May Uprising, Paris, 1968

by Garry O’Connor

‘The past is bourgeois propaganda,’ booms a deep voice in French from the stage of Paris’s Odéon Theatre. I am participating after a fashion in the May uprising of 1968. I have lived for some months in a tiny maid’s room, eight flights up on the Île Saint-Louis, happily exiled, insulated from reality, smiled upon by fate, blessed and at the same time deprived. Most days I eat chicken necks and gizzards served with rice at a corner café – and eye the glittering and sexy world of Paris without taking much part.

My English friends, Kate and her husband Robert, found it rather curious I should be living all alone, doing a minimal amount of work, a bit of teaching, a bit of translating, maybe one or two articles for a newspaper, to get by, but they couldn’t see what I was carrying. Nor could I, perhaps. I was an inner darkness, even to myself. I had no why and wherefore, even about who I was. I was, in the words of one of Dad’s songs, ‘wandering on life’s highway’, or perhaps just desperately trying to avoid the past, with its mighty sucking action.


Then came the Odéon occupation. And I was there. The student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popped up, red-headed, round and jovial, a jack-in-the-box, or devil in a morality play, a Daniel Quilp. He knew what to say, dwarfing the mellowed bust of Pascal, of La Rochefoucauld. This was not the Sorbonne, where the uprising had started, but the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had been thrown like a dog’s bone to the insurgents. Thousands of protesters crammed the auditorium and the loges. The stage was so jammed it was a wonder the worn and creaking boards stood the weight.

Everyone talked at once. It was forbidden to forbid. Everything was equal. They were screaming at a middle-aged professor that he was a ‘sélectioniste’ – he favoured selecting students to follow a university course. Shouting that his other crime was of not being working-class, they started to threaten him with blows.

‘Let the professor explain himself, and if we think he’s a bastard we’ll tell him “Monsieur Blanc, you are a bastard!”’

Monsieur Blanc spoke at length but no one bothered with what he said, and soon a murmur grew and it silenced him. By now it was so stuffy I thought I would faint. People left for fear of suffocating. I explored backstage. At the back was an eerie, dark little passage leading down one side of the stage to the other. Underneath was hollow. Perhaps the floor really would not hold! What if three or four hundred people went crashing down into the chasm? I came back. Everyone now talked at once. Order does not exist; licence was without licence: there were not two sides to any question but twenty – fifty, a hundred. There was no person in the chair – no master or mistress of ceremonies – it would be a symbol of hierarchy, of oppression. Every blade of grass had a tongue. Everything was equal. Everyone had a right to the truth, and to voice an opinion. Was this a foretaste of the twenty-first century, with its Twitter and Facebook rule, with its faction-ridden societies and nations?

Actors tried to speak – neat, well-shaven, ordinary men and women; musicians, artists – the latter with the beards of anarchists. Over and over again they told each other that bourgeois culture was dead.

The Odéon – a symbol of repression – had been seized. They were delirious. Now it, too, was dead. Henceforth it would be a political forum. Malraux, Barrault, Renaud, Claudel, Messiaen, Boulez, these great names of French culture – they no longer existed. ‘One doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition.’ ‘Long live communication. Down with telecommunication.’ Maybe this really was a new beginning. What had André Malraux, Minister of Culture, once said? ‘Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That’s all!’ What did he say about the twenty-first century, that it would either be ‘a century of religion, or not at all’.

During the next hours of night and day while discussions raged on I visited other parts. Dressing rooms had been turned into kitchens or dormitories. I tiptoed from room to room sometimes fearful that I might provoke the numerous and naked two-backed beasts copulating over or under blankets. No one seemed much bothered that I was there to see them. Shame? They had abolished that. Others pounded tall typewriters, issuing slogans, directives. Grim-faced militants in rimless spectacles, bald, bearded men under banners mesmerised me. ‘THE MORE I MAKE REVOLUTION THE MORE I MAKE LOVE.’ Next day I was still there and I couldn’t leave.

The real beneficiaries of revolt appeared. ‘You’ll get the plague if you stay,’ Katie warned before she left, for she had been there to begin with, begging me not to stay. ‘All that filth. There’ll be rats. You’ll see….’

I laughed in disbelief, but then they appeared. Great brown things, their bodies could be seen bobbling among the filth accumulating under the stage. Above, and in the auditorium, the great debates on class, on Marxism, on poverty, on the great new future, continued without halt. Backstage the dressing rooms overflowed with stench. First used for rutting, they became a cesspit. Vandalism was rife, obscenities scrawled everywhere, light fixtures broken, mirrors cracked, costumes and make-up strewn over everything. In the costume stores there was even worse havoc. At first these had stayed locked – until broken into from the skylights above. The theatre’s director, Jean-Louis Barrault, France’s greatest actor, looked in to see what was happening, made a speech supporting the students, and then left weeping. Half the seats had been torn up. Later, for having shown sympathy, he was relieved of his post.

Then walking down a corridor, I found myself seized from behind.

