Accueil Biographies Biographies en anglais The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography - Page 3
The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography - Page 3
Article Index
The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
All Pages

    After the Quinze’s four annual tours, Saint-Denis was well aware that his work as an actor and director was respected in England. The company remained a model for theatre organizations like England’s Group Theatre. Saint-Denis rudimentary English notwithstanding, he had made valuable contacts. Importantly, two of the later recruits to the Quinze, Marius Goring and Vera Poliakoff, had come to it from London. Goring and Poliakoff had entrée into a select group of young and ambitious theatre practitioners, among whom were Saint-Denis’ future colleagues George Devine and the designers known as Motley (Margaret Harris, Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Montgomery). Warmly welcomed into this coterie, Saint-Denis found little, if any, support for resuscitating the Quinze. Instead, he was encouraged to remain in England and join forces with them in as yet an undefined collaboration. As Saint-Denis put it: “Without realizing it, I was consorting with those who were to shape the English theatre for the next thirty years.”

    It was a painful decision to make. He would be cutting himself off from his language, culture, family and his acting career. (His heavy, indeed almost comical, accent eliminated that possibility.) At the same time, England offered him an artistic independence unavailable to him in France, where he remained in his uncle’s shadow. Ultimately, he was persuaded by Tyrone Guthrie’s offer of 1,300 pounds to establish a school. Other contributions followed. The London Theatre Studio (LTS) was founded in 1935 as a “non-conforming” school open to experimentation whose course offerings exceeded those of a conventional drama program. Despite or perhaps because of Saint-Denis’ “anxiety of influence,” he borrowed from Copeau’s pedagogical theories, but added his own amendments.

    LTS, the first of six training institutes Saint-Denis established, served as the prototype for the others. (The earlier school planned for the Quinze was never fully instituted because of economic problems.) Saint-Denis believed that a drama school and a permanent theatre company committed to research should exist in symbiosis, one nourishing the other. Accordingly, he envisaged a theatre company for LTS from the beginning. Saint-Denis’ ideal drama school was a self-contained institution whose larger goal was the transformation of the theatre. To this end, LTS’ two-year program developed actors, designers, stage managers and technicians. Its curriculum made it exceptional at a time when drama schools taught acting, future designers studied at art institutes, and stage managers and technicians learned on the job. At LTS all aspects of the instruction were integrated. Its future practitioners shared a single vision of theatre. The faculty was made up of working professionals.

    LTS’ acting course had three sections: one for students, another for professionals, and a third French section for students with speaking proficiency. Its rationale was that performing in French would improve diction. In practice, the course did not work out because of insufficient enrollment, just six students of varying abilities in French and acting. Beginners were cast in productions alongside professionals like Vera Poliakoff and even Saint-Denis. Sadly for Saint-Denis, its removal from the curriculum effectively ended his opportunities to act in England.

    Professional actors – sixteen in the school’s first term – attended classes geared toward their level. Most famously, Alec Guinness was coached by Saint-Denis and Laurence Olivier took a theatrical gymnastics class. It was Saint-Denis’ hope that the professionals would form a talent pool for the projected company. However, the main thrust of the acting program was the student section. Its broad curriculum – judged radical in many quarters – encompassed voice, speech, music, movement, silent and spoken improvisation, comic and tragic mask, text, theatre history, and performance. In the initial stages of training, written texts were considered secondary; emphasis was on improvisation, both masked and unmasked.  Tragic or neutral mask was deemed less accessible than comic and required a longer training. In the comic version a character frequently sprang into existence when the student first donned the mask.  Saint-Denis also introduced aspects of the Stanislavsky System into the acting program, unexpected given his anti-naturalistic bias. But conversely, his conception of truth in acting demanded a balance between external and internal techniques.

    In 1937, LTS inaugurated the practice of a public performance by its graduating students, a test not only for the graduates, but the training as a whole. In general, critical response was highly favorable. Directed by the instructors, most of the production was in the hands of the students. In keeping with the school’s philosophy, technical students played bit parts and acting students assisted on the technical side. Typically, this annual event incorporated one act of an Elizabethan drama, of a classic comedy, and of a poetic modern drama. A new work developed in the improvisation classes was the most experimental part of the program. Collective creation for Saint-Denis survived as a training tool.   

Shows were presented in LTS’ two-hundred seat theatre designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. Saint-Denis worked closely with Breuer, as he had with the designer of the Quinze’s stage. The result for LTS was a modernized version of a Georgian stage. As such, it was useful for both presentational and representational productions, denoting a change in Saint-Denis’ repertoire. The apron, with a door on either side, was an acting area that could be entered directly from the wings. Above each door was a balcony that could also be used to stage scenes.

