By Brander Matthews.
A clever woman, recently desiring to express her acute disgust at the inconsistencies of our latter-day civilization, spoke contemptuously of "this so called twentieth century of ours." And perhaps we are justified in the inference that she did not think that this century was very much better than any other century. Now, we must admit that the world did not turn over a new leaf with the end of the year 1900 and that the seasons still follow each other with monotonous regularity. Yet there are improvements here and there to be noted by the observant; and the more observant we are, the more likely are we to discover that many of the things we proudly vaunt as new are closely akin to other things familiar to our forebears. In fact, it is one of the characteristics of this so-called twentieth century to seize on an old device and to utilize it afresh in a most unexpected manner.
What is so up-to-date, for example, as the cinematograph or kinetoscope which projects our moving pictures? And what is so out of date as that discarded toy the zoetrope? And yet the scientific principle underlying the biograph is the identical one upon which the zoetrope was also based.
We have all seen performers cast the shadows of their hands upon an illuminated screen to imitate the heads of men and of beasts. And on rainy evenings in country houses some of us have moved in front of a lamp and thrown our own profiles upon a suspended sheet. This latter device was ingeniously employed by Mr. Barrie with humorous effect in the final act of the "Professor's Love-Story," when one of the characters sees the black profiles of other characters projected sharply on the drawn shade of the window before which he stands.
And in the toy shops the parents of ingenious children can find a box containing directions and materials. for a more elaborate exhibition of shadow pantomimes, whereby little plays can be performed by cardboard figures set before a lamp and behind translucent paper. Nothing could be simpler or seemingly more juvenile, and yet in the years that immediately preceded this so-called nineteenth century of ours, this childish toy was taken over and improved by a group of progressive French artists, who raised it almost to the level of a fine art. In France the primitive entertainment was entitled Chinese shadows, ombres chinoises; and it was Caran d'Ache who transformed them into French shadows, ombres francaises.
In France these "Chinese shadows" have been popular for now more than a hundred years, since it was in the eighteenth century that the performer who took the name of Seraphin established his little theater and won the favor of the younger members of the royal family by his presentation of the alluring spectacle, the rudimentary little piece, still popular with children and still known by its original title, "The Broken Bridge."
It may not be fanciful to infer that the immediate suggestion for this spectacle was derived from the contemporary vogue of the silhouette itself, this portrait in flat black taking the name from a Frenchman who was minister of finance in 1759. At all events, it was in 1770 that Seraphin began to amuse the children of Paris, and it was more than a century thereafter that Lemercier de Neuville elaborated his ingeniously articulated pupazzi noirs. It was a little later still that Caran d'Ache delighted the more sophisticated children of a larger growth who were wont to assemble at the Chat Noir with the striking series of military silhouettes resuscitating the mighty Napoleonic epic. And it was at the Chat Noir again that Riviere revealed the further possibilities latent in shadow pantomime and to be developed by the aid of colored backgrounds supplied by a magic lantern. Restricted as the sphere of the shadow pantomime may seem to be, the native artistic impulse of the French has been rarely better disclosed than by their surprising elaboration of a form of amusement seemingly fitted only to charm the infant mind into an entertainment satisfactory to the richly developed esthetic sense of mature Parisian playgoers. Just as the rustic revels of remote villagers contained the germ out of which the Greeks were able to develop their austere and elevating tragedy, and just as the modern drama was evolved in the course of centuries out of the medieval mysteries, one source of which we may discover in the infant Christ in the cradle still displayed at Christmas-tide in Christian churches throughout the world, so the simple Chinese shadows of Seraphin supplied the root on which Parisian artists were able to graft their ingenious improvements.
