Obituary: Jean-Louis Barrault
Monday 24 January 1994
JEAN-LOUIS BARRAULT was the outstanding man of the theatre in France of his time. His nearest British counterpart was Laurence Olivier, three years his senior, but, although like Olivier in Britain he was the pre-eminent actor of his generation and a brilliant director and competent administrator, Barrault was more than just that: he had the ability to understand what the great thinkers and theoreticians of his youth were saying and to put their words into action.
He improvised his own dramatic versions of great French and European literature and made stunning spectacles of them, and he was a practical man of the theatre who knew how to produce dramas that were didactic and at the same time exciting. He perfectly embodied in his productions Artaud's belief that the theatre had no value if it did not change the lives and attitudes of those who came to it; he was an intellectual who never lost the common touch, who gave his whole life to his profession and through it became a great teacher and exponent of the ideas of others that he developed into his own conception of 'total theatre'. Barrault built a team of loyal and devoted professionals around him, not only actors, but administrators and creative talents as well, who in the last years, as his health and abilities tragically declined, were able to keep the structure of his company functioning.
Born in 1910 in Le Vesinet, the son of a pharmacist, he decided at the age of six that his career would be in the theatre. From an ordinary working-class state school, he was admitted to the College Chaptel where he took his baccalaureat and taught for a year. His studies were principally in mathematics, philosophy and art, and although a scholarship pupil with no spending money he lost no opportunity to attend the theatre or to act, eventually being accepted, both as a student and an actor, by Charles Dullin, one of the greatest actors and drama teachers of his time, at his dramatic school and the theatre attached to it, the Atelier, in 1931. He was so poor that he slept at night in the wings of the theatre. Dullin realised his exceptional gifts and paid for him to study mime under Etienne Decroux, and later with Jacques Copeau who, inspired by the ideas of Gordon Craig and Stanislavsky, was actively challenging and changing the realistic direction of the French theatre of the time. Copeau was also a writer and critic, who with Gide and Schlumberger had founded the Nouvelle Revue francaise, the most influential among French literary magazines up to the German occupation. With such teachers Barrault developed quickly and made his stage debut at the Theatre de l'Atelier as the servant in Volpone. He quickly graduated to major roles in new plays and the classics and began to make his own adaptations of novels for the stage, the first to be performed being Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. He also played small parts in films, and decided to start his own company in 1934.
Two years later he met Madeleine Renaud, 10 years his senior and a famous beauty, who had been one of the stars of the Comedie-Francaise since 1928, and they married, often acting together. On her account Barrault then joined the Comedie- Francaise, acted under Copeau's direction and directed himself. Renaud and Barrault remained with the Comedie during the war years, during which he also made a number of films, most notably Les Enfants du Paradis in 1944, perhaps the greatest classic of the French cinema. In a cast that included Arletty, Maria Casares, and Pierre Brasseur, directed by Marcel Carne from Jacques Prevert's novel of street life in the Paris of Louis-
Philippe, his performance of the mime Baptiste made him famous throughout the world.
From then Barrault and Renaud were the great stars of the Comedie- Francaise, where Barrault's memorable roles, often partnered by his wife, included Le Cid, Phedre, Gide's adaptation of Hamlet, Le Soulier de Satin of Claudel with Honneger's music, which last was the beginning of Barrault's long loyalty to the French dramatic poet - the Catholic counterpart to Brecht's equally poetic theatre of the left. Since the Thirties Barrault had been interested in the ideas of Antonin Artaud and Andre Breton (both of whom were involved in the experimental dramatic group that he had established when at the Atelier). Artaud, like Claudel, and Piscator and Brecht in Germany, had wanted to develop a 'total theatre' that like Shakespeare's would be poetic and larger than life, and that could continue the tradition of Greek drama with new theatrical techniques; it would use all the resources of lighting, music, dance and other media, such as film, to create a fabulous world of illusion on stage that, like opera, would enhance a performance by the multiplicity of its elements and the skill of its performers.
