A LITTLE HISTORY OF A GREAT TRANSMISSION OR SIMPLON'S TUNNEL
By Corinne SoumMany places, many countries have known Etienne Decroux the teacher, but his school in Boulogne Billancourt is certainly the one that welcomed the largest number of students. I have very often read or heard surprised and rather superficial commentaries about his house in Boulogne. Many were astonished that he didn't practice his profession in a more official setting, a more institutional one, or simply a more prestigious one. However, if one will think about it, this house, HIS house, was the only place he could enjoy complete artistic freedom and rule as absolute master. Thus he established at once the first condition linked to his transmission: To study with him, one had to go into his home. The "appointment" was disturbing - one was far from the almost anonymous status of a student showing up at a traditional establishment. Getting an "invitation" was easy; one could simply write, telephone or show up in order to enroll in the Decroux School! If there was space, anyone could start classes at the beginning of any month. There were no age limits, no resumes, no audition, no recommendations, no questions and a very modest tuition. This absence of institutional barriers was like a spot light focused on the sincere desire to study. It was as if Etienne Decroux, in cutting short all administrative obstacles, asked you the only question that mattered: "Do you really want to learn?" This, and the fact one had to show up at 85, ave. Ed. Vaillant, at the home of Monsieur and Madame Decroux, and not in a school or university building, had a direct influence on each one's attitude. One had to, for example, know how to say Hello and Goodbye correctly and cordially, take off one's shoes at a certain place, respect the place, not slam the doors - in brief, behave like guests and not like consumers.
Imperceptibly, everyone, even those who didn't want to admit it, made an effort to put their best foot forward. The exuberant softened their character; the timid ones took heart. There reigned inside that house a mixture of order and of fantasy characteristic of certain French houses. Almost all the rooms had, at the same time, a domestic as well as a "professional" use. The dressing room was a sort of library on the second floor; classes were given in the basement, renovated into work studios. How many countries and cultures crossed on the staircases that linked these two places. Each one seemed more tolerant than usual, forgetting the realities of the external world. The shared preoccupation, aside from the artistic one, was not to upset the hosts! This house, and what it implied, has always seemed to me like the first lesson of Decroux's corporeal mime: a subtle call towards a certain behavior.
Inside this framework, and as a sort of contradiction to its extreme accessibility, Etienne Decroux opposed a countless series of traps to avoid. This is what I call Tension, and one quickly perceived that if it was easy to enter the school, it was, on the contrary, rather difficult to remain! He demanded in class everyone's full attention, beginners and more advanced students alike. This translated into an overwhelming number of things not to do, even before trying to do what one was outrageous enough to hope to do: mime! Not to cross one's arms, not to look down, not to look up, not to bite one's nails, not to scratch one's nose, to avoid (except at great peril) yawning, above all not to pose questions, or to exchange comments with a friend in a corner, nor to seem perplexed or in a bad humor. One had to be there, present, in the here and now, eyes and mind open, receptive, a formidable lesson in theatre, well in advance of any other practice. The shock was brutal for certain students. Mr. Decroux kicked students out of the school with frightening regularity! All these conditions made for Tension during class hours that could sometimes be intense, not excluding humor (always in circulation), nor the generosity of the teaching. But woe to him who showed obvious signs of distraction. When Steven and I became assistants, we were not exempt from this rule; on the contrary, the rule increased in severity with our position in the school! This constant impression of walking on eggshells, taking care not to break them, could sometimes be exhausting. But then, like a second wind, the senses sharpened, the body transformed itself into large antennae to receive impressions and situations, and the ability to observe became a second nature. A relaxation, a fullness, took over. Tension was no longer an obstacle, but rather a partner. It was like the tight-rope walker, happy to be on his cord! The House and Tension formed, to my mind, the context of Decrouvian transmission.
