The repertoire of travelling puppet theatre in 19th -century France: The case of the Chok-Pitou Theatre
Yanna Kor (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3)
For residents of Saint-Etienne, “Aller chez Pitou” [“Going to Pitou’s”] was a magical phrase heralding untold delights. A local poet, Antoine Roule, even dedicated a poem to the theatre impresario, Emile-Isidore Pitou, which opened as follows:
Pitou !... Ce nom seul sait nous plaire !
Pitou ! Pitou !... Voilà Pitou,
Partout connu, fêté partout.1
[Pitou !... His name alone is a source of pleasure!
Pitou ! Pitou !... Here’s Pitou,
The popular impresario
Known everywhere, celebrated everywhere.]
Yet the Pitou puppet theatre did not have a permanent site; it was a travelling company that had its origins far away from Saint-Etienne. It all began in Moselle, the French department where the theatre’s founder, Hubert Chok (1811-1867), was born.
The theatrical landscape of 19th century France stands out for the sheer abundance of its travelling puppet theatres. Some journeyed far and wide, while others rarely left their local area; some followed fairs, while others created an itinerary of their own, performing in towns without a fair, known as ‘dead towns’. The Chok-Pitou Theatre, which established its own itinerary over the years and had its base in the city of Saint-Etienne from about 1850 onwards, is one example of this type of theatre.
The repertoire of these tiny theatres was varied, ranging from comedy and vaudeville to opera, from melodrama to epic theatre. However, most of them performed traditional plays (The Temptation of St Anthony, Genevieve of Brabant, The Prodigal Son and Don Juan), alongside Charles Perrault’s fairy tales (Tom Thumb, Cinderella and Blue Beard), Jules Verne’s novels (Michael Strogoff, Around the World in 80 Days) and the popular successes in actors’ theatre (The Sheep’s Foot, The Devil’s Pills and The Nesle’s Tower). Other entertainments were nearly always added to the main programme: metamorphoses, phantasmagorias and circus scenes (performed by either puppets or people).2
In the case of the Pitou Theatre, the geography of the tours – working-class towns on the one hand and the proximity of Lyon with its Guignol theatres on the other – played a significant role in the creation of a repertoire that, while remaining traditional, had a character of its own. The aim of this paper is to highlight the elements that made the repertoire of the Chok-Pitou Theatre stand out from that of similar companies. How did the repertoire influence the formation of the theatre’s unique identity? How did the choice of repertoire reflect the personalities of the owners and audience alike?
The Pitou Collection
First, a brief overview of the theatre. Founded by Chok in around 1830, it was called “Théâtre des Fantoccini”. In about 1840, during a tour of Normandy, Chok hired a grocer’s boy called Émile-Auguste Pitou (1826-1881) to help with repairs and accompany the shows on his accordion. After Chok’s death in 1867, Pitou I took over the company, managing it until his own death in July 1881. The theatre was inherited by his three children, Émile-Isidore, Eugénie and Paul, but it soon went bankrupt: the equipment was sold or abandoned and its three employees left. In 1884, the eldest son, Émile-Isidore, revived his father’s business. He updated the repertoire and technical equipment (opening a new booth in 1891), and turned it into one of the most popular and successful travelling theatres, not only in Saint-Etienne and the local area, but in northern France too where the theatre toured between 1901 and 1902. Under the name “Grand Théâtre Pitou” the theatre continued operating until 1914, when Emile-Isidore and Paul Pitou opened a cinema in Rive-de-Gier3.
Most of the Pitou collection is kept at the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MUCEM) in Marseille and at the Puppet Museum (MAM – Musées Gadagne) in Lyon. It is one of the largest travelling puppet theatre collections around today and contains more than 800 objects (puppets, posters, set elements), a rich library with more than 500 printed books (a third of them with handwritten annotations) and 38 archive files (memoranda, accounting registers, set books, manuscripts, press cuttings and much more). This exceptional collection covers the theatre’s evolution during the 40 or so years of its existence from 1874 to 1913.
Unfortunately, the only testimony from the period prior to 1874 is Émile-Isidore Pitou’s memorandum. Although this is a valuable source of information, it remains a subjective document based on vague childhood memories. In order to fill this gap, a search of digital press collections has been undertaken. Using these two sources, the physical collection and the digitised archives, a database of the Chok-Pitou Theatre’s repertoire has been created. The first part of this paper presents some of the results of this work.
