Jacques Copeau

My other main area of research has always been the French theatre director, Jacques Copeau. He was also keenly interested in Commedia and experimented in ways of re-developing it for his own times. His tentatives, both in the Vieux Colombier School, and with Les Copiaus, can be found documented in my monograph on him for the Cambridge University Press series Directors in Perspective. Simply entitled Jacques Copeau, it is now out of print but can usually be found on Abebooks.

Also out of print but essential to anyone who doesn’t read French but wants to research Copeau is Jaques Copeau, texts on theatre, translated and edited by John Rudlin and Norman Paul, Routledge, 1984. My archive on ‘Le Patron’ is now housed in the library of the University of Kent.

Chapters on other aspects of his work include “The Quest for Sincerity” in Actor Training, ed. Hodge, Routledge, 2010; “Jacques Copeau” in Fifty Key Theatre Directors, ed. Mitter & Shevstova, Routledge 2005; “The Naked Stage”, in European Theatre Performance Practice, 1900 to the present day, ed. Holdsworth & Wilcox, Ashgate, 2014.

Here is an address given at a conference to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Founding of the Vieux Colombier Theatre in 1917, at the University of Notre Dame. An overview of Copeau’s work is followed by close examination of his last large-scale outdoor productions.

1913 was quite a year for the Arts in Paris: Marcel Proust brought out the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past; Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premièred The Rite of Spring with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Njinski; Marcel Duchamp offered his first ready-made – a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool; Marc Chagall painted Paris seen through my window,and other artists to be found in the cafés of Monmartre included Modigliani and Mondrian. Guillaume Apollinaire published a collection of poems that was to prove the zeitgeist of modernism and… Jacques Copeau opened the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, the Theatre in Old Dovecot Street. This may be the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Vieux Colombier but it is not the anniversary of the ideas behind the little theatre on the Left Bank of the Seine – these had been maturing for at least a decade. In his years as a theatre critic and then as the founding editor of the literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française, Copeau had been harbouring a grudge: a grudge against the fact that the new century had not sustained the development of a new theatre. Antoine’s realist Théâtre Libre was closed and Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu had not progressed from iconoclasm to inflorescence. Tired traditionalism at the Comédie-Française, sentimental comedy performed by ham actors on the Boulevards: the time was out of joint and Copeau, at the age of 35 and full of spite and moral indignation was determined to put it right.

His problem was that he was an amateur – a man of letters, not a son of Thespis – but this was also his strength: as a lover of Greek Tragedy, the English Elizabethans and his own country’s golden age of Molière and Racine he knew that his soon to be adopted profession needed to restore itself, to put itself once more at the ‘diapason of its epoch’. His mission statement was that renovation was a necessary prelude to innovation. He considered the historic models of Aeschylus and Shakespeare had to to be more than influences: for him they were Masters. That’s a word we need to be careful of today since the female equivalent has an inappropriate significance. On the other hand, many actresses of my acquaintance are now preferring to be referred to as ‘actors’, so perhaps we can accept ‘masters’ as being, like doctors, non-gender specific. For Copeau there were living masters too: Constantin Stanislavsky in Russia, Adolphe Appia in Switzerland, Edward Gordon Craig in exile in Italy and Harley Granville Barker in England. Copeau, ‘Le Patron’ as he was known to his peers, died four years after I was born, but to me he has always been a living master rather then a dead one, guiding almost every step of my theatrical and pedagogical careers. I’m not going to embarrass myself and bore you with a personal résumé, but propose to take as my text a statement by Giorgio Strehler, the founder of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Italy’s National Theatre:

I did not know him personally, but he is nevertheless one of my masters. I owe him much;

I owe him something fundamental in my education as a man of the theatre, and which is not easy to define today. Let us try: Copeau, the severe, Jansenist moral vision of the theatre. Copeau, the feeling of unity in the theatre, the unity between the written word and its performance; actors, scenographers, musicians and authors forming a whole, even down to the least stage-hand. Theatre, as a ‘moral responsibility’, like a fierce and exclusive love. The feeling of a fraternity among theatre people, not merely joyous [but] an aching religious feeling of theatricality.

