Jacques Copeau
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Jacques Copeau

Mark Evans

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eBook - ePub

Jacques Copeau

Mark Evans

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This book examines Jacques Copeau, a leading figure in the development of twentieth-century theatre practice, a pioneer in actor-training, physical theatre and ensemble acting, and a key innovator in the movement to de-centralize theatre and culture to the regions.

Noe reissued, Jacques Copeau combines:

  • an overview of Copeau's life and work

  • an analysis of his key ideas

  • a detailed commentary of his 1917 production of Moliere's late farce Les Fourberies de Scapin – the opening performance of his influential New York season

  • a series of practical exercises offering an introduction to Copeau's working methods.

As a first step towards critical understanding, and as an initial exploration before going on to further, primary research, Routledge Performance Practitioners are unbeatable value for today's student.

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The Life of Jacques Copeau

In the history of the French theatre there are two periods: before and after Copeau.
(Albert Camus in Saint-Denis 1982: 32)
Jacques Copeau’s international success in the fields of journalism, playwriting, directing, acting and teaching represent a level of achievement unmatched in the history of modern French, and perhaps even modern European, theatre. At a time when French theatre was desperately in need of direction and purpose, Copeau, through his writing, his teaching and his practice, offered inspiration and a ceaseless pursuit of quality. His influence on French cultural policy has been profound and his work has also left its mark on the practice and policy of major British and American theatrical institutions. Copeau brought to the theatre of his time a new vitality, purposefulness and energy; an energy based on the actor’s physical skills, on a vision of the role of theatre, and on an instinctive feel for the rhythmic and structural demands of a play. In his search for a revitalised theatre – for a theatre which, as in Ancient Greece or Medieval Europe, was able to play a social and moral role with the community – he drew together the influences of other innovators such as Edward Gordon Craig, Adolphe Appia, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze and Konstantin Stanislavsky into a unique and successful synthesis. His innovative work on the use of masks, improvisation, mime and physical expression, as training tools for the actor and as elements within the creation and presentation of performance, have led to his current recognition as a key figure in the history of what is now referred to as ‘physical theatre’.
Copeau’s influence on the development of twentieth century theatre practice has been diverse and extensive. His commitment to a true ensemble company where actors would play leading roles in one production and minor parts in the next, where the repertoire would include classical revivals and contemporary writing, was a profound influence on the founding principles of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1960s. His belief in the value of a complete and rounded education for the student actor – preparing not just for the theatre of yesterday, but also for the theatre of today and tomorrow – can be seen underpinning the philosophies of many of the leading European and American drama schools. Copeau wrote many articles and pamphlets, but, unlike Konstantin Stanislavsky or Michael Chekhov, he left no handbook outlining his techniques. Though he promoted a broad cultural education for his students, he was equally clear that study through reading was not the way to educate the actor. His legacy has been a practical one; a way of crafting drama handed down by teachers and practitioners, learned through experience and participation. The purity and simplicity of his purpose and his work, his belief in the moral and social power of theatre, and his passionate commitment to the training of the actor’s body and mind as well as their voice, have shaped and inspired the work of so many of those who followed after him, both in France and further afield. Much that is now commonplace in contemporary theatre practice can be traced directly back to the work of Copeau and his small group of collaborators during the few decades between the two World Wars. If his influence is not so clearly evident at the start of the twenty-first century, then that is in part because it is so firmly embedded in the cultural framework of the British, European and American theatre industries that it has become taken for granted.
My own introduction to Copeau’s work came during my three years as a mime student in London and Paris during the early 1980s. While I grappled with the rigorous and exacting demands of corporeal mime and physical theatre techniques, I found myself curious to discover more about the history and background of the skills that I was acquiring. Copeau’s influence has in this sense been a constant presence throughout my career – through my training with Jacques Lecoq, my work in community theatre, and my own teaching. Though Copeau began as a journalist and wrote many pamphlets, articles and lectures, my own experience confirms for me that his theatre methods have been kept alive not only through publication, but also through their dissemination down a line of teachers and students, directors and actors – a living and changing heritage against which his writings need to be seen not as the main text, but as the footnotes, anecdotes and appendices. This book aims to draw attention to Copeau’s achievements, practices and ideas so that they may continue to enrich and encourage the practice of new generations of theatre makers.

