Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
PDF version of the entire book.
Pantomime in the Romantic Era
As a vestige of a neoclassical aesthetic sensibility, pantomime struggled to find a place in the Romantic era. After 1820, with the Cirque Olympique moving more forthrightly and exclusively into the circus business, pantomime in Paris largely confined itself to the Théâtre des Funambules. Since 1816, this theater specialized in programs that included, besides pantomimes, acrobats, clowns, trained animals (dogs in costumes), and rope dancers, including the famous Madame Saqui (1786-1866), a tightrope dancer, who performed, wearing an elaborate costume, on a rope that held her on a steep incline, which she “descended […] in a veritable delirium of improvisations” (Ginisty 1907: 80). The pantomimes were almost entirely in the commedia format and remained devoted to comic conventions that were already ancient. The audience at the Funambules, which seated 776, was apparently largely proletarian, accustomed to eating and drinking while watching the show, and eager to relax within a “mephitic atmosphere” (Baugé 1995: 9; Janin 1881: 15; cf., Nye 2016). The theater possessed excellent machinery for scene changes, but it did not enjoy any prestige and its entertainments never displayed the seriousness, scale, or opulence of the spectacles produced at the Cirque Olympique. Nevertheless, the famous boulevard actor Frederick Lemaitre (1800-1876) began his career there in 1818. But perhaps the biggest star associated with the Funambules was the pantomime Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846), although the resentful Madame Saqui was not altogether helpful in making room for his stardom. His ascent to stardom was, however, quite peculiar, for while he was indeed very popular with his audience at the Funambules, his stardom owed as much if not more to another audience than those who were regular patrons of the Funambules. He was born in Bohemia to a French soldier and a servant woman. His father turned the family into an itinerant troupe of acrobats that wandered around Europe until they eventually reached Paris in 1816. The Funambules engaged the family as acrobats, but Deburau did not make his debut as a performer before 1819 and possibly much later, for he “alone in this glorious family, without a first name, without even a name, was always the most obscure, the least appreciated, and the most unfortunate artist of the French Empire” (Janin 1881: 41). He performed at first a highly acrobatic pantomime in which comic gags resulted from extravagant leaps, combats, and stunts with props. It seems that from the beginning of his performance career he played Pierrot and no other role, while other actors in this theater did not have such a fixed relation to the characters they played (cf. Pericaud 1897: 498ff.). Unlike Cuvelier, Deburau did not publish scenarios of his pantomimes, presumably because either his performance depended heavily upon improvisation or it changed from one performance to the next. Yet he did work from scenarios. Isabelle Baugé has published the oldest scenario in which Deburau performed Pierrot, Le Bœuf enragé (1827), composed by Charles Nodier, who wrote under the name of Laurent and never wished to be identified as the author of any pantomime scenarios (Baugé 1995: 95-100). The scenario adopts the narrative chaos typical of the commedia format, with twelve scenes and each scene lasting about a minute. It is ostensibly about a proposed marriage contract between Boissec and Cassandre’s daughter Colombine, of whom Arlequin, Cassandre’s gardener, is enamored. Arlequin and Colombine run off together, accompanied by Pierrot, Cassandre’s valet. Each scene consists of an excuse for Pierrot or Arlequin to engage in clownish antics. In scene 8, for example, Pierrot and Arlequin, thirsty after fleeing their enemies, stop at a wine shop, which transforms into a pharmacy: the pair consume drugs instead of wine and become delirious. An explosion ensues, followed by the procession to slaughter of an ox, who, “visibly hostile to the idea of becoming a pot of stew,” crashes through Cassandre’s porcelain boutique, thereby incarnating the bœuf enragé. The piece ends with the allegorical figure of Love and the three witches who accompany him compelling Cassandre to allow the marriage of Arlequin and Colombine; Pierrot leads the couple to the “temple de l’hyménée” (Baugé 1995: 99-100; Pericaud 1897: 69-73). Pierrot, Arlequin, Cassandre, and Colombine appear over and over again in the Funambules pantomimes, like a group of old friends whose company the audience may enjoy on any performance evening, although occasionally the characters appear under different names: Colombine as Isabelle, Pierrot as Jacquot or Bazile, Cassandre as Pandolph (Pericaud 1897: 119). In the scenario manuscripts examined by Pericaud, Pierrot never appears alone and is largely a secondary character, a sidekick. He has no romantic attachments, except perhaps for the one-scene La Baleine (1833), in which Pierrot, despondent because Colombine has no interest in him, allows himself to be swallowed up by a whale and spends the entire scene amusing himself with the debris of a shipwreck in the belly of the monster (Pericaud 1897: 135). In nearly all the available pieces, Pierrot and his pal Arlequin stumble into various absurd miscommunications with characters, animals, and objects. Deburau constructed Pierrot as an adroit clown whose friendship with Arlequin or other male characters creates anarchy wherever they go. His Pierrot demonstrated how a character lacking talent, skill, education, intelligence, wealth, status, power, ambition, good taste, and moral sense could nevertheless bumble rather thoughtlessly through the absurdity of life and still end up happy. Audiences at the Funambules probably found this message consoling, perhaps even encouraging, even if it is contrary to what anyone then or now would regard as “respectable.” Yet in 1832, when Jules Janin (1804-1874), the ambitious drama critic for the Journal des Debats, published his biography of Deburau, he described the actor, as Pierrot, in a lavishly romantic manner:
This is a man of much thought, much study, many hopes, much suffering; this is the actor of the people, the friend of the people, gossip, gourmand, flâneur, fop impassive, revolutionary, as is the people. When Deburau found his cool and silent sarcasm, that established his superiority, his inexhaustible sarcasm, of which he is so prodigious! Deburau found everything at once a comedy. […] Gilles [Pierrot] is the people, Gilles, by turns joyful, sad, sick, healthy, beating, beaten, musician, poet, silly, always poor, like the people. It is the people that Deburau represents in all his dramas; he knows the sentiments of the people: he knows what makes them laugh, what they enjoy, what gets him angry; he knows what the people admire, what they love; that which he is. Hey, people, beat your wife, drink up, caress your child, make debts, pay debts, marry your girl, make fun of your doctor, your confessor, respect your police commissioner; cry when you want, and cry well; then, make yourself pleasant, gracious, the smooth talker; the pretty boy, the man of good fortune […] (Janin 1881: 69, 75)
Hardly anything Janin ascribes to Deburau’s Pierrot appears in the available scenarios or in any accounts of the Funambules. But Janin avoids discussing scenarios in relation to Deburau’s performance, although he devotes several pages to listing all the props in the Funambules. He prints one scenario, Ma Mere l’Oye, ou Arlequin et le Oeuf d’Or (1829), in which Pierrot and Arlequin, sometimes using disguises, engage in chaotic interactions with various people in the countryside, in a village, in a hotel, in a store, and finally in a forest, where they encounter Mother Goose (Janin 1881: 131-153). When Pierrot dances or plays music, he creates “confusion” or a “mêlée.” Janin, however, does not use anything from this scenario to explain Deburau’s performance nor, indeed, does he describe Deburau’s performance technique, stylistic variations, or contrast to other pantomimes. He presents Deburau/Pierrot as a figure entirely detached from the narratives and ensembles in which he appears. Even as a biography of the actor, the book lacks attention to details and peculiarities of the actor’s personality, habits of working, and relations to others, and the text reads more like a publicity dossier. What interests Janin is the image of Pierrot that he, Janin, a prolific writer of fiction, has conjured up for an audience that was most likely never in attendance at the Théâtre des Funambules. That was perhaps the point of printing the scenario: to contrast the Pierrot on stage with the Pierrot that Janin had made out of the low comedy character. But even the image of Pierrot that Janin builds with words is rather vague and mostly rhetorical: “[…] these gilded lounges, these maids in silk aprons, these great ladies in carriages, our pretty little world, at war, political, sentimental, graceful above all, ah, yes, have no fear! Deburau has never seen a salon; he argues that the maids do not exist, the comic types are effaced, the financier, politician, warrior, poet, all look alike, they all have the same figure and the same costume; from which he concludes that comedy of the past is no longer possible in this leveled society, and asks permission to do as he pleases” (Janin 1881: 74). But the 1832 edition of Janin’s biography contained an engraving of the famous 1830 portrait of Deburau by the artist Auguste Bouquet (1810-1846) [Figure 99]. This is a highly romantic image, showing the unique Deburau/Pierrot as a kind of alien figure, with his eerie white face, wide white sleeves, wide white pantaloons, and black skullcap. The pose does not reveal the huge white buttons that were also a distinctive feature of the costume. Janin’s rhetoric should be read with this image in mind to grasp its full impact, although Deburau’s costume was actually a variation on the “white Pierrot” costume that had been traditional within the commedia format since before the time Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) had painted his own famous “Gilles” around 1719 [Figure 100]. But unlike Watteau’s painting, Bouquet’s image depicted a mysteriously transformed human being, and Janin’s text seeks to construct Deburau/Pierrot as a transformative figure in Parisian culture, even if this image of Pierrot was not really the Pierrot that audiences saw in the Funambules.