I am not a believer. But I do believe in this demanding ‘commitment’ to the life of others; I believe in this unitarian theatre, in this theatre which is a wrenching of oneself and an absolute giving.[….] My vision of theatre is not “joyous” either, but attentive, severe, exclusive, painful in its search for order, honesty and truth – including laughter.

The quest for honesty and truth was pursued by both men in a medium which is, by its very nature, unnatural, or should I say non-natural, involving as it does impersonation of others and the simulacrum of real actions. The first thing to do at the Vieux Colombier, therefore, was to get rid of the proscenium arch and the fourth wall theatre of illusions that it implied. On the naked stage thus revealed, Copeau set up a repertoire system with an absolute minimum of scenery which meant that rehearsals could take place on it during the daytime; as a result he often found himself directing on it during the day and performing on it in the evening. Then at night he sometimes stayed on to watch the carpenters at work on it: real people performing real actions for real reasons with real tools. Commonality of purpose. Focus. Artisanal skills. Natural rhythms of hammering and sawing. No ‘freezing of the blood’ as he later described his own initial efforts as a performer. How could he and his fellow actors avoid being ‘monstrous’ as Hamlet puts it, and become more like the carpenters? I quote:

As we delved deeper into the problems and practice of the mise en scène, and as our attention was drawn even more to acting technique, we were surprised and disgusted to find routine, inadequacy and a lack of a serious education. So then we thought of giving the actor a total education, not only by improving his mind and stimulating his imagination, but also by increasing and multiplying his physical pliability, through gymnastics, mimicry, rhythm and dance. Without in any way wishing to diminish the importance of words in a dramatic action, we concluded that, for them to be right, sincere, eloquent and dramatic, it was necessary that the articulated speech, the articulated words, result from thought felt by the actor in his whole body, and from the flowering of both his inner attitude and the bodily expression which translated it…

This quest for synthesis between action and word will be my theme in this talk.

The outbreak of war brought about the closure of the little theatre in the Old Dovecot Street and it was to be seven years before the wings of peace could flutter there again. Copeau soon perceived that this disappointment was also an opportunity: the quest so far had been word-based, a single season of classic texts such as Heywood’s A Woman Killed by Kindness, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Molière’s The Miser, as well as new plays by Paul Claudel and members of the NRF literary circle. Unlike other male members of his company, some of whom were never to return, Copeau was not passed fit for military service. Together with the actress Suzanne Bing, who had also become his close collaborator and, let us say, companion, he set about putting the pony of physical training before the cart of the spoken word. Together they took first tentative steps in the founding of the The Vieux Colombier School, but since that is the subject of a later paper at this conference, I will avoid any possibility of reduplication by indulging, just this once, in a personal reminiscence. First, though, I need to quote Copeau himself reminisicing:

For a long time our school was nothing else in its principles and research but a school for physical interpretation. And this embodiment, renewed by the most ancient and even primitive forms, took its vocabulary, not only from the human repertory but also became imbued with that of the animal world and all of nature, by examining trees and branches, running water, the passing of clouds and even fire.

[Lugar a los Jovenes, La Nacion, 22 August 1937]

I’d just begun Secondary School. Drama was not recognised as a subject in those days and the school play was but once a year. A certain Miss Batting was offering acting classes privately, and I enrolled, paying with the weather-beaten gains from my early-morning paper round. At the first session I was invited to imagine I was a cabbage, covered in dew, opening my leaves to the morning sun. [Mime] The next week a sack of grain, emptying from a hole in the bottom. [Mime] — It empties from the top… Week three a hot water bottle being filled. [Mime] — It fills from the bottom… Week four? We’ll never know: this wasn’t the chance to play Hamlet that I’d been hoping for and I didn’t go any more. Giorgio Strehler again:

The youth of today no longer want masters. They feel that they do not need any. They do not want to “owe anything to anyone”.

