Pierrots on the Stage of Desire: Nineteenth-Century French Literary Artists and the Comic Pantomime

Pierrots on the Stage of Desire: Nineteenth-Century French Literary Artists and the Comic Pantomime

by Robert F. Storey

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This book, a companion to the author's Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask (Princeton, 1978), provides a detailed history of nineteenth-century French pantomime, from the feeries of Jean-Gaspard Deburau at the Theatre des Funambules to the cabaret entertainments of Georges Wague at the height of la Belle Epoque.

Originally published in 1985.



This book, a companion to the author's Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask (Princeton, 1978), provides a detailed history of nineteenth-century French pantomime, from the feeries of Jean-Gaspard Deburau at the Theatre des Funambules to the cabaret entertainments of Georges Wague at the height of la Belle Epoque.

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Pierrots on the Stage of Desire

Nineteenth-Century French Literary Artists and the Comic Pantomime

By Robert F. Storey


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06628-8



Et chose curieuse, un beau jour ces poètes, ces littérateurs, ces peintres, ont tenu, en chair et en os, ce Pierrot de la légende entre leurs mains; ils l'ont touché, ont pu lui parler, l'ont vu placer son grime; belle occasion cependant qui s'offrait aux Janin, Théophile Gautier, Champfleury et tant d'autres, de descendre un peu de l'éther et de lui demander à brûle-poutpoint: Mais qui es-tu done et d'où viens-tu?

Charles Hacks, Le Geste (1892)

"'Now, I don't want to take anything away from the French resistance,'" protests a character in a recent novel.

"[...] Its brave raids and acts of sabotage undermined the Germans and helped bring about their downfall. But in many ways Marcel Carne's movie, his Children of Paradise, was more important than the armed resistance. The resisters might have saved the skin of Paris, Carné kept alive its soul."

It is a fatuous remark, the kind we expect from the determinedly fatuous hero, but its praise of Carné suggests with embarrassing accuracy the seductiveness of Les Enfants du Paradis. A Paris of romantically roiling passions, of pure Pierrots and gay Robert Macaires, of the Boulevard du Crime, whose little theaters stand as metaphors for the brash vitality of le peuple — it is a spectacle that few of us can resist. All our dreams of the City of Light (save those of shabby accordionists strolling beneath balloon-bedecked Eiffel Towers) are contained in its opening shot, alive with the turbulent crowds of the old quartier du Temple.

And if its spirit is seductive, its portrait of Baptiste, the Pierrot (and hero) of the film, is — for all but a handful of theater historians — definitive. In resurrecting the great mime "Baptiste" Deburau, Carné's script-writer, Prevert, had only to turn to history to recover a figure indistinguishable from legend. For, despite the softening of outline effected by Sacha Guitry's earlier Deburau (1918) and especially by the vicissitudes of Pierrot himself after the mime's death in the mid-nineteenth century, the figure that Deburau presented in 1943 was essentially the creation of his first apologist, Jules Janin: a Pierrot of the People, "by turns gay, sad, sickly, robust, cudgeling, cudgeled — a musician, a poet, a simpleton, always poor, like the common people." It was in vain that the mime raised protests with George Sand ("[...] the Deburau of M. Janin is not me. He has not understood me"). The Deburau that survived, and whom Jean-Louis Barrault elegandy incarnates in Carné's film, is a symbol, however emasculated, of the mythical spirit of le peuple. And it is as such a symbol that many historians, including his most recent biographer, regard Jean-Gaspard Deburau today.

It is not hard to understand how the myth was created or how it quickly gained currency. To lunge, with the Romantics, at the moribund figure of the Comédie-Française, Janin, then a budding prince of critics, needed a ready and sharp-edged foil. He found one on the Boulevard, in the popular Théatre des Funambules.

The Theater, such as we understood it in the seventeenth century, is dead among us. [...]

