Today I began re-reading Maurice Kurtz’s biography of Jacques Copeau. Within seven pages I was reminded of why Copeau is such a hero to me. He dedicated his life to a theatre of integrity, and he forged numerous paths in an effort to materialize his ideal. As a critic, and a critic of the critics, he insisted fiercely upon theatre production that put human interests above commercial ones. Not that money wasn’t important. His family’s intimate relationship to labor taught him the value of a centime. Yet Copeau remained steadfast in his conviction that financial reward should be a happy accident of, rather than the motivation behind, the production of good and purposeful art. He edited the writing of others with the same vivacity and honest care that he applied to his own work. He opened Le Theatre du Vieux-Colombier as an article of faith in the power of theatre to transfix attention and transform lives. Finally, he retreated to rural France with a group of teachers and actors to imagine a form of performance that would be both new and old at once. Each of these endeavors reverberated in its own particular circle of society and art, such that no area in which Copeau’s brave attention lingered would ever again be the same. As Albert Camus remarked, “In the history of the French theater, there are two periods: before Copeau and after Copeau.” His legacy beyond France is deep and broad. Yet in his own time, Copeau’s achievements were perceived as mediocre at best. He remained undaunted. His heart beat with a level of courage that doubt typically erodes in most of us.
Is it already too late for theatre’s authentic investigations when it becomes about box office returns? Is artistic innovation stymied or propelled by financial gain? Can we satisfy patrons hungry for value at the same time that we feed those who need their souls nourished? And what about what the performing artist needs from the transaction? Is it possible to entertain and feel personally fulfilled at once? These are basic questions, though the contradictions inherent in answering them imbue them with the power of mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as: what is most important? And, eminently more complex, can you live with the consequences of making that choice, whatever they may be? Boldly open a restaurant to cook for others, but accept that you may go hungry yourself sometimes. Plant rows of grape vines, and be ready to live through the rainy season in a tent until their fruit is ripe enough to press into wine for all. Greet strangers with an open heart, and know that many of them will rebuff your attempt. For goodness sake, dance in the streets and let them all laugh with you. Some will certainly join your reveling. Is there enough goodwill in the world to support such personal and public adventures? Copeau knew that there always would be.