Pantomime and Modernism: The Technologization of Pantomime: Champsaur and Richepin

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 109: Image of BEWTH performance at Pieterskerk, Leiden (1976), from Schade (2005: 89)

The Technologization of Pantomime

Champsaur and Richepin

Wague was not the only man in the Parisian fin de siècle pantomime culture who believed that the modernization of pantomime depended on a larger and more innovative attitude toward the representation of women, although it is doubtful that any other man at the time had quite as much impact as he did in this aspect of the culture. Perhaps membership in the Cercle Funambulesque was not helpful in developing this dimension of pantomimic modernism; as long as Cercle members saw pantomime as an opportunity to equate a “crisis” of confidence in language with a crisis in the representation of modern male identity, they were unable to see pantomime outside of Pierrot. But pantomime, even in its “decadent” phase, was still larger than the Cercle. In 1888, the novelist and journalist Félicien Champsaur (1858-1934) published two one-act pantomime scenarios, Les Éreintés de la vieand Lulu. In the same year, Champsaur arranged for private performances of these pieces at the Cirque Molier; in 1892, Lulu received a public performance at the Nouveau Cirque, also operated by the wealthy horseman and animal trainer Ernest Molier (1844-1933), who wanted to see pantomimes featuring pretty women, and there Lulu was successful enough to receive regular performances until 1894. The “clownesse” Lulu made her first appearance in Les Éreintés de la vie, an extravagant satire of capitalism completely outside the commedia format and featuring, as Molier requested, a parade of many pretty women, in bizarre costumes and sometimes nude, including a fairy, a doctor (Madame Beauty), her female valet, Fortune, and numerous dancers. Lulu appears briefly as a crippled clown seeking the plain water brought by the fairy and sold, by a group of financiers, as an elixir of health and beauty endorsed by Madame Beauty. The piece requires a large cast and many expensive props, including a procession with the Golden Calf at the end, perhaps because Champsaur wrote the work first as a kind of multimedia production in which the text physically interacts with plentiful drawings supplied by Henry Gerbault (1863-1930), who had a long career as an illustrator of humorously erotic women. The pictures function like a pantomimic-cinematic performance of the text, for they interact with the typography rather than, as in a comic strip, contain it, and all of the many characters are introduced on the page with individual illustrations before the reader reaches the text proper. It was a technique that Champsaur had employed in several earlier books. But for the 1888 performance, Champsaur recruited talent from major theaters, including the Opera and the Palais-Royal, with a young theater student, Mademoiselle Menty, playing Lulu. He had previously written ballet scenarios, but he turned to pantomime because he felt it was a more modern art (Champsaur 1892: 402). But modernity, for him, meant a kind of intensely eroticized (feminized) narrative intermediality and self-consciously disconcerting physical movement that was simply unimaginable in the commedia format or in ballet. Indeed, the illustrations show a vibrant style of movement that one would never see in a ballet or in the commedia format because it is so individualized and built around peculiarities of character, status, and costume. For example, a group of ballet dancers, in tutus and seeking the health elixir, enter on crutches.

          With Lulu, the scale of production was much smaller, involving only three characters: Lulu, Arlequin, and the philosopher Schopenhauer. The plot is very simple. The philosopher Schopenhauer, reading a book while walking down the sidewalk, stumbles across a strange object, which he determines is a human heart, even though it is made of stone. Lulu enters, looking for her heart, pondering how she may have lost it. She finally sees that Schopenhauer has it and is studying it somberly, for “he wants to know what a woman’s heart contains.” Lulu requests the return of her heart, but he ignores her, even when she implores him; then she becomes enraged, and then horrified as the philosopher begins, with “tools,” an autopsy on the heart. She tries to seduce him with kisses and caresses, but he remains disinterested until “curiosity prevails over prudence”, and he hands the heart to Lulu, who puts it in her pocket. Arlequin, desolate and bearing a candle, appears, seeking Lulu’s heart. As she dashes away, Lulu sees Arlequin and becomes excited. She gives her heart to him, and he places the candle in the hands of the “clown philosopher.” Lulu and Arlequin scamper off exchanging kisses, while Schopenhauer is left alone, “having understood nothing of anything in the heart of Lulu.” The candle flickers in the moonlight. Like Les Éreintés de la vie, the published version of Lulu makes strong use of illustrations to visualize the performance of the actions, but the images here do not interact so boldly with the text, even though three artists contributed to the book: Jules Chéret, Henry Gerbault, and Louis Morin, who already by this time enjoyed an esteemed reputation, at least within Molier’s circle, for sophisticated pornographic drawings. The three artists depicted Lulu differently. Chéret couldn’t make up his mind if Lulu was a red head who wore only a diaphanous yellow slip that did not cover up her naked lower half or if she was a dark figure who wore a yellow tutu that nevertheless left her lower half naked. Morin showed her as a blonde wearing a diaphanous negligee with large, ruffled collar and a little conical hat. But Gerbault produced the image of Lulu that resonated the most strongly: she wears a bluish tutu, black socks, and ballet slippers, although she looks more like an athlete than a dancer; her blonde hair is sculpted in the form of a Phrygian cap. 

