Far-Right Activists Try to Shut Down Theater Production in Paris

This story has yet to gain much traction in the English language press, aside from a write up in the Guardian (see here for an English language report from French national radio), but right now Paris is playing host to ongoing tête-à-tête between far-right religious fundamentalists and legendary Italian theater director Romeo Castellucci. Since October 20, Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville has presented Castellucci’s latest work, Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio (On the Concept of the Face of God). The show has been touring for a while now, and has already played both Avignon and the Barbican in London this year. The work focuses on a man caring for his dying father, and most commentators have obsessed on the father’s incontinence, which permeates the work (quite literally, the show smells like shit), leaving the son to clean up a shit-smeared floor in front of a projection of a painting of Christ with a inscrutable look on his face.

This use of Christian imagery has enraged far-right religious groups, including members of L’Action Francaise and French Renewal, who, having failed to halt the production via legal injunction on anti-religious discrimination grounds on October 18, proceeded to disrupt the opening night performance. As le Monde‘s theater blog noted in a post from October 21 (translation mine with some help from Google):

A group of young Christian fundamentalists hostile to the show launched stink bombs [in the lobby] and tried to block the entrance to the theater with shouting and smoke. The police were at the entrance, filtering each person who entered the theater, and the curtain was delayed by 45 minutes.

At 9:15, the strangely moving scene between father and son finally began, and the smell of excrement came to cover the stink bombs. But after fifteen minutes, a half-dozen young activists broke off the stands, rushing on stage to interrupt the show. “Enough Christianophobia!” proclaimed their banner.

But what began as a protest has since turned into a full on struggle for artistic expression, as the groups have sought, night after night, to prevent audiences entering the theater and to disrupt the performances. The beleaguered theater is planning legal action against the groups to seek damages, and, in classic French fashion, has published an open letter defending freedom of expression signed by numerous intellectuals (see below for the English version, here for the French and list of signatories), which states, in part:

That these violent individuals and organized groups claim themselves from the Christian faith is their business, that they obey to religious and political movements requires investigation. For us, in any case, these behaviours are clear manifestations of fanaticism, that enemy of enlightenment and freedom against which, in glorious times, France has so successfully fought. Theatre has also very often had a decisive part in these struggles.

But the last performances (the run ends on October 30) promise to be similarly acrimonious. Castellucci himself, in an ironic twist, has issued a statement that, referencing Christ’s own words, reads in part: “I forgive them for they know not what they do … I forgive them because they are ignorant and their ignorance is much more arrogant and damaging because it involves faith.” (see here for the French; translation via the Guardian.)

Members of the same or associated groups gained some notoriety earlier this year when they assailed for the upteenth million time Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a copy of which was destroyed by four men following mass protests initiated by Civitas, a conservative Catholic organization, and supported by members of the main French neo-fascist party the National Front.

The irony in both cases is that the art under assault, while not traditionally religious by any means, is not expressly anti-religious, and in fact has spiritual and religious dimensions. As Lane Czaplinski, the artistic director of Seattle’s On the Boards, who has previously presented Castellucci’s work, noted via email: “Not that the protesters in France have any real clue–they’re clearly morons–but Romeo is one of the few artists I know of whose work could be seen to have implications on the divine. Whereas many live performances have seemingly little to do with life as we know it, Romeo’s spectacles cut to the bone and address subjects and states of being with a profundity that could be compared to how religion deals with a similar scope. In a way, the protests only attest to his rare ability.”

Update: According to an article on the website of RFI, French national radio, 20 of the protesters were arrested at the theater last night.

Update 2: Le Monde, the French equivalent of the Times or the Guardian, has an article on the group behind the attacks, “Renouveau français” (RF), or “French Renewal,” roughly, in English. The group behind the assault on Serrano’s work in April, the RF also has a history of anti-gay activism, with actions “against homosexual manifestations, ‘kiss-in’ (kissing in public) and Gay Pride, which they call an ‘anthropological aberration.’ Some of its activists have also been implicated in a racist attack in the 2nd Arrondissement of Paris, in early 2011.” The RF has received vocal support from the likes of Bruno Gollnisch, a National Front politician and convicted Holocaust denier.