The point was that he was an emblem of human transformation, and Janin transformed him into something other than what even Deburau had made him, so much so that Deburau complained to George Sand that Janin’s portrait of him “was not the art, not the idea that I have; it is not serious, and the Deburau of M. Janin is not me” (Sand 1893: 104). But the transformative effect of the Bouquet portrait perhaps achieves its clearest dramatization in another image by Bouquet, his engraving “Self-Portait as Transvestite” (1831), deposited in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco [Figure 101]. The young artist appears in a dark dress, with a thick belt tightly squeezing his waist and a dark scarf tightly wound around his neck. He holds his palette while gazing at the viewer; behind him, resting on the easel, is the portrait of Deburau/Pierrot, suggesting that the Pierrot image has transformed the sexual identity of the artist.
But what was Janin’s motive in making Deburau/Pierrot something other than what he was in reality? Robert Storey has written extensively on the mythologizing of Pierrot by literary figures of the time: Janin, Gautier, Banville, Sand, Baudelaire, Champfleury. He argues, using a psychoanalytical framework, that pantomime is a “regressive” art. “The pantomime, the melodrama, the circus entrée were all spectacles expressive of fantasy and wish, of a most potently infantile kind” (Storey 1985: xiv). He builds upon an assertion put forth by Jean Starobinski in his 1970 book Portrait de l’artiste en saltimbanque: “for the modern artist[s],” pantomime “will appear like the reflections of a lost world; they will live in a space of recollection; they will bear the mark of a passion for a return. These will be creatures of regressive desire […]” (Storey 1985: xiv; Starobinski 1970: 25). Storey then produces abundant evidence to show that the pantomime in the Funambules was quite different from the way literary figures have portrayed it, that pantomime assumed different forms, that Deburau played different characters besides Pierrot, that Deburau’s Pierrot varied in relation to different types of pantomime, and that other scholars are wrong in claiming that pantomime scenarios in the commedia format were monotonously similar. Yet despite all of this variety, differentiation, and complexity within the genre and within the Funambules, the literary enthusiasts of pantomime focused their energies on conjuring up a Pierrot that represented their “regressive desire” more accurately than the reality of the stage. For Storey, this determination to allow imagination to triumph over the inadequacy of reality is the essence of literary Romanticism, which, he contends, eventually destroyed pantomime, even if it created the enduringly romantic image of Pierrot (Storey 1985: 6-20; Storey 1978: 94-110).
In Storey’s estimation, the “regressive desire” guiding the mythmaking minds of the literary figures arises from a profound disillusionment with the cultural institutions of their time. He quotes Janin, who claims that “there is no longer any Theater-Francais; there is only the Funambules”; and because comedy is “in its Decadence,” it is necessary to write a History of Art that 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” (Storey 1985: 5; Janin 1881: 5-7). Janin even compares himself and his era to Gibbon and the “effeminate decadence” of the late Roman Empire (Janin 1881: 207-210). But Storey also quotes from the biography of Deburau by Tristan Rémy, who observed that much of the Pierrot mythmaking occurred at the end of the nineteenth century by writers who accepted Janin’s assertion of a “Boulevard that 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, 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” (Storey 1985: 6; Rémy1954: 68); Edward Nye (2015) also stresses the distance between the romantic image ascribed to Deburau/Pierrot by literary figures and the realities of the commercial theater that sustained Deburau as a star performer. Perhaps by 1830, French culture appeared “moribund” (Janin’s word) to some French romantics when compared with the grand adventures of the Revolution and the Empire. But Janin does not present any evidence that the Comédie-Française, the Opera, the ballet, or any other Parisian cultural institution had somehow declined, nor does Storey. Neither author refers to the pantomimes of Cuvelier or to any pantomimic art other than that belonging to the commedia format—for Storey, these are “outside my ken” (1985: xv), even though the ballet pantomime remained immensely popular, with the Aumer/Scribe/Halevy Manon Lescaut enjoying great success in 1830. Marian Smith (2000) has described in considerable lively detail the richness and inventiveness of Parisian opera and ballet in the 1830s. Stirring events also befell the Parisian mainstream theater of 1830, with the flamboyant historical-romantic dramas of Eugene Scribe, Alexander Dumas, and Victor Hugo. One might also mention that the music of Berlioz and the art of Daumier, Corot, and Delacroix were major features of Parisian culture in 1830, the year that brought the July Revolution and a humiliating defeat for the reactionary ultra-royalists, who, under Charles X, had sought to restore archaic aristocratic privileges at the expense of middle-class entitlements. Thus, Janin’s claim that the “there is only the Funambules” and only “squalid” art in his time is absurd and not altogether compatible with the concept of a “regressive desire” for a less “effeminate” community or culture.
Janin was twenty-eight years old when he published his biography of Deburau. His position as the drama critic for the Journal des Debats was already a remarkable achievement. He was born into a poor family in Saint-Étienne, but the generosity of his great aunt enabled him to receive a good university education. He was ambitious without having a clear idea of how to fulfill it other than that he had to go to Paris to discover his path. He never had any vocational affinity for journalism, and he obtained his position on the Journal des Debats in an almost comically incidental manner. But he grasped that the media built audiences by creating news as much as they reported it: newspapers had to foster controvery, introduce provocations, and initiate trends. For Janin, the distinction between being a drama critic and a publicist or promoter was irrelevant. Saint-Beuve accused him of overpraising those who curried his favor, and actors and dramatists invariably cultivated his friendship and even paid for it, so that he was able to live much more luxuriously than his drama critic’s salary or his many novels allowed (“The History of a Critic” 1876: 831). He wrote a prodigious number of prefaces to works of other authors, and apparently he “never forgot or forgave a wound inflicted upon his vanity” (825). He understood how to capture the attention of readers by sharing his seemingly bold discovery of pleasures that had been ignored, discarded, marginalized, or underestimated. Deburau was a useful example of a pleasure many of his readers would never have discovered on their own or through other media, precisely because the Funambules never pretended to be anything other than entertainment for people who lived in deep obscurity. In his position as drama critic, Janin saw that he could wield the power to create careers and define reputations: transforming the obscure clown Deburau into a star was proof of this power. In this sense, the Deburau biography was as much an act of romantic imagination as Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830). By 1833, the biography was in its third edition. As a result of its publication, Deburau received an invitation in October of 1832 to perform at the prestigious Palais Royal, where the audience consisted primarily of persons from the upper levels of society. The reception, however, “was polite but cold,” and Deburau never again performed anywhere else but the Funambules (Huguonet 1889: 93). Deburau nevertheless became a star, although his stardom always remained bound up with the Pierrot character. While Storey argues that Deburau experimented with different Pierrots, the actor did not alter the image of the character and the “quiet” or “still” approach to the character’s movement that Janin praised (Storey 1985: 14). When the Funambules began performing pantomimes with dialogues, Deburau kept Pierrot completely silent. Indeed, Deburau may have deeply regretted having allowed his identity to become inseparable from that of Pierrot. On April 18, 1836, Deburau went walking with his new wife. A seventeen-year old apprentice, Florent Vielin, a passionate fan of Pierrot, recognized the actor and began to taunt him, as if Pierrot instead of Deburau was on the street: he called Pierrot a “dummy” and his wife “Pierrot’s whore.” Deburau ignored him, but eventually his rage overwhelmed him, and he turned on the boy, using his cane to strike him on the head. The boy died the next day. Deburau was arrested for murder, but the court was sympathetic and acquitted him, although Deburau himself appears to have experienced profound remorse (Holmes 2000: 84-86). On stage and in the scenarios, Pierrot often engaged in cruel, violent behavior, with an oblivious aplomb that amplified the comic effect—he was an “expert in humiliations, in bizarre mutilations, in acts of castrating terror” (Storey 1985: 29). But the murder of Vielin showed that the image of Pierrot was much bigger than any theater that presented him. The murder showed the power of the image to consume both the performer and the spectator and reveal a destructive, malevolent dimension in both and in the romantic literary imagination that mythlogized the alien, poetic Pierrot, “the friend of the people.”