The theatre’s classical repertoire, that is the plays put on by its three generations of owners, is similar to that of other travelling puppet theatres of the period. The core works, put together by Chok, included religious plays (The Nativity, The Passion, Joseph sold by his Brethren, The Judgment of Solomon), melodramas (Thirty Years or the Gambler’s Life, The Grace of God, The Nesle’s Tower, Victor or the Child of the Forest, Genevieve of Brabant), vaudevilles (The Marriage of Fanchon, The Cobbler and the Financier), and operas (Robert the Devil, The Prophet, The Jewess). Pitou I expanded the repertoire, adding popular melodramas (Atar-Gull, Lazarus the Shepherd, The Courier of Lyon, The Bell-ringer of St Paul’s, Thérèse or the Orphan of Geneva), historical dramas (Harry the Devil, Latude or Detained for 35 Years, Marceau or the Children of the Republic), the drama The Wandering Jew (which was no longer censored), fairy play such as The Devil’s Pills, operas such as The African Woman and more. It was at this time that Pitou II premiered the great classic Around the World in 80 Days (1878). He had acquired a taste for spectacular sets, unconcealed manipulation and surprising effects, for example in 1886 with From the Earth to the Moon, Michael Strogoff, Don César de Basan and The Son of the Night, in 1887 with The Sheep’s Foot, in 1892 with the opera Mignon and in 1893 with Crasmagne at the Academy to name just a few.
The analysis of archived documents and the press of the time allows an examination of how the theatre’s repertoire evolved. In 1864, when Chok managed the theatre, the repertoire comprised around 17 pieces; ten years later, in 1874, this number had doubled to 34. In 1880, 47 plays were being performed. In the first year after it was revived in 1884, the number of productions had fallen considerably to just 13. Yet within two years, Pitou II managed to increase its repertoire to 58 pieces. The limited information available about the period 1900-1914 does not give an exact number, but there were between 10 and 15 pieces in Pitou’s repertoire by then. In all, during the 80 years of its existence, the theatre performed around 150 plays, not including variations of the same play, local revues and comic ditties.
The programme of the shows varied, but traditionally in each town the opening show (referred to in records as the “debut”) was Don Juan or The Stone’s Guest Banquet. Performances were often accompanied by some form of entertainment: a raffle, a phantasmagoria, a fair, flares or Venetian festivities. Émile-Auguste added a few comic ditties to each show, some of which were compositions of his own, such as Three Verses of Thanks, which he often sang at the end of the show. Émile-Isidore and Paul Pitou continued this tradition before abandoning it for good towards the end of the century.
Short pieces were often performed together: Victor with The Cobbler and the Financier, Cocoli or the Siege of Capara with The Barber of Seville and Lisette with A Man Comme Il Faut. Death scenes were sometimes performed separately. This practice started with The Nesle’s Tower, which was sometimes played with Marguerite’s death scene and sometimes without. Then, in March 1876, Pitou I experimented with playing the death scene from The Nesle’s Tower with Robert the Devil – a trial that was not repeated. This practice became more common when Pitou II took over. On 24 October 1885, he added Marceau’s death scene (Marceau or the Children of the Republic) to the first performance of Faust. On 23 November 1885, Cocoli was accompanied by two death scenes: the death of Marceau and the death of Christ. In the manuscript of La Passion, a short stage direction describes the latter, but it is easy to imagine what an impact it had on the audience’s imagination:
Nuit complète dans la salle et à la rampe. De suite enlever les têtes et le sang. Éclairer derrière les flammes de Bengale blanche et rouge, tonnerre, grêle, pipe à éclairs toujours en redoublant. Un coup de magnésium en ruban au-dessus de la croix5.
[Complete darkness in the theatre and floats. Then remove the heads and blood. Illumination behind white and red flares, thunder, hail, continual flashes of lightning getting stronger. A bang from magnesium on a tape above the cross.]
This practice did not endure, however. According to the records, Pitou II abandoned it in around 1891.
