28 June 1974 | Memories for Tomorrow
The memoirs of Jean-Louis Barrault
First published in The Times
Jean-Louis Barrault's memoirs are challenging and (to an English actor who has seen too little of his work), revelatory and awesome from first page to last — well, almost.
Consider the sheer amount of his 40 years' work from walk-on, through the Comédie Francais. to managing his own company — the recurrent world tours and the projects gaily and purposefully flung together. Actor, mime, film-star, director, impressario, playwright, lecturer, ambassadeur extraordinaire (and unpaid!) and, now, author. Literally thrown out of his own theatre, he still flourishes. Most theatre autobiographies decline with success into conformity and anecdote. Barrault's climbs up through ordeal to further excitement and achievement.
The narrative of his life and career is interrupted now and then (and, early on, too often) by sententious "wonderings", musings, philosophical speculation. Some of these are original or whimsical ; others, obscure — pretentious, even. The translation, by Jonathan Griffin, sympathetically falters in these passages, more relaxed, as I am, when the flow of the story is racing along.
And yet the memoirs would be incomplete without these wanderings for the whole man is dedicated to the Theatre, with a passionate service that transforms his work into a religion. Imagine British actors daring such devotion! To us. Theatre is a craft, an art, a job—but the priesthood? Here we leave it to our audiences and to the only critic Barrault has any praise for, Harold Hobson. to discover "Light" or "Divinity" among our clowning and upstaging.
Yet Barrault too is a clown. And a peasant, an anarchist, a shopkeeper "with a strolling-player's licence"; Les Enfants du Paradis, Scapin, Le Misanthrope, Hamlet, Malatesta; Claudel, Anouilh, Rabelais. To add to his list of successes and to sum them all up into the man, you must read his book — wonderings and all.
He compiled it "in the midst of my daily tasks" over 10 weeks in 1971, disclaiming it as the work of a writer. But the actor tells a good tale and can conjure up an old colleague complete with stage directions, like any accomplished greenroom raconteur. The stories are never just gossip. He worries out a pattern, a significance, a memory worth keeping till tomorrow —hence the title.
There is a marvellous evocation of mobilization in 1939 — the farce, sentiment, sunshine and irony. In the long section about his touring days, when it is not excited traveloguery, he "selects hair-raising stories of missed planes, revolutions, broken limbs and no understudies, weeks upon months of midnight official receptions to make a tour for the British Council seem like a package holiday. There is a graphic appraisal of his despair and confusion when his Odeon Theatre was occupied by the student risings of 1968. And he analyses the Renaud-Barrault company's policy and repertoire with its stress on the standards and development of his colleagues' work — a concern so far unmatched by a similar enterprise in Britain.
So many of his achievements set us an example. He began in the fringe theatres of the thirties ; then, without subsidy, built up the years of success for his own company. Now sacked from his state-supported theatre, he remains at 64 the individualist, working from his studio in a Paris cinema. As our own National Theatre prepares for the new luxury of the South Bank, it’s indeed a challenging book to read.
[Webmaster's note: Jean-Louis Barrault died in Paris in 1994 at age 83.]
Photo by Clive Foote