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Produced by National Arts Centre Théâtre français

Major directors

André Antoine | Constantin Stanislavski | Edward Gordon Craig | Max Reinhardt |
Vsevolod Meyerhold | Louis Jouvet | Elia Kazan | Tadeusz Kantor | Giorgio Strehler |
Jerzy Grotowski |

André Antoine (1858-1943)

André Antoine’s direction of La Terre (The Earth) by Émile Zola at the Théâtre Antoine in 1900. Notice the profusion of realistic details.

Often regarded as the inventor of stage direction, André Antoine called into question the static acting and declamatory style of his era. His concern for realism, until then absent on the French stage, led him to demand “truthfulness” in acting, an authenticity that would both move and captivate audiences; above all, the actors were required to live their roles. His aim was to give spectators the impression that they were witnessing a “slice of life” through settings that reflected everyday reality, down to the smallest details. Largely self-educated, Antoine was working as a clerk for the Paris Gas Company and acting part-time when he founded the amateur Théâtre-Libre in 1887 as a showcase for the naturalistic playwrights of his era. Ten years later he formed the Théâtre-Antoine. Among his reforms were improvements in the equipment of the hall itself, affordable admission prices, and more cohesive ensemble acting. Among other plays, the pioneering actor-director introduced his compatriots to Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Ibsen’s Ghosts and Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness. In 1906 he was appointed director of the Odéon, where he staged, with a meticulous concern for historical detail, classic works by Corneille, Molière and Racine. His theatrical adventures came to a close with the First World War, after which he became a drama critic and film director.

On André Antoine:

  • The Reign of the Theatrical Director: French theatre, 1887-1924 by Bettina L. Knapp (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Pub. Co., 1988).
  • Antoine, l’invention de la mise en scène, anthology of texts by André Antoine, by Jean-Pierre Sarrazac, Actes Sud – Papiers (in French).
  • Antoine, père et fils by André-Paul Antoine, Julliard (in French).
  • « Antoine, le patron » by Bernard Dort, in Théâtre Public, Seuil (in French).

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Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938)

© André Degaine in Histoire du théâtre dessinée, Nizet, 1992
Portrait of Constantin Stanislavski by André Degaine.

Constantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares is often the first book acquired by aspiring actors. The son of a wealthy manufacturer and grandson of a French actress, Stanislavsky first appeared on stage at the age of 14, and performed in the dramatic group organized by his family until age 25. In 1989 he co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre with Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, where he staged many of Chekhov’s greatest works. In 1910 he invited Edward Gordon Craig to collaborate on Shakespeare’sHamlet. Together with Vsevolod Meyerhold, he set up an experimental studio, a crucible for his directorial research. No one before him had theorized on the art of acting in this way, based on his workshops with actors and solving problems as they arose. In 1909 he began to lay the theoretical foundations for the “system”  that would enshrine him as a pioneer in theatrical pedagogy. The Stanislavsky method makes use of introspection, intuition and the subconscious to allow actors to probe deeply within themselves, recalling their own feelings and experiences and substituting them for those of their characters. He urged actors to avoid clichés and broad gestures in seeking the truth of the character and situation. A skilled actor, innovative director, respected theatre manager, theoretician and teacher, Constantin Stanislavski developed a seminal approach that was as much psychological as physical, one that would guide such exponents of method acting as Jerzy Grotowski, Lee Strasberg and Louis Jouvet.

Stanislavski’s (in the centre, with the bottle) production of Bas-Fonds (The Lower Depths) by Maxim Gorki at the Moscow Art Theatre School, in 1902.


By Stanislavsky:

  • An Actor Prepares (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1948).
  • Building a Character (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1949).
  • My Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1924).

