Jean-Louis Barrault

If there is a more remarkable show of talent than Jean- Louis Barrault, it has not dared unpack its suitcase and post handbills. The French actor-writer-director has presented pantomime for Queen Elizabeth and performed "Le Misanthrope" on the floor of the United Nations. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote plays for Barrault, Andre Gide translated Hamlet for him, and Pierre Boulez composed music for his productions. Other close friends of Barrault, a leading French intellectual, have included Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, and Paul Claudel. During World War II, he managed France's prestigious Comedie Francaise, and in 1968 another friend, Andre Malraux, then France's minister of culture, fired Barrault from his post as manager of the Theatre Royal de l'Odeon for not being tough enough with rioting students in the Sorbonne district.

Consistently iconoclastic on stage, Barrault has "danced" the role of Hamlet, given the world premiere of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," and written a "rock 'n' strobe" extravaganza called "Rabelais," the closed Europe has come to "Hair." It opened in a Paris wrestling arena with Barrault center- stage, banging a large drum.

Barrault is married to Madeleine Resaud, France's leading lady. To call them the Sir Laurence Oliver and Katharine Hepburn of France is an understatement. During the last 30 years, La Compagnie M. Renaud-J. L. Barrault has mounted more than 100 bold and experimental productions, from the classic Moliere to contemporary Kafka. Barrault has appeared in 25 films, but is best known in the United States for his role of Baptiste Deburau, a famous French mime, in "Les Enfants du Paradis" ("Children of Paradise"). The elegant, epic romance, made during the German occupation of Paris in World War II, is considered today the "Gone With the Wind" of art films.

I encountered Barrault shortly before curtain time in Berkeley, his company's last stop on an international tour. Their plane had just arrived from Mexico, and Barrault's upstairs hotel room had the cluttered look of a Bedouin campsite. Canvas suitcases spilled their contents over the sofa and onto the floor; a sock here, a hairbrush there. The table bore evidence of a nearby delicatessen: empty Perrier bottles, greasy brown paper sacks. The faint fragrance of hot pastrami was in the air. By the front door were there wilting bouquets, compliments, no doubt, of fans anticipating tonight's performance. Barrault had chosen to recite from the 17th-century fables of Jean de La Fontaine.

A revealing choice, for it took only a few minutes in his hotel room to see that this Grand Old Man of the French theater is a child at heart. With the wide-eyed expectancy of a toddler tasting his first ice cream, Barrault leans forward in a blude polka-dot shirt to explain his love of La Fontaine:

"He was the Walt Disney of his time. His animal characters were as alive for children then as Mickey Mouse is today. La Fontaine was not a scholar. He was a child. He was innocence. He would rather be mistaken for the village idiot, if that would protect the wholeness of his being and innocence."

In spite of mountainous achievements, Barrault appears devoid of pretense. "I have never felt like an adult, not even now. Just a student with lines," he says, gesturing to his furrowed forehead. For Barrault, the theater is "the school of humility, a state of being born." He could easily have been describing himself when he says of Rabelais: "He was childhood embracing life with both arms."

He punctuates each sentence with simple, effortless, but literate gestures. A flick of the wrist, a lifted eyebrow. Silences become verbose. His boyist innocence and naivete shine through as Barrault looks back on his carrer as a "constant struggle to achieve eternal childhood."

Jean-Louis Barrault came from peasant stock in Burgundy. As a boy, he accompanied the herdsmen into the fields. In 1918, three weeks before the Armistice, Barrault's father was killed defending France. Jean-Louis, only eight years old at the time, later recalled the family tragedy in his autobiography, "Souvenirs pour Demain" ("Memories for Tomorrow"):

"Every time in the great world, living people organize a war, for me they are insulting the dead and my father."

An uncle gave young Barrault a job selling flowers on the floor of Les Halles between the cheese stalls and the fish market. The belly of Paris became his first theater: fishmongers verbally jousting with recalcitrant customers, florists bickering over a dozen roses, beggars scavenging cracked eggs left in the gutters. Here Barrault acquired his "taste for overwork." Rising at 4 each morning, he was on the telephone late into the night, taking his uncle's orders for the next day. The boy learned to sleep anywhere, a habit he is proud to retain.

