Obituary: Jean Mercure and Jandeline

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IN THE flimsy world of show business, human relationships are often as insubstantial as the sets of transformation scenes. Yet - despite extramarital infatuations, usually tolerated - there have been some enduring marriages, on-stage and off. To well-known theatrical couples like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Madeleine Renault and Jean-Louis Barrault we can add Jean Mercure and Aline Jeannerot ("Jandeline") as an admirable example of fidelity, with a love that lasted over 60 years in a notoriously fickle emotional environment.

Jean Mercure was educated at the Lycee Rollin in Paris, and started working as a journalist, but was soon drawn to the theatre, where he began his acting career in 1934 under Gaston Baty and other innovative directors. His first notable appearance was in Baty's revival of The Threepenny Opera in 1937. His wife Jandeline was a rare talent, both as an actress and as a diseuse whose range of poetry extended from Villon to Prevert. She was often to appear with Jean in plays, many of which he directed himself.

Mercure began making a name for himself as a playwright, chiefly with fine adaptations from novels and filmscripts, and one of his first successes in this line was Boudu sauve des eaux ("The Tramp Boudu Rescued from the Water") derived from Jean Renoir's 1932 film starring Michel Simon. It was performed in 1939 under the menace of the Second World War, and had to wait until 1985 to be rediscovered, unfortunately in a Hollywood treatment starring Bette Midler and Little Richard, under the title Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

After war broke out, Mercure founded, with Louis Ducreux and Andre Roussin, the Comedie de Lyon, where he appeared in Beaumarchais' Le Barbier de Seville, in Moliere's Les Fouberies de Scapin, and in his own adaptation of Prosper Merimee's tale Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (1941) ,which became another Jean Renoir subject in 1952, as Le Carrosse d'Or, starring Anna Magnani and Duncan Lamont.

Jean Mercure was one of the first volunteers to join Les Forces Francaises Libres in London, and he took part in the liberation of Paris alongside de Gaulle. He resumed his acting career with a 1945 adaptation of Charles Morgan's novel The Flashing Stream (1945), which also marked Jandeline's first triumph under his direction. In 1949 he produced his dramatisation of the famous Resistance work Le Silence de la Mer by Vercors (Jean Brunner). Other works in which Jandeline enjoyed success were Maurice Druon's Megaree and Julien Green's Sud (1953).

In 1953 Mercure was the first recipient of the Prix Dominique for another production starring Jandeline, Pirandello's Il piacere dell' onesta translated as La Volupte de l'honneur. Mercure in his turn was lauded by the critics for his performance in the leading role in Ouragon sur le Caine ("The Caine Mutiny") in 1957.

He received his first commission from the Comedie Francaise to stage Montherlant's Le Cardinal d'Espagne (1960). Other productions that demonstrate his wide range and theatrical virtuosity were Graham Greene's The Living Room (1954), Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1956) and his adaptation of Saint-Exupery's classic Vol de Nuit ("Night Flight") in 1960. He and Jandeline often took their productions on tour all over the world, and in 1966 I saw them in Mercure's staging of Moliere's Don Juan in Tokyo.

They rarely appeared on the small screen, but Mercure made some minor appearances in films, the first of which was La Rue sans Joie ("The Joyless Street"), Andre Hugon's 1937 remake of Pabet's masterpiece starring Garbo, Die freudlose Gasse. In 1952 he was in a British Disney picture, The Sword and the Rose, and in 1954 he appeared with Gerard Philipe and Danielle Darrieux in Claude Autant-Lara's Le Rouge et le Noir. In 1960, along with almost every other star in the business, he made a fleeting appearance in Abel Gance's bewildering Austerlitz.

It was in 1968 that the lives of Mercure and Jandeline took an entirely new direction. He was invited to confront the gigantic task of bring back to life the venerable hulk of the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre at the Chatalet. Mercure's basic idea was to transform this vast theatrical mausoleum at the heart of Paris into an elegant Parisian rendezvous in the populist tradition of Jean Vilar and his Theatre National Populaire (TNP). The old Italianate auditorium was brightened and modernised by Rene Alliaud to hold a thousand seats. But the real revolutionary change came when Mercure proposed hour-long performances from 6.30 in the evening, capturing crowds in the middle of the rush hour with modestly priced variety shows of the highest quality, which would encourage people who seldom or never went to the theatre to form the theatre-going habit and to stay on after the early show for a full-length performance an hour later.

This plan was a huge success, and among my happiest memories of the Sixties was dropping into the Theatre de la Ville (as it was renamed) for recitals by great artists like Andres Segovia, Claudio Arrau or the sublime Juliette Greco. Or there might be a Roland Petit ballet performance with Zizi Jeanmaire, or concerts conducted by Pierre Boulez, as well as more popular items like one-act farces and music-hall acts.

The plays Mercure presented were infinitely varied, many of them adapted and directed by himself, and often starring Jandeline. Among them were Jean Giraudoux' La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu ("The Trojan War Will Not Take Place"), in 1971; Dostoevsky's The Possessed in 1972 and Brecht's The Good Woman of Sechuan in 1973. Mercure and Jandeline followed the celebrated Lunt-Fontanne farewell-to-the-boards with their own partnership in Durrenmatt's black comedy The Visit. Patrice Chereau mounted his epoch- making Peer Gynt in 1981. One of Mercure's final performances was the title role in Jules Romains' Volpone (1985).

After Mercure's retirement from the Theatre de la Ville in 1985, he continued to interest himself in its development. There are frequent performances by avant-garde opera companies and contemporary ballet in particular has found there a spiritual home, with sold-out seasons by William Forsyth, Carolyn Carlson, Alwin Nikolas, Jean-Claude Gallotta and Maguy Marin. Last autumn I attended a remarkable festival of Japanese theatre, a performance of love-suicide traditional bunraku puppet melodramas, playing to packed houses of Westerners but also Japanese, some of whom had come all the way from Japan to attend the series of plays, though in a theatre of that size some of the finer detail of the puppet-handling was inevitably lost unless one was in the front rows.

Mercure and Jandeline made their own farewell bows to the public in 1986, at the Theatre Fontaine, in a two-hander, Gin Game, a play about old age, a subject Mercure always detested. "Growing old infuriates me," he said in an interview. "It's a punishment I find scandalously unjust. I am not afraid of death. When I have to confront the Great Reaper, I'd like to recall Bernanos' words - `And now - just the two of us!' "

Jean Mercure and Jandeline were well-known, popular first-night figures to the very end, when, as they had so often done, taking that final curtain with their customary grace and elegance, they tranquilly chose voluntary death in each other's arms, saying a last farewell not only to their public and their friends, but also to each other, in a leave- taking that was not a parting.

James Kirkup

Pierre Libermann (Jean Mercure), actor, theatre producer and director: born Paris 27 March 1909; married 1936 Aline Jeannerot (one daughter); died Paris 24 June 1998.

Aline Jeannerot (Jandeline), actress, diseuse: born Paris 1911; married 1936 Pierre Libermann (one daughter); died Paris 24 June 1998.