Obituary: Jacques Lecoq

John Calder
Thursday 28 January 1999 01:02 GMT

ALTHOUGH HIS name was little known to the general public, even in France, Jacques Lecoq had a reputation in the theatre the importance of which can hardly be exaggerated. He was a teacher unlike any other, a perfectionist who inspired many - probably most - of the leading actors and dancers of his time and who brought the art of mime up to the level of the greatest acting.

He was also a taskmaster who accepted nothing less than perfection from those who worked with him and the stories of his severity are legendary. Those who could not achieve his standards had good reason to dislike him.

Born in Paris in 1921, he was interested in the theatre from early youth, but also in sport and his particular art lay in combining the two, teaching physical education when still a teenager and applying yoga principles to the art of movement, so that the body was always thought of as a whole, moving as one: mind, muscles, flesh and bone a single harmonious entity.

He persuaded Jacques Copeau, inheritor of the mantle of Stanislavsky, Gordon Craig and others revolting against the naturalist theatre, to allow him to introduce body movement into the training of his actors. Jean-Louis Barrault's famous mime scenes in Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) are a good example of the results he was able to achieve. Lecoq also took ideas from Antonin Artaud to bring greater physicality into the drama and get stronger reactions from audiences who were accustomed to being mildly entertained by plays about people like themselves.

He founded his own school in 1956 and numbered Yves Robert and the Freres Jacques among his early students and followers. He had more than 5,000 students from 70 countries and a high proportion came from Britain. To study for a while with Jacques Lecoq became a necessary part of an actor's training. Some, like the writer P.J. Kavanagh, who left the theatre shortly afterwards, have described the rigours of his course.

He taught more than mime, but it is for mime that he was best known, and also for bringing back into the theatre the poetic rituals of the 18th century and the commedia dell'arte, to which some of his followers, such as Dario Fo, have created a modern equivalent.

Most of the more experimental and successful current French troupes first developed their ideas from his teaching: they include Ariane Mnouchkine (of Theatre du Soleil), Jorge Lavelli, Luc Bondy and theatre and film directors from many countries. Many companies have actors, dancers, writers, architects and psychoanalysts who devise shows along his guidelines, such as the fashionable London-based Theatre de Complicite. Like Artaud and Barrault, Lecoq believed in a total theatre that would break down the artificial barrier between stage and audience.

After his period with Copeau, Lecoq went for a time to Padua, where he met the sculptor Amleto Sartori and developed an interest in masks and mask-making, which accorded well with the Italian comedies of Gozzi and Goldoni, from whom he had already developed new theatrical ideas.

This led to collaborations in plays using masks with Giorgio Strehler in Milan and elsewhere, and the stylised neutrality which a mask imposes on an actor became an important feature of his training. He performed himself, although infrequently, but those who saw his one-man show with its precision of gesture, total concentration and constant movement around a still point were fortunate.

Lecoq eschewed fashion and the various fads and short-lived movements - mainly to feed a particular ego - that paralleled his working life, remaining true to his own principles of discipline: control of body, and diction and movement experienced and projected as one. In a book of conversations assembled by two collaborators Jacques Lecoq explained his techniques and principles. It is entitled Le Corps poetique, un enseignement de la creation theatrale (1998). His school continues to this day, and the number of his pupils and followers will ensure that his ideas continue well into the future.

John Calder

Jacques Lecoq, actor and teacher: born Paris 15 December 1921; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Paris 19 January 1999.

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