« 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.»
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.
Throughout his career, Saint-Denis strongly advocated improvisation as an instrument for training the actor. Improvisation had played an important role in his own development as an artist. Yet, in directing, he rarely made use of the technique, relying heavily on detailed preproduction plans. Even working with the Quinze, competent and experienced improvisers, Saint-Denis allowed improvisation only a specific function. In the early rehearsal phase, the actors developed prospective themes and characters. The dramatist then took the rough material, gave it shape, and returned it to the director. No longer creators, the actors became, under their director’s guidance, faithful interpreters of the text. Saint-Denis’s methods did not differ appreciably in working with the Quinze actors from the way he later worked with actors on conventionally developed scripts.
Also notable is the fact that, although Saint-Denis’s writings stress the importance of props and costumes in helping the actor achieve transformation, the Compagnie des Quinze rehearsed without either. During the early stages of rehearsals, the actors, dressed in bathing suits, mimed their props. But, as an actor in Burgundy, he had discovered that « the mask or the prop or the clothing will induce in the actor a state of being-in-action, a kind of intoxication, from which a character may emerge. »
He brought to Noé the meticulous preparation and attention to detail that would become the hallmark of his direction. Rehearsals began with Saint-Denis reading the text, followed by a lengthy exegesis. Next, the actors familiarized themselves with the script through successive read-throughs. The pace of rehearsals was kept deliberately slow to encourage them to delve deeply into the material. Saint-Denis then blocked the play, having prepared an intricate production plan delineating the set, entrances, exits, the actors’ movements, pacing, rhythm, and pauses. In later years, some actors would find Saint-Denis’s precision fussy and constraining. The Compagnie des Quinze, accustomed to this directing scheme, found it compatible. In spite of the contretemps involving Fresnay, a communal spirit still reigned and rehearsals were fun. Pierre Alder, a student-apprentice, left a description of the enthusiasm felt by so many players in performing under Saint-Denis: “Rehearsing is pleasant, interesting, fascinating work, above all, when it is directed by a man who knows what he wants to achieve, when you are a member of a team where you are not thinking about yourself, but about the group, the production you love and have to create.”
In part, the actors’ excitement derived from the belief that their lengthy and difficult apprenticeship would finally be rewarded. Their Burgundian experience had transformed them into « an ensemble with a fertile imagination and the technical means to represent in [their] work many aspects and facets of the world. » And now Obey had given them a voice. Having achieved success with their rural audiences, they were anxious to test themselves against the sophisticated Parisian public.
Although neither Saint-Denis nor the company ever disavowed their debt to Copeau, they wanted to be accepted on their own merits. With this in mind, Saint-Denis considered renting the Salle Wagram, a boxing arena, to perform there on a bare platform surrounded by the audience. Had they done so, it might have minimized the Copeau/Compagnie des Quinze connection. When this proved impractical, they moved into the Vieux-Colombier at great expense several weeks before their debut. The theatre, long since converted into a cinema, was remodeled by André Barsacq under Saint-Denis’s guidance. More radical than their master, Saint-Denis and the Quinze judged Copeau’s fixed setting a half-way measure. Their rebuilt stage, with its permanent columns and visible sources of light in the ceiling and walls, emphasized the company’s disdain for theatrical illusion. Their aesthetic was apparent, for example, in their exploitation of the columns. Sometimes they represented the trees of a forest; at others, the walls of Lucrèce’s bedroom, at others, they delineated the space of the open sea.
Jacques Copeau launched the company with a talk at the premiere on January 7, 1931. His presence legitimized the enterprise, while simultaneously denying the Quinze their autonomy. Critics and public alike perceived the troupe as adjuncts of Copeau. As for Copeau, he experienced the ambivalence of a parent whose children were asserting their independence. Instead of serving as instruments disclosing the revelations he yearned to discover, they had become a company of dedicated, gifted actors more interested in performing than in abstract research.
