- Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings
French director, teacher, and theorist Michel Saint-Denis’s Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style, first [End Page 665] published in 1960, was essential reading for a generation of theatre students and practitioners. Over time, however, Saint-Denis has faded into near obscurity. Routledge Press has attempted to remedy that loss with its 2009 reissuance of Saint-Denis’s seminal book, combined with excerpts from his posthumously completed actors’ guide, Training for the Theatre, under the collective title, Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings, authoritatively edited and richly annotated by leading Saint-Denis scholar Jane Baldwin, who introduces the volume with a detailed biographical account of the great homme de théâtre.
Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style is made up of five lectures that Saint-Denis delivered on his first trip to the United States in 1958. The lectures address his lifelong “experiment directed toward the discovery of all means by which reality can be given to fiction on the stage” (25). Saint-Denis’s lectures reveal a lifetime of discoveries about theatre, starting with his first experience in 1920 at the Vieux-Columbier Theatre in Paris, where he worked under the artistic tutelage of his uncle, the formidable director and theorist Jacques Copeau, who stressed improvisation, movement, gymnastics, and circus technique, as well as the importance of holding the dramatic text “sacred.” These early experiences would help inform the curricula he developed for some of the world’s top drama schools. In England, he founded and led the London Theatre Studio (1935–39) and the Old Vic Theatre School (1947–52); he returned to France to establish the École Supérieure d’Art Dramatique and took over the directorship of the Centre Dramatique de l’Est (CDE) in Alsace (1953–57). In 1960, he designed the curriculum for Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada. Two years later, he joined Peter Brook and Peter Hall as co-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and developed the RSC’s training program. Before his death in 1971, at age 74, Saint-Denis also put his imprint on the influential Drama Division of the Juilliard School in New York City—developing its curriculum, teaching classes, and contributing to the design of its theatre spaces.
In part 1 of the book, Saint-Denis gives priority to a discussion of the synergy that exists between classical theatre (specifically, French classicism) and contemporary theatre. He suggests that classicism or “a conventional respect for tradition in theatre can rob a play of its vitality—therefore, a reality rather than realism must be brought to each role in order to restore its vitality” (22). It is difficult to know precisely what Saint-Denis meant. Often vague in his use of language, he uses the words “realism” and “reality” interchangeably at times. One can only speculate that when Saint-Denis advised actors to bring reality rather than realism to a role, he intended to encourage a search for theatrical truth, as distinguished from superimposing a generic realism of style on their characters.
In part 2, Saint-Denis establishes a hierarchy of theatre artists. He stresses that the playwright is “the only fully creative person” (68) in theatrical collaboration; consequently, the text must always be given primacy. Yet, if the director brings a modern aesthetic to a classical piece, it can reinvigorate a play for today’s audience. This marriage of past (classical theatre) and present (modern realism) defines Saint-Denis’s concept of theatrical style. In chapter 3, he distinguishes between style and stylization. Style, he insists, is derived from the words of the playwright, which carry the gravitas of truth and universality; in contrast, stylization, called “that awful word” (57), stems from the director’s desire to update a play by imposing a concept that may be interesting, but distorts the author’s meaning.
During the course of the book, a discussion of Stanislavsky’s system arises and elicits mixed reactions: on the one hand...