The Formative Years

Jacques Copeau was born on 4 February 1879, at 76 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10th Arrondissement of Paris. The France in which he grew up was a country of political uncertainty, a country still dealing with the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). The war had been a bitter conflict, leading eventually to the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic in France, and the founding of the German Empire. When peace returned to France, it brought with it relative economic prosperity and a growth in cultural activity. Over the following decades France continued to struggle with some profound political and social problems, most notable of which was the notorious Dreyfus affair in which a Jewish soldier was wrongly accused of treason; at the same time, Paris became one of the great cultural capitals of the continent, drawing to it modern artists and writers from all corners of Europe. This social and economic climate enabled middle-class families, such as that of Victor and HĂ©lĂšne Copeau, to prosper and survive, and perhaps encouraged their son’s cultural dreams and aspirations. They were a reasonably well off middle class family who owned a small iron factory in Raucourt in the Ardennes, and although they themselves had no notable literary or theatrical connections or background, their son found inspiration in the occasional family trips to performances, the family’s small library of melodramas, and from the games and flights of imagination that filled his childhood days. The young Copeau used to imagine the rooftop and courtyard views from his family’s house as a stage for his childhood fantasies. His mind, even at that early stage, noting the dramatic potential of the bare architectural spaces – ‘like a desert sunrise or a stage after the performance’ (Copeau 1990: 5) – and the rich details of everyday activity around him. His childhood passion for games was intense. In his later work, Copeau was often to return to his childhood games and imaginings with a deeply felt sense of their value:
The mind of a child wanders amid such semblances. He links his own fairyland to the bits of reality that he observes with a relentless eye and absorbs with a bold heart. This is the way we compose our first dramas, which we try out in our games and mull over in silence.
(Copeau 1990: 6)
Copeau was a pupil at the LycĂ©e Condorcet (in the nearby 9th Arrondissement) from 1889 to 1897, during which time he attended various theatre performances at the ThĂ©Ăątre-Libre, the ComĂ©die-Française and the ChĂątelet: ‘I used to sneak out of the house to go and spend the few sous I had carefully saved from my pocket money to attend the theatre’ (Copeau 1990: 211). The director AndrĂ© Antoine was an important and significant early influence, as he was for many young theatre enthusiasts at the end of the nineteenth century. Copeau was riveted by Antoine’s performance in Jules Lemaitre’s L’Age Difficile, ‘Everything he did fascinated me’ (ibid.), and, despite the differences in their ideas, Antoine was to prove a friend and supporter of Copeau’s work in the years to come.
AndrĂ© Antoine (1858–1943) was a key theatrical reformer and a leading figure in the development of theatrical naturalism. In 1887, with the support of Émile Zola, the novelist and critic who had founded the Naturalist movement in literature, Antoine established the ThĂ©Ăątre Libre. Through his work he stressed the close and scientific observation of everyday life over conventional play construction and hackneyed acting techniques. He later managed both the ThĂ©Ăątre Antoine and the OdĂ©on, retiring after the First World War to concentrate on dramatic criticism. His influence both in France and further abroad was profound, and his support for the next generation of dramatists and theatre-makers was generous and influential.
In his final year at the LycĂ©e, Copeau’s first play, Brouillard du Matin (Morning Fog), was performed by his fellow pupils. The young Copeau was enthused by the success of his first experience of making theatre; the fact that it was his own play, put on by himself, must have been important in nurturing his inner belief in the value and power of theatre.
In September 1897 he visited London with his father, seeing the famous English actor-manager Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853–1937) and the leading actress Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940) in Hamlet. On his return he enrolled at the Sorbonne for a degree in literature and philosophy, however he was far more enthusiastic about attending the latest theatre shows than he was about attending his lectures. What money he had he continued to spend on going to performances at the ThĂ©Ăątre Antoine and at the ThĂ©Ăątre de l’Oeuvre, two of the leading avant-garde theatres of the time. He was present at the opening night of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1896, a seminal moment in European theatre history (Donahue, 2007: 5). Despite failing his written exams at the Sorbonne, Copeau continued with his own writing, completing a one-act play, La SĂšve (The Essence), and drafting the first outline of his autobiographical play, La Maison Natale (The Birthplace). In June 1901 Copeau’s father died; now in his early twenties, he decided to abandon his studies, preferring instead to see the world. He undertook a trip to Scandinavia, including a stay in Denmark where in June 1902 he married a young Danish woman, Agnes Thomsen, whom he had first met in Paris six years earlier. Within the year, Agnes gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Marie-HĂ©lĂšne. Money was inevitably tight, but Copeau managed to support his family by giving private French lessons. At the same time, he continued with his writing, sending several articles to Parisian periodicals. One of these articles caught the eye of its subject, the author AndrĂ© Gide, who wrote to Copeau in Copenhagen, encouraging the young writer to continue with his efforts. This corres pondence marked the start of a long and warm friendship between the two.
AndrĂ© Gide (1869–1951) was a French novelist and playwright, whose works explore the tensions between individual hedonism and moral responsibility. His dramatic work included plays as well as translations and adaptations of Shakespeare and Kafka. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947.