Saint-Denis and the Quinze were disappointed by the mixed response to Noé. Judging by the extent of the divergent reactions, it appears the critical community was confused by the company’s intentions. Some critics looked for political content where there was none; others, such as Benjamin Crémieux, were alienated by their theatricalist approach. Still, the actors took bitter satisfaction in Crémieux’s unfavorable critique. Writing for the Nouvelle Revue Française, Crémieux concluded that Fresnay destroyed the troupe’s homogeneity. The company was « above all misrepresented by the presence in the midst of them of M. Pierre Fresnay who, in the extravagant monologue of Noah, to which the play is reduced, overwhelms his supporting players. » On the positive side, Pierre Brisson, the powerful critic of the Figaro, praised their freshness, sincerity, and strong ensemble, but credited Copeau with their training. For Philippe L’Amour, writing on the state of the French theatre in 1931, the Quinze were the first step towards a theatrical renaissance.
Doubtless, Saint-Denis experienced conflicting emotions in reading these laudatory comments. On the one hand, there was critical appreciation: on the other, misinterpretation of Copeau’s role. Nowhere does Michel receive the recognition that was his due. Under the leadership of Saint-Denis, the Quinze had cut the umbilical cord. It had been Saint-Denis’s ideas, persistence, energy, and talent that had given new form to the Copiaus. Yet the perception remained that the troupe was Copeau’s. And strangely, their new form⎯collective creation⎯was ignored by the critics. At the Vieux-Colombier, Copeau had mounted traditional pre-existing scripts, giving them innovative productions. Although the theory that underlay collective creation was Copeau’s, he had never put it into practice in Paris.
Within the artistic and intellectual community many wholeheartedly supported the new troupe. Charles Dullin offered to house them for several performances at the Atelier with the possibility of a long-term stay at a later date. The general public was less responsive. Blasé audiences manifested a “show me” attitude the company found unnerving. Having captivated rural audiences, the Copiaus considered themselves a popular theatre. In Paris, the Quinze were surprised to find they were the darlings of an elite. Consequently, full houses were frequently followed by sparse ones. Fresnay did not prove to be the attraction Obey and Saint-Denis had anticipated.
Alternating in repertory with Noé was Le Viol de Lucrèce, a four-act adaptation of Shakespeare’s poem, which opened on March 21, 1931. Saint-Denis’s inventiveness lay in combining distinct styles: Medieval, Renaissance, Greek tragedy, and the Noh. The idea of the Greek chorus and likely symbolist productions led Saint-Denis to use an incantatory delivery. These myriad influences, particularly the Noh, which had fascinated Saint-Denis since the Vieux-Colombier School’s aborted production of Kantan, functioned as a springboard for the creation of an original work. For the Noh aspects he turned to Arthur Waley’s No Plays of Japan (1922) and Noel Péri’s Cinq Nô: drames lyriques japonais (1921), whose translations contain rudimentary stage directions. The woodcuts in Péri’s book seem to have motivated some of Saint-Denis’s stage pictures. The Quinze’s permanent architectural setting shared similarities with the Noh stage, which too is roofed over and supported by columns.
Waley’s encapsulation of the Noh was adopted by Saint-Denis and Obey: « At its simplest, the Nô play consists of a dance preceded by a dialogue which explains the significance of the dance or introduces circumstances which lead naturally to the dancing of it. » Le Viol de Lucrèce is more narrative than dramatic and, as in the Noh, its plot is simple and drawn from a literary source. Lucrèce depends heavily upon movement for its theatrical effectiveness. The dance and movement of the Noh is a stylized language of gesture, known to the audience. The Quinze, however, were not playing to an audience of initiates. In creating an imagistic language for Lucrèce, they were faced with problems of intelligibility and cultural relevance. Their solution was drawn in part from the adaptations of the Noh, in part from the then new phenomenon of the radio sportscaster.
The Noh is essentially a two-character play made up of the principal actor (the shite) who dances and a subordinate role (the waki) who supplies the exposition and leads the main character toward the climactic moment of the dance. But it is the chorus, sitting motionless at the side of the stage, who narrates the dance to the accompaniment of music.