The other entertainment, first tried out by Pitou I in 1876, was circus. Pitou II returned to it in 1894 and 1896, presenting some of his shows in cooperation with Fanny Leymann’s circus and the Corrado circus. In around 1908, the “American Circus” number, performed by puppets that looked like tiny circus performers, became an integral part of the theatre’s programme. Pitou II also experimented with palque6 (1886 and 1892) and ballet. Between 1886 and 1891, he occasionally combined his shows with local fairs and festivals, while retaining the company’s independent character.
Saint-Etienne, like its surrounding area, was an industrial city in which a large proportion of the population were workers. The theatre’s repertoire, both entertaining and moving, attracted an audience of different kinds of people. As testified by a newspaper article, the spectators were “good people who, for a small amount of money, go to the theatre and feel at home at Pitou’s”, but also “elegant members of the public”. The article’s writer particularly emphasised the fact that “beautiful ladies are not afraid to bring their children”7.
The theatre’s repertoire did not vary much in relation to the location of the performance. Yet there are always exceptions. Thus, André the Miner, a drama by Ferdinand Dugué and Bonnefond8, which tells the story of Colonel André, a former miner, was almost exclusively reserved for an audience of miners. In 1877 and 1878, for example, it was performed in Le Soleil, the miners’ district of Saint-Etienne cut off from the city topographically, rather than in Place Grenette in the town centre, which was a stone’s throw from the Grand-Théâtre (Saint-Etienne’s municipal theatre in Place des Ursules).
The Grand Théâtre de Saint-Etienne inspired the creation of new shows. Thus, in 1878, thanks to the initiative and genius of Émile-Isidore, the theatre staged Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, a meticulous copy of the epic show performed a year earlier at the Grand-Théâtre. The performance of The Shipwreck of the Medusa (which premiered on 31 October 1876) had also been preceded by a performance of it at the Grand-Théâtre (April 1875), where the Mignon opera was also performed in 1891 (premiering at Pitou’s on 4 February 1892). The Pitou Theatre maintained a dialogue with the stage of its day, for both actors and puppets. It kept an eye on everything that was going on. According to a local newspaper correspondent, the Pitou Theatre was always in demand with the public because “[as soon] as something new is created in Paris or elsewhere, it is quickly staged and Crasmagne turns up to play his role as the amiable companion, joyful compere or agreeable chimney sweep”9 .
This brings us to the second part: a discourse on the repertoire itself, that is on the plays’ texts. The Pitou Collection at MUCEM contains just seven texts, of which six were “copied from memory” by Émile-Isidore Pitou between 1914 and 1938 (the manuscript of the seventh, The Alleged Enlistment or the Soldier for Love, is dated 1888). It is highly likely that Chok’s original repertoire only existed in an oral form (according to Pitou II, Chok was illiterate10). Presumably, as with many other puppeteers of the time, the repertoire was passed on orally from one proprietor to the next. It is also possible that, even if some texts did exist in a written form, the notebooks were lost after the theatre went bankrupt in 1881. Thus, all that we have today from Pitou I is just a few songs he composed, collected by his son in the Recueil de chansonnettes, romances, mélodies, chants patriotiques (Collection of Ditties, Ballads, Melodies and Patriotic songs) of 1885.
There are no truly original texts in this collection. All are variations of already existing plays: The Mystery of The Passion, The Barber of Seville, Don Juan, The Cobbler and the Financier, and even Cocoli, which Gaston Baty believed was among the “shows created directly for puppets by the players themselves or inspired by them”11. Unfortunately, these manuscripts – some in the form of a draft, others properly copied – give researchers no idea of how the text evolved from one proprietor to the next, or how the play was adapted to suit audience tastes. Nevertheless, an analysis of the manuscripts allows a study of the dramaturgical strategy that sets the company apart.
Everyone’s favourite character: Crasmagne
Before studying the text, we should focus briefly on Crasmagne, the theatre’s favourite puppet, whose verbal repertoire and gestures became true classics. Nothing is known about how Crasmagne came about except that the puppet had been around since the days of Chok, who was the first to give it a voice. The provenance of his name remains obscure. Perhaps it is a parody of the name Charlemagne, a typical character in puppet theatre in northern France and the Liège region12. It is also possible that it is a neologism derived from the French word “crasse” (dirt, filth) and the Latin adjective “magnus” (great, high)13.
