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Rolland with Gandhi in Switzerland, 1931.
The two were friends and regular correspondents.
29 January 1866
30 December 1944 (aged 78)
Dramatist, Essayist, Art historian,
Writing period 1902–1944
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 Biography
• 2 People's theatre
• 3 Novels
• 4 Academic career
• 5 Correspondence with Freud
• 6 Quotations
• 7 References
• 8 External links
Rolland was born in Clamecy, Nièvre to a family of notaries; he had both peasants and
wealthy townspeople in his 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 Meysenburg–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
 People's theatre
"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).
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). "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". 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.
Programme sheet for Piscator's 1922 production of Rolland's drama The Time Will Come
(1903), at the Central-Theater in Berlin.
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). 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
Rolland's dramas have been staged by some of the most influential theatre directors of the
twentieth century, including Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator. 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. 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. Piscator described his treatment of the play as "thoroughly
naturalistic", whereby he sought "to achieve the greatest possible realism in acting and
decor." Despite the play's overly-rhetorical style, the production was reviewed
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". 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 relationships. He was first and foremost a writer. Assured that literature would
provide him with a modest income, he resigned from the university in 1912.
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
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
Stalin, whom he considered the greatest man of his time. 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
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."). 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.