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Robert Ayre

Pellan Versus the Bard [1946]

Canadian Art, Vol. III #4, June 1946.
[ 1,824 words ]


Ever since he came home to Canada in 1940, after fourteen years in Paris, Alfred Pellan has been causing a stir. Indeed he has been, and still is, a very vortex of excitement. He was only twenty when he went to Paris on a government scholarship, after studying at the Beaux-Arts of Québec, his native city, just the right age, and he quickly flung off his provincial harness and plunged headlong into the stream. When the outbreak of war drove him back across the Atlantic he did not slip in stealthily and settle down to be just another painter and teacher with his memories of a remote world. His shyness among the English, whose language he does not speak, is deceiving. Pellan is a showman who believes in living up to the pyrotechnics of his painting. Has he found the past six years in Montréal dull after his life in Paris? Not where he has anything to say about it, and he has plenty. He took Montréal by storm with his first big solo show, which crowded two of the Art Association's galleries; he has sold pictures to the Québec Provincial Museum and to many private collectors; he was asked to paint the murals for the Canadian Embassy at Rio de Janeiro; Maurice Gagnon has written a book about him; Parizeau has published a collection of his drawings; he has become a cult; and he has become such a force as a teacher that he all but split the Beaux-Arts in two during a famous fight not so long ago with Charles Maillard. He has had his fun too, as a designer for the theatre, and it is this aspect of his exotic career — by staid Canadian standards — that provides the latest excitement.

This spring, Les Compagnons presented La Nuit des Rois in La Salle du Gesu. La Nuit des Rois is Victor Hugo's version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Les Compagnons are a group of players who work anonymously under the direction of Father Emile Legault. Alfred Pellan designed the scenery and costumes. He did not work anonymously, but even if his name had not been published there would have been no hiding his brilliant light under a bushel. He stole the show. Shakespeare, Les Compagnons and everybody else faded into insignificance.

Let's give an outline of the excitement as it was reflected in the newspapers. The quotations are abridgments.

The Gazette critic, Herbert Whittaker, consistently referred to him as Jacques Pelland (sic), but there was no mistaking whose 'violently personal style' he meant. The settings and costumes were as far from naturalism as they could go. Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste were 'reduced to highly decorative abstractions with a strongly harlequin flavour,' the lovely shores of Illyria were transformed into a 'series of similarly striking abstractions.' Whittaker used the adjectives 'startling' and 'staggering'. The effect was 'exciting, sometimes annoying, always interesting;' the presentation provided 'one of the most exhilarating evenings of entertainment to hit the town this season.' It deserved support and approval because there was 'always room for experiment, for daring and for imagination in the theatre.' Whittaker's first reaction was that it had nothing to do with Shakespeare, but the Hugo translation had not much to do with Shakespeare either. The upshot of it was that the players only partially lived up to Pellan and that it was 'not the purpose of the stage designer to show off at the expense of the play.' He saw a need for closer collaboration.

Ken Johnstone of the Standard said the production 'proved to be a battle between the Bard and unpredictable, brilliant artist, Alfred Pellan. The Bard lost.' In this presentation of Twelfth Night, he went on, 'Pellan is at his brilliant best in the decor, the costumes, and presumably he had something to do with the actors' make up. It is weird and it is wonderful. You just can't afford to miss it. Then you can join in the fight. Did Pellan ever read Twelfth Night? Or does he care? Or is some talented modern writer needed who can adapt Shakespeare to Pellan?'

In any event, Johnstone found La Nuit des Rois — '(it should be called La Nuit de Pellan) ' — a 'dazzling spectacle, an orgy of colour and design.' A few actors were able to hold out against Pellan and for Shakespeare. 'Others, like Sir Toby, wander like haunted souls across the battlefield, hapless victims of a power greater than themselves.'

Jean Luce of La Presse also saw the production as a battle. Pellan's tableaux were alive. Too much so. They went beyond the text, they outvied [? ed.] the actors.

'The danger of painters,' Luce wrote, 'as decorators in the theatre is manifest in this spectacle. Above all, when the painter has the personality and force of Pellan. He could not hold himself down to the text. The violence of his colours and the audacity of his forms hurt the development of the action and the performance of the actors. Les Compagnons made a gallant effort to free themselves of Pellan. They were successful sometimes. But not always...The 23 changes of scene, the six tableaux and the numerous and multi-coloured costumes created the atmosphere of a circus. The spectators were surprised and captivated. Dazzled by the colours and the sounds. They went home marvelling at the tour de force but without knowing what it was all about.'