I realised, several years later that I did need to owe something to someone, and that Miss Batting had had the potential to be my master: given her age and the syllabus of her little after school classes, she must have studied at the London Theatre School under Michel Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis was Copeau’s nephew, sixteen in 1913, but later to become his amanuensis and right hand man. He was witness to the development of the Vieux Colombier School, a member of the Les Copiaus, the company which emerged from it, and leader of La Compagnie des Quinze, which replaced it in turn. What Miss Batting had learned from him at the LTS, Britain’s first ever Drama School, was embodiment, not impersonation, the ‘flowering of an inner attitude translated into bodily expression’, even of a cabbage… His uncle had found the star system aversive, realising that leading actors were more interested in where their careers were leading than how theatre might be re-developed. Later Alec Guiness, for example, confessed to giggling his way through classes at the LTS whose otherwise silent acting exercises he found ‘pretty quaint’. What a star…

In 1923 Waldo Frank, the Vieux Colombier’s American patron, observed classes in the School:

The pupils are taught to articulate what might be called the Platonic essence of a tree, an animal, an ocean. This must come ere they be deemed worthy aspirants for the creating of a man. Similarly their voices must learn to do this without words, in the establishing of pictures or of passion, or even of complex human situations. The props of story, set, verisimilitude of facial gesture and of spoken word are taken [away] from them…

The scene is bare let us say, save for a table. A boy jumps on to this, masked. He is portraying a tree in a sunny field. He is not acting a pantomime: he is improvising a drama; and the first factors to convince are his associates. His arms and body, marvellously swaying, convey the shady scope of bole and branch moving in a breeze. A wayfarer enters, (like all the others, masked). He espies the shade and goes to it, escaping the heat of the sun. Enter a flock of sheep…

A year later Etienne Decroux, in his first year at the School and therefore not allowed to perform, watched the end of year show:

It consisted of mime and sounds. The whole performance took place without a word, without any make-up, without costumes, without a single lighting effect, without properties, without furniture, and without scenery.

The development of the action was skilful enough fro them to condense several hours into a few seconds, and to contain several places in only one.

Simultaneously before our eyes we had the battlefield and civilian life, the sea and the city.

The characters moved from one to the other with total credibility.

The acting was moving and comprehensible, of both plastic and musical beauty.

I do I have to say, however, that Decroux later made corporeal mime, something which Copeau saw as a means, into an end in itself. Le Patron repeatedly stated his mistrust of specialism in any form; although he knew that he was setting his disciples off along roads which he did not have time to travel himself, he wanted the fruits of their journeys to be brought back into the theatre to enrich its possibilities. His ultimate aim remained constant: the re-uniting of action and word in sincere, one might even say austere, dramatic expression. It was, furthermore, not possible for him to imagine that apotheosis being achieved by a solo performer. The new theatre was to be made by many, not one. But that many needed to be as one: a flock (but not of sheep), a troupe, a company, an ensemble. His preferred word was ‘choeur’ in French, which translates as both ‘chorus’ and ‘choir’. Let’s go with ‘chorus’ for the moment. Lecturing in 1933 he said plaintively:

A chorus… Are we never to be allowed to form a beautiful chorus? I propose giving this term from Antiquity to the ideal troupe of actors, made up of various people whose sole ambition is to do their share with perfection. Nothing is more exciting than forming such a company. I once pursued this feeling to its furthest limit, when I found myself checked by the meagreness of my resources.

To re-form theatre he had opened a theatre, The Vieux Colombier, not once but three times: in 1913, in 1917 in exile in New York and then in Paris again in 1920. As production after production rolled across his bare stage he confirmed for himself that theatre could only be re-formed by reformed actors acting with selfless unity of purpose. Re-forming adult actors, trying to shake them free of their accumulated habits and short-cuts to performance, he eventually found unbearably frustrating and he suddenly and summarily abandoned them as well as the building which had housed them:

At the end of 1924 we decided to risk everything. We wanted this ‘renovation’ that we had tried for so long to define and to understand, to at least mean something for ourselves. We started over again. We turned backwards in order to check what we knew, learn what we did not know, experiment with what we vaguely felt, no longer doing something that was not true, but building, moderately but purely.