Similarly, Lucrèce makes use of narrative devices, two récitants, and a chorus. The musical element was not incorporated. While the Noh has only one main character, Lucrèce has two, the eponymous heroine and the rapist Tarquin. The company’s most vocally proficient performers, Suzanne Bing and Auguste Boverio, recounted the story, while the actors mimed the action. The female narrator spoke for Lucrèce (Marie-Hélène Dasté), the male for Tarquin (Aman Maistre). Like the waki and the announcer, they furnished the exposition and set the scene for events to come. In the Noh theatre the waki never portrays a female role.
To underscore their archetypal godlike quality as observers of human folly and suffering, the narrators alone were masked. For the sake of vocal clarity they wore half- masks, bronze in color. This was a reversal of the Noh convention where a mask is worn only by the shite. His mask is a distinguishing feature that sets him apart from the other actors, as it did for the narrators of Lucrèce. Costumed similarly in long robes and flowing hair, the narrators’ gender differences were minimized. After the introductory scenes, which they performed downstage, the narrators sat on either side of the set on immense thrones placed before the pillars, seldom leaving their places. Each throne was reached by a step as though it were a pulpit.
The waki, after his introductory scene, remains seated at the side of the stage at his pillar. By contrast, the shite is always center stage. Lucrèce too played almost all her scenes center stage, most often on a raised platform. In her first scene, Lucrèce was found upstage center, surrounded by her maids, spinning. Her slow, deliberate movements owed their inspiration to the Noh. But critics were struck by the resemblance of a medieval tapestry come to life. From all reports, Saint-Denis staged the play as a series of tableaux vivants, whose images long remained with the audience.
Lucrèce employs two choruses from the Western tradition, one representing the military, and the other, Lucrèce’s female servants. The role of the male chorus is slight and expository. The women, on the other hand, enhance the play; they furnish atmosphere and reflect, through gesture and pantomime, Lucrèce’s virtuous qualities. The play’s crucial scene is, of course, the rape, the whole of Act II. It was akin to the dance of the shite, but with significant differences. Unlike the Noh, Lucrèce was not drawing on centuries-old gestural and movement patterns. Lucrèce’s movement was far more depictive. While no music was used, discreetly chosen sounds contributed to the emotional impact.
Here, Saint-Denis again adapted the dreamlike tempo of the Noh. But, although the scene began very slowly, it built to an overwhelming crescendo. When the curtain rose, Lucrèce lay asleep in a large canopied-covered bed on a raised platform. All was still, then « a bell of delicate timbre struck twelve. » The female narrator entered from up right, carrying a large book, walking soundlessly. The only sound was the tinkling of keys at her belt. Crossing to her throne, the Récitante paused by the bed, listening to Lucrèce’s breathing. She was joined by the male narrator who entered from the opposite side and moved to his chair. He described the lustful thoughts of Tarquin, while the actor mimed his journey through the sinuous passages of the palace, reached the bedroom, forced open an invisible door, entered, opened the hangings surrounding the bed, reached out and caressed her breast, as she awoke with frightened moans. The two Récitants withdrew keening and Tarquin gave a cry of triumph as he forced Lucrèce to submit.
This poetic stylization of violence was remarked on by most reviewers. Norman Marshall, the British critic, left this description:
The actor was never more than a few feet away from the bed as he mimed his journey . . . yet so completely had we been induced to forget the conventions of the realistic theatre that the bed, instead of being an incongruous distraction, became the symbol of Tarquin’s desire; we saw it not as a tangible object but as the image burning in Tarquin’s brain, drawing him irresistibly towards his crime.
The scene’s erotic qualities were also commented upon and compared by at least one critic to Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, almost twenty years before:
Such perfect boldness, such pure realism, where had we seen this before? A memory rose to the surface, clung to me, an old memory. The faun Nijinsky having managed to obtain from the desired nymph only the veil fallen from her shoulder, stretched out on it and mimed the act of love. There was all the beauty of the world, stylized by an artist of genius, in the figure of the eternal gesture.