Amid the marigolds and chrysanthemums, he dreamed of becoming another Vincent Gogh, and eventually enrolled in the Ecole du Louvre to study painting. "I loved Van Gogh. . . . When I thought of him I would touch my ear," he says. "But above all, I loved the theater. I was always making up, disguising myself. I learned soliloquies. I thought up subjects. I played whole scenes with myself as the audience."

At age 20, this closet actor gathered his courage -- along with borrowed frock coat and gloves -- and auditioned for Charles Dullin, the "half-cowboy, half-gangster character with a great heart" who founded Paris's Theatre de l'Atelier. The old master, after warning the youngster that most actors starve, took Barrault into his acting classes -- without charge. On Sept. 8, 1931, Barrault's 21st birthday, he made his debut at the Atelier in Ben Jonson's "Volpone." Dullin played Volpone andcast his new apprentice as one of his servants. Barrault refers to that evening as "my second birth."

In "Volpone" he discovered stage fright, which for Barrault is less a sense of fear than an "obsession with rising to the occassion."

"We men put on great airs, but we know, in the secrecy of the heart, hesitation, doubt, sorrow." He pauses for a long moment. "The older I get, the more stage fright I have. When you are young, you feel the need to act correctly in competition with the great actors. When you grow older you have your own reputation to compete with. Stage fright only disappears with indifference. Sometimes I envy those who are indifferent -- but not for long.

"Many actors make the mistake of focusing on success. The secret is to identify with trade, like in archery. To reach the target with the bow, you mustn't think about the target. Identify with the bow, and suddenly at one moment the arrow will be traveling toward the center of the target. Identify with the trade, like a guide on a mountain, a sailor on the sea. And remember you will not be paid unless, in your spirit, you are ready to work for nothing."

At the Atelier, where the actors did work for nothing, Barrault befriended Etienne Decrousx, a young man obsessed with gesture. Together, Barrault recalls , "we were like two accomplices who had set out in search for a new art of mime." Years later, Decroux became a teacher of mime, and in the mid-1940s, when Barrault held auditions for the part of a harlequin in one of his productions, he cast one of Decroux's students. The student's name was Marcel Marceau.

Early in his career Barrault was "constantly in search of silence." His first major theatrical production in Paris was a daring adaptation of William Faulkner's novel "As I Lay Dying." Of the two-hour performance, only 30 minutes was devoted to spoken text.

"Faulkner's novel gave me the material to do a manifest of my thoughts on theater. The characters are primitive. They live in silence and speak only when they are alone," says Barrault. The highly ambitious and controversial venture lured Paris's critics up to Montmarte for the kill. After a series of last-minute desertions in the cast, on opening night Barrault personally played three different characters who appeared simultaneously in several scenes. The critics applauded, and "As I Lay Dying" was his triumphal entry into the pantheon of Parisian theater.

He soon repeated his success in the film industry. In the early '30s filmmaker Jean Benoit-Levy was looking for a juvenile lead to play opposite movie star Madeleine Renaud in her new picture "Helene." Barrault, nearly 10 years her junior, was already an unreserved admirer of this queen of the Comedie Francaise. He called her a "bulldozer of naive freshness."

(Albert Camus wrote of Renaud: "Without saying anything, she persuades with silence. In a profession where appearance is everything, she economizes her gestures . . . . She answers men with voices like tree trunks in a flutelike tone, but you can hear the commas in her speech clear to the outside corridors. She has, on stage, the reserve and modesty that adorn all young 18th-century girls, just before they are taught a little knowledge.")

Renaud and Barrault came from different spheres. She was a professor's daughter, pure, upper-crust, Ile-de-France blood. He was a shaggy, working-class rebel. Levy suggested Renaud meet Barrault, cautioning: "I'll send him to you but I warn you, he's wild and he's dirty. Badly shaven, no tie. . . ."

Renaud replied: "Tell him to shave and wash, and above all not to bite me."

