Alfred Jarry on his bicycle
In his essay 'Of the Futility of the 'Theatrical' in the Theatre' (1896) Alfred Jarry offered 'a few words on natural decors, which exist without duplication if one tries to stage a play in the open air, on the slope of a hill, near a river, which is excellent for carrying the voice, especially when there is no awning, even though the sound may be weakened. Hills are all that is necessary, with a few trees for shade ... Three or four years ago Monsieur Lugné-Poë and some friends staged La Gardienne at Presles, on the edge of the Isle-Adam forest. In these days of universal cycling it would not be absurd to make use of summer Sundays in the countryside to stage a few very short performances (say from two to five o'clock in the afternoon) of literature which is not too abstract.'
Photograph of Maurice Pottecher's Théâtre du Peuple at Bussang in 1895
Jarry seems more interested in the idea of making theatre accessible to people than he is in the artistic possibilities of staging drama in real landscapes. As Arnold Aronson notes in The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography, an open-air Theatre of the People had in fact recently been established by Maurice Pottecher, with a stage backing onto a hillside. Discussing a performance there in 1896 the editor of the Mercure de France expressed a wish that 'some audacious young director - M. Lugné-Poë, for example - would take the opportunity to present plays in the parks around Paris.' However, that year M. Lugné-Poë was busy inciting a riot with the first performance of Jarry's Ubu Roi...
Aurélien-François Lugné-Poë was the director of the Théâtre de l'Œuvre, which had opened in 1893 with Maeterlink's Pelléas and Mélisande. The following year he staged Henri de Régnier's La Gardienne, the play Jarry mentions in the context of outdoor theatre. Régnier's words were recited from the orchestra pit whilst the actors moved silently on stage, partly hidden by a green gauze veil. The backdrop was a Symbolist landscape of blue trees with a purple palace, painted by Édouard Vuillard. According to the critic Jules Lemaître it was like 'a Puvis de Chavannes fresco imitated by the unsteady hand of a colour-blind baby.' All this did not go down well with audiences, who were particularly baffled by the lack of synchronisation between speech and actions. It is easy to imagine Régnier's poetry casting more of a spell under the trees of a real forest.