My assailants were two blond men, naked to the waist, scarves tied round their necks and army fatigue caps on their heads. Their grip was like steel and it was useless to resist. Anyway they had a purpose so they propelled me in a certain direction.

‘Where the hell are you taking me?’

They didn’t answer but pushed open doors ahead with their feet. They looked older than the students, and were military professionals. Breathless with fear and exertion, ‘I work for an English paper’ was about all I managed to say. I freelanced for the Financial Times. ‘Who cares?’ said one of them. ‘We were told.’

A room where hundreds of seventeenth-century costumes for Molière and Racine lay scattered had become a parlour for clochards. ‘Parlez-moi d’amour…. Je vois la vie en rose….’ they quavered and warbled. The brutal-looking, gap-toothed men from the Île Saint-Louis and old women who pushed prams from which dangled brown stockings of uneven length, laughed and waved. Godot had arrived. Estragon and Vladimir had infiltrated the headquarters of Phèdre and Harpagon.

The next store was a ‘medical centre’ – so one captor told me: on duty there was a motley collection of half a dozen lunatics in white coats. They seemed more like junkies or members of the Living Theatre who toured with a cast running naked up and down the aisles. In the middle of the largest of costumes stores was an odd assortment of weapons. Crowbars, axes – the theatre fire axes – cudgels, chains, chunks of masonry, and what I took to be Molotov cocktails. We had reached the inner sanctum. The arsenal. My first inclination was to laugh – more from nerves than anything else.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

There were between twenty and twenty-five of them. The leader was dark-haired, his hair close-cropped and thinning, cut to give an appearance of firmness. His forehead was lined – not by thought, I guessed, but by screwing his eyes up in extreme heat and glare. He was a big fellow, over six foot, and looked fit. He had narrow, small eyes, darting with the threat that he could be very nasty if crossed.

‘You must be the Katangais,’ I said. I had heard of them. They were mercenaries, now on leave, and with no employer. They got their name from the fact that some of them had been in Katanga – but others fought in Korea, Algeria, and Indo-China. Wherever a dirty war needed to be fought, they fought it, the dirtier the better.

‘We heard the call of the students,’ the leader answered slowly, chewing over his words. He spoke mildly enough – as if playing down the violent side. ‘As we haven’t any education, we decided to join in and place our physical strength at the service of the revolution.’

‘The pay here can’t be very good.’

I regretted saying this: it slipped out without my meaning it. But I had cast a slur on their altruism, and I would be beaten for it, so I braced myself for blows. Surprisingly, they did not seem to mind.

‘There isn’t much work around for us at the moment,’ grumbled one.

‘So how do you envisage your role in the revolution?’ I asked somewhat more cautiously now – although they seemed ready enough to chat.

‘We have founded the CIR,’ says their leader. The CIR, he explained, was the ‘Committee of Rapid Intervention’.

‘But why do you come here, to the theatre?’

At this they went silent, and appeared to rumble with bellicose intention. I had better not press the question.

‘Please, what do you want with me?’ I asked.

‘You must stay with us,’ he answered,’ In case there is trouble.’

His purpose was plain. I was a hostage.

They brought food – a baguette that was slightly stale and tasted rubbery – and some cheese – and poured out wine. The enormity of my trap grew on me, for the siege might go on forever. Yes, the government had thrown the dog a bone and were waiting till he grew tired of it.

The nights were worst because I couldn’t sleep. I rocked myself backwards and forwards on the mound of costumes that was my bed, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain. What if I myself dissolved in the dark?

I fought against the darkness. I listened to the sounds outside – and inside my head. Sometimes the rain outside was fierce. I closed my eyes. Several times my nervous condition dominated. So it went on – and then I fell asleep and had this dream.

I’m waiting for my dad to come on stage. I’m about six years old – the wide-eyed boy. And I’m sitting in the front seats of the dingy brown, upholstered stalls of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road, about to watch Mum’s powerful lover – the embodiment of every woman’s dreams. You – the Vagabond Lover – are about to stride out to bask in the glow of ambers and reds, and capture the hearts of a thousand attentive watchers and listeners.

I wriggle a bit but am rapt. But I have butterflies in my stomach. Jerry is still, where he can, bombing the hell out of provincial cities and ports – and sometimes London too. Air-raid sirens have warned earlier as Heinkels and Dorniers pass over the suburbs. Maybe they’ll be back.

Arms linked, legs kicking, tits thrusting out, the dance duo before yours comes wheeling, gasping and clattering off, like some monster gone half mad and out of control.

It’s your turn. Top of the bill. The act everyone’s been waiting for. The big star. Beside me Mum sharply takes in breath, her eyes shining and full of happiness as she composes herself with pleasure.

Ever since I can remember Mum would say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to watch your father’ (she, from a different class than his, always called him ‘your father’).

So I’d seen your act a hundred times – if not more. But I’m not just sitting here, watching you; without me knowing you’ve become so much a part of me, the deepest part. My dad. So I’m here, not only out front, but with you in the wings, ready to go on before you do – inside you, as you’re about to stride out into the lights….