The image of Pierrot constructed by Deburau, Janin, and the French romantic literary imagination lived a different life than the one created for him in the Funambules scenarios. Neither Deburau nor Nodier cared to publish the scenarios, for in the scenarios, Pierrot inhabited an incoherent, absurd, and stupid world, not a poetic one. More precisely, the poetry on stage was largely the result of startling scenographic effects. For example, in Scene 3 of Ma Mère l’Oie, Pierrot, in the countryside, knocks on the door of a house to inquire the whereabouts of Arlequin and Colombine. As soon as he knocks, the house grows huge, the door opens, and an enormous woman appears. Pierrot asks if she has seen Arlequin and Colombine; she says, No, and tells him to go home. The house then shrinks to normal size, and the surprised Pierrot decides to knock again. This time the house becomes very small, and a tiny woman answers the door. She invites him in; he inserts his hand into the house, pulls out a flute and sheet music, and “plays a comic air with the orchestra.” Suddenly the flute transforms into a grill and the sheet music into a lamb chop, as the house resumes its normal size (Pericaud 1897: 138-139). The scenario strings together a series of “magical,” comic scenic effects that depend much more on stage machinery than on peculiar qualities of the characters or even on unique qualities of the performer. The scenarios remind one of the fantasy short films made by Georges Méliès between 1896 and 1906 in which comic effects result from optical “tricks” that produce fantastic transformations of objects and people: one remembers the tricks rather than the characters or the actors. It was to his advantage as an actor for Deburau to detach Pierrot from the scenarios and create for him a poetic aura built around his “white” appearance and quiet, calm manner of movement. This Pierrot lived in the imagination of viewers rather than on the stage or in the scenarios; he did not depend on elaborate machinery to enchant his audience. Deburau assumed that Pierrot belonged to him, not to the Funambules theater or to any authors. He could assume that because by 1827 no other Pierrots appeared in Parisian theaters, no other actor played him. Janin, however, claimed that Pierrot belonged to “the people”; Deburau was simply the surviving embodiment of a poetic image formed long ago by the French national psyche. But the Pierrot that Janin invoked was not really the Pierrot of the old foires (that Pierrot still lived in Nodier’s scenarios). Rather, the Pierrot he conjured up was like a resource: an image available to manifold narratives, performers, artists, authors, and viewers. But the act of transforming Pierrot from a stage clown into a poetic image resource was the work of an author, not an actor—it was the work of words consumed by numerous readers who could “see” Pierrot without ever attending the Funambules. Or: readers would go to the Funambules expecting to see the Pierrot that Janin invoked. This Pierrot belonged to the romantic literary imagination and affirmed the authority of the romantic sensibility to imagine the world rather than to see it. Deburau grasped this, from his perspective, regrettable implication of Janin’s biography when he discovered that audiences did not see Pierrot as a character he played but as a persona that consumed his identity and perhaps could invade any identity almost like a disease. Deburau’s relation to Pierrot contrasts well with Frederick Lemaitre’s relation to Robert Macaire, a character introduced in the melodrama l’Auberge des Adrets (1823) by Benjamin Antier, Jean-Armand Lacoste, and Alexandre Chaponnier. In the play, Macaire, along with his partner Bertrand, is a fugitive convict who mascarades as a respectable bourgeois visitor of an inn and gains the trust of a family by solving a domestic problem while plotting crimes against them. Lemaitre transformed this rather shadowy, subsidiary character into a charming rogue, a genial swindler, a grandiose and egotistical imposter, whose efforts to help people always hide a sinister motive. Lemaitre made the character immensely popular without making the play popular, much to Chaponnier’s distaste. The character assumed a life outside of the theater, as an emblematic “benefactor of humanity” in numerous guises—lawyer, physician, journalist, philanthropist, and so forth—who secretly plotted embezzlements, robberies, and corrupt financial schemes. Robert Macaire became a “type without author,” a “transmedial” and “transgeneric” figure, who into the twentieth century appeared in several plays, novels, and films; Daumier produced in 1836-1838 a famous series of illustrations showing Macaire promoting himself in various Parisian settings (Therenty 2010: 29-30; cf., Carrique 2012) [Figure 102]. Other actors than Lemaitre played Macaire in the theater—Le fille de Robert Macaire (1835), Robert Macaire en Belgique (1837)—and Daumier made Macaire a popular cartoon figure in the press, although other artists also depicted him. In 1834, Lemaitre rewrote the 1823 play, greatly enlarging the part of Macaire and allowing him and Bertrand to escape with his criminal treasure rather than dying repentantly, which compelled the government to ban the play the following year. This action against an immensely popular production only succeeded in making Lemaitre and Macaire even more popular. In Gautier’s estimation, “Robert Macaire was the great triumph of revolutionary art which followed the July Revolution” because of the “sharp, desperate attack it makes on the order of society,” although he probably meant the character that Lemaitre performed rather than the play itself (Sennet 1977: 204). For James Rousseau, Macaire was simply the “child of the century; he is the incarnation of our positive epoch, egotisical, avaricious, a liar, a braggart, and, as we say, he is perfectly in place—essentially a joker” (Rousseau 1842: 5). But no matter how widely Robert Macaire became dispersed in various media, he always remained the invention of Frederick Lemaitre rather than of any author or artist; he shaped the representation of the character in other media, with his signature sardonic laugh, his loquacious rumbling voice, his myriad improvised inflections, and his relaxed, pontificating, controlling gestures. Macaire belonged to Lemaitre in a way that Pierrot did not belong to Deburau, perhaps because Lemaitre was as much in revolt against the literary imagination as Macaire symbolized the subversion of institutionalized controls over frauds such as himself. He was against the inscription of identity, against the inscriptions imposed on identity by institutions—theater, banks, the government, the law. Deburau created an image of Pierrot that others could appropriate to a degree that was far removed from what he was on stage. That’s because Deburau/Pierrot was not in revolt against language or inscription; he was merely bereft of words and assumed it was to his benefit to allow others to inscribe him. The refusal to publish the scenarios covered up this lack.
But Deburau lived in a time in which the romantic literary imagination showed little interest in the details, the processes, the execution, and the realities of performance. The romantics focused on the impact of performance, the feelings it evoked, the images it inspired, and the significance or emblematic status that could be attached to it. The romantic discourse on pantomime followed a different path than the pantomime discourse of the eighteenth century philosophes, with their obsessive attention to the moral, ethical, aesthetic, and existential issues arising from bodily communication without words and without a “system” for regulating the movement of the body. But when Deburau was famous, pantomime had become a “minor” art and scarcely the cultural mania it was in the previous century. Pantomime had become a minor art because Pierrot had become the main thing that was left of it. As a minor or marginalized art, pantomime was vulnerable to efforts to ascribe an exaggerated splendor to it. But exaggeration is necessary to establish the authority of imagination in relation to realities that can otherwise suffocate enthusiasm for the material world. So the next step in the romanticization of Pierrot was to invent a Pierrot that neither Deburau nor any other actor actually embodied. This ThéophileGautier (1811-1872) did in an extraordinary essay published in the September 1842 issue of Revue de Paris, “Shakspeare [sic] aux Funambules.” Here he proposed that the spirit of Shakespeare survived in the Théâtre des Funambules. He recalled the “beautiful time, the time of Le Bœuf enragè […] and Ma Mère l’Oie,” although his reminiscence focused, not on the performers or performances, but on the audience of the Funambules, for “here is a public, and not all those bored gloves, more or less yellow, all worn feuilletonistes, outraged, bored, these canopies of Helder street occupied only with their cosmetics and their bouquets; – A public in jackets, blouses, shirts, shirtless often, with bare arms, the cap on the ear, but naive like a child to whom the tale of Bluebeard gives way simply to the poet’s fiction (yes, the poet), accepting any condition to be amused; a true public comprehending the fantasy with a wonderful facility” (Gautier 1842: 60). He worries that the renovation of the Funambules has destroyed the golden aura of the theater. But then the smell of the varnish provokes his fantasy of a fantasy audience and inspires him to inscribe his own Pierrot fantasy, a scenario that no has ever seen on the stage.
The scene is a street “absolutely like in a piece by Molière.” Down this street walks a despondent Pierrot—“he is sad, a melancholy secret devours his soul.” He has no money; his master Cassandre pays him with kicks instead of wages. He is, moreover, enamored of a duchess, who descends from a carriage to enter a church, the Opera, “we know not where.” He “fears that his charming physique has deteriorated, and “bitter thoughts” plague him as he ponders how he can appear with the duchess when he has no clothes to match the “mysterious Eden” in which the duchess lives. A clothes merchant then appears transporting “more or less wrinkled duds.” He carries a cast off National Guard sword under his arm. Pierrot pulls the sword out without the merchant noticing. But instead of returning the sword into its sheath, he plunges it into the merchant, killing him. Pierrot selects the finest clothes the merchant possessed and pushes the body down a cellar. However, the shadow of the clothes merchant rises out of the cellar and calls in a cavernous voice: “Seller of clothes! [Marrrchand d’habits!]” Pierrot battles the shadow with a log; finally he strikes it and knocks it back into the cellar. He mocks the shadow by speaking the phrase “Seller of clothes!” Pierrot at home puts on his new costume: Cossak pants, an apple-green coat, and, “to hide his criminal pallor,” he dons black whiskers and rouge cheeks to look “most charming and triumphant.” When Pierrot appears in the milieu of the duchess, he struts about as a lion of the boulevards, “full of composure, dignity, and propriety.” As he lounges in an armchair, burning with love for the duchess, he hears the “dying whisper of the sacramental phrase: ‘Seller of clothes!’” The ghost of the merchant rises up, but Pierrot cannot suppress it. He tries to escape the shadow by dancing wildly, but then he becomes overheated and wants some ice cream. He struggles between “gluttony and cowardice,” but gluttony triumphs. He eats the ice cream, which turns into fireworks in his mouth, and he swallows the spoon. Nevertheless, Pierrot manages to gain the affections of the duchess, and, “to the shame of morality and human nature,” he is a happy person. “But, alas, nothing collapses as quickly as prosperity,” for “his love for the duchess does not prevent him from maintaining some dancers of the Opera.” He has to sell the clothes he stole. In a new scene, Pierrot encounters the spectre of the clothes merchant on the street, who calls out in his macabre voice: “Seller of clothes!” Pierrot approaches him and offers to sell the clothes. The merchant replies that the clothes are very worn and offers only thirty sols. Pierrot calls the merchant a thief, but soon agrees to the sale. But the merchant refuses to pay, saying that the clothes are his anyway. Furious, Pierrot attacks the merchant, pulls the sword from his chest, strikes the phantom repeatedly, and maintains possession of the clothes. Still lacking money, Pierrot approaches Cassandre with a tale of woe: he presents himself as a victim of Barbary pirates, who have cut out his tongue, blinded him, and cut off his arms, so that he walks around like a penguin. The incredibly stupid Cassandre gives him money for each ailment. Pierrot, however, wants all of Cassandre’s money and inserts his hidden arm into Cassandre’s pocket. Cassandre accuses Pierrot of stealing arms and threatens to bring him to the police. But Pierrot has the money and apparently runs off, for suddenly Pierrot leads the procession to celebrate his marriage to the duchess. The shadow of the clothes merchant rises up from the prompter’s box on the stage and calls out: “Seller of clothes!” Pierrot tries to suppress the phantom by sitting on the prompter’s box. Astonished by this action, the bride comes to take him by the hand, for the phantom is visible only to Pierrot. The spectre rises up again and embraces Pierrot and the two engage in an “infernal waltz,” whereby the sword planted into the clothes merchant penetrates the chest of Pierrot, so that both “victim and murderer are skewered by the same iron, like two beetles pierced by the same needle.” The pair dances wildly as a fire engulfs them. The bride vanishes, the entourage gasps in pain as the curtain falls (Gautier 1842: 61-65).
