Jean-Norman Benedetti (1930-2012)
Jean Benedetti (1930-2012)
Jean-Norman Benedetti, who died on March 27th after battling a long illness, was best known for his biography and translations of the works of Konstantin Stanislavski. He was also a former Principal of Rose Bruford College, where he remained an Honorary Professor and contributed his archives and research to create the college’s Stanislavski Centre. Throughout a productive life Benedetti combined many theatrical careers in one. His groundbreaking scholarship on acting, Stanislavski and the Moscow Arts Theatre (one of his finest books was the collection The Moscow Art Theatre Letters published in 1997) started late in his career. Early he became a dramatist for stage and television, translator of Brecht’s plays and also of Fernando Arrabal’s and, at the very start of his career, an actor and director. Curiously his first book, published in 1971, was a biography of Gilles de Rais, the notorious and debauched French nobleman and companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc who was better known as a child murderer.
Born September 30, 1930 in London, Jean-Norman Benedetti came from a world that embraced France and Italy. He became a gifted linguist, fluent in first French and then Russian but he also spoke and translated from the Italian and German. For many years he divided his time between England and France, where he continued to live part of the year and where he did his most productive research and writing in a house in the Dordogne.
His early education was spent partly in France but after deciding on a career in theatre he enrolled as a student at the new Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Sidcup, Kent, where he studied under Rose Bruford herself. A charismatic teacher, Bruford’s demanding disciplined teaching and love of verse and verse speaking quickly influenced the many young performers she taught. Benedetti was no exception. Throughout his life Benedetti used his actor training to deliver bright and sparkling lectures on theatre and acting, commanding a room with his fluency and anecdotes. For Benedetti being on stage was almost effortless. He was a gifted acting student and repeatedly won prizes in each of his years at college. Working in rep theatres across the country followed his graduation, leading to the West End where he stepped into Dudley Moore’s part in Beyond the Fringe. From there he went on to work in radio and television, as both an actor and playwright/translator.
Benedetti’s literary and dramaturgical interests supplemented his skills as a performer and director. From 1964 to 1974 he worked intermittently with Kenneth Tynan at Laurence Olivier’s newly established National Theatre at London’s Old Vic where he was a Tynan adviser on European repertoire.
In 1970 Jean Benedetti—the shortened name he preferred to use as an actor and writer—returned to Rose Bruford College as its Principal and stayed as its head until his retirement in 1987. He was the right man for the times. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s all specialist drama schools in London and other parts of the UK were desperately trying to gain credibility and sustainability as educational institutions. The Conference of Drama Schools had been formed to ensure credibility for an always-threatened sector. As a drama student Benedetti had been trained to be both an actor and a teacher, a double role that Rose Bruford felt was an important feature of the training her school pioneered. So Benedetti could make the connection between the practice of dramatic technique and the intellectual rigor of higher education. Through his and his Bruford colleagues’ dogged efforts, plus his skilful (and often willful) maneuverings with those responsible for higher education certification, Rose Bruford College became the first British institution with university status to offer a BA Honours degree in Acting rather than just in Dramatic Literature and Theatre History as at other traditional humanities-based universities like Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham. BA Honours degrees for technical theatre training and more radical community theatre work soon followed. A pattern was set that other British drama schools, like RADA, LAMDA and the Central School of Speech and Drama, would eventually follow. Benedetti presided over Rose Bruford College during a golden period that produced a whole new breed of British stage and screen actors like Gary Oldman, who attended and graduated in the 1970s and was a Benedetti student.
As he was bringing new prominence to the training of actors and stage technicians, Benedetti turned his attention more fully to his research on the life and works of Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski was a central part of every drama school’s curriculum. But Benedetti could see hat the accepted translation were wrong and the view of Stanislavski needed correcting. Through the many books to follow on Stanislavski he formed a productive relationship with the publishers Methuen Drama. He first published a translation of Stanislavski’s own autobiography, My Life in Art, in 1974. A best-selling handbook eventually followed this for acting students, Stanislavski: An Introduction (1982). Then in 1988 he published to great critical acclaim Stanislavski: A Biography, the first and still the only biography to appear in English on the theatre’s most seminal theorist of modern acting. That book is now sadly out of print. In the years to come Benedetti would expand and revise this book twice as new material on Stanislavski’s life and art came to light.
