Obituary:Maria Casares

Maria Casares was the most outstanding French tragic actress of her generation. She was born in Spain but, because of enforced exile at the end of the Spanish Civil War, her career was entirely on the French stage and screen.

Unlike her seniors Edwige Feuillere and Madeleine Renaud, she brought an atavistic and foreboding sense of tragic destiny to her performances that made her unsuitable for comedy and the lighter theatre. She carried on the tradition of Sarah Bernhardt in performing the great roles of Greek tragedy and of the French classical theatre, Phedre being one of her most outstanding performances, but she also played a multiplicity of parts in plays by Ibsen and early moderns and by contemporary playwrights including Brecht, Genet, Anouilh, Sartre, Camus, Claudel and Edward Bond among others. She introduced J.M. Synge to the French public with a legendary production of Deirdre of the Sorrows in 1942 under the German occupation and shortly afterwards made her screen debut as Dubureau's wife Nathalie in Marcel Carne's great film Les Enfants du Paradis (1943). She was 21 at the time.

Although she made many films and her electrifying presence, with its dark beauty, innate smouldering passion and controlled violence - and most unforgettably of all her expressive eyes - made her an instant star, ideally suited to the cinema, she was happier and more at home in the theatre. No one could portray evil, especially evil destiny, better than she - Medea and Lady Macbeth were only two of the parts that gave her such opportunities - but she is well remembered, and still can be seen, in Jean Cocteau's classic films, Orphee (1949) and Le Testament d'Orphee (1959), where she played Death.

The timeless quality of her mythological roles was unique. She was an actress of great intelligence and her autobiography, Residente privilegiee (referring to the words on her French identity card), published in 1980, testifies to her intellectual breadth, political commitment and literary skill. Like Proust she was able to bring her past, especially her early Spanish experiences, into the present, through an association of objects, places, people and allusions, so that her book is a series of fragments linked by memory.

Her knowledge and sense of history helped her to understand the events and motivations that lay behind so many of the roles she played, and she became a real avatar of her characters on stage and screen. During the Spanish Civil War she had been, at the age of 14, a voluntary nurse in Madrid hospitals, working to exhaustion tending the wounded, aware of real tragedy hourly before her eyes, and of the particularly Spanish stoic courage and mordant humour displayed by the suffering and dying Republican defendants of the city. Her father, Santiago Casares Quiroga, was a member of the Republican government, and in 1936 he and the whole family just managed to flee to France before the border was closed.

The next six years were difficult for the family, staying in cheap hotels with little money, but Maria Casares learned French and on her 20th birthday, in the Theatre des Mathurins, she opened in Deirdre of the Sorrows, her first part, to immediate fame; and thereafter never looked back.

Her incredible eyes, that could express anger, scorn, hatred or the menace of eternity, but also love and incandescent passion, her noble bearing, which made her so suitable for the great female dramatic parts, and her deep expressive voice attracted all the major playwrights of the day, and she was in constant demand both for modern plays and by the great state-funded drama companies, the Comedie-Francaise and Jean Vilar's Theatre National Populaire (TNP), to play the classics. She was with the former company from 1952 to 1954, and opened the first seasons of the Avignon Festival with Vilar, which introduced her to many Shakespeare parts.

She subsequently joined the TNP where she starred with Gerard Philipe in Le Cid and in many other plays, touring America and Europe as well as playing in Paris. She appeared many times with the Renaud-Barrault company in their seasons at the Odeon and during Jean-Louis Barrault's later odyssies in improvised theatrical spaces, after de Gaulle removed the subsidy in 1968.

Maria Casares was a private person who liked to return to her house in the country to prepare her parts, think and read. She married another actor, "Dade" Schlesser, in 1978, with whom she had played together on the stage for many years, especially at the TNP, where he was only junior to Vilar; he was an Alsatian of gypsy origin. His sardonic sense of humour - during the war he was imprisoned for five days for saying to a German officer with a straight face that he had never heard of Adolf Hitler - and philosophical bent, exactly matched her own, and he became the companion of her later years. She was on the stage until only a few months before her death.

John Calder

Maria Casares, actress: born La Coruna, Spain 21 November 1922; married 1978 Dade Schlesser; died Paris 22 November 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?