Figure 110: Lulu as depicted by Henri Gerbault and Louis Morin for the published text of Félicien Champsaur’s pantomime Lulu (1888). 

Despite her bizarre costume, Gerbault has represented her in a much less caricatured way than any other artist or any other character. He did, however, one drawing of her in which she wears a peculiar dark hat from which dangle a pair of small orbs or bells, but otherwise she kneels completely nude on the pavement, while gazing at her heart in her hand, out of which sprouts a question mark. The idea of having three artists depict Lulu, whom Champsaur describes only through the basic actions she performs (“Then, with a finger on her lips, a hand on the empty square of her heart, with a pleased and coquettish air, she throws back her fine head, helmet of blond, to see what frightens her”), serves to reinforce for the reader the sense that even such a vague female figure like Lulu creates substantial instability of perception in men [Figure 111]. The venerable historian of French theater, Arsène Houssaye (1815-1896), contributed a brief preface full of aphorisms—“to understand a woman, it is best to love her.” His remarks bestowed a useful prestige on the publication, so that when the scenario achieved its public performance in 1892, it attracted much attention—and apparently displeasure within the Cercle Funambulesque. Paul Huguonet invited Champsaur to promote (or more likely defend) Lulu in La Plume, which regularly devoted space to the Cercle. Champsaur responded by citing several newspapers that had reviewed the production enthusiastically, and then concluded that, “there is no formula for the new pantomime,” for “it is not prohibited by any law to carry into the pantomime the slinky ones, the beautiful girls, bankers, clownesses, dancers and pigs. Pantomime can express everything” (Champsaur 1892: 402, 405). Rather veiled within Champsaur’s article was the implication that he had to “explain” why he had completely abandoned Pierrot in his pantomimes, had introduced characters from outside of the commedia repertory, and had made eccentric female characters drive the action. But the reader senses in Champsaur an impatience to say more than that his pantomimes have inspired enthusiastic responses and that if anything new is to happen in pantomime it cannot be because one is forbidden to do some things in it—perhaps a coded reference to the origin of French pantomime in the royal proscription of the foire theaters against speech, which led to the assumption within the popular pantomime culture that pantomime achieved some kind of “purity” or power of performance to the extent that it forbade anything outside a basic set of elements (the commedia format). The impact of Champsaur’s pantomimes is somewhat muddled. He described pantomimic actions in a concise but vivid manner, avoiding altogether the interior dialogue that Margueritte developed to make the pantomimic action a translation of the character’s thoughts.

Schopenhauer, annoyed, leaves and sits away from her. Lulu follows him. Prayers, anger at not being able to reason with the obstinate scholar, makes her even more troubled. She surrounds him with seductions, dances, bewitching graces, precursory gestures; she whispers in his ear extreme delights, if he will return her heart, her fantasy, her feeling without which she cannot live or love in her reality. By losing her heart, she has lost her kiss (1888: n.p.). 

