Copyright © Don Mowatt, July 14 2017
Strangers in Paris
In the spring of 1972, I was in Paris for a few days on our way to Munich, where my wife’s brother was studying opera and oratorio with Ernst Haefliger, the noted Bavarian tenor.
We stayed in a small hotel off Boulevard Saint Michel where Picasso had lived once as a struggling artist, or so the hotel was advertising.
It was a lively arondissement, full of tourists come to see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Luxembourg Gardens, a profusion of restaurants and shops including the celebrated bookstore Shakespeare and Company, now run by a nephew of Walt Whitman.
The Sorbonne University was nearby as was the Theatre Odeon, one of the premier theatres in Europe.
At any moment you might meet within a few yards, beggars, students, tourists, shopkeepers, performers and the very rich living in large apartments next to the Luxembourg Gardens.
We had some postcards to mail on the morning after our arrival, but after wandering around some side streets without much luck in finding a post office, I asked an elderly lady to point us in the right direction.
She was short, dressed in an overcoat with several stains and a hole in the shoulder, but she had a kind face and a smile.
Perhaps I should not have asked her.
She was obviously a street person, after looking at her more closely.
My French was not exact and I might not be able to follow her directions, if in fact, she was able to give me any to the right place.
She was quite elderly, I could see that now, perhaps in her eighties.
Yes, clearly I should not have asked her.
But she took me firmly by the arm, saying “Suivez-moi monsieur, s’il vous plais”, nodded her head to my wife and led us for a block and a half through an unfamiliar side street at right angles to the Boulevard St. Michel.
She asked, in what I understood as a refined Parisian accent, where we were from and noted that she had relatives in Eastern Canada but had lost touch over the years.
Her voice was strong as was her grip on my arm and yet her appearance was so appalling and shabby.
It was impossible to reconcile her clothing and her personality which in a different setting, I might reasonably have concluded belonged to an aristocrat; certainly she was a person of some breeding.
When we arrived at the Bureau de Poste, I offered to reimburse her for her kindness, but she rejected any offer of remuneration immediately and even seemed offended I should suggest it. I apologized and took her hands and thanked her profusely.
She bowed to us both, wished us well and hurried on her way.
There was no question that she had left in her wake a strong body odour, but also, and more surprisingly, a sense of… grace, nobility even, certainly dignity that we could not account for.
What was her story?
What had happened to her?
In some of the postcards we had ready to mail, we had mentioned to friends and family how disappointed we were on our arrival in Paris at the service people in some of the shops and cafes in those first hours.
We had found them aloof, inhospitable, and some absolutely rude.
And yet this woman.
Should we rewrite the cards?
At least postpone mailing them?
My wife and I uncharacteristically agreed instantly, without a word being spoken, not to mail the cards at this point but to continue walking.
Some years previously, I had been with my parents in Paris during vacation from my Scottish boarding school and they had taken me to see a production of Hamlet at the Odeon Theatre starring Jean Louis Barrault.
The production was of course in French translation, but I had been so thrilled by the performances that the language I had been studying at school seemed no barrier to my appreciation of what I had seen on stage.
Surely the Odeon Theatre was nearby.
We had seen it the night before on an evening walk and near here on our way with the postcards, we had seen a theatre arts shop… closed but showing in the window, masks theatrical posters, signed photographs of performers and magazines and books about the theatre.
We would have to return there when it opened later.
We continued walking to the next corner, turned to our left and there across the street was a large block long, yellowy grey building with its rear facing us.
Le Theatre Odeon.
We crossed the street, past cars parked up on the sidewalk and made our way to the entrance on the other side of the building, expecting it to be closed tight at this hour of the morning, but wondering if a box office might be open or posters indicating what was playing.
There were several posters offering a variety of upcoming plays, none sadly for this week, and the box office and the front door were all closed and locked.
There was a light on in the foyer and we saw someone walk from the far end of the foyer into an office.
We waited for a few moments, but obviously nothing was open yet to the public.
Just out of interest, we followed the route around the building to see if there were perhaps other entrances for the staff or performers that might be open for rehearsals.
No luck! It was a solid fortress.
We would have to return at a later time or day.
There was one door at the back, double doors but without a handle and obviously for tradesmen when required.
We noticed someone going in that way when we rounded the corner from the far end of the street, but when we arrived, it clearly seemed not meant for those unconnected with an immediate production.
Still… I put my ear to the door, almost as a joke to my wife.
And that’s when the stranger in an elegant grey suit and cravat tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could be of assistance.
