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Jean-Gaspard Deburau (born Jan Kašpar Dvořák; July 31, 1796 – June 17, 1846), sometimes erroneously called Debureau, was a celebrated Bohemian-French mime. He performed from 1816 to the year of his death at the Théâtre des Funambules, which was immortalized in Marcel Carné's poetic-realist film Children of Paradise (1945); Deburau appears in the film (under his stage-name, "Baptiste") as a major character. His most famous pantomimic creation was Pierrot—a character that served as the godfather of all the Pierrots of Romantic, Decadent, Symbolist, and early Modernist theater and art.
Life and career
Born in Kolín, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), Deburau was the son of a Czech servant, Kateřina Králová (or Catherine Graff), and a former French soldier, Philippe-Germain Deburau, a native of Amiens. Some time before 1814, when he appeared in Paris, Philippe had turned showman, and had begun performing at the head of a nomadic troupe probably made up, at least in part, of his own children. When the company was hired, in 1816, by the manager of the Funambules for mimed and acrobatic acts, the young Deburau was included in the transaction.
Apparently, as cast-lists indicate, he began appearing as Pierrot as early as the year of his hiring, although it was not until 1825 that he became the sole actor to claim the role. His "discovery" by the theater-savvy public did not occur until several years later, when, in 1828, the influential writer Charles Nodier published a panegyric on his art in La Pandore. Nodier persuaded his friends, fellow men-of-letters, to visit the theater; the journalist Jules Janin published a book of effusive praise, entitled Deburau, histoire du Théâtre à Quatre Sous, in 1832; and by the middle of the 1830s Deburau was known to "tout Paris". Théophile Gautier wrote of his talent with enthusiasm ("the most perfect actor who ever lived"); Théodore de Banville dedicated poems and sketches to his Pierrot; Charles Baudelaire alluded to his style of acting as a way of understanding "The Essence of Laughter" (1855).
He seems to have been almost universally loved by his public, which included the high and the low, both the Romantic poets of the day and the working-class "children of paradise", who installed themselves regularly in the cheapest seats (which were also the highest: the "paradise") of the house. It was before this public of artists and artisans that he found himself in his only true element: when, in 1832, he took his pantomime to the Palais-Royal, he failed spectacularly. The occasion was a benefit performance of a pantomime performed earlier—with great success—at the Funambules, and included actors, not only from the Funambules, but also from the Gymnase, the Opéra, and the bastion of high dramatic art, the Théâtre-Français. Louis Péricaud, the chronicler of the Funambules, wrote that "never was there a greater disaster, a rout more complete for Deburau and his fellow-artists." Deburau himself was hissed, and he vowed to play thereafter before no other public than those "naïfs and enthusiasts" who were habitués of the Boulevard du Crime.
But some of that public, however admiring, made the mistake of confusing his creation with his character, and one day in 1836, as he was out strolling with his family, he was taunted as a "Pierrot" by a street-boy, with ugly consequences: the boy died from one blow of his heavy cane. Deburau's biographer, Tristan Rémy, contends that the incident throws into relief the darker side of his art. "The bottle", Rémy writes, "whose label 'Laudanum' he smilingly revealed after Cassander had drained it, the back of the razor he passed over the old man's neck, were toys which he could not be allowed to take seriously and thus put to the test his patience, his reserve, his sang-froid." And Rémy concludes: "When he powdered his face, his nature, in fact, took the upper hand. He stood then at the measure of his life—bitter, vindictive, and unhappy."
In court, he was acquitted of murder. Carné remarked, "There ensued a trial which le tout Paris crowded into, in order to get to hear the voice of the famed Debureau [sic]." The composer Michel Chion named this curiosity about a voice the Deburau effect. The idea of a Deburau effect has been extended to any drawing of the listener's attention to an inaudible sound—which, once heard, loses its interest.
When he died, his son Jean-Charles (1829–1873) took over his role and later founded a "school" of pantomime, which flourished in the south of France, then, at the end of the century, in the capital. A line can be drawn from that school to the Bip of Marcel Marceau.