Whereas Margueritte saw actions coming out of ideas (thoughts), Champsaur saw ideas coming out of actions: the characters search for something outside of themselves, like a heart (love) or an easy healthful tonic, an elixir, whereas Pierrot always remains imprisoned within himself. Champsaur’s approach allows him to build a narrative logic around relations between ideas rather than between a familiar set of characters. Nevertheless, Champsaur did not abandon Pierrot. In 1896, he produced another of his illustrated novels, Pierrot et sa Conscience, with drawings by August Gorguet (1862-1927), in which Pierrot, awakening from his sleep in a Montmartre cemetery, reflects on the different women he has loved or encounters on his wandering around Paris, reaching conclusions conventionally ascribed to him: “Joy is indeed lugubrious. We do not find the woman who fulfills the dream, and, like any ideal, we cannot embrace her” (1896: 136). 

But Champsaur expanded the imaginative scope of pantomime considerably, especially in Les Éreintés de la vie, where it seems as if an entire society moves perversely in relation to a dominating idea, the illusion of an elixir that brings health and beauty to those who otherwise do not receive enough love. Yet perhaps the biggest impact of the Champsaur pantomime aesthetic was the character of Lulu. In 1892, the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) saw Lulu in Paris, and the character inspired him to create his own turbulent, amoral, and almost demonic Lulu in the “monster tragedies” Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904), which then became the basis for G.W. Pabst’s famous silent film Die Büchse der Pandora (1929) and Alban Berg’s unfinished expressionistic opera Lulu (1935), as well as for the very successful, sensationalistic Broadway play Lulu Belle (1926), by Charles MacArthur (1895-1956) and Edward Sheldon (1886-1946), which situated a black Lulu in the African American neighborhoods of Harlem, New York. In 1969, Wedekind’s wife, Tilly Wedekind (1886-1970), who had played Lulu on stage, published her memoirs, Lulu: Die Rolle meines Lebens, in which she described how, in her conjugal life, she inescapably continued to play the role of Lulu, because Frank Wedekind pathologically saw his wife through the character he created in Lulu (Wilson 2010: 79-110; T. Wedekind 1969: 48-52). Through Wedekind (and Lulu), Champsaur may have exerted more influence on pantomime in Germany than in France, for Wedekind, whose influence on expressionism was large, himself experimented early (1894-1897) with pantomime when, in the early twentieth century, the Germans showed a sudden capacity to imagine pantomime without Pierrot (cf., Hilton’s introduction to Wedekind 1982: 233). 

But in spite of the public enthusiasm heaped on the text and performance of Lulu in Paris in 1892, Champsaur wrote no further pantomime scenarios. Perhaps he felt that any evolution or expansion of pantomime as he envisaged it entailed too much self-destructive conflict with an immensely privileged elite (the Cercle) and conventional theater institutions that seemed deeply frightened by a pantomime without Pierrot or a pantomime in which a bewitching Lulu had replaced Pierrot. Instead, Champsaur published his fascinating multimedia novel Lulu, roman clownesque (1900), in which he purported to describe the “the kindness, the cruelty, the caprices, the joys, the sadness, the humiliation and the revolt before the Force of the money, the transformations of mind and heart, of sense and of body” that Lulu’s career as a performer provokes (423). The book contains 200 illustrations by 31 artists (330 sleek art deco illustrations by Lucien Jaquelux in the 1929 edition) and an appendix with the author’s commentary on his text [Figure 112]. Most of the text consists of descriptions or scenarios of Lulu’s performances as a pantomime, dancer, acrobat, rope dancer, trapeze artist, and singer. It is not clear why Champsaur calls her a clown, because her performances are not so much humorous as extravagantly voluptuous stunts, such as a striptease on a trapeze or a pantomime with an enormous pig, Rambo, who brings her various gifts, in spite of her haughty disdain for him, for “the infinite prettiness of woman was exalted in contrast with the brute. Lulu had proved herself an ironic and great philosopher, contemptuous of the love of the male. […] Between them, they translated the whole hideousness and all the beauty of love” (70). Lulu encounters real historic personages (Baron Rothschild, Edgar Degas) as well as characters from other Champsaur novels; one chapter reprints the entire Lulu pantomime scenario, and another scene consists of the gargoyles on the Notre Dame cathedral having a conversation about Lulu’s debut in Paris. The book contains the lyrics of songs that Lulu sings or that are sung during her pantomime performances. 