Crasmagne’s progenitor could be Cocoli, the main character in the military vaudeville Cocoli, adapted from the extravaganza Kokoli, first performed in 1802 at the Théâtre de la Cité14. In adapting Kokoli for puppets, Chok not only changed the name of the main hero, but also reinforced the comic aspect of the original character by placing additional value on every little joke. So the phrase “Ils m’ont mis là-dedans: ils appellent ça comme une de mes parentes; ils disent que c’est ma tente” 15[They put me in there: they call it like one of my relatives; they say she’s my tent] becomes “Ils m’ont placé dans un endroit, ils appellent ça tout drôlement, comment qu’ils appellent ça, ma cousine, non… ma belle mère… non c’est pas encore ça… oh ma tente”16[They put me in a place, they called it quite funnily, what did they say, my cousin, no… my mother-in-law… no not that… oh, my tent], thus reinforcing the play on words between “tante” [aunt] and “tente” [tent]. Pierre Cocoli, like his prototype, belongs to the type of humanised new comic hero who appeared in theatres and puppet booths towards the end of the 18th century: a poor cobbler with a good heart and a simple mind. However, Chok’s Cocoli also possesses the comic traits of a puppet booth character: a drunkard and coward, a father of seven, and while he threatens to beat Madame Cocoli, he ends up being the one getting beaten.
Crasmagne inherits from Cocoli his infinite reverence, his play on words, his cheerfulness and his sense of social justice. In The Barber of Seville, he defines himself as follows: “Plaisir, repos, gaîté, souffrance/ Je ne refuse jamais rien”17[Pleasure, rest, gaiety, suffering / I never refuse anything]. This is the comic figure, the traditional role through which the puppeteer was able to communicate directly with the audience. Even when playing another role (Passe-Partout in Around the World in 80 Days, a servant in Crasmagne at the Academy and Don Juan, a Roman soldier in The Passion), he remains himself, the only one who can depart from the context of the play at will.
Like his contemporaries Guignol, Jacques and Lafleur, Crasmagne is more than a puppet. The character is also a powerful dramaturgical tool for rewriting well-known plays in the Chok-Pitou style. Let us now take a closer look at how this tool works in the two emblematic plays, The Passion and Crasmagne at the Academy.
The Passion, or the Life, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ
The Passion and The Nativity, two traditional plays in the 19th-century puppet theatre repertoire, were put on by Chok, then by Pitou father and son, on days around religious festivals and on Sundays. The Passion was also performed outside of any religious context. If we compare the number of performances of The Passion and The Nativity, the former was performed more than the latter (100 performances compared with 50). The reason for this imbalance remains a mystery. It can only be assumed that The Passion, with its diorama of the crucifixion and its depiction of the genealogy of Christ, was more spectacular than The Nativity. Whatever the reason, Pitou chose only to write down the text of The Passion from memory and leave it to subsequent generations.
Compared with the traditional structure of the mystery of the Passion, the Chok-Pitou version stands out for the relatively small role of Judas and the relatively central place given to the soldiers, represented by the Captain and his two officers, Marcus and Crasmagne. All three provide the comic breaks before and after the most emotionally charged scenes, such as the crucifixion and the resurrection, with Crasmagne the driving force of the trio. The character list also changed. In the Chok-Pitou version, we meet two children’s characters whose origins remain an enigma (Little Pilate, the daughter of Pontius Pilate, and Little Brisset, the executioner’s son). Each child acts differently, offering two educational models: the girl, a good child who loves Jesus, sees his divine essence and receives a blessing from him, while the boy, a naughty child, is delighted with the execution, cannot wait for it to happen and deserves only to meet Crasmagne.
Crasmagne is the reverse of Judas: he does not betray Jesus for money, but his duty as a soldier obliges him to take part in the crucifixion; he testifies to the miracles of Jesus, but his testimony adds to the latter’s guilt. If Crasmagne seeks material joys, it is through his almost infantile naivety, not moral corruption. Like the children, the character of Crasmagne also has a didactic role. However, he educates the audience by entertaining them. This dialogue between Crasmagne and his captain offers a glimpse of Crasmagne’s methods:
Crasmagne en entrant.
Qu’est-ce qu’il y a encore, aux armes ! aux armes !
Tu vas rester ici en faction.
A qui, faudra t’il faire des frictions ?
En faction ! Tu apprendras que c’est ici, que nos souverains conservent trente pièces d’argent, qui font trente deniers du pays, et qui avaient été données à Judas pour livrer son maître.
