Pantomime and Modernism: Parisian Pantomime without Pierrot

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

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Figure 125: Georges Wague and Colette in “La Chair” (1907), by Wague and Léon Lambert; music by Albert Chantrier (1874-1946). Photo: courtesy of Société des amis de Colette.

Parisian Pantomime without Pierrot

In Paris, as motion picture technology began to exert a public fascination, efforts to develop pantomime in the theater beyond Pierrot and the commedia format remained feeble, if not altogether unthinkable. Georges Wague continued his experiments with female partners, the most notable being perhaps his collaboration with the writer Colette (1873-1954). In her biography of Colette, Patricia Tilburg argues that Wague sought to “democratize” pantomime by externalizing the interior life of ordinary people; he rejected the obscure gestural language of the traditional pantomime culture and instead used “natural movements” that “expressed common emotional truths.” He desired to bestow a high artistic status on the music hall and its plebian audiences. While Wague had many defenders, he also had numerous critics, such as the Marseilles mime Bighetti, who complained that Wague’s motives were entirely commercial, with his glorification of female partners and scenes of brazen eroticism (Tilburg 2009: 166-176). The critic Francis Norgelet claimed that Wague was squandering his talents in the music halls and needed “another milieu” to reach a more serious audience and greater recognition as an artist (Tilburg 2009: 172). The program to “modernize” and “democratize” pantomime was about how to find a way to do pantomime without Pierrot, whose “obscure” gestural language appealed more to plebian than to upscale audiences. Nancy Erber asserts that music hall audiences for Wague’s productions were not entirely or even mostly plebian, but they were looking for liberating aesthetic experiences. Conservative, nationalist critics, upholders of the Pierrot tradition, condemned the “pornographic” content and “degenerate” morality of Wague’s pantomimes and other sensationalistic music hall entertainments (Erber 2008: 185, 190-191). In 1905, Colette, along with her aristocratic lover, Mathilde de Morny (1863-1944), began studying with Wague, who the following year invited the two women to join with him and his wife, Christine Kerf, to perform at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Their first production was Le Désir, la Chimère et l’Amour (1906), by Francis de Croisset (1877-1937), in which Colette played a faun who replaces a statue in a “delicious garden.” A “gallant world” admires and kisses the statue until one lover abducts her and takes her into the forest. But Colette also performed in plays without Wague, such as Charles Van Leberge’s Pan (1906), Gustaf Collijn’s La tour de silence (1909), and plays she wrote herself, such as Claudine à Paris (1908-1909). Then she and Wague performed the twenty-minute pantomime Rêve d’Égypte, January 3, 1907 at the Moulin Rouge. The police shut down the show after only one performance. In this pantomime, Morny played an Egyptologist who has obtained a mummy, played by Colette. The mummy comes to life, peeling away her bandages, and performs an erotic dance for the scholar, culminating in a long, passionate kiss between the ancient dead woman and her modern excavator. Colette wore “a calf-length gauzy skirt, golden breastplates and a headdress, and bracelets decorated with entwined snakes; her legs, midriff, and feet were bare,” while “Mathilde de Morny wore a brown velvet suit, a tie, and mannishly-styled shoes,” as she was accustomed to wearing off stage (Erber 2008: 187). But no one in the audience presumed that Morny was impersonating a man, which led the police to prosecute the theater for allowing public display of lesbian passion. Colette, her husband Willy, and the theater had promoted the piece in the press by stressing the intimate friendship off stage between Colette and the aristocratic Morny. Wague and Colette continued to collaborate only intermittently. La Chair (1908) was their greatest success, which they performed in many cities throughout France and in Belgium until the end of 1911. This pantomime depicted the violent relationship between a tempestuous woman, Yulka (Colette), and the smuggler who loves her, Hokartz (Wague). When he discovers Yulka with another man (Christine Kerf), Hokartz beats up his rival and drives him away. He demands an explanation from Yulka, who remains silent. He thinks of tearing apart her clothes to reveal the flesh (la chair) that makes him so “savagely enamored” of her. But Yulka turns away from him and leaves him alone. Despair overwhelms him, and, realizing the “impossibility of possessing” her, he kills himself (Colette sur scène 2017). Nudity was apparently a feature of the performance, but evidently not any lesbian theme, even though Christine Kerf played the rival lover dressed as a soldier and later (1912) performed an “Assyrian” and a “Montmarte” dance with Colette at the Cercle de l’Union artistique. At the Bat-Ta-Clan Theater, Aux Bat. d’Af.(1911) was a pantomimic adaptation of a 1906 melodrama by Aristide Bruant and Arthur Bernède, in which Colette played Poliche, an Algerian girl, who is the object of conflict between a loving but unjustly maligned soldier (Kerf) and a resentful sergeant (Wague), who stabs her to death. In L’Oiseau de nuit (1911), she played a mysterious visitor to a Basque farm couple; the husband falls in love with the dark, voluptuous woman, who seeks to invite an accomplice into the household, much to the dismay of the husband. But the wife in a jealous rage kills the ominous “night bird” and restores order to the household. This piece also featured nudity: it was apparently well known that Colette did not wear panties under her tattered dress [Figure 80]. With La Chatte amoureuse (1912), a variation on the Pygmalion story, Colette, in a black body suit with a tail, played a cat enlarged by magic to human size, but then she becomes jealous of love between humans, and only a divine lightning bolt can restore the animal to its natural size. 