Neither critics nor audience perceived the Noh influences on the production. The exception was Arthur Waley who visited Saint-Denis’s dressing room and introduced himself saying, “I am glad to see that my work on the Japanese Noh plays has not been wasted.”
Lucrèce found greater favor with Paris’s audiences than Noé. And again the avant-garde theatrical community rallied round. Playwright Henri Ghéon wanted to collaborate with the group; Dullin, completely won over, reiterated his offer. Copeau, always hypercritical, told the anxious actors that the performance was a respectable first attempt. Trying to soothe their wounded feelings, Saint-Denis reminded the company that this was just another « numéro Copeau. » Possibly rancor towards the project underlay Copeau’s attitude; Saint-Denis and Obey had accomplished one of his major aspirations.
Their Paris season lasted three months before Jean Tedesco, owner of the Vieux-Colombier, reclaimed his cinema. An assessment of the season reveals that the company was neither the success it had hoped to be nor a failure. The renovation of the theatre had been costly and box-office receipts insufficient. Although Pierre Fresnay had been a creditable Noah, the experiment had harmed the company’s morale without producing the expected financial benefits. After Fresnay’s departure, Boverio and Michel alternated playing the demanding role of Noah and harmony was restored. Whereas Boverio had vocal power that Saint-Denis lacked, Michel brought an authentic peasant quality to the part.
The lack of a permanent home was a perennial problem for the Quinze. Since Dullin’s theatre was not yet ready to receive them, Saint-Denis arranged a Swiss tour. More significantly for Michel’s career and the British theatre, an invitation to play London had been extended to them.
The actors’ arduous schedule is typified by this tour. They played nine cities in eleven days in Switzerland, followed by two Paris performances, before departing for England. Fortunately, the production style of the Quinze lent itself to this mode of performance. They traveled with a lightweight, twentieth-century version of the trestle stage. The stage was collapsible and could be reassembled into three or four separate platforms if necessary. Surrounding the stage on three sides was a tent-like structure suspended from the flies by a ring. Its sides could be rolled up or draped to provide entrances. Practicable, adaptable, and deceptively simple, the company’s settings conjured up images of itinerant commedia dell’arte troupes.
In London, they were booked into the Arts Theatre Club, a private playhouse, where they discovered a stage so minuscule there was barely space for Noah’s ark.
Opening night in London found the company highly agitated. How would they be received? How much would the audience comprehend? Prepared for the worst, the Quinze were amazed to discover they had triumphed. The reception they had hoped for in Paris was given them in London. At the play’s end the audience was on its feet cheering as the cast took countless curtain calls. The next day’s reviews confirmed their conquest.
Unlike the majority of Parisian critics and playgoers for whom the style and repertoire of the Quinze were too esoteric, British audiences were enchanted. The actors’ youth, verve, and grace all contributed to a startlingly new concept of theatre. A Quinze production was, wrote Tyrone Guthrie, « like a delightful ballet, only that it had fifty times more content than any ballet ever had. » Balletic and stylized it may have been, but English reviewers singled out the actors’ movement for its spontaneous and natural appearance.
Held over an extra week at the Arts Theatre Club, the Quinze were in the unaccustomed position of turning away people. Every evening after the performance, theatre practitioners came backstage anxious to extend their congratulations. Among them was Bronson Albery who offered the Quinze a week’s engagement at the Ambassador Theatre. Because of packed houses, the run was extended another six at the New Theatre. During this period Saint-Denis made contacts that proved invaluable. The troupe left London with an invitation to revisit which it did annually until disbanding four years later.
