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The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography - Page 2
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The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography
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    Saint-Denis seized the occasion and over the next several months, he reconstituted the Copiaus to his own specifications as the Compagnie des Quinze, named for its fifteen members. A young, talented, novelist with playwriting ambitions, André Obey, joined the group. It seemed an ideal match. Director, actors, and playwright shared a desire to experiment with popular culture forms, to explore mythologies, and to revive poetic drama in ways relevant to contemporary audiences. For Saint-Denis poetic drama was the antithesis of naturalism whose attempts to replicate the details of everyday life he found anti-art. While he appreciated lyrical language, it was not a prerequisite. Yet expressive elevated language contains a quality indispensable to his concept of theatrical poetry – the enhancement and transcending of reality. While director of the theatricalist Compagnie des Quinze, the productions he mounted were ritualistic, movement-based, and made use of rhythmic and/or choral speech. Scenery was symbolic and minimalist. In Saint-Denis’ later career, his view of poetic theatre expanded to include certain realistic texts such as the Chekhov’s plays. In staging these plays, he represented their poetic qualities in a subtler fashion, emphasizing their atmospheric qualities.

    With a company playwright refining and elaborating their dialogue, the Quinze found they could focus less on low comedy than in their Copiaus years, though it remained integral to their work. The repertory became more eclectic often treating deeper subject matter, which they anticipated would be well received by urban audiences. Although the Copiaus had worked on serious themes in their training improvisations, none had reached performance stage. They turned back to these for the first two productions Obey did with the Quinze Noé (Noah) and Le Viol de Lucrèce (a dramatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s poem “The Rape of Lucretia”). Saint-Denis had long thought the biblical story would suit the company’s particular abilities. The Copiaus had yearned to tackle a Shakespearean work. Like all the plays that Obey created with and for them (six in total) they were presentational and symbolist in style.

    The introduction of a playwright did not profoundly affect the troupe’s rehearsal methods, unique at the time, but one of various traditional techniques in today’s collectives. In the early rehearsal phase, Saint-Denis, the actors, designers, and “playwright” participated in long planning discussions. Under Saint-Denis’ watchful eye, the actors developed themes and characters through improvisation. Stylistic aspects were worked on throughout the rehearsal procedure. Unlike some later versions of collective creation, the director – always Saint-Denis – was present at every stage of the work. The reason, in part, was that Saint-Denis functioned as a company actor, but it was more directly attributable to the company’s production history and Saint-Denis’ meticulousness.  

    The Quinze actors regarded themselves as an egalitarian company in which no member was subordinate to any other. Tasks overlapped and the actors’ multiple preparatory responsibilities involved designing, building sets and costumes, mask-making, and administration. While they had never considered working without a director or even sharing directing duties amongst the company, they insisted on an equal voice in decision-making. Nonetheless, by virtue of their standing, Saint-Denis and Obey were able to act independently of the company. Obey, in particular, was in a strong position, since he brought a patron willing to fund a percentage of the Quinze’s expenses. 

    Conflicts arose quickly. Saint-Denis with Obey’s approval cast Pierre Fresnay, a star who wanted to stretch himself artistically, as the lead in Noé. It seemed clear to the actors that Fresnay was meant to ward off box office failure. They regarded the decision as a lack of faith in their mission and their acting abilities. This decision marked an important change in their relationship and in Saint-Denis’ view of the directorial role. While collaboration remained crucial to their process, the final word was Saint-Denis’. This was reflected in his directing style, which since he was working with more literary scripts, put greater emphasis on the actor as textual interpreter. However, the mise en scène continued to stress imagery, sound, and movement.