On Stanislavsky:

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Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966)

Edward Craig broke away from the naturalist trends of his era in favour of a more stylized stage design marked by simplicity and unity of concept, with emphasis placed upon the movement of actors and unusually coloured lighting. The son of the celebrated actress Ellen Terry, he began performing on stage at the age of 13. In 1893 he began his career as a director and designer for theatre and opera. Above all, Craig considered theatre a spectacle, not a tributary of literature. He invented the concept of the Übermarionette (“superpuppet”): an actor who, instead of embodying the individuality of characters, represents their inner forces through movement and symbolic gestures, becoming living material entirely at the disposal of the director. Among Craig’s masterworks are the sets for Ibsen’sRosmersholm (1906) starring Italian actress Eleonora Duse,and Shakespeare’sHamlet (1912), which was presented four hundred times at the Moscow Art Theatre, to which he was invited by Stanislavski. For the latter production he invented portable folding screens, which permitted a fluid readjustment of space during performance. This multi-talented artist, who was also an engraver, illustrator, essayist and editor, expressed his theatrical vision in numerous articles, woodcuts and etchings, which strongly influenced modern theatre.

By Edward Gordon Craig:

On the Art of the Theatre (London: William Heinemann, 1929).

Towards a New Theatre (London & Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1913).

On Edward Gordon Craig :

Gordon Craig et le renouvellement du théâtre, Bibliothèque nationale de France (in French).

Edward Gordon Craig by Christopher Innes (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

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Max Reinhardt (1873-1943)

Œdipus The King by Sophocles, directed by Max Reinhardt at the Cirque Schumann in Berlin, in 1910.

Max Reinhardt was one of the first theatre directors to achieve widespread recognition as a major creative artist. Born into an orthodox Jewish family, the Austrian-born director changed his name—from Goldmann—to escape anti-Semitism. After exchanging his boredom as a bank clerk for the excitement of drama school, he won local fame in Salzburg before joining the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin, which he took over in 1905. Very quickly, he transformed it into a hub of artistic life. After the First World War, Reinhardt initiated a wave of reform, exploring the manifold possibilities of theatrical direction. Influenced by Craig and Appia, he integrated light, music and dance into theatre, as well as a form never before seen on stage: pantomime. He hired the greatest actors of the era and enhanced his sets with revolving stages, moving stairs, transparent props and optical effects. He staged works by the world’s classic authors—Sophocles, Molière, Goethe—along with such diverse modern authors as Georg Büchner and Bertolt Brecht. Forced into exile, he emigrated to the United States in 1938, where his glorious career ended in poverty in a New York hotel. Reinhardt’s vast influence on German and European theatre stemmed from the variety of his repertoire, his fertile scenic imagination and staggering productivity: in twenty-five years this theatrical titan directed 170 works, and collaborated on 23,374 performances of 452 plays.

On Reinhardt:

  • Max Reinhardt by J.L. Styan (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

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Vsevolod Emilievitch Meyerhold (1874-1940)

Le Cocu imaginaire (The Magnanimous Cuckold) by Fernand Crommeyinck, directed by Meyerhold at the Théâtre de l’Acteur (Moscow), 1922. Notice the audacious set, created to look like an “acting machine,” and the actors’ stylized gestures.

In the "symbolist" theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the actors moved like stylized puppets under the authoritarian controls of the director. A musician by training, the Russian artist abandoned his studies in law in favour of theatre arts. He  was a talented student of Stanislavski, distinguishing himself in Chekhov’sThe Seagull, among other plays. He then left Moscow for the provinces, where he produced over 150 plays. In 1905 he formed his own studio, where he conducted experiments in nonrealistic theatre; rebelling against naturalism, he felt that theatre should not imitate life but rather help to transform it. After the Russian Revolution, Meyerhold mounted the first Soviet production: Mayakovsky’s Misteriya buff (Mystery Bouffe, first performed 1921). Around the same time, he developed a rigorous training method known as "biomechanics," which allowed actors to sharpen their reflexes by means of circus or commedia dell’arte techniques. Movements were divided into three phases—intention, action and reaction—of a stylized form of acting in which physical gestures were designed to stimulate creativity. To these bodies in movement, Meyerhold added music, film, painting and vocals. For his elaborate sets, he constructed inclined planes, wheels, platforms and stairways. His radical restaging of Gogol’s Revizor (1926, The Inspector General), often considered his masterpiece, toured Germany and France. In 1940, after months of imprisonment and torture, he was secretly executed by the Soviet internal police.

By Meyerhold:

  • Meyerhold on Theatre (New York: Hill & Wang, 1969)
  • Écrits sur le théâtre (4 volumes), l’Âge d’homme (in French).