Jean-Gaspard Deburau is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In a review of a pantomime at the Funambules after Deburau's death, Gautier reproached the mime's successor, Paul Legrand, for dressing "half as a comic-opera Colin, half as a Tyrolean hunter", thereby degrading the Pierrot of Baptiste. He was answered by a letter from the Funambules' director, who wished to disabuse the poet of his "error": " ... we have some thirty-odd plays performed by Debureau [sic] in different costumes, and Paul has simply continued the practice ... ". Pierrot was not Baptiste's only creation. As Robert Storey, one of the most assiduous students of the mime's repertoire, has pointed out, Deburau performed in many pantomimes unconnected with the Commedia dell'Arte:
He was probably the student-sailor Blanchotin in Jack, l'orang-outang (1836), for example, and the farmhand Cruchon in Le Tonnelier et le somnambule ([The Cooper and the Sleepwalker] late 1838 or early 1839), and the goatherd Mazarillo in Fra-Diavolo, ou les Brigands de la Calabre ([Brother Devil, or The Brigands of Calabria] 1844). He was certainly the Jocrisse-like comique of Hurluberlu (1842) and the engagingly naïve recruit Pichonnot of Les Jolis Soldats ([The Handsome Soldiers] 1843).
Like Chaplin's various incarnations, all of whom bear some resemblance to the Little Tramp, these characters, though singular and independent creations, must undoubtedly have struck their audiences as Pierrot-like. For Deburau and Pierrot were synonymous in the Paris of post-Revolutionary France.
The Pierrot of his predecessors at the Funambules—and that of their predecessors at the Foires St.-Germain and St.-Laurent of the previous century—had been quite different from the character that Deburau eventually devised. He had been at once more aggressive in his acrobatics (his "superabundance", in Péricaud's words, "of gestures, of leaps") than Baptiste's "placid" creation, and much less aggressive in his audacity and daring. The Pierrot of Saphir the Enchanter, Pantomime in 3 Parts (1817) is a typical pre-Deburau type. Lazy and sexless, he much prefers stuffing his gut to the amorous pastimes of Harlequin and Claudine. And when Harlequin's heroics seem on the point of bringing the machinations of the Enchanter to an end, Pierrot's stupid bungling nearly precipitates disaster. Even when he summons up the pluck and resourcefulness to initiate actions of his own, as he does in The Pink Genie and the Blue Genie, or The Old Women Rejuvenated (1817), he shows—in the Pink Genie's words at the end of the piece—"only the signs of an unjust and wicked heart", and so is buried in a cage in the bowels of the earth.
Deburau dispensed with Pierrot's coarseness and emphasized his cleverness. As theater historian Edward Nye writes, "[George] Sand describes the new Pierrot as if he were a more reflective version of the old, as if Pierrot had somehow intellectually matured and learnt to moderate his worst excesses, or even to turn them into relative virtues." So radical was that maturation that the poet Gautier, though a great admirer of the mime, reproached him after his death for having "denaturalized" the character. No longer the cowardly stooge, his Pierrot "gave kicks and no longer received them; Harlequin now scarcely dared brush his shoulders with his bat; Cassander would think twice before boxing his ears." Deburau restored to Pierrot some of the force and energy of the earlier Italian type Pedrolino (though he probably never heard of that predecessor). Part of this may have been due to what Rémy calls the vindictiveness of Deburau's own personality; but what seems more likely is that, with the assurance that comes with great talent, Deburau instinctively forged a role with a commanding stage presence.
Nye identifies the source of that presence: it arose from the "semantic clarity" of Deburau's art. ("Such was the semantic clarity of his body language that spectators ‘listened’ to him and could translate his mime into words and phrases".) Nye explains:
From the waning world of the commedia dell’arte he took the concept of playing a role, Pierrot, with recurrent characteristics and types of behaviour. ... From the wider world of theatre he took the principle of character acting, of seeking to imitate the physical and psychological manner of social types as realistically as possible.
And Nye suggests how these two orders of acting "contributed to the clarity of his mime": "Firstly, the Pierrot tradition primed the spectator to understand Deburau's mime in certain ways. Secondly, Deburau's character acting provided a social and psychological context", further sharpening the intelligibility of his performance.
The expressivity of his acting was abetted by his alterations in Pierrot's costume. His overlarge cotton blouse and trousers freed him from the constraints of the woolen dress of his predecessors, and his abandoning the frilled collaret and hat gave prominence to his expressive face. A black skullcap, framing that face, was his only stark adornment.
But his real innovations came in the pantomime itself. His biographers, as well as the chroniclers of the Funambules, contend that his pantomimes were all alike. The "naive scenarios" that "limited" his acting, according to his Czech biographer, Jaroslav Švehla, "did little more than group together and repeat traditional, threadbare, primitive, and in many cases absurd situations and mimic gags (cascades), insulting to even a slightly refined taste." And Adriane Despot, author of "Jean-Gaspard Deburau and the Pantomime at the Théâtre des Funambules", agrees: "most of the pantomimes are essentially the same; they share the atmosphere of light, small-scale, nonsensical adventures enlivened with comic dances, ridiculous battles, and confrontations placed in a domestic or otherwise commonplace setting." But Despot was familiar only with a handful of the scenarios, those few in print; by far the greater number, which present a picture of the pantomime rather different from Despot's, are in manuscript in the Archives Nationales de France and in the library of the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques. And Švehla is proceeding along misguided lines by assuming that Deburau "longed to represent a better character" than Pierrot: Deburau was apparently proud of his work at the Funambules, characterizing it to George Sand as an "art" (see next section below). "He loved it passionately", Sand wrote, "and spoke of it as of a grave thing".