I apologized profusely and stammered something probably quite incoherently in poor French about being interested in this theatre since coming as a boy in the fifties and wanted to show my wife how marvelous the inside of the theatre had been as I remembered it.
I also mentioned of course that I was a drama producer at the CBC in radio and had an interest in French theatre generally.
“Would you like to see the theatre from the stage?” He asked immediately and without asking for credentials or identification.
He had a way of touching a mechanism on the double door which released a kind of handle that he pulled and opened the door to reveal the back of the stage and a full view of the red velvet tiers of seating in the Odeon.
“Now you are on stage in my favourite theatre in France, he said, do you know any lines to recite? It may be your only chance and you may even draw an audience of five or six here now.”
I apologized again and said that I remembered only one silly speech of the pretentious Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”
“Formidable!” he clapped his hands and said “Commencez!”
“Tout ce qui n’est point prose est vers… et tout ce qui n’est point vers est prose…”
I hesitated, and then recalled two more lines:
“Par ma foi, il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis prose sans que j’en susse rien!
Ah la belle chose que de savoir quelquechose!”
I blushed and headed for my wife and the doors out to the street.
“Wait,” he said, “I want to give you a note for the box office.”
He tore a page from a pocket diary in his jacket, scribbled something quite illegible and told me to present it for a couple of complimentary tickets to the box office when it opened.
He shook my hand, kissed the hand of my wife and wished us a happy stay in Paris and “…Which play was it you saw here in the fifties?”
“It was Hamlet,” I said.
“Ah, c’est bien… moi aussi!”
“Moi aussi!” he had said, so he must have seen that production too, wouldn’t it have been something if we had been in the theatre on the same night?
Well that would be taking coincidence too far, we agreed.
On our way back to the hotel, we saw that the theatre arts shop was open and went inside.
It was like Ali Baba’s cave for anyone connected or even interested in the theatre.
I bought a Comedia Del Arte leather mask made in Venice, poured through dozens of postcards with photographs of performers in film, stage, opera and musical productions.
There were plaster and marble busts of actors, authors, composers for the theatre, autographed letters.
I was looking through a pile of old theatre programmes going back a hundred years when Janet called out “I think you should look at something over here.”
She was looking at a large pictorial biography of the husband and wife actors Madelaine Renaud and Jean Louis Barrault.
Photographs of them together and separately going back to the early thirties in dozens of plays and films including one I had seen at college (“Les Enfants du Paradis”) where Barrault played Pierrot (19th C. mime Debureau) in pantomime in a white mask.
There was also a photo of him as Hamlet taken in the 1950’s.
“Now, take a look at this,”
Janet pointed to a shot taken out of costume, much later of a man in a suit and a cravat.
Of course he had been there at the theatre when I had gone with my parents.
He was Hamlet.
As the salesclerk was ringing in my purchases, I saw through the window that old lady we had met earlier that morning, shuffling by outside and I asked the clerk if she had seen her before.
“Why do you ask, monsieur?”
“Well, she was very kind to us a couple of hours ago when we were looking for a post office.”
The clerk put down my books.
“Her husband died suddenly some years ago and there was a problem with his estate.
They had a daughter studying at the Sorbonne but she had to stop her classes.
There was no money available. Her mother had to sell everything to pay the bills and the daughter worked as an usher at the Odeon Theatre. I don’t know where they lived.
No one knew.
They were very proud.
I have not seen the daughter for a year or more… only the mother.
She used to come here with old programmes, photographs and when her husband died, we bought two suitcases of theatre items.
She never came back.
We never asked.”
Years later, for a CBC radio series on great actors of the 20th Century, Vancouver writer and actor Peter Haworth and I returned to Paris to locate Barrault for an interview.
He had not responded to mail or phonecalls we had attempted.
On a French radio colleague’s tip, we found him in a bar not far from Les Invalides.
He was frail, no cravat, quite drunk and alone.
I barely recognized him.
Peter and I sat down at a table in another part of the bar and considered what to do next.
We ordered two beers, took a few sips, looked over at the old actor at his table and decided to make the program from archival tapes and not disturb someone who quite obviously had nothing more to add to thousands of lines once so felicitously spoken and appreciated.
The rest was silence.
He died a year and a half later.
Note: -written after hearing of the passing of long-time French radio features colleague Rene Farabet who had worked and performed with Barrault decades earlier.
He had helped us locate the actor and then found for us valuable archive tapes for our radio programme.
Copyright Don Mowatt, July 14 2017