The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis, a biography by Jane Baldwin
This biography, written by Jane Baldwin (2007) is part of the introduction to the reissue of Saint-Denis works, entitled Theatre : The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings, published by Routledge Press in 2009.
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 published by Routledge Press in 2009. 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.
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The Rediscovery of Michel Saint-Denis
Michel Saint-Denis was a notable actor, writer, director, and teacher of the mid-twentieth century whose theatrical reforms influenced the direction of the French, American, Canadian, and British theatre. Throughout his career the thrust of his work was the search for style. The essential question of style was: how can the director, actor, and designer create a production which is true to the play and the dramatist’s world and speaks to the contemporary audience? Integrity underlies style. This was the principal value he sought to instill in his students.
Saint-Denis was born on September 13, 1897 in Beauvais, France, a provincial town approximately 60 miles north of Paris, best known for its cathedral. His only sibling, Suzanne, was born four years later. Once well-to-do, the family had fallen on hard times due to Michel’s father gambling and lack of business acumen. Fortunately, for Michel’s future, his mother Marguerite turned to her brother the theatre director Jacques Copeau for help. The Saint-Denis family soon moved to Versailles to be closer to the Copeaus. To Michel, Copeau was everything his father Charles was not and the boy soon became his adoring disciple, spending as much time as he could at his uncle’s Paris apartment. Copeau’s reputation as a critic, writer, actor, and director was in its ascendancy. He was supported in his efforts by his friends, among them leading French intellectuals and writers of the day: André Gide, Jules Romains, Roger Martin du Gard, Charles Péguy, and Paul Claudel. Much of Saint-Denis’ boyhood was spent metaphorically at these men’s feet listening to his uncle discourse with them, an experience that shaped his cultural and artistic outlook.
But the major inspiration in his life was Copeau’s Vieux Colombier Theatre, which opened in 1913. Fascinated, even obsessed by his uncle’s theatre, Saint-Denis, still a lycée student, often skipped school to watch rehearsals and make himself useful. He felt himself part of his uncle’s experiment to restore the theatre to its central place in the human community. Copeau’s self-imposed mission of “renovating” the theatre had multiple tasks including the rediscovery of theatrical form through an investigation of its illustrious eras; upgrading the quality of acting; the development of a poetic dramaturgy; the creation of a new theatrical architecture; and most important, the establishment of a drama school that would train students to fulfill Copeau’s vision.
The Vieux-Colombier had completed one season when World War I broke out putting the theatre on hold for the duration and interrupting Saint-Denis’ theatrical apprenticeship. Fresh out of the lycée, Saint-Denis was called up by the army in 1916. He served four years, often on the front lines, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for courage. These years affected him profoundly, exposing him to a broader spectrum of people, foreign countries, the horrors of war, and, for the first time, leadership, as he rose through the ranks from private to lieutenant. Nevertheless, the theatre was never far from his mind as his correspondence with Copeau indicates. He dreamed of the day when he could dedicate himself completely to his uncle’s teachings.
1920 to 1924 were formative years for Saint-Denis. He functioned as a general factotum at the reopened Vieux-Colombier, assuming whatever tasks were assigned him – company secretary, box office manager, public relations, stage manager, and rehearsal assistant – learning the profession from the bottom up, eventually making his acting début in 1922. Although never formally a student at the Vieux-Colombier school, he frequently attended its unorthodox classes, learning from observation. The opportunity to direct a school show, Amahl ou la lettre du roi, in 1924 was the reward for his talent and assiduousness. The school, which emphasized movement – dance, gymnastics, circus techniques – had an extemporaneous flavor. To stimulate their imaginations, the students, frequently unsupervised, worked on improvisations. Despite Copeau’s interest in the school, he seldom taught classes, his time taken up with directing, acting, and the duties of artistic director.
In 1924, Copeau, dissatisfied with the Vieux-Colombier despite its artistic success, closed his theatre and led a group of followers – Saint-Denis, his pupils, and several actors – to the countryside in Burgundy to concentrate on practical research in pursuit of his larger goal of theatrical renewal. In Burgundy, classes resumed with everyone, actors and students alike, participating except Copeau. Those who had a particular expertise in a discipline taught the others. Frustrated by ongoing classwork that led only to further classwork and Copeau’s inconsistent governance and remoteness – he had undergone a religious conversion – the actors and students made a group decision to form a theatre troupe. Most were inexperienced; all were idealistic and saw their company as a vital step towards the hoped-for theatrical revolution. In part because of a dearth of suitable material, they began developing their improvisations into performance pieces, inadvertently originating twentieth-century collective creation. Despite their democratic ethos, they felt the necessity of a director. Saint-Denis, by virtue of talent, force of personality, and experience in the rehearsal hall, was appointed. Copeau retained unspecified powers.