In July of 1931 the Quinze returned to France to rehearse their second season, having negotiated another contract with the supportive Jean Tedesco. Accompanied by their families, the company gathered in a village in Touraine. Plans had called for them to rehearse at Madame Gompel’s neighboring estate, but Obey’s latest play was not ready. The ensuing period of forced inactivity gave rise to new strains. Creditors were threatening; the company’s their material situation was worsening. Despite the London conquest, funds were inadequate to pay off debts incurred at the Vieux-Colombier. The troupe was told Madame Gompel’s patronage had definite limits and to prepare themselves to make sacrifices. Remembering their impoverished years in Burgundy, the actors were reluctant to take on further burdens. As an authority figure, Saint-Denis was under attack. A rebellion was launched, led by Villard and supported by Maistre, Boverio, and Marguerite Cavadaski, to restrict his authority.
The resumption of work temporarily ended the revolt. Saint-Denis convinced
Obey to dramatize the World War I battle of the Marne, a scenario the Copiaus had begun developing in Burgundy. While it was an historical event, the characters and plot were generalized to represent the suffering, violence, heroism, loss, and death of all war. Brecht was unknown to them, but the style of play and production was epic.
As in the previous year, Saint-Denis intended to mount two presentations to be shown in repertory. Too short to sustain an evening, La Bataille de la Marne was preceded by a curtain raiser, La Vie en rose, a charming evocation of the belle époque. This bit of fluff contained numerous personages, necessitating the actors to double and even triple roles. Saint-Denis’s other production was a comedy by Jean Variot adapted from Plautus’s Menaechmi. La Mauvaise conduite (Bad behavior), offered the Quinze the opportunity to display their farcical skills and to portray the kind of broad comic characters they had developed in Burgundy. In the program Saint-Denis explained that the company was attracted by the play’s « frank and vulgar tone » as well as the opportunities it presented for « comic invention. »
Since Roman comedy was the influence for the production style, the actors wore full masks. Unfortunately, the masks were not completed until the première, which caused considerable apprehension. Rehearsing without the masks, it was impossible to know whether the actors’ speech would be understandable. And their use was essential for character development, since a masked character is established from externals. But whether a more ideal rehearsal situation would have resulted in a better production, thereby modifying critical and audience reaction, is moot.
La Mauvaise conduite opened the season on November 5, 1931 and played to moderately good houses, although some Paris audiences were put off by those very qualities that had attracted the company to it, finding the characters grotesque and crude. Certain critics again criticized the Quinze for their excesses. For example, the Comoedia critic complained that he was « bothered by the masks worn by the interpreters in imitation of the classical theatre. » Nevertheless, the same reviewer praised the strong ensemble and Saint-Denis’s direction. Popular success continued to elude the Quinze in Paris. La Bataille de la Marne was awarded the prestigious Prix Brieux, but it too encountered mixed reactions, in part because of its theme. Several reviews reflected their authors’ political positions, and in 1931, Obey’s point of view was too chauvinistic for a number of critics. Obey and the Quinze found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being championed by conservatives.
Benjamin Crémieux, observing the company’s work for the first time in a year, felt they showed considerable growth:
One is in the presence of a flexible, yet homogeneous troupe whose common style does not curb individual abilities . . . Already, Monsieur Saint-Denis has asserted himself as a strong ensemble actor, Madame Marie-Hélène Dasté as a young leading lady, capable of expressing both ardor and purity, while remaining very much a sensual woman.
He had specific reservations about the play whose style he found at once sensationalist and medieval. A strong supporter emerged in Antoine who, in an article written for L’Information, conferred on the Quinze the task of saving the theatre.
Their three-month engagement at the Vieux-Colombier terminated, the troupe left on tour for Lyon, Belgium, and England. The second season had been more profitable than the first, and had not Tedesco’s film season been arranged in advance, business would have warranted a continuation. They returned to London hailed as celebrities; Albery booked them into the New Theatre, where they performed their stock of plays in repertory. The London season was successful, but less remunerative than the previous one. Audiences were sizeable, but the Quinze were no longer turning away patrons. La Bataille de la Marne, a drama celebrating the courage and sufferings of the French populace during World War I, was not a subject designed to appeal to British audiences. Perhaps the novelty of the Quinze had begun to wane for the general public. If so, they still remained the toast of the theatrical and critical professions.
