French theatre director who deeply revolutionized the theatrical language of his times. After many productions in several venues, Gaston Baty concentrated his activities at the Théâtre Montparnasse where, as its director from 1930 to 1943, he created a large public following by presenting new authors and new adaptations of the classics.
Having retained from his childhood in Lyon a love of the Guignol repertoire, Baty‘s approach to puppetry was at first sentimental and scholarly. From January to March 1932, he performed in a puppet stage (castelet) that he and his wife Jeanne had created themselves. Blending historical research and practical experience, he published eight texts reconstituted from basic puppet play outlines of the years 1808-1865 (Guignol, pièces du répertoire lyonnais ancien Guignol, Plays from the Old Lyon Repertoire, Coutan-Lambert, 1934). In 1937, he published a beautiful book entitled Théâtre Joly about the string puppet shows that were presented in that theatre (Coutan-Lambert, 1937). In 1942, Baty published Trois p’tits tours et puis s’en vont … (Three Little Laps and Then They Go … , O. Lieutier, 1942), a study of the most important string puppet troupes from 1800 to 1890. He also worked, with René Chavance, on Histoire des Marionnettes (the History of Puppets), published in 1959, after his death (Collection “Que sais-je?”, Presses universitaires de France).
In 1941, Gaston Baty assembled a team that included André Blin, Simone Joffroy, and André-Charles Gervais. Through trial and error, they explored the possibilities of glove puppet expressions, and after several fervent months of exercises elaborated a grammar of manipulation. Baty created recurrent characters from the 19th century that he loved so dearly and whose main figure is Jean-François Billembois, carpenter “companion” of the Tour de France (the Compagnons du Tour de France, a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages, toured France to apprentice themselves to master craftsmen). Baty wrote notes and dialogues; Collamarini sculpted the heads of the puppets; a puppet stage (castelet) was built following Pierre Sonrel’s instructions; René Quillier created the machinery and Charles Cressent worked on lighting to produce theatrical effects equivalent to those they had generated at the Théâtre Montparnasse. The adaptation of a fairy tale La Queue de la poele (The Frying Pan’s Handle), chosen from Le Théâtre Joly, was performed from May 8 to June 7, 1944, at the same time as the Normandy landing, with the title Marionnettes à la Française (Puppets, French Style).
In autumn 1947, a new company was created with Maurice Garrel, Alain Recoing, and Jean-Loup Temporal. The set of work rules were improved, and from April 5 to June 7, 1948, a series of performances were given including La Langue des femmes, Au temps où Berthe filait (The Language of Women, In the Good Old Days) and La Marjolaine, a play written by Baty. The thorough perfection of these productions, as well as this celebrated stage director’s use of his talent for an art form considered minor, astonished audiences. La Tragique et Plaisante Histoire du Docteur Faust (The Tragic and Pleasant History of Doctor Faustus) was performed during February and March 1949 in Germany, but Baty, in poor health, had to abandon his endeavours.
Gaston Baty’s approach to puppetry is based on the aesthetics of escapism engendering the establishment of a universe of tales and legends that are a bit old-fashioned; however, his exploration of manipulation techniques and stage setting, as well as his thoughts about acting, writing, and professional training are of considerable value.
- Gaston Baty. Introd. Béatrice Picon-Vallin, epilogue by Gérard Lieber. “Mettre en scène” series. Arles: Actes Sud/CNSAD, 2004.
- Gervais, André-Charles. Marionnettes et marionnettistes de France [Puppets and Puppeteers of France]. Paris: Bordas, 1947.