Generating a repertory, audience-building, and developing their skills into a personal style were the order of the day. The repertory had to appeal to an untested public, the winegrowers of the region, most of whom had never seen a play. Comedy, particularly physical farce, offered the best hope for success. It drew on much of their previous training and would likely attract a rural audience. The troupe, dubbed the Copiaus (Copeau’s children in the regional dialect), turned to Molière’s farces and the Commedia dell’Arte for inspiration. At first, performances consisted of several selections. A typical program might be composed of an existing 17th or 18th century one-act comedy, a musical and/or movement selection, and a collective creation piece.
The Copiaus toured the region customarily playing on Sundays and at harvest festivals, free time for the vineyard workers. The actors’ youth, verve, acrobatic, and clowning skills won over their audiences. Their response prompted the Copiaus to develop material that would relate to their public’s lives. In an attempt to create prototypical characters, they ventured into the domain of comic masks. Saint-Denis, an actor with the troupe as well as its director, was the most successful in the troupe creating two masked characters that were incorporated into productions. The company began touring more widely, going as far afield as Switzerland and Belgium. Their achievements and growing renown pushed them into developing more complex and longer creations.
Although the Copiaus practiced collective creation avant la lettre, they differed in an essential way from their descendants of the 60s and 70s. Unlike the later collectives that were activated by political considerations, the Copiaus were impelled by an artistic quest. Their dreams remained Copeau’s, although tension between the company and their mentor had deepened. The Copiaus looked to Copeau to provide material for their productions. He responded intermittently, at times developing a text with and for them, at others withdrawing. More of the writing and generating of ideas were taken on by Saint-Denis. On occasion, Saint-Denis, sometimes in concert with Jean Villard, one of the actors, toured the countryside interviewing the inhabitants and observing them at work, an anthropological approach to making theatre that would be further exploited by others in the 1960s and 70s, the golden age of collective creation. Their resulting highly theatrical performances combined mime, dance, choral speech, song, and mask. But story lines tended to be weak, a frequent shortcoming of collective creation.
The Copiaus were growing restive. While they had accomplished much in their five years in Burgundy, life remained hard, salaries nominal. Their communal existence gave rise to jealousies, competition, and strain. Copeau’s periodic reassertion of power combined with his perennial dissatisfaction eroded the company’s self-confidence. This was particularly true in the case of Saint-Denis, whose sense of autonomy was worn down by Copeau’s incompatible demands – on the one hand, requesting Saint-Denis to assume complete responsibility for the Copiaus and, on the other, undermining his authority. In May of 1929, Copeau unexpectedly disbanded the troupe.
Saint-Denis seized the occasion and over the next several months, he reconstituted the Copiaus to his own specifications as the Compagnie des Quinze, named for its fifteen members. A young, talented, novelist with playwriting ambitions, André Obey, joined the group. It seemed an ideal match. Director, actors, and playwright shared a desire to experiment with popular culture forms, to explore mythologies, and to revive poetic drama in ways relevant to contemporary audiences. For Saint-Denis poetic drama was the antithesis of naturalism whose attempts to replicate the details of everyday life he found anti-art. While he appreciated lyrical language, it was not a prerequisite. Yet expressive elevated language contains a quality indispensable to his concept of theatrical poetry – the enhancement and transcending of reality. While director of the theatricalist Compagnie des Quinze, the productions he mounted were ritualistic, movement-based, and made use of rhythmic and/or choral speech. Scenery was symbolic and minimalist. In Saint-Denis’ later career, his view of poetic theatre expanded to include certain realistic texts such as the Chekhov’s plays. In staging these plays, he represented their poetic qualities in a subtler fashion, emphasizing their atmospheric qualities.