The reviewers’ unstinting praise presents a contrast to the begrudging approval of the French critics for whom the Quinze were more rarefied than a rarity. In Time and Tide, Rebecca West reported that La Bataille de la Marne was electrifying and « as beautiful and pure as a Romanesque church. » James Agate’s description of the opening of La Bataille de la Marne evokes the imaginative anti-illusionistic style of the Quinze that enthralled audiences:
On the stage nothing save a few dun hangings veiling the bare theatre walls, and the floor artificially raked to enable the actors to move on different planes. Off the stage an immense distance away a military band is playing, and in the wings armies of France go by. We see them through the eyes of five or six peasant women clothed in black and grouped as you may see them in the fields of France or the canvases of Millet . . . The whole cast played with a perfection of understanding and a mastery of ensemble beyond praise. This is great, perhaps the greatest acting, since on a bare stage the actors recreated not the passion of one or two, but the agony of a nation.
After every performance the actors’ dressing rooms were filled with visitors. Invitations to parties and country weekends abounded⎯invitations they were unable to reciprocate. They were celebrities living in penury. Their financial situation continued to deteriorate, resulting in further disaffection.
Madame Gompel had lost much of her fortune because of the Depression and had to reduce her patronage. The Quinze’s expenditures, however, continued to mount. Forced to tour, the company had constant transport expenses for the personnel, sets, and materiel. A bill for £150 from the British tax office took Saint-Denis by surprise. Unable to raise the money, he was obliged to borrow, not knowing how he would repay the loan. Holding the company together was becoming increasingly difficult and he feared its dissolution.
Jean Villard and Aman Maistre decided to take a different professional path. In England, the Quinze had been invited to a gala where representatives of the company were to entertain. Only Villard and Maistre, having retained several songs from the Copiaus days, were able to get up an act on short notice. On the strength of the audience’s response, the two men left the company for a prosperous singing career as Gilles and Julien.
By now, Saint-Denis’s leadership was continually challenged. Obey and Michel’s relationship had been undermined by the defection of a number of the actors. Their admiration for Obey’s work had developed into adulation for the man. Flattered, Obey allowed himself to be convinced that he was capable of directing a company. A new troupe was assembled; Marie-Hélène and Jean Dasté and two student-apprentices left for Madame Gompel’s château. Those loyal to Saint-Denis comprised Madeleine Gautier (who had become his lover), Auguste Boverio, Marguerite Cavadaski, Pierre Assy and Pierre Alder. Michel had been dealt numerous hard blows: the depletion of the troupe, the loss of the company playwright, and with his disappearance, an end to subsidy.
The existence of the Quinze was predicated on a working collaboration between actors and playwright. Neither Saint-Denis nor the actors seem to have considered producing any but original works. Their rejection of the established repertory created various problems. Audiences were not always receptive to new plays. Obey, as house dramatist, was under constant pressure to create. It became obvious that one playwright was insufficient. Because playwriting was viewed as a joint venture, much of the company’s time was spent developing material. And, since they were slowly building a repertory, their offerings remained limited.
Despite the reversals, Saint-Denis, who had always provided the momentum for the Quinze, refused to abandon his unfinished task and set about rebuilding. His immediate problems were the replenishment of the company, developing material, and, of course, funding. Although the growing artistic reputation of the Quinze with its commitment to revitalizing the theatre had begun attracting young actors « frustrated in their aspirations by the existing commercial theatre, » the reconstruction of the company proved difficult. As Saint-Denis pointed out: « The kind of actor I wanted was not to be found ready made. » Many of the young disciples such as Marius Goring and Vera Poliakoff were foreign, reflecting the appeal Saint-Denis’s work had abroad.
After six months’ struggle, Saint-Denis succeeded in adding seven newcomers to the company, reached an agreement with Charles Dullin whereby the two troupes would share the Atelier for a period, and discovered Jean Giono. Giono, a well-known novelist, was inspired to write his first play Lanceurs de graines (Sowers of the grain) after watching the Quinze rehearse. Following a brief Swiss tour, his play opened at the Atelier, where the troupe was warmly welcomed by Dullin, on November 8, 1932. Lanceurs de graines met with disfavor and disappeared from the Quinze’s repertory. The actors thought it unplayable, which was evidently not Saint-Denis’s opinion, since he revived it later in translation in London. In the absence of Marie-Hélène Dasté, Madeleine Gautier designed the costumes.