     The Fresnay contretemps notwithstanding, the troupe rehearsed enthusiastically, convinced that their long apprenticeship would be rewarded and that the innovative Noé and Lucrèce would impart a new conception of theatre to Parisian audiences. Disappointingly, reviews for Noé, the Quinze’s premiere production, were mixed, several uncomprehending. Undoubtedly discouraging for Saint-Denis was that the more positive reviews credited the productions’ success to Copeau. The artistic director and his actors were still perceived as “Copeau’s children.” This identification of the Quinze with Copeau continued, much to Saint-Denis’ frustration. Certainly, Saint-Denis and his actors acknowledged that their point of departure had been Copeau’s aesthetic and his mises en scène at the Vieux-Colombier. But the Quinze had expanded upon Copeau’s accomplishments. Surprising today is that their pioneering approach – collective creation – went unremarked. Audiences were also divided in their opinion. Fresnay, who soon left the show, was not the drawing card Saint-Denis and Obey had expected. Lucrèce, which alternated with Noé, was greeted more favorably. Nevertheless, only alternative theatre practitioners such as Charles Dullin fully valued the Quinze’s achievements.

    Invited to London to perform in the summer of 1931, Saint-Denis and his troupe dazzled its theatre world. Critics, audiences, theatre artists acclaimed their originality, so different from the British theatre of the time, which was locked in tradition and convention. Both Noé, the comic piece, and Lucrèce, the tragic, made use of a chorus and masks. Both contemporized ancient forms: Noé, the medieval mystery play; Lucrèce, the theatre of the English Renaissance and the Japanese Noh. While the British appreciated the texts, it was the productions’ visual aspects that enchanted the most. Unusually for the era, some of the notices detailed the blocking.

    As Le Viol de Lucrèce is emblematic of Saint-Denis’ mise en scène at this phase , a brief description is in order. In working out his directing scheme, Saint-Denis went beyond than the text and merged four distinct styles: Medieval, Renaissance, Greek tragedy, and the Noh. In essence, the Noh form combines drama, dance, music, and poetry and is performed by two actors and a chorus. The principal actor called the shite, relates the story through dance, playing multiple masked characters, some supernatural; the secondary actor, the waki, supplies most of the exposition; the chorus, accompanied by music, narrates the shite’s climactic dance.  Similarly, Lucrèce makes use of narrative devices, two récitants or commentators, and a chorus. Unlike the Noh, Lucrèce has two main characters, the eponymous heroine and her rapist Tarquin.  The male récitant recounted Tarquin’s story, the female, Lucrèce’s. To highlight their almost supernatural role as observers of human frailties, they wore half-masks, longhaired wigs, and flowing gowns, making them androgynous in appearance. In a sense, they commingled the role of waki and shite.

    The récitants sat on tall thrones on either side of the set for most of the action; the waki too remains seated on the side of the stage during most of the play. Lucrèce played the majority of her scenes center stage, similarly to the shite. On the one hand, the opening scenes in which she was surrounded by her maids spinning brought to mind images of medieval tapestries; on the other, their dreamlike tempo was inspired by the Noh.

    The play’s climactic moment is obviously the rape, a scene that would be difficult to stage even today because of its primal sexual brutality. Saint-Denis’ production attenuated the graphic aspects through symbolic movement, gesture, and sound, which served as distancing devices. To illustrate: the scene began as “a bell of delicate timbre struck twelve.” After a long moment, the female commentator entered slowly, crossed to her place, the tinkle of keys at her belt gently breaking the stillness, sat and slept. Paradoxically, those two soothing sounds created an ominous mood, preparing the way for Tarquin’s stealthful approach. Tarquin mimed his way through the palace moving through invisible winding corridors to Lucrèce’s bedroom to the accompaniment of the male narrator’s account of the rapist’s lascivious imaginings. The female described what she saw. As Tarquin neared Lucrèce, the rhythm intensified; the narrator’s voices were broken, gasping with fear. Tarquin opened the bed’s blue draperies – the blue of the immaculate conception, noted one critic – revealing Lucrèce’s vulnerable sleeping body, reached out and touched her breast. She awoke with a frightened cry. The narrators turned their heads aside as Lucrèce pleaded, prayed, and sobbed to no avail. Tarquin responded cruelly, insisting on fulfilling his desire. Now speaking for themselves, the two were fully enacting their own drama. This scene moved the play closer to realism, yet its rhythmic and incantatory speech patterns represented a very different style. The scene ended with Lucrèce thrown back on the bed, her face bathed in light, moaning piteously, as the curtains closed. This stylization of violence was not lost on the critics, who were touched, entranced, not repulsed.

