Avignon Festival History

The Avignon Festival is France’s oldest existing and most famous, founded in 1947 by Jean Vilar.

Jean Vilar was invited to present one of his productions – Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, that had already won acclaim in Paris – at the same time as a modern painting exhibition in the Palais des Papes (the Popes’ Palace), organised by art critic and collector, Christian Zervos, and by the poet, René Char.

Used to working on a small stage, Vilar initially refused the offer because he felt the Cour d’Honneur in the Popes’ Palace was too vast, and “shapeless”. Instead, he suggested putting on three other plays as new productions – Shakespeare’s Richard II, one of the Bard’s plays that was little known at the time in France; Paul Claudel’s Tobie et Sara, and Maurice Clavel’s second play, La Terrasse de Midi (The Midday Terrace). The very first Avignon Festival in September 1947 set the scene as a showcase for unknown work and modern scripts.

There are three distinct stages in the evolution of the Avignon Festival.

1947-1953 JeanVilar : For 17 years, the Festival reflected the work of one man, one team, one location and thus was the embodiment of one spirit. Jean Vilar’s aim was to attract a young audience, a captivated and fresh audience, through a type of theatre that was different from what could be seen in Paris at that time. He wanted to “renew theatre and collective forms of art by providing a more open space (…) to give a breath of fresh air to an art form that’s stifling in waiting rooms, in cellars, in salons; to reconcile architecture with dramatic poetry.

Jean Vilar developed an attachment to the troup of actors who performed every July before a growing and devoted audience. Gérard Philippe – already a well-known screen actor by that time – became the festival symbol after playing title roles in Corneille’s Le Cid and Kleist’s Prince de Hombourg. The theatre was given a new lease of life thanks to the work of directors sent by the state on missions to places then considered as cultural deserts. The Avignon Festival had become not only a rendez-vous for these stage pionniers, but also the cultural event of the summer in France.

Many associations, youth movements, work councils and secular friendship groups were approached. Thousands of young people descended on the city, sleeping in camp-sites, in guesthouses; schools were opened to offer them accommodation. The Urban Vth Orchard became a venue for debates, meetings and readings. Thirteen countries took part in the first International Youth Encounters organised by CEMEA (Centre d’Entraînement aux Méthodes d’Education Active) and by the CEAI (Centre d’Echange Artistiques Internationaux).

The administration and the troup set up in Paris presented memorable performances of Lorenzaccio, Dom Juan, Le Mariage de Figaro, Murder in the Catherdral, Les Caprices de Marianne, Mother Courage and La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas Lieu.

And every summer, at the Palais des Papes, a cultural ritual, a sort of “communion” takes place.