Ah ! c’est pour nous cet argent-là.
Comment pour vous ? Pas du tout. Cet argent est déjà destiné à acheter le champ d’un potier.
Le champ d’un tripotier ?
D’un potier, animal.
Eh oui, j’ai bien compris d’un animal de potier.
Le champ sera appelé L’Cacceldama, ce qui veut dire le champ du sang. Il servira pour y enterrer les étrangers.
Et s’il n’y en a pas des étranglés ?
Des étrangers, imbécile.
Ah ! bon, mon capitaine.18
Now what? To arms! To arms!
Stay here on guard [en faction].
Who needs to be rubbed up the wrong way [frictions]?
On guard! You’ll learn that this is where our sovereigns keep thirty pieces of silver, which makes thirty denarii in the country that were given to Judas to offer up his master.
Ah! that money’s for us.
What do you mean, for you? Not at all. That money is destined to pay for a potter’s field [potier].
A groper’s field [tripotier]?
Potter’s, you animal.
Oh yes, I understand, a potter’s animal.
The field will be called Akeldama, which means field of blood. It will be used to bury foreigners [étrangers].
What if no one has been strangled [étranglés]?
Foreigners, you idiot.
As Hélène Beauchamp shows, “The parodic treatment associated with puppets does not invalidate what is at stake in the mystery. It helps transform it by giving a critical edifying force to the genre’s didactic dimension[...]”19
An analysis of the theatre’s accounts and newspaper advertisements shows a gradual decline in the production’s popularity as the years go by. Under Pitou I, The Passion was performed 58 times, while under Pitou II, between 1884 and 1891, the number of performances fell by more than half to just 24 shows. In the case of The Nativity, the trend was the same: 31 performances between 1874 and 1881, compared with six between 1884 and 1891.
Crasmagne at the Academy
Let us now move on to the second play, Crasmagne at the Academy, the only one to have been published. But how similar is the text that appeared in Gaston Baty’s collection Trois p’tits tours et puis s’en vont to Chok-Pitou’s original version? Baty claims that the play “was [reconstructed] from memory by Émile Pitou”, although he points out that this version was a synthesis of Pitou’s version and Victor Pajot’s “briefer” version, which he used “to jog Émile Pitou’s memory”20. This remark seems odd, knowing that the play’s manuscript, now kept at MuCEM, was ultimately copied from memory in 1924 and copied again properly in 193821, four years before the publication of Baty’s book.
According to Gaston Baty, Crasmagne is just a variation of The Prodigal Son, another play with a long tradition of performances by puppets22. Yet this assertion is questionable to say the least: while The Prodigal Son was in the theatre’s repertoire from Chok’s time, Crasmagne dates from 1893. Could there have been two different plays: the traditional morality play and a parody of it written by Pitou II? This hypothesis is supported by two facts: first, The Prodigal Son continued to be performed alongside Crasmagne (according to the records, 21 performances of The Prodigal Son were given between 1893 and 1896 and just seven of Crasmagne); furthermore, The Prodigal Son was often performed around religious festivals, while Crasmagne was mostly played outside of a religious context. However, several elements in Crasmagne correspond to the traditional version of The Prodigal Son played by the puppets: a comic character associated with the criminal master, an abundance of visible scene changes (fruit turning into skulls, water turning into flames or stopping running altogether)23. Unfortunately, there is no document around today that can attest to what Pitou’s The Prodigal Son was like before 1893.
The Prodigal Son published by Gaston Baty is far removed from Crasmagne at the Academy. Even in terms of its structure, the play published by Baty is much shorter than the one performed by Pitou (5 acts rather than 11): it lacks almost everything the prodigal son came to learn, and the metamorphosis scenes have also disappeared. Baty’s version is also more violent than Pitou’s text (where the son does not threaten his father with a gun), which is more poetic and a lot funnier.
As with The Passion, the parodic and didactic functions of the figure of Crasmagne are evident. He is the dramatic centre of the play, the popular hero guided by his naive mind and empty stomach. Crasmagne is the negative of the wicked character (the prodigal son Benjamin), he is the fool who reveals the truth with a play on words. Take for example the scene in which Crasmagne introduces his master to the lady who owns the Academy:
Crasmagne se retournant
Benjamin, je ne me rappelle plus du tout de ce que tu m’as dit, souffle, souffle moi.
