WITH the death of Jean-Louis Barrault, the distinguished actor-manager, we have lost the last direct link with the Cartel des Quatre: Copeau, Jouvet, Dullin and Baty, the great French inter-war theatre innovators who were much more directly linked to contemporary writers and painters than any counterparts in Britain.
Barrault, a student of Dullin, was especially associated with the difficult poetic drama of Claudel and, among classic authors, with Marivaux, whose sharp-witted elegance suited him and his wife, Madeleine Renaud, perfectly.
Ultra-physical, exquisitely stylised as director and actor, Barrault's spare, straight-backed figure and romantic intensity on stage were unforgettable. His performances in great classic roles such as Hamlet and Le Misanthrope are said to have suffered from his vocal limitations - his voice was light and lacked variety.
As a visual high comedian, however, his timing and grace were irresistible. I remember wonderfully weird performances in two surreal Ionesco plays: an astonishing cameo of an ancient clerk in Feydeau's Occupe-toi d'Amelie, whose walk Max Wall could not have surpassed; another vignette, wildly exuberant if slightly tone deaf, as the Brazilian in La Vie Parisienne, one of his own happiest productions.
I last saw him at the Old Vic in Rabelais, his Hair-era musical tribute to the writer. To see curly-haired, puckish Barrault, in his late fifties, quite unselfconsciously 'bopping' among his young dancers, was to appreciate his unforced youthfulness. I remember Colin Blakeley in the interval asking: 'Could any of our leading actors do that?'
His world-famous film performance as Baptiste, the tragic clown and lover in Les Enfants du Paradis, encompasses all Barrault's mimetic and romantic qualities and his sense of period. It escapes sentimentality by sheer raw feeling and the occasional hard edge. In the pre- war absurdist comedy, Drole de Drame, as a gentle but insane killer, he marvellously burlesqued his own intensity.
We are lucky indeed to have Barrault preserved on film - Les Enfants is continually shown - so that generations to come can appreciate the beauty and sheer skill of his sense of movement; nearly always more highly developed in continental actors than in our own.
If his achievements as actor-director appear to have been greatest in lighter, rather than more solemn drama, they remain special and memorable; of a piece with this charming, elusive, quicksilver artist's own unique presence.
Jean-Louis Barrault, born Le Vesinet, near Paris, 1910. Stage debut 1931, directorial debut 1935. Comedie Francaise 1940-1946. Created Renaud-Barrault company with wife Madeleine Renaud in 1946. Between 1946 and 1994 he staged and performed in works by or adapted from Beckett, Rabelais, Genet, Shakespeare, Anouilh, Cervantes, Kafka, Sartre, Racine and others. Appeared in more than 30 films. Died Paris, 22 January 1994.
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