The foundation on which he built was that of the apprentice group from the Vieux Colombier school. A ‘copeau’ is a wood-chip in French. The new troupe were nicknamed the ‘Copiaus’ by the villagers of the Burgundian village of Pernand-Vergelesses where they eventually settled. The old block was severe on his chippings: in a rehearsal room converted from an old wine store their personal and collective education was continued, and I quote

… based on a conscious examination of the principles of their craft and on personal investigation of the elements of dramatic creation… Their sense of discipline consists of avoiding nothing, of never pretending, of never expressing or even thinking of anything that they cannot personally and authentically think and express.

They were

… brought back to a naïve state that is not an artificial or a literary attitude, but is a natural position before a world of possibilities where nothing is corrupted by habits of imitation, nor perverted by an acquired virtuosity.

In Paris, that most fashionable of cities, the preservation of such innocence would have been unthinkable. Amid the rolling vineyards of the Côte d’Or it could be sustained by pastoral rhythms and the bucolic festivals that marked the changing of the seasons. The passages I’ve just quoted are taken from his ‘Open letter to the Swiss Press’, dated May 1928, prior to the Copiaus’ tour there. Copeau continues:

Based on their early exercises and first village entertainments, the ‘Copiaus’ have recently gone on to stage productions, very simple but more highly finished, in which we can see the modesty of an almost primitive conception, the aspiration to express everything by their playing, and the remarkable diversity and stability of their technique. Dialogues, declamation, song, mimed action, dance interpretation of inanimate objects, people, natural phenomena, all that is linked by the rhythm of playing in these choral performances…

The play being performed in this first international tour was L’Illusion, adapted by Copeau himself from various sources including Corneille, and in which he played the leading role, a Prospero figure. A review in a Genevan journal observed:

In L’Illusion we have Copeau, played by Copeau. The prologue shows him as he naturally is, the hero of the theatre temporarily cast down, but whose young companions have come to comfort and solicit: they want to act, Copeau shows them how.

So far the Vieux Colombier story could be read as a success: the pursuit of an idea to an absolute conclusion, even including the desertion of the bricks and mortar from which it took its name. But with L’Illusion Copeau had, indeed, come to the limit of his meagre resources, not only financial, but also as an actor and dramaturg. After his uncle’s death Michel Saint-Denis felt able to reveal the truth behind the illusion:

He brought us a work which we could see, almost embarrassingly, came from his soul: under the guise of a game, he was staging a blend of his memories and his present anxiety; he was portraying that youthfulness he saw around him, threatened and excited by the same dangerous life that had so magnificently intoxicated him; and what youth! His own children were among his dearest pupils. By accepting the risk of playing the roles he assigned to us, we knew very well that they were like so many allusions to ourselves, caught up in the reality of of the drama we were experiencing at that time.

After the tour, the magician broke his staff, the ‘master of Pernand’ hung up his buskins and the children were left to play on their own. Jacques had finally come to doubt that he was the new Molière, nor was meant to be. The Ring Master demanded that his animals desert him. In the next Copiaus production, La Danse de la Ville et des Champs, the role of questor for dramatic integrity was taken over by Saint-Denis.His character, Knie, had emerged through a long process of mask work, not only in the wine store, but also outside in the sunlit fields and the gardens of the big house just up the hill. Knie was one of the first fruits of research taken into the commedia dell’arte, and the search for contemporary equivalents to its traditional roles. This will also be the subject of a session tomorrow, so I will, once more, keep my powder dry. What needs to be noted here is that everyone assumed that Le Patron would be delighted by this début. Michel had now grown up, emancipated himself, and, as chorus leader, created his own scenario. The production opened in March 1928. In a programme note Copeau specifically dissociated himself from it – indeed he had been absent from Pernand during most of its development, earning much needed francs to keep the community viable by lecturing and giving dramatic readings.