Gautier’s Pierrot fantasy depicts a humanity totally defined by fantastic stupidity and avarice; it seems much closer to the commedia pantomimes of Lesage’s time than to anything one would see in the Funambules. Pierrot is violent, vicious, devoid of moral sense, and without any unique talent or ability. But no one else in the story is anything but profoundly stupid. Gautier absurdly claims that his fantasy Pierrot is comparable to the dumb-show characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet merely because Banquo’s ghost inspired the shadow of the merchant. Indeed, Gautier’s own commentary on his scenario seems like a fantasy insofar as he ascribes meanings to it that the scenes he imagines do not support: “Does not Pierrot walking down the street in his white shirt, his white pants, and his white flour face flush with vague desires symbolize the human soul, still innocent and white, tormented with infinite aspirations toward higher regions?” (Gautier 1842: 65). From the very beginning, Pierrot’s “whiteness” symbolizes, if anything, the obvious mask by which humanity conceals its immeasurable stupidity and corruption. Pierrot’s love for the cretinous duchess—the “higher regions”—never achieves any focus and is merely incidental to his far more protracted encounters with characters for whom he feels at best no affection at all. But Gautier’s essay resonated more strongly with his audience than anything Deburau/Pierrot did on stage. The Funambules realized this and in October of 1842 commissioned a scenario entitled Marrrchand d’habits!, the authorship of which remains unknown, although Storey contends that it is the work of a Funambules administrator, Antoine-Emmanuel Cot d’Ordan (Baugé 1995: 18-19; Storey 1985; 117-118). This scenario, consisting of five very brief tableaux, is only about two pages long, and reads like a highly truncated outline of Gautier’s comparatively lengthy text: the author retains only a few of Gautier’s comic gags, eliminates Gautier’s comments on Pierrot’s criminal state of mind, and, in the first scene, introduces the duchess as an acquaintance of Cassandre. The text reduces Pierrot to a homicidal clown, without even Gautier’s sense of a demonic struggle to defeat conscience: the ghost merely seems like an annoying pop-up or fly that causes Pierrot to act clumsily. But there is no evidence that Deburau or anyone else actually performed this scenario. The realization of the text on stage, however, was irrelevant in relation to Gautier’s essay, for the main impact of the essay was to transform Pierrot from a theatrical to a literary figure. A literary Pierrot was “serious” insofar as his audience wanted something more of him than did the audience at the Funambules—they wanted a more complex Pierrot, the so-called “tragic” Pierrot, a figure of Shakespearean resonance. But this tragic Pierrot lived more on the page than on the stage, not because Deburau or his successors were incapable of developing a tragic pantomimic style, but because the theater audience for pantomime, confined now entirely to the Funambules, saw pantomime as an antidote to seriousness and tragic feeling. The slowly decaying ballet pantomime, though far more luxurious and “disciplined,” appealed to an audience that was no less parochial in its idea of speechless entertainment than the audience for the Funambules. In this cultural milieu, pantomime on a grand scale was completely unthinkable and not even remembered. Gautier’s Pierrot made pantomime synonymous with a Pierrot who lived outside of the commedia format, who lived outside of the theater, who lived independently of Cassandre and Colombine. He was a “melancholy” or “tragic” figure because, in his bizarre “whiteness,” he was solitary, alone, and without voice. But in his aloneness, he differed significantly from the solo pantomimes of ancient Rome in that his identity completely consumed the pantomime performer and did not permit any other identities to inhabit the body of the performer. Pierrot represented the antithesis of the metamorphosis of identity that the Roman pantomimes embodied. For the literary romantics, Pierrot signified the silent, solitary, melancholy body possessed of a single, unchanging identity—the “invincible Pierrot,” as Banville described him in Odes funambulesques (1857) (Banville 1873: 106). But this image of the silent, solitary, melancholy Pierrot soon came to define pantomime itself, at least in continental Europe, insofar as it eclipsed any other idea of pantomime. A similar phenomenon had already taken place in England, where, since the 1760s, pantomime had become largely, perhaps even exclusively, incorporated into a Christmas vaudeville spectacle designed primarily for children. But there, the figure of Harlequin, not Pierrot, succeeded in completely defining the performance of pantomime. To understand how figures descended from mime came to dominate perception of pantomime entails the construction of a complex historical-theoretical framework that involves exploring what might be called ideological relations between words and bodily performance.
Gautier’s essay inspired literary authors to write their own pantomime scenarios of a more “serious” nature than those inscribed by the anonymous scenarists of the Funambules. The most significant of these literary authors as far as scenarios that were actually performed was the art critic Jules Champfleury (1821-1889), who, in addition to his prolific commentaries on art, wrote numerous novels and studies on a variety of subjects, including porcelain, cats, caricature, Balzac, and Richard Wagner. But Champfleury never wanted his authorship of pantomimes disclosed, even though it was no secret that he wrote them. Explicitly inspired by Gautier’s essay, he wrote his first pantomime scenario for the Funambules in 1846, soon after the death of Deburau in June of that year and four years after Gautier published his essay, and wrote five more between then and 1849 (Champfleury 1859: 9). After Janin published his biography of Deburau, the actor had no interest in collaborating with anyone who did not have a long and close association with the Funambules. The Pierrot that Champfleury created lived on the Funambules stage through Deburau’s protégé Paul Legrand. The death of Deburau occasioned in Paris an outburst of pompous mourning, which Champfleury himself described with grandiose words of hommage (Pericaud 1897: 287-288). For the ambitious, young, romantic literary authors in Paris, Deburau’s death conveniently signified the end of an epoch or perhaps more precisely indicated a grand opportunity, for Deburau’s death supposedly also implied the death of Pierrot, and the death of Pierrot entailed the death of pantomime itself, for, as Pericaud, remarked, “Pierrot alone had made pantomime live” (Pericaud 1897: 291). Gerard de Nerval wondered, “Is the pantomime itself dead after [Deburau], like tragedy after Talma?” (298). Well, not really. The Funambules continued almost immediately to produce pantomimes among other light entertainments, and in these pantomimes, Pierrot remained the dominant character, played by Charles Deburau or Paul Legrand. But as Pericaud noted with the production of Champfleury’s Pierrot, valet de la mort, in September 1846, “We have arrived at an epoch of positive transition in the pantomime” (297). Yet Champfleury’s relation to the Funambules was not altogether positive, for, in addition to disputes over compensation for his work and quarrels over the performance of his scenarios, “this author, so impulsive, so visionary, was not loved by the mimes precisely because of his originality” (336).
The Funambules presented Pierrot, valet de la mort in September 1846, although Champfleury had originally written his scenario to feature Arlequin. But the mystical writings of Swedenborg had urged him to pursue a more “spiritual” path through Pierrot. A spiritual dimension, though, is hard to discern, for much of the piece consists of “cascades,” which occur when two or more characters strike each other in different buffoonish ways or with different objects without resolution until the scene changes. In a village, Pierrot, Arlequin, and Polchinelle each seek to marry Colombine, the daughter of Cassandre, who proposes that his daughter marry the best swimmer among the three. But they all wind up in a cascade, “effroi général.” In a room, Pierrot pines for Colombine on a bed. She shows up to comfort him, but Arlequin and Polchinelle soon follow, and Colombine decides to run away with Arlequin. A doctor arrives to treat the “abysmal” Pierrot, who swallows medicines, including leeches, but has no money to pay the doctor. Pierrot therefore falls dead on his bed. Death then appears and, in a fairly lengthy speech, tells Pierrot that he can come back to life if he becomes Death’s valet; in this position, Pierrot can dispose of his rivals and marry Colombine. Skeletons bring in drinks; Pierrot takes up his violin and the skeletons dance. In a forest, Colombine and Pierrot dance. A fairy appears and speaks to them, saying that she loves youth, beauty, and love, which means that she favors Pierrot over Arlequin. But she can save the couple only after they are married. Cassandre enters to separate the couple and count his money. He believes that Pierrot is dead and does not want his daughter to marry a “skeleton.” Arlequin and Polchinelle show up to enjoy the picnic Pierrot and Colombine have arranged. Another cascade ensues involving “combats” between all four men, and Arlequin abducts Colombine. Arlequin takes Colombine to a mill that also contains a bakery. Pierrot appears and asks for a cake, which Colombine brings to him. When he starts to caress her, Arlequin intervenes. Cassandre, and Polchinelle also enter, and yet another cascade ensues, as a windmill blade hoists Polichinelle, and Arlequin and Colombine escape again. The fairy reappears and leads everyone to a palace, where girls dance around Pierrot, Cassandre, and Polchinelle. Pierrot turns his attention to these girls. But suddenly a tree splits open and releases the dark voice of Death, who reminds Pierrot that to win Colombine, he was supposed to deliver Arlequin and Polchinelle. Now Death must take Pierrot. A “grand combat” or cascade ensues, as Pierrot attacks Arlequin, who clobbers Pierrot. Cassandre and Polchinelle attempt to help Pierrot, and Arlequin finds himself battling the three, until the Voice of Death announces: “Pierrot, you fight for a bad cause.” The characters cease fighting, the dancing girls return, and Polchinelle dances. But Death comes back to retrieve the scythe he has left beside the tree. Polchinelle grabs it and strikes Death, who falls dead. Everbody’s happy: Colombine and Arlequin are together, Cassandre has what he wants for his daughter, Polchinelle dances around the corpse of Death, and Pierrot plays the violin (Baugé 1995: 31-38).
