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Playwrights Corner


Playwrights corner

Pierre Barillet
© DR
A face to face talk | An interview with Pierre Barillet, by Sabine Bossan


Sabine Bossan Pierre Barillet, it seems that you and Jean-Pierre Grédy are in the limelight again with your play Potiche, which has just been made into a film by François Ozon. Why do you think that play in particular interested him?

Pierre Barillet He was interested for two reasons and at two different stages. He discovered Potiche one day by accident when he bought a DVD and thought the play was really funny. So he contacted us and we were pretty far along in our negotiations, but he backed out the day we were going to sign the contract.

SB Just like that?

PB Yes. Then his agent told my agent that Ozon was too interested in the subject not to come back to it, and that he never abandoned a subject that he was really into. I took it as mere words of consolation, and never heard about him again. Several years went by and he called to tell me that he just loved that Potiche ("trophy wife") too much. I think it was Ségolène Royal's candidacy that triggered it. He was her advisor at one time, before they drifted apart. What appealed to him in Potiche turned out to be amazingly topical. And he used that topicality freely in what he did, also by keeping Potiche's age - and even lowering it. The play was first staged in 1980, the elections occurred during our run, and we even had to change a few lines in the play due to the majority changing when Mitterrand was elected.

SB Were you surprised by Ozon's interest in doing a film adaptation of the play?

PB Surprised and delighted. It's really nice when a play that has been virtually forgotten is unearthed and playwrights that people thought were retired come back into the limelight.

SB It wasn't because of Ségolène Royal that François Ozon wanted to do a film adaptation of Potiche five years ago.

PB I think he was charmed by the atmosphere, the story and the characters. He thought it had good material for a screenplay, and he was probably kind of excited about the political side.

SB Had you ever been asked to do a film adaptation of one of your plays before?

PB We had a lot of plays that were adapted into films. Fleur de cactus (Cactus Flower) for instance was bought by the Americans, and the play was performed in the United States, on Broadway with Lauren Bacall. The film rights were acquired by Columbia and the film was shot with Ingrid Bergman. It was a huge hit in the U.S. The Sound of Music came out that same year and was number one while Cactus Flower was number two. Then there was Quarante Carats (Forty Carats)which was also performed in the U.S. The film adaptation starred Liv Ullman, but it wasn’t as big a success. We also worked with René Clair on Les Belles de nuit.

SB That's quite a film career!

PB It could have been better. Grédy started out at l'IDHEC and wrote a screenplay, based on a book by Colette, starring Edwige Feuillère. He was really set on a career in film. It was the success of Le Don d'Adèle that changed all our plans.
I saw myself as a very dramatic playwright. I had a play at the Théâtre de Poche that I had written on my own - in the vein of Mauriac. I didn't see myself writing comedies at all.

SB How did your affinity with Grédy develop?

PB We were trying to write screenplays and one day we wrote Le Don d'Adèle almost as a lark for our friends.
Our plays had been written in very close collaboration. They were conceived and written together, and I think it's one of the reasons for their success. Comedy is nothing like drama because when you've got a good dramatic subject and a good scene, then you're on track and you just write. In a comedy you have to keep the audience interested through the dialogue. We tried out the lines on each other, so we were both the creators and the audience, and I think that's what made our dialogue lively and successful.
We always started our plays with a really good framework. Particularly with the comedies. It's easy to have good ideas at the beginning, but it's another thing having them at the end. There was a lot of hard work involved in everything we did.

SB What did you find most appealing about your profession?

PB I had always written. When, as a child, I was asked what I wanted to do, I replied that I would write plays. It was a vocation. A strange one actually, because nothing in my family would have led me in that direction. My parents only went to two or three hit plays every year, but I remember when they'd come home the program was like a bible to me.
I also remember the first light operas I saw at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Those fictional plays became like the truth for me, and the sets were more real than my real life setting. They strengthened my imagination and opened up new horizons for me. I thought about them over and over.

