Feature in Issue 5-4 | Winter 1993

David Glass and Mike Alfred's production of Les Enfants du Paradis, adapted from the original film script, will soon be seen in London and is already receiving critical applause. Desmond Jones looks at the life and achievement of Jean-Gaspard Deburau, on whose life the story is based.

Jean-Gaspard Deburau is not the name you find tripping off everyone's tongue. Yet he was the greatest mime of his era and certainly one of the greatest in the history of the art itself. It could be said that he reinvented the character of Pierrot. Unfortunately, it is difficult to break through the modern cliches of the Pierrot figure to appreciate what Deburau was doing. In my youth, Pierrots were jolly entertainers doing a jolly dance, singing a jolly song, in a jolly show in theatres in seaside resorts, a genre brought wonderfully to life in Ken Russell's film The Boyfriend. Because these theatres were usually at the end of the pier I always thought that that was how the name was coined. Both they and the sad, sanitised, skull-capped Pierrot, with tears on cheeks, that decorate shop-windows in every form from toilet roll holder to ash tray, are a travesty of history. Though infuriatingly, not without a grain of truth in them.

Deburau was born in 1796, in Kolin in Bohemia. His father trained as a tumbler and rope dancer, became, for a time, an army nurse, and Deburau's early years were spent following his father around the battlefields of Europe, seeing the bloodiness of war at first hand.

Leaving the army, his father soon established himself as the head of an acrobatic, rope dancing troupe. Gradually his family – Deburau was the second eldest of six, three brothers and three sisters – developed skill in balancing, acrobatics, tumbling and the tightrope. The story goes that Deburau lacked the coordination for these skills and so became a clown, a stooge to his more famous family. The troupe toured Europe for several years, performing in every venue from theatres to harems.

Deburau's role in the troupe was the clown, the incompetent, the awkward one, a bumbler. While his brothers and sisters won the applause for their acrobatic expertise, he got the laughs for his buffoonery. His performance was in direct counterpoint to the skill of the others.

Charles Baudelaire said that he was "... pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, supple and mute as the serpent, thin and long as the gibbet".

In one of Chaplin's films, The Rink, Chaplin gives an hilarious performance as an incompetent skater. His legs move at incredible speed to stop himself from falling, he seems to hover on the edge of disaster for minutes, then come the pratfalls, splits and inevitable chaos. But it takes an expert skater to control the timing and build on the expectation of catastrophe in the way that he did.

And so with Deburau. In order to appear awkward he needed to be a master of the art of tumbling, and moreover, to develop the art of comic timing. He was not the one the audience had come to see, he was regarded as an extra to the company, and he must in no way upstage them or distract the audience's attention. It was an invaluable apprenticeship, for later in his life his gifts for comedy and acrobatics were to make him famous.

In 1816 the troupe was seen by Bertrand, a director of a theatre for tightrope walkers in the rabble-ridden Boulevard du Temple in Paris. This was the Theatre des Funambules – The Tightrope Walkers – a popular theatre that was licensed only to present acrobatic and mimed performances. Bertrand wanted the acrobats for his theatre, but he agreed to take the clumsy Jean-Gaspard ‘into the bargain’. It was an auspicious move, for this theatre was to be the home of Deburau for the next thirty years, until his death in 1846.

In his early days he mixed his job as a stage hand with bits of performing as a walk-on and bit part player in the pantomimes and Harlequinades that formed part of the theatre's programme. But in 1819 the resident Pierrot, Blanchard, was fired, and at short notice Jean-Gaspard took his place. His style was very different from Blanchard, and he was terrified. But he was an immediate success. It took him several years to define his playing of Pierrot, but gradually he became more and more in demand. Until Deburau's arrival the plays were usually constructed around Harlequin. With Jean Gaspard's success Pierrot's role was increased, and was often introduced into other plays.

He made the most of his exceptional looks. He was naturally pale, and whitening his face and accentuating his hollow cheeks gave him a vulnerable, naive, other worldly air, but slightly unsettling. Charles Baudelaire said that he was ‘...pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, supple and mute as the serpent, thin and long as the gibbet’. Traditionally Pierrot had been played with a large floppy collar, a ruff, round his neck, but not only did the footlights throw up shadow over his face, but it got in the way in his tumbling. He had a naturally long and mobile neck which he highlighted by discarding the ruff and cutting his neck-line lower.

We can see from contemporary pictures that Pierrot's early costume was often close-fitting, with narrow sleeves too long for the arms, and big buttons. Deburau needed a loose costume for his acrobatics, so he wore the loose, too-large floppy costume that we now associate with him. He got rid of his predecessor's hat which cast shadows over his face and wore the black skull cap, which, together with black eye-liner and red lips threw his face into sharper focus. This meant that he did not always need to use the grimaces and facial exaggerations that were common at the time, but could be much more economical.