Even with a large imagination for performance possibilities, it is hard to see how this scenario offers a deeper understanding of Pierrot, pantomime, “poetic” atmosphere, or the world than was already present in the history of commedia format pantomime. Pierrot is no more important than Arlequin, Polchinelle, or Cassandre, and, as usual, he shows greater interest in eating than in Colombine. The scenes function to provide scenographic stunts. Champfleury presents Death as a voice rather than as something embodied and given pantomimic form. Perhaps his idea is that voice or language carry with them the aura or intimation of death; pantomime makes transparent the struggle of the body to defeat the voice, death, identity without a body. But one could just as easily say that the commedia format pantomime was always about the immortality of the characters: their spectacular stupidity, their unflattering depiction of humanity just never dies, survives the decay of epochs and eras, because their imbecilic obliviousness results from the lack of any consciousness created through language. But the most remarkable thing is that after the death of Deburau, which supposedly was synonymous with the death of Pierrot, neither Champfleury nor the Funambules could imagine any pantomime without the commedia format, without Pierrot. Even so, Pierrot, valet de la mort was “only a small success” (Pericaud 1897: 300). Though he was generally enthusiastic about the piece, Nerval felt that Pierrot’s relation to Death required better management, for Pierrot’s “return to virtue is too abrupt and lacking in motivation”; in the theater, the danse macabre of the third scene did not match “the thought of the poet.” The most striking thing from Nerval’s perspective was the idea of Pierrot defeating Death by playing his violin, although the scenario does not at all contain this idea (Pericaud 1897: 298-299).
Two weeks after the debut of Pierrot, valet de la mort, Champfleury submitted a new scenario, Pierrot pendu, which was much more successful. From then on, he wrote one new scenario every year until 1849. His scenarios were innovative, he claimed, because they introduced the idea of a “bourgeois pantomime” (Champfleury 1859: 91, 116, 207, 210). Pantomime was bourgeois insofar as it no longer parodied the tastes of the aristocracy or made fun of “higher aspirations”; rather, bourgeois pantomime made fun of bourgeois aspirations to a “good marriage,” financial security, fine eating, and propriety. As an art critic, Champfleury became famous for championing the realism of Courbet and Manet, which might lead one to suppose that his bourgeois pantomimes invested Pierrot with a realism that was previously absent. Yet in remaining committed to the commedia format, bourgeois pantomime became more realistic only because the narrative, the sequence of actions, became more logical. In Pierrot pendu (12 scenes), Pierrot sneakily steals various items from Arlequin, Cassandre, Polchinelle, a captain, a notary, and a merchant. Cascades ensue as a result of various deceptions perpetrated by Pierrot. A voice announces after each theft: Pierrot, tu sera pendu! (“Pierrot, you will be hanged!”), which is how the characters know that Pierrot is the thief. Arrested and put on trial, he denies all accusations, even when the police reveal that he has all the stolen items. The judge sentences Pierrot to be hanged, but allows him to enjoy a last meal. He then ascends the gallows, accompanied by demonic phantoms, who remind him of his crimes; he trembles in terror. But a fairy appears to tell him that all was a dream, a warning against criminal behavior: Arlequin’s marriage to Colombine may proceed (Baugé 1995: 39-52). Gautier wrote a lengthy review of Champfleury’s “magnificent pantomime.” But much of the review consisted of his poetic-philosophical ruminations on the archetypal significance of Pierrot, “pale, haunted, clothed in pallid clothes, always hungry and always beaten, the ancient slave, the modern proletarian, the pariah, the passive and disinherited being who assists, sullen and sly, in the orgies and follies of his masters” (Gautier 1859: 24). When he describes what he actually saw in the theater, he sees much that is not in the scenario. Pierrot’s thefts are efforts to prevent Polchinelle from marrying the ugly Polchinelle; Colombine’s attic is an “asylum of innocence and happiness,” and it is as if Gautier is rewriting Champfleury’s scenario with more poetic language. Where Champfleury simply writes: “Pierrot trembles in the midst of the flames,” Gautier writes: “Everything is over – for the body at least; – as for the soul, it is something else! A genie appears and carries away the trembling psyche of the deceased Pierrot into the depths of a semi-Christian hell, half pagan, all red with flame and all black with smoke. There, the tribulations of the unfortunate one begin again: claws grab him; the wings of demons clutch his face, and he is plagued by a variety of torments that would weary Dante” (Gautier 1859: 33). While the performance no doubt contained details and qualities not found in the scenario, it is evident that Gautier prefers to see Pierrot as more of a poetic, metaphoric figure of tarnished human innocence than as a hapless, failed exemplar of bourgeois morality. But in Pierrot marquis (1847), which eliminates Arlequin altogether, Champfleury’s idea of a bourgeois pantomime appears even more transparent. Here, among other antics, Pierrot attempts to swindle Polchinelle out of his inheritance by lethally changing the therapies ordered by the doctor for the ailing Polchinelle Sr., such as exchanging a small syringe for a huge one, and changing the old man’s will. Believing himself wealthy, Pierrot “dresses magnificently” and in a “rich salon” encounters a Professor in black, who claims that Pierrot can heal his boredom by playing tragic roles. Pierrot responds with comic gestures to the Professor’s spoken references to French tragic drama. At the end, of course, Pierrot ends up poor and “sad” in the mill with which the piece begins. However, a fairy appears and tells him to be happy, for “fortune does not make happiness.” “You are of the people, Pierrot, and remain with them. The people are poor but content with their humble fate” (Baugé 1995: 53-65). But the piece produced a less enthusiastic response from Gautier, who acknowledged that Champfleury was “reforming” pantomime and making it more “Protestant” by constructing the action more logically (Pierrot, for example, is white because of all the flour in the mill). “Authority and tradition no longer exist […] Farewell naive formulas, Byzantine barbarities, impossible hues […] Here Pierrot reaches fortune in an entirely civilized way, by an assumption of will accompanied by fraud, substitution of persons, and other aggravating circumstances. Perfectly within the jurisdiction of the courts: the inheritance thus does not consist of fantastic wealth: tanks filled with pieces of gold, heaps of carbuncles, cassettes of diamonds, but of good big bags of coins, authentic bank notes, as is appropriate in this prosaic period ours” (Gautier 1859: 151). Champfleury takes away from Pierrot a “solemn and mysterious physiognomy” that in the old, “Catholic” pantomime formed the basis of a “profound and inexplicable attraction” in the spectator, although, again, it is difficult to escape the sense that Gautier has ascribed a far more mysterious Pierrot to the past than he or anyone else ever actually saw in the theater (Gautier 1859: 150-151).
But Champfleury’s desire to “reform” pantomime with logical actions did not preclude his enthusiasm for the fantastic and absurd in a way that anticipates surrealism: the logic of the unconscious and the dream. In La reine des carrots (1848), a “pantomime fantastique en 12 tableaux,” he created perhaps his most ambitious scenario, even though, again, he dispensed altogether with the character of Arlequin. In this piece, Pierrot works as a gardener for Cassandre, battling insects and snails while trying to harvest vegetables for daily meals. Exhausted by his labors, he takes a nap and dreams that the Queen of Carrots appears to him. She accuses him of making “martyrs” of her subjects and incites the carrots to revolt against him. Colombine and Cassandre also appear and complain that lunch is not ready because Pierrot sleeps. Pierrot is divided between serving Cassandre and accommodating the Queen and her “weeping” carrots. Polchinelle complicates matters when he strikes an alliance with the Queen and begins wearing carrots as ornaments as part of a strategy to obstruct Pierrot’s desire to marry Colombine. Combats ensue, with Pierrot saving Colombine from Polchinelle by killing a magistrate, who had intervened to suppress the revolt of the carrots. Other vegetables become involved in the turmoil, and the Queen enters into an alliance with the Royalty of Fruits, within which a sorceress has transported Colombine. The Queen is jealous of Pierrot’s affection for Colombine. He enters the Queen’s boudoir, but when he displays for her Colombine’s bridal hair, she admits defeat and throws her crown into the cooking pot. Pierrot and Colombine marry and bring the fantastic dream to an end (Baugé 1995: 67-80). La reine des carrots was quite successful, but Champfleury, who had been unable to attend rehearsals, was furious about the production, because “nothing was left of his own idea in the piece” (Champfleury 1859: 194; Levillain 1943: 207). The old-fashioned thinking of his collaborators so exasperated him that he vowed not to write anything for the Funambules again. The theater nevertheless persuaded him to write another scenario, Les trois filles a Cassandre (1849), in which Pierrot struggles to escape from his marriage to a shrew. As usual, though, the actors and the director undermined him and discarded many of his inventive comic effects (Levillain 1943: 210-211). He then gave up writing any more scenarios until 1865, when he wrote Le pantomime de l’advocat for the Théâtre des Fantaisies parisiennes, the Funambules having closed in 1862.
