Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Clowns": Chapter Two — Supplementary Material

[post 162]

Chapter two (previous post) covered a lot of ground — about twenty centuries and at least four continents — so there's a ton of potential supplementary material. I'll just throw a few at you here, and then follow up in my next posts with some free books.

The first comes from the 18th-century tradition of French fairground theatre, which thrived outside the censorship laws imposed on the royally-sanctioned "serious" theatres in Paris. The most popular form of fairground comedy was a short farcical sketch known as a parade.  Popular, that is, until they were closed down by the police in 1777.

Below is a quite humorous example by Thomas-Simon Gueullette (1683–1766), a lawyer and scholar who wrote over sixty pieces for the commedia actors of the Théâtre-Italien. Rather than inventing much that was new, I suspect that Gueullette, like Goldoni and Gozzi, took much of the comic business made popular by the improvisatory commedia actors and repackaged it in a more tightly structured, written form. The good news is that he did a nice job of it.

One Armed, Blind Deaf Mute

Here's what that dumb comic servant Gille may have looked like:

And click here for a recent Ph.D. dissertation on the work of Gueullette.

If you've seen my favorite movie ever, Children of Paradise (1945), you already have some sense of the fairground theatre atmosphere, but transported half a century later from Gueullette's time to the heyday of the Boulevard du Crime in Paris. If you haven't seen Children of Paradise, you are hereby ordered to do so. Soon! It's on DVD and it's available on Netflix, though if you can actually see it in a movie theatre, it's worth the money to take it all in on a big screen. Much of the action takes place at the Théâtre des Funambules (theatre of the wirewalkers) and centers around the legendary mime, Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796–1846), immortalized in the performance of Jean-Louis Barrault.

Here's a scene that did a lot to popularize pantomime. This is Barrault as a not-yet-famous Deburau, dismissed as the family idiot, forced to work the platform in front of the Funambules to help draw in paying customers.

There are no subtitles, but you won't need them. When the master criminal Lacenaire picks the pocket of a bourgeois gentleman, his accomplice Garance gets the blame. The police ask if there are any witnesses, and the silent mime suddenly speaks, saying he saw it all. Once he acts it out, Garance goes free, and her show of gratitude triggers a romance that is one of the movie's central plot lines.

"Act! Act! You have the wrong place. We are not allowed to act here. We walk on our hands! And you know why? They bully us. If we put on plays, they'd have to close their great, noble theaters! Their public is bored to death by museum pieces, dusty tragedies and declaiming mummies who never move! But the Funambules is full of life, movement! Extravaganzas! Appearances, disappearances, like in real life! And then, BOOM, the kick in the pants!"   
— the director of the Funambules

A mime piece performed by Barrault as Deburau at the Funambules:

Stay tuned: I will be posting a complete book (in French) of Deburau's mime pieces in a week or two.

Now here's a real curiosity: Etienne Decroux, the father of French mime, teacher of Marceau and Barrault, and later the creator of the more abstract corporeal mime style carried on by his students Tom Leabhart, Daniel Stein, and Steve Wasson, amongst others. Yes, that Etienne Decroux. Here he is, eye lashes fluttering, jabbering away, hamming it up like crazy as Deburau's very verbose father!

"A kick in the ass, if well delivered, is a sure laugh. It's true. There's an entire order, a science, a style of kicks in the ass."
— Anselme Debureau (played by Etienne Decroux)

Did I mention this is a great movie? Not only that, but once you've seen it, you'll want to know more about this whole theatrical era. Well, you've come to the right place, and I'm referring to our final supplemental item, "The Golden Age of the Boulevard" by Marvin Carlson.

When I was in graduate school at NYU and working as an assistant editor for TDR (The Drama Review), I commissioned this article from the distinguished theatre scholar Dr. Marvin Carlson for an issue on popular entertainments I was putting together. It gives me great satisfaction, almost forty years later, to have been back in touch with Professor Carlson, who kindly consented to have his article reprinted on this blog so it could reach a new and wider audience. It's an excellent article, and I once again thank Mr. Carlson for this and his many other contributions to theatre scholarship, which you can check out here.

Golden Age

And, last but not least, an important correction. The following photo, from a Columbia Records lp of gamelan music, appeared in the color plate section of my book with the caption "Clown character from the wajang wong, the Balinese dance-drama."

Well, it turns out that was wayway wrong. After the book was published, I received a note from Leonard Pitt — mime, maskmaker, student of the above-mentioned Etienne Decroux, and expert on Balinese theatre — advising me that this photo was mislabeled. My bad for not having double-checked this. But I did save the note, and when I visited Leonard last year at his Flying Actor Studio in San Francisco, I was able to show it to him (35 years later!) and promise to finally make amends. I wanted to scan the note for this post, but it is lost somewhere here in my office. If instead I showed you a picture of my office, you'd see why it might take me a while to retrieve the note! Anyway, correction made, photo removed, and thank you again Leonard!

Coming next, the following complete books, all related to Chapter Two material:
The Mimes of Herodas
The Commedia dell'Arte by Winifred Smith
Masques et Bouffons by Maurice Sand
Mimes et Pierrots by Paul Hugounet
Memoirs of Carlo Goldoni
• Goldoni: A Biography by H.C. Chatfield-Taylor
The Memoirs of Count Carlo Gozzi
• The Life of Moliere by Henry M. Trollope
Le Théâtre des Funambules by Louis Péricaud
Pantomimes de Gaspard et Charles Deburau

1 comment:

Hank said...

There was a time when once a year I went to see "Children of Paradise" for my annual "fix". But those days of rep movie houses are gone. I have it on video and DVD, but miss seeing it in a theater with people around me.