Likewise, the group has been supported by and associated with a schismatic ultra-conservative priest, Xavier Beauvais, of Paris’s Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet. “Father Beauvais is not a moderate,” according to le Monde. “It was reported that in May 2009, during a memorial service in his church of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, that he appealed to the figure of the leader of the Belgian far-right, Leon Degrelle, who sided with the Nazis during World War II. In this sermon, addressed to an audience of right-wing radical militants, against the backdrop of stylized Celtic cross above the altar, Father Beauvais did not hesitate to call [Degrelle] a ‘martyr.'”


Xavier Beauvais is a figure of the Civitas Institute, which brings together Catholic traditionalists and fundamentalists close to the extreme right, and who presents itself as “a movement whose goal is the restoration of the social kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The RF willingly plays the role of “shock group” for the Civitas Institute, which it joined in the demonstrations, taking on the most extreme actions and not disdaining violence. The Civitas Institute has called for a national demonstration in Paris, Saturday, Oct. 29, against the “Christianophobia”.

This event should bring the whole Nationalist Catholic family. RF of course will be present, along with the rest of the French anti-Semitic and Pétainist groups. After the play of Romeo Castellucci, the movement has another show in in its sights in Paris: Golgota Picnic by Rodrigo Garcia, on view from December 8 at the Theatre du Rond-Point.

Update 3 (Sat., Oct. 29): The protests against Castellucci’s play have reached an apex (hopefully) today. Following a rally of approximately 2,000 far-right activists in Paris today, some 300 people march on the Théâtre de la Ville, among them the schismatic priest Xavier Beauvais of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, a church that has literally been occupied illegally by ultra-conservatives for three decades, and Alexandre Gabriac, a former organizer for the neo-fascist National Front (FN) party who was booted after photos of him emerged making Nazi salutes. Representatives of a conservative Islamist group, Forsane Alizza, who lent there support. (Via le Monde)
Open letter from the Théâtre de la Ville:

Since 20 October, date of the Paris opening of “On the concept of the face of the son of God”, by Romeo Castellucci, the performances have been critically affected.

An organized group of individuals characterized as Christian fundamentalists, partly claiming to be members of Action Française, have attempted to prevent access to Théâtre de la Ville by blocking the doors, assaulting and threatening the audience, by pouring motor oil, using tear gas and stink balls, while their accomplices having bought tickets, interrupted the performance by occupying the stage and by deploying a streamer bearing the words: “No more Christianophobia”.

They had previously sought by way of justice the banning of the show, a request which was denied on October 18, 2011.

The police must therefore intervene each day at the entrance of the theatre, and we have been compelled on two occasions to summon them indoors to clear those who occupied the stage, the whole thing being handled smoothly, our main concern being to avoid clashes between the invaders and the audience outraged by such actions.

The theatre staff has been deeply committed and effective in these difficult circumstances, and despite the many incidents and interruptions resulting in delays, the performances, so far, have occurred.

That these violent individuals and organized groups claim themselves from the Christian faith is their business, that they obey to religious and political movements requires investigation. For us, in any case, these behaviours are clear manifestations of fanaticism, that enemy of enlightenment and freedom against which, in glorious times, France has so successfully fought. Theatre has also very often had a decisive part in these struggles.

Things cannot remain as they are. Such acts are very serious, and are taking a new, clearly fascistic turn. These groups of individuals also rush to automatically call blasphemous, works which are not directed against believers, or against Christianity. Romeo Castellucci’s intentions as an artist are clearly stated in the house program handed out to the audience.

We do not therefore intend to give in to these heinous threats, and this show will be performed until the end of its season on October 30. We invite the audience to attend, hopefully unhindered.

It is interesting to remark that the work has been presented without any problem in Germany, in Belgium, in Norway, the Netherlands, in Greece, in Switzerland, in Poland and in Italy, and that it is in France that manifestations of intolerance take place.

We are therefore creating a Support Committee open to all people of good will – and this expression is here welcome – to defend – even beyond the work of Romeo Castellucci in Théâtre de la Ville – freedom of expression, freedom of the artists and freedom of thought, against this revival of fanaticism….

Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and Théâtre de la Ville
October 24, 2011

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