The woman on this cover is holding a key while threatened by scary hands around her. She is the Danish dancer, actress and singer Charlotte Wiehe (1865-1947). Charlotte was first married to the celebrated Danish silent actor, Wilhelm Wiehe, whose name she kept after their divorce. She made her first successes in comedy and light opera in Copenhagen. According to the press of that time “she was a singer of ability and a graceful dancer”. Charlotte Wiehe remarried with the Hungarian violinist and composer Henri Berény.
Together they moved to Paris and started an international career. Around 1900 Charlotte took up a new line of performance: mimodramas (pantomime acts with dance and musical accompaniment) written and composed by her husband Berény. Two of his mimodramas (L’Homme aux Poupées and La Main) were successful on the Parisian stages andwere later adapted for the cinematograph in 1909 by Le Film d’Art.
The mimodrama L’Homme aux Poupées is based upon a book by Jean-Louis Renaud, beautifully illustrated by Jean Veber. It tells the strange obsession of a man in love with his dolls. The eccentric has only eyes for his dolls and not a blink for this woman, an actress he met one evening at the opera. Since nothing helps to draw his attention, she undresses in front of him. But even that has not the desired effect. Vindictive, she tears the man’s dolls to pieces under his bewildered eyes. Then, seized with remorse, the actress turns herself into an automaton, a mechanical doll. What a great opportunity for Charlotte to show her miming skills.
The mimodrama La Main is the story of a burglar who gets into a dancer’s dressing room to steal her jewels. But as the young woman returns into her room, the thief hides behind a curtain. And after removing her costume and standing in her negligee before a mirror she sees the presence of his hand in the folds of her curtain. Ooh la la, quite alarming…
We spare you the rocambolesque end of the plot in which the key —emphatically shown on the sheet music cover— plays an important role. Far more interesting is that Charlotte Wiehe was the muse of Jules Chéret, the master of the belle-époque poster art.
‘‘You know that this exquisite actress was nicknamed Chérette.Indeed, graceful and mischievous, she seems to be the dream model of the famous ‘maitre de l’affiche’ “. In Journal Amusant (26 January 1901).
17th century Jean de la Fontaine wrote the fable La Poule aux oeufs d’or (The Hen with the Golden Eggs). It tells about a farmer with a hen that lays an egg made of gold, every single day. To discover the source of his good luck —and hoping to increase his prosperity— he opens the hen thus killing the animal without finding anything. The moral conclusion is that greed can ruin one’s good fortune.
The sheet music above was composed for a play that diverges entirely from the original moral tale. This quadrille is part of a féerie, or fairy play. In a féerie the plot is subordinate and auxiliary to the spectacle and the stage effects.
This typical French theatrical genre was known for its fantasy plots and spectacular visual effects. Think smoke machines, stunning lightning and sound, and mechanical contraptions to magically change stage sets. Féeries combined captivating music, colourful ballet, pantomime and acrobatics. They developed in the early 1800s and became hugely popular in France throughout the nineteenth century. Their stories were melodramas borrowed from fables and fairy tales, with a penchant for the supernatural. A full-length féerie often ran for several hours.
The 1848 premiere of La Poule aux oeufs d’or was at the Théâtre National on the famous Boulevard du temple, now gone but at that time the Parisian Broadway. The Théâtre National was previously a circus, and therefore commonly called Cirque national. La Poule aux oeufs d’or was a great success, if we can rely on the drawing of the crowd on the opening night. And it was relaunched in 1859.
I started reading the scenario but gave up after two pages. It was enough to realise that the play was rocambolesque: an absurd mix of ridiculous adventures, burlesque characters and the obligatory ingenue. In the mocking words of the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier: “The characters, brilliantly clothed, wander through a perpetually changing series of tableaux, panic-stricken, stunned, running after each other, searching to reclaim the action which goes who knows where; but what does it matter! This dazzling feast for the eyes is enough to make for an agreeable evening.”
In La Poule aux oeufs d’or the characters were brilliantly clothed indeed as shown by the pretty costume drawings.
An angel and Satan provided the essential magic in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. In a féerie such supernatural forces used to drive the characters through fantastic landscapes and amazing adventures, typically with magic totems (in this case the golden eggs) used to transform people, things, and places. Wow!
But in the first place the audience came to see and appreciate the tricks. For La Poule aux oeufs d’or 24 elaborate stage settings or tableaux were built. Each one created an enchanted universe of dazzling attractions, spectacular effects and sophisticated optical illusions. In full view of the audience a cottage would transform magically in a palace. In another scene windmills would turn into gondolas while a lake emerged from the ground. Of course a large crew in charge of design and stagecraft was needed. The grand finale stage led to the apotheosis: all actors, dancers, musicians and extras were united on the Île de l’harmonie (the isle of harmony) with a musical flourish.
A colourful drawing shows a detail of this tableau illustrating the clever design of the costumes and props.
La Poule aux oeufs d’or was later staged in other productions. In the 1870s version, even the grande vedette and forcefull singer Mademoiselle Thérésa, played a role in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. This production was so successful that it would travel to London.
Ten years later La Poule aux oeufs d’or was restaged at the Théâtre du Chatelet.
