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Shakespeare and Harlequin

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

The busiest spirit of the moment in Paris is M. Jean Cocteau. As a critic he is the discoverer of the Northwest Passage in music and painting. He has proclaimed the merits of certain modern composers until no program is complete without something of Satie, Milhaud, Honegger, or Strawinsky. He is himself a poet who has latterly turned his attention to the stage. He is the creator, in collaboration with several advanced spirits in music and painting, of certain remarkable ballets prominent in the repertory of the Russian Ballet of Diaghilew. And finally, in the Soirees de Paris, a series of spectacles staged under distinguished auspices during May and June of last year, he has done English literature the service of bringing to life the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Oh no! he does not pretend that this is Shakespeare’s play. It is a piece by Jean Cocteau, after Shakespeare. This is Shakespeare transposed into modern terms. It is of the very essence of modernity; and the essence of modernity is pantomime.

Pantomime is a form of drama in which human beings appear under the guise of jumping-jacks. It had its origin by accident in seventeenth-century Paris in an attempt to suppress all but the two authorized theatres. In other playhouses the actors were forbidden the use of speech. They were thus compelled to develop a form of art in which movement and stage-picture took the place of sentiment, rhetoric, and wit. In twentieth-century Paris pantomime finds its rationale in a philosophy of life. It is a genre suitable to a mechanical, a mechanized world. In Paris they are more conscious than they are in Pittsburg that we live in a world of machines. This is the burden of a series of lectures recently given at the Sorbonne in an independent course of “Philosophical and Scientific Studies for the Examination of New Ideas.” The lecturers were men like the futurist poet Marinetti, the composer Milhaud, and Jean Epstein, the writer of motion-picture scenarios. The painter Leger, in discussing the Spectacle, laid down the principle that, in our mechanical age, it was most natural to represent human beings in pantomime, abstracting from all that makes them individuals, and in particular reducing the importance of facial expression, putting them in masks. For that is the way that men and women appear to the modern critical spirit.

Leger’s lecture was in effect an apology for his own famous invention for the Swedish Ballet of “The Creation of the World.” Scenically the leading feature of this piece was a pictorial suggestion of the belly of the earth, the great sombre cave, with the exposed veins of diapered rock, and the lurid central forge or fount of being, where stirred obscurely the black undifferentiated forms of life. They stirred obscurely in a black mass, and then they boiled over one by one, and came parading down the stage in mystic dance,—pompous hieratic birds and grotesque yearning crocodiles. And finally came the human figures, man and woman, smaller and uglier than the rest, but with tight little bodies, compact and efficient. They were no Adam and Eve in Paradise, but grotesque little black men with insignificant chalk-marked physnomies, and with a few white lines upon the black to signify the differentiated anatomies of male and female, and to outline the motions of their expressive dance. The harsh and capricious music of Darius Milhaud gave tonal support and backing to the pantomime, —a music learned and contrapuntal, humorous and passionate, but, like the spectacle, entirely devoid of sentimental seductiveness. Altogether the thing was a characteristic union of the primitive and the sophisticated, typical of the objective and purely critical spirit that dominates contemporary art.

It is in this spirit that M. Cocteau has undertaken to translate Shakespeare to the modern stage. His prime concern is for the picture. “Romeo and Juliet” is rendered in two dozen tableaux, but all the tableaux are set in the same permanent background, which makes possible the rapid change of scene essential to this type of show if it is not to be a bore. And the permanent background is in this case a simple black cloth strewn with blue stars, suggesting Italian night, but gloomier, drearier,—sympathetic setting for the tragedy of star-crossed lovers. Before this cloth are set up in turn the bits of scenery in the same color-scheme on which are sketched in rudimentary but suggestive fashion a street in Verona, a ball-room, an apothecary’s shop-window, the tomb of the Capulets.

No attempt at illusion. A few white lines figure in perspective the long vista of the ball-room,—chairs and chandeliers, with a dog in outline at this end. A character starts to walk out through the ball-room, and pauses a moment to caress the painted dog. If the light went out an instant later he would collide with the scenery. Properties cannot be left to encumber the stage; when Mercutio falls in a duel, a property-man appears to relieve him of his sword and get it off the boards.

The change of scenes is accomplished by turning the lights in the eyes of the spectators. There is a lively music, of fifes, fiddles, bagpipes, for so it sounds; or simply a long thin whining note like the hum of a saw-mill—like the un-intermitted hum of life and fate—to sustain the mood from scene to scene. The incidental music is given out as being based on English popular airs: one recognised Auld Lang Syne, Annie Laurie, My Luve’s gone to the Hielands,— a doleful Northern music, black and blue as the scenery.

