the preface of the published version of the play attributed to Colas Brugnon (also spelled Breugnon), a character from Rolland’s 1914 novel titled Colas Brugnon.  Many critics believe the idea in the quotation helps to illuminate the meaning of the piece: “Laughter does not prevent me from suffering; but to suffer will never prevent a real Frenchman from laughing.  And whether he laugh or shed tears—first of all he’s got to see!”  What I think Rolland wanted the reader to see in this drama was nationalism and its impact on civilization.

Rolland gives a detailed description of the setting for Liluli that establishes an environment
for discord: 

          A smiling plateau, grass-grown and shady, on a slope of a mountain 
          that overlooks, to the right, a vast landscape of plain.       
          The stage is divided in two, from back to front, by a narrow ravine, 
          spanned by a rickety foot-bridge.   
          In the foreground road, which, after having followed the footlights
          for a little to the right, winds inward toward the ravine, mounts again
          to the left, and only reappears at a terraced bend above the stage before
          it finally vanishes.

This description continues to detail two more roads and how they intersect with the rest of the scenic elements. He further desires “Big rocks overhang the stage on the left and at the back.” It is a mammoth setting that helps to create the spectacle.

Rolland states that time and place are fanciful, therefore, the “dresses” should be equally fantastic. It is a huge cast of characters from many different historic periods. “Every figure should wear the costume of the epoch which best corresponds with his character—but freely interpreted, so that the whole may produce a gay and brilliant harmony.”

The script is not divided into formal segments but there are two distinct parts.  Liluli, the mischievous goddess of Illusion, who is a fair-haired, slim girl with a musical voice, “the sound of which has the power to stir the soul,” leads a crowd of Gallipoulets (French) from the valley below in a continuous procession on the right side of the stage up to the plateau.  These people are fleeing a flood and they believe they are headed to a promised land.  Liluli is mocked by Polichinello, the French name for Punch—originally a 17th century Commedia dell’arte character.  He interviews passing characters as well as advising some and ridiculing others. He is the only character in the play who holds his own in discourse with Liluli.

Liluli & Polichinello

Soon it is discovered that another crowd, the Hurluberloches (Germans) are arriving from the left side of the stage. Their former homes were also destroyed and they are seeking a better situation. These two groups are urged to build a bridge across the ravine together. The second segment of the drama commences when the two groups are encouraged by diplomats, intellectuals and warring goddesses to fight over the completed bridge.  The final result is the total collapse of all traces of civilization into a huge mound and the only survivor is Liluli.
The Battle

Liluli Sits On Top Of The Mound

This is not a play that could easily be produced. R.A. Francis mentions in his book Romain Rolland: “It strains at the limits of theatrical art and has been little performed, though in 1923 it was staged with a combination of actors and Chinese shadows (puppets) designed by the Belgian engraver Frans Masereel, who became one of Rolland’s friends.” I have not found any other references to the production Francis cites.

The play was produced at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.  It was presented on June 10, 1939 in the outdoor theatre on the campus. It was a student production and it ran for two performances. There is a review of the production by a student reporter in Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XXIII, No 55, 14 June 1939.

Liluli was published in France by Le Sablier during 1919. The English translation was published in New York by Boni & Liveright, 1920.  This is the version of the play that I read.  This publication is unique since it contains thirty-two wood engravings by Frans Masereel (1889-1972). Liluli was widely distributed in English since the second edition was released within three months after the initial one. 

Liluli is definitely a play worth reading. Theatre Arts, volume 3-4, 1919 in its review of the script states: “Liluli is so far the one outstanding satire of its time.” 

       R.A. Francis. Romain Rolland. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

Photo of Romain Rolland from

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