The fact is that four distinct kinds of Commedia-related pantomime held the stage at the Funambules, and for each Deburau created a now subtly, now dramatically different Pierrot.
- The Rustic Pantomime: Gesturing towards Pierrot's roots outside the Commedia dell'Arte, to the peasant Pierrot of bucolic tradition (such as Molière's Pierrot of Don Juan ), the action of these scenarios is set in a hamlet or village. Pierrot is the hero: he is honest, good-hearted, but poor (and egotistically, comically naïve). Through an act of courage, he is able to overcome the scruples of the father of his beloved—a Lisette, or Finetta, or Babette—and win her at the dénouement. Examples: The Cossacks, or The Farm Set Ablaze (1840); Pierrot's Wedding (1845).
- The Melo-Pantomime: Finding their inspiration in the popular boulevard melodramas having no connection with the Commedia dell'Arte, these scenarios present Pierrot, not as a hero, but as a subaltern—often a soldier, sometimes a retainer working in the employ of the hero of the piece. They are set in exotic locales—Africa, America, Malta, China—and the action is (or is meant to be) thrillingly dramatic, fraught with villainous abductions, violent clashes, and spectacular rescues and reversals of fortune, often brought about by Pierrot's cleverness and daring. Examples: The Enchanted Pagoda (1845); The Algerian Corsaire, or The Heroine of Malta (1845).
- The Realistic Pantomime: These are the pieces with which Despot seems most familiar. They are set in commonplace urban locales (shops, salons, public streets) and are usually peopled with the Parisian bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, merchants, valets). Pierrot is the center of attention in these scenarios, but it is a Pierrot that is often very different from the character thus-far described. "Libidinous and unscrupulous," writes Robert Storey, "often spiteful and cruel, he is redeemed only by his criminal innocence." He steals from a benefactress, takes outrageous advantage of a blind man, kills a peddler to procure the garments in which he presumes to court a duchess. This is the Pierrot described by Charles Nodier as a "naive and clownish Satan." (Only when the pantomime has been written by Deburau himself, such as La Baleine [The Whale] of 1833, do we encounter, predictably, a less devilish Pierrot—one in fact deserving of Columbine's hand.) Examples: Pierrot and His Creditors (1836); Pierrot and the Blind Man (1841).
- The Pantomimic Fairy-Play: The grandest and most popular class of pantomimes—it occupied a third of the Funambules' repertoire—of which there are three subclasses:
- The Pantomimic Pierrotique Fairy-Play: Pierrot is the only Commedia dell'Arte character (except Cassander, who sometimes puts in an appearance). Like the action in the other subclasses, the plot here unfolds in fairyland, which is populated by sorcerers and sorceresses, ogres and magicians, fairies and enchanters. Pierrot is usually sent on a quest, sometimes to achieve an amatory goal (for himself or his master), sometimes to prove his mettle, sometimes to redress an injustice. The settings are fantastic and gothic, the action bizarre and frenetic, and the comedy very broad. Examples: The Sorcerer, or The Demon-Protector (1838); Pierrot and the Bogeyman, or The Ogres and the Brats (1840).
- The Pantomimic Harlequinesque Fairy-Play: The basis for the pantomimes still performed at Bakken in Denmark. In the landscape described above (and populated by the same warring spirits), Harlequin, the lover, carries Columbine off, triggering a pursuit by her papa, Cassander, and his serving-man Pierrot. The end of their adventures is, of course, their union, reluctantly blessed by their pursuers. Examples: Pierrot Everywhere (1839); The Three Hunchbacks (1842).
- The Pantomimic Harlequinesque Fairy-Play in the English Style: Borrows the "opening" of early nineteenth-century English pantomime: at the rise of curtain, two suitors are in dispute for the same young lady, and her father, a miser, chooses the richer of the two. A fairy appears to protect the sentimentally more deserving (Harlequin, after his transformation)—and to change all the characters into the Commedia types. Then begins the chase. Examples: The Ordeals (1833); Love and Folly, or The Mystifying Bell (1840).
