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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future