Madeleine Robinson

Monstre sacré of French stage and screen
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The Independent Online

Madeleine Svoboda (Madeleine Robinson), actress: born Paris 5 November 1917; three times married (one son, and one daughter deceased); died 1 August 2004.

A good stage name is essential in the highly competitive universe of thespian ambitions. The delightful French actress Madeleine Robinson chose what is a humdrum British surname, but for the French has a playful, exciting aura, with the adventurous associations of Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson.

Her real name was Svoboda, which in Czech means "liberty". Her father Victor was a Czech immigrant patissier and her working-class mother was a ticket collector on the trams, but also a relation of the cellist Paul Tortelier. Madeleine became an orphan at the age of 14, and went to work in an electric supplies factory in order to support her two younger brothers. She became an errand-girl and then a maid in a painter's family.

But she spent all her spare time haunting the "gods" in the theatres of Paris and was so enraptured by the art of acting that she attended classes at the Conservatoire until she failed to pass her exams. So she entered the Atelier Theatre's drama school, conducted by the great Charles Dullin, who had revolutionary concepts of what theatre should be: he believed it should not just reflect reality, but make of itself a world apart. His studio produced some of the greatest French avant-garde actors and directors, including Antonin Artaud, Jean Vilar, Michel Vitold, Roger Blin, Jacques Dufilho and Jean Marais. Madeleine Robinson became one of his favourite pupils.

She was lucky to get her first leading role in Léonide Moguy's film Le Mioche (40 Girls and a Baby), in 1936, when she was just 20. It was a piquant comedy set in a strict seminary for young ladies who one morning discover on their doorstep a basket containing a baby boy, with the expected hilarious consequences. She worked in a succession of "bread-and-butter" roles until 1943, when under the Occupation she made Lumière d'été ("Summer Light") by the fine director Jean Grémillon, in which she appeared with the stars Pierre Brasseur and Madeleine Renaud. Nineteen forty-three found her starring again in Claude Autant Lara's Douce, in which she held her own against Odette Joyeux and the formidable Marguérite Moreno.

In 1944, she played memorably in Christian Jacques' comedy drama Sortilèges (The Bellman), in which she appeared with Fernand Ledoux. But, after the Second World War, actors who had played under the Nazi occupation had difficulties in finding work. It was not until 1949 that Robinson appeared in one of her best films, Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach) directed by Yves Allégret, an atmospheric, rather gloomy drama in which she plays with impressive intensity against an equally intense hero, Gérard Philipe, who in 1947 had become a star in Allégret's Le Diable au corps (Devil in the Flesh) based on Raymond Radiguet's best-selling novel.

When the nouvelle vague film revolution started in the early Fifties, Robinson and her acting generation were mostly ignored by young film-makers, who derided what they called "Le cinéma de Papa". The only younger director who employed her was Claude Chabrol in A double tour (Web of Passion) in 1959. But she continued to play for well-known directors like Jean Delannoy and Julien Duvivier.

It was not until 1962 that Robinson found another good part, in Le Procés, Orson Welles's version, over two hours long, of Franz Kafka's The Trial, in which she played Mrs Grubach alongside Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Suzanne Flon. With her Czech origins, it was a particularly moving experience for her to act in Kafka's baffling nightmare drama of incomprehensible exclusion.

In the Sixties, Robinson made a number of films of quality by lesser Italian directors, and also began to be a familiar figure on French television, in interviews and serial dramas. All in all, she appeared in about 80 films. Her final film appearance was playing the severe mother of Camille in Bruno Nuytten's beautiful production Camille Claudel (1988), with the title role played by Isabelle Adjani (1988).

One of Robinson's less-known successes was in 1962, in Léonard Keigel's very well-made version of one of my favourite works of fiction, Léviathan, by the wonderfully original novelist Julien Green. It should be re-issued. Another spell-binder was the 1983 J'ai épousé une ombre (I Married a Shadow) by Robin Davis.

But Madeleine Robinson is also remembered for superb performances on stage, where she was a veritable bête de scène and a monstre sacré. Her hard early life had given her an embattled temperament, and if she disagreed with a fellow actor or the director she would argue her case with bitter determination and picturesque invective. She was a perfectionist. This indomitable purpose in pursuit of the very highest standards in acting was recognised, and often dreaded, by all she worked with. But in 1965 it won her the prize of Best Actress of the Year for her performance as an implacable Martha in Edward Albee's Qui a peur de Virginia Woolf? (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), which really brought out the wild animal in her.

Her outspoken and often wounding criticisms of fellow actors and incompetent directors made her the terror of rehearsals, when she would rip to pieces some young actor's carefully conceived image of his role. Without a moment's warning, she would walk out of rehearsals and of the play itself. She had no hesitation in coming to blows with a partner on stage. She laid into Raymond Gérôme, who played the browbeaten husband to such effect that he took her to court - and she lost the case.

She was a holy terror both on and off stage, but it brought out marvellous performances, as Mother Courage, Blanche DuBois, and in Cocteau's Les Monstres sacrés and Les Parents terribles, in which Jean Marais visibly shook with apprehension.

Not surprisingly, she was married (and divorced) three times, and ended her life with a pet dog she called Vendredi ("Friday") after Defoe's noble savage. She had two children; her daughter, Sophie, died of Aids.

In 2001 she was honoured by the bestowal of a Molière d'honneur at the annual French tribute to great performers in Paris.

James Kirkup