With a company playwright refining and elaborating their dialogue, the Quinze found they could focus less on low comedy than in their Copiaus years, though it remained integral to their work. The repertory became more eclectic often treating deeper subject matter, which they anticipated would be well received by urban audiences. Although the Copiaus had worked on serious themes in their training improvisations, none had reached performance stage. They turned back to these for the first two productions Obey did with the Quinze Noé (Noah) and Le Viol de Lucrèce (a dramatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s poem “The Rape of Lucretia”). Saint-Denis had long thought the biblical story would suit the company’s particular abilities. The Copiaus had yearned to tackle a Shakespearean work. Like all the plays that Obey created with and for them (six in total) they were presentational and symbolist in style.
The introduction of a playwright did not profoundly affect the troupe’s rehearsal methods, unique at the time, but one of various traditional techniques in today’s collectives. In the early rehearsal phase, Saint-Denis, the actors, designers, and “playwright” participated in long planning discussions. Under Saint-Denis’ watchful eye, the actors developed themes and characters through improvisation. Stylistic aspects were worked on throughout the rehearsal procedure. Unlike some later versions of collective creation, the director – always Saint-Denis – was present at every stage of the work. The reason, in part, was that Saint-Denis functioned as a company actor, but it was more directly attributable to the company’s production history and Saint-Denis’ meticulousness.
The Quinze actors regarded themselves as an egalitarian company in which no member was subordinate to any other. Tasks overlapped and the actors’ multiple preparatory responsibilities involved designing, building sets and costumes, mask-making, and administration. While they had never considered working without a director or even sharing directing duties amongst the company, they insisted on an equal voice in decision-making. Nonetheless, by virtue of their standing, Saint-Denis and Obey were able to act independently of the company. Obey, in particular, was in a strong position, since he brought a patron willing to fund a percentage of the Quinze’s expenses.
Conflicts arose quickly. Saint-Denis with Obey’s approval cast Pierre Fresnay, a star who wanted to stretch himself artistically, as the lead in Noé. It seemed clear to the actors that Fresnay was meant to ward off box office failure. They regarded the decision as a lack of faith in their mission and their acting abilities. This decision marked an important change in their relationship and in Saint-Denis’ view of the directorial role. While collaboration remained crucial to their process, the final word was Saint-Denis’. This was reflected in his directing style, which since he was working with more literary scripts, put greater emphasis on the actor as textual interpreter. However, the mise en scène continued to stress imagery, sound, and movement.
The Fresnay contretemps notwithstanding, the troupe rehearsed enthusiastically, convinced that their long apprenticeship would be rewarded and that the innovative Noé and Lucrèce would impart a new conception of theatre to Parisian audiences. Disappointingly, reviews for Noé, the Quinze’s premiere production, were mixed, several uncomprehending. Undoubtedly discouraging for Saint-Denis was that the more positive reviews credited the productions’ success to Copeau. The artistic director and his actors were still perceived as “Copeau’s children.” This identification of the Quinze with Copeau continued, much to Saint-Denis’ frustration. Certainly, Saint-Denis and his actors acknowledged that their point of departure had been Copeau’s aesthetic and his mises en scène at the Vieux-Colombier. But the Quinze had expanded upon Copeau’s accomplishments. Surprising today is that their pioneering approach – collective creation – went unremarked. Audiences were also divided in their opinion. Fresnay, who soon left the show, was not the drawing card Saint-Denis and Obey had expected. Lucrèce, which alternated with Noé, was greeted more favorably. Nevertheless, only alternative theatre practitioners such as Charles Dullin fully valued the Quinze’s achievements.
Invited to London to perform in the summer of 1931, Saint-Denis and his troupe dazzled its theatre world. Critics, audiences, theatre artists acclaimed their originality, so different from the British theatre of the time, which was locked in tradition and convention. Both Noé, the comic piece, and Lucrèce, the tragic, made use of a chorus and masks. Both contemporized ancient forms: Noé, the medieval mystery play; Lucrèce, the theatre of the English Renaissance and the Japanese Noh. While the British appreciated the texts, it was the productions’ visual aspects that enchanted the most. Unusually for the era, some of the notices detailed the blocking.