The main concern is for picture, and in the picture for the human figures. The costumes are for the most part black and blue and white: black and blue for the tragic story, with flashes of white to outline the movement of the figures. Great white ruffs and stomachers for men and women alike, white gloves, black hosen slashed with blue and white. Young Capulets advance from one side, young Montagus from another, long legs moving in unison—chesty young men, fighting cocks on parade—long arms extend and swords cross—and then deliberate retreat, long legs in slashed hosen moving in unison in slow parade, like the ra-Xenix of race-horses in the moving-pictures . . . Juliet in the balcony, Romeo below. Juliet sways to the right, and Romeo sways in the same direction. Romeo sways to the left, and Juliet follows,—like another willow moved by the same wind. Gently they sway back and forth like amorous willows moved by the wind of the South . . . Juliet in white gloves falls on the ground and beats the floor of her chamber because Romeo is so long in coming. Romeo in the friar’s cell cries out against the cruelty of fate that separates him from his love; he lies at the feet of the friar and beats the ground with his white-gloved hands.

Romeo and Juliet are Elizabethan dolls, all ruff and whale-bone, long legs and white-gloved hands to point the action. Their features are scarce distinguishable. This is the note of pantomime. In his earlier piece, he Boeuf sur le Toitj Cocteau had made a point of suppressing the features, taking clowns for characters and hiding their faces in card-board head-pieces, so as to concentrate attention on the expressive force of hands and bodies. This is about what he has undertaken to do with “Romeo and Juliet.” It is obvious that, in this unscrupulous enterprise, he cannot make use of much of the Shakespearean text. He uses as much as he wants, as much as he needs to explain the movements of his puppets. He makes a great deal of the balcony scene, and of the teasing of Juliet by the nurse, and he naturally features the scene in the vault, with bodies falling over each other in tragic contretemps.

It is in the supreme tragedy of the vault that he comes most short of the spirit of Shakespeare. The climax of “Romeo and Juliet” is more than a spectacle of bodies rolling inanimate to the foot of the bier. It is the sound of eloquent voices crying out against a fate that cheats them of their dues of youth and passion. And “Romeo and Juliet” was certainly not conceived by Shakespeare as a puppet-show. It is a glorious poem, in which these lovers, by lyric ardor and individual characterisation, transcend the types and rise into human beings. As for. our own ingenious time, it is well to distinguish between an age of machines and an age of mechanized men. A machine, like a servant, may be a limitation of our will or an extension of our will; everything depends on whether we control the machine or the machine controls us. The man who makes an airplane tour of the world may well fancy that he has enlarged the range of his humanity. And Strawinsky may have given as good a reflection of the philosophy of our time in his pantomimic ballet of Petrouchka as Cocteau in his “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of reducing men to marionettes, Strawinsky turned his marionettes into men.

He is an impudent wag, this Jean Cocteau, an enfant terrible! He was well cast himself in the role of the witty Mercutio. Only a foreigner could have the nerve thus to lay profane hands upon our Shakespeare . . . And only a foreigner could come so near to waking up the genius that our actors have been so conscientiously putting to sleep. When I consider that I have never seen a tragedy of Shakespeare adequately presented! Nothing on the English stage that Shakespeare might himself recognize as a work of living art. One enchanting voice (Richard Mansfield), some noble gestures (Henry Irving, Forbes Robertson), some fine reading of lines (Walker Whiteside, Ada Rehan) — some good bits of acting all along the line—but no play, no animation. They were all afraid of Shakespeare, taking him for a museum of antiquities. Most awed and earnest of all, Sothern and Marlowe, learned and devout, carting up and down the land their dusty cabinet of mummies. I always imagine Shakespeare nodding in his box.

To resuscitate a classic it is necessary to translate him into the imaginative terms of our own time. It is here that the foreigner has a great advantage, not being overpowered by the hypnotic drug of reverence and tradition. Mr. Mac-Gowan makes it clear that in Sweden and Germany, “Othello” and “Macbeth” and “Richard III” have come to life in creations of stage-craft that add genius to genius, and the spirit of Shakespeare has doubtless established his permanent residence in Berlin. He recently made a brief visit to Paris to applaud a pantomime at the music hall of La Cigale. And he sat out the whole performance without once going to sleep. He was pleased to note that “Rcmeo and Juliet” had been taken out of its case and made over—almost beyond recognition—into a striking work of art in the style of 1924.


