In 1919 Saint-Denis joined his uncle Jacques Copeau as actor, administrator, and secretary-general of the theatre at the Vieux-Colombier, Paris, and he later followed Copeau to a small Burgundian village, Pernand-Vergelesses, to work with an experimental theatre company, Les Copiaus (1924–9). When Copeau disbanded his troupe Saint-Denis gathered around himself the most creative talents in La Compagnie des Quinze, which made its début at the Vieux-Colombier in January 1931 with Noé (Noah) by André Obey (1892–1975). The production was received enthusiastically by a small avant-garde coterie and hailed as a new renaissance of the French stage; but the general public did not follow. After a French and European tour, the Quinze were invited by the British Drama League to perform at the Arts Theatre Club in London. Their success was such that the season was extended at the New Theatre, and the Quinze returned to London four more times before their dissolution in 1934.
The overwhelming response of his British colleagues decided Saint-Denis to start afresh in London. In 1935 he directed John Gielgud in Noah at the New Theatre; and with Gielgud, Bronson Albery, and Tyrone Guthrie he founded his first school, the London Theatre Studio, in Islington. Concurrently he directed the foremost English actors (Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Gielgud) in a succession of ground-breaking productions in London: The Witch of Edmonton (Old Vic, 1936), Macbeth (1937), The White Guard (Phoenix, 1938), Twelfth Night (1938), and, most memorably, The Three Sisters (Queen’s, 1938). The Second World War forced the closure of the school and interrupted Saint-Denis’s directorial career.
At the start of the war, Saint-Denis was posted by the French as liaison officer with the British expeditionary force in France. After Dunkirk he was invited to run the BBC’s Free French broadcast (July 1940 – October 1944) under the title ‘Les Français parlent aux Français’ (‘the French speak to the French’). His pseudonym, Jacques Duchesne, refers to a symbolic popular character who, during the French Revolution, was the mouthpiece of the Parisian populace. Le Père Duchesne was also an extremist revolutionary paper (1790–94). Duchesne’s daily opening statement, ‘Today, the nth day of the French people’s struggle for its liberation’, introduced scrambled news items—censored in France—and a series of eagerly awaited coded ‘personal messages’, the main channel of communication between Free France in London and resistance movements on the ground. According to an obituarist, on 21 October 1940 Duchesne directed Sir Winston Churchill in his first broadcast in French to France, ‘sitting on the Prime Minister’s knee while announcing him at the microphone. “We have made history”, said Sir Winston when it was over’ (The Times, 2 Aug 1971).
From 1945 to 1951, in collaboration with Glen Byam Shaw and George Devine, Saint-Denis headed the Old Vic Theatre Centre and Old Vic School; he directed Oedipus Rex (Laurence Olivier), A Month in the Country (Michael Redgrave), and Electra (Peggy Ashcroft). In 1951 he supervised, with the architect Pierre Sonrel, the reconstruction of stage and auditorium at the Old Vic, and the two men were subsequently responsible for the building of the first post-war theatre in France, the Comédie de Strasbourg, which opened in 1957. In 1952 Saint-Denis had returned to France to take charge of the newly created Comédie de l’Est, in Colmar. On moving to Strasbourg, in 1954, he founded the first drama school outside Paris, the École Supérieure d’Art Dramatique, which remains an important training centre.
During the last fifteen years of his life Saint-Denis advised and inspired drama schools and theatre companies in France, Belgium, England, the United States, and Canada. He was involved in the setting-up of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre project and the Juilliard School at the Lincoln Center, New York (1957), the National Theatre School, Montreal (1960), and the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et Techniques de Diffusion (INSAS), Brussels (early 1960s). André Malraux, De Gaulle’s minister for culture, appointed him inspecteur général des spectacles (1959–1964), and in 1962 Peter Hall invited him to become general artistic adviser and co-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford upon Avon and London. Saint-Denis directed The Cherry Orchard (1961) and Squire Puntila and his Servant Matti (1965). He was honoured in France (officier of the Légion d’honneur) and Britain (honorary CBE) and received honorary degrees from the University of Birmingham and Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.
Saint-Denis married in 1923 Marie Ostroga, Copeau’s secretary, with whom he had a son (killed in action during the Second World War) and a daughter. The marriage was dissolved, and during the 1930s he had a liaison with Marie-Madeleine Gautier, an actress and designer in his own company, with whom he had a son. In December 1958 he was married a second time, to Suria Magito (1903–1987), a dancer, who was born Valia Maria Alexandra Grell in Riga, Lithuania. He died at his home, 2 Bloomfield Terrace, London, on 31 July 1971.
In France, in the 1930s, Saint-Denis pioneered a new approach to the art of acting and directing. He laid great stress on respect for the text and on technical proficiency (physical skills, vocal control, mime, masks), and developed ‘collective and ensemble creations’. In England he opened the way for new directors and companies like George Devine, Peter Brook, Peter Hall, the English Stage Company, and the RSC. Referring to Saint-Denis’s influence upon British theatre over several generations, Peter Hall described him as an ‘enemy of dead convention’ and deeply suspicious of ‘anything which inhibited challenge of change’ (Hall, 160–61). After the war he inspired the French ‘decentralization programme’, which resulted in the creation of theatre spaces and companies in major cities. Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil and Charles Joris’s Théâtre Populaire Romand (French-speaking Switzerland) are two leading troupes which owe much to Saint-Denis’s teaching: both are permanent professional companies with full-time apprentices, touring towns and villages, promoting theatrical activities in schools and associations, searching for and creating new styles of presentation, and performing a repertory of classics, new plays, and collective creations. But, as Jane Baldwin asserts, the name of Saint-Denis is rarely invoked, eclipsed by the aura of Jacques Copeau. When he was dubbed ‘grand prêtre du théâtre anglais’ (‘high priest of the English stage’) by the obituarist in Le Monde (3 Aug 1971), it was high praise indeed, but it also marked the start of a new, posthumous exile.