As Le Viol de Lucrèce is emblematic of Saint-Denis’ mise en scène at this phase , a brief description is in order. In working out his directing scheme, Saint-Denis went beyond than the text and merged four distinct styles: Medieval, Renaissance, Greek tragedy, and the Noh. In essence, the Noh form combines drama, dance, music, and poetry and is performed by two actors and a chorus. The principal actor called the shite, relates the story through dance, playing multiple masked characters, some supernatural; the secondary actor, the waki, supplies most of the exposition; the chorus, accompanied by music, narrates the shite’s climactic dance. Similarly, Lucrèce makes use of narrative devices, two récitants or commentators, and a chorus. Unlike the Noh, Lucrèce has two main characters, the eponymous heroine and her rapist Tarquin. The male récitant recounted Tarquin’s story, the female, Lucrèce’s. To highlight their almost supernatural role as observers of human frailties, they wore half-masks, longhaired wigs, and flowing gowns, making them androgynous in appearance. In a sense, they commingled the role of waki and shite.
The récitants sat on tall thrones on either side of the set for most of the action; the waki too remains seated on the side of the stage during most of the play. Lucrèce played the majority of her scenes center stage, similarly to the shite. On the one hand, the opening scenes in which she was surrounded by her maids spinning brought to mind images of medieval tapestries; on the other, their dreamlike tempo was inspired by the Noh.
The play’s climactic moment is obviously the rape, a scene that would be difficult to stage even today because of its primal sexual brutality. Saint-Denis’ production attenuated the graphic aspects through symbolic movement, gesture, and sound, which served as distancing devices. To illustrate: the scene began as “a bell of delicate timbre struck twelve.” After a long moment, the female commentator entered slowly, crossed to her place, the tinkle of keys at her belt gently breaking the stillness, sat and slept. Paradoxically, those two soothing sounds created an ominous mood, preparing the way for Tarquin’s stealthful approach. Tarquin mimed his way through the palace moving through invisible winding corridors to Lucrèce’s bedroom to the accompaniment of the male narrator’s account of the rapist’s lascivious imaginings. The female described what she saw. As Tarquin neared Lucrèce, the rhythm intensified; the narrator’s voices were broken, gasping with fear. Tarquin opened the bed’s blue draperies – the blue of the immaculate conception, noted one critic – revealing Lucrèce’s vulnerable sleeping body, reached out and touched her breast. She awoke with a frightened cry. The narrators turned their heads aside as Lucrèce pleaded, prayed, and sobbed to no avail. Tarquin responded cruelly, insisting on fulfilling his desire. Now speaking for themselves, the two were fully enacting their own drama. This scene moved the play closer to realism, yet its rhythmic and incantatory speech patterns represented a very different style. The scene ended with Lucrèce thrown back on the bed, her face bathed in light, moaning piteously, as the curtains closed. This stylization of violence was not lost on the critics, who were touched, entranced, not repulsed.
Partly out of necessity – the company never found a home – partly for aesthetic reasons, the Quinze employed an all-purpose architectural setting conceived by Saint-Denis and his scenographer André Barsacq that was easy to transport. It consisted of a collapsible stage, which could be assembled in multiple arrangements: flat, raked, or divided into platforms as required. Suspended from the flies, and encircling the stage on three sides was a tent-like structure, whose sides could be left hanging or rolled up. Simple, suggestive props and set pieces were designed for each production. This frankly theatrical setting, at once antique and modernist, was reminiscent of both the Commedia dell’Arte trestle stage and a circus tent – factors contributing to the unity of their non-realist productions.
Saint-Denis’ concern for style included scene design, acting space, and playhouse. Throughout his career, he collaborated closely with his designers, usually long-term colleagues. As he moved away from the presentational and mostly symbolist repertory of his early years, he became involved in developing a flexible stage for theatres that would work for a broader range of plays. Given that style was his principal interest, it is noteworthy that as a director he limited himself to a fairly narrow repertoire. But all that lay in his future. This French practitioner, whose background, culture and practice differed strikingly from his British counterparts, would become a dominant influence for theatrical change in his adoptive country.
The Quinze visit to London was mutually advantageous for Saint-Denis and a rising generation of British progressive theatre practitioners. With a few notable exceptions, European innovations had been largely ignored in England. London’s West End leaned towards drawing room comedies, melodrama, and musical revues; the predominant mode of acting was naturalistic underplaying; scene design was generally outmoded; the director was not yet a force. The Old Vic, committed to productions of Shakespearean plays, provided an option to commercial theatre for audiences, actors, and directors. Rare alternative companies presented either an unusual repertory and/or staging methods, but like the Old Vic, were financially starved. What these troupes accomplished was to introduce a rising generation of idealistic practitioners to novel modes of theatre. For them, the Quinze, with its emphasis on ensemble playing and singular style of combining the text with theatricalist sound and movement techniques, seemed to be the future. Artists such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peggy Ashcroft, Tyrone Guthrie, to name only a few, turned to Michel Saint-Denis for counsel.