III. The Material
Etienne Decroux had so much to transmit! He had passed through so many professions, had lived through two world wars, had been fascinated with politics, and afire for the cause of Anarchism. This remarkable theatre man knew life. "Nothing that's human is foreign to me" applied perfectly to him. It was this experience, related to that of the "profession" (as he called the theatre), which illuminated his discoveries. Corporeal Mime, although a new-born, came to us like this, thanks to him, already filled with humanity, with maturity, and the transmission of this material developed in many different ways.
A. The Transmission of Skill: The mastering of present time, the construction of a great work
At the time that we were a part of Decroux's household, classes were organized in an extremely precise way in time and content. Beginner's Class: 8:30-10:00 A.M., Advanced Class, 10:00 A.M.-12:00 P.M., Intermediate Class, 6:00-7:30 P.M., or sometimes 5:30-7:00 P.M. Certain students attended one class, others were invited to attend them aII. Etienne Decroux taught, assisted generally by one or two assistants, and in certain periods, by his son Maximilien.
These classes in Corporeal Mime had elements from both a class in dramatic art and one in corporeal education. Etienne Decroux alternated the periods of group work with moments when certain students (alone or in twos or threes) performed exercises for their classmates. He himself often worked with the class, or directed, corrected and observed. He was never afraid to show, to exhibit his research, and even his doubts. He never hesitated to explain an exercise or a philosophical point at length, and liked telling us little bits of his life story to illustrate a study. All this activity was accompanied, most of the time, by a repertoire of popular French songs which he sang or hummed with undisguised pleasure, and which we, in unison, often echoed after him. The corporeal work was stimulated by numerous literary citations, rhythmed by onomatopoeia or other vocal encouragements.
Rarely a class went by that he didn't quote some poetry, some lines from a play: Victor Hugo, Baudelalire, Alfred de Vigny, Lamartine, Racine - his memory and his knowledge of texts were stunning. He enjoyed organizing kinds of little rituals or sound games: spoonerisms he threw at us and which we had to throw back finishing the word, or imitating an echo. Lots of joy, a taste for doing, reigned in his classes, shot through with Biblical anger when he glimpsed but the shadow of his sworn enemy, Laziness. An actor to his fingertips, he staged the exercises, even the most austere ones. Thus we felt we were participating in an endless performance for the pleasure of an imaginary, but ideal, public. "For, among other things, our art is this: Always purifying; then, if necessary enlarging. Purifying and enlarging what? Everything we do in life, when we are not dancing (Decroux, 48). 1
This curriculum was enormous and the job might have seemed insurmountable. But the philosopher that he was always knew how to remain a craftsman. To educate us he put at our disposal a multitude of exercises: diverse scales, walks, displacements, combinations, a complete grammar which he'd put together and took apart with fervor to overcome our difficulties and reveal our qualities. Then came the study of figures, little "fragments" composed from objective or subjective reality, and then the apprenticeship and discovery of excerpts from his repertory, old pieces constantly reinvented, and then new ones still in progress. Vocabulary, explanations, images, analogies, Etienne Decroux was a veritable pedagogical "one man band" All the while conscious of the immensity of the work to accomplish, the practice of this art was presented in such a logical manner (like the strikingly geometric gardens designed by the seventeenth-century French landscape artist Lenôtre) and so poetically, the metaphor so profound, that even the most timid apprentice found himself, despite himself, carried away in this voyage on the roads of corporeal mime, drawn by Etienne Decroux. The invigorating aspect of this teaching lived also in the daily fulfillment of concrete tasks: produce a curve with the trunk; a straight line; bend the knees in a certain tempo, memorize a figure, sing, improvise, etc. Through these modest conquests, he inculcated in us the mastery of present time: do now what is asked without ulterior motives, know how to look in order to reproduce and interpret, and know how to listen and then, in turn, invent. He knew when to demand immediate results, or on the contrary, patiently allow it to ripen. This confidence, this understanding of our efforts was remarkable during the improvisation lessons. Once more, Etienne Decroux didn't limit himself to a single approach. Sometimes he gave a theme, sometimes he left us free, sometimes we were to prepare, sometimes improvise on the spot, in a group or one by one. I had at that time the feeling that he transmitted to us "vision," the ability to see "big" and far, to raise the discussion, this way that he had of knowing how to detect beauty, a dramatic interest, there where many would have seen only chaos! The clumsiest presentations were transformed, thanks to his artist's eye, into discoveries. His commentaries greatly exceeded in depth what had been sketched. Thus he gave us the assurance that our attempts were determinant and that we participated in the construction of a great work. We were thereby pulled up to the rank of architects of this art still in evolution. This is how I knew transmission: basic "know-how," humble and joyous, "one thing at a time," each day an improvement, the conviction engraved in the body and on the heart that one belonged to "something great."