By December, Obey and Marie-Hélène Dasté had rejoined the troupe; Obey, who lacked Saint-Denis’s directing talent and persuasiveness, had been unable to work with the refractory actors. His return temporarily alleviated Michel’s financial worries since Madame Gompel’s money was again at the Quinze’s disposal. In the interim, Saint-Denis had been working hard to resolve the company’s precarious fiscal situation that had been aggravated by the Swiss tour. Capitalizing on his prestige abroad, he gave a series of lectures in Brussels, Amsterdam, and London while trying to find engagements for the company.
Dullin’s proposal to share the Atelier with Saint-Denis’s troupe had been prompted by several factors. Admiration of the Quinze was clearly one; his theatre practice had much in common with that of Saint-Denis’s troupe. The Atelier enjoyed a prestigious reputation yet was chronically threatened by irate creditors, partly because of Dullin’s frequent refusal to extend the engagements of his successful productions. In spite of critical acclaim, Dullin was feeling the need to reformulate his ideas. Joining forces with the Quinze would allow him more time because he would have fewer plays to direct, and perhaps their presence would help pay the bills. Given the Quinze’s history, Dullin’s hopes seem unrealistically optimistic.
The benefits for the Quinze were obvious. Extending their Paris season would limit the time they would have to spend on the road, while their association with the Atelier could only raise their standing in the theatrical profession. The two companies intended to alternate performances for at least six months and share expenses and box- office receipts, with each maintaining its artistic independence. Saint-Denis and Dullin outlined their plans:
We are uniting our efforts, not merging them. United materially, united by a commonality of artistic views, we remain independent. Each of us has his troupe, his repertory, his own means of production. Through this union, we hope not only to increase the number of productions, but to add variety. Let the public benefit from this friendly rivalry between the Atelier, an experienced company concerned with renewal, and the Quinze, a new company, which should, sheltered by its senior, strengthen its growing renown.
The rivalry between the two companies was, however, less than amicable. Despite Dullin’s good-will toward the Quinze, his company regarded them as interlopers. Both companies were members of the same theatrical family, but, competition led to jealousy. With the return of Obey, Le Viol de Lucrèce reentered the troupe’s repertory accompanied by his new curtain-raiser, Vénus et Adonis. The two works attracted sizeable audiences, arousing the envy of the Atelier company, which was undergoing a bad season.
On the advice of Saint-Denis, Dullin produced an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Peace, the season’s triumph. Lucrèce brought financial benefits to the Atelier, but the Quinze scarcely profited from the success of Peace. Disturbed by the hostility of the Atelier actors, Saint-Denis dissolved the contract at the end of two months.
Nevertheless, the Quinze were able to defer the resumption of their nomadic life; the box-office receipts from Obey’s play allowed them to remain in Paris for the rest of the season. Saint-Denis rented the Studio des Champs-Elysées and thence transferred Lucrèce, but the Right Bank theatre was not an appropriate venue. Despite the auditorium’s small size, it was seldom filled. And a segment of the public who did attend was drawn to the theatre because of the play’s title. Patrons arrived hoping to be titillated, and left disappointed, its erotica evidently too poetic and symbolic.
March of 1933 found the troupe back at the Vieux-Colombier for the last time. They presented two new works, Henri Ghéon’s Violante and Obey’s Loire. Violante, inspired by a work of Tirso de Molina, was conceived with the intent of exploiting the company’s clowning skills. The play received respectable, if not superlative reviews. Notable in the later reviews of critics who followed their work was the growing appreciation of their style.
