In the 1890s, Buddhism became a widely-discussed topic in the Western academic, religious, intellectual and artistic circles. While this phenomenon has been highlighted by recent studies on ‘modern Buddhism’, it is less known today that a striking amount of theatrical plays and operas on the life of the Buddha were written and performed all over the world in that period. These dramas provided reflections on the often passionate ideological controversies of those days and arguably played a leading role in the rise of Buddhism in the public sphere, since they stepped far beyond the circles of Buddhist scholars and converts. After a general survey of the global rise of ‘Buddha-drama’ at the turn of the century, I will focus in my talk on probably the most famous of them, the French drama Izéÿl. Starring acclaimed comedians such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lucien Guitry and Édouard de Max, among others, the play was first performed in 1894 in Bernhardt’s Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris and qualified for international success through the Divine’s worldwide tour in 1896 (Belgium, England, Canada, United States). Based on an analysis of the drama and its staging, as well as the numerous and polemical reviews of the play in European and American periodicals, I will discuss the conflicting cultural issues at stake in this performance: How are Buddhist textual and iconographic sources used? Which translation processes and aesthetic codes were implied in the making of such a Western ‘Buddha-drama’? At what expenses was the Buddha turned into a character? Ultimately, how did the audience respond?
Samuel Thévoz received his Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lausanne where he taught French literature from 2008 to 2012. In his dissertation, he studied the perception of landscape by French explorers of Tibet. From 2012 to 2016, he led a three-year stand-alone project on the reception of Buddhism in French theater as an advanced researcher supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. He is now studying the lives of the Buddha in modern Western and Asian theater as a research fellow supported by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program for Buddhist Studies. He is the author of Un horizon infini: Explorateurs et voyageurs français au Tibet (1846-1912) (Paris 2010). Recent articles in English include “The French for Shangri-La: Tibetan Landscape and French Explorers,” French Cultural Studies 25/2 (2014) and “On the Threshold of the ‘Land of Marvels:’ Alexandra David-Neel in Sikkim and the Making of Global Buddhism,” Transcultural Studies 1 (2016).