B. Transmission of the Repertoire - Transmission of the future
Still placing myself in the framework of my own and Steven Wasson's personal experience, there were, in addition to the hours of class I have just described, the hours of rehearsal. A much smaller number of students were invited to them. The assistants, sometimes a little group, those who by their aptitudes or simply by their way of being, stimulated the imagination of Etienne Decroux and his desire to rework a certain piece or to make a new one. The hours could be Spartan: 7:00 A.M., but also 5:00 P.M. and/or 8:00 P.M. (two or three times in a day). The atmosphere was different, more intimate, the transmission intensified. Etienne Decroux looked at you under a microscope; he plumbed your being to its depth. The technical, mechanical explanations gave way, in general, to a poetic and philosophical evocation of work, of the piece in question. What warm encouragement, what searing criticism! Sometimes, with the tone of a professor overwhelmed by the stupidity of his treacherous student in face of the eternal, he described in minute detail your mistakes. This could have been called "autopsy of a failed interpretation."
Etienne Decroux often struck me with truths about my work, which made me tremble. But I always knew he was right, for if he bludgeoned, he brought also without exception the way to progress to all levels, the most formal and the most psychological. The apprenticeship and the reworking of existing pieces like The Washerwoman, The Carpenter, etc., were made up of a mosaic of different approaches. Certain extracts were studied in class all together, others worked out personally with Mr. Decroux, others memorized in viewing the film of a more experienced student. There were also all those times when Mr. and Mrs. Decroux mentioned the repertoire outside of class hours. They spoke of it as one speaks of a country one enjoyed discovering and to which one must return. Each day, during the rehearsal sessions all this information finally came together and Etienne Decroux reestablished the piece, made to measure for the performer of the moment. Thus these tremendously interesting cases of the transmission of The Carpenter: Etienne Decroux taught it to Tom Leabhart, who taught it to Steven Wasson, who then relearned it under Decroux's direction. A little like a musician, who perfects his work without respite, this work was in perpetual evolution.
To make us progress toward the interpretation that he thought best, he sought the spirit, the essence, the cause of an action or of a thought, of a feeling, with a priority given to dynamic quality over form, this latter to be born of the former, and an extreme precision concerning the source of movement produced, what he called the supposed original, regardless of the eventual stylization adopted. "The body is a glove whose finger is thought" (Decroux, 12).
Thus describing the nature of corporeal mime, Etienne Decroux tells us also about his way of working. I had the impression that he taught me how to think, and that the movement was the visible result, logically following from this activity.
"Visible Portrait of the Invisible." "The role of mime is to express mental life by a movement of the body." These phrases like many others engraved themselves little by little in the "dramatic corporeal" workings of his students. When it was a question of a creation, properly speaking, this idea of "the body as a consequence and prolongation of thought" was examined even more closely, and went even further than the equation "I think therefore I move." It was a question of starting from a state of the body which was specific to Decroux's work, the body immobile on the outside, available, with the awareness not of a story but of all the capacités physicodramatiques [physical and dramatic potential], as if the movement was itself "thought" and no longer the "translation of thought." From time to time Decroux conjured up the traces of a theme to help us, but more often threw at me, with a joyous voice, "Go on, do something!" Or he declared, with a serious voice, "It's beautiful to be mystical" or yet again "This morning I saw a sparrow taking a bath." Out of the question, of course, to "mime" these statements, but one had to use them as a kind of terrain of sensations, a storehouse of impressions.