Knie, a city dweller, journeys to the countryside where, amongst other adventures, he gets caught up in a storm. Its portrayal was the culmination of the plastic groupings and choral embodiments which had been ongoing since 1920. According to an English spectator, ‘the coming of the storm over the vegetation, the havoc wrought and the subsequent joy of life reviving were all beautifully symbolised in gesture and attitude’. The Copiaus had blended disciplines which they had worked on separately for years and were able, as the chorus which Copeau had so fervently sought, to create a whole which was greater than the sum of its parts. At the first night he was seen laughing, being made sad, clapping like a child. One of the company, Jean Villard, in his autobiography, remembered that they felt he was happy and proud of his children, both actual and adopted. The next day he and the rest of the company waited with impatience for Le Patron to give them notes

…Ready to put our mistakes right, to make our show, on the advice of the master, even more effective. But his face suddenly froze our spirits. We were waiting for constructive criticism. Alas, it was a demolition job, total and complete. Copeau was ferocious. All our efforts, all our passions, all our joy – there was nothing left. Nothing found favour in his eyes. His last word, full of a bitter derision worthy of Ecclesiastes was: dust.

The French is even more onomatopoeic: “poussière”. Why? Why do that? No answer can be as simple as the word, but I’ll try. Villard says that the audience at that first night had been “delirious”. The Copiaus without Copeau were now assured of a future. Success had not yet had time to go to their heads, but it had gone to their hearts. Copeau the Jansenist, not to say Calvinist, whose theatre had been likened to a bare-walled chapel, had an aversion to success, however hard-won. At the outset of his career, after the ‘rave’ reception given to his adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, he had written in his diary:

Success has left me very calm, very much in command of myself, very diffident. Truth to tell it has left me with a sense of loathing and disgust. Success which one merely exploits, which one merely uses to puff oneself up with vanity and self-advertisement, is nothing.

Perhaps, then, it was not that he felt the Copiaus’ success to be undeserved, but that he wished to bring them down from their ‘high’, to stress the need for self-abnegation, that it would be better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Perhaps, even, his censure was a displacement activity: he had been far from calm the night before, perhaps imagining himself on stage once more with his protégées. Was it really himself, then, that he wished to reprove for sharing their euphoria?

Jacques Copeau was an only child, often a lonely child. As a result, the intensity of his make-believe when playing with other children often lead to their abandonment of a game. In October 1929, when the last of the Copiaus left Pernand, soon to re-constitute themselves as La Compagnie des Quinze, the fils unique was alone again. In his diary he wrote:

My leaves are falling, like the season. Thus reduced, thus disengaged, will I ever re-engage myself? Is it not preferable that I show what I can achieve alone, and perhaps can I only achieve alone.

One of his tenets was that he would brook no discussion of work while it was in progress. Outside the rehearsal room, however, he would debate for hours with anyone who would engage with him. But now the wine store was empty and there was no-one at home to engage in discussion except himself. Even his devoted daughter Marie-Hélène, known to all as Maiène, was now a member of Les Quinze, along with her husband and fellow actor Jean Dasté. When I interviewed her for my monograph on her father – ah, but I’m treading on toes again! Suffice it to say for the moment that she dedicated her life to his and, after his death, to assuring a proper understanding of what he had stood for. Her sister, Edi, real name Hedwig, later Mother Francis of the Benedictine Order in Madagascar, dedicated her life to the Father. And there you have it, the temporal/spiritual divide made evident in his own offspring and now affording Copeau no resolution in his own being. As father to a chorus he could go no further and it was time to turn to the Father – and time for us now to consider, therefore, that othertranslation of ‘choeur’, the choir.