M. Cocteau was attracted to “Romeo and Juliet” no doubt because of its Italian setting, having in mind the nativity of Harlequin and Pantaloon, clown and columbine, who served a long term in the comedia del arte before they were relegated to the pantomime or ballet. The comedies of Shakespeare are more obviously suited to pantomimic treatment. The most brilliant definition of comedy is that long since put forth by M. Bergson. Wherever, instead of supple and graceful action, the evidence of a living organism controlled from within, we have movements awkward and wooden like those of a puppet, we are, says M. Bergson, in presence of the comic. Comic behavior is the opposite to behavior humane, or voluntary. The marionette is therefore the type of the comic. From the outside, and at a distance, all human action is likely to have a mechanical look, until it is explained. The characters in a play are permitted to explain their actions; but it is only the tragic or romantic character who is likely to be convincing. The comic character, the more he explains himself, the more ridiculous he becomes. All his reasons are boomerangs returning upon him to prove him unreasonable. Titania addressing to Bottom in his ass’s head words which, under other circumstances, would prove the liveliness of her fancy and the warmth of her temperament, only convicts herself of silliness. And Shylock, with his acute legal argument—”Is it so nominated in the bond?” merely provokes the juridical repartee of Portia: “If thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood . . .”

These examples i take from two of the three comedies of Shakespeare revived by the genius of M. Gemier at the Odeon and erected by him into three of the most popular pieces in the repertory of that national theatre. Once again we have a very bold treatment of the text of Shakespeare. The Elizabethan comedies have been liberally made over to suit the genius of the French stage; and here the procedure is much more clearly justified than in the case of Cocteau’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In these French comedies the spirit of Shakespeare—which is the spirit of fun—shines forth more genially than in any American or English performance that I have ever seen. And it is interesting to note how much of the action takes on the character of clowning pantomime.

The mechanics of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” whose utmost tragic skill serves only to burlesque the pitiful story of Pyramus and Thisbe, seem as if intended expressly to prove the Bergson theory of the comic. The part of Bottom is taken at the Odeon by a great humorous actor who passes under the Italian name of Gabrio, reminiscent of the comedia del arte and its traditional clowns. Gabrio has rightly conceived of Bottom as being more than half an ass before ever he was “transmogrified;” and the wheezy note of joy with which he announces each one of his “ideas” tells us more of the ass than of the man. But he is not all ass. That is the constant moral of Shakespeare comedy. It is the strain of the man in us that makes the ass so funny, and at the same time enables us to recognise ourselves however strangely disguised. That man knows little of himself who cannot see himself in Bottom on the flowery bank, smothered in Titania’s kisses, ministered to by Pease-blossom and Mustard-seed,—torn by the rival impulses of greed and lust and sleep.

Launcelot Gobbo is played by one Pasquali. He is shown as the perfect clown, combining in his person the two allied and contradictory functions of fool and wit,—the voluntary fool and the often involuntary wit. He is a freakish combination of the human and the mechanical, human when he should be mechanical, mechanical when he should be human. In the famous dispute between conscience and the devil, he becomes the football of his own wit: those abstractions of his thought take on the objective reality of persons tossing him back and forth between them like an inanimate object.

As for the main comic intrigue, it is Puck who supplies the motto in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with his comprehensive, “Lord! what fools these mortals be!” These lovers in a wood, so tangled up in their amorous misunderstandings, pursuing one another so vainly through the tricky forest, they are but puppets led on a wire, jerkily going through the steps assigned them by the mocking showman. In “The Merchant of Venice,” Gemier takes advantage of the local setting and the reference to masks to stage a sort of ballet in front of Shylock’s house, with the cloaks of the maskers fluttering up and down the steps of the water-side piazzetta and circling round in carnival frenzy. Jessica is carried off by the merrymakers like any Rosaura of Venetian comedy, and the drunken Jew, back from his feasting, is whirled about in a tornado of blows and jeers. Shy-lock’s friend Tubal is multiplied into a whole chorus of Jews and Jewesses, who are his backers in the court scene, and who, when the verdict goes so hard against him, lie prostrate on the floor of the court in a great symbolic picture of mil-lenial abasement.

