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The actress who never took the easy option

Actress Maria Casares (1922-1996) - Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the actress María Casares, wrenched from a privileged, happy childhood, to the uncertainty of a life in exile and a career characterised by a constant desire to challenge herself.

María Casares could never be accused of making things easy for herself. Renowned as one of the great tragediennes of the European stage and screen she took on roles that were demanding enough in a conventional setting, let alone in the challenging circumstances in which she would often find herself preparing and performing. Sometimes that was down to fate and the machinations of global events during the early-middle years of the 20th century, but sometimes it was entirely deliberate. Whatever the cause, Casares left behind an acting legacy all but unparalleled in the Europe of her lifetime.

She had, after all, effectively been born into turmoil. Her father was Santiago Casares Quiroga, a minister in the republican Spanish government of the turbulent 1930s who had risen to become prime minister weeks before the uprising that led to the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. A teenage María volunteered at Madrid hospitals, tending to wounded defenders of the capital, until the fall of Catalonia in 1938 finally prompted flight from Spain, her father to London, María and her mother to Paris and a small apartment in Montparnasse.

In the French capital Casares won a place at the Paris Conservatoire studying drama under the renowned classicist Béatrix Dussane after developing a penchant for performance while reciting stirring verses of Spanish poetry for fellow refugees from the war, “with my arms thrust out wide and my head thrown back” as she recalled later.

Her first professional engagement on graduating was the title role in John Millington Synge’s 1909 play Deirdre of the Sorrows as the great tragic heroine of Irish mythology. It was 1942 and Casares was barely 20 years old, yet she was able to mine her own exile as well as the Nazi occupation of the city she now called home to draw on depths of feeling remarkable in someone so young.

Her success in her stage debut led to her first film role as Debureau’s wife Nathalie in Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis. Typically, Casares’ screen bow was made in trying circumstances. Filming commenced in 1943 but due to a combination of factors, including the forced removal of Jewish production staff at the insistence of the occupying authorities and the near destruction of the main stage set in Nice by a fearsome storm, it wasn’t completed until after the Liberation. Even then one of the principal actors, Robert le Vigan, was sentenced to death by the Resistance for his enthusiastic collaborations with the Nazis and fled, forcing a late replacement by Jean Renoir’s brother Pierre.

Robert Bresson’s Les Dames des Bois de Boulogne followed, in which she played the scheming Hélène, then in 1949 she took on the screen role for which she is best remembered, Princess Death in Jean Cocteau’s 1949 retelling of the story of Orpheus, Orphée. There have been many great screen portrayals of Death but Casares’ coolly efficient businesswoman was as chilling as it was understated, making it one of the most memorable. She reprised the role for the same director a decade later in Le Testament d’Orphée but what looked at the end of the 1940s to be an inevitable path to screen stardom translated into only a handful of major film roles. Quite simply, Casares preferred the stage.

“I hate the feeling of playing to the camera lens, to nobody,” she told an interviewer during the 1950s. “I need to feel that an audience is with me in what I’m doing.”

In the theatre she drew comparisons to Sarah Bernhardt as she threw herself into the great roles of Greek tragedy and French classical theatre. She excelled in a range of productions by Ibsen, Aristophanes, Brecht, Sartre and Shakespeare, even playing the title role in King Lear in 1993.

During one particularly memorable run in 1990 Casares played two roles in two separate productions running on two different stages. As Madame Pernelle in Molière’s Tartuffe she had a long break between scenes in the middle of the play during which she played the Pope in Jean Genet’s one-act Elle in the studio theatre of the same building before returning to the Molière.

In April 1966 Casares starred in the first performance in France of Genet’s Les Paravents, ‘The Screens’, at Paris’ Odeon Theatre. Set in a war not named but clearly the Algerian War of Independence which had finished four years earlier, its iconoclastic portrayal of French forces in North Africa prompted howls of outrage. The French far right group Occident combined with aggrieved veterans of the conflict to protest both outside the theatre and during performances, from catcalls and whistles to tossing dead rats onto the stage, letting off tear gas canisters and throwing seats from the balconies at the actors. Casares received a small black coffin in the post while her colleague Madeleine Renaud was sent human excrement. Arts minister André Malraux was even forced to defend the controversial play in the French Assembly, commenting, “liberty does not always have clean hands but we have to choose liberty”.

It was another example of Casares’ reluctance to take the easy way. Not only was she accepting some of the most demanding roles in drama, from Joan of Arc to Lady Macbeth, she was constantly looking for ways in which the theatre could push against accepted norms, dreading ever becoming complacent. During the 1950s she gave up the career security of a place in the Comédie Francaise company, regarded by many as the peak of any French actor’s career, to throw in her lot with the brand new Theatre Populaire National, embarking on a gruelling schedule of touring on both sides of the Atlantic purely because of the artistic challenge it offered.

While at TPN she became renowned for her willingness to mentor young actors in the company. She must have been reminded of her own early days when in occupied Paris she stepped out onto the stage for her first professional role as Deirdre. That opening night in 1942 would prove significant for reasons beyond her acting career: in the audience was Albert Camus who immediately offered Casares a role in his play Le Malentendu, ‘The Misunderstanding’.

Nine years her senior, Camus was smitten by Casares and although Le Malentendu wasn’t a great success he recorded in his journal that he had, “received on the occasion of the staging of this play the greatest joy an author can receive: that of hearing his own language borne by the voice and the soul of a marvellous actress in the exact register one dreamed for it”.

The pair embarked on a passionate affair (according to some sources their physical relationship began on June 6, 1944, the first day of the Normandy landings), but one that was brought to a halt soon afterwards when Camus’ wife, the painter Francine Faure, arrived in Paris from Algeria.

The relationship continued on and off throughout the 1950s, but with Casares’ touring schedule it was largely an epistolary one (the couple left behind nearly 900 letters between them). When Camus was killed in a car crash in January 1960, two days before the couple were due to meet for the first time in months, Casares was devastated.

“For me he represented man in every sense, in his vitality, passion, imagination and commitment to individual thought and speech,” she said later. “When he was killed, I felt the loss like an unendurable absence, a painful absence that made an adult of me.”

María Casares lived and worked with a rare intensity. Wrenched from a privileged and happy childhood in Spain she grew into fear for her own safety and that her father might be assassinated or executed at any moment to a profound sense of exiled dislocation, not to mention having seen the physical and mental damage war could inflict in her time as a volunteer nurse. These experiences produced an enormous depth of feeling and swirling emotion that she could channel into her performances. Camus’ death, from which she never truly recovered, fed into that.

“I have to go through what my characters are feeling and I often search within myself to find it,” she said in a 1967 interview. “There’s a moment in Medea when I realise I am utterly alone. It’s like stepping into a void. I have had that feeling in my own life and it’s probably the most terrible feeling one can experience. It affects me more than death. After all, death is a fact, an end. One can get used to death.”