The film Les Enfants du Paradis, is a romanticised version of the life of Deburau or Baptiste as he came to be known among the patrons of Les Funambules. It is a wonderful film and it is difficult not to be influenced by its portrayal of his life. Jean-Louis Barrault, who plays Deburau in the film said that we do not know how Deburau played, we have no knowledge of his style, and can only rely on ‘intellectual intuition’. It is easy to assume that the style of the film is the style of the real man, it fits so perfectly. But we don't know. Pierrot has a long history, developing and changing character and names from Roman times to the present day, but nearly always a slave or servant. Although he must have been influenced by the Pedrolino of Commedia dell'arte and the Pierrots of his predecessors, it is clear that Deburau's Pierrot is all his own. It was no mere caricature or uni-dimensional cartoon figure. He could by turns be a coward, a thief, a glutton, sly, clumsy; he was mischievous, quick to anger, a liar, and indulged all his appetites, mocking and blustering. And yet George Sand called him ‘an aristocrat’, he was essentially fair-minded, often childishly ingenuous, he was a survivor, a servant commenting philosophically and sardonically on life's injustices. This is what endeared him to the common people who inhabited the Funambules.

Deburau brought an acrobat's training techniques into the actor's domain, and this gave him the ability to touch, to move to tears as well as laughter.

However, one aspect of Deburau's performing style is commented on by all who saw him, his detractors as well as his fans, and that was his placidity. Theatre-goers had been used to the physical excesses of the actors of the Funambules, leaps, jumps, wild gesticulations, what had been termed ‘pantomime sautante’ characterised by mad chaotic movement. Certainly Deburau was a part of this style and we know that he performed some hair-raising acrobatic feats, but he brought a sang froid, a coolness and restraint, and a delicacy and precision that he owed to his years with his father's troupe. In the midst of chaos he alone had repose. Theodore de Banville talks of Deburau's ‘absolute indifference’ while the customers of the Funambles talked of being ‘as cool as Baptiste’. He had the skills of the tumbler, acrobat and tightrope walker, their energy, timing, the sense of danger and the thrills they provoke, which are the product of self discipline, control and concentration. It was this above all that marked him out from those that had gone before. Les Enfants du Paradis dwells on the difference between Deburau's restrained style of acting and the bravura ranting performance of his contemporary, Frederick Lemaitre. In that sense we may regard him as a modern mime.

Deburau brought an acrobat's training techniques into the actor's domain, and this gave him the ability to touch, to move to tears as well as laughter. Timing, restraint and a feeling for the audience were among his greatest assets. He was able to concentrate the attention on nuances of movement, a gesture of the fingers, an expression of the face. We know that there was a small orchestra at the Funambules, and that Deburau had arranged with the orchestra leader a series of cues and signals that would allow him to control the pace of the accompanying music so that he would not be controlled or dominated by it. Try and do that with a tape recorder! If he felt the audience could linger a little more over a certain action, or that they were getting restless, or if he were improvising a new bit of business he knew he could keep the music with him.

It would be a mistake to compare his performance with that of Marcel Marceau, though Marceau has undoubtedly been influenced by Deburau's approach. Marceau is more elegant and poetic, Deburau more acrobatic and realistic. His Pierrot would appear in a variety of costumes and worked at any number of trades, soldier, chemist, shoe-mender, greengrocer, clothed seller, clergyman. He wore the clothes of the tradespeople and accurately portrayed their foibles. Deburau was self educated and an observer of life. Whereas previously the pantomimes had dealt mostly with fantasy he presented the people realistically. Like most of the theatres at the time the Funambules pantomimes were full of tricks and machinery, imaginative transformations and scenery that Deburau used to the full.

The customers of the Funambules had always been the commoners, criminals and layabouts of the Boulevard du Temple. But the early thirties saw the flowering of the romantic movement in Paris, and suddenly the literati, the educated classes discovered what had been there all the time – plays of a romantic nature where grand emotions were given free rein, melodrama, simplicity and lyricism, hand in hand with a hot-blooded approach to life and art. The romantic image of the pale, deathly lover, consumed with passion found its parallels in Deburau. He was feted by the intelligentsia, Theodor de Banville, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas; Theodor Gautier called him ‘the most perfect actor that ever lived’.

Deburau's private life was not without its drama. He was essentially a kind, family man with a distinct sense of humour. His first wife died three months after the wedding. He then lived with Louise Boucher for six years, and they had a son. But when he discovered she was having an affair, he drove her away and never saw her again. His second marriage, in 1835, was a happy one and produced several children.

One tragic incident marred his public and private life. In 1836 he took the only holiday he ever had. While out walking with his wife, he was recognised and crudely abused by a drunken youth. He ignored him until the youth turned his venom on Deburau's wife. In a struggle against his wife's restraining hand, he hit the youth harder than he intended with his stick and fractured his skull. The youth died and Deburau was detained in prison.

The whole of Paris raised their voices on his behalf, and he was acquitted.

In the last years of his life, ill-health forced him to miss performances. Although as he got older his performances became more often serious than comic, he was at the peak of his career and new opportunities were opening up, but he died in 1846 at the early age of fifty.

In the history of our art, Deburau stands out as a giant. He was an innovator who laid the ground rules for what was to follow. With a high level of physical expertise, he was a performer who appealed to all classes. He was the first modern mime.

This article in the magazine

Issue 5-4
p. 8 - 9