Retired French prof Guicharnaud dies

Retired professor of French Jacques Guicharnaud, an influential scholar of French theater, died at his New Haven home on March 5 at the age of 80.

Known for his engaging anecdotes and his devotion to his students, Guicharnaud came to Yale in 1950 and taught until his retirement in 1997. A scholar of French theater and literature, Guicharnaud knew many influential figures of the French literary scene, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Eugene Ionesco. He was author of an acclaimed text on the playwright Moliere, and, in addition to other nonfiction and fiction works, he wrote the French translations of Tennessee Williams that are still in use in French theaters.

While at Yale, Guicharnaud, who was the Benjamin F. Barge professor of French, served as acting master of Jonathan Edwards College in 1968 and of Morse College from 1972 until 1973. Other than those administrative positions, however, Guicharnaud, who was not a “committee type” of professor, focused on his students, many of whom he kept in touch with long after they graduated, said professor emeritus Charles Porter, who taught alongside Guicharnaud in the French Department for 37 years.

“He was a wonderful person to work with,” Porter said. “He was always very agreeable and always very funny and always very interested in his students.”

Guicharnaud was also active in Yale’s Theater Studies Department and after his retirement worked as an advisor for a number of New Haven theater companies, including Open End Theater, a company that performs in New Haven schools and of whose board of directors he was a member.

Coming to Yale after teaching for one year at Bryn Mawr College, Guicharnaud was part of a generation of French professors who emigrated from France after World War II, including professor emeritus Jean Boorsch and the late Professor Georges May. Guicharnaud and many of his colleagues were brought to Yale by Henri Peyre, an influential scholar who built up the French Department in the late 1940s and 1950s, said Edwin Duval GRD ’73, chair of the French Department.

“That whole generation was really quite remarkable,” Duval, a former student of Guicharnaud’s, said. “There was no French department that had anybody like those two and others of their generation.”

Guicharnaud’s roots in the French intellectual scene of the 20th century were themselves remarkable, said Murray Biggs, a professor of English and theater studies.

“How many of us can claim to have been befriended by Jean-Paul Sartre?” Biggs wrote in an e-mail from London. “That Left Bank post-WWII circle seems to have regarded him as its enfant charmant.”

Although Guicharnaud maintained a low profile on campus, his former students and colleagues say he was a fabulous conversationalist who was known for telling stories, often of his time in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s.

“He had a sophistication and an urbanity about him that was quite a positive influence on the department and on the people he knew and on his students,” James Austin GRD ’03, a professor of French at Connecticut College, said.

Mark Tafoya ’93, who remained in contact with Guicharnaud since studying with him as an undergraduate, said Guicharnaud’s experience in France as a young man often informed the talks he would give in his seminars.

“It sounded like he was going off on a million tangents but really he was putting the work in a really large overall context,” Tafoya said. “Having lived some of [what he taught], it was really great to have him there.”

Tafoya, whose first job out of Yale was as a French teacher, said Guicharnaud, even in his later years, easily made friends with his undergraduate and graduate students.

“I stopped thinking of him as a professor,” Tafoya said. “Primarily he had just become a friend.”

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