Benjamin lui soufflant
Mr de Lésimond… animal.
Mr de Lésimond l’animal.
Benjamin lui soufflant
Mais Mr …
Benjamin s’écriant et grinçant des dents
Crasmagne même jeu
Benjamin toujours lui soufflant
Retiré et rangé des affaires.
Retiré et retraité du chemin de fer.
Crasmagne même jeu
Mais qu’est-ce qu’ils ont donc ?
Demande à faire une partie de cartes ou de dés.
Demande à manger une carpe bien fricassée. S’adressant doucement à la dame. Avec des épinards au jus, un gigot de mouton rôti.24
Benjamin, I can’t at all recall what you told me, whisper it.
Mr de Lésimond… animal.
Mr de Lésimond the animal.
Rich merchant [négociant].
Negligent rich man [négligeant].
But Mr …
Benjamin crying out and grinding his teeth
Crasmagne same game
Benjamin still whispering
Got out of [retiré] and organised his business [affaires].
Got out and retired [retraité] from the railway [chemin de fer].
Crasmagne same game
What’s wrong with them?
Ask to play cards [cartes] or dice [dés].
Ask to eat a fricasséed carp. Quietly to the lady. With cooked spinach and a roast leg of lamb.]
Crasmagne serves to mirror Benjamin, appropriating his behaviour and forcing him to recognise his own corruption.
In this way, he gives his master a taste of his own medicine after the latter’s casual order: “You stay here. The game ends at midnight, so come and get me at midnight. Count the columns in this lobby if you like. At midnight you wretch, at midnight”25. In the sixth act, master and servant have to swap roles when, stripped of their money, clothes and papers, they meet the guardian of the forest. Benjamin, who has lost his haughtiness, lets Crasmagne take control of the situation and the servant introduces himself as the Marquis d’Argencour. Impressed by the title, the guardian of the forest invites the “marquis” to dine with him. Can Crasmagne refuse him? But Benjamin, introduced as a servant, has to remain outside:
Benjamin, je vais casser la croute avec le garde, je ne peux pas lui refuser ça je le vexerai. Toi pendant ce temps-là compte les arbres de la forêt, à minuit fini le souper, à minuit tu viendras me chercher.26
[Benjamin, I’m going to have a bite to eat with the guardian of the forest. I can’t refuse him or he will be offended. So while you are waiting, you can count the trees in the forest. Our supper ends at midnight, so come and find me at midnight.]
Benjamin finally understands that his behaviour towards Crasmagne was unfair and unpleasant. However, Crasmagne, unlike his master, is not motivated by contempt for those around him, but by his empty stomach.
Crasmagne’s critical and didactic functions are not only directed at prodigal sons. His promise to the guardian, who asks the Marquis d’Argencour to help him obtain slightly larger accommodation, gives an unprecedented dimension to the social criticism characterising the entire text:
Comptez sur moi, je ferai toutes les démarches. J’en parlerai à la haute cour et à la basse-cour, à toutes les cours qui ont cours. On en référera au conseil municipal, qui en reparlera au conseil général, de là, à la sous-préfecture, à la préfecture, à la chambre des députés, au sénat, et dans une trentaine d’années on vous donnera une réponse. Oh ça va vite maintenant avec toutes les facilités de correspondances que nous possédons.27
[You can count on me, I’ll take care of the next steps. I’ll talk about it in the high court and in the low court, to all the courts currently in use. We’ll refer it to the municipal council who will discuss it with the regional council, from there to the sub-prefecture, to the prefecture, to the chamber of deputies, to the senate, and in thirty years or so they’ll give you an answer. That will go quickly now with all the opportunities for correspondence we have at our disposal.]
A morality play? A parodic fairy tale? Perhaps more than anything, for Pitou and his audience of workers, Crasmagne at the Academy was the story of the bourgeois Benjamin who, to persuade his servant to steal the casket and its diamonds, promises Crasmagne that he will treat him like his… minor (miner) brother:
Eh bien toi, tu seras le frère mineur.
Ah je te vois venir frère mangeur.
Mineur, pas mangeur.
Tu mangerais tout, et moi, le frère mineur, je n’aurais plus rien à miner. Non, non, je ne veux pas de cette embauche.28
So you’ll be the minor (mineur) brother.
