Friday, 27 October 2017

Jean-Louis Barrault

Some reflections on the theater and the art of the actor in the work of

Although I consider myself primarily a painter, I actually began my professional career in the theater - as a director. I was reminded recently of those early days at the Oxford Playhouse when I watched - yet again - Marcel Carne's wonderful film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) starring Jean-Louis Barrault.

Les Enfants du Paradis tells the story of a beautiful Courtesan (Arletty) and the four men who love her - including Baptiste Debureau, a mime artist played by Barrault. 

In an early scene, Barrault as a mute mime, re-enacts the theft of a watch. It is one of the most brilliantly acted scenes in the history of the cinema and had a profound effect on me as a young man, at that time particularly  interested in mime.

The action takes place in the theatrical world of Paris between 1830 and  the revolution of 1848. This is popular theater and the Funambules theater where Baptiste works is for working-class audiences - rough, noisy and hugely partisan. The theater itself is on the "Boulevard du Crime".

The film was made in Vichy France ( in Paris and Nice) during the German occupation in World War II. The story goes that the actors in the crowd were starving and frequently stole food from banquet scenes before they could be filmed. Alexandre Trauner, who designed the sets, and Joseph Kosma, who composed the music, were both Jewish and had to work in complete secrecy throughout the production.

Jean-Louis Barrault has always been for me the quintessential actor. He was born in 1910 and died in Paris in 1994. He studied with actor/manager Charles Dullin in the years immediately before the war. He later joined the Comedie-Francaise where he became a director. His production of Jean Racine's Phedre made his reputation. He went on to become the most famous French actor of his generation.

In Les Enfants du Paradis Barrault explores the full emotional range of his role with consummate skill - from the poignant scenes in which he plays the mute, love-lorn Pierrot, to his passionate (spoken) feelings for the beautiful courtesan Garance.

Although I was interested in mime as a student and even took a mime show to the Edinburgh Festival one year, I never became an actor. For me, direction was my chosen career path, ending up Associate Director at the Oxford Playhouse. Here I worked with Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Ian McShane, Leonard Rossiter, Leo McKern and many other fine, British actors.

My interest in the theater began very early - when I was six or seven. My grandfather would take me to the pier in Weymouth, a seaside town on the south coast of England. There, in the penny arcades, was a glass case containing a tiny bedroom with an old man asleep in bed. When you put in a penny, the whole scene would come to life. Little wooden ghosts would emerge from cupboards or from behind doors, causing the old man to sit up in bed in horror.

I was hooked and even at the tender age of seven I resolved there and then to work in a world that allowed such things to happen.

I did not at that time associate this little mechanical scene with theater per se but it was the start of a life-long association with the magical world of fantasy and performance - for which Les Enfants du Paradis is perhaps a perfect example.

I am an Existentialist. That means I do not believe in God nor, indeed, in any belief-system based on so-called 'revelation' by some  imagined deity. These are wholly human constructs and to me both absurd and meaningless. They are also profoundly divisive.

Since we are born (unwittingly) into a world that is essentially meaning-less, it is necessary either to commit suicide or find some meaning for oneself by way of justification or motivation for existence.

For me, the theater is a paradigm for that challenge - a world that we fabricate but which gives color, life and excitement and which, despite its innate artificiality, explores the human condition.

Each day I wake up and determine the shape of my life, my very existence. I plan my day and give it some purpose only by what I do, or make or imagine.

I give it purpose - just as a writer, director, actors and all the others involved in a stage production (or film, come to that) - fabricate a 'construct' that they can share with others.

Theater, therefore, is both a purposeful activity in itself and a metaphor for the existential need we face each day - to make sense of a sense-less existence.

In the performance of a great artist like Jean-Louis Barrault we see the entire range of emotional feelings of which humans are capable - love, anger, disappointment, exultation and some kind of emotional catharsis.

His work - and that of other great artists, including painters, poets and writers  - shows what humans are capable of and what tools we have at our disposal for transcending an otherwise meaningless existence. Great art therefore gives permanence to a world in which we are transient beings.

Last week a swift flew in through one window of my cottage in Corfu and out through another. In Anglo-Saxon mythology, a small bird's passage through the Mead Hall - the epicenter of social existence in that ancient community - was a metaphor for life itself, fleeting, transient..

'We are born astride a grave', says a character in Sam Becket's Waiting for Godot.

However, I do not want to end these reflections on a gloomy note. Life is exciting and rich but it is only what we make of it. To have made such a masterpiece as Les Enfants du Paradis - at a time when Nazi Germany was occupying France and murdering millions in its concentration camps elsewhere - is an extraordinary achievement.

Art can triumph over adversity. 

When Paris was liberated in August, 1944 the actor playing the informer-thief Jerico in the film was sentenced to death by the Resistance for collaborating with the Nazis. He was replaced at very short notice by Pierre Renoir (older brother of French film maker Jean Renoir and son of the famous Impressionist painter) and all of the Jerico scenes re-shot.

Despite long delays in its production (and a fair amount of ill-luck, including the destruction of the main set in Nice by a violent storm) Les Enfants du Paradis had its premiere in a liberated France - on March 9th, 1945.

Images for the above article are taken from the remastered DVD of the uncut version of  Les Enfants du Paradis published by Pathe Films

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