Page 1 of 6
"The Compagnie des Quinze and the Emergence of Michel Saint-Denis the Director", chapter 4 from Michel Saint-Denis and the Shaping of the Modern Actor, Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 2003.
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.
Her book follows the professional life of Saint-Denis from his apprenticeship with his uncle Jacques Copeau through the experiment in Burgundy, to the Compagnie des Quinze, the London Theatre Studio, the BBC, the Old Vic, the Centre de l’Est, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Juilliard Drama Division. She analyzes his pedagogical techniques, his directing methods, his key productions, and his vision of theatre. His work is summarized in these words. « If one were forced to reduce Saint-Denis directorial, pedagogical and political ideas to a precept, it would be balance. He believed that the theatre should be practiced with passion, but also detachment. Without passion it is emotionally meaningless, without detachment it is intellectually void.»
Michel Saint-Denis and the Shaping of the Modern Actor at Greenwood's
The Compagnie des Quinze and the Emergence of Michel Saint-Denis the Director
In 1930 the Compagnie des Quinze was created in Paris under the direction of Michel Saint-Denis. This experimental troupe of fifteen actors, a progenitor of modern avant-garde theatre companies, survived a scant five years, but during that period it laid the foundations for major twentieth-century theatrical reforms. Their productions were presentations of “total theatre” long before the term was coined.
For Michel Saint-Denis, thirty-three years old, the creation of the Compagnie des Quinze was a coming of age. When in 1929 Copeau, having formally dissolved the Copiaus, sent André Obey as a parting gift, Saint-Denis seized the opportunity. Obey, a young playwright dissatisfied with the contemporary stage, went to Lyon to attend the Copiaus’s production of L'Illusion, on Copeau’s recommendation. Enchanted, Obey saw in the troupe the means to explore his own theatrical ideas. As for Saint-Denis, he recognized in Obey the potential to fulfill his goal of creating a professional company. Obey agreed to write exclusively for the company.
Notwithstanding the fact that both sides pronounced themselves satisfied with the collaboration, adjustment was required. Obey was an outsider; most of the troupe had worked together as an ensemble for almost ten years. Saint-Denis described them as "a chorus with a few personalities sticking out rather than actors ready to act the usual repertory . . . " (To insure its growth, six apprentices were added to the troupe and given classes by company members.) But Obey was willing to accept their mode of work⎯ improvisation⎯and function as a collaborator. As Saint-Denis explained:
The story of the Compagnie des Quinze concerns an exceptional experience: that of a creative theatre ensemble, devoted to physical expression which came to feel the need of an author. With us, casting, staging, and planning the sets and costumes were undertaken at the same time as the writing of a play. It was essential that the author become a member of our ensemble and adhere to its orientation.
In practical terms, this meant that Saint-Denis and the company proposed the subject- matter, the characters grew out of the actors’ imaginative and physical skills, and Saint-Denis’s mise en scène illuminated the text. However, such a strict division of responsibilities was not always adhered to and contributions at times overlapped.
Obey also held an authoritative position in the company since, besides generating material, he brought a benefactress, Marcelle Gompel, a wealthy widow devoted to his interests. Thanks to her generosity, an elaborate rehearsal studio was built to Saint-Denis’s specifications in Ville d'Avray, a Paris suburb. In addition to the stage (a replica of the Vieux-Colombier’s), it contained dressing rooms, workshops, storerooms, even a shower.
Upon the studio’s completion, the company began developing two plays concurrently, Noé (Noah) and Le Viol de Lucrèce (The Rape of Lucretia). The actors shared the technical responsibilities: Marie-Hélène Dasté designed the costumes and assisted her husband Jean and Madeleine Gautier in creating the masks; Madeleine Gautier also worked with the set designer André Barsacq; Aman Maistre was in charge of administration; the apprentices lent a hand wherever they could.
Noé, a contemporary mystery play, was based on the idea originally suggested to Ramuz by Saint-Denis and Villard. Lucrèce owed its inspiration in part to Shakespeare, in part to the Japanese Noh. As in each play Obey wrote with and for them, Noé has symbolist elements. Drawn from Greek tragedy as well as medieval theatre, the drama is presentational, depicting the mythic world of the Old Testament patriarch. It contains two choruses, one made up of Noah’s children and their wives, the other, of the animals. Only Noah and two lesser characters, his wife and the Man, a representation of evil, are individuated.
The actors' pleasure was short-lived; an unanticipated casting decision created dissent. Pierre Fresnay, a leading actor and admirer of Copeau, came to the Quinze to enhance his technique. Trained at the Conservatoire and a former sociétaire with the Comédie-Française, Fresnay would appear to be an unlikely candidate for the Compagnie des Quinze. Yet Saint-Denis and Obey concluded that Fresnay would be a drawing card, a hypothesis that ran counter to the Quinze beliefs.
In casting Pierre Fresnay as Noé, Saint-Denis and Obey overruled the rest of the troupe, threatening its unity. Having recently freed themselves from the tyranny of Copeau, the group was wary of unilateral decision-making. In theory, the Quinze was a company of equals, a cooperative in which decisions were taken collectively. In actuality, company members brought rivalries and power struggles, dating back to Burgundy, into the new troupe.
The Copiaus had been divided along family lines: those closest to Copeau⎯his daughter Marie-Hélène Dasté, her husband Jean Dasté, Suzanne Bing, Michel Saint-Denis, and sometimes Aman Maistre, Saint-Denis’s brother-in-law⎯constituted the dominant contingent. Within the Quinze, an even tighter inner circle emerged, made up of Saint-Denis, Obey, and Marie-Hélène Dasté. At times the trio expanded to include Boverio and Aman Maistre. This inner circle would make plans without consulting the others.
The seeds of dissension sown by the Fresnay occurrence grew. Mistrust and jealousy eventually undermined the troupe. Ascribing the Copiaus’s collapse to Copeau's need for total control, they were reluctant to entrust Michel with much authority. Little personal hostility was directed against him; generally, he elicited affection and respect. Nonetheless, a large faction believed the choice of plays, casting, and even directing decisions should be a communal responsibility. Saint-Denis, conversely, believed he had earned his position through his long apprenticeship as Copeau's general factotum and director of several Copiaus productions.
Above all, the Quinze's actors viewed themselves as a tightly-knit ensemble where no one person should predominate. In many ways the troupe functioned as a well-oiled machine whose parts were finely attuned to one another. In Burgundy, it had been their custom to introduce the shows with a prologue in which the actors did a turn, presented their masks and props, and proudly announced that there were no stars among them. They felt Fresnay's assumption of the leading role sent the message to the public that they were incapable of playing demanding parts. The role of Noah, contested the actors, belonged to Auguste Boverio, one of their strongest players. Because of the company’s beliefs, Boverio was put in the untenable position of being unable to fight for himself.
The decision underscores a change in Saint-Denis who, having risen from the ranks, now had to establish directorial control. Above all, Saint-Denis the director viewed the actor as the medium through which the playwright speaks. A major aspect of his approach was to thwart any attempt by actors to find their inspiration in subjective emotional reactions. It was only through "active submission to the text" that an actor could realize a valid interpretation. Truthful characterization could be achieved solely by intensive study of the manuscript to bring to light the dramatist's intentions.