It is difficult to reconcile these pantomimes with Tilburg’s claim that Wague “democratized” pantomime, even if he employed more “natural” and less coded movements than the Pierrot performers. The pantomimes he produced with Colette served to bring an “ultra-elegant audience” to the music halls rather than, as Norgelet wished, to bring music hall audiences to a higher level of pantomime and to a more serious theater milieu (Erber 2008: 189). But Wague and Colette were part of a larger transformation of music hall into an upscale tourist entertainment, of which pantomime was not to become a significant component. By 1912, Wague saw greater opportunities for his art in the silent film, while Colette preferred to concentrate on developing her literary career. Without these two adventurous personalities, French pantomime in the theater seemed incapable of moving beyond Pierrot to achieve a modern identity. They were great friends and continued to confide in each other for many years, but they did not collaborate. Forbidden to explore unusual aspects of sexual desire, such as homosexuality, they built their pantomime aesthetic around stories in which eroticism, nudity, “the flesh” of “strange” women, provoked intense jealousy and undermined the stability of conventional couplehood, and perhaps they themselves did not see how they could move beyond this rather conventional theme or at least develop it with any freshness. The modernity of their relationship to each other and to Christine Kerf and Mathilde de Morny hardly finds a mirror image in the primitive, violent triangle dramas they performed on stage, although one can sense that they nevertheless tried to bring some sort of autobiographical dimension to pantomime through the theme of a woman “impossible to possess.” The idea of pantomime emerging directly out of personal experience rather than out of mythic archetypes or popular avatars may have guided Wague’s conception of a modern pantomime in the theater. But it was not an idea that gained any strength outside of his own productions, and, in spite of their “daring” use of nudity, even these, as Norgelet contended, made too many concessions to conventional morality to impose a powerful notion of modernity upon audiences otherwise subordinate to that morality. For many years, Wague campaigned to introduce a course in pantomime at the Paris Conservatoire, which was under the direction of the composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), who had implemented numerous reforms to release the venerable institution from the suffocating conservatism that prevailed upon his appointment in 1905. But Fauré was not keen on such a course. Colette lobbied her friends in high places, and in 1914, the socialist minister of education, René Viviani (1863-1925), established the course by decree; in 1915, Wague received appointment as the instructor for the course, although he then struggled to build credibility for it in the face of much opposition from the faculty in the Conservatoire, which after 1922 was under the directorship of the right-wing, virulently anti-modernist composer Henri Rabaud (1873-1949) (Remy 1954: 112-116). Rémy and Tilburg contend that the faculty disdained the intrusion of music hall aesthetics into the sacred, elite halls of the Conservatoire (Rémy 1954: 107-108; Tilburg 2009: 175). But whether in the music hall or in the state institution of the Conservatoire, French pantomime in the theater after Wague and Colette ceased to be an art associated with modernism until after World War II. 

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