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Dead medium: Riviere's Theatre d'ombres (Part Two)
From: (Bruce Sterling)

Source(s): *The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905* edited by Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996
LC 95-81835

page 57

"Somm's soon-to-be-famous thirty-second shadow sketch *L'Elephant* (...) was created almost immediately after the first performance of *La Berline de l'emigre.* Salis used this short, comic, scatological skit daily until his death in 1897 to introduce the cabaret's shadow-theater performances:

"No set; a lighted screen.

"A Negro, his hands behind his back, is tugging on a rope. He advances, disappears == the rope stretches horizontally. Then, a knot in the rope. The rope continues to stretch, eternally.... Then, at one end, therea appears an Elephant who drops 'an odoriferous pearl' == in the words of the Gentleman Cabaret Owner == from which a Flower springs up == then: Curtain!

"By 9 December 1896, when Jarry performed *Ubu Roi* at Montmartre's Nouveau Theatre, Somm's *Elephant* had been performed at least four thousand times."


page 58

"It was not until 1887 that Riviere replaced Somm and Auriol's puppet theater with a real shadow theater. To do this it was necessary to break through the main wall of the Salle des Fetes and construct a screen and rear staging area. At first the screen measured almost one meter square. Eventually, it was enlarged to 1.12 meters high by 1.40 meters wide with a huge backstage attached to the outside of the building.

"Essentially, Riviere created a system in which he placed silhouettes of figures, animals, elements of landscapes, and so forth, within a wooden framework at thre distances from the screen: the closest created an absolutely black silhouette, and the next two created gradations of black to gray, thus suggesting recession into space. Silhouettes could be moved across the screen on runners within the frame.

"For instance, perspective was created by a succession of large to small silhouettes placed across the screen. The silhouettes were at first made from cardboard and then, in 1888 with the first full-scale production of Caran d'Ache's *Epopee,* from zinc. Behind the three tiers of silhouettes were sliding structures supporting glass panels, which could be painted in a variety of transparent colors; and finally, at the rear of the work area was the oxyhydrogen flame, which served as the light source.

"With the help of backstage assistants who could number as many as twenty, the perfectionist Riviere was able to develop complicated and sophisticated effects of color, sound and movement for the series of over forty eclectic plays that he and his colleagues produced during the eleven years that the shadow theater existed at the Chat Noir.

"The Chat Noir closed in February 1897, a month before Salis's death. It left no greater legacy than Riviere's shadow theater, which was the cabaret's biggest public attraction. From the very beginning, Salis was the improvisational narrator, or *bonimenteur* of each shadow performance. His eccentric, egocentric personality gave the performances added verve and excitement.

"In 1887-88, the year after the shadow theater became fully established at the Chat Noir, Auriol published *Le Chat Noir == Guide,* which, with Incoherent annotations, lists the art on display in this cabaret-museum. With the following contemporary artists represented on the Chat Noir walls, one may assume that Riviere's shadow theater played a crucial role in establishing the credibility of the cabaret with that other tier of the avant-garde, the Impressionists/Post-Impressionists: Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, and others.

"The three most popular shadow theater productions were *L'Epopee* (1888) by Caran d'Ache, and *Le Tentation de Saint Antoine* (1887) and *La Marche a l'etoile* (1890), both by Riviere. It was Riviere who facilitated the technical requirements of all the plays produced at the Chat Noir.

"In some cases the demands were extraordinary, especially when productions such as *L'Epopee,* *La Tentacion,* and *La Conquete de l'Algerie* (1888) by Louis Bombled called for forty to fifty different sets, or if they required subtle effects of color and movement such as *Phryne* (1891) by Maurice Donnay.

"Georges Fragerolle, Albert Tinchant, or Charles de Sivry were most often responsible for the musical scores. The plays were varied in content; Caran d'Ache created a seriocomic monochromatic vision of Napoleon I's military campaigns in *L'Epopee,* which included dramatic perspective views of the Grand Army. Riviere's Symbolist- religious play *La Marche a l'etoile* evoked with minimalist tints of blue the mystical procession of believers to Bethlehem to worship the newborn Christ, and Donnay's *Ailleurs* was a 'poeme satirique, classique, gaulois, mystic, socialiste et incoherent' (...)

"The *fumiste* character of the Chat Noir was maintained by such plays as *Le Gils de l'eunuque* (1888) by Somm, *L'Age d'or* by Willette, *Le Secret du manifestant* (1893) by Jacques Femy, and *Pierrot pornographe* (1894) by Louis Morin.

"The forty scenes of Riviere's *Tentation de Saint Antoine* visualize the odyssey of the hermit saint as the Devil presented him with myriad contemporary and ancient, worldly and other-worldly temptations, including present- day Paris represented by Les Halles (the meat market) and La Bourse (the stock market), science, and new technology, the awesome universe, a variety of ancient deities, and the seductress queen of Sheba. Quotations from Flaubert's novel of the same name were recited and accompanied by selections of music by Richard Wagner, Fragerolle, and Albert Tinchant. The play reaches its crescendo with the apotheosis of the saint after he successfully rejects all temptations.

"*La Tentation de Saint Antoine* was the Chat Noir's first major shadow theater production. Its premiere performance on 28 December 1887 took place eighteen months after it was first announced in *Le Chat Noir.* It must have taken Riviere that long to develop the ability to obtain the great variety and nuance of color as well as the spatial effects that distinguish his adaptation of the traditional shadow theater concept from all those who went before his."

Bruce Sterling (