The impact of Shakespeare, according to André Langevin, whose review in Le Devoir ran to two columns, was diminished. The decor overwhelmed the word. But Langevin did not blame Pellan. The fault was with Les Compagnons. Their interpretation was so unequal that the audience lost all interest in the work they were interpreting and became absorbed in the painter's settings and costumes. In the past the players had covered their individual weaknesses by an admirable cohesion and by playing clearly as an ensemble. But in La Nuit des Rois their deficiencies were pitilessly underlined by the triumph of the lines and colours of Pellan's backcloths and costumes.

Langevin admitted that he was not an art critic, and that he was not well disposed to the art called modern, but in this production he admired Pellan without reserve. He admitted 'la fantaisie de Pellan pour la fantaisie de Shakespeare.' Pellan had composed a marvellous symphony of lines and colours which the 'Great Will would probably not have disavowed...The costumes were a triumph of caricature and irony...But in the triumph of Pellan's art, Les Compagnons seemed to be bewildered and unable to put up a fight for Shakespeare.'

There you have four critics who suggest, if they do not say it in so many words, that the production was a battle between Pellan, Shakespeare and the players, and that Pellan was certainly not the loser.

The writer who signed himself as 'P.G.' in the weekly Le Jour had a different point of view. He began by taking issue directly with Johnstone of the Standard. The reaction to the presentation as 'un véritable combat entre le peintre et le dramaturge' was excusable in the public — and in the critics — who knew very little of the art of the theatre...'et pour qui le nom de Shakespeare évoque le respect grandiloquent de l'ignorance...'

It was vain, P.G. went on, to argue about Pellan. Assuredly the designer was but an accessory. The important thing was the spectacle as a whole. 'We go to see a play in the theatre, not to visit an exhibition of painting!...Pellan drew the whole thing to himself for three reasons: he brings extraordinary elements to the theatre; the piece is poor enough, and Les Compagnons offer us an unequal play and at the same time a slack mise en scène. It is normal enough to appreciate the qualities of a spectacle that naturally stand out in contrast to the weaknesses.'

After going into the character of Shakespeare's play, which he said was a hodge-podge strangely thrown together, 'un pot-pourri assez bizarrement construit,' the critic said he could find in it nothing for the designer to fight. 'Fight against whom, against what? We are in the domain of pure fantasy; of complete invention...The art of the designer is to bring out the diversity of individual characters in the diversity of their proper settings. That is all (and the rest is a matter for the director). Pellan would have been derogatory to his art if he had set up a shocking disproportion between the costumes and the settings, the costumes and the characters. That is all the fidelity he owes to Shakespeare; outside of that, he has a free hand. Nothing restricts Pellan in this piece one way or another...'

Eloi de Grandmont had already pointed out, the critic went on, how the horizontal separation of the background into strong and weak tones brought the costumes into relief, how the make up (faces painted in two different colours, horizontal or vertical) 'doubled' the characters on the stage and gave the audience a sense of their physical presence...As to the settings, their striking colours did not in any way absorb the interpreters but, on the contrary, served to bring them out, giving them a human density hitherto unknown on our stage. To build with assurance and technical perfection a conventional world (where the slightest error would bring about a disastrous disequilibrium) was to be far from 'destroying' the players and the director; it was to give them an incomparable springboard for the expression of their art. If the play seemed to be scarcely synchronized, if some of the players came close to unreasonable exaggeration, if one felt an absence (under other circumstances delightful) of a strict direction, that was another affair.

Replying to Le Jour, Johnstone maintained his position. The production failed to reconcile Shakespeare with Pellan.

'That is why the spectacle,' he added, 'surely one of the most interesting in the Montréal theatre this season, still resolves itself into a fight between Pellan and Shakespeare. But the mise en scène left the actors right in the middle, caught on one side by the logic of their lines and the other by the wonderful Pellan costumes, which had no relation to the lines and very little to the characters as Shakespeare visualized them...Shakespeare sits on no pedestal around the Standard. One can readily agree that Twelfth Night lends itself ideally to the stylized treatment that Pellan has given it. But there is a wide gap between that treatment and the traditional Shakespeare — a gap which could only be bridged by very daring direction and acting.'


Canadian Art, Vol. III #4, June 1946.


Text: © Robert Ayre. All rights reserved.

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