He allowed us to improvise at length; day after day he watched for the attitude, the instant, the expression that would suggest to him a direction to take. A kind of silent communication between himself and the actor developed. He punctuated the work with expressions of joy or disagreement. This phase happened practically without explanations. When he was not yet completely convinced by what he saw, he ended the rehearsal by saying (no matter what the hour) "now we have to go sleep," with the wisdom of his age (more than 80) which knew how to wait for a new day. "To look without knowing in advance what one would find"; to have the patience to let "something" emerge slowly from the depth of memory, something one does not control, this something which a priori escapes all definition, all description, and which one will know how to capture thanks to the prism of technique. Later, I had had the opportunity to read Marguerite Duras who wrote: "Writing is the unknown. Before writing, one knows nothing of what one is going to write and without illusions." I rediscovered the same spirit in the creative process of Etienne Decroux, a process which was transmitted to us little by little, without us knowing it at the time.
Second Level of Work in this Research: Once seen, a sort of perhaps shapeless matter emerged, but which was sufficiently promising that Decroux felt the desire to sculpt it. Then began the difficult work of selecting, with all the means offered by the technique: a working drawing and style of the form, clarity of the contents, etc. Etienne Decroux did not like stories and was difficult to satisfy. He didn't like to "get things over and done with." Steven and I were the actors of his last four creations: The Prophet, The Bird Woman, Love Duet in the Parc St. Cloud, and The Armchair of the Absent One. Each of these pieces was made in the way I have just explained. The themes treated were: relationship with God, the loss of a loved one, the memory of a carefree time, and a love relationship. It goes without saying that we meet these themes frequently in other forms of theatrical expression. What struck us, and determined the rest of our lives, was this way of working, this idea of the "Thinking Body." This genius Etienne Decroux, without seeming to practice psychology, always knew how to find the meeting place between the deep qualities of his actors and the subject in which they would be able to give the best of himself. This actor/creator osmosis meant that he transmitted not only repertoire, but also the tools so that one could be one day, in his own turn, a builder. "That's for later" or "You will understand when your are forty!"
These phrases, which softened the imperfections of our attempts, helped us to understand that for now it was a question of, above all to soak up, to absorb, but enough so that the transmission could transcend time, and that what was received would stay alive, practical and endlessly rediscovered. Etienne Decroux sometimes told the following joke about "The Armchair of the Absent One''. Look, student, you will be able to act this piece reasonably well only when I'm dead. You can't wait for me to die, right!" At the time, I found that morbid, and I most certainly did not want to dwell on this kind of thought. But once again, he was right.
The 24-hour-a-day lesson.
Around the study, like a protective and indispensable screen, there was still another level of transmission of knowledge: life with the Decrouxs in their house. The few other people who, like us, experienced this life were all clearly marked by this great "lesson" of 24-hour-a-day learning. As this could be the subject of an entire article, I will limit myself to recalling a few moments.
"Little Things must be done like Big Things." A multitude of daily tasks fell on us: food shopping, minor repairs, cutting wood, buying tobacco, changing razor blades, keeping the school accounts, secretarial duties, accompanying Mr. and Madame Decroux on errands out of the house, etc. One always had to show absolute good will, a sincere desire to expend all one's efforts. The Decrouxs required precision, clarity, careful execution, good time management, and good humor. As soon as Mr. or Madame Decroux detected the least bit of negligence, the storm broke, preceded by a cutting remark: "Slap-dash work!" and followed by a long monologue by one or the other of them on decadence, "laziness, the sickness of the whole world." Quickly, then, work well done became an obsession! The life of "little things" counted. Things that many called details regained their importance and seemed like subterranean passages to an apprenticeship in corporeal mime, especially as it concerned teaching. Indeed, the assistants had to teach some of the classes given at the school, and the message in this regard was clear: know first how to take care of things before expecting to know how to take care of people! Be interesting because you are interested!
