Horatio’s Stories: Portraits and Confessions of European Theatre Masters

By Georges Banu
298 pp. Paris: Actes Sud

Reviewed by Louise Vigeant*

Georges Banu[1] died in Paris in January 2023, aged 79. The entire theatrical community mourned his passing, for Banu was a genuinely esteemed intellectual. This was not only because he truly loved the theatre and its craftsmen – without which he would not have been able to speak so intimately about them – but also because theatre people loved him too, knew they were deeply respected.

Never pedantic despite his erudition, authentic in his desire to grasp theatrical art from every angle, curious and insatiable, Banu was an assiduous spectator, throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world. As a result, he had become one of the world’s great connoisseurs of theatre art in recent decades, as well as its communal memory. He loved the theatre, I believe, because as an art it tells the story of our own humanity, of all that can agitate us, our passions as well as our wanderings, our dreams and  failures, because it speaks of beauty as well as ugliness, of hope as well as dismay; in short, all of life. And it does so “spectacularly.” Banu’s lifelong quest was clearly to understand the human condition through the theatre.

Call theatre the art of dialogue, the art of the ephemeral, the art of the impure — whatever one calls it, it is not easily definable. Even those who devote themselves to it sometimes find it difficult to put into words what they are seeking to achieve. Critics, essayists and teachers all try in their own way to “talk about theatre” but few have succeeded as convincingly as Banu.

Understanding a text, accepting its interpretations, grasping the meaning of a production, situating a show in the flow of theatre history or a  specific artist’s approach – all these tasks require knowledge, attention, open-mindedness and a great capacity for analysis and reflection. Banu had all of these. He once said that it was difficult to speak about theatre “because it combines both the permanence of text and the sparkle of performance.” It seemed that Banu never tired of the sparkle. He also never ceased to explore the theatrical universe through his reflections.

Author of over 30 books, Banu wrote about playwrights (Brecht, Chekhov, Shakespeare), scenographers (Kokkos) and directors (Grotowski, Brook, Strehler, Grüber, Vitez and Mnouchkine among others). Many of these were presented as traditional “essays” (Mémoires du théâtre, La Scène surveillée, Le Théâtre ou le Défi de l’inaccompli, Amour et désamour du théâtre), while others were offered as “crumbs” (L’Oubli), “exercises,” “writings” (Miniatures théoriques) or even “notebooks” (Notre théâtre, La Cerisaie). Whatever the label, these texts always combined personal recollections, observations and fine analyses. All his books offered “landmarks for a landscape of the modern stage,” to quote the subtitle of his Miniatures théoriques.[2]

It was after a stay in Japan that he wrote L’Acteur qui ne revient pas (The Actor Who Doesn’t Come Back), a title that shows just how well Banu was able to put his finger on a specific kind of practice. In Japan, the actor does not return to take his bows at the end of a performance, because tradition dictates that this is not a performance, but an “event” of the sacred order, and bowing as an actor would be profanation. A ghost cannot return from the dead.

A “literate spectator” — as he defines himself in L’Acteur qui ne revient pas Banu writes of noh, kabuki and bunraku performances, seeking to define their essence and also to see what differentiates these theatrical manifestations from European performance. He devotes essays to acting (under the sign of the excess), scenography (the asymmetrical stage and the famous “paths”) and to the extravagant costumes, and masks (and their power of distancing). In doing so, he references Genet, Brecht, Mnouchkine, Brook and Vitez, all of whom were also fascinated by Japan.

Motif with Variations

“Motif avec variations” is the subtitle of a collected edition[3] edited by Banu, but it could also be the subtitle of several of his works. A tireless worker, he constantly sought to deepen his understandings by delving into the idea of “motifs.”

Among his many fine volumes, there are several that I have often revisited: the trilogy Le Rideau, or La Fêlure du monde, L’Homme de dos and Nocturnes, Peindre la nuit – Jouer dans le noir, in which the author investigates specific themes (the titles are explicit) that he encountered in theatre and painting. Magnificently illustrated, these works are captivating both for the comparisons they propose and for the reflections that accompany them.

Occasionally, Banu explored a theme outside the theatrical sphere (often drawing illustrations for his remarks from theatre). For example, in his essays on “rest” or “doors” or “forgetting” (and its corollary, “memory”). What is forgetting? Do we choose to forget? When? Why? Is it serious, desirable? In an almost systematic way, Banu reviews experiences that we all have in common, but which we don’t necessarily dwell on unless an author (like himself) cleverly invites us to do so. Each time, he succeeds in drawing the reader into a fascinating labyrinth of thought, enriching our knowledge of being human.

In 2010, for example, he published Des murs… au Mur, in which he invoked all kinds of walls: the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall, the wall of Belfast, the Gaza Wall, the Wall of the Deported, memorial walls, not forgetting, of course, the Berlin Wall, reflecting on all these that walls can represent, symbolize, allow or forbid, all while probing the human spirit. And sometimes, with the turn of a phrase, we come across a formula of disconcerting simplicity and effectiveness: “Before these stones, there were ideas, words, an unresolved past.” A history lesson.

