Romain Rolland

Romain Rolland
Romain Rolland
Born 29 January 1866(1866-01-29)
Clamecy, Nièvre
Died 30 December 1944(1944-12-30) (aged 78)
Occupation Dramatist, Essayist, Art historian, Novelist
Nationality French
Period 1902–1944
Notable award(s) Nobel Prize in Literature

Romain Rolland (29 January 1866 – 30 December 1944) was a French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915.[1]



Rolland was born in Clamecy, Nièvre to a family that had both wealthy townspeople and farmers in its lineage. Writing introspectively in his Voyage intérieur (1942), he sees himself as a representative of an "antique species". He would cast these ancestors in Colas Breugnon (1919).

Accepted to the École normale supérieure in 1886, he first studied philosophy, but his independence of spirit led him to abandon that so as not to submit to the dominant ideology. He received his degree in history in 1889 and spent two years in Rome, where his encounter with Malwida von Meysenbug–who had been a friend of Nietzsche and of Wagner–and his discovery of Italian masterpieces were decisive for the development of his thought. When he returned to France in 1895, he received his doctoral degree with his thesis The origins of modern lyric theatre and his doctoral dissertation, A History of Opera in Europe before Lully and Scarlatti.

His first book was published in 1902, when he was 36 years old. Through his advocacy for a 'people's theatre', he made a significant contribution towards the democratization of the theatre. As a humanist, he embraced the work of the philosophers of India ("Conversations with Rabindranath Tagore" and Mohandas Gandhi). Rolland was strongly influenced by the Vedanta philosophy of India, primarily through the works of Swami Vivekananda.[2]

People's theatre

Rolland's most significant contribution to the theatre lies in his advocacy for a "popular theatre" in his essay The People's Theatre (Le Théâtre du peuple, 1902).[3] "There is only one necessary condition for the emergence of a new theatre", he wrote, "that the stage and auditorium should be open to the masses, should be able to contain a people and the actions of a people".[4] The book was not published until 1913, but most of its contents had appeared in the Revue d'Art Dramatique between 1900 and 1903. Rolland attempted to put his theory into practice with his melodramatic dramas about the French Revolution, Danton (1900) and The Fourteenth of July (1902), but it was his ideas that formed a major reference point for subsequent practitioners.[3]

"The people have been gradually conquered by the bourgeois class, penetrated by their thoughts and now want only to resemble them. If you long for a people's art, begin by creating a people!"
Romain Rolland, Le Théâtre du peuple (1903).[5]

The essay is part of a more general movement around the turn of that century towards the democratization of the theatre. The Revue had held a competition and tried to organize a "World Congress on People's Theatre", and a number of People's Theatres had opened across Europe, including the Freie Volksbühne movement ('Free People's Theatre') in Germany and Maurice Pottecher's Théâtre du Peuple in France. Rolland was a disciple of Pottecher and dedicated The People's Theatre to him.

Rolland's approach is more aggressive, though, than Pottecher's poetic vision of theatre as a substitute 'social religion' bringing unity to the nation. Rolland indictes the bourgeoisie for its appropriation of the theatre, causing it to slide into decadence, and the deleterious effects of its ideological dominance. In proposing a suitable repertoire for his people's theatre, Rolland rejects classical drama in the belief that it is either too difficult or too static to be of interest to the masses. Drawing on the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he proposes instead "an epic historical theatre of 'joy, force and intelligence' which will remind the people of its revolutionary heritage and revitalize the forces working for a new society" (in the words of Bradby and McCormick, quoting Rolland).[6] Rolland believed that the people would be improved by seeing heroic images of their past. Rousseau's influence may be detected in Rolland's conception of theatre-as-festivity, an emphasis that reveals a fundamental anti-theatrical prejudice: "Theatre supposes lives that are poor and agitated, a people searching in dreams for a refuge from thought. If we were happier and freer we should not feel hungry for theatre. [...] A people that is happy and free has need of festivities more than of theatres; it will always see in itself the finest spectacle."[7]

Programme sheet for Piscator's 1922 production of Rolland's drama The Time Will Come (1903), at the Central-Theater in Berlin.

