Obituary: Madeleine Renaud
Saturday 24 September 1994
MADELEINE RENAUD was the last of the great school of French classical actresses. She was trained just after the First World War, and had the flexibility to perform in the grand manner the established French repertoire, from Racine to Giraudoux, while still being totally convincing in the different schools of international theatre that have emerged since 1950. Her early career overlapped with the last years of Sarah Bernhardt's and she was already a star in the 1920s - before Edwige Feuillere, Maria Casares, Suzanne Flon and Arletty dominated the boards in Paris. By the time her juniors by a decade Michelle Morgan and Simone Signoret emerged, Renaud had established herself as one of the finest French actresses.
Renaud's career was very similar to that of Peggy Ashcroft, who died in 1991; they both preferred the theatre and a live audience to the film studio where you act to a camera and a director, where you can learn a part but never carry it through without fear of interruption. Renaud outlived most of her most brilliant juniors such as Delphine Seyrig, who took on many roles that Renaud had created, and went on performing after such actresses as Jeanne Moreau, appealing to a similar public, had retired.
Renaud was born in 1900, the daughter of a university professor, in the elegant seizieme arrondissement of Paris. She made an early marriage to Charles Gribouval, a playwright and leading actor with the Comedie Francaise, who was also the director of many of their productions, and wrote and acted under the assumed name Granval; but the marriage was a short one. She attended the Conservatoire Nationale d'Art Dramatique, having previously studied at the Lycee Racine, where she won first prize for comedy and obtained her baccalaureat in 1921; she was then accepted by the Comedie Francaise as a junior actress, and remained there under contract until 1947. At the Comedie, Renaud developed from minor roles to the great parts, not only of French classical tragedy and comedy but of Greek drama and non-French plays in the repertoire of France's most prestigious national theatre.
In 1940, Jean-Louis Barrault, a brilliant young actor from a working-class background, full of new theatrical ideas and aflame with ambition, joined the company and in a very short time was playing major roles and directing productions. They fell in love and married the same year. During the war they frequently played opposite each other, Barrault often absenting himself to make films, most notably with Arletty in Les Enfants du paradis (1944), a classic of the French cinema.
After the Second World War Barrault and Renaud left the Comedie Francaise together in order to start their own company, which since 1946 has been known as the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault: as a theatrical partnership it was unrivalled in this century, lasting until Barrault's death in January. When they met she was already a bright star of the theatre in France. His reputation soon rivalled hers; but they maintained a relationship of perfect harmony and theatrical equality. Barrault introduced every kind of novelty into his repertory and Renaud was capable of following wherever he led, bringing her full classical polish to the plays of Corneille, Racine, de Musset and Marivaux, discovering Shakespeare's heroines, sharing Barrault's enthusiasm for Paul Claudel and performing in Barrault's adaptations of Kafka's novels.
Through her husband and mentor Renaud discovered all the arts and the world of literature and philosophy. Barrault had worked with Antonin Artaud and had absorbed the ideas of Surrealist and of Expressionist drama. He became the leading French director of his time, but also France's greatest actor; he brought out in Renaud reserves of emotional power and an insight into character parts that without him she would never had the opportunity of playing.
The repertoire of the Renaud-Barrault company was adventurous and varied. It included Feydeau farces, Offenbach operettas, new plays from Eastern Europe, Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States; there were also many adaptations of novels, both classics and 20th-century literature that Barrault admired. Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco wrote for the company and they were probably as comfortable there as in any other theatre, because Barrault was interested - unlike many of his contemporaries - in serving the intentions and stage directions of the author.
The Renaud-Barrault company started its existence in the Theatre Marigny in 1946 and stayed there for 11 years. Barrault was then offerred the Odeon, the second theatre of the Comedie Francaise near the Palais de Luxembourg, by the Ministry of Culture. The increased state subsidy enabled Barrault and Renaud (she never used her husband's name) to mount a mixed repertory that was increasingly dominated by modern authors including Beckett, Ionesco, Pinget, Sarraute, Duras, Christopher Fry and Brecht, as well as frequent revivals of Barrault's much-loved Claudel and his adaptations of Kafka's three great novels, and some of his stories, for the stage. The classics, in which Renaud so excelled, were not neglected, but less frequently performed. A small studio theatre was opened for smaller plays, mainly of an intellectually avant-garde nature. Both the principals of the company appeared in almost every production, sometimes only playing a small role.
Renaud's greatest triumph in a modern play was undoubtedly Beckett's Oh] Les Beaux Jours ('Happy Days'); the production was revived for her at regular intervals until the late Eighties. She said:
Beckett opened a completely new window on to my career and helped me to discover myself as a woman. Oh] Les Beaux Jours is a marvellous love- poem, the song of a woman who still wants to see and hear the voice of the man she loves. I was overcome by it. Beckett understands women profoundly from the inside.
After the student revolt of 1968, Barrault, having shown sympathy for the students was evicted from the Odeon by President de Gaulle. The company rented an old skating rink and continued to perform there, mainly in the round, improvising and making virtues out of necessity. The public supported the new theatre massively and nearly everyone stayed with the troupe, working for the smallest salaries, many in the administration taking daytime jobs and working for nothing in the evenings.
To many, the Renaud-Barrault company's period at the ice-rink, and subsequently at the Theatre d'Orsay, where it moved next, was its finest. Renaud and Barrault were at their peak as actors, now playing older parts, and Barrault had realised the concept of 'total theatre' that Artaud, Claudel and the German director Erwin Piscator had dreamed of, in spite of, or perhaps because of, having to use improvised spaces; the second of these was a large tent erected inside a railway station, the Gare d'Orsay, that still had occasional use: the arrival and departure of trains could sometimes be clearly heard during performances. Areas around the tent were used for foyers, bars and a restaurant, the latter looking like a giant salon with areas filled with old chaises-longues and antique furniture that had been donated by sympathisers.
With the restoration of Barrault to official favour, the company was moved by the Ministry of Culture from its theatre-in-a-tent to the Right Bank; Giscard d'Estaing wanted the old station to create a new museum to be named after himself, but he lost the presidency before the work was completed. The Compagnie Renaud-Barrault now found itself in the old Palais des Glaces, and they began to perform in the newly named Theatre du Rond-Point. Better subsidised than ever, they continued to do important work along the same lines, but in the grand-bourgeois Right Bank they never quite recaptured the old atmosphere. With advanced age, both Barrault and Renaud appeared less frequently in front of the public and it was the much younger Barrault who retired from acting first, although he continued to be seen daily around the theatre.
Acting with the company were Madeleine Renaud's son, Jean-Pierre Grandval, and Barrault's niece. They never had children together. The company has been seen in many countries: it has always toured widely abroad and to major festivals; the tours helped to keep the company going during the years of official disapproval, which ended some time after the death of de Gaulle.
A great beauty in her younger days, Renaud remained a striking and handsome woman all her life. Set beside her achievements on stage, her film career was comparatively small. In 1936, she appeared in Helene (Barrault was also in the cast), and more recently starred with Yves Montand in Le Diable par la queue (1968), and in La Mandarine (1972) and La Lumiere du Lac (1988).
Madeleine Renaud received many honours, was a Commander of the Legion of Honour, a Grand Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters and was awarded the Medal of the City of Paris and the Grand Prix du Theatre. She always remained a simple, unaffected professional, a little less out-going and more private than her husband, with no claims to intellectuality but, like Ashcroft, she was superbly at home on stage, having perfect diction, a musical voice and a flexibility that enabled her to play a queen or a peasant with equal conviction.
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