Champfleury deserves attention, because he was alone among all the literary romantics in attempting to bring a romantic idea of pantomime to the stage before the 1880s. His scenarios were much more ambitious, inventive, and “modern” than those devised by the often anonymous house writers for the Funambules. But it is doubtful that his efforts brought a greater degree of “seriousness” to pantomime, especially when directors and performers deliberately sabotaged so much of what might be regarded in the scenarios as serious at least in the way of innovation. Along with the other romantic writers, he remained utterly trapped within the idea that pantomime was Pierrot and did not exist outside of the commedia format. He could not escape this idea, because the Funambules, as the only theater providing pantomime entertainment, remained even more deeply entrenched within the idea, which seemed to have achieved such perfection through Deburau, the mythic “man of the people” glorified by the romantics themselves. But to say that the Funambules could not escape the Pierrot/commedia paradigm is to say that it remained the prisoner of its audience, an oppressed proletarian crowd, who commanded the respect of higher classes only when it tenaciously claimed ownership of cultural forms that those higher classes did not regard as serious. George Sand described this audience as “an intelligent, active, mocking race of individuals, their faces prematurely bereft of the freshness of youth as a result of overwork or enforced idleness, equally devastating evils for the young. Physically frail, too pale or too feverish, they reflected the effects of unhealthful climate, mephitic living conditions, privations and hardships. They were at the same time weakly and strong, frivolous and serious,” but possessed of “a feverish energy, a habit of enduring suffering, a mocking insouciance” (Levillain 1943: 148). It was, however, an audience that achieved its greatest sense of power through its capacity to mock the world and its pretensions to seriousness. This pleasure in mockery meant that no matter how deeply the audience appreciated the art of Deburau, it could never allow pantomime to become anything other than a clown show, for Deburau/Pierrot himself was the perfect incarnation of an identity defined by a “silent,” imperturbable, inescapable, and unkillable mockery of the world. Champfleury’s scenarios seem like tiny, incidental contributions to pantomime culture when compared with the great mass of scenarios produced for the Funambules by Charles Charton, Cot d’Ordan, Eugène Grangé, Alexandre Guyon, Charles Bridault, Deburau himself, and numerous anonymous house authors; nearly all of these works disappeared with the dissolution of the Funambules in 1862. Pericaud and Levillain (1943: 93-117) have discussed the few scenarios that have survived. These show the vast gulf between the “bourgeois logic” of Champfleury’s scenarios and the anti-logic of the many Funambules scenarios that Champfleury felt stifled the potential of pantomimic art. Typical of these works is Arcadius, ou Pierrot chez les indiennes (1852), a pantomime in eleven scenes, by Charles Charton (1806-1867), who spent nearly fifty years of his life in the Funambules, for which he wrote and directed at least 150 pantomimes. He detested Champfleury’s scenarios and built his own scenarios around the presumption that Pierrot could exist only by denying any reality outside of the Funambules. Adèle Levillain regards Arcadius as Charton’s “masterpiece” (1943: 96). But it is a masterpiece of childish fantasy set in “America at the time of Christopher Columbus.” Here Indians live in a huge, golden German Gothic palace and go by names such as Rolao, Zauqui and Zaoqua, while some of the Indians, including Congo, are evidently “Negros.” The Indians also maintain an “Asian garden” with a statue of the god Atlas; one scene takes place at an “African site,” and another takes place on a mountain overlooking the Caspian Sea. Arcadius, leader of the Indians, desires Cora, daughter of the Indian chief Rolao, but her affections lie with Fernando, the captain of a Spanish expedition. Fernando is enthusiastic about union with Cora, but Arcadius imprisons Fernando and Rolau in another vast Gothic palace, where “ferocious savages” prepare to eat them. The prisoners escape, but Aracadius abducts Cora, depositing her in a “lugubrious cavern.” The Spaniards attack, an “abominable mêlée” ensues. As Fernando’s valet, Pierrot does not have a prominent part in the piece, but he does get chased by a bear and he does free Cora and pushes the black servants of Aracadius into the Caspian Sea, “where they drown.” When the dying Arcadius attempts a final stab at Fernando, “the spiritual Pierrot” intervenes and snatches the weapon. Cora and Fernando stand united (Charton 1852: 1-8). Geographical, historical, and cultural absurdities abound here as they do in all of Charton’s extant pieces. But pantomime, he claimed, followed it own logic of possibility, for “In pantomime everything must be silent. The audience has only eyes and no ears” (Pericaud 1897: 364; Levillain 1943: 96). But even this statement is absurd, because Arcadius contains large amounts of dialogue, as, indeed, did nearly all the pantomimes presented at the Funambules, although Pierrot is among several characters who never says a word. Champfleury was unique in striving to expand the “silence” of pantomime beyond the exclusively silent Pierrot that Deburau had created. But as Champfleury discovered, the more “silent” (speechless) pantomime became, the more difficult it was to produce, for without any dialogue at all, pantomime required a much larger directorial imagination and a lot more rehearsal time than was available at a shabby theater like the Funambules performing at least two shows a day.
Given the realities of production and audience at the Funambules and the deep bias there favoring the mocking of “higher aspirations,” it is understandable that the literary romantics would prefer an imaginary Pierrot created out of their own words to the Pierrot they saw on the stage. But the romantics had credibility within their own class, if not necessarily within the proletariat, insofar as they constructed the impression that their “poetic” image of Pierrot emerged organically from what they referred to ostensibly as “the people,” from the very audience that resisted the transformation of Pierrot into a figure who could also belong to a “higher” class. The romantics achieved power to the extent that their writings created or became national monuments; making Pierrot another symbol of the nation was a strategy that gave greater fluidity to the concept of “the people” than the audience inhabiting the Funambules and thus “redeemed” that audience and its devotion to inanity. Pierrot and pantomime could survive the intensifying decadence of the Funambules in the 1840s only by capturing the imagination of a different audience, an audience of readers. But the death of Deburau galvanized the romantic rehabilitation of Pierrot in bizarre ways. For example, upon the death of Deburau, the song writer Eugène Grangé (1810-1886), the author of numerous scenarios for the Funambules as well as a prodigious number of plays for other theaters, composed a memorial song, “Deburau and Talma, a dialogue of death about the living,” in which Deburau updates Talma on the current state of France, to which Talma replies: “So I was in profound error /When I dreamed of former glories/ […] it crumbles this old world” (Pericaud 1897: 300-301). The owner of the Funambules, Billion, forbade the singing of the song in the theater, for he did not see how glorifying the dead actor would motivate people to see living ones. Commemorating Deburau through voice rather than through pantomime was an obvious irony. But Grangé was unwilling to claim authorship for any of the scenarios he wrote for the Funambules because, as he said when he became a member of the Legion of Honor, “If I had signed my Funambules pieces I should have had to wait ten years longer to obtain this [this red ribbon]” (Levillain 1943: 91).
With the Odes funambulesques (1854), by Théodore de Banville(1823-1891), Pierrot had become an archetype of bourgeois poetic consciousness. Banville describes Pierrot as “my friend,” and he includes a kind of scenario that opens with the death of “a bourgeois.” The dead bourgeois discovers that he is in a theater that “is not the Théâtre-Français.” Pierrot appears, and the bourgeois, greatly delighted, remarks that the pantomime looks “quite beautiful for an antique overwhelmed with obsolescence.” In response to the bourgeois’ questions, Pierrot makes only movements. The muse of the Funambules is “Madness”; the theater is more marvelous than anything built by Louis XIV; much as he respects great literature, he does not perform tragedy or drama. Instead, he parodies actors of these genres. When the bourgeois takes out his snuffbox, Pierrot parodies that as well. The bourgeois concludes that, “No one has ever understood you as well as I do, due to the style of your pantomime, sublime and touching at once.” Nevertheless, the bourgeois wants to meet someone with whom he can speak “in simple prose […] simple poesie.” So Pierrot introduces him to a young and pretty elf or fairy. From then on, the piece unfolds in rhymed verse as the bourgeois encounters other archetypes of the Funambules, including a clown, who, in verse, evokes Arlequin, Colombine, Polchinelle, Cassandre, and Pierrot, “the greatest of all, calm as a Roman,/The most spiritual, the most truly human,/Formidable, and always greater than his fortune,/My dear friend Pierrot, the cousin of the moon!” (Banville 1854: 113-129). The point of the piece is that Pierrot and pantomime have become enshrined in bourgeois consciousness because they embody a harmless image of happiness achieved through a simple, undemanding “poesie.” But they are also dead, emblems of a benign Death conjured up by a complacent bourgeois consciousness.