Figure 112: Lulu as imagined by different artists in Félicien Champsaur’s Lulu, roman clownesque (1900). 

The illustrations show her in her many costumes, but in some of the pictures she is nude, and specific chapters deal, in a semi-scholarly fashion, with her image in posters and photographs, which make her the “apotheosis of modernity” (235). Champsaur gives Lulu a personal history: she was born in Rennes to bourgeois parents who paid little attention to her; she was “perverse,” she was “strong” and “healthy,” she was very athletic, she preferred to live in “solitude,” without friends or attachments to anyone, and she decided to become a clown after reading Maurice Sand’s Masques et bouffons (1860-1862), an enormous treatise on the Italian commedia tradition (10-14). But for the great majority of the book Champsaur treats Lulu as a kind of allegorical figure who embodies a male fantasy of a “modern” woman. What makes her modern is her “solitude”: she seems much more excited by her own body and how it performs than she is in other bodies, which is why she has “no heart,” although that does not prevent her from exciting audiences throughout Europe. She is modern because she is “perverse,” driven by a form of masturbatory self-exuberance that leaves her indifferent even to her own desirability, so that the pleasure of watching her perform is the pleasure of watching a woman enjoy herself and no one else, which, however, produces a somewhat misanthropic view of society. She is not the courtesan in Decadent literature nor even the amoral destroyer of men and women in Wedekind’s dramas. She embodies a mythical image of modernity as a solitary self-metamorphosis through pantomimic performances of “clownish” pleasure in the power of her body to excite herself and voyeuristic audiences. In this respect, Champsaur sees her in a way that resembles the Roman imperial view of pantomime as a solo performance demonstrating the power of mythic identities to manifest themselves in the body of the performer and thus establish the “metamorphosis” of the performer as the revelation of a fundamental condition of freedom. The Roman perspective was, of course, “tragic,” while Champsaur’s modernist perspective is “clownish”—that is to say, sardonic, jaded, deeply ambivalent, if not really comic (cf. Oberhuber 2015; Bazile 2007).  

            In Lulu, roman clownesque, Champsaur envisioned pantomimic modernity as something much more ambitious and complex than the theater world could accommodate. His vision required a novel rather than a scenario not only because he saw “woman” as central to the construction of modernity. A modern perception of “woman” precipitated complicated new relations between bodily performance and images, space, and time that could not be concentrated within a conventional theatrical space (Lulu, like a Roman pantomime, constantly brings her performances to new or unusual spaces). Another prominent writer of the time, Jean Richepin (1849-1926), also turned to the novel to imagine pantomime as no one saw it on the Parisian stage. He was a co-founder of the Cercle Funambulesque, and, as already mentioned, he had collaborated with Sarah Bernhardt, his lover at the time, on the 1883 production of Pierrot assassin. In his novel Braves gens (1886), he tells the story of the relationship between an inhibited, unconfident composer, Kergouët, and an idealistic, “gullible” actor, Tombre, who seeks to produce a new, “modernist” form of pantomime that will achieve a higher level of artistic power than commercial pressures allow or the compromises that are necessary to build a successful career in the mainstream theater. But the modernist pantomime simply means a “new Pierrot,” a “Shadow Pierrot” (Pierrot-Ombre), a “sinister, spectral” Pierrot, a Pierrot “in black,” but also a Pierrot “without a line in his face and hands all white, but not a cheerful white, no! Pale white. An alcoholic American white, a lugubrious white. Finally, a ghost, but a real ghost […] a Pierrot who makes one shudder, and think” (Richepin 1886: 60-61). In the “revolutionary” pantomime Tombre has written, L’Ame de Pierrot, Colombine, “beautiful and gracious,” functions as Pierrot’s “soul,” which he seeks to recover, although she “ended up as a sort of personification of Death itself, of that Death that he desired so much, and which was the supreme object of all his love. Not hideous Death; on the contrary, a suave, ideal, winged dancing apparition” (178). As Claude Jamain remarks, for Tombre, pantomime is not about the recovery or triumph of love, but the revelation of “the necessity of death” (2014: paragraph 42). But the actress Tombre selects to play Colombine refuses to play Death. He succeeds instead in facilitating the romance between the shy Kergouët and the student he loves, Madeline. Kergouët and Madeline retreat into obscurity as village musicians, while Tombre joins an “American” (actually French) circus (“The Happy Zig Zags”), where, as a kind of macabre clown-acrobat, he becomes completely unrecognizable as he was in Paris and basically anonymous to the world, even though his performances possess a severe realism, infused as they are with real tears and intense alcoholic suffering. His colleagues die off. He returns as a wreck to Paris, where he dies. But he manages to see Kergouët again and, in a hallucinatory, alcoholic haze, discloses to him his transfiguring faith in his “zig zag” pantomimic aesthetic, in which he embodies “all modern humanity, nervous, martyred, diabolized, paradisal, by that spirit which is God” (477). The “zig zag” aesthetic involves convulsive, contradictory movements, gestures, and glances that arise directly from the body, the “soul,” the emotional life of the actor rather than the Pierrot he assumes, so that pantomime becomes an intense autobiographical revelation, even though the actor is unrecognizable or hidden behind various aliases (cf. Forrest 2013). This autobiographical anonymity of pantomime performance is the basis for a redemptive “modernism” in theater, although Kergouët decides that he “must say farewell to the vices of youth” and accept that he is unable or unwilling to surmount the obscurity in which he has buried his talent.  