On Meyerhold :

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Louis Jouvet (1887-1951)

One of Louis Jouvet’s most famous productions: L’École des femmes (The School for Wives) by Molière at the Théâtre de l’Athénée (Paris), 1936. Photo: Madeleine Ozeray (Agnès) and Louis Jouvet (Arnolphe) in the maxims scene.

Nicknamed "le patron" ("the boss"), Louis Jouvet devoted his energies to French theatre, reviving the classics and encouraging contemporary playwrights. After leaving his native Brittany to work as a pharmacist in Paris, he joined a troupe of amateur actors. He was refused admission three times to the Conservatoire d’Art dramatique because of his stutter, but was eventually invited by Jacques Copeau to join the newly created Vieux-Colombier acting company, where he worked as stage manager, set designer, electrician and actor. After the First World War, he was appointed director of the Comédie des Champs-Élysées, where he triumphed with Knock (1923, Doctor Knock) by Jules Romains. In 1928 he made two pivotal encounters: one with author Jean Giraudoux, the other with Christian Bérard, who would become his designer of choice. Beginning in 1934, Jouvet lectured at the Conservatoire and staged many of Giraudoux’s plays at the Théâtre de l’Athénée, including La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (Tiger at the Gates, 1940), as well as works by Marcel Achard, Corneille and Molière. He made radical reinterpretations of Molière’s L’École des femmes (The School for Wives, 1936), Tartuffe (1951) and especially Dom Juan (1947), a neglected work whose genius he revealed. During the Second World War, he left for South America with a troupe that met with both success and financial woes. With an abiding respect for the playwright, Jouvet continually sought truth in acting and stagecraft.

By Louis Jouvet :

  • Réflexions du comédien, Librairie théâtrale (in French).
  • Le Comédien désincarné, Flammarion (in French).

On Louis Jouvet :

  • Louis Jouvet, Man of the Theatre by Bettina Knapp (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957).
  • Lettres à un jeune comédien de Françoise Périer, éditions Ramsay (in French).
  • Athénée : Théâtre Louis-Jouvet par Colette Godard, éditions Norma (in French).
  • Biography on the Internet:

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Elia Kazan (1909-2003)

The final scene of Elia Kazan’s production of the premiere of A Streetcar Names Desire by Tennessee Williams, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, in 1947. Seen here: Jessica Tandy (Blanche Dubois) in white, in the centre, and Marlon Brando (Stanley Kowalski), second to last from the right, in Jo Mielziner’s famous set.

Born in Istanbul of Greek parents, Elia Kazan arrived in New York in 1913. After the crash of 1929, he became a member of the Communist Party and attended the Yale Drama School. There, in addition to writing short plays, he learned the trades of designer, lighting engineer and stage manager. After joining the Group Theater in New York City led by Lee Strasberg, he learned the method approach to acting developed by Constantin Stanislavski. He won national notice as a Broadway director with Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947).  During this intense period, he founded the Actor’s Studio with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis; Lee Strasberg would join a year later, in 1948. This school, which codified the psycho-technical techniques of Stanislavski, was to become a breeding-ground for young actors of the 1950s, including Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. With a passion for liberal or socially critical themes, this often controversial actor, director and novelist triumphed with such classics as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949).

By Elia Kazan :

  • Elia Kazan: A Life (New York: Knopf, 1988).
  • Kazan on Kazan (New York: Viking, 1974).

On Elia Kazan:

  • An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1983).
  • Elia Kazan: Interviews, ed. William Baer (University Press of Mississippi, 2000).

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Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990)

Originally an artist and designer, Tadeusz Kantor developed a style that influenced the course of post-war theatre. Under the German occupation, the Polish director staged clandestine works in unusual settings. Along with other artists, he founded his own company, Cricot 2, in 1955, where he produced Shakespeare’sHamlet (1956) and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1957) with giant dummies and miscellaneous devices. In addition to theatrical works, he created paintings, happenings and manifestos. The Polish playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was the source of many of his productions, including The Dead Class (1975), set in a school room where elderly corpse-like characters confront their younger selves to the sounds of a nostalgic waltz. Here the dead and the living co-exist, objects become sculptures instead of simple accessories, and the actors perform sequences mixing poetry and the grotesque. Kantor’s “theatre of the dead,” which derives equally from Polish history and autobiography, is represented in such works as Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), in which the director painfully comes to terms with family, church and army. Let the Artists Vanish! (1985) is an uncompromising look at an individual suffering from despair, the absurdity of war and the stupidity of mankind.