SB Is there anything else you would have liked to do?

PB I probably would have liked to draw. I was pretty good at drawing. I was very fond of music too, and played the violin as a child. It would have been in an artistic field in any case. I never touched my electric train.

SB What motivated you when you started writing something? Was it something you'd read or seen, someone you'd met, a human interest story?

PB Yes. La Reine blanche was based on a human interest story. So was La Plume. Le Don d'Adèle was about our mothers' problems with their maids. Maids played an important role in bourgeois life in our day. Aragon and Elsa Triolet saw it as a satire of the bourgeoisie, which came as a big surprise to us. We weren't trying to take it that far and we had no desire to write a critique of society.

SB The female characters are the real foundation of your plays.

PB Yes that's true. We're more inspired by actresses, strong personalities. We've built our plots more around strong personalities. Our admiration for Sophie Desmarets had a lot to do with it.

SB There were some actresses who were real legends of the stage back then: Sophie Desmarets, Jacqueline Maillan, Danielle Darrieux, Edwige Feuillère, Maria Pacome.

PB Yes, they're a bit scarce these days.

SB Who first played the role of Potiche?

PB It was Jacqueline Maillan. It all started with the title actually. Maillan wasn't a trophy wife in real life, but I thought she had the look of one. When Chirac was elected Mayor of Paris, Mrs. Chirac said: "Don't count on me to play the trophy wife!" I thought Potiche and Maillan went well together.

SB I hope Jacqueline Maillan wasn't offended by the comparison!

PB No she wasn't annoyed. In the play Maillan always gets the last word. She didn't exactly follow what we wanted to do in the beginning. We wanted her to be totally lifeless in the first act and not say anything since she was expressive enough as it was. But that was too much to ask of Maillan, who couldn't resign herself to it, so we had to give her a few lines. She was the one who came up with the idea of jogging instead of saying lines, which was also used in the film.
We were a bit skeptical about Ozon's choice of Catherine Deneuve in the role, but we shouldn't have been. Because in fact Danièle Darrieux played the part and it went over very well, and Deneuve is much closer to Darrieux. I think Catherine Deneuve made the part far more human.

SB What would you write a play about nowadays? Perhaps you're already in the process of writing one?

PB I wrote one with Elisabeth Badinter, not a comedy at all, inspired by one of her books about the Infante of Parma. I had already written television shows with her, including a drama about Condorcet based on a book she had written with her husband. And another program about Malesherbes. She was very interested in getting into the theater through that subject because it deals with education, which is one of her hobbies. I hope it's going to be staged quickly, although I know nothing happens quickly these days. Things have completely changed in the theater. You go to see the director of a theater and he asks if you have a producer. In our day it was the head of the theater who went looking for a producer, it wasn't the job of the playwrights or stage directors. Nowadays that's what they ask you.

SB And they want a star too.

PB It's never been easy, but now it's a lot harder than before. They used to tell us: "Oh you're taking the easy way out by writing for stars." But you had to convince those stars.

SB Didn't they ask you to write for them?

PB Sophie Desmarets never asked us for anything. She hated acting, so you had to persuade her. She only liked rehearsing and hated appearing on stage in front of an audience. We had to woo her. Maillan was eager. She didn't ask for anything specific - just that we'd think of her. She was an anxious person. So we thought of her and Potiche came out just like that.

SB Your work is often staged abroad.

PB Ozon seemed rather amazed when he told me he'd seen a poster for the film in Germany and that our names were printed in really big letters. I said it was true that we were really well-known over there. We're kind of like comedy classics in Germany. Actually our work is staged all over the world.

SB You've had something that isn't shared by many playwrights - having your work performed in English-speaking countries.

PB In fact we're working on a revival of Cactus Flower in the United States. It's really gratifying for me because we're having a hard time in France. What I find terribly shocking here is when hit plays with stars fold after a hundred performances because the star is no longer available. The theater has become so difficult that it seems dishonest to me. A play that's making money allows you to give other people their chance. Maillan sometimes played the same part for two years, for as long as there was an audience.