In 1946 Barrault and Renaud decided to leave the Comedie-Francaise to start the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault, which survived until two years before his death. For 11 years the company played in repertory at the Theatre de Marigny, developing its own style in a number of extraordinary presentations that included Barrault's own adaptation of The Trial by Kafka, Tete d'Or and other plays by Claudel, much by Shakespeare, Moliere, Marivaux and other French classics. The repertory was varied to include such operettas as Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne, and Feydeau farces, and it found effective new ways to stage classical Greek drama.
Barrault was then offered the Theatre de l'Odeon by the government: this was the little-used left- bank second theatre of the Comedie-Francaise, and renamed the Theatre de France it became the most prestigious playhouse in the country. He now widened the repertory to include the new drama that had emerged from Beckett, Ionesco and Adamov. He directed and played the lead in Ionesco's Rhinoceros, while Madeleine Renaud made one of the most telling interpretations of her career in Beckett's O les Beaux Jours (Happy Days), a role she continued to play until over 90. The company encouraged a new generation of directors including Roger Blin, Jean-Marie Serreau and Roger Planchon who mounted new plays by these and other playwrights. Barrault also accepted work not originally written for the stage from such nouveaux romanciers as Nathalie Sarraute and Robert Pinget, giving physical dimensions to plays written for radio or as novels.
During the Sixties the Renaud- Barrault company toured the world, scoring triumphs from Tokyo to New York and from the Edinburgh Festival to Moscow. Barrault presented a successful season in London in 1951 at the St James Theatre and returned to the Palace Theatre in 1956, the Apollo in 1958 and the Aldwych in 1965 and 1968. His incredible production of Claudel's Christophe Colombe, which takes place entirely on the deck of the Santa Maria carrying Columbus and his sailors on their voyage of faith to America, made theatrical history. Many who saw it, including critics and theatrical historians, have declared it the most important theatrical production they have ever witnessed. The voyage of faith takes on metaphysical overtones in Claudel's text, and Barrault, directing and playing the lead, no Catholic right- winger himself, was faithful to the vision of the author. At several points during the performance the mainsail of the ship unfurls to become a giant cinema- screen above the heads of the crew, where events on deck are shown in double image while, in one brilliant effect of theatrical daring, the hand of God is shown moving through a cloud of steam and gradually shaping it into the world. Barrault had created total theatre.
In 1968, during the student rising in Paris, Barrault was sympathetic to the students, allowing them to use the Odeon as a public forum, but he was not pleased when Jean- Jacques Lebel, son of a Surrealist writer and painter and himself both an avant-garde theatre director and a man with a romantic attachment to French revolutionary history, tried to occupy it as his own power- centre.
When the revolt subsided from combined middle-class pressure and de Gaulle's threat to bring in the army, Barrault found himself in disgrace for his support, however passive, for the student cause. Given his reputation - young people idolised him - and his geographical location in the middle of the Latin Quarter and the university complex, he could hardly have done otherwise without casting himself forever into intellectual limbo, but he was dismissed from his post as director of the Theatre de France, where for 12 years he, with a large auditorium and a small studio theatre in the same building, had produced an international repertory of modern and classical works equalled by no other theatre in the world at that time.
Now in internal exile, but with his troupe of actors, directors, scene-designers and literary and administrative staff (many took part-time or even full-time jobs elsewhere in order to work for him at night, often for nothing), he continued to put on astonishing spectacles wherever he could rent a space. One of the most effective was an ice-rink where he mounted Rabelais, a colourful mingling of Rabelais's life with his work. Where Barrault went the public followed and without subsidy he prospered, devising new ways of creating theatrical magic on slender means. Eventually he rented space in the little-used Gare d'Orsay, where he constructed a large tent under the dome of the railway station, with an adjacent bar and restaurant, furnished mostly with donated furniture and props from past productions.
He revived past repertory and mounted new adaptations of his own from Voltaire (Zadig) and Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra), among others, that brought complex philosophical works to a general public in a form of total theatre that included elements of the circus. Many of his admirers feel that his best work was done here, under stress and duress and without government funding.