Still today I have the image of Mr. Decroux doing the dishes, and explaining to me the different angles of the wrist and the elbow when the hand had to pick up the dish, and when then it had to rinse it. Mime was everywhere; mime became an invisible and all-powerful eye that observed you in your simplest gestures.
Words and Writings
Etienne Decroux spoke constantly! In class he was generous in his explanations. Once each week what was called "The Lecture" was held, where the students of all levels were united and had the opportunity to ask questions. The answers, direct or not, filled memorable hours with teachings on theatre, history, and life. Outside of class and of this weekly lecture, he continued his discourse, like a long expose or an uninterrupted conversation with both present and absent listeners. A virtuoso of words, he knew how to vary the tone of his voice, and his always precise diction could serve all his intentions. His delivery sometimes slow, or on the contrary fast, assured him of the always-renewed interest of his listeners. It was mostly a monologue, but from time to time he surprised you by asking a question which required a response! This sonorous river poured into your mind philosophical reflections, theatre history, stories about theatre colleagues, war stories, political history, literature, but also revolts, memories and daydreams; this flow reached its climax in the "Weakness," times when we were invited to share a before-dinner drink in the office, in the company of Mr. and Madame Decroux. This voice which encompassed the world, transmitted the hunger for knowledge and the thirst to understand. When he was not speaking, when he was not teaching, generally Etienne Decroux wrote (with a quill pen). What did he write? Many things: exercises, commentaries on his art. He established huge lists of words, arranged sometimes by their sound, sometimes by their origin, sometimes by their meanings, thereby working on a kind of critical history of French diction. We were often invited to read aloud the day's writings, and even to recopy them. I applied myself to retracing his letters, amusing myself by imitating his black loops, which filled him with joy, and prevented us forever from suggesting to him the decadent pleasure of the photocopy!
The last point of the "24-hour-a-day lesson" was simply watching him live. He was so good, despite his indignations, knowing how to enjoy good weather or a good meal, always eager to please his wife, ready to respond to the suffering of others, and transmitting the hope that tomorrow would be better.
Conclusion: What We Are transmitting Today
One day we had to leave, as one has to leave one's parents or one's country. It was painful and necessary. We have continued, in our own turn, transmitting what was given to us. This appeared like an almost organic necessity. This repertory, this know-how, were certainly not given with so much care and so much generosity so that they would remain only happy recollections imprisoned in our memories and in our hearts. This deep teaching allows one, on the contrary, to keep alive this material that was conceived in order to be played, practiced, seen. We have seen the repertoire evolve, imperceptibly varied by coming into contact with new actors who discover it with us. Different cultures and time bring their precious filters. The creation of performances, of a personal repertoire which dialogues with Decroux's, the company work, is also transmission, transmitting this passion for a theatre of the body, transmitting this way of researching, of making an effort, transmitting this beautiful Decrouvian message which invites us to stand up. "To be in mime means to be a militant, a militant of movement in a world which is sitting down." To transmit is to stretch out the hand, to link the past and the present in order to go into the future. When one has given to you, there is no other choice but to give to others, or risk artistic asphyxiation. And then we try also for our greatest pleasure to keep a promise made to Decroux which he formulated this way one day after work: "Promise me to continue, like the guys down there who dug Simplon's Tunnel [the tunnel through Simplon Mountain between Italy and Switzerland]. It's worth it." Yes, it was worth it, I'd like to be able to tell him.
Translated by Sally and Thomas Leabhart