‘The theatres of George Devine’

by Irving Wardle, Jonathan Cape, 1978, £8.50.

 

David Bradby

 

The name of George Devine has become almost synonymous with that of the English Stage Company in the late fifties and sixties. It calls to mind the wave of new English dramatists, such as Osborne, Wesker, Arden, N.F. Simpson, Ann Jellicoe, Michael Hastings, Gwyn Thomas, Nigel Dennis, and many others. This period of Devine’s life, when he was director of the E.S.C., was certainly its crowning achievement and probably the one he would have wanted to be remembered by. But it has obscured Devine’s other achievements, notably his success in bringing French influences to bear on the English stage. This process began as a result of Devine’s friendship with Michel St. Denis with whom he was in partnership from 1935 to 1953, interrupted only by the war. Nearly half of this book is a chronicle of that extraordinary partnership between two very unusual men of the theatre.

 

St. Denis first came to England with La Compagnie des Quinze, which did a London tour in 1931 with productions of Noé and Le viol de Lucrèce. Four years later St. Denis came to London to direct Gielgud in an English version of Noé and stayed to set up the London Theatre Studio in collaboration with Devine. He had experienced the dissolution of Copeau’s Vieux Colombier Theatre School and the subsequent failure of attempts to keep it going on a permanent basis in Burgundy. Now in London, with the help of Devine, he planned for a theatre, theatre school and experimental studio modelled once again on the Vieux Colombier. St. Denis spoke very little English, so these plans were, only possible because Devine was prepared to shoulder the entire administrative burden.

 

The London Theatre Studio was the forerunner of the Old Vic Theatre School, established after the war. Both institutions owed their particular character to the combination of St. Denis and Devine; both, as Wardle writes, ‘began their lives in a cloud of manifestoes and went on to inscribe themselves on British theatrical legend.’ The secret of the farreaching influence that both exerted is explained by Wardle in terms of an idealistic and high-minded approach to work in the theatre inherited from Copeau and transmitted via St. Denis to Devine. We are used to the fact that many of the best people and groups working in France over the past thirty years have claimed to be the heirs of Copeau; but the theory that the English stage also owes much of its best work to his influence is one that has not, I think, been set out in this manner before.

 

The idealistic pioneering efforts of the London Theatre Studio were cut short by the outbreak of war. St. Denis became head of the BBC’s French section, while Devine ‘simply vanished into a comer of SouthEast Asia and did his bit as a Gunner Captain.’ After the war they came together again at the Old Vic Theatre School. The story of the ups and downs of the plans for an Old Vic Centre, the Old Vic School, the launching of the Young Vic and the final break-up in 1953 is retold in masterly style by Wardle, who suggests that the main reason for the break-up was the excessive power wielded by a board of directors having no sympathy for the work of the School and interested only in transforming the Old Vic into a National Theatre.

 

When matters came to a head in 1953 both Devine and St. Denis resigned, hoping to force a change of policy on the Board; but they failed to do so. St. Denis left for the Centre National Dramatique de l’Est at Strasbourg and the brilliant career of the theatre school at Strasbourg over the past 20 years shows how much the Old Vic lost. Devine learnt a lesson that he clung to for the rest of his life: ‘never resign.’ He worked freelance until 1956, when the E.S.C. opened its first season under his direction. The story of its successes and precarious survival is perhaps better known than that of the Old Vic Theatre School, but it too is well told. We are reminded that although Devine’s chief aim was ‘to get writers, writers of serious pretensions, back into the theatre,’ he did not concentrate exclusively on new English writing, but also on introducing the work of French, German and Russian authors: Michael Hastings was commissioned to adapt The dybbuk and The bedbug, Tony Richardson produced a series of works by Brecht, and Devine himself directed the first English productions of Endgame, Happy days and Play as well as a number of plays by lonesco, notably the 1963 production of Exit the king with Alec Guinness.

 

The theatres of George Devine is a model of how theatrical biography should be written. It is thoroughly researched and consistently avoids mere anecdotal detail in favour of a complex account of the various theatrical movements in which its subject took part. Wardle’s method of depicting Devine always involves quoting a variety of different views, sometimes even contradictory views of his achievements. The result of this method is an extremely readable book which builds up a remarkably three-dimensional picture of Devine, as well as a coherent picture of the development of the London Theatre Studio, the Old Vic Theatre School and the English Stage Company.