The little spectacle proffered originally by Seraphin was frankly infantile in its appeal, and "The Broken Bridge" is as plainly adjusted to the simple likings of the child as is the lamentable tragedy of Punch and Judy or the puppet show in which Polichinelle exhibits his hump and his terpsichorean agility. The two arms of the broken bridge arch over a little stream, but fail to meet in the center. A flock of ducks crosses leisurely from one bank to the other. A laborer appears on the right hand fragment of the bridge and begins to swing his pick to loosen stones at the end, and these fragments are then seen to fall into the water. The figure of the workman is articulated - or at least one arm is - on a separate piece and moves on a pivot, so that a hidden string can raise the pick and let it fall. The laborer sings at his work, and in France he indulges in the traditional lyric about the Bridge of Avignon, where everybody dances in a circle. Then a traveler appears on the left hand end of the bridge. He hails the laborer, who is hard of hearing, but who finally asks him what he wants. The traveler explains that he wishes to cross, and asks how he can do this. The laborer keeps on picking away, and sings that "the ducks and the geese they all swim over." The irritated traveler then asks how far it is across, and the laborer again sings, this time to the effect that "when you're in the middle you're half-way over." Then the traveler inquires how deep the stream may be, and he gets the exasperating response, still sung, that if he will only throw in a stone, he'll soon find the bottom. This dialogue bears an obvious resemblance to that traditionally associated with the tune of the "Arkansaw Traveler."
Then a boatman appears, rowing his little skiff, his backbone pivoted so that his body can move to and fro. The traveler makes a bargain with him, and is taken across after many misadventures, one of them with a crocodile, which opens its jaws and threatens to engulf the boat, this amphibious beast having been a recent addition to the original playlet, and probably borrowed from the green monster not long ago added to the group of Punch and Judy figures. The exciting conclusion of this entrancing spectacle displays a most moral application of the principle of poetic justice. The ill-natured laborer advances too far out on his edge of the broken bridge and detaches a large fragment. As this tumbles into the water, he loses his footing and falls forward himself, only to be instantly devoured by the crocodile, which disappears with his unexpected prey, whereupon the placid ducks and geese again swim over, and the curtain falls.
There are a score of other little plays like "The Broken Bridge" adroitly adjusted to the caliber of the juvenile mind. In an English collection may be found a piece representing a succession of appalling episodes supposed to take place in a haunted house; and in a French manual for the use of youthful amateurs may be discovered a rudimentary version of Moliere's "Imaginary Invalid" to be performed by silhouettes with articulated limbs. Here again we perceive the inaccuracy of the term "shadow pantomime," since most of the figures are not articulated, and, being motionless, are deprived of the freedom of gesture which is the essential element of true pantomime. Moreover, they are all made to take part in various dialogues, and this again is a negation of the fundamental principle of pantomime, which ought to be wordless. Here the French term "Chinese shadows" is more exact and less limiting than the English "shadow pantomime." It is perhaps a pity that the old fashioned term "gallanty-show" has not won a wider acceptance in English.
The little pieces due to Seraphin and his humble followers in France and England, devised to amuse children only, were simple enough in plot, and yet they were sufficient to suggest to admirers of this unpretending form of theatrical art plays of a more imposing proportion. M. Paul Eudel, the art critic, has published an amply illustrated volume in which he collected the fairy pieces and the more spectacular melodramas composed by his grandfather in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, in the dark days that preceded Waterloo. And in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, in the dark days that preceded Sedan, M. Lemercier de Neuville, relinquishing for a while the Punch-and-Judy puppets which he called pupazzi and which he had exhibited in a succession of gentle caricatures of Parisian personalities with a mildly Aristophanic flavor of contemporary satire, turned to the familiar Chinese shadows of his childhood and devised what he called his pupazzi noirs, animated shadows. He has issued also a collection of these little pieces with a full explanation of the method of performance, and with half a hundred illustrations, revealing all the secrets of manoeuvering the little figures. Indeed, Lemercier de Neuville's manual is the most ample which has yet appeared; and it is the most interesting in that he was at once his own playwright, his own designer of figures, and his own performer.
As the grandfather of M. Eudel had been more ambitious than Seraphin, so Lemercier de Neuville was more ambitious than the elder Eudel. And yet his procedure was precisely that of his predecessors, and he did not in any way modify the principles of the art. All he did was to elaborate the performance by the use of more scenery, of more spectacular effects, and of more numerous characters. He introduced a company of Spanish dancers, for example; and he did not hesitate to throw on his screen the sable and serrated profile of a long line of ballet-dancers.. He followed Eudel in arranging a procession of animals, rivaling a circus parade, many of them being articulated so that they could make the appropriate movements of their jaws and their paws. And he paid special attention to his silhouette caricatures of contemporary celebrities, Zola for one and Sarah Bernhardt for another.