    Concurrently with teaching and running the school, Saint-Denis was active as a  director. During this period, with varying degrees of success, he mounted nine plays professionally, an enormous learning experience for him as well as for those he worked with. His début play was Noah (an English-language version of Noé) mounted per request of John Gielgud, eager to benefit from what he perceived as the Saint-Denis magic touch. It was a transitional production in that Saint-Denis was working with Quinze material, but without the specially trained ensemble that made the production so memorable. In spite of a talented cast that included Alec Guinness, Jessica Tandy, Marius Goring, and John Gielgud in the title role, it was a shadow of the original.  The actors lacked the movement ability, mask training, and ensemble spirit, while the usual English three weeks of rehearsal were inadequate for a director accustomed to several months of preparation. The production pleased the critics, but only reinforced Saint-Denis’ conviction that a permanent company and school were essential for the reform of British theatre and the development of his own career in England. Without a permanent company of his own, he would be a transient director at the behest of others.

Shortly after Noah, Saint-Denis bid farewell to the Quinze era and began experimenting with Jacobean drama. In 1936, Tyrone Guthrie invited him to direct the obscure Witch of Edmonton at the Old Vic, which starred the distinguished actress Edith Evans. Saint-Denis staged it surrealistically, for which he was attacked by traditional reviewers who found it “arty,” an opprobrium that would stick. Unknowingly, Saint-Denis had stepped into dangerous and sacrosanct territory, the classical British theatre. Still, The Witch of Edmonton was not without its fans. Laurence Olivier, keen to play Macbeth and drawn by Saint-Denis’ fresh approach, asked him to direct it. Expressionistic in style, the production was conceived as a projection of Macbeth’s mind.  The eerie lighting, immense set pieces and costumes reflected his delusional state, as did the fantastical masks worn by the witches and Banquo. Again, the same critics assailed Saint-Denis’ experimentalism. Imagistic qualities that they had praised in the Quinze productions were too avant-garde, too “foreign” for their national playwright. Years later, Margaret Harris, one of the Motley designers, ascribed the hostile reviews to xenophobia. For her, Saint-Denis’ classical productions had “an excitement and character that was unique and thrilling,” but “unappreciated” by the critical community at the time.

While Saint-Denis might not have lived up to the critics’ expectations, he remained an inspiration, leader, and innovator in the theatre profession. And so it was that John Gielgud, in charge of the 1937-38 season at the Queen’s Theatre, turned to Saint-Denis to direct Three Sisters in 1938. Three Sisters was a decided stylistic departure from Saint-Denis’ earlier professional productions.  Realism was still new to him, although at LTS, he had begun exploring it to prepare students to tackle not only classic, but modern theatre. Saint-Denis distinguished between realism and what he termed “the mud of naturalism.” For him, naturalism dealt with the detailed depiction of the banal and the sordid, while realism at its best, as in the plays of Chekhov, portrays more universal themes, is more lyrical in style, and is “capable of [expressing] the essence of … life itself.” The two forms are similar in that each recounts a tale of contemporary issues faced by contemporary characters living in contemporary times. 

Two factors enabled Saint-Denis to hone his handling of Chekhov. He had a stellar cast – numbering among them John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, and George Devine – and Gielgud gave him two months of rehearsal. Saint-Denis’ preparation included a comprehensive study of the recently published translation of An Actor Prepares. In 1922, he had been impressed by Stanislavsky’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Now Saint-Denis looked to the master’s book to discover techniques that would result in the spontaneity and internal truth that had moved him in The Cherry Orchard. In what might seem a paradoxical approach to finding the improvisational quality of Stanislavsky’s production, Saint-Denis meticulously blocked the script prior to rehearsal. He did not, however, discard improvisation as a rehearsal technique. Using exercises analogous to sense memory, the cast spent days creating mood and atmosphere. The effect was to deepen their characterizations. As can be seen in production photographs and critical comments, Saint-Denis integrated physical characterization in modified form into Three Sisters. The dance-like movement of the Quinze was transformed into more representational gesture and motion, but still carefully choreographed. The long and unfamiliar approach to developing a play stimulated the actors’ imaginations and produced ensemble playing of a quality unknown in British productions. Critical consensus was that Saint-Denis had rethought the essence of Chekhov, whom the English had long considered depressing. He was lauded for being the first in England to bring out the humor of Chekhov’s drama. Reactions were summed up in this comment: “We shall never see this production of Three Sisters surpassed and we owe homage to the genius of M. Michel Saint-Denis that he has given it to us.”