Early life and career
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 and inspiration for the fictional Bluebeard.
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 stability 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.