The part of Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew” is, like that of Shylock, finely played by Gemier himself; and in the conception of the part, as well as in the staging of the play as a whole, the management of the Odeon has shown a more progressive, an essentially more scholarly spirit, than that of the illustrious Comedie Francaise. A different adaptation of Shakespeare’s play has been used by the Comedie Franchise for their creation, which has been carried to America and England by the famous actress Cecile Sorel. It is the ordinary tailor-made four-act French piece, handsomely mounted, and played in a spirited, plausible manner. It is not the inspired version of Shakespeare that Gemier gives us. His Katherina, as presented by Viera Koretsky, is no ill-bred, over-dressed schoolgirl, but an elemental spirit, an impersonation of untamed woman. She is a wild-looking creature with bushy red hair flying out around her white face, and wide defiant frightened eyes, like one of those bristling furtive cats, with savage gaze, that peep out at you from under the hedge in wayside lanes.

There are several scenes in which Gemier has handled groups in a manner to derive the maximum of stage-effect in picture and pantomimic action. Much is made, at the home-coming of the married couple, of Grumio, Curtis, and the “four or five serving-men” indicated in the text. And instead of having Petruchio give a verbal account of his “killing with kindness” tactics in the bedroom, a scene of pantomime is invented in which the servants peep through the keyhole and report progress to Christopher Sly, turned Lord and comfortably established with his lady in the balcony of the theatre. There is another scene in which all the characters on the stage have been watching through the curtain the love-making of Bianca. They are so amused that they fall on the floor in convulsions of laughter. So there they are all in a row on the floor of the stage, laughing themselves into hysterics, echoed by the tinker and his partner in the balcony, and at last by us in the ultimate audience—laughing ourselves to exhaustion over we have forgotten what. It is a piece of high virtuosity to engineer such a concert of violent laughing—such as we see sometimes among clowns, with whom the more physical manifestation of the comic spirit is raised into something formidable, something transcendental, something beyond the scope of simple reason.


What Gemier has in common with Cocteau is what they owe to the tradition of the old Italian comedy. There has been throughout Europe a great revival of interest in Gol-doni. Max Reinhardt, in inaugurating his management of the historic Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, chose to give a learned and amusing presentation of “The Servant of Two Masters.” This early play of Goldoni has the interest of being a true comédie à faire, in which the framework or scenario is fixed, but the Pantalone, the Dottore, and the Arlecchino are supposed to improvise a large part of their wit and drollery. And all the resources of invention and stagecraft are employed to give the impression of a play actually in the making, to link up the audience with the actors and the personages of the drama, and to break down the conventional barriers between “real life” and the Active life of the stage. The same thing is done more subtly, and with all philosophical circumstance, by Pirandello in “Six Persons in Search of an Author,” and the motif is carried out with great effectiveness by the producers in Paris (Pitoeff), in Vienna (under the personal direction of the author), as well as in New York and other capitals. It is a motif sketchily employed by Shakespeare in “The Taming of the Shrew,” and developed by Gemier into one of the leading features of his performance. “The Taming of the Shrew” is introduced by Shakespeare as a play given by a lord for a tinker, whom he has picked up drunk, persuaded that he is himself a lord, and provided with a wife, who is actually a page dressed up. This comic action, which Shakespeare drops almost at once, Gemier keeps going throughout the play. The tinker and his trull take their places in the balcony like any of the spectators, but more boisterously appreciative ; and they make their comments on the play from time to time, and even discuss it with some of the characters on the stage. It is by this means that Gemier secures that sense of reciprocity between stage and audience so much sought after at the present time.

Another means to the same end is the suppression of footlights and the use of a flight of steps connecting stage and orchestra,—a favorite device of modern stagecraft employed by Gemier in all three of the Shakespeare comedies. The characters often make their exits and entrances passing up and down these steps between the stage and the lower front boxes. A considerable part of the action goes on upon these steps. It is here that Shylock sits down to consider of his bargain; Launcelot Gobbo squats here to nurse his toes, or he stands at the top of the steps to address the house. In general the soliloquies and asides are taken frankly as direct communications to the audience. Sometimes the characters even forget the division between stage and house and come down into the orchestra: two old men disputing over a marriage settlement, or Petruchio, in the main aisle, discussing his affairs with himself and with us.

All this, while quite in the spirit of Shakespeare, and of what we know of Elizabethan stagecraft, is opposed to all that we were brought up to consider the essentials of stage-illusion. Dramatists have been laboring for generations to rid the stage of soliloquies as not being true to life. We used to like to make a sharp division between stage and audience, in order that no reminder of our own existence might come in to interrupt the dream of reality projected on the stage. We wanted scenery that deceived the eye. And we were very particular that the author should offer us nothing in his story that we could not believe to be true.