There is no longer any Theatre-Fraçais; there is only the Funambules; there is no longer any literary, learned, brilliant pit of spectators, the Pit of the Café Procope; instead, there is the Pit of the Funambules, animated, energetic, a pit in shirtsleeves, fond of crude wine and barley-sugar. [...]

[...] Since comedy is in its Decadence, let us write the History of the Art such as it is, squalid, filthy, beggarly, drunken, exciting a squalid, filthy, beggarly, and drunken Pit; since Deburau has become the King of this world, let us celebrate Deburau the King of this world.

His "single goal," as he explains in the "Preface" to his Deburau (1832), is to "summarize the History of the Dramatic Art considered under its ignoble aspect, the only new aspect under which it can still be regarded." But from there it is an easy step to eulogizing Deburau, not as King, but as presiding genius of the place. If Molière's misanthrope was the conscience of le Parterre savant, Deburau's creations are the conscience of le peuple: "he is the people's actor, the people's friend, a windbag, a glutton, a loafer, a rascal, a poker-face, a revolutionary, like the people." And to give him sufficient popular presence, Janin surrounds the events of his life with the fabulous air of folk tale. The clumsiest of three sons, all of a poor Bohemian father, Jean-Gaspard is ridiculed and reviled when, as itinerant saltimbanques, they take to the dusty roads ("for his brothers, the admiration of the crowd by day, and by night the bit of bacon, the steaming cabbage [...]; for him, the contemptuous smile, the dry bread, the melted snow [...]"). He is turned into a humble Paillasse, "not a sober and poised Paillasse, as we see him today, but a laughing, flushed, gamboling, leaping Paillasse — a vulgar Paillasse, a clown of the public square." But the hero's face soon glimmers through the greasepaint. In Constantinople, playing a (probably apocryphal) scene before an invisibly curtained harem, Jean-Gaspard mounts, all a-tremble, the wavering Perilous Ladder; at the top, he spies, over the gauzy curtain, a circle of semi-nude odalisques. "This was precisely the first happy event," writes Janin, "that made Deburau believe that he was perhaps a man of the same nature as his brothers and sisters."

An awakening to identity that is privileged in its point of vantage yet universal in its sexual power — that is, moreover, triumphant yet precarious, heroic yet grotesque — its appeal to the Romantic readers of the mercurial rebel of the Débats could have been nothing but irresistible. For Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville, George Sand and Charles Baudelaire, Deburau the saltimbanque entered a Romantic mythology in which clown, artist, and common man found common cause. Paillasse, proletariat, poet: they were facile but inevitable identifications, identifications that account for the casual interest of most literary historians in the Théâtre des Funambules. But to rest on the surface of the myth is to do a disservice both to Deburau's fascinating art, unique in the history of the theater, and to the artists who took delight in it. To see that art clearly we must discard the myth. And we should do so with little regret: as always, the facts are more interesting.

The first is that the Boulevard had lost all of its romantic turbulence at the time of Deburau's emergence from obscurity. "The legend of the perpetual fair that reign[ed] on the Boulevard du Temple," writes Tristan Rémy, the mime's chief biographer, "with its shouts of joy, its careless ambiance, the blissful crowd before the acrobats' carpet, the merrymaking of festivals and carnival-time, the masterfully painted descriptions, the brilliantly colored frescoes — all of this exist[ed] only in the imagination of historians at the end of the nineteenth century who talk[ed] about the beginning of that century as today one recalls 1900 and la Belle Epoque." By 1830, when Deburau had at last caught the eye of the Romantics and when the Boulevard had reached what Georges Cain calls its "apogee," the parades and spectacles of an earlier epoch had completely disappeared. The boulevardier Nicolas Brazier, whose Chroniques des petits théâtres de Paris (1837) most imaginatively preserves the flavor of that epoch, recalls that he was "a child ... a quite young child" when the Boulevard was most alive; now at fifty-four, only a year from his death, he describes it regretfully as "a boulevard like any other."

