Jean-Gaspard Deburau was perhaps the most famous face in nineteenth-century France.
Even now, everyone recognises him, even if they don’t realise as much. He gave us the modern image of the ‘Pierrot’ character, and lovers of French cinema know him from the cult 1945 film Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise). If you assume that mime is, by definition, a mute art, then you are making an assumption that he was the first to make.
In his time (the first half of the nineteenth century), he was the star of the cheapest and by all accounts the most insalubrious theatre in Paris, Le Théâtre des Funambules. Fêted for his poised but highly expressive mime, he inspired poets and novelists, became a socio-political icon, and seemed to many to encapsulate much that the Romantic movement stood for and aspired to. This book is therefore as much about Deburau’s influence as it is about his performances on stage.
On the one hand, it focuses in detail on Deburau’s stage techniques, while on the other hand it highlights the manifold myths and fictions invented around Deburau which were intended both to celebrate his art and to promote ideas and beliefs that were really those of writers, playwrights, poets and journalists rather than necessarily those of Deburau himself. It is testimony to the inspirational power of Deburau that these myths and fictions were so varied that they often contradicted each other. The picture one sees of Deburau in this book is very different to the normal, over-simplified references to him in most modern critical works as ‘clown’.
In this regard, consider the portrait above. It radiates admiration for Deburau as a great artist who deserved the most formal portrait possible: front-facing, a dark background and a composed demeanour with perhaps just a hint of a smile. Pierrot’s peers such as Harlequin or Clown were never painted like this. Nor were the heirs to Pierrot such as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. This is one of twenty-seven illustrations in the book which are interpreted in detail in order to explain the image of Deburau in his lifetime.
The book also draws on a large amount of manuscript documents which are either unknown to modern scholars or have not been the object of their attention.