British Library, Fonds Michel Saint-Denis, Archives in the British Library by Dr Erwan Jeffroy, mai 2004.
Michel Saint-Denis (1897-1971) archive Jamie Andrews, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts, The British Library
The British Library Manuscripts Department has recently completed the arrangement and cataloguing of the Michel Saint-Denis archive. The archive brings together 185 volumes of professional correspondence, papers, and other ephemera relating to Saint-Denis’s work in the theatre, as well as his personal letters and diaries.
Although Saint-Denis was born in Beauvais, and spent his formative years in France, he is remembered today for his influence on the English stage, and for his collaboration with the London Theatre Studio and the Old Vic during the years immediately preceding and succeeding the Second World War. That he should have devoted his life to the theatre comes as no surprise, for Saint-Denis was the maternal nephew of Jacques Copeau, and it was with his uncle’s troupe – Les Copiaus – that he started his career as an actor and administrator in 1924.
When Les Copiaus disbanded in 1929, many of its members reformed as the Compagnie des Quinze, led by Saint-Denis. Their first production was André Obey’s Noé, staged in January 1931 at the Vieux-Colombier Theatre, Paris, and subsequently performed around France and Europe. It was the success of the production at London’s Arts Theatre Club (in which Saint- Denis himself played The Elephant) that convinced Saint-Denis to settle in London after the Compagnie dissolved in 1934. His directing work in the years leading up to the Second World War was prodigious and dazzling- John Gielgud in a translation of Noé in 1935, and an acclaimed Three Sisters with Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness and Gielgud in 1938 at the Queen’s Theatre. During the same period, and in collaboration with George Devine (who would go on to found the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1956), Saint-Denis established the London Theatre Studio in Islington to train actors and designers, in often innovative and novel methods.
Saint-Denis’s work was interrupted by the War, but from 1945 he returned to the theatre, taking charge of the Old Vic Theatre Centre, along with George Devine and Glen Byam Shaw. As well as training the young actors and (this a rarity in England at the time) directors of the future, Saint-Denis also directed several productions by the Old Vic company, headed by Olivier and Ralph Richardson. However, in 1951, after supervising the renovation of the stage and auditorium, Saint-Denis parted ways with the Old Vic, and returned to France to lead the recently created Centre dramatique de l’Est in Strasbourg. His departure from Strasbourg was followed by peripatetic years teaching in Montreal, New York, and Brussels, before returning to England to work with Peter Hall at the nascent Royal Shakespeare Company as general artistic adviser and co-director.
Saint-Denis’s work in English theatre- from the first touring performance of the Compagnie in 1931, to his 1965 RSC production of Brecht’s Squire Puntila and his Servant Matti – is fully represented in the archive. Annotated play-scripts, research notes and casting minutes, together with unpublished photographs and theatrical programmes, make it possible to follow the development of each of Saint-Denis’s stage productions, and letters from audience members and fellow actors and directors comment on their reception. His post-War work with the Old Vic is documented in particular detail. Large-scale plans and drawings, together with correspondence with architect Pierre Sonrel, chart the renovation of the theatre following war- time bomb damage, while a variety of papers, timetables, and financial documents relate to the