Tell them that the Truth is beautiful
In the autumn of 2012 the Théâtre Liberté presented an exhibition and a series of plays and lectures on the topic of “1962/2012: the War of Algeria, fifty years later”.
One of the plays on this topic was by a visiting theater troupe called La Compagnie des Camerluches. (The word camerluches meant comrades in nineteenth century argot.) The play was called Dis-leur que la verité est belle (Tell them that the Truth is beautiful). It was written and directed by Jacques Hadjaje, who also was one of the seven actors.
When I went in to buy my ticket no one else was waiting, so the charming young lady at the ticket counter had time to chat and tell me a bit about the play. (We also found out that we had both seen Carmen on the same evening at the Toulon opera house.)
She told me the play was about a Jewish family in Algeria that had to move to France at the end of the war in 1962, because the Jews of Algeria by decree were all French citizens. The action of the play takes place partly in Algiers and partly in Créteil, a suburb of Paris, between 1955 and today, with a lot of shifting back and forth between times and places. The play has eleven characters played by only seven actors, for instance the same actress plays Albert’s daughter and his older sister – so I was forewarned about that, but I still didn’t realize until about halfway through the play that when she was wearing the red jacket she was the daughter.
When it was time for the play to begin, the 703 red plush seats of the Salle Albert Camus were nearly all taken. The back half of the auditorium was occupied by several hundred young people and the front half by adults of various ages, including some folks of my generation who most likely had experienced the War of Algeria at first hand, either as soldiers or as refugees.
The play begins with a monologue by Albert, the protagonist, standing at his mother’s grave. First he tells her to be quiet, since now it is his turn to speak. This seems unnecessary, since she is dead, but evidently she was quite dominant while she was still alive. There is a video of this monologue on vimeo.com.
What surprised me about both halves of the audience was the extreme amount of coughing that was going on – the kind of coughing that people do when they feel uncomfortable or don’t understand what is happening. (We used to get that kind of coughing in opera houses sometimes, before they started using surtitles.) Apparently the War of Algeria is still a very touchy topic in the South of France, even fifty years later.
It could also be that I was not the only one who got confused sometimes about when and where a particular scene was playing. When I had finally figured out who Albert’s daughter was, I still didn’t realize that father and daughter hardly knew each other, since she had grown up in America with her mother. It turned out that in most of the present-day scenes, Albert and Cécile were just starting to get acquainted with each other in Créteil while clearing out the apartment of his mother, her grandmother, who had just died.
Cécile has trouble understanding why her father and most of his relatives are still so traumatized about being exiled from Algeria, even after half a century. Her father is an artist or cartoonist, and at one point she tells him he should learn to draw shoes, because all the people in his drawings have their feet in the sand, even in the kitchen. “You’ve never left Algeria, Albert.”
He wants her to call him papa, but she declines because they hardly know each other and because none of her friends call their fathers papa.
The title of the play comes from a story that an Algerian girl told Albert when he was a child. In this story a prince (“He resembles you a little bit, Albert”) falls in love with a beautiful peasant girl. Before they get married, she wants him to prove his love for her by finding the Truth. So he spends many years searching for the Truth. Sometimes people say they used to know her (the Truth is feminine in French) and suggest looking in this or that direction. When he finally finds her, the Truth turns out to be an extremely ugly, filthy and smelly old woman living in a cave. But she knows everything about him, so she is definitely the Truth. Before he leaves the cave to return to his fiancée, the Truth has one request: “Tell her that the Truth is beautiful.”
(In the story it’s “Tell her . . .” but in the title of the play it’s “Tell them . . .” – either way, the Truth is not above asking someone to tell a lie.)
Albert, as a child, asks if the story is true.
“Did you like the story, Albert?”
“Then what more do you want?”
The next day in Marseille I went to the big fnac store in the Centre Bourse shopping mall and asked if they had a copy of the play. They didn’t, but offered to order it for me. Since I was returning to Germany on Monday, I said I would order it online when I got home.