SB There have been many revivals of your plays.

PB Yes, of the biggest hits. Le Don d'Adèle was often revived, going off on tour and coming back to Paris. Fleur de Cactus was more difficult because it requires two big stars. It was successfully revived twenty years after the original production, which is rare. It starred Sophie Desmarets, but her partner - no matter how good - was no Jean Poiret and you felt something was slightly off between the two of them. You weren't really rooting for the couple to get back together. There was some missing ingredient.

SB Is Cactus Flower going to be performed on Broadway as well?

PB Yes. We'll be so happy if it's a hit again. I'm very fond of the theater in the United States, and I've gone there many times. Grédy and I were trained in the school of American comedies.

SB You've also adapted many English-language plays.

PB Yes a huge number. Our plays had long runs, so we would have gotten bored otherwise. Since we weren't in a position to produce any new work, we did adaptations. Grédy and I would work separately, then reread the play out loud and revise the dialogue together.

SB It's wonderful for a playwright to be translated by another playwright. What are your most outstanding memories from the theater?

PB The dress rehearsal of Fleur de cactus, which was a huge success and the audience was completely electrified. Then there was Quarante Carats, which has unfortunately been a bit forgotten nowadays. It was staged in 1967, after the big hit Fleur de cactus. But the actresses refused to play the role because they wanted to go back to the old husband rather than marry the twenty-year-old. So it was hard getting there, but the dress rehearsal was also a huge success.

SB What about when you were writing?

PB It was more often fun than laborious. We were practically like civil servants, keeping strict working hours and seeing each other every day no matter what. There were good days and bad days.

SB What sort of relations did you have with the critics?

PB We didn't want to have any. I couldn't have been friends with someone who panned one of my plays. We weren't shown any favors either. They dropped us when things weren't going as well. We never got any help from the press.

SB But you got good reviews.

PBYes, but the reviews were never easy on us. They would often write things like: "What would the play be like without Sophie Desmarets or Jacqueline Maillan?" Marcabru was very honest. He came to see Folle Amanda and wrote a so-so review saying something like: "luckily there's Jacqueline Maillan." He came back after the play was a huge hit and wrote: "We critics were totally wrong. We're too jaded. The real audiences take the play as it was given to them, with no preconceived notions" and he wrote a new, highly favorable review of the play a month later.
That said, we were also quite well-treated by some of the critics. Jean-Jacques Gauthier wrote very good reviews of our work for Le Figaro. At the time we used to go and wait for the papers to come out at midnight. If Gauthier's review was good we knew there would be a long line in front of the box office the next day. I think things have changed a bit nowadays. When I said the critics could be quite severe with us, it was because they always stuck that boulevard comedy label on us. It's really funny now to read in nearly all the reviews of the film about the brilliant dialogue and lines that hit the mark. Suddenly they're discovering the dialogue because of the film.

SB Yes, giving the text its due.

PB NWe worked on the dialogue a lot with Ozon. But he was naturally the mastermind. It took place gradually. He came to consult with us at first, asking us what we thought. Then little by little it turned into an almost daily collaboration. I was really happy about it - that he was enjoying working with me and that I was getting along so well with someone who could be my grandson.

SB Do people send you lots of manuscripts?

PB They do, but I try to limit it a bit. I see lots of young playwrights and actors. The main critique - for the talented ones - is that they don't work hard enough. Their response is that it would change their spontaneity and naturalness, but it just peters out and gets diluted. They don't go back and work on their writing; it's just the first draft and they think that's fine the way it is.

SB Did you see Eric Assous'play L'Illusion conjugale? Don't you think a lot of work went into that play?

PB I agree with you completely. I thought it was very good. But you never see plays like the ones by Bourdet - now that was real boulevard comedy - or Marcel Achard with that sharp dialogue and great subtlety. Jacques Deval, who's unheard of nowadays, was a master. Even Anouilh is in a kind of purgatory - although his work is revived every now and then. But the intellectual elite is rather disdainful of it.