I see you coming eater (mangeur) brother.
Minor, not eater.
You’d eat everything, while for me, the minor brother, there’ll be nothing left to mine. No, no, I don’t want the job.]
An analysis of the Chok-Pitou Theatre’s repertoire, based on the material stored at MuCEM and MAM, shows that the theatre’s identity was centred on the spectacular and on Crasmagne. While the repertoire stands out for a wealth of plays of unrivalled visual richness, with several changements à vue [set changes], dioramas and metamorphoses, with the spectacular predominating increasingly over the quantity of plays in the standard repertoire between 1900 and 1913, the theatre’s identity is inseparable from the figure of Crasmagne. He is more than a character: he is a dramaturgical tool that opens up the text to a new interpretation. This is the driving force behind the parodic mechanism in several plays put on by this theatre. According to Antoine Roule:
Le gaillard est irrésistible
Par son accent et sa façon :
Jouer sans lui « c’est pas pos…si…ble ! »
Il est le roi de la maison.29
[The fellow is hilarious
with his accent and his ways
Playing without him “is imposs… si…ble”
He is the king of the house.]
Just like Guignol for residents of Lyon, for the collective identity of people from Saint-Etienne, Crasmagne becomes what Pierre Nora calls lieu de mémoire30 (a place of memory).. It can therefore be said that the identity of the Chok-Pitou Theatre developed in perfect symbiosis with the region through which it travelled. “Aller chez Pitou” [“Going to Pitou’s”] became an integral part of the collective memory of residents of Saint-Etienne and the surrounding area, thus contributing to the emergence of the theatre’s unique identity.
It is quite clear that for researchers of the historiography of fairground puppet theatre, the Pitou Collection is a goldmine of testimonies about the material, socio-economic and artistic conditions of performances. Nevertheless, its value does not stop there because as an archive, in the sense attributed to this word by Aleida Assmann (that of a passive cultural memory whose objects have been de-contextualised), the collection has the potential to open up to new contexts and new interpretations as well as take researchers and artists alike in new directions.31
This journey has come to an end. To conclude, another verse from the poem by Roule:
Par groupes bruyants on regagne
Le logis lointain… Et l’on dit
Les mots cocasses de Crasmagne
À tous les échos de la nuit …32
[In noisy groups we return
To our distant abode… And we say
Crasmagne’s funny words
To all the echoes in the night…]
2. As shown by Marie-Claude Groshens, the mixed shows (plays and variety numbers) differed from the theatres that followed fairs, while the shows by theatres which had performed in “dead towns” had to be longer. “Compared with shows by theatres in fairs, they are no longer merely part of a travelling fair, but the whole thing; they can and must be long (elaborate plays or a successions of acts with intervals), and refreshed so that audiences return during a stay that has to be long in order to be profitable.” (Marie-Claude Groshens, “La pratique théâtrale foraine : contribution à l’étude de la fête marchande”, Ethnologie Française, vol. 17, no. 1, 1987, p. 58)
3. For the period 1881-1914, see in particular “Emile Pitou’s Memorandum: The Life of the French Travelling Puppeteer at the Turn of the 19th Century”, European Journal of Theatre and Performance, issue 2, May 2020, pp. 594-605. Followed by Emile Pitou, “Mémorandum d’Emile Pitou à 22 ans et demi” and “ Théâtre Pitou – Quatrième époque”, Yanna Kor, Didier Plassard (Eds.), pp. 606-659. URL:
4. The information in this section comes from the “Registre de comptabilité, 1874-1896”, inv. 93P/9, Fonds Pitou.
5. Manuscript of “La Passion”, p. 57 , folder “Pièce pour marionnettes : « La Passion » et « Crasmagne à l’Académie » (début)”, inv. 93P/25, Fonds Pitou.
6. Name given in the South of France to performing with a schematic scenario, in the tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte. See for example: Eugène Rouzier-Dorcières, “Carnet de route”, Comoedia, 2 August 1910.
7. N.a., “Pitou”, Forez-Auvergne-Vivarais, 1 February 1912, p. 5, folder “Coupures de presse, 1904-1949” inv. 93P/36, Fonds Pitou.