For Benedetti and other international Stanislavski scholars it was a widely known fact that the trilogy of English-language volumes of Stanislavski’s writings (An Actor Prepares, Building a Character and Creating a Role), first published in 1930s and translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (a fine Russian linguist and academic but not a theatre scholar) were both inaccurate and sorely dated when compared with Stanislavski’s work as published and taught in Russia. While Stanislavski himself continued to work on his theories throughout his life and until his death in 1938, volumes like An Actor Prepares were found to be mistaken representations of what the Russian actor, director and teacher finally thought about what the actor does in preparation to play a role on stage.
Over decades gross misunderstandings grew about Stanislavski, the terminology he used and how his ‘system’ grew. Jean Benedetti spent the latter part of his life, following his retirement from Rose Bruford College, trying to rectify these mistakes through his tireless research in Russian archives, debates with other Stanislavski scholars and through his careful examination of Stanislavski’s own manuscripts. Similar to John Willett’s relentless work on Bertolt Brecht, Benedetti became equally consumed by his exploration of Stanislavski and the Russian theatre of his time. His short summary Stanislavski and the Actor: The Final Acting Lessons 1935-38 (1998), set the stage for his newest findings. This would eventually be followed by the long promised re-translations, from Routledge, of Stanislavski’s most seminal texts that Benedetti based on Stanislavski’s final Russian manuscripts and published versions: An Actor’s Work: A Student Diary (2008) and An Actor’s Work on a Role (2009).
Benedetti always said that translating Stanislavski was difficult, time consuming and tricky because Stanislavski was not as great or as coherent a writer as he was an actor, director and teacher. Nonetheless, Benedetti’s translations set a new standard in Stanislavski research and research into the process of acting. Suddenly all previous translations by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood were looked upon as flawed. Through his work Benedetti helped introduce the field of post-Stanislavski research from which new theories about acting and performance have come by other contemporary authors and scholars.
Benedetti’s investigation into the art of acting also led to the publication of a book about the eighteenth-century’s finest actor David Garrick (David Garrick and the Birth of the Modern Theatre) in 2001 and another more expansive book in 2005 about the history of acting from ancient times to modern, The Art of the Actor. Both of these volumes he wrote while he was deep into his work on the Stanislavski volumes. He even found time to produce a volume of the wonderful letters exchanged between Anton Chekhov and his actress wife Olga Knipper, Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper (1997). These he also turned into a stage and radio play.
Always a witty and gregarious man of the theatre, Benedetti could also turn fierce and frosty when faced with bad acting and shoddy scholarship about the technique of acting. He thought that Stanislavski was, for the most part, being badly taught in schools and at university level. Having set new standards in theatre and actor training at Rose Bruford College and through his various educational associations, his books helped generate new approaches to the field now called ‘performance studies’. Though a traditionalist and even a classicist about acting and theatre, Jean Benedetti has nonetheless redefined how we write and think about performance. He hoped that what he contributed to Stanislavski scholarship would start to influence others. To that end Benedetti gave Rose Bruford College all the results of his research to establish The Stanislavski Centre, containing one of the most singular archives outside of the Moscow Art Theatre (http://theatrefutures.org.uk/stanislavski-centre/). Under Dr Paul Fryer the Centre recently launched the new Stanislavski Journal. Jean Benedetti’s lasting legacy now resides at the college he led and brought to prominence as a fitting and lasing memorial to a life ruled by theatre and scholarship.
This is an interview with Jean-Norman Bendetti
Professor Michael Earley
Principal, Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance