The Outsider: The Michel Saint-Denis Archive: A Theatre Archive Project of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of Sheffield, and the British Library

By Jeffrey, Ewan | Theatre Notebook, February 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Outsider: The Michel Saint-Denis Archive: A Theatre Archive Project of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of Sheffield, and the British Library


Jeffrey, Ewan, Theatre Notebook


The current primary focus of this five-year project is the partially-sorted postwar British Theatre Archive that is held at the British Library. Research development work is being undertaken on significant theatre collections (John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Michel Saint-Denis), a process that will lead to a deeper understanding of the evolution of British theatre between 1945 and 1968. This period represents theatre produced from the end of the Second World War to the abolition of censorship in 1968. The project's aim is to ask new questions about this crucial period of British theatre history. Although some material has been sorted and described, there is still a wealth of invaluable unsorted material that has yet to be seen by scholars. The project aims to create a complete, detailed catalogue of archive descriptions which will be accessible online.

The first archive to have been sorted as part of this project is that of the French director, actor, producer and designer Michel Saint-Denis. Although he was highly regarded in the 1950s and 60s, Saint-Denis's contribution to contemporary performance has not received due recognition. Jane Baldwin remarks that 'more often than not [Saint-Denis] appears only as a passing reference in a theatrical biography or study of modern British theatre'. (1) Baldwin's monograph, together with the rich archival material, highlights the need for a reassessment of this theatrical polymath.

Born in 1897, Saint-Denis was greatly influenced by his uncle, the producer and critic Jacques Copeau. With Copeau's assistance, Saint-Denis in 1930 set up the Compagnie des Quinze, which performed to great acclaim across Europe. After the Compagnie des Quinze disbanded, Saint-Denis emigrated to Britain and, with George Devine and Marius Goring, founded the London Theatre Studio in 1935. The school was dedicated to the application of Copeau's acting techniques and was later to become the Old Vic School. Under the pseudonym 'Jacques Duchesne', Saint-Denis returned to France in war time and worked for Radio Diffusion Francaise, broadcasting material that was often considered controversial; his programme Les Trois Amis, in particular, was characterised by its shrewd political analysis and satirical digs at the Nazi-controlled station Radio Paris. In the role of director, Saint-Denis's impact on British Theatre was enormous; he co-directed the Royal Shakespeare Company with Peter Hall from 1961 to 1966 and his influence can be seen in many contemporary institutions such as the National Theatre and Royal Court. His legacy to theatre internationally is also beyond doubt, as he taught at New York's Juilliard School and was a special advisor to Canada's National Theatre School. He was a brilliant and charismatic speaker and the archive contains many transcripts of his radio broadcasts, first drafts of lecture scripts and remarkably prescient articles for various theatre journals. Saint-Denis suffered from recurrent health problems throughout his life and died from a stroke in 1971.

One of the most valuable characteristics of the Saint-Denis archive is the variety of its contents. There are some fascinating photographs of actors preparing at the Old Vic, detailed hand-drawn timetables for rehearsals, well-preserved promotional literature for productions as well as an extensive collection of audio material. Saint-Denis's fastidious retention of his professional correspondence reveals the workings of the many powerful institutions over which he had influence. This paper will examine material in the archive that is indicative of Saint-Denis's position as an 'outsider'. Baldwin comments that Saint-Denis 'tried under all circumstances to keep his critical detachment, although his students and actors frequently found his assessments more cutting than detached'. (2) It is perhaps this detachment that has led to this great theatrical figure being sidelined instead of recognised as a key post-war influence on the British stage, and I would like to examine two areas of the archive which are indicative of a form of 'detachment', in both a cultural and critical sense.

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