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Arsène [Hélène?] Trouvé, oil on porcelain, 1832, after Auguste Bouquet’s ‘J. Deburau’ (1831, now lost). Source: courtesy of the Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

Jean-Gaspard Deburau was probably the most famous face in the French nineteenth-century, and even now, everyone knows him, even if they don’t realise it, since he invented the modern image of the Pierrot character. If you think that mime is, by definition, a mute art, then you are applying a principle that he was first to establish. He was a virtuoso mime actor performing at the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris (the cheapest and, by all accounts, most insalubrious theatre in the city) during the first half of the nineteenth century. He inspired poets, novelists, artists and actors for at least a hundred years, while at the same time becoming a symbol of the nobility of the working class, of social justice and political revolt. All this derived from his mute stage performances alone; he published nothing and virtually nothing he said was recorded by others. He was thus an artistic and socio-political rallying cry, but his cry was mute. The rallying cry was still strongly felt by spectators in 1944 of the cult French film based on his life, Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise), directed by Marcel Carné and starring one of the great actor-mimes of the twentieth century, Jean-Louis Barrault who played the part of Deburau. Contemporary spectators interpreted the film as a symbol of French Resistance to the Nazi occupier and the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, because it provided a vision beyond the immediate present to a transcendent cultural icon of the past. Its portrayal of the nineteenth-century audience in the ‘paradis’ (the highest and cheapest seats in the theatre, the ‘gods’) radiates an indomitable collective spirit united in the love and admiration for the great mime art of Deburau.

The first time I tried writing about Deburau was when I wanted to squeeze him into a book on a related subject. I eventually gave up, realising that there was so much I didn’t understand about him that I would have to wait and devote an entire book to him. It wasn’t so much the ephemeral nature of mime or the almost complete absence of any pronouncements by Deburau himself which was difficult. It wasn’t the absence of evidence; on the contrary, it was the profusion of contemporary and later reactions to him by so many varied sources which frequently contradicted each other, sometimes diametrically so. The only view they shared seemed to be admiration for Deburau (except in the case of the poet Baudelaire, but then he was looking through distorting lenses of a very particular kind).

My first failure to write about Deburau was a sign of good things to come (as failure often is). When, later, I could spend more time researching this bewildering contemporary response to him, it turned out to be not so much an obstacle as a key. Of course there were so many varied and even contradictory responses, because he was, and is, a myth. Spectators saw him as a multivalent symbol whom they could justifiably detach from the reality of his life and performances in order to turn him into a figurehead for their cause, even when he was already a figurehead for a conflicting cause. As any reader of French nineteenth-century literature knows, it is a period not short of causes, all looking for figureheads. Contemporaries wanting to promote the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ portrayed Deburau as a clown and ignored the thought-provoking aspects of his performances (this is indeed largely how he is viewed by modern academics). Those, on the other hand, who used the arts to promote their socio-political objectives made a lot of his working class credentials and working class roles so that he was ‘the people’s Pierrot’, symbol of social progress, even revolution. Old nostalgics harking after bygone, pre-revolutionary times thought of him as the last flash of the dying Commedia dell’arte theatre. In contrast, forward-thinking patriots saw him as the future of French theatre. Almost immediately after he died in 1846 of tuberculosis, he became the epitome for some of the sick artist suffering for his art in a pitiless world, his resolute muteness making him seem all-the-more stoic. Yet for others, Deburau’s unique artistic choice of mute mime was, on the contrary, a sign of strength which inspired them to invent a new, more brutal, violent and even murderous Pierrot for the fin-de-siècle. These and other conflicting interpretations are part of the thick mêlée of ideas which are at first bewildering, but turn out on closer inspection to be a telling reflection of the complex interweaving of the aspirations and interests that underlie so much of the French nineteenth century.

frontispiece in J.-B. Ambs-Dalès, Histoire de Deburau (Paris : n.p., 1832 ; 1836). Source: courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

This book was a pleasure to write, but the iconography was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect. Deburau was frequently painted, drawn, engraved and sculpted, but never photographed, since he died just before this new invention became widespread (Nadar’s famous Pierrot photographs from the 1850s are portraits of Deburau’s son, Charles). All the images seem to reveal something about his contemporary mythical status. The frontispiece from a biography seems to show him miming ‘I speak’, just after the theatre licensing laws preventing spoken acting in certain theatres were abolished in 1830. Nadar’s hoax invitation to a ‘scène parlée de Debureau’ (‘spoken scene by Debureau’) is testimony to the fascination with a virtuoso actor who freely chose muteness. This fascination is captured in Bouquet’s unprecedented portrait of an actor on stage, in costume, but not acting, looking instead into your eyes, leading one contemporary viewer to comment that the painting was as enigmatic as a portrait by Velázquez. These and other images in my book are a reminder that for all its long, wordy novels, proliferating newspapers, effusive melodramas and musical vaudevilles, the nineteenth century is also a period that was fascinated with silence, the gaps between words and the still space of the mind.