Talking About Theatre From a New Angle[4]

But Banu didn’t just study theatre and comment on it, he also accompanied it. He collaborated with a number of directors who were undoubtedly attracted by his ability to listen, his openness to all kinds of adventures, the knowledge he accumulated through intense contact with the works, his insatiable appetite for art. And a certain humility. When you’ve had the good fortune and energy – he’d say happiness – to follow European theatrical activity for decades, then you can afford to write a book such as Récits d’Horatio, one of his last books.

“Casting” himself in the role of Horatio, the faithful friend to whom Prince Hamlet, on dying, entrusts the mission of telling his story, Banu gathers his memories, not to offer a list of “best shows” – far from it – but to evoke artistic and human encounters spanning decades. He proves that a “seduced witness” like himself can become a companion to artists, not just a critic of their work. He ensures here that many moments can never really die. Without this Horatio, many such stories would be lost.

“Lurking in the shadows,” as he puts it, Banu has followed the work of many important artists, from Vitez and Strehler to Barba and Grüber along with Brook, Stein, Wilson, Mnouchkine and many others. Because he was nourished by their art, he also nourished their thinking. In Récits d’Horatio, he draws their portraits to leave important traces of their many approaches.

Banu shows here that the work of those who speak of theatre most often begins with a profound desire to communicate sensations, emotions and ideas. As we read, we also come to understand how important it is to pass on “what we know.”

These portraits and confessions also reveal the masters of contemporary stage direction in a new light, as Banu recounts snippets of conversations he had with them, sometimes in rehearsal rooms, sometimes in a theatre lobby, an airport waiting room on the way to some festival, or even in a restaurant after a performance. It’s all very moving, and as many of these artists, being first and foremost people of the theatre and therefore of orality, have often neglected to put their own ideas down on paper, it’s through such fragments that we discover certain their whims, obsessions, desires and even their theories. Each chapter devoted to an artist is followed by a series of aphorisms, welcome additions to the texts.

One such from Polish director Tadeusz Kantor: “Art is not a reflection of life, but its lining, like the lining of a garment”? Or from Giorgio Strehler: “What counts is listening to the works and loving the actors;” from Robert Wilson: “Form is stylized, but Feelings are true.” Ideas simply tossed out over a drink! 

The trust these people placed in Banu is palpable. And that too is a fine “lesson.” His  career was quite obviously punctuated by respectful listening and a desire to extend the impact of performance through thoughtful writing. In Récits d’Horatio, he allows himself to recount a variety of these tasty anecdotes: Peter Brook telling his troupe during a dress rehearsal of Mahabharata,Ça ne va pas la seconde partie, même Georges s’est endormi!” (The second part is not good, even Georges fell asleep!)

Others are touching, for example when Banu recounts seeing Brook’s Lear in Bucharest as a young man…enthusiastic about discovering theatre “from elsewhere.” Ten years later, still at the Bucharest Opera, he sees Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this time in front of a sparse audience due to official restrictions – we were under Ceauşescu! At the end of the show, Puck, breaking the fourth wall, actually speaks to him. Banu writes: “Puck shook my hand and said ‘Goodbye’ – and then, plunged into the depths of myself, I promised to answer his call and see Brook again on the ‘other side’ of the still impenetrable Iron Curtain! For two years, I prepared myself.” He would meet him again, with emotion, years later when he had left his native Romania for a life of greater freedom in France.

Like Horatio, Banu is a storyteller, not of a single life like Shakespeare’s character, but of fragments of lives, faithful not to a single “prince” but to many, for he wanted to draw from more than one source. And so, he takes us with him in this volume – as in his others — on a stroll through the thousand places he assiduously frequented. An enviable wandering.


Endnotes

[1] Essayist and critic Georges Banu published over 30 books (three of which won prizes in France for the best theatre book of the year) and edited several collections. He directed films on Shakespeare and Chekhov. He was Managing Director of the Temps du théâtre series at Éditions Actes Sud. A professor emeritus of theatre studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III), in 2014 the Académie française awarded him the Grand Prix de la Francophonie. Georges Banu was also an Honorary President of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

[2] Banu’s books were also translated into Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish.

[3]L’Enfant qui meurt: motif avec variations“, edited by Georges Banu, coordinated by Isabelle Ansart and Véronique Perruchon, Montpellier, L’Entretemps, 2010.

[4] Parts of this article have appeared in issue no. 182 (2022.2) of JEU, Revue de théâtre, Montreal, p.4-6. 


*Louise Vigeant is a former teacher from Quebec. A member of the editorial board of the Revue de théâtre JEU from 1988 to 2003, and its editor-in-chief from 1998 to 2002, she was president of the Association québécoise des critiques de théâtre and a member of the executive board of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) when Banu was its president (1994-2000). An organizer of the IATC congress in Montreal in 2001, which gave Banu the opportunity to visit Quebec, she had, for several years, the good fortune to rub shoulders with the man she described as “the finest connoisseur of the stage” she had ever met, a remarkable man of great kindness.

Copyright © 2023 Louise Vigeant
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