When the book finally came, it turned out they had sent me an earlier version of the text, not the final version that I saw in Toulon. Some of the scenes I remembered were missing from the text, but it was still good enough to clear up most of my confusion. I wish I could see the play again, now that I have read it.
Second photo: People entering the theater to see the play.
Third photo: Entrance to the large auditorium Salle Albert Camus.
Fourth and fifth photos: The seven actors taking their bows at the end of the play. The lady in the red jacket is Anne O’Dolan, a bilingual actress who performs in New York and in Paris and “has participated in all the adventures of the Compagnie des Camerluches.” Between gigs she earns her living by dubbing foreign films into French. She wore this red jacket while playing Albert’s bilingual daughter and was dressed differently while playing his older sister, who was eleven years old in the first Algiers scene and later became a Zionist and moved to Israel.
Next: Harbor tour
- Theater Travel
The opera house
Unlike the Marseille Opera, which faces north and thus is nearly always in the shade, the Toulon Opera aka Théâtre Municipal faces south and looks glorious when the sun is shining on its nicely renovated façade.
The Toulon Opera was built in nineteen months and was inaugurated on October 12, 1862 – thirteen years before the inauguration of the Garnier Opera in Paris, as local patriots are fond of pointing out.
Originally the Toulon Opera had seats for 1797 spectators, but now it only seats 1350. This is a typical development for older theaters and opera houses, since people are larger in the twenty-first century than they were in the nineteenth, and need more leg room.
Old postcard views of the Toulon Opera on carthalia.
Second photo: People in the sun in front of the opera house.
Third photo: The old-timey opera box office with a tiny window. You can still buy tickets here, but it is more convenient to book them online at www.operadetoulon.fr/.
Fourth photo: The east side of the opera house, on rue Molière. The street was named after the French dramatist Molière (1622-1673).
Fifth photo: Children and young people on the steps of the opera house, waiting to go in for a performance of Carmen, by Georges Bizet (1838-1575).
Next: The ceiling of the opera house
- Theater Travel
The ceiling of the opera house
If you don’t mind getting a stiff neck, have a good look at the ceiling of the Toulon opera house. The painting up there is fifteen meters in diameter and portrays 123 “personages”, which I presume includes angels, demons, busts and statues in addition to people. The artist, Louis Duveau (1818-1867), painted all this on a large canvas which was later mounted on the ceiling.
On my photo, in the lower right-hand corner, you might be able to make out the bust of the dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) surrounded by some of the characters from his plays such as Cleopatra, Le Cid (better known in Spanish as El Cid), Oedipus and Antigone.
On Corneille’s left is the bust of another dramatist, Jean Racine (1639-1699). He is also accompanied by some characters from his plays, such as Nero (presumably the fat man in the red toga), Athalie and Esther.
Above Racine’s head is an angel with a trumpet, a figure from ancient Greek and Roman mythology called Pheme or Fama who represented fame and reputation but also rumor and gossip.
In the lower right-hand corner of the photo is a bust of a composer who was immensely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but has since been more or less forgotten, namely André-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813). Grétry composed about fifty operas, mainly comic operas, none of which I have ever seen or heard. When I went to the Grétry museum in his home town of Liège, Belgium, I was the only visitor. The man in charge was evidently bored just sitting around waiting for someone to come, so when I arrived he was delighted and told me thousands of things about Grétry and the museum and the neighborhood where he grew up. (Later I also visited a Grétry exhibition in the French town of Montmorency, which is where Grétry died in 1813.)
Mozart is hardly recognizable on the right edge of the photo, but he is also accompanied by some of the characters from his operas, such as Don Giovanni, the statue of the Commendatore and Donna Elvira.
Other figures on the ceiling (not clearly visible in my photo) include Shakespeare with Othello, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet and Julius Caesar; Goethe with Faust, Mephisto and Marguerite; Beaumarchais with Figaro, Susanne, Almaviva and Cherubino; and Molière with Tartuffe, Norine and several other figures from his plays.
Second photo: Balconies and gallery of the Toulon Opera.
Third photo: Looking down from the top row of the gallery.
Fourth photo: Balconies and lights.