Barrault smiles and recalls fondly: "I was an anarchist and lived on St. Germain des Pres. I was one of the early hippies. My hair was long. I didn't shave. Madeleine was a societaire,m but fortunately she liked the bohemian life." He later wrote: "We think we are whole, when we are only one half of a worm in search of its other half: our need to love." In Madeleine, Barrault had found his other half.

Overnight, Barrault became a matinee idol. His unruly hair set a new fashion: curls on French schoolboys. Then, suddenly, a flourishing film career was interrupted. Germany declared war on France and this new public figures was drafted to become Private Barrault. His temperament was hardly made for frontline heroism. He repeatedly volunteered to sponge dished and peel spuds, and recalls frequently rereading "Romeo and Juliet" on guard duty near the latrines.

In the summer of 1942, Barrault encountered French poet Jacques Prevert and filmmaker Marcel Carne in Nice. The Nazis occupied France, but members of the nation's theater and film industry continued to work as an act of cultural defiance against the Germans.

"To remain active was a matter of self- defense, so we worked with enthusiasm and obstinacy," Barrault recalls. At the time, Carne was desperate for work and asked Barrault if he had any ideas for a new film script. The actor suggested a story set in the 19th century, the Paris of Victor Hugo. It would take place on the Boulevard du Crime, where most of the city's theaters were concentrated at the time,a nd would involve three historic figures: Jean-(Baptiste)-Gaspard Deburau, a well-known mime of the Funambules theater; Frederick Lemaitre, a great Shakespearean actor; and Lacenaire, a murderer known as the dandy du crime.m Carne was charmed by the story, and sent Prevert off to write the script for what has become to many the quintessential foreign film, "Les Enfants du Paradis."

Both the set designer and the musician who composed the score were of Jewish descent and had to work clandestinely. The music was written on an out-of-tune piano in a remote mountain inn, and secretly performed for Carne. The film wasn't released until 1945, after the war. According to some accounts, when the ragpicker in the film was found to have been a Nazi collaborator, all of his scenes were reshot with a new actor.

The film, a riddle of truth and illusion, opens with Jean-Louis Barrault as the drooping mime Baptiste Deburau on stage in his white Pierrot costume, falling in love with a woman in the audience falsely accused of pickpocketing. After more than three hours of crisscrossing the passions of four men's love for one woman, the film closes with Baptiste futilely chasing her carriage down the boulevard, calling her name -- "Garance! Garance!" -- but losing her in the carnival- day crowd. Perhaps the most recounted moment of the film is Baptiste on stage at the Funambules, trying to hang himself and then surrending his cord, first to a child wanting to skip rope, and then a woman who uses it as a wash line.

Baptiste Deburau became more than a stage role for Barrault. "Baptiste became one of my great brothers. I felt as ner to him as I did to Hamlet and Joseph K. in Kafka's 'The Trial' and Berenger in 'Rhinoceros' by Ionesco. I identified with their sensibility and suffurance of life, their love of others, their dreams of a better world."

Shortly after the war, Barrault and Renaud left the Comedie-Francaise to form their own company. He had been with the state theater for six years; she had given 20 years. thier new repertory company became the "pride of Paris" and wandered the world: Hamburg, Tokyo, Saigon, Tel Avid, Athens, Santiago, Belgrade , Bangkok, New Delhi, Tehran. At the United Nations they used Dag Hammarskjold's office as a dressing room, placed a bust of Moliere on the speaker's platform, and played "Le Misanthrope" among the UN's Louis XIV tapestries.

True to Elizabethan tradition, Barrault played court jester for the Queen of England and her family, offering his repertoire of mime during afternoon tea. Prince Charles was quite small then, and Barrault remembers him hurling vadded-up cake capers at his school chums and then trying to mime a horse.

"Her Majesty was relaxed. She regaled us with spontaneous humor. She talked about the actual weight of the crown of England. A heavy crown to wear. 'Do you know why George always learned his speeches by heart?' she said to me. 'Because he couldn't read without glasses, and when he put them on, his crown tilted.' She laughed like a girl. Such simplicity and fresh gaiety enchanted us. My respect transformed into respectful tenderness."

