Paris Commune

Last Friday I saw the first musical to be performed at Reed in 15 years: Paris Commune. This musical promised to be different from other Reed theater productions because of its genre, but what was unexpected was the show’s relevance to the political and social events on campus this semester.

The show was created in 2012 by a New York City based ensemble called The Civilians, and is a little over an hour and thirty minutes with no intermission. The play focuses on the revolutionary events of the year 1871, when citizens in Paris rose up against their oppressive French government and declared themselves independent. Directed by Elliot Leffler, this was only the second time the show has been produced. Auditions for the show began in the second week of school. Overall, eight cast members were chosen.

I saw the show on Friday, November 11. Immediately after it was performed, three students took the stage to participate in a talk-back with the community. I was unfortunately unable to stay for the talk-back, however I spoke to students about it afterwards. One recurring theme I noticed from what the students who attended the talk back relayed to me was that the majority of the people asking questions were older white men from the greater Portland community. Many of the questions asked were relatively off topic or clearly outside the area of expertise of the three students leading the talk-back. Since I didn’t go to the talk-back, it’s hard for me to judge this. What I will say, however, is that Portland community members seemed uncomfortable with discussing the issues of racism and inequality at Reed.

This musical feels so important right now, especially, because in watching it, I could—dare I say—relate to the characters. I don’t understand how it feels to be bombed by my own government. I have no idea what it would have felt like to be a member of the French working class. However, these working class people living in Paris in 1871 felt that they were being oppressed and in trying to make a change, they received mixed messages from their own government and even international Marxist groups claiming to support their independence. The musical states at one point that a large reason why the Paris Commune failed was because the people in Paris lost the support they’d been promised by these groups who had written so much about this idealized notion of the people taking control of their own communities, yet did not contribute or support the city where this kind of revolution actually happened. I think this idea resonates with a lot of Reedies right now; it certainly resonated with me. Faculty and staff have attended protests and offered students in their classes supporting words. Various emails have been sent out from deans and the president containing heartfelt concern and support. Then, shortly after these seemingly supportive emails come emails threatening honor casing students peacefully protesting. These mixed messages are especially harmful because they leave so little room for discourse. Responses to protests have been so varied that it’s difficult to keep up with the constantly changing atmosphere.

Watching this show only days after Trump was elected president felt also strangely like a form of rebellion in itself. Seeing fellow students stand onstage and talk about tyrannical governments and ways of fighting systematic oppression emboldened me to want to run into the streets myself. As I sat in my seat, hundreds of Portlanders gathered to protest our own new government. History and cycles and whatnot. The realness of this musical and the relevance of the Paris Commune’s situation in 1871 to things happening at Reed today, was difficult to watch.

The play ends on a somber note. One of the final songs is sung by the seamstress, a key character in the initial overthrow of French government control in Paris. She criss-crosses the stage singing, begging for help finding her missing husband. The audience knows her husband has been shot. Many of the citizens have died as the French army encloses and infiltrates the city, as their barricades and fighters fall one by one, Paris is swiftly taken back under French control only months after the citizens revolted. The surviving rebels are tried and most found guilty, sent into exile. Yet there is hope in the play. Though the Paris Commune failed, there are characters in the play who adamantly believe that someday, somewhere, a revolution will set the people free. Progress, these characters state, is real and slow, but someday it will make a noticeable difference.