A far less benign image of the bourgeois conflation of Pierrot with Death appears in Le Spleen de Paris (1869) by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), who wrote the small prose poems that make up the book in the 1850s. In “Le vieux saltambique,” the author describes his visit to a fairground, where he witnesses a great “plebian jubilee,” a huge crowd excited by astonishing feats of physical prowess. Utterly ignored by the crowd is a decrepit, solitary, forgotten acrobat, “mute and motionless,” a figure of “absolute wretchedness.” The “unforgettable look he cast over the crowd and the lights” causes the author, suddenly filled with sorrow, to see himself in the place of the acrobat, “the old writer,” who has been forgotten by his readers, debased in the end by “the public’s ingratitude” (Baudelaire 1997: 27-30; Baudelaire 1919: 66-68; Baudelaire 1917: 37-41). With “Une mort héroïque” the identification of pantomime with Death is even stronger, partly because Baudelaire prefers to imagine his deathly Pierrot rather than report what he has actually seen. This prose poem reads like a fable. In a small German principality, the pantomime Fancioulle, seeking a “serious” purpose for his life, participates in a conspiracy against the despotic Prince who rules the country, even though the buffoon is the favorite actor of the Prince and “almost like one of the Prince’s friends.” The conspiracy fails; Fancioulle and the conspirators face death. However, the Prince, a demonic aesthete and an “altogether insatiable voluptuary,” circulates the rumor that he will pardon the conspirators if Fancioulle performs one of his famous pantomimes for the court and the conspirators. The performance reaches the summit of pantomimic art, an amazing “intoxication of Art,” which creates “a paradise that shuts out all thought of death and destruction.” The Prince is also spellbound, yet intensely jealous of the pantomime’s emotional grip on the audience. He sends a child to deliver a mysterious message to Fancioulle, but the pantomime, “awakened from his dream,” releases a great hiss and falls dead on the stage. The conspirators are executed that night. Subsequent court mimes never achieved the “miraculous talent of Fancioulle” or such high “favor” (Baudelaire 1970: 54-57; Baudelaire 1917: 87-94). The fable suggests, somewhat allegorically, that the idea of Art as an “intoxication” to “veil the terrors of the abyss,” Death, is an illusion, for Art in reality is the most beautiful or “intoxicating” intimation of Death. Pantomime at the highest level of performance provides the most transparent revelation of Death mascarading as Art. But this was a more “serious” idea of pantomime than anyone performing it could imagine.
No romantic author was more “serious” about pantomime than Baudelaire, even if he had no interest in writing pantomime scenarios or seeing pantomimes performed. He did not think highly of French pantomime or of the Pierrot that “the late-lamented Deburau had accustomed us—that figure pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, supple and mute as the serpent, long and straight as a gibbet.” He preferred instead “the English Pierrot” he had seen in Paris in his youth, because this Pierrot was darker, more violent, and more destructive in his buffoonery, far more grotesque. In his essay on “the essence of laughter” (1855) Baudelaire claimed that laughter is the release of a “satanic” pressure within the body. Laughter is always a response to grotesque phenomena, which is “the absolute comic,” such as when, after being guillotined, the decapitated body of Pierrot rises up and displays his own head, as if his body could admire it, before stuffing it in his pocket. The grotesque is the degradation of an ideal: laughter therefore signifies a pleasure in degradation and asserts the superiority of the laugher over the grotesque thing that provokes laughter, for “the comic can only be absolute in relation to fallen humanity.” “Pantomime is the refinement, the quintessence of comedy; it is the pure comic element purged and concentrated” (Baudelaire 1972: 153-154). But Baudelaire’s theory applies effectively in relation to “the English Pierrot” and the imaginary Fancioulle, not in relation to pantomime in the Funambules in the 1850s, which, from Baudelaire’s perspective, had long ceased to contain any “serious” dimension. French pantomime had declined, he implied, because it had filtered out the “degradation” that gave it any seriousness (or cause for laughter) and become the bland, “poetic” image of “my friend Pierrot” or “the invincible Pierrot,” as Banville called him, a figure of charming, benign deathliness, free of degradation.
The cohort of romantic authors and artists that dominated Parisian cultural life in the 1850s included the innovative photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar (1820-1910), who was also a journalist, novelist, caricaturist, and aerialist. Nadar took vivid portraits of the romantic authors and artists in the cohort: Gautier, Nerval, Banville, Baudelaire, Champfleury, Courbet, Sand, Berlioz, Delacroix, Manet, and Daumier, among many others. These portraits were significant in connecting romanticism to the new technology, to a “modern” mode of image making. He photographed his subjects without the artifice and formal complexity of conventional portraiture, yet the images often project a stirring poetic vibrancy. Nadar interacted with his subjects to get them to reveal some alluring quality that draws the viewer into the image, thus bestowing on it the subjectivity that the romantics valued so highly. In 1854, Nadar photographed the son of Baptiste Deburau, Charles Deburau, who had assumed the role of Pierrot at the Funambules. For these portraits, Deburau wore his Pierrot costume: the long, white, collarless tunic with huge buttons, the billowy white pants, and the black skullcap, as well as the white face. In all of the dozen portraits, he stood before a dark screen and assumed rather quiet poses embodying qualities associated with Pierrot: “Pierrot Laughing,” “Pierrot Listening,” “Pierrot with Medicine,” “Pierrot with Fruit,” and so forth. One photograph shows Pierrot standing next to a camera on a tripod with his hand resting on plate frame while his eyes gaze downward at something other than what the camera would see, as if to suggest that the archaic Pierrot is as comfortable with photo technology as he is with a basket of fruit (Hambourg 1995: 224-227) [Figure 72].
Hamon (1999: 37-40) ascribes multiple ambiguities to this photograph, not least of which was the misleading involvement of Nadar’s brother, Adrien, in the making of the series, but the main peculiarity is that the viewer sees Pierrot taking the photograph, not Deburau. In 1855, Nadar took a few portraits of Paul Legrand, who at that time was Charles Deburau’s chief rival in the role of Pierrot. In these images, Legrand wears essentially the same costume as Deburau, and, as in the Deburau/Pierrot photographs, he stands before a dark screen, although Nadar did shoot one image of Pierrot sitting in a kind of studio garden terrace having a picnic meal. Legrand’s Pierrot seems somewhat gentler, older, and sweeter than Deburau’s, and less mysterious [Figure 104]. But again, these are portraits of Pierrot, not of Legrand. The Nadar Pierrot portraits effectively demonstrate that in the nineteenth century the figure of Pierrot overwhelmed the identity of anyone who incarnated him. Whoever played Pierrot with any success never played anyone else and could not play Pierrot without suppressing any identity outside of the character. It is as if Pierrot has no charm or even credibility as a character if he is merely one role among many that an actor performs. Pierrot takes over the actor, dominates him, and leaves no hunger within the actor to reveal any other identity, even his own. By the middle of the nineteenth century, pantomime in France had become entirely identified with the image of Pierrot. That is to say, pantomime was about movements of the body that were beautiful and enchanting because they created only one strange, inescapable identity for the body: Pierrot, a figure presumed to be “ironic, mocking, detached […] an enigmatic, marginal man whose vitality and autonomy prove his superior sensibility” (Hambourg 1995: 224). This mid-century Pierrot completely eclipsed the Roman idea of pantomime as the embodiment of an ideology of metamorphosis and the belief that the body contains many identities (cf., Knowles 2015).