Myths about Deburau
The people's Pierrot
If the casual theater-goer (from the mid-twentieth century on) knows Deburau at all, it is the Deburau of Children of Paradise. There, through a brilliant interpretation by Jean-Louis Barrault, he emerges, on-stage and off-, as an exemplar of the common people, a tragic long-suffering lover, a friend of the pure and lonely and distant moon. Neither Deburau nor his Pierrot was such a figure. (That figure is much closer to the Pierrot of his successor, Paul Legrand.) But the myth sprang into being very early, simultaneous with the emergence of Deburau's celebrity. It was the product of clever journalism and idealizing romance: Janin's Deburau first set things in motion. Deburau, he wrote, "is the people's actor, the people's friend, a windbag, a glutton, a loafer, a rascal, a poker-face, a revolutionary, like the people." Théodore de Banville followed suit: "both mute, attentive, always understanding each other, feeling and dreaming and responding together, Pierrot and the People, united like two twin souls, mingled their ideas, their hopes, their banter, their ideal and subtle gaiety, like two Lyres playing in unison, or like two Rhymes savoring the delight of being similar sounds and of exhaling the same melodious and sonorous voice." Indeed, George Sand noted, after Deburau's death, that the "titis", the street boys, of the Funambules seemed to regard his Pierrot as their "model"; but, earlier, when she had asked Deburau himself what he thought of Janin's conclusions, he had had this to say: "the effect is of service to my reputation, but all that is not the art, it's not the idea I have of it. It is not true, and the Deburau of M. Janin is not me: he has not understood me."
The noble Pierrot
As for Banville's idealized Pierrot, it is best appreciated if set against the figure that we find in the scenarios themselves. Late in his life, Banville recalled a pantomime he had seen at the Funambules: Pierrot-baker is confronted by two women—"two old, old women, bald, disheveled, decrepit, with quivering chins, bent towards the earth, leaning upon gnarled sticks, and showing in their sunken eyes the shadows of years gone by, more numerous than the leaves in the woods."
"Really now! there's no common sense in this!" exclaimed (in mute speech) the wise baker Pierrot: "to allow women to come to such a state is unthinkable. So why hasn't anyone noticed they need to be melted down, remade, rebaked anew?" And immediately, in spite of their protestations, he seized them, laid them both on his shovel, popped them right in the oven, and then stood watch over his baking with faithful care. When the number of desired minutes had elapsed, he took them out—young, beautiful, transformed by brilliant tresses, with snow at their breasts, black diamonds in their eyes, blood-red roses on their lips, dressed in silk, satin, golden veils, adorned with spangles and sequins—and modestly said then to his friends in the house: "Well now, you see? It's no more difficult than that!"
What he is remembering is a scene from Pierrot Everywhere: Pierrot has just stolen Columbine from Harlequin, and he, Cassander, and Leander, along with the fiancées of the latter two, have stumbled upon an oven with magical powers. The fiancées have been aged and wizened by Harlequin's magic bat, and the men hope that the oven can restore their youth.
[Isabelle and Angelique] refuse to enter the oven, finding themselves fine as they are. Pierrot brings in Columbine and wants to burn her alive, too, if she continues to resist his advances; she struggles [emphasis added]; the two others succeed in thrusting Isabelle and Angelique inside; Pierrot helps them. Meanwhile Harlequin sticks his head up through the emberbox and signals to Columbine to run off with him. Pierrot sees him; Leander pushes the lid down, hard, and sits on top of it. But hardly has he done so when the box sinks into the ground, swallowing him up.
Pierrot tries to put Columbine inside. He opens the oven door; Isabelle and Angelique come out, young and fresh; they are delighted. Isabelle looks for Leander. A moaning comes from the oven. It is Leander, who has been shut up in it, and who emerges half-baked and furious. They clean him up. Meanwhile, Harlequin has come back in; he makes Columbine step down—she was already on the shovel—and seizes Pierrot. The wicked genie appears and helps Harlequin. They pinion the poor Pierrot and are going to throw him into the oven, when a gong announces the [good] fairy. . . .
Deburau neither idealized nor sentimentalized his Pierrot. His creation was “poor Pierrot”, yes, but not because he was unfairly victimized: his ineptitude tended to baffle his malice, though it never routed it completely. And if Deburau was, in Švehla’s phrase, an actor of “refined taste”, he was also a gleeful inventor, like Mozart (that artist of ultimate refinement), of sexual and scatological fun. Of his pantomimes in general, George Sand wrote that “the poem is buffoonish, the role cavalier, and the situations scabrous.” And Paul de Saint-Victor echoed her words several weeks after Deburau’s death: “Indeed, in plenty of places, the poem of his roles was free, scabrous, almost obscene.” Unfortunately, Banville’s sanitized—even sanctified—Deburau survives, while the scenario of Pierrot Everywhere, like the more overtly scabrous of the Funambules “poems”, lies yellowing in the files of the Archives Nationales de France.