Saint-Denis, excited by the interest in him, but immersed in the Compagnie des Quinze, returned to France and André Obey to create another work. The play was La Bataille de la Marne, loosely based on an improvisation about the anguish of war that the troupe had explored in its Copiaus days. Here war was particularized, commemorating the World War I battle in which emergency troops were dispatched in Paris taxis to stop the advance of the German army. The script has Brechtian overtones, although the Quinze were unaware of his work. Less linear than Lucrèce, it shared similarities of form: a messenger commented on the mimed action, characters were archetypal, and it contained a chorus. A suffering woman represented France, Saint-Denis played the multiple roles of a peasant, mayor, doctor, and taxi driver; a female chorus dressed as peasant women embodied the French provinces; a male chorus, the army. The play was also notable for its use of “grummelotage,” an invented language of sound and movement that the Copiaus had experimented with. From today’s vantage point, La Bataille de la Marne seems a further progression in the Quinze’s search for a new theatre. But while it had its champions among artists and intellectuals, who praised its stunning tableaux, critical notices varied.
Old problems resurfaced: rivalry, discouragement, fatigue caused by constant touring, financial difficulties, distrust of an authority figure – now Saint-Denis, in place of Copeau – lack of material. Gifted as he was, Obey could not supply the company’s entire repertory. It was difficult to find other dramatists capable of meeting the Quinze’s demands. Actors began to leave the company. Saint-Denis struggled to replace them with the kind of actor he needed. While there were numerous candidates, none had the requisite training. The Depression caused their patron to withdraw her support. In 1934, in a last ditch effort to keep the diminished company alive, Saint-Denis returned to London to raise money.
After the Quinze’s four annual tours, Saint-Denis was well aware that his work as an actor and director was respected in England. The company remained a model for theatre organizations like England’s Group Theatre. Saint-Denis rudimentary English notwithstanding, he had made valuable contacts. Importantly, two of the later recruits to the Quinze, Marius Goring and Vera Poliakoff, had come to it from London. Goring and Poliakoff had entrée into a select group of young and ambitious theatre practitioners, among whom were Saint-Denis’ future colleagues George Devine and the designers known as Motley (Margaret Harris, Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Montgomery). Warmly welcomed into this coterie, Saint-Denis found little, if any, support for resuscitating the Quinze. Instead, he was encouraged to remain in England and join forces with them in as yet an undefined collaboration. As Saint-Denis put it: “Without realizing it, I was consorting with those who were to shape the English theatre for the next thirty years.”
It was a painful decision to make. He would be cutting himself off from his language, culture, family and his acting career. (His heavy, indeed almost comical, accent eliminated that possibility.) At the same time, England offered him an artistic independence unavailable to him in France, where he remained in his uncle’s shadow. Ultimately, he was persuaded by Tyrone Guthrie’s offer of 1,300 pounds to establish a school. Other contributions followed. The London Theatre Studio (LTS) was founded in 1935 as a “non-conforming” school open to experimentation whose course offerings exceeded those of a conventional drama program. Despite or perhaps because of Saint-Denis’ “anxiety of influence,” he borrowed from Copeau’s pedagogical theories, but added his own amendments.
LTS, the first of six training institutes Saint-Denis established, served as the prototype for the others. (The earlier school planned for the Quinze was never fully instituted because of economic problems.) Saint-Denis believed that a drama school and a permanent theatre company committed to research should exist in symbiosis, one nourishing the other. Accordingly, he envisaged a theatre company for LTS from the beginning. Saint-Denis’ ideal drama school was a self-contained institution whose larger goal was the transformation of the theatre. To this end, LTS’ two-year program developed actors, designers, stage managers and technicians. Its curriculum made it exceptional at a time when drama schools taught acting, future designers studied at art institutes, and stage managers and technicians learned on the job. At LTS all aspects of the instruction were integrated. Its future practitioners shared a single vision of theatre. The faculty was made up of working professionals.
