Friday, November 11, 2011

The Fartiste

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Pop Quiz: Name the famous Nobel-Prize winning author who wrote the following in his most celebrated work:

"Who farted?"

No, I am not kidding. And the answer is.... (drum roll, please) ....that's right, Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot. Which just goes to show that the gap between high and low art is not always as wide as we may think.

Which brings us to The Fartiste, which opened off-Broadway last week five years after winning Best Musical at the New York International Fringe Festival. It's based on the life of one Joseph Pujol, known to the French public as "Le Pétomane," literally the "farting maniac." Not only was Pujol a real person, but he was the hottest act in Paris circa 1900, launching his singular career at the world-famous Moulin Rouge. A bit of history from the show's program:

One summer’s day in the mid-1860′s, a young French boy named Joseph Pujol had a frightening experience at the seashore. Swimming out alone, he held his breath and dove underwater. Suddenly an icy cold feeling penetrated his gut. Frightened, he ran ashore, but then received a second shock when he noticed seawater streaming from his anus. The boy didn’t know it at the time, but this unsettling experience foretold of a gift that would later make him the toast of Paris and one of the most popular and successful performers of his generation.

Soon he discovered that by contracting his abdomen muscles, he could intentionally take up as much water as he liked and eject it in a powerful stream. Demonstrating this ability back at the barracks later provided the soldiers with no end of amusement, and soon Pujol started to practice with air instead of water, giving him the ability to produce a variety of sounds. It was in the army, that Pujol invented a nickname for himself that would later become a stage name synonymous throughout Europe: Le Petomane

In 1892 Pujol became a headliner at The Moulin Rouge. Pujol dressed formally and presented his routine with an unrelentingly deadpan delivery. He performed imitations, using the simple format of announcing and then demonstrating. He displayed his wide sonic range with tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds. He imitated the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night (tiny), the same bride the day after (loud), and a mason (dry– “no cement”). He imitated thunder, cannons and even the sound of a dressmaker tearing two yards of calico (a full 10-second rip). After the imitations, Le Petomane popped backstage to put one end of a yard-long rubber tube into his anus. He returned and smoked a cigarette from this tube, after which he used it to play a couple of tunes on a song flute. For his finale he removed the rubber tube, blew out some of the gas-jet footlights from a safe distance away, and then led the audience in a rousing sing-along.

No, they are not making that up. And if the act seems freakish and gross to you, keep in mind that Le Pétomane played for many of the crown heads of Europe, including King Leopold of Belgium, not to mention Sigmund Freud, though the latter's interest may have been more clinical.

The only surviving film clip of Pujol is this (silent) half-minute Edison Studios clip from 1900:

So what we have here is a very odd story or, as some reviewers have complained, a too ordinary story about a man with a very odd talent. Admittedly the plot is thin, the story more anecdotal than dramatic, so there's little suspense — "what's going to happen next?" — which makes the dynamics kind of flat. At a certain point, yet another song starts to feel like more of the same thing.

And it is light entertainment, a fact which seems to have escaped one dour critic, who made a point of comparing it unfavorably with Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. Give me a break! Did you really go to a show about a master farter expecting to pierce the artistic soul of another Georges Seurat?

Mikhail Baryshnikov poses
with Kevin Kraft; Rachel Kopf;
Analisa Leaming; Lindsay Roginski
I didn't, which is probably why I had such a good time. I got to share a table with Adam ( Gertsacov, Nat ( Towsen, and the cast of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and was flanked by two other tables where sat those legendary Mikhail B's. (I refer of course to Bongar and Baryshnikov.) I had two beers, laughed a lot, and enjoyed some strong comic performances.


"Kids enjoy farts. Farts are as funny as hell. Farts are shit without the mess. Look at it that way."  — George Carlin

Kevin Kraft, a former Ringling clown and an actor with impressive credentials, brings Pujol to life with high energy and admirable physical dexterity, coordinating beautifully with "vocal sound effects artist" Steven Scott, who stands downstage right and provides all of the melodious flatulence. It is amazing what this man can do with a microphone! When Pujol performs his masterpiece, a symphony of instruments, the result is a marvelous Kraft-Scott physical comedy duet. The rest of the cast, aided by some witty lyrics, keeps those laughs coming. Character actor Nick Wyman (who is also the president of the Actors Equity union) is very funny as the singing narrator, and Herndon Lackey does a nice double as the producer of the Moulin Rouge and as Toulouse Lautrec. Also effortlessly doubling roles were the three singin', dancin' can-can girls; my favorite was the one who sat on my lap.

Here's some video related to the show.

First, the making of The Fartiste:

Here's the song The Great Pujol, against a background of Pétomane posters:

And here's Steven Scott showing off his remarkable audio talents as part of his stand-up comedy act act:

Some Links:
• The web site for the show
• Sample excerpts from the Fartiste score
• Le Pétomane, a short movie about Pujol, available in five parts on YouTube
• Adam Gertsacov's review on
• New York Post review review

Amazing — I made it through this entire post without making a single pun about farting, gas, wind, or asses. A rare display of maturity!

1 comment:

Jonathan Lyons said...

Thanks for this post. I have a fart related concept I've been developing. If it gets produced, I'll be sure to give you a credit as "fart consultant".