The theorist, director, and actor Jacques Copeau (1879-1949) established the Vieux Colombier—one of the most important theaters of the 20th century—in Paris to put his theories of theater reform into practice.
Jacques Copeau was born on February 4, 1879, in Paris. From his youth he was greatly interested in literature, poetry, and theater. As a young man he became acquainted with some of the leading writers and theater people of his day. As a young theorist who was impatient with the commercial theater, he became known as an advocate of theater reform. In 1909 he was one of the founders of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, in which he published critiques and articles on the art of the modern theater.
Copeau was not only a theorist, however. In 1913 he founded what was to become one of the most important theaters of the century: The Vieux Colombier. Copeau formed a company of young actors that included Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, and Suzanne Bing. Jouvet not only became an important actor for Copeau, but he also served as stage manager and designer for the theater. As such he was instrumental in putting into actuality Copeau's vision of a theater space.
Copeau wanted a theater that was simple in conception, harmonious, and also functional. Taking his inspiration from the Elizabethans and from his long discussions with important artists such as Gordon Craig, Adolphe Appia, and Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, Copeau designed a space with a fixed, presentational stage that was free of complicated machinery, footlights, or other cumbersome paraphenalia. His theater seated approximately 400 people, had a forestage that allowed close contact with the audience, and depended upon simple curtains and lighting. Copeau's theater was functional, without being ornate, and versatile. It was here that he staged his adaptation of Brothers Karamazov, Shakespeare, Molière, and other classical as well as popular drama.
The significance of the Vieux Colombier was not only due to its size and physical layout. Just as important was the ensemble of actors Copeau organized and trained. They were young actors who could be molded by Copeau. Before opening the theater, Copeau and his troupe retired to the country outside Paris for a period of research and training. They studied, rehearsed out of doors, and performed demanding exercises in order to reach peak physical conditions. Copeau's goal, in part, was to eliminate affectation and to get the group to work together harmoniously. He wanted his company to be as physically skillful and as artistically versatile as the Elizabethan acting companys had been.
The repertory company he created could play many roles and perform just about any play. They took their leadership from the director, who, as Copeau believed, was the dominating intelligence of the group. A strong believer in the integrity of the text, Copeau strove to discover the inner rhythms and meanings in the play and to perform it as the author had intended. For Copeau, mounting a production of what an author had written was not a separate function, but, rather, another phase of the same intellectual conception. Thus the director's task was to discover the author's ideas and give them life on the stage.
To accomplish his goal, Copeau believed the writer, director, actor, and theatrical space must all work together as part of a unity and thus capture and enhance the central intellectual integrity of the drama itself. It was a formidable task that Copeau set for himself. In spite of the success of the Vieux Colombier (it became a focal point for some of Europe's leading writers and artists) and of his moderately successful tour of the United States (1917 and 1918), Copeau ultimately shifted his attention from directing to acting. With the help of Bing he opened a school of acting for young men and women aged 20. In 1924 he once again retired to the country to train his young actors. His training included improvisations, mime, experimenting with sounds, and, of course, strenuous physical exercises. Naturally, at the center of his teaching was his focus on the integrity of the text: students were trained to gain a thorough knowledge of the play in order to put on stage all that was inherent in the text itself. Copeau thus anticipated many of the developments in the modern theater, even the "researches" and experiments of Jerzy Grotowski.
Copeau's career as director and teacher made him an important figure in French drama in the early decades of the 20th century. He was a flexible, talented director who felt at home with the works of contemporary writers like André Gide or the works of Shakespeare and Molière. In most of his early presentations he strove for small, intimate, beautiful productions; later in his career, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he strove to produce larger scale productions for larger audiences. After being passed over several times for head of the Comedie Française, he finally assumed that post for a short time in 1940. He left the post after a few months and retired to the country, where he died in 1949.
Additional material on Copeau and his work can be found in Maurice Kurtz, Jacques Copeau: Biographie D'Un Theatre (1950); Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (1968); Terry Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, editors, Directors on Directing (1963); Bettina Liebowitz Knapp, "The Vieux Colombier" in Louis Jouvet: Man of the Theatre (1957); and Norman H. Paul, "Jacques Copeau Looks at the American Stage, 1917-1919," in Educational Theatre Journal (March 1977).
Copeau, Jacques, Appels, Paris: Gallimard, 1974.
Copeau, Jacques, Journal, 1901-1948, Paris: Seghers, 1991.
Paul, Norman H., Bibliographie, Jacques Copeau, Paris: Societe Les Belles lettres, 1979.