LTS’ acting course had three sections: one for students, another for professionals, and a third French section for students with speaking proficiency. Its rationale was that performing in French would improve diction. In practice, the course did not work out because of insufficient enrollment, just six students of varying abilities in French and acting. Beginners were cast in productions alongside professionals like Vera Poliakoff and even Saint-Denis. Sadly for Saint-Denis, its removal from the curriculum effectively ended his opportunities to act in England.
Professional actors – sixteen in the school’s first term – attended classes geared toward their level. Most famously, Alec Guinness was coached by Saint-Denis and Laurence Olivier took a theatrical gymnastics class. It was Saint-Denis’ hope that the professionals would form a talent pool for the projected company. However, the main thrust of the acting program was the student section. Its broad curriculum – judged radical in many quarters – encompassed voice, speech, music, movement, silent and spoken improvisation, comic and tragic mask, text, theatre history, and performance. In the initial stages of training, written texts were considered secondary; emphasis was on improvisation, both masked and unmasked. Tragic or neutral mask was deemed less accessible than comic and required a longer training. In the comic version a character frequently sprang into existence when the student first donned the mask. Saint-Denis also introduced aspects of the Stanislavsky System into the acting program, unexpected given his anti-naturalistic bias. But conversely, his conception of truth in acting demanded a balance between external and internal techniques.
In 1937, LTS inaugurated the practice of a public performance by its graduating students, a test not only for the graduates, but the training as a whole. In general, critical response was highly favorable. Directed by the instructors, most of the production was in the hands of the students. In keeping with the school’s philosophy, technical students played bit parts and acting students assisted on the technical side. Typically, this annual event incorporated one act of an Elizabethan drama, of a classic comedy, and of a poetic modern drama. A new work developed in the improvisation classes was the most experimental part of the program. Collective creation for Saint-Denis survived as a training tool.
Shows were presented in LTS’ two-hundred seat theatre designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. Saint-Denis worked closely with Breuer, as he had with the designer of the Quinze’s stage. The result for LTS was a modernized version of a Georgian stage. As such, it was useful for both presentational and representational productions, denoting a change in Saint-Denis’ repertoire. The apron, with a door on either side, was an acting area that could be entered directly from the wings. Above each door was a balcony that could also be used to stage scenes.
Concurrently with teaching and running the school, Saint-Denis was active as a director. During this period, with varying degrees of success, he mounted nine plays professionally, an enormous learning experience for him as well as for those he worked with. His début play was Noah (an English-language version of Noé) mounted per request of John Gielgud, eager to benefit from what he perceived as the Saint-Denis magic touch. It was a transitional production in that Saint-Denis was working with Quinze material, but without the specially trained ensemble that made the production so memorable. In spite of a talented cast that included Alec Guinness, Jessica Tandy, Marius Goring, and John Gielgud in the title role, it was a shadow of the original. The actors lacked the movement ability, mask training, and ensemble spirit, while the usual English three weeks of rehearsal were inadequate for a director accustomed to several months of preparation. The production pleased the critics, but only reinforced Saint-Denis’ conviction that a permanent company and school were essential for the reform of British theatre and the development of his own career in England. Without a permanent company of his own, he would be a transient director at the behest of others.
Shortly after Noah, Saint-Denis bid farewell to the Quinze era and began experimenting with Jacobean drama. In 1936, Tyrone Guthrie invited him to direct the obscure Witch of Edmonton at the Old Vic, which starred the distinguished actress Edith Evans. Saint-Denis staged it surrealistically, for which he was attacked by traditional reviewers who found it “arty,” an opprobrium that would stick. Unknowingly, Saint-Denis had stepped into dangerous and sacrosanct territory, the classical British theatre. Still, The Witch of Edmonton was not without its fans. Laurence Olivier, keen to play Macbeth and drawn by Saint-Denis’ fresh approach, asked him to direct it. Expressionistic in style, the production was conceived as a projection of Macbeth’s mind. The eerie lighting, immense set pieces and costumes reflected his delusional state, as did the fantastical masks worn by the witches and Banquo. Again, the same critics assailed Saint-Denis’ experimentalism. Imagistic qualities that they had praised in the Quinze productions were too avant-garde, too “foreign” for their national playwright. Years later, Margaret Harris, one of the Motley designers, ascribed the hostile reviews to xenophobia. For her, Saint-Denis’ classical productions had “an excitement and character that was unique and thrilling,” but “unappreciated” by the critical community at the time.