In attempting to resolve his internal conflict, Copeau went on retreat several times to the Benedictine Abbaye Saint-Pierreat Solesmes. There the ambulatory resounded with the Choeur des Moinessinging Gregorian chants.

I can bear witness to the peace which it pours into the soul, to the joy which it communicates: aerial, transparent, soothing and powerful, balanced and absolutely lacking in material substance… this melody is simply speech raised to its highest level of potency, the ‘Word operating at once on the sensory and the intellectual faculties’… Those of us who make it our work to interpret feeling through words know what this expression means: the radiance of a text. To examine, take up, transpose a written text, through sound, rhythm and modulation so that the sense multiplies of its own accord without distortion, so that it wells up inside the measure, so that it finds its deepest point of departure inside us, and, in the listener, its most meaningful point of arrival: we know what a precarious business this is, how limited the means of achieving it are, without overstepping the bounds of propriety and naturalness…. Saint Benedict himself says that ‘our soul must be in accord with our voice’. One would love to be able to grasp the secret of such an accord.

[Revue Universelle, 1 December 1931, pp. 638-40]

The Choir Master was Joseph Samson, and he was one of the first collaborators that Copeau sought out as he emerged from solitude. Abandoning commedia dell’arte as a root form and its textual flowering in the profane works of Molière, he sought the renewal of theatre as a sacred public event, through a melding of Aeschylean tragedy and Catholic ritual, the Word made flesh, one might say, rather than the flesh made word. There was nothing inconsistent in this alteration of course, simply a change of emphasis. After the re-opening of the Vieux Colombier in Paris he had even predicted its eventuality:

Whenever anyone wishes to laugh at the VC, they talk about its being a parody of religious feeling. It’s a chapel, they say, a brotherhood where high priests pontificate and say mass, it’s a cult, etc.

These jibes do not frighten us. What is religious is everything which brings men together. Nothing great is accomplished without faith, and it is precisely that semi-religious consciousness of our art and our mission which constitutes the best in our ideal. What we want is to appeal to the public, to that public which needs something more than everyday life can offer and comes to find it in the theatre.

But now he had no theatre, no school and no company with which to make theatre which might prove both popular and sacred. A one-off solution came with an invitation to direct a medieval mystery play, La Santa Uliva, for the Florentine May Festival in 1933. Copeau cannot but have remembered his first visit to Florence, to one of his masters, Edward Gordon Craig, at his school in the Arena Goldoni in 1915. He noted in his diary:

He shows me some very pretty engravings of ancient ceremonies in the great squares of Florence. He says: ‘That is theatre, that is what I should like to do – let the cities give me full freedom to organise beautiful outdoor spectacles like that. It seems so stupid to me to unlock the doors of an enclosed space in order to enter at a certain hour.’

The present proposal came from Guido Gatti and Sylvio D’Amico and their correspondence with Copeau teemed with the difficulties they were facing: the original was in a language that none of them could read and, after delays in translation, first into modern Italian and then into French, a treatment had to be prepared reducing the two day long original to a length suitable for 20th century production. This was effected by a young playwright, Corrado d’Errico. D’Errico had problems with the plurality of the mansions in the medieval staging and proposed cutting down the number of locales to be used. Copeau insisted on using his own scenographer, André Barsacq, and he came up with a flexible setting which enabled Copeau to restore the topography of the original, as we shall see in a moment.

The choice of venue was finally decided on as the second cloister of Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan Basilica in the world, and the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli and Rossini, inter alia. Designed by Fillipo Brunelleschi, it was finished after his death in 1453. Copeau paid his first visit at the beginning of February 1933:

When I rendered myself there, after getting off the train, a sort of miracle took place. I cannot find another word for the sudden, instantaneous, revelation that I had of what the production would look like. And that without any intellectual travail, any deductive thinking. All at once, I repeat, I was invaded, taken over by a certitude. And where did this certitude come from? From the architecture. Immediately by the purity of the architecture of Brunelleschi, by its ineluctable beauty, by the impossibility of struggling against it, and, furthermore, of introducing any theatrical tat into it, of raising any high scenic constructions in front of the purity of its arches. My vision also advised me to place my audience under the arcades of the cloister.