But for Richepin, the “soul of Pierrot” and the “zig zag” aesthetic remained theoretical constructs, figments of a novelistic imagination. Despite his involvement with the Cercle Funambulesque, he contributed no pantomime scenarios to the society and wrote no scenarios after Pierrot assassin, which he never published, although he remained busy writing comedies, dramas, and opera libretti. Writing Braves gens apparently convinced him that pantomime, ruled by Pierrot, was an aesthetic or embrace of Death. Pantomime was a dead art, even if Pierrot kept coming back to life or escaping execution, as he does in Tombre’s L’Ame de Pierrot. It was a dead art precisely because it depended for its survival on the resurrection, reincarnation, or endlessly deferred extinction of a single figure, Pierrot, who superficially represented, his devotees might foolishly claim, an irrepressible “life force.” But as Richepin implies in Braves gens, Pierrot worship remains embedded within self-destructive addictions, a deluded attachment to something that suppresses or denies the power of the body to move outside of the eternal, “lunar” image of Pierrot. Perhaps for this reason, Richepin conjured up ancient Roman pantomime in his novel Contes de la décadence romaine (1898), in which, through a first person voice, he assumed the persona of an aristocratic aesthete in the late Roman Empire, who describes how the public has turned away from the cultivation of beautiful experiences and nourished instead an insatiable taste for the deformed, the monstrous, and the ugly. In the end, “tired of a life where it is no longer possible to satisfy my love for the beautiful,” he decides to die Stoically, slitting his wrists in a luxurious bathtub while nude dancers scatter flowers on the mosaic floor. In one chapter, “Le Chrétien,” the narrator, who regards Christianity as a foolish preoccupation of the lower classes, recounts a pantomime performance sponsored by his friend, the freedman Phryllas, in the notorious Subure district of Rome. Through the favor of the Emperor, Phryllas had become rich collecting rents from the debauched citizens in his district. But he had an enemy: a Christian who preached against the lupanars and vice dens of Subure. With the Emperor’s assistance, Phryllas arranged to have the Christian “play the part of Orpheus in a pantomime representing the death of the Thraceian singer torn apart by the Bacchantes, while the roles of the Bacchantes would go to prostitutes of Subure, those who were the most furious against the Christian ruin of their trade” (Richepin 1898: 200). The performance took place in a private amphitheater with 77 spectators, including the Emperor. The narrator notes that the décor was admirable because there was no décor, for “everything was real, the rocks, the trees, the cliffs, the torrents,” “a minutely reconstructed little Thrace.” However, his “enthusiasm chilled” in regard to the performance by the Christian, for the “Christian did not in the least evoke the world of Orpheus and resembled more the beasts tamed by the lyre.” This Orpheus was small, dirty, ugly, with black skin: “He looked like a cynocephalus from Egypt, like the grimacing monkeys that priests of Isis drag along after them down the street,” quite in contrast to “the radiant nakedness of many admirable Orpheus statues to which we have become accustomed.” Because he had refused to play the role, the Christian was compelled to wear a laurel crown that drooped down his face and the lyre was chained to his wrists, “like an instrument of execution.” But the Bacchantes were “excellent,” full of “mad joy,” their fury was “sincere,” and they were beautiful, nude, “disheveled, screaming, waving gold-tipped thyrses […] gleaming, scarlet torches.” “A good master of pantomime” would have trained the Christian to flee the Bacchantes and then charm them with his lyre. The whole effect was comic, “like a display of marionettes.” The Christian made a “ridiculous speech absolutely devoid of meaning […] mingling Syriac