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Deburau Post by :imported_n/a Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :1083

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Theatergoers who have lived through two or more generations invariably complain that the stage isn't what it used to be. Mostly they mourn for a school of drama in which emotion flowered more luxuriantly than in the usual run of plays to-day about life in country stores and city flats. The one thought in which these playgoers of another day take comfort is that even if we had such drama now there would be no one who could act it. But Deburau is such a play, and Lionel Atwill must be some such one as those who figure in the speeches of our older friends when they say: "Ah, but then you never saw--". Sacha Guitry, who wrote Deburau, is alive; yes, indeed, even more than that, for he lives in Paris, and Lionel Atwill is a young actor whose greatest previous success in New York was achieved in the realistic drama of Ibsen. Now, it is possible for us to turn upon the elders and to say to them: "It is not for want of ability that this age of ours doesn't do your old-style plays. We could if we would. Go and see Deburau and Lionel Atwill."

Of course, even in this verse play of the tragic life of a French actor of the early nineteenth century there are modern touches. For all the fact that Atwill is able to rise now and again to a carefully contrived situation and to develop it into a magnificent moment of ringing voice and sweeping gesture, he is also able to do the much greater and more exciting thing of making Deburau seem at times a man and not a great character in a play. He is able to make Deburau, actor, dead man, Frenchman, seem the common fellow of us all. And, still more wonderful, Lionel Atwill succeeds in doing this even in scenes during which the author is pitching rimed couplets around his neck as if he were no man at all, but nothing more than one of the posts in a game of quoits. I find it difficult to believe that anybody's heart is breaking when he expresses his emotion in carefully carpentered rhyme:

"Trained in art from my cradle," did you say?
Well, I hadn't a cradle. But, anyway,
If you bid me recall those things, here goes--
Though I've tried hard enough to forget them, God knows.

When people on the stage begin to speak in this fashion the persuasive air of reality is seldom present. It is with Atwill. He is careful not to accentuate the beat. Sometimes I am almost persuaded during his performance that it isn't poetry at all. When I watch him, verse is forgotten, but I have only to close my eyes to hear the deep and steady rumble of the beat which thumps beneath the play. Atwill is a man standing on top of a volcano. So great is his unconcern that you may accept it as extinct, but sooner or later you will know better, for by and by, with a terrifying roar, off goes the head of the mountain in an eruption of rhyme.

Atwill is not the only modern note in an old-fashioned play by a young man of to-day. Our forefathers may be speaking the truth when they tell us that in their day all the actors were nine or ten feet tall and spoke in voices slightly suggestive of Caruso at his best, but our forefathers never saw such a production as David Belasco has given to Deburau. No one knew in those days of the wonders which could be achieved with light. Nobody, then, could have shown us in the twinkling of an eye the front of Deburau's tiny theater, then the interior of the theater itself, and finally, with only a passing moment of darkness, carry the stage of the theater within a theater forward and set it down in front of the audience, greatly grown by its journey.

In Sacha Guitry's play about Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau we see this famous clown and pantomimist, who brought all Paris to his tiny theater some hundred years ago, in the midst of a performance. We hear the applause of his audience and then after a bit we see the man himself rid of his Pierrot garb and his white grease paint. He is introduced to us as an exceedingly modest young genius who deplores the fact that he has become hated by his fellow players because of the applause heaped upon him by the critics. Nor is he any better pleased when fair ladies wait to see him after a performance to press their attentions upon him. For them he has invented a formula of repulse. After a moment or so he produces a miniature from his pocket and remarks: "Pretty, isn't it?" When the fair lady agrees he adds: "It's a picture of my wife. I should so like to have you meet her."

But one night Deburau meets a lady much fairer than any of the others, and this time he forgets to show her the miniature. In the second act we find that he is madly in love with her, while she, although she is touched by his devotion, has outgrown her fancy for the actor. It is Deburau who christens her "the lady with the camellias," for she is Marie Duplessis, better known to us as Camille. Returning home for the first time in a week, Deburau finds his wife has left him and, gathering up his bird, his dog, and his little son, he goes to the house of Marie, hoping there to find welcome and consolation. Instead he finds another lover, Armand Duval, who is to make Marie one of the great heroines of emotional drama.

Seven years pass before the next act begins, and now we find Deburau old, broken, and disheartened. He has left the theater and he lives tended only by his son, who has grown to be a lively youngster of seventeen. Somewhat to his chagrin, he finds that the boy is eager to become an actor, and this emotion changes to anger when he learns that his son has studied all his rôles and hopes to make a début in Paris simply as Deburau. He is not to be brushed aside in such cavalier fashion. There is only one Deburau, he declares, and there will be only one until he dies.

To the garret, then, comes Marie Duplessis, truant through all the seven years, but the joy of Deburau is short-lived. He finds that she has not come back because she loves him, but because she is sorry for him. She has come with her doctor. Still, after Marie has gone and Deburau has been left alone with the physician, he finds unexpected consolation for his weary spirit. The physician finds no physical ailment. The trouble, he declares, is a nervous one. For that he can do little. Some magic other than medicine is needed. He suggests books, painting, nature, but to each Deburau shakes a weary head. They don't interest him. The theater, the doctor continues, is perhaps the best hospital of all. There are one or two actors, he tells Deburau, who are greater than any doctors in their power to bring merriment and new life to tired men.

"Who?" asks the sick man, and the doctor tells him of Deburau and his great art. Yes, by all means Deburau is the man he should see.

No sooner has the doctor left than Deburau calls for his hat and his stick. He will no longer sit idle while inferior men play his parts. He is going back to the theater. There we find him in the last act in the middle of a performance in one of his most famous rôles, but his old grace and agility are gone. When the audience should weep it laughs and there are tears instead of smiles for his decrepit attempts at comedy. Finally, he is hissed and booed and, after he has made a dumb speech of farewell, the curtain is rung down. The manager is in a panic. Somebody else must be put forward. It is quite evident that Deburau is done. In the crisis the old actor begs a favor. His son, he tells the manager, knows all his rôles. Why not let the audience have a new Deburau, a young Deburau? Then, as the company gathers about to listen, the old man makes up the boy for his part, and as he does so he tells him in a few simple words the secrets and the fundamentals of the art of acting. Presently the drum of the barker is heard outside the theater and the audience hears him announce that Deburau the great will give way to a greater Deburau, a Deburau more agile, more comic, more tragic. Then the terrified boy is pushed out upon the stage and the play begins.

By an ingenious device of David Belasco all our attention is focused upon the old man, who is listening and watching the performance of his successor, which we see only dimly through gauze curtains, but we hear the laughter and the shouts and the cheers. The new Deburau is a success, a triumph. The noise comes more faintly to our ears and we see only the old Deburau standing listening as from the house which has just hissed him there comes a wild acclaiming shout for his successor of "Deburau! Deburau!"

The old man does not know whether he should laugh or cry, and so he cries.

(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Deburau

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