The tragic Pierrot
At one moment in his career, Deburau—quite inadvertently—contributed to his myths. In 1842, a pantomime was performed at the Funambules in which Pierrot meets a shockingly tragic end: at the final curtain of The Ol’ Clo’s Man (Le Marrrchand d'habits!), Pierrot dies on stage. It was an unprecedented dénouement and one not to be repeated, at least at Deburau’s theater. (Imagine the Little Tramp expiring at the end of one of Charlie Chaplin’s films.) It was also an anomaly for which his Romantic admirers were responsible. This pantomime had been invented by Théophile Gautier in a “review” that he had published in the Revue de Paris. He conceived it in the “realistic” vein described above: Pierrot, having fallen in love with a duchess, kills an old-clothes man to secure the garments with which to court her. At the wedding, however, à la the Commander of Don Juan, the ghost of the peddler—the murdering sword protruding from his chest—rises up to dance with the bridegroom. And Pierrot is fatally impaled.
Claiming that he had seen the pantomime at the Funambules, Gautier proceeded to analyze the action in familiarly idealizing terms. “Pierrot,” he wrote, “walking the street in his white blouse, his white trousers, his floured face, preoccupied with vague desires—is he not the symbol of the human heart still white and innocent, tormented by infinite aspirations toward the higher spheres?” And this dreaming creature of vague desires is essentially innocent of criminal intent: “When Pierrot took the sword, he had no other idea than of pulling a little prank!”
The temptation to use such material, devised by such an illustrious poet, was irresistible to the managers of the Funambules, and the “review” was immediately turned into a pantomime (probably by the administrator of the theater, Cot d'Ordan). It was not a success: it had a seven-night run, a poor showing for one of Baptiste’s productions. If he indeed appeared in the piece—the matter is under dispute—he did so very reluctantly; it was decidedly not his kind of play. It was never revived at the Funambules, and it should have survived as merely a footnote in Deburau's career.
But like Banville’s deathless prose, it was Gautier’s “review” that survived—and prospered. Gautier’s ex-son-in-law, Catulle Mendès, refashioned it into a pantomime in 1896, and when Sacha Guitry wrote his play Deburau (1918) he included it as the only specimen of the mime’s art. Carné did the same (if we may exempt the obviously fabricated The Palace of Illusions, or Lovers of the Moon, in which Baptiste appears as a moonstruck, loveless, suicidal Pierrot, an invention of Carné's screenwriter, Jacques Prévert). It stands today, for the nonscholarly public, as the supreme exemplar of Deburau’s pantomime.
The moonstruck Pierrot
And what of Deburau and Pierrot-the-friend-of-the-moon? In the many scenarios in manuscript at the Archives Nationales de France, no connection is visible—save in one, and that, like The Ol’ Clo’s Man, is a clear anomaly. Performed in 1844, after Gautier’s “review” had—at least in the minds of the lettered public—renewed the luster of the Funambules, it was obviously written by an aspiring auteur, judging from its literary pedigree. Entitled The Three Distaffs and inspired by a tale of the Comtesse d’Aulnoy, it finds, at the end of its action, Harlequin, Pierrot, and Leander all trapped underneath the earth. When the good fairy appears, she announces that her powers are now useless in the terrestrial realm:
. . . it is on the moon that your happiness must be realized. Poor Pierrot . . . it is you who will be entrusted with the leadership of the celestial voyage that we are about to undertake.
In none of the other scenarios in the Archives is there mention of the moon.
But Deburau’s Romantic admirers often made the association. Banville’s poem "Pierrot" (1842) concludes with these lines: “The white Moon with its horns like a bull/Peeps behind the scenes/At its friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.” And as the century progressed, the association—rendered inevitable by the universal familiarity of “Au clair de la lune”—became ever more strong. With the advent of the Symbolist poets, and their intoxication with everything white (and pure: swans, lilies, snow, moons, Pierrots), the legendary star of the Funambules and what Jules Laforgue called Our Lady the Moon became inseparable. Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire (1884) marked a watershed in the moon-maddening of Pierrot, as did the song-cycle that Arnold Schoenberg derived from it (1912). If Carné’s hero had not been moonstruck, his audiences would still be wondering why.
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