In the middle there is a well with steps leading up to it which was irremovable. It was, therefore, dressed as necessary with curtains, hangings and cushions. The four lawns are surrounded by low box hedges with bushes in the middle of each.

And here is the ‘pianta del dispositivo scenico’ developed by Barsacq.

There are five stages, four in the corners over the bushes, and one central, connected by walkways, with the audience on three sides.

Here’s the elevation: Note the centre back platform on the upper level – Heaven.

With only a month’s rehearsal time at his disposal with a scratch company who were simultaneously rehearsing A Mid-summer Night’s Dream under the direction of Max Reinhardt, Copeau insisted that all be meticulously pre-planned, which fortunately enables us to be able to use his notes to reconstruct the essentials of his mise-en-scène.

1.i Rome


Music: The Emperor’s March

In his palace in Rome the Emperor Julian, who was born a Christian but reverted to paganism, complains to his patricians that he has been a widow long enough. One of them is a devil in disguise, played by the actor Benassi, whom Copeau had re-appear several times in different personae as the instigator of evil. Here he proposes that Julian marry his own daughter, since only she has the beauty of her mother, especially her beautiful hands.

Music: a praise song for Uliva


The Emperor tells his daughter what he intends. Left alone, Uliva, horrified, thinks that the only way to dissuade her father from his obscene proposal is to sacrifice the object of his paternal desire.

Music: Uliva’s prayer

Uliva burns her own hands in a brazier.


Her maids in the next room hear her and rush to the Emperor to tell him what she has done.


Julian is furious and condemns Uliva to be beheaded in the forest of Britanny. The maids plead on her behalf, but to no avail.


Celestial Music

Uliva departs, guarded by two assassins, Gruffagna and Rinaldo, and two Angels, sent from Heaven, who are always to accompany her from now on.

1.2 The Inn


At the inn when Uliva, Gruffagna and Rinaldo arrive they are greeted by the innkeeper (again the devil in disguise), by the innkeeper’s wife and four drinkers. At this point Copeau interpolated a scene of his own devising:

Three comic dancers and mime artists leap out in AII and execute a fast, violent dance, vaguely lit by the torches of Uliva’s cortège in P… The comic dancers then pop up again in BIV with their feathered hats, their masks, and set up their trestle stage on the grass between B, C, IV. After a few grotesque gestures, they pack up their accoutrements and try to pass the hat before departing.

A Kyogen farce one might say, performed between sacred Noh plays, a masked commedia inserted by Copeau in order to offer the audience some light relief after Uliva’s self-harming. Gruffagna and Rinaldo then get into a fist fight with the innkeeper because they don’t want to pay. There follows a further comic scene between the innkeeper and his wife during which Uliva and her companions depart.

1. 3 Britanny

[I] The King of Brittany prepares to go hunting with his gentlemen, valets and dogs. Uliva arrives in the forest of Britanny [I] where Gruffagna and Rinaldo instead of killing her, set her free. She is found wandering by three of the King’s men. At the same time Copeau planned to

…use the four dancers who have been brought in for the dances at court; give them bows and deploy them on the left hand lawn simulating an archery competition without actual arrows based on a dance rhythm inspired by the hunting music.

Meanwhile the Queen and her ladies amuse themselves as they await the return of the King. [IV] Copeau again:

Be specific with the attitudes of the ladies on the lawn. Two groups: one around the Queen and the child, the other occupied in a card game of picking flowers. Be precise about the moment when they get up – have them talk amongst themselves during the hunt.

