Review - Acrobats and Mountebanks - Guttenburg
*mountebankery=handy word to conjure with! Mwahaha.
In 2014 Project Gutenberg made available Acrobats and Mountebanks, an 1890 book that explores the circuses, fairs, carnivals, and hippodromes of nineteenth-century France. Written by Hugues Le Roux and Jules Garnier, and translated from the French by A. P. Morton, the book features 233 illustrations of clowns, trainers, tamers, equestrians, equilibrists, acrobats, gymnasts, contortionists, fortune-tellers, dwarves, elephants. In all, a snapshot of the trappings of classic circus life from over 100 years ago.
The text is a struggle to read in some ways as it is a bad translation from the original, written in French. All the same, it rewards the patient reader as there are nuggets and certainly the flavour of the era is highly evocative. This passage about the attraction of people to watching "freaks" performing shows an understanding of people with physical challenges and the reported dialogue is a testament to a performer who was self aware, full of self esteem and proud of his skills and talent. In some ways it sums up some of the resons people like to watch any skilled performer.
".... No one should wonder at the fact that many people are more interested in the abnormal than in the beautiful. But this trait being once recognised, the dwarf is more wonderful than the giant; man is such a complicated machine, that in watching these microscopic creatures who gesticulate and speak like ourselves, we feel something of the same astonishment that would strike us if we found the seconds marked by a miniature watch which we could only see through a magnifying glass. For this reason the dwarf show is one of the most popular booths in the fair.
Every one knows that there are two kinds of dwarfs—those who are naturally dwarfs, and those who, as children, were at first of average size and growth, but whose development was abruptly checked. In their case the limbs which no longer grew, were yet capable of enlargement. As a rule the head is enormous. Monsieur François, from the Cirque Franconi—the partner of Billy Hayden the clown, the tiny circus rider—is a typical specimen of this class of dwarfs, who are called noués to distinguish them from the perfect miniature of humanity. They are physically deformed, but in all other respects they resemble other men. François, for instance, is very intelligent. I shall always remember our first interview two years ago in Erminia Chelli’s box at the Cirque d’Eté.
“How old are you, Monsieur François?"
“I am older than you are, M. François; yet, as you know, I am not celebrated."
M. François shook his head … “You see not every one can be a dwarf."
Later in the book that is full of the most extrodinary passages and exquisite illustrations there is the passage I quote below. Bear in mind it is the view of a French man writing about English Clowns. I think it is priceless. The view of a Frenchman on the brutality of the English...
The prevailing note in the Anglo-Saxon character is melancholy. This produced the spleen, the gloomy ideas and the systematic calculated first tinge of madness which the English themselves call “eccentricity." To this habitual sadness the Anglo-Saxon joins a certain brutality, which is visible in all his games, sullies all his pleasures, and even gives to his vices a peculiarly sombre hue. In England gymnastics are cultivated, not for the beauty which they bestow upon the body, but for the murderous weight which they give to the fists of a boxer. England is the cruel country, where men first formulated the law of the “struggle for life."
The clown, the direct son of the Saxon genius, said to himself:
“To please my fellow-countrymen, who worship strength more than anything else, I must first of all be strong, before I can excite their admiration. I will therefore commence by developing my muscles. As to my pantomime, if I wish it to succeed, it must, by the incoherence of its actions, the whimsicalness of its pointless gestures, the automatism of its movements, imitate the terrible spectacle of insanity."
With this idea, the English clown has adopted a mourning livery of black and silver, and has broken the powdered mask [p292]of Pierrot by two red spots, two bloody patches; the insignia of boxing and of English consumption.
This gloomy clown crossed over to France upon the steamers that carried Darwin’s books and the commentaries of Schopenhauer. For one hour the French imbibed the sadness of their insular neighbours, the black acrobat was well received.
Every one will remember the welcome which the Magiltons and the Hanlon-Lees received in Paris. It was the first time [p293]we had seen English pantomime. The exotic art upset all our ideas of logic, it was in direct opposition to all our innate taste for clearness and delicate performances. However, it succeeded, for it evoked the only laughter of which we were at that time capable, a laughter without merriment, convulsive, full of terror."
The book is available for download from the link above for free. As it is out of copyright all the illustrations and text can be used and remixed. The original book (of which I happen to have a copy, bought 30 or so years ago) is worth quite a lot in good condition but the digital version, viewable on your screen on almost any device is priceless and free!
Dave - Sunday 8th of May 2916 - Cambridge, UK
May 6th, 2016