Rolland's dramas have been staged by some of the most influential theatre directors of the twentieth century, including Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator.[8] Piscator directed the world première of Rolland's pacifist drama The Time Will Come (Le Temps viendra, written in 1903) at Berlin's Central-Theater, which opened on 17 November 1922 with music by K Pringsheim and scenic design by O Schmalhausen and M Meier.[9] The play addresses the connections between imperialism and capitalism, the treatment of enemy civilians, and the use of concentration camps, all of which are dramatised via an episode in the Boer War.[10] Piscator described his treatment of the play as "thoroughly naturalistic", whereby he sought "to achieve the greatest possible realism in acting and decor."[11] Despite the play's overly-rhetorical style, the production was reviewed positively.[10]


Rolland's most famous novel is the 10-volume roman-fleuve Jean-Christophe (1903–1912), which brings "together his interests and ideals in the story of a German musical genius who makes France his second home and becomes a vehicle for Rolland's views on music, social matters and understanding between nations".[12] His other novels are Colas Breugnon (1919), Clérambault (1920), Pierre et Luce (1920) and his second roman-fleuve, the 7-volume L'âme enchantée (1922–1933).

Academic career

He became a history teacher at Lycée Henri IV, then at the Lycée Louis le Grand, and member of the École française de Rome, then a professor of the History of Music at the Sorbonne, and History Professor at the École Normale Supérieure.

A demanding, yet timid, young man, he did not like teaching. He was not indifferent to youth: Jean-Christophe, Olivier and their friends, the heroes of his novels, are young people. But with real-life persons, youths as well as adults, Rolland maintained only a distant relationship. He was first and foremost a writer. Assured that literature would provide him with a modest income, he resigned from the university in 1912.

Rolland with Gandhi in Switzerland, 1931.
The two were friends and regular correspondents.

Romain Rolland was a lifelong pacifist. He protested against the first World War in Au-dessus de la Mêlée (1915), Above the Battle (Chicago, 1916). In 1924, his book on Gandhi contributed to the Indian nonviolent leader's reputation and the two men met in 1931.

In 1928 he and Hungarian scholar, philosopher and natural living experimenter Edmund Bordeaux Szekely founded the International Biogenic Society to promote and expand on their ideas of the integration of mind, body and spirit.

He moved to Villeneuve, on the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) to devote himself to writing. His life was interrupted by health problems, and by travels to art exhibitions. His voyage to Moscow (1935), on the invitation of Maxim Gorky, was an opportunity to meet Joseph Stalin, whom he considered the greatest man of his time.[citation needed] Rolland served unofficially as ambassador of French artists to the Soviet Union. However, as a pacifist, he was uncomfortable with Stalin’s brutal repression of the opposition. He attempted to discuss his concerns with Stalin, and was involved in the campaign for the release of the Left Opposition activist/writer Victor Serge and wrote to Stalin begging clemency for Nikolai Bukharin. During Serge’s imprisonment (1933–1936), Rolland had agreed to handle the publications of Serge’s writings in France, despite their political disagreements.

In 1937, he came back to live in Vézelay, which, in 1940, was occupied by the Germans. During the occupation, he isolated himself in complete solitude.

Never stopping his work, in 1940, he finished his memoirs. He also placed the finishing touches on his musical research on the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. Shortly before his death, he wrote Péguy (1944), in which he examines religion and socialism through the context of his memories. He died on 30 December 1944 in Vézelay.

In 1921, his close friend, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, wrote his biography: The Man and His Works. Zweig profoundly admired Rolland, of whom he once said to be: "the moral consciousness of Europe" during the years of turmoil and War in Europe.

Herman Hesse dedicated Siddhartha to Romain Rolland "my dear friend".

Correspondence with Freud

1923 saw the beginning of a correspondence between the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and Rolland, who found that the admiration that he showed for Freud was reciprocated in equal measures (Freud proclaiming in a letter to him: "That I have been allowed to exchange a greeting with you will remain a happy memory to the end of my days.").[13] This correspondence introduced Freud to the concept of the "oceanic feeling" that Rolland had developed through his study of Eastern mysticism. Freud opened his next book Civilization and its Discontents (1929) with a debate on the nature of this feeling, which he mentioned had been noted to him by an anonymous "friend". This friend was Rolland. Rolland would remain a major influence on Freud's work, continuing their correspondence right up to Freud's death in 1939.[14]