words with Greek and abominable Latin barbarisms.” “Fortunately, the baseness of this show was somewhat redeemed by the horrible beauty of the denouement,” when the Bacchants threw themselves upon the Christian and tore him apart, “snatching scraps of flesh from his body,” and dismembering his body in a manner that inspired “many of us” to compliment Phryllas for the “pleasure he had given us.” Yet the narrator insists that the pantomime would have been much more grandiose and artistic if a real and “beautiful” pantomime had played Orpheus (202-205). Nevertheless, Richepin’s representation of ancient Roman pantomime is not much different from his representation of “modern” pantomime in Braves gens: the hunger for beauty brings one to Death. Pantomime is most beautiful when it is perfectly “real,” a revelation of autobiographical anonymity, when the performer has completely eclipsed the character as the figure one sees in movement but reveals nothing more than his embodiment of Death. The Christian/Orpheus is not much different from Tombre/Pierrot in manifesting the idea that the creation of redemptive art or beauty entails a degradation of the body, the “shadow” of Death. This affinity between the Christian and Tombre implies that the notion of pantomime as an aesthetic of Death long precedes Pierrot and that Pierrot cannot be blamed for what is inherent to pantomime itself. But of course that implication comes from the mind of a French decadent who was incapable of escaping the Shadow of Pierrot—at least as a scenarist of pantomimes. In 1901, Richepin collaborated with the composer Paul Vidal on the ballet scenario L’Imperatrice, which premiered at the Théâtre Olympia. Set in Byzantium, the ballet tells the story of a pair of pantomimes, Psellius and Myrrha, who obtain a magic wand from a sorceress. With the wand, the three plan to obtain the treasure the Empress (performed by Caroline Otero) offers to anyone who can cure her of boredom. The wand enables Psellius and Myrrha to appear before the Byzantine court in luxurious finery and bring with them a kind of perfumed grass, which, when inhaled, awakens an exhilarating pleasure in life, causing the chief eunuch to become enamored of one of the court ladies. Psellius and Myrrha stage for the Empress a pantomime about “the death and resurrection of Adonis.” Intoxicated by the perfumed grass, the Empress falls in love with Psellius and tries to replace Myrrha in performing the part of Kypris. Myrrha stabs the Empress, who nevertheless forgives her, “as the dawn rises in gold and purple splendor.” Howard Sutton regards the scenario as “characteristic of the author’s experiments with fantasy,” but, because of “the welter of violence” in the final tableau, “there can be no doubt that it was an artistic error” (1961: 199-200). The scenario continues Richepin’s theme of pantomime possessing a unique, deathly power to dissolve distinctions between life and art to create a greater, redemptive beauty. But the piece also stirs up uncertainty about the distinction between ballet and pantomime, especially since he designated L’Imperatrice as a ballet rather than as ballet pantomime or at least some kind of innovative intermedial project. It is as if, like an eighteenth century ballet master, he needed the regulated movements of ballet to “contain” the pantomime and prevent pantomimic movement from becoming too lifelike—and thus too contaminated with intimations of the body’s mortality. But this was a view of pantomime shaped by the seemingly interminable struggle of the nineteenth century French male literary imagination to “explain” the power of a bizarre male body (Pierrot) to live so long and so carelessly “in silence,” without words, without an effective “language” to regulate his motives and actions. In the twentieth century, the silent cinema would develop a pantomimic aesthetic that could tell the story of L’Imperatrice without considering at all the need for any balletic movement.

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