Pompidou, anxious to leave behind him a cultural monument, forgave Barrault and re-established him as an official state artist. Pompidou's successor, Giscard-
d'Estaing, wanted to turn the whole Gare d'Orsay into a cultural centre under his own name (it is now the Musee d'Orsay), but lost the presidency to Mitterrand before he could do so, but he made Barrault move from his tent on the Left Bank to a much grander building in the centre of the Champs Elysees. This was an old skating rink that now became the Theatre du Rond Point, and continued the same style of play with the same team that had followed Barrault since his days at the Marigny, with some younger recruits.
Again the Paris public followed, but with less enthusiasm: the atmosphere among the smart boutiques and tourist cafes was wrong and it was impossible to park a car nearby. Barrault, as he always had throughout his career as an actor-manager, made himself accessible to the public: he was much in evidence in the foyer and the restaurant, going around the tables, making everyone feel a friend. Sometimes he was seen selling programmes, in or out of costume at the door, his unmistakable voice calling out 'Demandez le programme]' while the official seller watched in amusement. He allowed his theatre to be used for conferences and meetings too, for private parties and official receptions.
Madeleine Renaud, although in no way inaccessible, played a more muted role in all this. Their long partnership and marriage was very touching; they remained totally loyal and affectionate to each other. Their acting styles were complementary: she had had the benefit of the best classical training, his style was more varied and instinctive, developed by trial and error. Barrault could always attract the best available actors, but, because of low salaries, the big names usually only stayed for limited periods; in accordance with French tradition a play that had had a successful production could always count on a revival, and especially if it was a favourite of either Barrault or his wife.
The company's formula never varied; it always ran simultaneous productions in a large and a small auditorium, seating around 800 and 300 respectively, and many new dramatists made their way to recognition through the smaller stage, like Simone Benmussa, who went from publishing to work for Barrault as a secretary, became a reader, then dramaturg, and having mastered many of his ideas and developed others of her own, became a successful playwright and director herself.
Jean-Louis Barrault's adaptations for the stage can be read as literature, but he also produced several books about his dramatic experiences and philosophies, and about his own life. These include Une Troupe et ses auteurs (1950), Reflections on the Theatre (1951), Memories of Tomorrow (1974) and many play-texts. In addition he published the influential Cahiers Renaud- Barrault, in effect the house magazine of the company, often giving the whole text of a current play in the repertoire with articles about it, the author and his sources.
Barrault was a consummate mime, as anyone who has seen Les Enfants du Paradis realises. In the Seventies he toured a one-man show that demonstrated to audiences, through words and gestures, the number of techniques, of which mime is a principal one, that the well-trained and inventive actor has at his disposal: he toured widely with this, both to make money for the theatre, which always had financial problems, and to keep himself in form.
Like all great actors he had the ability to create whatever stage effect he wanted: he was slight and slim in person, but is not remembered that way by those who saw his Hamlet or his Christopher Columbus. Barrault was a master of stage illusion and often with the smallest of means - one of the principles of total theatre - could create theatrical magic with little or no decor.
On stage Barrault was mesmeric: in an heroic role the audience would thrill to him; when he played one of Kafka's anti-heroes (Barrault adapted all the major novels) it would feel and smell the reality of failure, of being small and frightened in a big, frightening world. In their prime he and Madeleine Renaud were wonderful stage partners, either as lovers or as antagonists, but in later years they seldom performed in the same plays: she created a series of wonderful (often evil) old women, while, until failing memory spoiled his powers of concentration, Barrault continued to play the roles of his youth or new young heroes.
The last years saw a certain deterioration in the company because Barrault, though much in sight, lost control of the theatre's programme, while not making it possible for anyone else to re-establish it. The Ministry of Culture, more generous than ever, felt unable to ask this national monument to retire: they continued to give subsidy, but increasingly the Theatre du Rond Point was used as a visiting theatre for other companies, while Jean- Louis, as everyone called him, wandered around it. When he did retire, two years ago, he did so reluctantly and took little interest in the theatre thereafter. No name in 20th- century French theatre is greater than his, and his example, teachings and writings will continue to influence the future.
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