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The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography - Page 4
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The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography
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A year later Saint-Denis’ life was again disrupted – this time in mid-rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard – by the outbreak of the Second World War. Called up to rejoin his old WWI regiment, he returned to France. In the span of four years in London he had accomplished much and laid the groundwork for future endeavors. He had acquired a team of disciples imbued with his methods. Through his teaching and productions, he had brought a seriousness of purpose to British theatre. He had introduced directing, architectural, scenic, and acting reforms. LTS trained actors to work as an ensemble, unlike standard drama programs whose focus was on developing stars. He had proven  that he could take charge and succeed in a foreign culture. And while he had given much to the British theatre, he had adopted and adapted what he felt was the best of their tradition. His projects were still incomplete, however. LTS’ anticipated theatre company never left the planning stage. The closest Saint-Denis had come to it was directing two plays for John Gielgud’s season with actors of own choosing and a few of his best students as supernumeraries and bit players. Whether the future held the possibility of attaining his ambitions was in 1939 an open question.   

Saint-Denis' time in the army ended when he was evacuated at Dunkirk after the French defeat in June of 1940. He returned to London anxious to participate in the war effort wherever he would be most valuable.  The BBC recruited him to play a vital role in an evolving idiom – radio propaganda. His assignment was to write, direct, and perform a half-hour daily program Les Français parlent aux Français whose purpose was to counteract the misinformation the Germans fed the occupied French. The longer-range goal was to arouse the French to rebel against their German masters. Saint-Denis had no previous radio experience nor, since this was the first war fought on the airwaves, was there a model for him to follow. As a man of the theatre, he was aware of the importance of captivating his audience and brought to the programming the tricks of the trade. He interspersed drama, news reporting, and topical comic sketches that employed contemporary stock characters. The program, forbidden to the French by their government, was avidly followed clandestinely. His honest journalism, which reported Allied losses as well as victories, swayed his information deprived audience. Under the nom de guerre of Jacques Duchesne, Saint-Denis became “the voice that does not deceive.” Saint-Denis’ alias served to protect his family in France from government retaliation. Ironically, Saint-Denis’ parents and sister, supporters of Marshall Pétain, the puppet leader of France, were alienated by the broadcasts.

In 1945, Saint-Denis was welcomed in liberated France as a hero. But he was unable to rejoice; his eldest son had been killed in battle three months before the war’s end fighting on the French side. Conflicted about his future – to stay in France or return to England – he mulled over possibilities. If he remained in France, he would be close to his two remaining children. But what direction would postwar French theatre take? Would there be support for the reforms he envisaged? He took an interim job as director of the English Service for the French national radio, but resigned because of unsatisfactory conditions. An offer to direct Laurence Olivier in Sophocles’ Oedipus at the Old Vic brought Saint-Denis back to London.

He was excited by the opportunity on a number of counts. It reunited him with Olivier, for Saint-Denis, the consummate actor. Saint-Denis had long been fascinated by Greek tragedy, but until now had investigated it only at LTS. Oedipus was unexplored territory in England where there had never been a professional homegrown performance.  Saint-Denis’ previous productions had few political overtones, but the five years he spent as a political commentator had affected his artistic viewpoint. In 1945 with the anguish of World War II an everyday fact of life, Saint-Denis wanted to draw connections between the mythical Greece of Sophocles and contemporary Europe. Among the examples he probed were the crushing force of irrationality – in Oedipus, the gods or fate, in the 20th century, fascism – and the rise and fall of a tyrant. Saint-Denis drew the parallels subtly, in part through a merging of styles, classicism with modernism. Ending his longtime collaboration with Motley, he engaged the artist John Piper, known for his eerily beautiful paintings of wartime devastation. Piper both an abstract and a representative artist combined the two styles in a striking, but spare set. Antony Hopkins’ dissonant music was contemporary with echoes of archaic times. While the occasional critic was uncomfortable with Greek conventions such as the chorus, Saint-Denis’ Oedipus was considered a landmark production on a par with his Three Sisters. Laurence Olivier’s bravura performance was widely praised. Perhaps the most telling indication of the production’s power was the bottle of smelling salts the theatre kept for spectators who fainted.