Then the Franco-Russian draftsman who called himself Caran d'Ache made a new departure, and started the art of the shadow pantomime in a new career. He called his figures "French shadows," ombres francaises, and he surrendered the privilege of articulating his figures so that they could move. At least he refrained from this except on rare occasions, preferring the effect of immobility, and relying mainly upon a new principle not before employed by any of his predecessors. He made a specialty of long lines and of large masses of troops, not all on the same plane, but presented in perspective. He chose also to forego the aid of speech, and his figures were silent except when some officer called out a word of command, or when a company of Cossacks rode past singing one of the wailing lyrics of the Caucasus, as melancholy as the steppes.
One of the most attractive items on his program was a representation of the return of vehicles and equestrians from the Bois de Boulogne in the afternoon. Some of the figures were merely characteristic types sharply seized and outlined with all the artist's masterly draftsmanship, and some of them were well known personages easily recognizable by his Parisian spectators: De Lesseps on horseback, for example, and Rochefort in an open cab. These successive figures were simply pushed across the screen one after another, each of them as motionless as a statue, the men fixed in one attitude, and the legs of the horses retaining always the same position. This absence of animal movement was, of course, a variation from the facts of life, like that which permits the painter to depict a breaking wave or a sculptor to model a running boy at a single moment of the movement. Yet this artistic convention was immediately acceptable, since the spectator received a simplified impression, and his attention was not distracted by the inevitable jerkiness of the limbs of the men and beasts.
Caran d'Ache's masterpiece, however, and it may honestly be styled a masterpiece, was not "The Return from the Bois de Boulogne," but his "Epopee," his epic evocation of the grand army of Napoleon. Single figures, like the Little Corporal on horseback and Murat and others of the emperor's staff, he projected with a fidelity and a veracity of accent worthy of Detaille or even Meissonier. Yet fine as these single figures might be, they were only what had been attempted by earlier exponents of the art, even if they were more impressive than had been achieved by anyone of his predecessors. These single figures were necessarily presented all on the same plane, and the startling and successful innovation of the Franco-Russian draftsmanship was his skilful use of perspective, a device which had not occurred to any of those in whose footsteps he was following. Even Lemercier de Neuville had presented his ballet dancers in a flat row. What Caran d'Ache did was to bring before us company after company of the Old Guard, and troop after troop of cuirassiers, the profiles diminishing in height as the figures receded from the eye. He attained to an effect of solidity and even of immensity far beyond anything ever before achieved by any earlier exhibitor of shadows. He succeeded in suggesting space and of manoeuvering before the astonished eyes of the entranced spectator a vast mass of men under arms, marching forward resolutely in serried ranks to victory or to death.
M. Jules Lemaitre, the most open minded of French dramatic critics, and the most hospitable in his attitude toward the minor manifestations Of theatric art, has recorded that this Napoleonic epic of Caran d'Ache communicated to him not only an emotion of actual grandeur, but also the thrill of war itself. He declared that "by the exactness of the perspective preserved in his long files of soldiers, Caran d'Ache gives us the illusion of number and of a number immense and indefinite. And by the automatic movement which sets all his troops in action at once, he gives us the illusion of a single soul, of a communal thought animating innumerable bodies, and thereby he evokes in us the impression of measureless power ... His silent poem, with its sliding profiles, is, I think, the only epic in all French literature." And those who are familiar with the other French efforts to attain to lyric largeness, and who have had also the unforgettable felicity of beholding Caran d'Ache's marvelous projection of the Napoleonic legend, will be prepared to admit that M. Lemaitre has not overstated the case.