While Saint-Denis might not have lived up to the critics’ expectations, he remained an inspiration, leader, and innovator in the theatre profession. And so it was that John Gielgud, in charge of the 1937-38 season at the Queen’s Theatre, turned to Saint-Denis to direct Three Sisters in 1938. Three Sisters was a decided stylistic departure from Saint-Denis’ earlier professional productions. Realism was still new to him, although at LTS, he had begun exploring it to prepare students to tackle not only classic, but modern theatre. Saint-Denis distinguished between realism and what he termed “the mud of naturalism.” For him, naturalism dealt with the detailed depiction of the banal and the sordid, while realism at its best, as in the plays of Chekhov, portrays more universal themes, is more lyrical in style, and is “capable of [expressing] the essence of … life itself.” The two forms are similar in that each recounts a tale of contemporary issues faced by contemporary characters living in contemporary times.
Two factors enabled Saint-Denis to hone his handling of Chekhov. He had a stellar cast – numbering among them John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, and George Devine – and Gielgud gave him two months of rehearsal. Saint-Denis’ preparation included a comprehensive study of the recently published translation of An Actor Prepares. In 1922, he had been impressed by Stanislavsky’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Now Saint-Denis looked to the master’s book to discover techniques that would result in the spontaneity and internal truth that had moved him in The Cherry Orchard. In what might seem a paradoxical approach to finding the improvisational quality of Stanislavsky’s production, Saint-Denis meticulously blocked the script prior to rehearsal. He did not, however, discard improvisation as a rehearsal technique. Using exercises analogous to sense memory, the cast spent days creating mood and atmosphere. The effect was to deepen their characterizations. As can be seen in production photographs and critical comments, Saint-Denis integrated physical characterization in modified form into Three Sisters. The dance-like movement of the Quinze was transformed into more representational gesture and motion, but still carefully choreographed. The long and unfamiliar approach to developing a play stimulated the actors’ imaginations and produced ensemble playing of a quality unknown in British productions. Critical consensus was that Saint-Denis had rethought the essence of Chekhov, whom the English had long considered depressing. He was lauded for being the first in England to bring out the humor of Chekhov’s drama. Reactions were summed up in this comment: “We shall never see this production of Three Sisters surpassed and we owe homage to the genius of M. Michel Saint-Denis that he has given it to us.”
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.
Jobless, Saint-Denis accepted his only viable option, the directorship of the Centre Dramatique de l’Est (CDE) in Alsace, the first of France’s postwar decentralized theatres, which had been established in 1946. Theatrical decentralization was part of a larger governmental scheme to revivify the French provinces culturally and economically. As the Centre’s third director – the previous two having failed to win the population’s confidence – Saint-Denis was by far the most experienced in setting up theatrical institutions. In taking on the position, Saint-Denis was returning to his roots when as a Copiau he struggled to create a viable company in the provinces. However, in 1953 he was fifty-six, his health compromised by a stroke several years earlier, and emerging from the devastating disappointment of Old Vic Theatre Centre. With an effort of will, Saint-Denis put aside his ambivalence and embarked on the project with energy.
The task assigned him was to develop a drama school, serve as artistic director of the center’s theatrical troupe, and to oversee the design of the building in Strasbourg that would house them. Thus, he would realize his ambition of running a company and school in tandem and would have the satisfaction of designing a theatre in its entirety, once again with Pierre Sonrel as his partner. (Inadequate funding had forced Saint-Denis and Sonrel to abridge their plans for the Old Vic.) Saint-Denis began by engaging the troupe, which proved harder than anticipated. Actors were reluctant to leave Paris for what they regarded as the boondocks. A further obstacle was his relative obscurity to a younger generation of French actors. Jacques Duchesne was a national hero; Michel Saint-Denis the director was a stranger. Undoubtedly, having to persuade unknowns to come to Alsace with him was humiliating to Saint-Denis who had directed England’s greatest actors. The inexperienced troupe placed an added burden on Saint-Denis; rehearsals sometimes resembled acting classes, as he strove to raise the performance standards.
The troupe operated on similar principles to the Quinze, touring almost constantly, carrying with them a flexible set, designed by the gifted Abd’el Kader Farrah, the last of Saint-Denis’ designer-collaborators. However, since Saint-Denis wanted to reach as wide a public as possible, he split the company into two sections of ten so that the tours covered seventy towns and villages, mostly in France, but included Belgium and Switzerland as well. His first production (1953) was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, favorably greeted by audiences and critics alike. One positive aspect of Saint-Denis’ return to France was his freedom to experiment with Shakespeare.