  • "To one whose mind is free, there is something even more intolerable in the suffering of animals than in the sufferings of humans. For with the latter, it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the person who causes it is a criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of remorse. If any person were to refer to it, they would be thought ridiculous. And that is the unpardonable crime. That alone is the justification of all that humans may suffer. It cries vengeance upon all the human race. If God exists and tolerates it, it cries vengeance upon God." Jean Christophe.
  • "If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India....For more than 30 centuries, the tree of vision, with all its thousand branches and their millions of twigs, has sprung from this torrid land, the burning womb of the Gods. It renews itself tirelessly showing no signs of decay." [15] Life of Ramakrishna.
  • "The true Vedantic spirit does not start out with a system of preconceived ideas. It possesses absolute liberty and unrivalled courage among religions with regard to the facts to be observed and the diverse hypotheses it has laid down for their coordination. Never having been hampered by a priestly order, each man has been entirely free to search wherever he pleased for the spiritual explanation of the spectacle of the universe.",[16] Life of Vivekananda.
  • "There are some dead who are more alive than the living." "No, no! It would be more true to say that there are some who are more dead than the dead." "Maybe. In any case there are old things which are still young." "Then if they are still young we can find them for ourselves.... But I don't believe it. What has been good once never is good again." Jean Christophe.[17]
  • "All these young millionaires were anarchists, of course: when a man possesses everything it is the supreme luxury for him to deny society: for in that way he can evade his responsibilities." Jean Christophe.[18]


Year Work Notes
1888 Amour d'enfants  
1891 Les Baglioni Unpublished during his lifetime.
1891 Empédocle
Unpublished during his lifetime.
1891 Orsino Unpublished during his lifetime.
1892 Le Dernier Procès de Louis Berquin
(The Last Trial of Louis Berquin)
1895 Les Origines du théâtre lyrique moderne
(The origins of modern lyric theatre)
Academic treatise, which won a prize from the Académie Française
1895 Histoire de l'opéra avant Lully et Scarlatti
(A History of Opera in Europe before Lully and Scarlatti)
Dissertation for his doctorate in Letters
1895 Cur ars picturae apud Italos XVI saeculi deciderit Latin-language thesis on the decline in Italian oil painting in the course of the sixteenth century
1897 Saint-Louis  
1897 Aërt Historical/philosophical drama
1898 Les Loups
(The Wolves)
Historical/philosophical drama
1899 Le Triomphe de la raison
(The Triumph of Reason)
Historical/philosophical drama
1899 Georges Danton Historical/philosophical drama
1900 Le Poison idéaliste  
1901 Les Fêtes de Beethoven à Mayence  
1902 Le Quatorze Juillet
(July 14–Bastille Day)
Historical/philosophical drama
1902 François-Millet  
1903 Vie de Beethoven
(Life of Beethoven)
1903 Le temps viendra
(The Time Will Come)
1903 Le Théâtre du peuple
(The People's Theatre)
Seminal essay in the democratization of theatre.
1904 La Montespan Historical/philosophical drama
1904–1912 Jean-Christophe Cycle of ten volumes divided into three series–Jean-Christophe, Jean-Christophe à Paris, and la Fin du voyage, published by Cahiers de la Quinzaine
1904 L'Aube First volume of the series Jean-Christophe
1904 Le Matin
Second volume of the series Jean-Christophe
1904 L'Adolescent
(The Adolescent)
Third volume of the series Jean-Christophe
1905 La Révolte
(The Revolt)
Fourth volume of the series Jean-Christophe
1907 Vie de Michel-Ange
(Life of Michelangelo)
1908 Musiciens d'aujourd'hui
(Contemporary Musicians)
Collection of articles and essays about music
1908 Musiciens d'autrefois
(Musicians of the Past)
Collection of articles and essays about music
1908 La Foire sur la place First volume of the series Jean-Christophe à Paris
1908 Antoinette Second volume of the series Jean-Christophe à Paris
1908 Dans la maison
(At Home)
Third volume of the series Jean-Christophe à Paris
1910 Haendel  
1910 Les Amies
First volume of the series la Fin du voyage
1911 La Vie de Tolstoï
(Life of Tolstoy)
1911 Le Buisson ardent Second volume of the series la Fin du voyage
1912 La Nouvelle Journée Third volume of the series la Fin du voyage
1911 Jean-Christophe: Dawn . Morning . Youth . Revolt In English, first four volumes published in one. Henry Holt and Company. Translated by Gilbert Cannan
1911 Jean-Christophe in Paris: The Market Place . Antoinette . The House In English, second three volumes published in one. Henry Holt and Company. Translated by Gilbert Cannan
1915 Jean-Christophe: Journey's End: Love and Friendship . The Burning Bush . The New Dawn In English, final three volumes published in one. Henry Holt and Company. Translated by Gilbert Cannan
1912 L'Humble Vie héroïque
(The Humble Life of the Hero)
1915 Au-dessus de la mêlée
(Above the Battle)
Pacifist manifesto
1915   Received the Nobel Prize in Literature
1917 Salut à la révolution russe
(Salute to the Russian Revolution)
1918 Pour l'internationale de l'Esprit
(For the International of the Spirit)
1918 L'Âge de la haine
(The Age of Hatred)
1919 Colas Breugnon Burgundian story
1919 Liluli Play
1919 Les Précurseurs
(The Precursors)
1920   Founded the review Europe
1920 Clérambault  
1920 Pierre et Luce  
1921 Pages choisies
(Selected Pages)
1921 La Révolte des machines
(The Revolt of the Machines)
1922-1933 L'Âme enchantée
(The Enchanted Soul)
Seven volumes
1922 Annette et Sylvie First volume of l'Âme enchantée
1922 Les Vaincus  
1924 L'Été
Second volume of l'Âme enchantée
1924 Mahatma Gandhi  
1925 Le Jeu de l'amour et de la mort
(The Game of Love and Death)
1926 Pâques fleuries  
1927 Mère et fils
(Mother and Child)
Third volume of l'Âme enchantée
1928 Léonides  
1928 De l'Héroïque à l'Appassionata
(From the Heroic to the Passionate)
1929 Essai sur la mystique de l'action
(A study of the Mystique of Action)
1929 L'Inde vivante
(Living India)
1929 Vie de Ramakrishna
(Life of Ramakrishna)
1930 Vie de Vivekananda
(Life of Vivekananda)
1930 L'Évangile universel Essays
1930 Goethe et Beethoven Essay
1933 L'Annonciatrice  
1935 Quinze Ans de combat  
1936 Compagnons de route  
1937 Le Chant de la Résurrection
(Song of the Resurrection)
1938 Les Pages immortelles de Rousseau
(The Immortal Pages of Rousseau)
1939 Robespierre Historical/philosophical drama
1942 Le Voyage intérieur
(The Interior Voyage)
1943 La Cathédrale interrompue
(The Interrupted Cathedral)
Volumes I and II
1945 Péguy Posthumous publication
1945 La Cathédrale interrompue Volume III, posthumous


