John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

One of France's great unknown performers retires from the street
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The Independent Online

One of the greatest French theatrical artists of his generation has been forced to retire through ill-health.

His name is John Guez. You have never heard of him. Neither have most people in France. His audiences have included tens of thousands of people over the years. They never knew his name.

For almost 30 years, M. Guez performed on the esplanade outside the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He was not so much a street performer or street actor as a street playwright; a street theatre director; a street impressario.

By pretending to be a magician or a musician, he would gather a crowd of tourists and passers-by. He would then cajole a dozen people - adults or children - into acting out sprawling, spiralling, absurd, compelling, hilarious, life-affirming dramas in which fairy tales would collide with news and politics.

If you have ever been to the Centre Pompidou, at any time since it opened in 1977, you may have seen John Guez in action. His sole props were a saw and a violin bow, a red scarf and a crumpled hat. He would give his "actors" lines from Les Misèrables or Little Red Riding Hood. He would ask the rest of the crowd to perform the sound effects. He would head off into a satire which would generally be anti-war, anti-pomposity, anti-politics, pro-children and pro-fun.

M. Guez was a bit like a non-mute version of Harpo Marx. He had the same mixture of malice, childlike wonder and good-heartedness. He even looked rather like one of the Marx brothers (like them, M. Guez is Jewish).

Sometimes, his plays never really took off. On other occasions they would last for an hour or more. By the end, both performers and audience - children and adults - would be weak with laughter.

On several occasions, couples approached M. Guez with their children and announced that they had met when he pulled them out of the crowd to act, say, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

I interviewed M. Guez eight years ago. He told me that he regarded himself as "part of the Maquis. Part of the Resistance against modern life, against the star system, against the world of fast food and the TV zapper. Every day I start with nothing. Every day, I force myself to perform better, to achieve something out of nothing. Every day is a victory over myself. I make a little money but my reward is to see the joy of others, and especially the joy of the children." The other day, M. Guez telephoned me out of the blue. I went to meet him at a café near to his old stamping ground at the Centre Pompidou.

Several months ago, M. Guez, 63, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage while at home. He was in a coma for some time. He has been left partially sighted and unable to perform, or as he used to say, "go out and play with the people on the street ... That's all finished now," he said. "I am too tired to start again. I had a wonderful life. I met many wonderful people but..." There have been no retirement tributes to M. Guez in the French press. Street performers come and go. No one tends to notice their passing.

Le Monde, however, published a very eloquent and sophisticated "theatre review" of M. Guez a couple of years ago. His act was described as a "great lesson in democracy, in philosophical humour, in logic applied to art. You come away cured of something: of tiredness with life; of being too serious; of melancholy neurosis." We went for a little walk to the town hall square. He showed me a scrapbook of messages that he had received from admirers including Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of the late president, and Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris. Other celebrities who have befriended him over the years, after discovering him through his street performances, include the movie director Stephen Spielberg and the late French novelist Marguerite Duras.

As we walked along, M. Guez occasionally showed flashes of his old skipping energy. His wit and bonhomie are certainly unimpaired.

He is retired, he said, but he would like to give one farewell performance. He would like to invite handicapped children to the Town Hall square and perform one of his impromptu versions of, say, a Shakespeare play. He would like the BBC to come and film it.

"Otherwise," he said. "I have a plan to open a patisserie. It would be like no other patisserie. Cakes would be free to everyone under the age of 10."