[...] And soon [he adds] it will no longer be anything but a Parisian street. Although it boasts six theaters, it is sad and deserted; only towards seven o'clock in the evening does one begin to hear a little noise, to see a little movement [...].

The theaters, including the Funambules, survived the general debility only by attracting a diverse clientele. There can be little doubt that Deburau's earliest — and most loyal — public was that idealized by Gautier, Banville, and Janin: the enfants du Paradis, the laborers, loafers, and titis who seemed to give to the house an air "artistically canaille." The first journalist to call attention to the theater (probably Charles Nodier) made note of its unbuttoned insouciance, its unsavory smells, adding that such "litde annoyances are driving you away from a theater that you would be delighted to come back to, if you once had the courage to cross its threshold, and if you could forget that it is not yet fashionable." In the early 1830s, largely owing to Janin's audacious Deburau, the theater indeed came into fashion, enjoying a vogue that, although momentary, brought a kind of respectability in its wake. The subsequent slow shift in its repertoire, in favor of vaudevilles and pièces dialoguées, reflects the managers' attempts in the 'thirties and 'forties to please a "better" public, sometimes in defiance of their licensed privileges. The novelist Champfleury, inventing a performance at the theater in 1843, peoples the orchestra with "the honest bourgeois of the quarter, the merchants of the Temple, families accompanied by their children"; his public includes, moreover, "wealthy 'socialites' from among the bourgeoisie" as well as "elegant spectators who came seeking in this little theater a kind of entertainment akin to that of the Descente tie la Courtille." Happily less gifted with imagination than either Banville or Gautier, he remembers what the latter often forgot: that Deburau played to the loges as well as to the parterre.

Unusually intimate with the theater — he saw almost all of his own pantomimes produced there — Champfleury may be trusted for the details of its interior and for those of a typical soirée. The stage was deep, accommodating "the celebrated and invariable décor of the apotheosis," the climactic scene of the pantomime-féerie, painted in fresco on the back wall. During a pantomimic performance, the stagehands worked behind the scenery of the various tableaux, "which succeeded one another like the slides of a magic lantern." The wings were small; there was no space for a greenroom. Banville adds that the stage was equipped with three traps, with "neither more nor less than that of the Opéra, an arrangement that permitted the changes of scene, the transformations, the perpetual variety of a vision ceaselessly metamorphosed for the pleasure of the eyes and to the heart's content." The spectacle that gave flesh to this vision was the main attraction of an evening's entertainment, usually the final item on the program. Preceding it — in the days of the theater's prosperity — might have been a comédie régence, followed by a vaudeville, both received with impatience by the Paradise. The fall of the curtain was the signal for silence among the seven hundred and seventy-six spectators: there reigned then in the house "a peculiar silence, comparable to the contemplation of Breton peasants attending die performance of a mystery-play."

The awaiting of this solemnity provoked the final noisy questions among the spectators, while the program-seller announced, for the modest price of one sou, the explanatory sheet containing the details [of the pantomime]. The vendor of oranges and apple-sugar strode up and down the aisles between the benches for one last time, profiting from the fact that the public had not yet settled down by offering his refreshments. The biography of "Monsieur Deburau" was hawked in every corner of the house for the devotees who wished to add the portrait and the life of the mime to the booklet of the play in vogue.

When the curtain rose, it was upon one of a great number of pantomimes in an extremely varied repertoire. In several pieces of that repertoire, Deburau seems to have had no role at all — in Un Secret (1838), for example, a "pantomime with dialogue in three scenes, intermingled with song and dance," or in M. de Boissec et Mile de Boisflotté (1841), in which the mime Paul Legrand performed, or in Les Deux Pendus, ou Lequel des deux, pantomime en un acte (1845). But by far the larger class of pantomimes was that in which Baptiste appeared — often as a comic character-type sharing vague points of resemblance with his various Pierrots. He was probably the student-sailor Blanchotin in Jack Porang-outang (1836), for example, and the farmhand Cruchon in Le Tonnelier et le somnambule (late 1838 or early 1839), and the goatherd Mazarillo in Fra-Diavolo, ou les Brigands de la Calabre (1844). He was certainly the Jocrisse-like comique of Hurluberlu (1842) and the engagingly naïve recruit Pichonnot of Les Jolis Soldats (1843). When, after Deburau's death, Gautier expressed his surprise and disappointment at seeing his successor dressed "half as a comic-opera Colin, half as a Tyrolean hunter," he was betraying ignorance of much of Baptiste's own repertoire.