    Partly out of necessity – the company never found a home – partly for aesthetic reasons, the Quinze employed an all-purpose architectural setting conceived by Saint-Denis and his scenographer André Barsacq that was easy to transport. It consisted of a collapsible stage, which could be assembled in multiple arrangements: flat, raked, or divided into platforms as required. Suspended from the flies, and encircling the stage on three sides was a tent-like structure, whose sides could be left hanging or rolled up. Simple, suggestive props and set pieces were designed for each production. This frankly theatrical setting, at once antique and modernist, was reminiscent of both the Commedia dell’Arte trestle stage and a circus tent – factors contributing to the unity of their non-realist productions.

    Saint-Denis’ concern for style included scene design, acting space, and playhouse. Throughout his career, he collaborated closely with his designers, usually long-term colleagues. As he moved away from the presentational and mostly symbolist repertory of his early years, he became involved in developing a flexible stage for theatres that would work for a broader range of plays. Given that style was his principal interest, it is noteworthy that as a director he limited himself to a fairly narrow repertoire. But all that lay in his future. This French practitioner, whose background, culture and practice differed strikingly from his British counterparts, would become a dominant influence for theatrical change in his adoptive country.

    The Quinze visit to London was mutually advantageous for Saint-Denis and a  rising generation of British progressive theatre practitioners. With a few notable exceptions, European innovations had been largely ignored in England. London’s West End leaned towards drawing room comedies, melodrama, and musical revues; the predominant mode of acting was naturalistic underplaying; scene design was generally outmoded; the director was not yet a force. The Old Vic, committed to productions of Shakespearean plays, provided an option to commercial theatre for audiences, actors, and directors. Rare alternative companies presented either an unusual repertory and/or staging methods, but like the Old Vic, were financially starved. What these troupes accomplished was to introduce a rising generation of idealistic practitioners to novel modes of theatre. For them, the Quinze, with its emphasis on ensemble playing and singular style of combining the text with theatricalist sound and movement techniques, seemed to be the future. Artists such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peggy Ashcroft, Tyrone Guthrie, to name only a few, turned to Michel Saint-Denis for counsel.

    Saint-Denis, excited by the interest in him, but immersed in the Compagnie des Quinze, returned to France and André Obey to create another work. The play was La Bataille de la Marne, loosely based on an improvisation about the anguish of war that the troupe had explored in its Copiaus days. Here war was particularized, commemorating the World War I battle in which emergency troops were dispatched in Paris taxis to stop the advance of the German army. The script has Brechtian overtones, although the Quinze were unaware of his work. Less linear than Lucrèce, it shared similarities of form: a messenger commented on the mimed action, characters were archetypal, and it contained a chorus. A suffering woman represented France, Saint-Denis played the multiple roles of a peasant, mayor, doctor, and taxi driver; a female chorus dressed as peasant women embodied the French provinces; a male chorus, the army. The play was also notable for its use of “grummelotage,” an invented language of sound and movement that the Copiaus had experimented with. From today’s vantage point, La Bataille de la Marne seems a further progression in the Quinze’s search for a new theatre. But while it had its champions among artists and intellectuals, who praised its stunning tableaux, critical notices varied. 
    Old problems resurfaced: rivalry, discouragement, fatigue caused by constant touring, financial difficulties, distrust of an authority figure – now Saint-Denis, in place of Copeau – lack of material. Gifted as he was, Obey could not supply the company’s entire repertory. It was difficult to find other dramatists capable of meeting the Quinze’s demands. Actors began to leave the company. Saint-Denis struggled to replace them with the kind of actor he needed. While there were numerous candidates, none had the requisite training. The Depression caused their patron to withdraw her support. In 1934, in a last ditch effort to keep the diminished company alive, Saint-Denis returned to London to raise money.