The pit band plays a chorus of your signature tune, ‘I’m only a strolling Vagabond’ – a big cheer of recognition – and then out you stride onto the stage looking as if nothing mattered to you, throwing half a smile up to the circle as if you’ve spotted some old friend there, and this has caught your attention far more than the other thousand-odd members of the house.

By many such little tricks, I knew and could see later, they’d be captured by you and listen. If you can get them sufficiently at ease with themselves, they’ll let go and float easily off into the dreamy fabric of your songs—

I’m bound for the hills and the valleys beyond
So good night pretty maiden, goodnight.
I follow Fortune that beckons me on
I catch at her skirts and the lady is gone
But that’s just my lot, if so right….

Your clothes help the informality. The Strolling Vagabond against a backcloth of lanes and trees in the far distance, farm horses and hills, a blue sky, endless peace. A wooden stile for you to lean against and place your foot upon. A tree trunk as a seat.

You finish the chorus of your song. We all clap. Violent and sustained applause. I wave at you, Dad, and you smile, motion for the audience to be silent. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,’ you declare in your lilting, stage-Irish voice.

‘And now if I may I’d like to sing you an old favourite by that most illustrious of song writers, Irving Berlin – “When I Leave the World Behind”.’

Cheers. Applause again. The song was well known. Effortlessly your voice glides and coasts over the colourful orchestrations.

I’m not a millionaire
Who’s burdened down with care
Somehow that’s passed me by….

But Dad, you are – in my and everyone’s estimation! A millionaire! Suddenly I’m frightened. What if the Heinkels and Dorniers on their way back to Germany swarm over North London again? And what if searchlights stab the darkness, outlining hundreds of gleaming insect structures packed under the roof of the sky, and guns lick out red tongues at the night? What if the Germans drop their bombs on us?

Would you pack it in? If a stick of bombs made a direct hit on or near the Met, with the air-raid sirens caught unawares and no warning given, would you stop singing? Never. You would go on singing regardless.

But what of the little boy sitting there, watching you? Would the song go on for him – and forever?

I woke up. The vast inside of the Odéon lay empty, desecrated, battered – like some fetid, yawning mouth. It seemed irredeemably fouled: the exhaust gases of idealism and spontaneous expression. The theatre’s ghosts had suffered wholesale extermination.

The CRS and gendarmes had surrounded the theatre; they were helmeted and armed with teargas grenades. The word had gone round that the Odéon would be reoccupied by the authorities.

‘What will happen?’ I asked one of my guards.

He sighed. He was unmoved. ‘Negotiations….’

‘No fighting? No last-ditch stand? What’s happened to the spirit of Katanga?’

‘Jackie’s not negotiating with the police,’ he answered tetchily, ‘he’s negotiating with the television and film people. Americans are offering a big fee.’

‘But how much would you ask – to put up some resistance to the police?’

The other dropped his usual air of lassitude. ‘Why? Can you pay?’

Once a mercenary, always a mercenary. He was about to go and fetch the others.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m penniless. It’s purely an academic question.’

The guard shrugged.

A voice we could just about hear floated up from a loudhailer outside. ‘Let those who want come out, do it now! You will be free if you leave without weapons, and without any bellicose intentions.’

I looked at my captors.

‘Where does that leave me?’

‘Shut up! I told you we have to await the results of negotiations. Jackie’s down there now.’

Another Katangais put his head round the door.

‘Come on: the order has come through. We’re going!’

‘What about him?’ asked my guard, meaning me.

‘He’s nothing to do with us now.’

I beat the Katangais to the exit, and hid by the pillar of an arch to watch. They emerged clean, well-shaven, their clothes crisp and pressed. They walked upright, without looking at anyone. In the street quite a crowd had collected. The Katangais presented their papers to the police control and marched off without a word.

In the square, top police brass had assembled: prefects, sub-prefects, stood to attention as everyone left. The mayor complimented the police on the ‘cleansing of the public building’. Then an officer in plain clothes climbed out on the roof of the Odéon and removed the red and black flags. The French tricolour soon fluttered again over the weather vane, but there had been no time to erase the ‘Ex’ prefixed to the ‘Théâtre de France’ on the entablature.

In the rue Casimir Delavigne a young man opened a window on the second floor, and started jeering and shouting: it needed all his father’s strength to grab him and haul him back inside.

What was the significance of my dream? Was the contrast of it with the stinking theatre pointing to a path I would have to follow in the future? Was this what destiny had in store?

Dad was after me, had pursued me even to Paris. And he would continue to be after me, relentlessly, until I turned to confront him. Would I have the courage to investigate his life, find out all I could about him, all there was to know? Had I resources enough to tackle the central part of the mystery? And could I present him as he was, expose him to the world?

A line from a poem drifted into my head. ‘O maison, où donc est ton maître?’

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. The above is an excerpt from it, published by CentreHouse Press in hardback, paperback, and on most ebook platforms.

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