French Physical Theatre of the 20th and 21st Century - Copeau, Dullin, Artaud, Barrault, Lecoq, Marceau, Gaulier and Pagneux
French Physical Theatre is a style of training, exploration and performance that concentrates on movement as the central form of communication, character and storytelling. It incorporates forms and techniques such as mime, mask work, gesture, movement and dance to train actors, create explorations and performances. While its origins can be seen in theatre forms such as the Commedia dell'arte, Asian forms of theatre and the work of early Absurdist like Alfred Jarry, many see the originator of modern French Physical Theatre as coming from Antonin Artaud and his ideas of the Theatre of Cruelty. Yet modern French Physical Theatre can be seen to start much earlier with the work of Jacques Copeau and Charles Dullin as actors, directors and trainers.
Jacques Copeau (1879 - 1949)
Jacques Copeau was French theatre director, actor, trainer and dramatist. He was born in Paris in 1879. Due to family problems, he finished his formal education at the Sorbonne in 1901. After a short stint in Copenhagen, he returned to France and co-founded the influential arts magazine Nouvelle Revue Francaise in 1909. In 1913, he founded the revolutionary Theatre du Vieux-Colombier which put artistic merit above all commercial concerns. The small theatre (500 seater and then eventually reduced to 360 capacity) emphasized the ensemble above the individual. The ensemble often rehearsed in his home. He emphasized physicality in rehearsals. The company put on a number of productions but WWI cur short their work. Around this time, Copeau sojourned with the designer/director Edward Gordon Craig and met the eurythmic master Dalcroze and designer Appia and started to develop ideas for three dimensional performance enhanced by mise en scene and lighting elements.
Charles Dullin was a French actor, theatre and film director, theatre trainer and manager who did much to further exploration and performance of movement based theatre. Born in 1885 in Yenne in present day France, by the age of 20, he had started as a full time actor performing mostly in melodrama. By 1908, he and fellow actor Saturni Fabre had started their own company staging melodramas and formalist style dramas including the early play works of Alexandre Arnoux.
After moving to Paris, Dullin joined Copeau's company in 1913 for a short while before committing to Copeau's company more formally in 1917. As a soldier in WWI, he started to use his pantomime and mime skills and his interest in Japanese Kabuki theatre to perform to his fellow troupes. He saw these as essential representations of human nature even in the most dire of circumstances. By 1920, he was training actors at the Theatre Antoine and by 1921 he had developed ideas for a laboratory theatre and commune which he called Theatre de lÁtelier which he established outside Paris in Neronville. He trained and explored with actors for 10-12 hours a day to create a theatre based on common sharing of life and work. Some of the actors in this original troupe included Antonin Artaud and Marguerite Jamois. He later moved his troupe to the Theatre Montmartre in suburban Paris which had been the 'first purpose built theatre in suburban Paris when it was established in 1822.
Dullin's by 1922 included mime and mirroring exercises, improvisation and vocal exercises exploring 'Voix de Soi-Meme' (the voice of oneself) and 'La Voix du Monde' (the voice of the world). He saw that actors must "see before describing, hear before answering... and feel before trying to express themselves". His use of soundscape movement exercises involving live and recorded sounds were described by many students. Also pivotal to this work was the use of mask work from neutral masks to commedia masks to Noh theatre masks. Two of his most famous students from this period in the 1920s were the actor/theatre theorist Antonin Artaud and the actress Jany Holt (aka Ruxandra Ecaterina Vlădescu). It is interesting to note that Dullin used some Asian performance techniques and masks during the 1920s but he did not see his first performance of Asian theatre until in 1930 he saw Tsutsui Tokujiro's troupe perform in Paris in 1930. This performance was a shinpa style which combined kabuki style theatre with Japanese melodrama and swordplay.
By the 1930s, Dullin's work had moved more into training actors and acting in films. He used his wonderfully physical and symbolic acting techniques to perform in films such as Les Miserables (1934) and Streets of Shadows (1937). His attempts to create a non-Naturalistic theatre and his creation of anti-war productions, meant that he found it difficult to continue his work during World War Two. After, the war, he continued to train actors and perform in films such as Les jeux sont faits ('The Chips are Down') (1947). He died in 1949 in Southern France while touring as an actor. His legacy and training techniques are kept alive through the Academie Charles-Dullin.
Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty
Artaud was born in Marseille in 1896. At the age of 18, he was admitted to a sanitoria. In 1916, he was conscripted into the French army. He was discharged from the army due to sleepwalking and was put back under psychiatric care. He eventually moved to Paris in 1921 and began some training with the symbolist poet and director Lugne-Poe. After a short holiday in Marseille, he joined Dullin's troupe and trained under Dullin in physical theatre techniques. Besides training with Dullin, he also developed over 11 roles for Dullin productions.
During his eighteen months with Dullin's company, Artaud started to develop the beginnings of his theories for the Theatre of Cruelty. The physical work in Dullin's company helped Artaud to believe that gesture and movement were more powerful as a performance tool than text. He saw the function of lights, sound and set not as merely decorative and aesthetic elements but as tools for sensory disruption. He saw the audience as central to the performance. Around this time he started to describe theatre as an act of 'organised anarchy'. Like Dullin, he was strongly influenced by Eastern philosophy and performance. Whereas Dullin thought believed in a theatre of transposing or translating Eastern performance techniques to Western theatre because he did not "... impose on our Western theatre rules of a theatre of a long tradition which has its own symbolic language...", Artaud saw the adoption of Eastern symbolic gesture and movement as crucial to the survival of Western theatre. By 1923, he was writing poems and essays that became the basis for his work The Theatre and its Double.
During the late 1920s, Artaud started to work in films as an actor and writer and to start to work with the surrealist movement. His most notable acting roles were as Jean-Paul Marat in Gance's Napoleon (1927) and as a monk called Massieu in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Ten of the over thirty screenplays he wrote survive including one of the few which was produced which was the 1928 Dulac directed surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman.
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Rudlin, J. 1986. Jacques Copeau. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.