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During the last night of his company's stay, Jean Louis Barrault walked through the vestibule of Sanders theater and through the crowd as though it were his dressing room. He was still in the process of being made up as he shook hands and made last minute arrangements over the ticket gate. The effect was to make all of Memorial Hall his stage. This, in essence, is Barrault's approach to the theater.
The dramatic art which enables the theatregoer to lose himself momentarily in a fairy land and then come back when the curtain falls, is extended by Barrault. For the Barrault company is not just a group that does plays but rather "theater" with relation to life. Barrault himself said, "The object of our kind of theater is contact with contemporary life." If there was any particular way to appreciate this concept, as embodied by the Barrault company, it was by giving in to an unfamiliar abandon. The abandon which in Latin countries surrounds a fair or a visit from a traveling circus.
Perhaps it was a measure of Barrault's success that when he left us, Cambridge seemed to be a "broad-backed hippopotamus" with its belly in the mud, and all the theatrical excitement a peculiar bubble on its back. Yet there was no lack of enthusiasm while he was here. He was kind enough to say that the Barrault company was captured by Cambridge. The audiences were certainly very eager even when their French was not of the best. And often it was an unusual audience, made up of local school girls dutifully herded to Sanders or great masses of the local French colony for whom this was a real occasion. Some of the faithful waited around for places despite the harping of imported ticket takers to the effect that all performances were sold out. One persistent little woman gently pushed aside the gate man with the comment, "but there is always a free set there in the front row."
Even for those lucky enough to have gotten into one performance, the other productions probably still remain a mystery. Those who saw the program that included Les Fausses Confidences and Les Adieux were decidedly the luckiest. But no one having gone just one night will really have a bad word for M. Barrault and company. The production of the Misanthrope was exciting, if only because of the gracefulness and wit of French acting. While this story of the overly just and truthful man in a foppish society is meaningful and often full of poetic beauty, the plot is not wholly coherent or simple. This put an added strain on those members of the audience who were not familiar with the work and whose French was creaky. When some of the more subtle bits of humor met dead silence, the actors had to adjust their pace. The blocking did not help surmount this difficulty, though broad gestures and general verve kept even the janitors interested. The minor roles were handled with extreme finesse. Who can forget the antics of the lovers Acaste and Clitandre with their feathered hats. And Pierre Bertin as Oriente displayed the control, humor and timing that has established the reputation of the French theater.
Madeleine Renaud, M. Barrault's partner on the stage as well as off, was as close to a blooming twenty as a middle aged woman can be, but that wasn't always very close. She seemed more peculant and less attractive than one might have hoped, although, as always, a master of the classic style.
The part of Alceste did not bring out the best in M. Barrault and the reverse may also have held true.
In Les Fausses Confidences the actors thoroughly enjoyed convincing us that love is hindered neither by sincerity nor by some calculation. Everthing turns out well in the end and M. Barrault as the well-meaning troublemaker, Dubois, was at his best relying on mime and expressive gestures. There is a clear and consistent comic freedom in the Marivaux which allowed the company to show off its virtuoso technique.
But it was Les Adieux that proved that M. Barrault's purpose is more than just putting on plays. In this most delightful conclusion of the Company's program, the whole cast appeared in formal dress to recite poetry and display their art in its purest form, without scenery, costumes or an imposing vehicle. They ran the gamut from the most subtle verbal effects to no words at all. Barrault's final pantomimes were the epitome of freedom within a highly stylized form. Compared to Marcel Marceau his mime was less delicate and less detailed but it had energy, spontaneity and excitement that Marceau cannot equal. The mimes conveyed best of all Barrault's idea of theater as creative play, the purpose of which is to always keep men young in spirit. As he said in Holyoke one night during this trip, when a child grows up he becomes a person, with brillance in his eyes, or he becomes an adult--a corpse.
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