While the image of Pierrot expanded in popularity for the rest of the nineteenth century, the performance of pantomime in the theater continued its long, inexorable decline, becoming an increasingly marginal art perfected by and dominated by a handful of men attached to small theaters that found their niche in preserving the belief that Pierrot was a national treasure. To say, though, that pantomime survived as long as it did because of the Pierrot image promoted by the romantics is feasible only by acknowledging that the nineteenth century was completely oblivious to any idea of pantomime outside of Pierrot. Even within the commedia format into which nineteenth century culture had imprisoned pantomime, it was inconceivable that any other commedia figure could rival Pierrot as a pantomimic image of “invincible humanity.” No Colombine, no Polchinelle, no Arlequin could emerge to challenge the supremacy of Pierrot as a symbol of pantomime, for the “silence” of Pierrot was the invention of Deburau and it retained its beauty or credibility only if it belonged to Pierrot and no one else. Those who played the other commedia figures submitted to this silence with the deepest obscurity; most of these actors had other roles to play. Within the culture, the purpose of pantomime was to affirm and reinforce the authority of an implied archaic archetype of the “silence” of the body, of the limits of the body to signify anything without words, without careful regulation through an elaborate system of signification, as in ballet, which by 1860 was itself in serious decline, awaiting, from Russia, in the 1870s, a far less complacent attitude toward ballet to restore romantic energy to an art too easily captivated by formal rigidity. Those seeking careers in bodily performance found larger opportunities at the various circuses that blossomed in Paris in the 1840s in the wake of the Cirque Olympique’s abandonment of pantomime in the 1820s. But the circus only reinforced the assumption that it was not a site for the production of narratives that bestowed “seriousness” or some high aesthetic value on bodily performance; it was merely a site for the display of bodily virtuosity, spectacles of technical proficiency.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, all the memorable stage Pierrots descended from Deburau’s Pierrot, beginning with Deburau’s son, Charles, as if these Pierrots exemplified a kind of royal pedigree, although such a pedigree did not prevent either pantomime or Pierrot from drifting into deeper decadence and frailty. Deburau planned for his son to have a life outside of the theater, because he believed that a life in the theater was unhealthy. But Charles Deburau (1829-1873) became intensely enamored of his father’s artistry, which he studied with fanatical zeal; upon his father’s premature death, Charles felt dynastically destined to perpetuate the Pierrot mystique. He was only nineteen when he played Pierrot in La reine des carrots (1848). He brought an elegant, supple, “physiognomic finesse” to the role (Huguonet 1889: 102). But he remained attached to his father’s conception of Pierrot as a carefree, irresponsible, anarchic spirit whose greatest pleasure was eating and drinking. His movements and “silence” were his father’s made youthfully fresh. However, the audience, while respectful of Charles’ “Catholic tradition” of pantomime, as Gautier called it, was also open to a new idea of Pierrot. The owner of the Funambules since 1843, Charles-Louis Billion, saw a grand commercial opportunity in setting up a rivalry between Charles and the ambitious Paul Legrand (1816-1898), who had studied the elder Deburau’s Pierrot for six years at the theater and had assumed the role immediately following Deburau’s death. Billion was masterful in extracting profit from the theater without increasing much, if at all, investment in higher production values to attract audiences. A rivalry between Deburau and Legrand would, he surmised, attract spectators more effectively and more cheaply than paying a single star a higher salary or spending more to achieve higher quality spectacle. But for the rivalry to work, Legrand had to come up with a different kind of Pierrot. He was not as handsome or suave as Charles Deburau; he had a short stature, a “soft” physiognomy, and a homely face, and he avoided performing the acrobatic stunts at which the Deburaus excelled. His fame therefore rested upon his construction of an “emotional” Pierrot, the sad, melancholy, poignant Pierrot perpetually thwarted in his efforts to love a woman. He wrote numerous scenarios to consolidate his conception of the character—“[Pierrot] leaves the stage the prey of a violent despair”—and he made astute choices of music to support the emotional scope of the movement (Larcher 1887: xxi, 41). Legrand’s emotionalism, his willingness to show Pierrot weeping or in scenes of solitude, intimated, especially for the literary-minded after 1880, the idea of a Pierrot capable of “tragic” pathos or at least the dark moods (“pantomime noir”) that literary audiences associated with a worthwhile degree of “seriousness,” which in the 1880s implied an alignment with the Symbolist attraction to “decadence.” But unlike the rivalry between Bathyllus and Pylades in the early Roman Empire, the rivalry between Deburau and Legrand did not lead to a glamorous era for pantomime. Legrand felt compromised by Deburau’s influence at the Funambules, while Deburau grew disenchanted with Billion’s reluctance to invest in the scenic upgrades necessary to sustain audience interest in the elaborate féerie pantomimes that best displayed his Pierrot. The Parisian audience for pantomime was not large enough to sustain even one Pierrot, let alone two. In 1853, Legrand moved to the nearby and opulently renovated Folies-Nouvelles, which sought to attract a more upscale audience than the Funambules. But at the Folies-Nouvelles, Legrand had to share much of the year with the many light operas and “spectacle concerts” produced at the theater. Even with Legrand gone from the Funambules, Charles Deburau found that his audience was not large enough to keep him in Paris, despite a series of unfortunate efforts to establish himself independently of the Funambules. Unlike his father, who never left Paris once he settled there, Charles toured France extensively beginning in 1857; for ten months he was in Egypt (1860-1861). In 1865, he attempted a triumphal return to Paris with the help of Champfleury’s scenario Le pantomime de l’avocat. By this time, Champfleury had become a director of the Fantaisies-Parisiennes theater, but neither Champfleury’s scenario nor Deburau’s artistry was enough to keep Pierrot on the stage: pantomime disappeared altogether from that theater, and Deburau was soon touring again all over France, even though the provincial theaters lacked the scenographic technology for the “tricks” that made his performances in Paris so distinctive. Marseille and Bordeaux proved especially appreciative of his “traditional” Pierrot. Nevertheless, as with his father, his health was never robust, and the stress of touring, of infusing new life into Pierrot, brought him to an early death in Bordeaux in 1873 (Huguonet 1889: 108-120). Legrand, meanwhile, lingered in Paris until the end of the 1850s, when the new owner decided that pantomime failed to attract audiences large enough to be profitable. He, too, began touring: Rio de Janeiro (1861-1863), Cairo (1870, 1871), and some reliable years in Bordeaux (1864-1870). By the time of his departure from Paris, his Pierrot seemed “old,” a kind of relic from a faded era, when people associated romanticism with youthful directions in culture, although part of the appeal of Legrand’s Pierrot was that he captured a sense of the character being “too old” for his feelings toward women and for the absurdity of his existence. He tried to turn Pierrot into the “good, devout, honest servant” of Cassandre, an “amiable” rather than demonic Pierrot, but when he returned to Paris for the final two decades of his career (1871-1888), he found his audience consisted for awhile of patrons of a café-cabaret and then ended his career performing for children at the Théâtre-Vivienne (Huguonet 1889: 134-137).
Legrand’s Pierrot resonated more strongly than Deburau’s in the arts media of Paris, but his Pierrot had no descendants on the stage, perhaps because Legrand did not see the Pierrot of the future as providing anyone with a career in the theater. Deburau, however, found a disciple in Louis Rouffe (1849-1885), a native of Marseille who studied under Deburau in Bordeaux. Rouffe’s career unfolded almost entirely in Marseille; he never performed in Paris, and hardly any evidence of his approach to Pierrot remains, although Huguonet (1889: 172) contends that he sought to apply innovative ideas that Champfleury had struggled to introduce decades earlier and grew closer to Legrand than Deburau would have approved. He apparently allowed Pierrot to discard his white costume on occasion and assume costumes particular to the situation in which he found himself. But Rouffe was not strong enough to create a new Pierrot, and he died even more prematurely than Deburau. His most important achievement was probably his student, the Corsican Séverin Cafferra, known as Séverin (1863-1930), who claimed that he applied a “gestural language” that Rouffe had devised; each word supposedly had its own gesture, and from these gestures one created “pantomimic phrases” (Séverin 1929: 38-44). “Under his shaved, flour face, all white, [Séverin] expresses, in turn, the different types which are agitated, palpitated, and stirring in the present society. He is the dandy, the snob in Pierrot Don Juan; Pescarp, the rogue, the apache in Conscience, the gallant and heroic soldier in Pousse caillou; the poet, the dreamer in Chand’ d’habits; the hallucinating madman in Pierrot, assassin de sa femme” (Claris 1903: 327). In 1890, Séverin went to Paris to see L’Enfant prodigue, a three-act pantomime by Michel Carré (1865-1945) and André Wormser (1851-1926), which had, unexpectedly, inspired considerable enthusiasm in the city under the auspices of the recently formed Cercle Funambulesques, a society dedicated to “modernizing” pantomime. The performance deeply impressed Séverin, who saw in it the necessity of creating a modern idea of Pierrot, and he resolved the following year to transfer his career to Paris. He collaborated with the El Dorado Theater to produce a short ensemble pantomime, which was successful enough to remain on the program for three months. His mother’s illness, however, compelled him to return to Marseille and the Alcazar Theater. It was not until 1896 that he returned to Paris to perform at private salons arranged by the Provençal critic Paul Arène (1843-1896), who had written a favorable review of Séverin’s performances in Marseille. He met the novelist Emile Zola, then he met Legrand, who observed that Séverin represented a “warm,” Mediterranean approach to pantomime and Pierrot. But the person he most impressed at the salons was the Parnassian poet and novelist Catulle Mendes (1841-1909), who decided to write a pantomime especially for Séverin, ‘Chand d’habits, an adaptation of the Gautier/d’Otan Marchand d’habits. The piece was a hit; after two weeks at the Théâtre-Salon, it transferred to the Folies Bergère, where it ran for 150 performances (Levillain 1943: 395). Even a foreign reviewer could write: “And Severin himself is never prolix. His gestures are definite, simple, and free from the mere suspicion of restlessness. Though he can dance with the maddest of them, though he can make love with an ardour which is childlike and pathetic, he never over steps the bounds of reticence, and there is an ingenuous dignity even in his discomfiture. His face, moreover, is the true Pierrot’s face; and his features are as expressive as possible on this side of distortion. To see him is to realise the ancient charm of pantomime, and to marvel once more at the decay of a beautiful art” (“Pantomime in Paris” 1897: 386). From this point on, Séverin remained in Paris, where the consensus soon emerged that he was “the last of the great Pierrots.” He extended his career deep into the 1920s, but the peak of his fame was in the years 1896-1912. In 1908, through an adaptation of his scenario Conscience, he introduced his Pierrot to international silent film audiences. In New York, distributors regarded it as a “powerful” “art” film (under the title Incriminating Evidence), because of its “gruesome” story of a man falsely accused of murder and only his friend, Pierrot, can save him, once he stops blackmailing the murderer and yields to his conscience (Film Index 4/6 1909: 8). “The marvelous ability of Severin is given a prominent position and to witness his power in gesture and still more able facial expression is a revelation” (Film Index 4/5 1909: 4). At the time of the film’s New York release in February 1909, Séverin had been and continued performing the stage version in several cities of the United States to considerable acclaim: “There is no actor but could profit by witnessing the play. It would be interesting to see what an American company would be able to do with it. It is to be feared that the net result would be amateurish, to say the least” (Variety, January 1909: 17; Los Angeles Herald, 36/136, 14 February 1909: 54).