While Barrault has mingled with royalty, he has never earned a king's wage. Financially, his touring troupe is a leaky ship that never brings home much spending money. Barrault's pockets are usually empty, because he is always taking risks. His audacious and unflinching productions are aimed at audiences' hearts, not their pocketbooks. Consequently, Barrault's epitaph for his more adventuresome plays has been: "Morally a great success, materially a flop."

The most trying ordeal of Barrault's career came in May 1968. It was not a financial crisis, but a political one. Paris had exploded with student riots. Unrestrained by truncheons and tear gas, 30,000 insurgent students took over the Sorbonne district. The Thaatre Royal de l'Odeon, which Barrault was managing at the time, was at the geographical center of the chaos, Late one evening when the Odeon's doors were opened to let out theatergoers, 2,500 students with armbands and black and red flags stormed the stage. The theater was occupied for days. Dressing rooms became dormitories, graffiti were scrawled on the walls,costume stores were broken into. For Barrault, 20 years of work was destroyed. He was unable to rason with the mob, which attacked him and his state theater as "bastions of bourgeois culture," and when the students finally evacuated the Odeon, Malrauz fired Barrault for not taking a harder line with the protesters.

Two years later, in May 1970, Barrault faced a similar crisis here in Berkeley -- but with a very different outcome. four students of Ohio's Kent State University had just been killed by National Guardsmen. the University of California at Berkeley, like other college campuses, exploded: a general strike, riots, tear gas, Molotov cocktails. The chancellor closed down the campus. Barrault's "Rabelais," scheduled to be performed in the university's Zellerbach Auditorium, was canceled.

"Then something extraordinary happened," Barrault remembers. "Police and students, each from their own side, decided on a four hours' truce . . . to 'allow "Rabelais" to express itself.'" Barrault asked that the doors to the theater be left open and that no one be turned away. Every seat in the Zellerbach was filled that night; an additional 1,500 students stood in the aisles.

In the final pages of his memoirs, Barrault records that evenint: ". . . we performed 'Rabelais.' The most subtle shades met with most refined understanding. It was an unforgettable moment. A people that can react in that way is one of the most authentic in the world. At a distance of four centuries, the student Rabelais was winning the assent of 4,000 students of Berkeley, California. When the moment of the creation of the Abbey of Theleme arrived, we dressed ourselves, extempore, in Berkeley jerseys.

"It was a unique moment of the victory of the spirit, of the supremacy of human intelligence: The human heart was taking off like a rocket. If invited tomorrow, I would return to Berkeley as to a place of election."

No doubt that remembrance influenced his company's itinerary this year, for Barrault's only appearance in the US was in Berkeley. The summer evening that Barrault took the stage here before a full house at the Zellerbach Playhouse was a decade after his memorable staging of "Rabelais." And while the actor rarely performes mime anymore, his recent farewell offering to Berkeley before returning to Paris was "Le Langage du Corps" ("The Language of the Body"), a beguiling lecture-demonstration in French of pantomimist Deburau's trade secrets.

Witty and unpretentious as usual, Barrault played more the philosopher than the clown. He wore no white face, no floppy Pierrot costume. He was not banging a drum. dressed simply in black trousers and a silk shirt, he shared his theories on theater and the art of gesture, illustrated with brief passages of mime -- a bit of Chaplin, a scene from his famous "As I Lay Dying."

Perhaps, when he ended the program that evening, Barrault was heeding La Fontaine's advice: "One should always leave the [audience] with something to do." Standing alone, unadorned, effulgent against the dark expanse of bare stage and draped black velvet, Jean-Louis Barrault left the audience with these words: "A certain solitude envelops me in the midst of a society that has lost its way. Industrial society is monstrous. Political competitiveness is contemptuous of human beings. Cruelty is organized. Modern society is careening toward destruction. But the human heart has not changed since mankind lived in caves.

"I want us all to participate in reconstructing the temple, in healing the planet, a masterpiece in danger. The knowledge of ourselves seems to me a salvation. I want it taught to children. It radiates the respect, dignity, tenderness, and religisity we should have for each other.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.