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The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography
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ImageBiography written by Jane Baldwin, in Theatre : The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings, Routledge Press (to be published in 2008)

This biography, written by Jane Baldwin (2007) is part of the introduction to the reissue of Saint-Denis works, entitled Theatre : The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings, to be published by Routledge Press in 2008.

 Jane Baldwin, who holds a Ph.D. in theatre from Tufts University is a member of The Boston Conservatory faculty, where she teaches Acting, Dramatic Literature, and Humanities.  She is the author of Michel Saint-Denis and the Shaping of the Modern Actor.  She has edited a reissue of Saint-Denis works, entitled Theatre :  The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings to be published by Routledge Press in 2008.  Her articles (in English and French) on acting, training, and production analysis have appeared in Theatre History Studies, Theatre Topics, Theatre Notebook, and L’Annuaire théâtral, among other publications.  She is presently writing a biography entitled A National Drama:  Jean Gascon and the Development of Canadian Theatre, which is being published by Southern Illinois University Press.


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ImageThe Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis

Michel Saint-Denis was a notable actor, writer, director, and teacher of the mid-twentieth century whose theatrical reforms influenced the direction of the French, American, Canadian, and British theatre. Throughout his career the thrust of his work was the search for style. The essential question of style was: how can the director, actor, and designer create a production which is true to the play and the dramatist’s world and speaks to the contemporary audience? Integrity underlies style. This was the principal value he sought to instill in his students.

    Saint-Denis was born on September 13, 1897 in Beauvais, France, a provincial town approximately 60 miles north of Paris, best known for its cathedral. His only sibling, Suzanne, was born four years later. Once well-to-do, the family had fallen on hard times due to Michel’s father gambling and lack of business acumen. Fortunately, for Michel’s future, his mother Marguerite turned to her brother the theatre director Jacques Copeau for help. The Saint-Denis family soon moved to Versailles to be closer to the Copeaus. To Michel, Copeau was everything his father Charles was not and the boy soon became his adoring disciple, spending as much time as he could at his uncle’s Paris apartment.  Copeau’s reputation as a critic, writer, actor, and director was in its ascendancy. He was supported in his efforts by his friends, among them leading French intellectuals and writers of the day: André Gide, Jules Romains, Roger Martin du Gard, Charles Péguy, and Paul Claudel. Much of Saint-Denis’ boyhood was spent metaphorically at these men’s feet listening to his uncle discourse with them, an experience that shaped his cultural and artistic outlook.

    But the major inspiration in his life was Copeau’s Vieux Colombier Theatre, which opened in 1913. Fascinated, even obsessed by his uncle’s theatre, Saint-Denis, still a lycée student, often skipped school to watch rehearsals and make himself useful. He felt himself part of his uncle’s experiment to restore the theatre to its central place in the human community. Copeau’s self-imposed mission of “renovating” the theatre had multiple tasks including the rediscovery of theatrical form through an investigation of its illustrious eras; upgrading the quality of acting; the development of a poetic dramaturgy; the creation of a new theatrical architecture; and most important, the establishment of a drama school that would train students to fulfill Copeau’s vision.

    The Vieux-Colombier had completed one season when World War I broke out putting the theatre on hold for the duration and interrupting Saint-Denis’ theatrical apprenticeship. Fresh out of the lycée, Saint-Denis was called up by the army in 1916. He served four years, often on the front lines, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for courage.  These years affected him profoundly, exposing him to a broader spectrum of people, foreign countries, the horrors of war, and, for the first time, leadership, as he rose through the ranks from private to lieutenant. Nevertheless, the theatre was never far from his mind as his correspondence with Copeau indicates. He dreamed of the day when he could dedicate himself completely to his uncle’s teachings.