By Tadeusz Kantor :

  • Le théâtre de la mort, texts collected and presented by Denis Bablet, l’Âge d’homme (in French).

On Tadeusz Kantor :

  • Kantor : l’artiste à la fin du XXe siècle par Georges Banu, Actes sud – Papiers (in French).
  • Kaddish : pages sur Tadeusz Kantor, essay by Jan Kott, Cecofop, Le Passeur (in French).
  • Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor by Krzysztof Miklaszewski, ed. George Hyde (New York: Routledge, 2002).

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Giorgio Strehler (1921-1997)

A leading figure in the reform of Italian theatre, Giorgio Strehler infused his theatrical and operatic productions with his socio-political concerns. Early in his career, he worked as an actor with several touring companies before making his mark as a director in Switzerland with Albert Camus’ Caligula (1945). Back in his native country at the end of the war, Strehler co-founded with Paolo Grassi the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, a popular and cultural theatre. From 1947 to 1955, Strehler staged up to ten plays per year as the Piccolo became a model for the rest of Europe. His Arlequin serviteur de deux maîtres was hugely successful; its eight versions would run for some fifty years. Heir to the European theatrical tradition, Strehler developed a style much influenced by Brecht; each play he approached from a critical perspective, not unlike an essay, and he would often restage certain productions with an entirely new approach. Among his exquisite productions are such masterworks as Shakespeare’sThe Tempest (1978) and Chekhov’sThe Cherry Orchard, which reflected his penchant for the harmony of a luminous and unembellished stage.

By Giorgio Strehler :

  • Un théâtre pour la vie, Fayard (in French).

On Giorgio Strehler :

  • Une vie pour le théâtre, interviews with Ugo Ronfani, Belfond (in French).
  • Giorgio Strehler by David L. Hirst (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999)

The play that made director Grotowski famous: Le Prince Constant (The Constant Prince), adapted from Calderón de la Barca, 1966. Notice the precise bodywork and the spectators positioned to observe the action from above, as though looking into an enclosure.

Jerzy Grotowski began with the premise that theatre had over-borrowed from other media, especially film and television, and had thus violated its own essence. In an effort to restore its purity, he eliminated everything but its two essential elements: actor and audience. This approach, which he called "poor theatre," was to earn this Polish director international recognition. After studying at the National Theatrical Academy in Krakow, he went to Moscow, where he absorbed the heritage of Stanislavskyand Meyerhold. In 1959 he joined the Laboratory Theatre, a school and company subsidized by the Polish government. His experiments focused on the actor, requiring that they gain absolute control over themselves physically, vocally and psychically, so that during performances they might transform themselves as demanded by the play. Actors had to learn to give of themselves freely, and expose themselves psychically when necessary, abandoning all notions of narcissism or exhibitionism. In his most celebrated work, an adaptation of Calderón's The Constant Prince (1965-1968), the lead role was played by Ryszard Ciezlak, an outstanding actor who epitomized the principles and techniques of the Laboratory Theatre. In the 1970s Grotowski began to lose interest in creation; after emigrating in 1982 to the United States, where he taught for several years, he moved to Pontedera, Italy, where the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski is still in operation.

By Jerzy Grotowski:

  • Towards a Poor Theatre (London: Methuen, 1969).
  • La terre de cendres et de diamants, mon apprentissage en Pologne, followed by 26 letters from Jerzy Grotowski to Eugenio Barba, l’Entretemps (in French).
  • « De la compagnie théâtrale à l’art comme véhicule » at the end of Travailler avec Grotowski sur les actions physiques by Thomas Richards, Actes Sud (in French).
  • On Grotowski:
  • Grotowski’s Objective Drama Research by Lisa Wolford (University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
  • Travailler avec Grotowski sur les actions physiques by Thomas Richards, Actes Sud (in French).

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Others who deserve inclusion in this directors’ pantheon include:

David Belasco, Jacques Copeau, Antonin Artaud, Tyrone Guthrie, Harold Clurman, Jean Vilar, Antoine Vitez and Erwin Piscator.