Obituary: Jean Daste
Wednesday 19 October 1994
JEAN DASTE was a child of the century, whose long career covered all the stages in the birth, rise and decline of the French avant- garde populist theatre.
In the carefree decade before the First World War, Jean Daste's father hired out hansom cabs and his cabmen often received as tips from artists and theatre people tickets for free seats to the Paris shows. He would take his wife to see the great actors and actresses of the day, and young Jean could soon imitate Mounet-Sully, Andre Antoine and Sarah Bernhardt. His mother encouraged this gift by enrolling him in an elocution class, which brought him to the notice of Jacques Copeau, who gave him small parts at the Vieux- Colombier, and accepted him, on sight, as his pupil.
Copeau left Paris in the early Twenties to take theatre to the provincial masses, and Daste went with him, from 1924 to 1928 playing in barns, local dance-halls and squares of small towns and villages - an experience that was to influence the whole of Daste's theatrical career, devoted largely to bringing drama to the people. In 1928, Daste married Copeau's gifted daughter Marie-Helene, a fine actress who was also a scenic designer and created superb costumes for her father's productions. She died just a few weeks before Jean, who was terribly afflicted by her death.
Copeau's company broke up, and Daste joined the Compagnie des Quinze, direct by the brilliant young Michel Saint-Denis, who went on to found, in 1935, the London Theatre Studio, worked during the Second World War for the BBC, and later started a theatrical school at the Old Vic. His company, too, disbanded, so Daste formed his own, La Compagnie des Quatre Saisons, which played on two occasions in New York, on Broadway, though Daste's idea of a theatre was a big tent that could be packed up in a few hours and transported from town to town in a sequence of one-night stands.
Meanwhile he had made friends with the young film director Jean Vigo, whose first film, A Propos de Nice (1930), was an iconoclastic satire on political and social corruption in that city, and won Vigo many enemies in high places. The poet Jacques Prevert admired the anarchist spirit of the film, and encouraged Vigo to make his first masterpiece, Zero de Conduite (1932), in which Daste gained everlasting fame for his extraordinary psychological study of a sneaky, suppressed schoolteacher who is patently lusting after the young boys he tries in vain to repress.
Daste went on to create another immortal character in Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), one of the most beautiful films ever made, in which he plays a young barge- owner married to a bored wife, played exquisitely by Dita Parlo.
Michel Simon was also in great form, but it was Daste who stole the show.
Daste worked with many famous directors, including Jean Renoir: he was the sensitive artist among the prisoners-of-war in La Grande Illusion (1937). He later worked with Tavernier, Resnais and Truffaut, for whom he played the shady newspaper proprietor in La Chambre Verte (1969). Truffaut admired Daste and there are letters to the actor in his collected correspondence.
During the Second World War Daste started a Resistance theatre group which eventually became what was to be (with, at long last, a permanent base) the Comedie at St Etienne, where he made French theatrical history by putting on Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle in the 1956-57 season, in a production by John Blatchley. Daste had gone to see Brecht during his company's season in Paris, and persuaded him to allow a shortened version of the play to be performed in St Etienne. It was a huge popular success.
But the times were changing, and the public for so-called 'engaged' theatre was beginning to dwindle. Once more Daste pulled up his theatrical roots, and started touring France with poetry recitals, bringing the work of classical and contemporary European poets to a spellbound public of mostly young people. It is those young people who have seen Daste in re-runs of his great films, but never saw him in a stage role - ranging from Moliere, Feydeau and Jacques Audiberti to Shakespeare, Sartre, O'Casey and the Noh plays of Japan - it is those young people who best remember him today, and carry on his art and his teaching.
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