Loire, the fifth of six plays Obey wrote for the Quinze, was the last the company performed in Paris. At the season’s end they left for a tour of Spain, where Saint-Denis met the like-minded dramatist Lorca. Lorca’s theatrical aims were similar and his touring company, La Barraca, was reminiscent of the Copiaus. By now, the company of fifteen had shrunk to four⎯three of the original actors and Saint-Denis. The problems that had plagued the troupe from the beginning had not abated. In the midst of the Depression their financial plight was unlikely to improve; no new patron had stepped forward and Madame Gompel’s assistance was contingent upon Obey’s involvement. The absence of a permanent home would continue to compel constant touring, and, given the lack of interest in Paris of any but a coterie of followers, it was doubtful that the troupe would ever attain a playhouse.
It was a crucial period for Saint-Denis, who « understood that the energy was fast disappearing and, if any enthusiasm was to be regenerated, our initial task already at an end, the means to a new beginning would have to be through a school. » As the actors drifted away, Michel tried to replace them. However, it had taken years of training to create the original ensemble of the Compagnie des Quinze. Saint-Denis felt that perhaps the company could be recreated in another, more peaceful environment. With the encouragement of Jean Giono, the composer Darius Milhaud, and friends in Aix-en-Provence, Michel brought his small group of actors and students to Beaumanoir on the outskirts of Aix. Saint-Denis chose this location because Aix had a fair-sized English population that he hoped would be supportive. He set up shop in a large country house which was to serve as a drama center. Plans for the new center were similar to those drawn up for the Quinze in Ville d’Avray. Accommodations at Beaumanoir, however, were Spartan, more reminiscent of Pernand-Vergelesses than Ville d’Avray. The facility would be used for rehearsals and training young actors. Classes would also be held for summer-school students in order to raise sorely needed funds. The company would spend eight months a year in Beaumanoir rehearsing for four months and performing outdoors for another four. The rest of the year would be spent touring. Autumn of 1934 found Michel and the reorganized Quinze back on the road.
The Beaumanoir experiment survived less than a year. Pressures of communal living, compounded by economic woes, exacerbated tensions. In desperation, Michel left for London in the hopes of raising funds from his British enthusiasts in order to keep the company afloat. By December 1935, Saint-Denis’s pilgrimage having proved futile, the company, without sufficient funds to pay their bills or even for subsistence, disbanded.
The question remains: Why was a troupe that inspired such enthusiasm abroad unable to put down its roots at home? The Compagnie des Quinze was allowed to vanish from the French theatrical world, with few to mourn its passing. But did it disappear? From its demise came new growth; its ideals and teachings reemerged and strongly influenced the post-war theatre in France. Many of its members played a significant role in the French theatre’s decentralization, most notably Saint-Denis and Jean Dasté. Dasté’s company, the Comédie de Saint-Etienne, was created in the spirit of the Quinze. It is a spirit that continues even today. Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil embodies the philosophy and practices of Michel Saint-Denis’s troupe.
But what of Saint-Denis? In France he had been one of several directors working in the Copeau tradition, but was more closely identified with his uncle than the others. Louis Jouvet and Charles Dullin, the best known of Copeau’s disciples, broke their formal ties with him early in their careers and remained in Paris, whereas Saint-Denis’s most formative years were spent far from the capital. The Burgundy experience, while invaluable to his artistic development, was a liability in terms of recognition.
Frustrated and exhausted by his struggles to establish the Quinze, Michel reluctantly decided to leave France for the more hospitable climate of England. He was then thirty-seven years old; he had ambitions of his own he wished to realize, a professional autonomy to create. “If I grabbed at the opportunities offered me in London, it was above all because there, I knew, I would be totally alone, a million miles from my friends, a million miles from my master Copeau.”
If the French did not mourn their loss, the British rejoiced at their gain. Timing worked against Saint-Denis in France, but in his favor in England. The British theatre was at a turning point, the commercial theatre lacklustre, an avant-garde struggling to be born. To its emerging practitioners, the Quinze represented a model of discipline, creativity, and ensemble. They looked to its director Michel Saint-Denis to provide artistic leadership.