THEATRE AND MUSIC-HALL
To Erik Satie
The theatre in France, to quote Alphonse Daudet on the monarchy, is "a great dead old thing." The music-hall is a great young thing which is dying. As a matter of habit and to amuse a friend from the provinces, visiting in Paris, we still go occasionally to the theatre: Opéra; Gaieté-Lyrique or Ba-ta-Clan. We hear "Padmavati" ; "Chout" ; or "T'en fais pas !" Alas, what boredom !
A romantic repertory; conventional gestures; nothing living, moving, happening, which makes one cry out. Today France should get the first prize for bad acting. One has only to see, after a performance of the Cid or of Horace, these gentlemen of the Comédie-Française, in smoking coats, stomachs sticking out, congratulating each other in the wings, to be aware of this agony and to understand at once why it is legitimate to be bored in an orchestra chair.
Novelty is a microbe which directors, managers, actors, electricians, stage directors, door keepers, prompters, pursue and destroy every time that it shows the tip of, an ear behind the curtain. I beg you, make way for the dust, the mummies, the glory of past centuries. How comfortable it is to talk among the dead and with what eloquence does Rameses II talk with M. Millerand !
Before the war, from 1912 until the end of August, 1914, there was a leap forward, and there were those who wished to drag the coach out of the mire. Whatever they did, I congratulate them. Leon Bakst revolutionized the usual conception of costumes and of stage decoration. Nijinsky's sensual interpretation of "l'Après-Midi d'un Faune" called forth a storm of cat calls. (See the ridiculous article by Gaston Calmette in Figaro.) Igor Strawinsky gave his "Sacre du Printemps." Erik Satie already passed for mad. In the realm of the dance, we were forgetting Isadora Duncan, that nullity, in our astonishment over the daring of Valentine de Saint-Point who created "la Metachorie." I do not mean by this that the Muse-Pourpre, as this descendant of Lamartme loved to call himself, invented an entirely new choregraphy but I cannot deny that we felt a real pleasure in his attempts and experiments.
Picabia, P. de Massot et son autruche, 391 n° 17, juin 1924
It was the famous epoch when Paris revelled in the ridiculous. Cardinal Amette, an archbishop, condemned the tango in the name of the church. As a reprisal Eve Lavalliere played in a travesty of this name. Gaby Deslys turned things topsy turvy. Henry Bataille undressed Yvonne de Bray in "Phalène." Madame Caillaux killed Monsieur Calmette. De Max played the "Salomé" of Oscar Wilde. Picasso created cubism. Sarah Bernhardt was not yet dead nor had she lost a leg.
Since my pen writes this name, I must say exactly what I think of this tragedienne whose death is deplored by all the world, whose every visit to America was received with incredible enthusiasm. Sarah, against every novelty, was up to her last hour the principal pivot of a delayed fashion. Actors and actresses had their eyes fixed upon her alone and as she, for eighty years, had sung her verse and wept her prose, so all the actors and actresses sang their verse and wept their prose. It can be said that a whole generation limped behind this cripple.
Is it not so, Blanche Dufrêne, you whom I loved and who were found hanged in your dressing-room ? Is it not so, Moreno ? Jean Vonnel ?
On the contrary, the only tragedian who owes nothing to anyone, who searches, feels, composes his text, knows neither fame nor success. ... I refer to Edouard de Max. It is true that the legend which surrounds him discredits him. I am his friend ; I know his home with its burning incense, his old servant, his sumptuous pyjamas, his silk shirts, his mocking spirit, his rings, his melancholy, his bracelets, the depth of his eyes. All this does not prevent me from repeating that he is the only actor, a hundred cubits above a Mounet-Sully or a Gémier.
The war came. It has even been called a great war. The theatre was forgotten and the artists cared for the wounded . . . I was among those who hoped that this period of Jansenism would purify the stage and would kill forever this romanticism which horrifies me and which personifies stupidity to me.
American films, sharp as steel, cold like the poles, beautiful as the tomb passed before our dazzled eyes. The gaze of William Hart pierced our hearts and we loved .the calm landscapes where the hoof of his horse raised clouds of dust. The inconceivable, the incomparable, the royal Charlie Chaplin appeared, gros plan net, his two feet turned out and it was inevitable that he was the comic bomb which would overturn the theatre and the music-hall.
Alas, my poor France, country born malicious ! You make a barricade against exoticism, and the great ships which return to port, loaded with opium and unknown fruits, are phantom boats which never land. All this is over and it is our players who influence America. It is time to be on guard and to cry out as did Louis Aragon five years ago, "Down with the clear French genius !"
Yes, the theatre is dead, in spite of the efforts of certain ones: de Max, Ventura, Berthe Bovy, Eve Francis, etc. And the music-hall is dying, the supreme hope ! It dies, still loaded with fruit, and already one of its most savoury fruits, the poor Fortuge, sleeps under the willows of Bagnolet. It dies because it is not watered but is put under glass. We have enough of revues where they talk of Poincare, of Sacha Guitry, of Maurice Rostand, etc. ; of revues where ugly nude or semi-nude courtesans pass in procession under the baton of the conductor ; revues where there is nothing, nothing, nothing.
Imagination dead. It is really too easy to do always the same thing and to satisfy the stupid bourgeoisie. The Casino of Paris is becoming a branch of the Comédie-Francaise; the Folies-Bergères, a branch of the Odéon. Who would dare to say to a counterfeit dancer like Harry Piker that he does not dance; to a counterfeit singer like Mayol that he does not sing; to a counterfeit player like Polaire what she does not act ? For neither Mistinguett, nor Parisys, nor Gaby Montbreuse, nor Cora Madon, nor Mérindol occupy the place to which they are entitled. They are known, of course, but for something quite different. We know that Spinnelly changes her pantaloons twelve times a day, that Parisys changes her gown eleven times a day at Deauville and that is all.
The legs of Mistinguett, the breasts of Spinelly, the buttocks of Parisys, the little stomach of Pépée constitute with Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending the Staircase" the only "poetic" realm in which I can live.
I have enough of the theatre where art is made !
I have enough of the music-hall where art is made !
I have enough of the cinema where art is made !
I have enough of art of art of art of art of art of art of art of art.
For the others = merde.
PIERRE DE MASSOT
July, 1923.The Little Review, Autumn & Winter 1923-1924. Vol. IX, n° 4, pp. 3-6.