An Italian journalist reviewing that performance reported that his jaw dropped when he saw a hundred and fifty bricklayers and carpenters, all played by children between six and twelve years,constructing a house. But what most impressed him was a house on fire extinguished by a regiment of firefighters acted by persons of short stature and he was overwhelmed by the indescribable effects of the electric light. A real nouveauté at that time. He wrote: “Just take a look at our illustration to understand how much enticement it provided to the spectator.”
In the 1890s La Poule aux oeufs d’or became a pretext to bring a little bit of nudity at the Folies Bergère. Yes, the end of the live feérie was in sight…
It fell out of popularity by the end of the 19th century, by which time it was largely seen as entertainment for children and disappeared from French stages.
The féerie quickly reincarnated as a popular cinema genre in the 1900s. The forerunner in the genre, was Méliès but the French Gaston Velle was also a prominent pioneer of special effects. He began his career as a travelling magician, before applying his illusionist skills to the cinema.
Velle’s silent short La Poule aux œufs d’or (16 min) was produced by Pathé Frères in 1905. The scenario of the film is much simpler than for the theatrical féeries and it goes back to the roots of the story. You can watch the complete film on YouTube, but we start at the apotheosis. If you haven’t time to watch the complete sequence, may we suggest to at least watch the strange 3:40 scene? Though at 7:55 (and at 8:48) you will not be less baffled…
In 1885 Aristide Bruant (1851-1925) opened his Parisian cabaret, Le Mirliton. At the same time he started to publish a journal, with an identical name. Bruant filled his four-page periodical with the lyrics of his songs, poetry, news about spectacles and of course about Bruant himself. He commissioned Theophile Steinlen to create the covers for his Mirliton journal. It is told that Bruant was friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, who immortalised in 1892 the disdainful singer on a poster for the Ambassadeurs cafés-concert.
Bruant’s songs were chansons réalistes about working-class Parisian people written in street slang, the proletarian argot that borrowed its vocabulary from thieves and artisans. He even published the Dictionnaire de l’argot au XXe siècle for those who needed help in understanding the difficult Parisian jargon.
The song above is about an elderly côtier who talks to his worn-out horse.In the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th, men with extra horses (chevaux de renfort) stood at the bottom of steep slopes to help horse-drawn carriages and carts to climb up the hill. These côtiers frequently offered their services to the coachmen of omnibus lines.
Many of the drivers didn’t care for animal welfare. They were brutal to their horses who were thus being reduced to live machines. It is but in 1843 that a Paris police prefect signed the first decree to prohibit drivers from hitting their horses with the handle of their whips. And 1850 saw the first law for the protection of domestic animals.
It was also the start for the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA). In Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 we read the following chilling account: “More importantly, the SPA obtained authorization for veterinarians to immediately treat horses suffering from sunstroke on the public road, without having to wait for the owner’s agreement. At least one would no longer see these animals dying on the road for hours on end, in excruciating conditions, because no one had been able to get hold of its owner. When the owner remained untraceable, one had to call the commissaire de police who then entrusted the animal to the renderer. The Macquart and Tétard knackers then arrived with their car, (…) they hauled up the horse with a hoist and led it either to the animal pound or to the veterinarian (…) or if the horse meanwhile had died, to their own establishments.”
From 1890 on the SPA had their own chevaux de renfort in Paris, stationed beneath recognisable cast-iron poles. They also employed their own côtiers.
Bruant’s song ends with the following morbid words spoken by the côtier to his horse:
Et pis après c’est la grande sorgue, Toi, tu t’en iras chez Maquart Moi, j’irai p’têt ben à la morgue..
And then arrives the big night, You will go to Maquart I’ll go to the morgue.
So the poor horse was destined for Maquart, the horse knacker established in Aubervilliers since 1841. In 1886 Maquart processed 300 to 350 horse carcasses per month, using 5 industrial boilers. At the beginning of the 20th century Léon Bonneff describes Aubervilliers, a commune in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, as follows “…there exists a terrible and charming village.In it merge the waste, the residue and the nameless filth of a capital city.Will go there: dead horses, horses to be slaughtered, horses that veterinarians reject for consumption*, horses that almost die on the street;there passes the blood of slaughterhouses in hot and steaming barrels.”
* Yes, the French eat horses. This postcard gives a macabre view of a slaughterhouse at a market for the consumption of horse meat.
All that organic waste of the horses created foul smelling tanneries and fertiliser factories in the neighbourhood of slaughterhouses and knackeries. The côtier’s poor horse probably would end up as glue or fertiliser. Or as something that took my attention in the publicity for the slaughterhouse: noir animal. I had never heard of this but I learned that it is bone char.
To make bone char the animal bones are heated at incredibly high temperatures with low oxygen concentration, and are thus reduced to carbon. Historically, bone char was (and still is) used in sugar refining as a discolouring and de-ashing filter agent, particularly for cane sugar. Be careful vegans. Bone char filters are not used to process beet sugar.
Bone char is also used as a black pigment for artist’s paint and drawing ink because of its deepness of colour. Bone black and ivory black are artists’ pigments which have been long in use. I will never look in the same way at Manet’s beautiful intense ivory black.
During our research we came across this puzzling photograph of the strange relation between man and dead horse — no comment.
Time now for a light-hearted and very danceable song to promote an animal-friendly lifestyle. Get those vegan vibes, here is Macka B!
Reference: ‘Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914’ by Ghislaine Bouchet (Mémoires et Documents de l’Ecole de Charte n° 37, Librairie Droz, Genève, 1993)