    Oedipus was the first step in a more extensive project that appeared to be the fulfillment of Saint-Denis’ ambitions, the Old Vic Theatre Centre. Olivier, artistic director of the Old Vic Company (along with Ralph Richardson and John Burrell), invited Saint-Denis to develop a training program. Although loosely connected to the parent company, the Centre operated independently, but was accountable to the Old Vic’s Board of Governors. Postwar government funding made it possible for Saint-Denis to formulate plans for a three-tiered institution that would consist of a school, a children’s theatre, and eventually an experimental theatre. Each level was to feed into the next. The children’s theatre (the Young Vic) would offer the best students their entrance into the professional theatre; the experimental theatre in turn would incorporate the best of those into a permanent company largely made up of more experienced actors. Saint-Denis intended the experimental theatre to be the testing ground for research in acting, directing, scenography, and dramaturgy.

    When the Centre was founded, the Old Vic Company was located at a West End playhouse. The Old Vic Theatre had suffered severe bomb damage; Saint-Denis was charged with its renovation for use by the Centre. For several years Saint-Denis and the French architect and scenographer Pierre Sonrel labored over its redesign. Key to Saint-Denis’ plans for the Centre was the development of new dramatists. He felt that a flexible stage would open the playwright’s imagination to the possibilities of theatre. Consequently, the Old Vic’s new stage included an extended forestage, which could be raised or lowered via a hydraulic elevator, changing the actor-audience relationship, an advance in theatre architecture.
    The Old Vic School (1947-1952) expanded and improved upon the work done at LTS, and became the preeminent drama school in the English-speaking world. One dynamic that worked in its favor was a larger talent pool, brought about by Saint-Denis’ increased reputation and government scholarships. Saint-Denis modified the curriculum through the creation of England’s first directing program and the inclusion of a playwright to work with the students on a collective creation. A few changes and additions to the faculty were made. Glen Byam Shaw, an actor who had worked under Saint-Denis, became director of the School, while Suria Magito headed up the Young Vic with George Devine. The responsibilities of Suria Magito, Saint-Denis’ second wife, continued to grow over time. Saint-Denis was to be in charge of the experimental theatre, which for complex reasons never materialized. But regardless of the sharing of administrative responsibilities, Saint-Denis was the final arbiter on all artistic, pedagogical, and administrative affairs.

In spite of the School’s success and groundbreaking methods of training actors, the Centre lost the Board’s support. (The Byzantine chronicle is treated at greater length in both my book Michel Saint-Denis and the Shaping of the Modern Actor and Irving Wardle’s The Theatres of George Devine.) On the most basic level, the primary reasons were the change in the artistic directorship of the Old Vic, conflicting ambitions, and chauvinism. Olivier and his associates were driven out for budgetary reasons and replaced by a management hostile to the Centre. Post WWII subsidy was turning the England’s long cherished dream of a national theatre into a reality and the Board of Governors lobbied hard to have that honor fall to the Old Vic. Hugh Hunt, the new artistic director of the Old Vic, nursed fantasies of being director of the National. He convinced the Board of Directors, led by Lord Esher, that the Vic’s candidacy would be stronger if the company returned to its own theatre. Once it was clear that the experimental theatre had lost its future home, Saint-Denis’ major function evaporated. Complicating matters was Lord Esher’s suspicion of Saint-Denis. Fed by rumors spread by the Old Vic’s administration, Esher turned against the School’s teaching methods, questioning how improvisations and mask work might benefit a classical actor. Equally serious, unable to understand Saint-Denis’ commitment to the experimental theatre, Esher thought that he was vying for the directorship of the National. At a time when prejudice was more overt, he made no secret of the fact that he resented Saint-Denis as “a foreigner . . . whose proper place was somewhere else.” The School closed in 1953 to the distress of most of the British theatrical profession. For a time the newspapers made its reinstatement a cause célèbre, but to no avail.