Louis Jouvet wrote a lot, and many of his texts have long been known. In The art of theater, you nevertheless manage to bring together a sum of reflections that have remained largely unpublished. What is the genesis of this book?
Jean-Louis Besson: It so happens that Marc Véron conducted a thesis under my supervision on the economics of Louis Jouvet’s theater. This work led him to explore the Jouvet collection, in which he spotted a lot of unpublished texts. Louis Jouvet had published little during his lifetime, but there is a fairly large corpus of his works published in the years immediately following his death, such as listen my friend and Testimonials about the theater in 1952, followed by disembodied comedian in 1954. A large part of his production nevertheless remained unknown to the public; it seemed important to us to bring it to his attention.
According to what criteria did you select the texts that make up the two volumes?
Marc Veron: Our objective was to publish writings that had remained unpublished, but also to take up a certain number of known texts by giving them the critical apparatus that they lacked in their original edition. Jouvet’s notes refer to a vast theatrical culture of the mid-twentiethe century known today only to specialists. The critical apparatus is there to help the reader understand everything.
J.-LB: We also wanted to restore order to the corpus of Louis Jouvet. It can be hard to get into The disembodied comedian if we do not already know the thought of its author. Louis Jouvet had no system, but he had a thought. Our job was to take all the texts and organize our chapters in such a way as to make them more accessible.
What remains of Louis Jouvet’s legacy a little over 70 years after his death?
J.-LB: In collective memory, Louis Jouvet is best known as a film actor. But he didn’t like the cinema and the image he conveys there is very different from the one he had in the theatre. In most of the films in which he plays, he gives the feeling of parodying his own characters, although there are exceptions. In Headquarters, for example, it is upsetting. But in most films, the spectators came above all to see Jouvet doing Jouvet.
MV: Of Louis Jouvet, theater actor, there remain the recordings of a few rare plays, such as the complete Women’s school, recorded in Boston in 1951. From the film actor that he was also, one can see the films in arthouses, and some are periodically shown on television. But ultimately, what remains of Jouvet are first and foremost his writings.
How would you define Louis Jouvet’s theater?
J.-LB: There is in Jouvet the idea that a theatrical text only has meaning if it is performed. A play is not made to be read, its written dialogues are only the trace of something that has been seen on stage. The meaning of the text appears, not in the reflection of the author, but in repetition. As it is a theatrical text, it is by playing that we will discover it. It was for this reason that he did not want the actors to have preconceived ideas about the characters. In this configuration, the spectator is part of this process.
MV: For Jouvet, the theater can only work if its three basic components – the author, the actors and the audience – agree. In other words, the author has worked on a text interpreted by actors and in which the public recognizes itself. Jouvet’s theater is poetic, contrary to everything that the 19th centurye century produced in its second half.
In his notes, Louis Jouvet even speaks of “the abominable XIXe century “…
MV: We must not forget that the theater halls of the 19e century were the equivalent on stage of what we have today on television in realistic telefilms. The parts were realistic. Better, they literally stuck to reality. With Émile Augier, author of the time of Napoleon III, the personal situation of the characters is for example given with notarial precision. On the contrary for Jouvet, the best authors are dramaturgical poets capable, like Jean Giraudoux, of offering a dreamlike power to their plays. This poetic conception of theater was also that of Georges Pitoëff, Charles Dullin and Gaston Baty. But these directors, and Jouvet with them, all heirs of Jacques Copeau, were always in the minority compared to the dominant theater of their time, even when their influence reached its peak in the 1930s.
This poetic dimension of the theater is also found in Louis Jouvet’s conception of the vocation of the actor…
J.-LB: Jouvet considered that a vocation is not innate, but acquired through practice. According to him, young actors who believe they have a calling are egocentric, which is normal at the start of a career, but eventually come to understand that the theater is based on a lie and that their role is to enter into the truth of the character through this universe of lies. It is at this moment that the work on oneself comes in, partly mystical, which must allow the actor to be in a state of availability to receive the character, to bring it to life through his body. But it is not a matter of possession because, for Jouvet, the actor remains aware that he is not the character. He is in a paradoxical state, both of abandonment and control.
What to think of Louis Jouvet’s ambivalence towards criticism, which he goes so far as to compare to a scourge, but to which he also ends up conceding a certain value?
MV: Jouvet had nothing against journalistic criticism, which was generally favorable to him and played a major role at a time when the media world was limited to mass-circulation newspapers. On the contrary, he continued to be disconcerted by academic criticism. He reproached it for its contradictions – the same critic could give two radically different points of view on the same text – and especially its temporality. Jouvet considered that academic criticism came too late: a performance is judged at the moment it occurs and not once its substance has been exhausted. After the Second World War, he nevertheless softened his position by recognizing a role of transmission between generations. Criticism in France has enabled the great classical authors to be transmitted to us through the repetition of their texts through the ages. In Spain, on the other hand, the transmission did not take place and most of the pieces by Lope de Vega or Pedro Calderón de la Barca fell into oblivion.
Louis Jouvet himself put Molière back in the spotlight by performing a lot of his plays. Did he return Molière to the private theater?
MV: Until Jouvet, Molière was mainly performed at the Comédie-Française and a little at the Odéon, under conditions that Jouvet severely criticizes. On the other hand, Molière remained almost ignored by the private theatre, which considered that it had little to do with the classics and believed that the public was not interested in his works. When Jouvet decided to play Women’s school, the adventure almost came to an end: it was only after about twenty performances and, it seems, thanks to a laudatory article by Colette, that the play became a great success. It was really the first time for Molière in the private theater.
Marc Véron and Jean-Louis Besson: “Louis Jouvet’s theater is poetic” – Livres Hebdo