Fifth photo: The Administrative Tribunal of Toulon as seen at night from the terrace of the opera house.
Next: Carmen by Georges Bizet
- Arts and Culture
- Theater Travel
This “Gate of Italy” was not on our walking tour, but I went and saw it the next morning on my bicycle.
The gate and the adjoining walls were designed by (three guesses) Vauban, and constructed starting in 1678 as part of a system of fortifications to protect the city and the harbor.
Fourth photo: Inside the tunnel of the gate you can find this plaque, which reads: “The 24th of March 1796 under this arch rode the General Bonaparte on his way to take command of the glorious Army of Italy. 1969 Bicentenary of Napoleon.”
Next: The multimodal interchange hub, aka train station
- Historical Travel
Carmen by Georges Bizet
According to operabase.com, Bizet’s Carmen is the third most often produced opera worldwide, after Verdi’s La traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème. (Operabase tabulated the number of productions, not the number of performances, over a five-year period.)
The opera houses in Marseille and Toulon both opened their 2012/2013 seasons with Carmen, so I was able to see this opera twice within three days in two different productions.
The Carmen I saw in Toulon was quite traditional, with old-timey Andalusian costumes and folklore. I’m sure this was fine for the many children and young people in the audience, who had probably never seen it before. It was fine for me, too, though I am glad that stage directors in Germany are more ambitious.
The stage set was not only traditional, it was generic. I later learned from an interview with the orchestra conductor, Giuliano Carella, that the Toulon Opera had bought this stage set several years ago for a very low price, and that the same set has so far been used for three different productions by three different stage directors.
Second photo: Tatiana Lisnic as Michaëla. She was the one singer I had seen (and met) before, since she used to sing in Frankfurt am Main sometimes.
Third photo: Varduhi Abrahamyan as Carmen.
Fourth photo: Program booklet for Bizet’s Carmen at the Toulon Opera.
Fifth photo: Bizet’s opera Carmen is based on the novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870).
In Paris I once saw an adapted version of Carmen called La Carmencita, which had been re-written for nine singers, one actor and fifteen musicians.
Next: Place de la Liberté
- Theater Travel
Place de la Liberté
This square in Toulon is a good place to ruminate on the ambiguities of the concept of Liberté, especially since Toulon in former times was best known not as a place of liberty but as the site of a brutal prison colony, the Bagne.
The second act of Bizet’s opera Carmen ends with a rousing celebration of “la chose enivrante: la liberté! la liberté!” – sung first by Carman and then by the entire chorus before the curtain falls. (Here Bizet was following Mozart’s advice by placing a stirring finale just before the intermission.)
Actually Carmen was not extolling any kind of political liberty, but the liberty to roam the mountains of Andalusia with a band of smugglers. But no matter, this chorus will still keep running through your head long after you have left the opera house. In case you missed it in Toulon, there are numerous versions on YouTube, like this one with Maria Ewing as Carmen and Luis Lima as Don José, conducted by Zubin Mehta at Covent Garden in London in 1991.
This square in Toulon was originally called Place d’Armes (Square of Weapons) but was re-named Place de la Liberté in 1889 in honor of the centennial of the French Revolution.
Second and third photos: The large sculpture on the north side of the square is the Fountain of the Federation, which was inaugurated in 1890. It includes three large sculpted figures representing France, Force and Justice. (But not Liberty.)
Fourth photo: Bollards to keep cars out of the square.
Next: Grand Hôtel
The dominant building on north side of the Place de la Liberté, behind the Fountain of the Federation, is the Grand Hôtel, built in 1868-1869.
In the long run, the Grand Hôtel was too grand to be just a hotel. During the Second World War it was requisitioned by the occupying Germans, who used it as their military headquarters. It has also been used at various times as an apartment building and a French Navy headquarters. The building has recently been renovated and is now used at least partly as an office building.
On the ground floor at the left an important new institution was opened in September 2011, the Théâtre Liberté (see my next two tips).