The King returns from the hunt [IV] and presents Uliva to his spouse and proposes they make her nurse to their small son. While Uliva sings a lullaby to the baby in the nursery [V] she falls asleep and a devil – in the guise of squire whose love she has rejected – takes advantage of the opportunity to kidnap the little Prince. The King and the Queen arrive and discover what has happened: Uliva is ordered to search for the child for seven long months, day and night.

The list of properties for this sequence gives an idea of of how simple scenic elements were used to give a sense of locale:

banners for the palace

12 trees

a small carpet of greenery for Uliva

whips, bows, horns for the hunters

5 dogs

3 children

a small cot

parasols and playthings for the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting

a dead deer

a lantern for the devil

And by now darkness would be complete and the role of electric light in creating atmosphere and focus came into play.

1.4 Looking for the child

After having searched long, far and wide for the child, Uliva is exhausted and complains of hunger; the Virgin of the Heavens [above] comforts her and brings about the miracle of bending the trees whose fruits drop into Uliva’s mouth. She announces to Uliva that there is approaching down river a fragile boat with the child inside; Uliva laments her disability. The Virgin orders her to dip her red stumps in the water and the miracle of the hands is accomplished. Uliva departs with the child in her arms.


winter – night II

spring – dawn – birds and strong branches I

summer – mid-day – the harvest IV

autumn – sunset – a market – return from the wine harvest II

forest (miracle of the fruit) III

banks of a river (miracle of the hands) III


change of the seasons: accessories for the dancers

miracle of the fruit: autumn branches




dance of the two Angels round Uliva


dance of the two Angels round Uliva

miracle of the fruit (autumn)

miracle of the hands

reprise of the lullaby

Music was composed and conducted by Idebrando Pizzetti. In his 1928 obituary for one of his masters, Adolf Appia, Copeau had written:

Both musician and architect, Appia teaches us that the tempo of music, which envelops, commands and regulates the dramatic action, creates at the same time the space in which it unfolds. For him the art of staging in its pure sense is nothing else but the configuration of a gesture or a piece of music rendered tangible by the living action of the human body and by its reaction to the opposing architectural volumes. Hence the banishment from the stage of all inanimate decoration, of all painted backcloths, the dominance of practicable accessories and the active role of light.

That was the end of part one of Uliva, and all we have time for today, but I hope you can see how many of his constant preoccupations Copeau was able to bring in to play in the production, even down to the incursion of a small Commedia troupe. All that was missing was the chorus and the choir. A decade later he was to have one last chance at that…

Another medieval play, Le Miracle du Pain Doré was performed in the courtyard of the Hotel-Dieu, the Hospice de Beaune in July 1943, ‘in the midst of the faithful and of the Sisters of the Faith’. The Japanese Noh, introduced by Bing into the Vieux Colombier School and described by Copeau as ‘one of its secret treasures’, with its single masked actor interacting with a singing chorus, or rather chanting choir, was added to the dramaturgical template. Copeau himself played the Meneur du Jeu, and the choral songs were selected by Joseph Sampson, now the choirmaster at Dijon Cathedral, from the monodic and polyphonic music of the 14th and 15th centuries, together with additional compositions where demanded by the text. Jean Dasté played Pierre le Changeur and Maiène designed and made the costumes. Copeau wrote in his diary ‘It was, I think, a model for a religious celebration, as beautiful as Santa Uliva… but with more resonance and, perhaps, more discipline.’ He wrote to Suzanne Bing that the production had been

…extraordinarily harmonious… The town was a little uplifted by a calm, caring exaltation, in between the pealing of the bells, which was translated into a modest but heartfelt testimony.

The corporeal and the verbal finally re-united? I’m afraid not. Copeau finally re-united with himself, his family, both actual and extended and his faith? In the sense of finally, I’m afraid so. He proposed to follow it up with a celebration at Solesmes of the twelfth centenary of the death of Saint Benedict. It was not to be: he died the following year, prematurely aged by atherosclerosis, a condition which it is now realised must have been afflicting him for years. We are here to celebrate his legacy, not his life and what he began, as we shall see over this weekend, most certainly did not die with him.