Gautier was expressing a viewpoint that too many chroniclers of the Funambules have favored: that its pantomime is reducible to a single formula and Deburau to a single role. The haphazard acceptance of scripts at the theater as well as the variety of sources that inspired their anonymes ensured that its productions were always rather generously diverse. Adaptations of older pieces, imitations of newer ones, burlesques of other offerings on the Boulevard du Temple — all found an audience at the Funambules. Jack Porang-outang, for example, frankly advertised its source in its title. As a singerie dramatique on the model of Jocko, ou le Singe du Brésil (1825), first produced with immense success at the Porte-Saint-Martin, it doubtless solicited the favor of the public by a shameless admission of resemblance. Roberta, chef de brigands, a pantomime of 1838, was in fact a burlesque of an adaptation of a translation. Here a travesty of Lamartelière's high-minded hero appeared with a change of sex, having been born of the banditti in Schiller's Räuber. But the variety suggested by such pillaging should not drive us, like Rémy, to declare that Deburau himself "was a personality, a character identical to himself." For Deburau created both discrete type-characters and consistently distinct roles. Although the roles were all called Pierrot, the sobriquet was not simply (as Rémy would have it) "a skeleton-key name, a convenient appellation, a character devoid of its original substance." He by no means presented the same face in every pantomime, but neither was he a mere Proteus enfariné. Within the rich welter of the scripts that survive, we can easily identify four pantomimic subgenres, and, in those, four types of Pierrot.

We should note before doing so that Pierrot was, of course, older than Baptiste. But the role that the mime inherited from his predecessors at the theater showed only the rudiments of his own mature creations. As much a simple Gilles as a Pierrot — indeed, the early scripts employ the two types interchangeably — the character was formerly the invariable embodiment of laziness, sexlessness, and gluttony. He was usually attached to Arlequin, as valet, cousin, or friend, but his loyalty was often weaker than his cowardice. Typical in all these respects is the Pierrot of Saphir l'enchanteur, pantomime en 3 parties (1817). The companion of the Swiss archer Arlequin, who is in love with the lovely Claudine, Pierrot is content with a full belly and, insouciant, "makes fun of the lovers." When the wicked enchanter, Saphir, carries Claudine off to his realm ("Whatever pleases you is permitted you," proclaim the corrupt cupids of his gardens), Arlequin rescues her on the silver cloud of Love. But all is nearly lost when the enchanter meets the fool in the forest and Pierrot fearfully stammers out the heroes' counterplots. Before Love's final intervention, both the amoureux and old Simon, feeble father of Claudine, all but fall pathetic victim to the mage. At times, as in Arlequin sorcier, ou la Fête du Seigneur (c. 1817), Pierrot enjoys a comic access of courage and brings off a triumphant dénouement. In this piece he foils several robbers who are burgling his master's farm, and so secures, in naive fashion, Arlequin's happiness — the hand of the farmer's daughter, Julienne. But his ingenuousness rarely engenders selfless heroism. As a simple sluggard in Le Génie rose et le génie bleu, ou les Vieilles Femmes rajeunies (1817), he abuses his companion, Arlequin, and misuses the magic powers granted him by the titular Blue Genie. Because he shows "only the signs of an unjust and wicked heart" (in the severe judgment of le génie rose), he is clapped in a cage and buried by four demons in the earth.


Excerpted from Pierrots on the Stage of Desire by Robert F. Storey. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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