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b David Bradby, "Rolland, Romain". In The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Ed. Martin Banham. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). ISBN 0521434378. p.930.
  4. ^ Romain Rolland, Le Théâtre du peuple (Paris: Albin Michel) p.121. Quoted by David Bradby and John McCormick, People's Theatre (London: Croom Helm and Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978). ISBN 0847660737. p.16.
  5. ^ Quoted by David Bradby and John McCormick, People's Theatre (London: Croom Helm and Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978). ISBN 0847660737. p.32.
  6. ^ David Bradby and John McCormick, People's Theatre (London: Croom Helm and Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978). ISBN 0847660737. p.32.
  7. ^ Quoted by David Bradby and John McCormick, People's Theatre (London: Croom Helm and Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978). ISBN 0847660737. p.32-33.
  8. ^ See John Willett, The Theatre of Erwin Piscator: Half a Century of Politics in the Theatre, London: Methuen, 1978 (p.15, 35, 46-7, 179). ISBN 0413378101.
  9. ^ Piscator (1929, 353).
  10. ^ a b Hugh Rorrison, in Piscator (1929, 55-56).
  11. ^ Piscator (1929, 58).
  12. ^ John Cruickshank, "Rolland, Romain", in Anthony Thorlby (ed.), The Penguin Companion to Literature 2: European Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p. 661.
  13. ^ William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 23, Questia, 2 Apr. 2007.
  14. ^ William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 19, Questia, 2 Apr. 2007.
  15. ^ The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies at
  16. ^ Hinduism Today | Mar 1996 at
  17. ^ Romain Rolland, "Jean-Christophe: Revolt," p. 395.
  18. ^ Romain Rolland, "Jean-Christophe: Revolt," p. 399.

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