SB What have you seen recently on stage that you've liked?

PB I saw a revival of Ce qui arrive et ce qu'on attend by Jean-Marie Besset and I thought Arnaud Denis was absolutely sensational. I'm very fond of Besset's work, he's a master dramatist. I really liked Perthus too. Yesterday I saw a friend's play, La Conférence by Christophe Pellet in which Stanislas Nordey gave an absolutely brilliant performance. It's not my favorite play by him - nor is it his - but he's a magnificent playwright who deserves more recognition. He's in the same league with Koltès and Lagarce, a great playwright. His work ought to be staged with a big production in a public theater.

SB What advice would you give to those young playwrights?

PB I think it's harder now than it used to be. I was very shy, and still am, but something was driving me so I forced the doors open by going to see the actors myself. People helped me too. Jean Cocteau was extraordinarily generous to me. He told me where to take our plays and wrote notes recommending me. He did the same thing for other people whose talent he admired. He was extremely generous.

SB What would you write about nowadays?

PB It's not very original because everyone's writing about it, but I'd write about the Bettencourt affair, which seems to be a good subject for a dramatic comedy. Someone like Marcel Aymé could have written a masterpiece about it; these days it's Laurent Ruquier talking about it. I think satire has to be sharper and fiercer nowadays. The Ivory Coast affair - about the two presidents - could have been done as a merciless farce by Marcel Aymé.
But to write a comedy - a pure, really entertaining comedy that is a mirror in which you may not recognize yourself but you do recognize your neighbor or your cousin - I think you have to be relatively young. I see myself more as a novelist now. Comedies need to be fed by something very contemporary. They have to be a reflection of the society you live in. There are lifestyles I just don't know about now - married life, couples, everyday life, even the material and practical sides of life.

SB Why haven't you ever written a play about homosexuality?

PB Everyone's doing it. There something really funny that Ozon invented in Potiche which didn't come from me. The son wasn't at all gay in the play, and he did it in a really funny way that puts the relationships in perspective. For the entire film you're afraid there's incest with his sister, when in fact he ought to be sleeping with his brother. It's a really bright idea - and very funny.
As far as homosexuality is concerned, I lived in relative secrecy, then quite discreetly; I hate exhibitionism. Things haven't changed much for my friends who are gay, except maybe with respect to their families.
No, I'll leave that to other people. I prefer to read what others are writing. My personal account wouldn't be all that interesting.

SB Did you see Le Cabaret des hommes perdus by Christian Siméon ?

PB It was a smashing play. Perthus is another really good play about teenagers and homosexuality. But even these days homosexuality isn't exactly a crowd-pleaser in the theater. Unless it's La Cage aux folles.

SB What would you like to tell young playwrights nowadays?

PB That there's no greater profession if you want to write and if you love the theater. That you have to fight for it, that's sure. If you've got it in your blood, then you feel unhappy if you have to give it up. You have to stick with it, and luck may come your way. But I stress the fact that you have to work hard. You can't sit on your laurels too early.

SB In conclusion, which play from your repertoire would be the most judicious to stage now - one that would fit in particularly well with the zeitgeist?

PB I've always had a soft spot for Cactus Flower which gave me such happiness. I'm really fond of the character played by Sophie Desmarets. When we said "Sophie we're going to write a play for you," she immediately said "All right but not too many lines!" There were so few lines that no one thought she'd play the part. The theater directors told us we were fooling ourselves. Sophie, who was very astute and subtle, said: "They don't realize that role is like an ink stain on a blotter, with the ink stain devouring the blotter." And it was true. There were no roles featuring free, single, self-sufficient women in the theater then. I could really see Valérie Lemercier in the role. She's terrific.

Pierre Barillet interviewed by Sabine Bossan,
January 5, 2011

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