     1920 to 1924 were formative years for Saint-Denis. He functioned as a general factotum at the reopened Vieux-Colombier, assuming whatever tasks were assigned him – company secretary, box office manager, public relations, stage manager, and rehearsal assistant – learning the profession from the bottom up, eventually making his acting début in 1922.  Although never formally a student at the Vieux-Colombier school, he frequently attended its unorthodox classes, learning from observation. The opportunity to direct a school show, Amahl ou la lettre du roi, in 1924 was the reward for his talent and assiduousness. The school, which emphasized movement – dance, gymnastics, circus techniques – had an extemporaneous flavor. To stimulate their imaginations, the students, frequently unsupervised, worked on improvisations. Despite Copeau’s interest in the school, he seldom taught classes, his time taken up with directing, acting, and the duties of artistic director.

    In 1924, Copeau, dissatisfied with the Vieux-Colombier despite its artistic success, closed his theatre and led a group of followers – Saint-Denis, his pupils, and several actors – to the countryside in Burgundy to concentrate on practical research in pursuit of his larger goal of theatrical renewal. In Burgundy, classes resumed with everyone, actors and students alike, participating except Copeau. Those who had a particular expertise in a discipline taught the others.  Frustrated by ongoing classwork that led only to further classwork and Copeau’s inconsistent governance and remoteness – he had undergone a religious conversion – the actors and students made a group decision to form a theatre troupe. Most were inexperienced; all were idealistic and saw their company as a vital step towards the hoped-for theatrical revolution. In part because of a dearth of suitable material, they began developing their improvisations into performance pieces, inadvertently originating twentieth-century collective creation. Despite their democratic ethos, they felt the necessity of a director. Saint-Denis, by virtue of talent, force of personality, and experience in the rehearsal hall, was appointed. Copeau retained unspecified powers.

    Generating a repertory, audience-building, and developing their skills into a personal style were the order of the day. The repertory had to appeal to an untested public, the winegrowers of the region, most of whom had never seen a play. Comedy, particularly physical farce, offered the best hope for success. It drew on much of their previous training and would likely attract a rural audience. The troupe, dubbed the Copiaus (Copeau’s children in the regional dialect), turned to Molière’s farces and the Commedia dell’Arte for inspiration. At first, performances consisted of several selections. A typical program might be composed of an existing 17th or 18th century one-act comedy, a musical and/or movement selection, and a collective creation piece.

    The Copiaus toured the region customarily playing on Sundays and at harvest festivals, free time for the vineyard workers. The actors’ youth, verve, acrobatic, and clowning skills won over their audiences. Their response prompted the Copiaus to develop material that would relate to their public’s lives. In an attempt to create prototypical characters, they ventured into the domain of comic masks. Saint-Denis, an actor with the troupe as well as its director, was the most successful in the troupe creating two masked characters that were incorporated into productions. The company began touring more widely, going as far afield as Switzerland and Belgium. Their achievements and growing renown pushed them into developing more complex and longer creations.

    Although the Copiaus practiced collective creation avant la lettre, they differed in an essential way from their descendants of the 60s and 70s. Unlike the later collectives that were activated by political considerations, the Copiaus were impelled by an artistic quest. Their dreams remained Copeau’s, although tension between the company and their mentor had deepened.  The Copiaus looked to Copeau to provide material for their productions. He responded intermittently, at times developing a text with and for them, at others withdrawing. More of the writing and generating of ideas were taken on by Saint-Denis. On occasion, Saint-Denis, sometimes in concert with Jean Villard, one of the actors, toured the countryside interviewing the inhabitants and observing them at work, an anthropological approach to making theatre that would be further exploited by others in the 1960s and 70s, the golden age of collective creation. Their resulting highly theatrical performances combined mime, dance, choral speech, song, and mask. But story lines tended to be weak, a frequent shortcoming of collective creation. 

    The Copiaus were growing restive. While they had accomplished much in their five years in Burgundy, life remained hard, salaries nominal. Their communal existence gave rise to jealousies, competition, and strain. Copeau’s periodic reassertion of power combined with his perennial dissatisfaction eroded the company’s self-confidence. This was particularly true in the case of Saint-Denis, whose sense of autonomy was worn down by Copeau’s incompatible demands – on the one hand, requesting Saint-Denis to assume complete responsibility for the Copiaus and, on the other, undermining his authority. In May of 1929, Copeau unexpectedly disbanded the troupe.