That same year while awaiting the completion of the school’s building in Alsace, acting classes were initiated in Colmar; technical classes were added when the school was completely set up. Initial coursework was rudimentary because of the limited facilities, small class size, and the tiny faculty of three: Saint-Denis taught improvisation, general culture, and theatre and art history; Magito, movement and acting; and Daniel Leveugle, a French director, acting. When the Strasbourg school opened in 1954, Magito was appointed its director, although the curriculum was Saint-Denis’. Actor training was expanded to three years: Saint-Denis had always judged two insufficient for all the speech and voice work that the students needed; additional movement classes were put in place; much of the student repertoire was changed to conform to French culture; and the student body was opened up to “foreigners capable of working in French.” This last was a necessity – at least at the beginning – if the school were to attract qualified students. Potential students reacted in much the same way as the actors Saint-Denis had auditioned in Paris. Once settled into the Strasbourg facility, Saint-Denis avoided similar problems with his faculty by bringing in a number of his trusted Old Vic teachers.
Saint-Denis’ multitasking with limited resources took a toll. He commuted approximately 50 miles from Colmar where the troupe rehearsed to Alsace to supervise the building of the theatre and to teach. In order to make the Centre more salient in the region, he wrote articles, gave public readings, and lectured. He struggled with his recalcitrant actors who resisted his perfectionism. (Approximately fifty percent of the company was replaced each season.) Pressures grew and in 1955, he suffered a severe second stroke, which temporarily left him paralyzed on one side, incapable of speaking clearly.
Unable to continue for several months, he brought in two more of his Old Vic colleagues, John Blatchley and Pierre Lefèvre, to help Suria Magito run the school. Partially recovered, Saint-Denis’ health did not permit him to continue as the head of such a multifaceted organization as the CDE. He soldiered on directing plays until the end of the 1955 season when worn out, he relinquished the direction of the original play Le Pays noir Pierre Lefèvre. He submitted his resignation with the stipulation that he stay on until the theatre was up and running, though it would never be his to run.
Saint-Denis was not ready to abandon his career, albeit his ill-health. Nor could he afford to. A lifetime’s work in the theatre had not provided him with retirement funds. Serendipitously, the renowned Juilliard School in New York City, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, had decided to integrate a Drama Division into its Music and Dance School. In searching out the best person to undertake its creation, they discovered Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis left the Strasbourg school in the hands of his loyal disciple Pierre Lefèvre and the theatre in the charge of Hubert Gignoux, a French director whose background was linked to the Copeau legacy.
The last dozen years of Saint-Denis’ life were productive. He advised, set up, and activated drama programs in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 1960, he opened Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada (NTS), which like Juilliard followed the Saint-Denis training model, with cultural adaptations. NTS was a prime mover in the development of professional Canadian theatre. In addition to setting up the curriculum, he engaged the faculty, and went to Montreal periodically to supervise and critique the work. In 1962, Peter Hall, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and admirer of Saint-Denis invited him along with Peter Brook to become his associate directors. Saint-Denis’ special mandate was the creation of a studio to train the less experienced company members how to approach differing styles, particularly epic and absurdist plays that were still new to English actors. After more than ten years of preparation, the Juilliard Drama Division opened in 1968. It was a leader in providing an alternative to the dominant Method-based teaching in the U.S. Saint-Denis devised Juilliard’s curriculum, consulted on the design of its theatre spaces, hired the faculty, and taught and directed a reading during the Drama Division’s début year before being struck down by a third stroke, which put an end to his professional life.
After leaving Strasbourg, he continued to direct in England. In 1960 he directed his first opera, Stravinsky’s oratorio Oedipus Rex at the Sadler’s Wells, conceptually different from his earlier production of Sophocles’ Oedipus. The highly lauded mise en scène remained in the company’s repertoire for fifteen years. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, he mounted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (with Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, and Judi Dench) in 1961 and Brecht’s Squire Puntilla and His Servant Matti in 1965.
He was a very active proponent of actor training giving lectures internationally, involved in the International Theatre Institute (ITI), and writing. His first book, Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style is regarded as a classic in the Anglophone world. His second book Training for the Theatre offers a practical approach.
His death in London in 1971 saddened the theatre community, perhaps most in England where he had garnered his greatest reputation.