And now the style has changed. And we bring a new philosophy to the defence of a new—or rather an old, a very old—psychology. We like to see ourselves collaborating in the process of creation. And we know by experience that it is on the ragged edges of credibility that the illusion of truth is most likely to declare itself, and the most impossible stories are more likely to convince us than plausible banalities. For the truth of art is known by the imagination and not by the reason; the trick of art is not to deceive us but to stir us to conception. It thus happens that the most convincing plays of recent years are plays the most farfetched in subject-matter, like Pirandello’s “Six Persons,” like “R. U. R.,” with its men turned out by machinery, who for all that make their sensational assault upon Gur nerves, our sympathies, and our intelligence.

The comedies of Shakespeare almost invariably deal in impossible things: a lawsuit for the recovery of a pound of flesh, determined by the fantastic quibble of a pretty girl disguised as a doctor of the law; the pranks of the fairies on midsummer’s eve, with boys and girls falling in love and out through the dropping in their eyes of the juice of a purple flower. Yet each one has a vitality of appeal that insures its performance century after century by managers who have more pressing concerns than the revival of the classics. It is because each one, beneath its motley disguise, carries a plain and potent psychological truth. Its phyehol-ogy may not be true in the realm of daily fact, but it is all the truer in the deeper, broader dream-world in which our souls are rooted. The appeal is the surer because of the extreme simplification; here is human nature reduced to the lowest terms. “The Taming of the Shrew” is a play given for the entertainment of a tinker, as if Shakespeare would let us know that here is the dream-world of the unaccommodated man,—the cave-man’s dream of the cave-woman tamed by his own force and address. I know not what the women may think of this, but no man uncorrupted by propaganda can fail to thrill at the concluding speech of Kathe-rina in which she tells the women their duty to their husbands :

“Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot.”

And to truth thus simplified and presented in symbol Gemier has given appropriate settings. He has undertaken not to convince us by elaborate impressionism of representation, but to arouse our fancy with a few simple and merely suggestive stage-pictures. And he has so arranged things as to spare us the long waits that throw us back yawning upon our disenchanted selves. The key to all his Shakespeare settings is the division of the stage into two parts by the use of neutral-tinted curtains. The shallower front part is enlarged by the steps going down into the orchestra and the boxes. It serves for all those miscellaneous scenes that make the despair of managers in Shakespeare. The front curtains have only to be drawn to disclose the settings for the more important moments of the drama. In “The Merchant of Venice” a second flight of steps goes up at the back of the stage; and these serve equally well for the dais of the doge in the court scene, or in various other Venetian scenes to lead the characters to the water-side, figured by a painted sail. In “The Taming of the Shrew” Gémier has a very ingenious device for suggesting the various localities called for on the main stage. The background is divided from side to side into four or five panels. These are all hung with curtains, and one curtain at a time is drawn as the scene requires to disclose a street in Padua, a bedroom door, or the chimney-piece that stands for the hall of Petruchio’s country-place.

There is no attempt to cheat the eye with elaborate realism of scene-painting. These settings are done in the spirit of post-impressionist art, in which the aim is not to copy the object but to render the esthetic emotion associated with it. The principal setting for the scenes in the wood in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is an arrangement of grottoed rocks and tree-trunks, suitable background for the rehearsals of the mechanics, the dances and complots of the fairies, and the love-making of Bottom and Titania. The trees are not even furnished with their complement of foliage, but frankly sawed off at a convenient height; and they are all of a piece with the rocky caverns, streaked and barred with the same bizarre pattern of summer-night dream colors. For unity of atmosphere and mood, that is secured by the use of incidental music and still more by the cunning use of all resources of modern lighting. In modern stagecraft lighting is the synonym of illusion.

This is not a literal reproduction of Elizabethan stagecraft that Gemier gives us at the Odeon. The modern theatre would not admit of that. But it is a skilful adaptation of Elizabethan stagecraft to modern conditions, in which the spirit of Shakespeare would have no difficulty in recognizing itself. It is an artful scholarship that has directed this undertaking, and the result is a notable recovery of imaginative truth. For the imagination is nourished not on Science but on Art. And the secret of Art is not naive elaboration, but a cunning—an inspired—simplification.


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