Gide persuaded Copeau to return to Paris with his young family. Copeau’s original intention was to continue with his writing, however now that his father had died he was obliged once more to leave Paris – this time to manage the family’s iron factory, which he did from 1903 until the business went bankrupt in 1905. His familial loyalty at this important point in his life is an early indicator of his strong sense of moral responsibility and of his personal resolve in the face of fate. As Copeau was ruefully to remark some twenty or so years later: ‘From our twentieth or twenty-fifth year on
 We cease to control our life; it controls us!’ (Copeau 1990: 6).
Copeau was now twenty-seven, but according to his friend Gide he looked ten years older; the cares and uncertainties of his twenties had clearly taken their toll. Once again he sought to establish himself in the theatre career he so earnestly desired. Despite his friends’ continuing support and encouragement, he complained that he was getting nowhere, ‘I do not have the right milieu’ (Copeau in Kurtz 1999: 5). Copeau’s sense of isolation has to be understood in its context; despite the activities of a few innovators, drama in Paris at this time was dominated by the commercial theatres of the boulevards, and by the artistic and cultural tastes associated with the belle Ă©poque. He found it difficult to consider how he could work in an art form seemingly so concerned with surface, success, and notoriety at any cost.
The belle Ă©poque was marked by a taste for all things beautiful and ornate. This period was most particularly associated with the city of Paris between the years 1871 and 1914. Across Europe, scientific and political progress had made for a life that was, on the face of things, comfortable and satisfying – at least for the well-to-do. At its best, this period produced work which was graceful, luxurious to the eye, and enchanting, such as the decorative flourishes of Art Nouveau. At its worst, it could produce frivolous and sensational novelty and superficial effect. In the Parisian boulevard theatre of the turn of the century this lead to a system dominated by the egos of star actors and fascinated by the spectacular, the sentimental, the melodramatic and the trivial.
In order to support his family, he turned instead to the world of modern art and, with a recommendation from his friend the painter Albert Besnard, gained work as an exhibition director and salesman at the Georges Petit Gallery. Copeau continued working at the gallery for four years, juggling his work with his writing – doing what he could to champion theatrical reform, and to demand moral integrity and artistic rigour from the critics. In 1907, he was offered the opportunity to take over from LĂ©on Blum as drama critic for the Grande Revue – a post which finally gave him access to a wider public. This proved to be an important turning point in Copeau’s fortunes, as two years later, Copeau, together with Gide, Jean Schlumberger, AndrĂ© Ruyters and Henri GhĂ©on, founded the Nouvelle Revue Française, which was to become one of the leading French journals of the early twentieth century. Finally Copeau had the financial security he needed to support his family, and more significantly to pursue his own interests in theatre.
Copeau could now start to devote more time to his writing and to his own creative interests. He cut his teeth as a critic by writing for a wide range of journals and newspapers between 1905 and 1913. He was recognised as an important and successful critic – widely read, culturally knowledgeable, perceptive and incisive (Paul 1977: 221). Compared to the polite, anecdotal and descriptive style of most of his contemporaries, Copeau’s reviews lambasted the mediocrity and complacency of the Paris boulevard theatres, and repeatedly called to question the extensive commercialisation of the theatre of the time. Underlying his critical writing was a belief in theatre’s potential to reveal the true inner dimensions of human life. What Copeau could not bear was the empty theatricality of the commercial theatres, where tricks, traditional stage ‘business’, hackneyed dialogue and over-simplified ideas of character and motivation brought popular success but revealed little of consequence about the nature of human existence (ibid.: 226).
His first opportunity to put his own head over the parapet came with an invitation from Jacques RouchĂ© to write a play for the 1910–1911 season of the ThĂ©Ăątre des Arts. Copeau chose to adapt and stage Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Les FrĂšres Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov). The production opened on 6 April 1911, and was hailed as a resounding success by the Parisian critics. It was to be revived three times by Copeau during the decade or so that followed. On the heels of this success he was able to visit London and discuss an English revival of Karamazov with the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and also to meet the dancer Isadora Duncan. Over the next year, he saw the Ballet Russes perform in Paris, and visited London where he attended a performance of Harley Granville Barker’s production of Twelfth Night and met with the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Without a doubt the success of Les FrĂšres Karamazov, and his subsequent contact with some of the key figures of European theatre, was a major factor in Copeau’s decision in 1913 to follow his own vision and form a new theatre company.
Harley Granville-Barker (1877–1946) was an English actor, director, critic and playwright. After initial success as an actor, Granville-Barker took out a lease on the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1904, where he produced plays by some of the leading European playwrights of the period: George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949). He also produced several of his own plays, as well as ground-breaking productions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale. His productions were notable for their lack of declamatory diction, the continuous flow of scenes, the use of open staging, and an emphasis on ensemble performance. In 1923 he moved to Paris, where he began a highly influential series of Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927–1948), in which he offered the first comprehensive analysis of the plays from the perspective of the modern actor and director. After working in America during the Second World War, he returned to Paris in 1946, where he died later that year.

The ThĂ©Ăątre du Vieux-Colombier (1913–1917)

In starting up his own company, Copeau’s ambition was no less than to rebuild the art of theatre from the base up. He proposed a theatre that was ‘simple but inventive’ (Bradby and Wi...

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