The success began to appear in the early 1950s. A local committee was set up to facilitate the reception and logistics of the work of the Festival teams. It is often claimed that it came about with the entry of Gérard Philipe into Vilar’s troupe. From then on, certain relations sometimes became stormy. The local committee will sometimes oppose the very daring and committed programming of Jean Vilar. For example, from 1948, program in the Cour d`Honneur The Death of Danton by a German author Georg Buchner, only a few years after the German occupation, is quite daring from Vilar. You have to imagine this wall of the Cour d`Honneur with a huge guillotine projected as a shadow play. All this boldness was controversial. In 1954, it took a crisis to resolve this situation. Vilar went so far as to resign and it was thanks to a petition of support signed by twenty-five thousand Avignon residents that he managed to obtain the direct support of the mayor and that the local committee was put on hold.
Gérard Philipe, Jean Vilar, Léon Gischia in the Cour d`Honneur of the Popes’ Palace ©Agnès Varda – Ciné-Tamaris
The entry of Gérard Philipe into the Festival troupe
The year 1951 marked the beginning of the collaboration between Jean Vilar and Gérard Philipe. In 1949 Vilar had already approached the French film star and offered him the role of Rodrigue in Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid. Philipe turned down the offer, as he was afraid he did not have the build and voice of a tragedian. The role was then played by Jean-Pierre Jorris. While preparing the 5th edition of the Festival, Vilar came to find Philipe, who was playing at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, and offered him the title role in The Prince of Homburg. He immediately accepted. Jean Vilar added, “What about Le Cid? Gérard Philipe smiled, he would play in two plays in the Cour d’Honneur for his arrival in 1951 in Avignon.
Gérard Philippe and Jeanne Moreau in The Prince of Homburg
A very strong working relationship and friendship developed between Jean Vilar and Gérard Philipe, who sometimes took over from Vilar as director. By joining the troupe, he participated fully in the life of the company. He willingly complied with the group rules and the uniformity of status and salaries. No ‘star system’! The same salary for the anonymous actor and Gérard Philipe, his name appears on the poster in alphabetical order.
Jean Vilar heads the TNP at Chaillot
Jeanne Laurent, as deputy director of entertainment and music at the Ministry of National Education, was at the origin of the policy of theatrical decentralisation at the French Liberation. In 1951, she offered Vilar the direction of the Théâtre de Chaillot in Paris. His confidence gave Vilar the opportunity to have a large production venue: Chaillot, which he renamed Théâtre National Populaire (National Popular Theatre) (TNP). This huge theatre, rebuilt within the Palais de Chaillot in Paris for the 1937 Universal Exhibition, had nearly 3,000 seats and a vast stage. It enabled him to continue his theatrical research in a closed theatre, begun in the Cour d’Honneur in Avignon. The two stages, which are of comparable dimensions, also present the same staging difficulties but also the same dramatic virtues for highlighting the great classical works of Corneille or Shakespeare.
Jean Vilar at the TNP Chaillot in 1952 ©Jean Rabaté
Jean Vilar et ses comédiens du TNP à Avignon en 1958
© Agnes VARDA Agence Enguerand
The Avignon Festival and the TNP
From then on, it was within the framework of the TNP that Jean Vilar organised the Avignon Festival. The 1950s were the golden age of the Festival. Glorious years, even if they were not always successful. Vilar gained artistic independence and had a professional team worthy of the name for the administration and management of both the TNP and the Festival. He began to stabilise a permanent troupe of top quality actors, such as Philippe Avron, Maria Casarès, Jean-Pierre Jorris, Michel Galabru, Georges Wilson, Germaine Montero, Michel Bouquet, Silvia Montfort, Geneviève Page, Jeanne Moreau, Serge Reggiani, Jacques Dufilho, Charles Denner, Daniel Sorano… and Gérard Philipe. Seeing the same actors and the same teams in Avignon every year was like a real rendez-vous. Habits are established. Rituals such as the conferences and debates in the Verger Urbain V, all this established a closeness between the theatre people, the public and the inhabitants. In 1958 the famous trumpets, inspired by the fanfares of Lorenzaccio in 1952 and composed by Maurice Jarre, began to sound before each performance in the Cour d’Honneur.