Third photo: Also on the ground floor, on the right, there is an interesting bookshop, the Librairie Gaia, “a traditional bookshop that is good for browsing”. This bookshop was founded in 1960, so it is well over half a century old. The name Gaia comes from ancient Greek mythology, where Gaia was the personification of the Earth. Today there are numerous organizations called Gaia, all dealing with environmental or spiritual concerns. The European Space Agency is planning a mission called Gaia, to make a detailed map of the Milky Way galaxy.
Next: Théâtre Liberté
In 2001, after the city elections that removed the right-wing Front National from power in Toulon, the new mayor began working with the mayors of eleven nearby towns to form a cooperative regional entity called Toulon Provence Méditerranée (TPM) which is now responsible for culture, sports, tourism and other development projects in Toulon and vicinity.
In 2008 the TPM decided to establish a new theater in the center of Toulon. The Théâtre Liberté under the direction of the brothers Charles and Philippe Berling is intended to develop and present a theatrical program “centered on the Mediterranean”, not just on French national culture.
The new theater was inaugurated on September 17 and 18, 2011 – with fireworks, which can still be seen on YouTube. The theater is on the ground floor of the newly renovated Grand Hôtel on the north side of the Place de la Liberté. The modern theater complex includes the Albert Camus hall with 703 comfortable red plush seats, the Fanny Ardant hall with 130 seats and for film showings the Daniel Toscan du Plantier hall with 146 seats.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a famous French author who grew up in Algeria. Fanny Ardant is a French actress, born in 1949, who grew up in Monaco. Daniel Toscan du Plantier (1941-2003) was a French film producer.
The Théâtre Liberté does its own productions but also shows productions by numerous visiting theater troupes.
In its first season, 2011-2012, the Théâtre Liberté presented 49 productions that were seen by more than 36,650 spectators. The theater has 2,753 subscribers and sold 86 % of the tickets on offer.
Second photo: Young people outside the theater.
Third photo: Entrance hall of Théâtre Liberté.
Fourth photo: Season program book for 2012/2013.
Next: Tell them that the Truth is beautiful
- Theater Travel
Several companies offer boat tours of the harbor and the military port. The one I chose (for no particular reason) was called Bateliers de la Côte d’Azur. The tour was excellent, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who understands French. (I didn’t notice any harbor tours being offered in other languages.)
The price in 2012 was ten Euros for a one-hour tour.
Since the tour goes counter-clockwise around the harbor (that’s anti-clockwise to you British folks), you should try to get a seat on the starboard side of the boat (that’s the right-hand side to us landlubbers).
Second photo: This is the boat that I went on for my harbor tour, the Cap au Sud.
Third photo: The inner harbor.
Fourth photo: Pleasure boats in front of a big SNCM ferry. SNCM stands for La Société Nationale Maritime Corse Méditerranée. This company runs regular services for passengers, vehicles and freight to Corsica, Sardinia, Tunisia and Algeria.
Fifth photo: When our guide on the harbor tour pointed out a large tugboat called the Abeille Flandre, everyone on the tour knew exactly what he was talking about. Everyone except me, that is, since I am not a regular viewer of French television. It turns out that the Abeille Flandre is a rescue tug that was based for many years in Brest, on the Atlantic coast, where it (sorry, she) was involved is some spectacular rescue operations. For people like me who have missed all the television coverage, there are numerous clips about the Abeille Flandre on YouTube and on Dailymotion. Since 2005 the Abeille Flandre has been stationed in Toulon. A newer and more powerful rescue tug, the Abeille Bourbon, is now on duty in Brest.
Next: The military port
On the civilian side of the harbor I learned from our guide’s commentary what a Ro-Ro ship is.
Ro-Ro means “roll on, roll off”, sort of like a car ferry, but bigger. Trucks or anything with wheels can be driven on (so the freight does not have to be loaded by a crane) and driven off at its destination.
This particular ship is called the “UND Atılım” and belongs to a Turkish company called U.N Ro-Ro İşletmeleri A.Ş., which provides two sailings per week between Toulon and Ambarlı, Turkey. The sailing time, according to their website, is 72 hours. The truck drivers, for whatever reason, do not ride on the ship but “are transferred to Marseilles by Pegasus Airlines and then transferred to Toulon Port by shuttles.”