What the Franco-Russian artist had done was to reveal the alluring possibilities placed at the command of the shadow pantomimist by the ingenious employment of perspective; and there remained only one more step to be taken for the final development of the art to its ultimate capacity. This was the addition of color, and this step was taken by an associate of Caran d'Ache in the exhibitions given at the Chat Noir - M. Henri Riviere. Color could be added in two ways. In the first place, the outlines of lanterns and of battle flags could be cut out, and slips of appropriately tinted paper could be inserted in the openings, so that the light might shine through. This relieved the monotony of the uniformity of the sable figures, and added a note of amusing gaiety. But this was an innovation of very limited scope, and it could have been earlier utilized in the flat figures of Lemercier de Neuville, for example, if he had happened to think of it. Far wider in its artistic possibilities was the second of M. Riviere's improvements. For the ordinary lamp which cast a steady glow on the white screen whereon the profile figures appeared he substituted a magic lantern, the painted slides of which enabled him to supply an appropriately colored background. Then he went further, and employed two magic lanterns, superimposed, and these enabled him to get the effect of "dissolving views" whereby he could vary his background at will. The immediate result of this ingenious improvement was that the artist could at will bestow upon his shadow pantomime not a little of the richness of color which delights our eyes in the stained glass of the medieval cathedrals.
M. Riviere was not only an inventor, but he was also an artist gifted with imagination, and his imagination suggested to him at once the three or four themes best fitted for treatment by his novel apparatus. One of these was "The Wandering Jew," another was "The Prodigal Son," and a third was "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," all legends of combined dramatic and pictorial appeal. Yet the most effective of all the experiments in this new form was due not to M. Riviere himself, but to the collaboration of two of his disciples, M. Fragerolle and M. Vignola. This was the "Sphinx," in which the artists most adroitly combined all the advantages of the original flat profiles, and the long files of figures in perspective such as Caran d'Ache had employed, with varied backgrounds due to the aid of the magic lantern first utilized by M. Riviere. Of all human monuments no one has had so marvelous a series of spectacles pass before its sightless eyes as the Sphinx, reclining impassive at the edge of the desert at the foot of the pyramids. Race after race has descended into the valley of the Nile and lingered for a little space, a few centuries more or less, and departed at last. Conqueror after conqueror has come and gone again; and the Sphinx has kept its inscrutable smile.
M. Fragerolle composed the music and the words of the stately chant which accompanied the exhibition of the figures passing before the backgrounds, due to the pencil and the palette of M. Vignola. By the aid of the magic lantern, the gigantic visage of the lion with a woman's head towers aloft, permanent and immutable, while the joyous procession of Egyptian dancers and soldiers and priests celebrates the completion of the statue itself. Then we are witnesses of the fierce invasion of the Assyrians, with the charge of their chariots and their horsemen, and we behold the rout of the natives while their capital burns in the distance. Next we gaze at the departure of the Jews, led by Moses, and laden with the spoils of the Egyptians. After the Hebrews have gone, Sesostris appears, to be greeted by a glad outpouring of the populace. Yet soon the Persians descend on Egypt with their castellated elephants and their immense hordes of fighting men. Still the Sphinx looks down, implacable and immovable, and the Greeks in turn take the valley of the Nile for their own. One of their daughters, Cleopatra, floats past in her galley by night; and in the morning she extends her hospitality to the Roman, Caesar or Antony. And while the Latins are the rulers of the land of Egypt, the Virgin and her Son, with the patient ass that bears a precious burden, skirt the sandy waste and go on their way to the Holy Land, leaving the Sphinx behind them as they journey forward in the green moonlight. After long centuries the Arabs break in with their brilliant bands of horsemen; and a little later the Crusaders come to give them battle. More long centuries elapse, and suddenly Napoleon emerges at the head of the troops of the French republic. Then we have the Egypt of today, with the British soldiers parading before the feet of the Sphinx; and finally the recumbent statue appears to us once more and for the last time, when the light of the sun is going out, and the world is emptied of its population again, and the ice is settling down on the Sphinx, alone amid freezing desolation. And this last vision is projected upon the screen by the magic lantern alone, without the aid of any profile figures, since man has ceased to be.
Here we have a true epic poem, simple, yet grandiose, and possible only to the improved shadow pantomime of France at the end of the nineteenth century, even if this art is only a logical evolution from the gallanty-show of Seraphin. "This humble black profile," said M. Jules Lemaitre, "which had been thought fit at best of a few comic effects to amuse little children only, has been diversified and colored; it has been made beautiful, serious, tragic; by the multiplication of the devices it has been rendered capable of giving us a powerful impression of collective life; and the artists who have developed it have known how to make it translate to our eyes the great spectacles of history and the sweeping movement of multitudes."
Originally published in The Century Magazine. April 1914.