The UND Atilim was built for U.N Ro-Ro in 2001 by a German company, the Flensburger Schiffbau Gesellschaft (FSG).
Fourth photo: After seeing so many perfect-looking ships, it was almost a relief to go past a section of the harbor where a few damaged ships are moored, awaiting repair or recycling. The rusty ship in the photo has been there for several years, evidently, because no one has quite decided what to do with it.
Fifth photo: The harbor is also used by recreational boats, such as this sailboat.
Next: Vauban was here
The military port
For about half of our harbor tour we went past the military port, which is the Mediterranean headquarters of the French Navy. The actual military port is off limits to civilian ships, so we stayed just outside the boundary markers. Our guide knew everything about the ships down to the last detail and reeled off facts about them without the slightest hesitation. Of course I did not retain all this information, but I found it impressive to listen to someone who was obviously an expert in his field.
One piece of information that I did retain was why these twenty-first century warships look so different from the ones we used to see just a few decades ago. These new ships consist mainly of smooth surfaces without any irregularities or portholes, to make them practically invisible to radar.
Vauban was here
The great military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), visited Toulon four times between 1679 and 1700 to fortify the city and develop an arsenal to support the ambitious naval policy of King Louis XIV.
On our harbor tour we had a look at some of the old fortifications, which are now obsolete but were important in earlier centuries to protect the entrance to the port.
Fourth and fifth photos: Views from the tour boat.
Next: Tour Royale
- Historical Travel
This Royal Tower was built from 1514 to 1524. It was the first fort to be built to protect the harbor at Toulon.
Vauban did not arrive on the scene until 155 years later. When he inspected the Tour Royale he praised it highly (in contrast to his scathing criticism of the Château d’If near Marseille), but suggested further improvements.
For many years the Tour Royale and its surroundings belonged to the French Ministry of Defense and were not open to the public.
Fourth photo: This sign is entitled “Toulon reclaims its coastline.” The sign contrasts the situation in 2005 with the state of this area today. In 2005 this was still a military site that was closed off with walls and barbed wire. Now it is a public park with a hiking path along the coast and access to two beaches that were previously closed off.
Fifth photo: There is now a clearly marked bicycle lane leading to the Tour Royale from the city center of Toulon.
Next: Musée de la Marine
- Castles and Palaces
- Historical Travel
Musée National de la Marine
This large aerial photograph in the Naval Museum gives an overview of Toulon harbor today.
The museum documents the military port of Toulon from the earliest times to the present, including the role of the French Navy in the Second World War. There is an exhibit showing how nearly all the warships of the French Navy were blown up in Toulon harbor in November 1942 to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Germans.
Second photo: In the museum.
Third photo: Large-scale models of sailing ships.
Fourth photo: A battle scene in the exhibit on Napoléon.
Fifth photo: The original wood carving of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, from the prow of the full-size ship sculpture at Place Vatel. That outdoor sculpture now has a copy of this carving on its prow. When Neptune was angry he created huge storms and sometimes even demanded a human sacrifice, as in Mozart’s opera Idomeneo.
Next: The Arsenal of Vauban
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
The Arsenal of Vauban
In addition to the fortifications, Vauban also designed the arsenal at Toulon, including a rope-making factory that was housed in a very long building (shown as a model in the museum), to produce the vast quantities of ropes that were needed for the large sailing ships of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The building still exists today, but it is now used for offices since modern ships do not have any great need for ropes.
Second photo: Quotation from Vauban from the year 1679, in which he calls the harbor of Toulon is “the most beautiful and the most excellent of the Mediterranean Sea”.
Third photo: Exhibit on the arsenal of Vauban, which began operations in 1692.
Fourth photo: A bust of Vauban that was carved from wood in the nineteenth century, long after his death.
Fifth photo: Museum text on Vauban, saying that during his career he constructed or rearranged more than three hundred fortresses and directed more than fifty sieges. He was named a lieutenant-general in 1688 and received the prestigious title of Marshal of France on January 14, 1703.
Next: The Prison Colony
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