8. Premiere at the Théâtre Ambigu, 16 March 1855.
9. “Pitou”, p. 4, supra. The material contained in the Pitou Collection testifies to the great interest shown by Pitou II in shows by other theatres (of both actors and puppets). This interest influenced the visual nature of the show more than the theatre’s repertoire, but the leaflet of the Théâtre Guignol Lyonnais dated at the end of the 19th century with the “Théâtre Pitou” stamp, suggests a possible source for the drama The Bloodsoaked Inn of Peyrebelle in Pitou’s repertoire. This play, performed more widely in puppet theatres in northern France, was less popular in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, without the exact date of the premiere at Pitou’s Theatre or of the leaflet, it is impossible to say with any certainty what the influence for this was: Pitou’s tour of the north or the tour, probably to Saint-Etienne, of the Théâtre Guignol Lyonnais. Incidentally, the traditional puppet show The Temptation of St Anthony, the playbill for which (Théâtre Moderne, run by Eugène Boquillon) is also in the Pitou Collection, was never performed by the theatre.
11. Gaston Baty, Trois p’tits tours et puis s’en vont… Les Théâtres forains de marionnettes à fils et leur répertoire 1800-1890, Odette Lieutier, Paris, 1942, p. 21.
12. We know that Chok travelled to these two regions in around 1830-1840.
13. Aimé Mouillaud comments that in the “Alsace Crasmagne meant filthy while in the Loire it meant someone who plays “crasses’’ (dirty tricks)”. (Aimé Mouillaud, Le Pays de Gier : les marionnettes Pitou ; les débuts du Cinéma Palace. 1830-1920, n.ed., p. 15)
14. The 1802 edition is accompanied by the following remark: “Kokoly, a Chinese hotchpotch in three acts, by Pl. V….r [Plancher Valcour] and the late D….. [Destival], was entrusted by the latter to C. Ri. i., director of the show. This citizen secretly made a copy of it, arranged it for the small number of subjects with whom he usually travels, and pushed his generosity to the point of adopting this crippled child as his son”. (César Ribié, Kokoly: extravagance en deux actes, Paris, 1802, p. 2). In relation to the subjects, there is the melodrama Chinese Madness, or Kokoli in Capra by Valcour, performed in 1805 at the Théâtre de la Gaité and the extravaganza Kokoly, or Dog and Cat, composed by Plancher de Valcour, César Ribié and Antoine-Jean-Baptiste Simonin, staged at the same theatre in 1817. (Félix Bourquelot, article « Simonnin », La Littérature française contemporaine, 1827-1849, t. 6, PFE-ZUR, 1857, Paris, Delaroque Ainé, p. 381 ; Article « Plancher, dit Valcour », Biographie universelle (Michaud) ancienne et moderne, nouvelle édition, t. 33, Paris, Chez Madame C. Desplages, Leipzig, Librairie de F. A. Brockhaus, 184…, p. 473).
15. C. Ribié, Kokoly, op. cit., p. 17.
16. Manuscript of “Cocoli ou le siège de Capara”, p. 65, folder “Fragments de pièces du répertoire Pitou : « Le Barbier de Séville » (complet), « Cocoli » (complet), pochade militaire en un acte et cinq tableaux, « La Passion » (diorama)”, inv. 93P33, Fonds Pitou.
17. Manuscript of “Le Barbier de Séville”, p. 4, folder “Fragments de pièces du répertoire Pitou : « Le Barbier de Séville » (complet)…”, inv. 93P33, Fonds Pitou.
18. M. « La Passion », pp. 49 - 50, supra.
19. Hélène Beauchamp, “Du mystère pour marionnettes à la marionnettisation du mystère au début du XXe siècle”, in Anne Ducrey, Tatiana Victoroff (Eds.), Renaissances du mystère en Europe : fin XIXe siècle-début XXe siècle, Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2019, p. 304.
20. G. Baty, Trois p’tits tours et puis s’en vont…, op. cit., p. 56.
21. Manuscript of “Crasmagne à l’académie”, p. 15, folder “Pièce pour marionnettes : « Crasmagne à l’Académie » (fin)”, inv. 93P/26, Fonds Pitou.
22. G. Baty, Trois p’tits tours et puis s’en vont…, op. cit., p. 57.
23. Charles Magnin offers the example of a certain Reibehand, a German puppeteer in the 18th century, who “found a way of making the touching parable of The Prodigal Son ludicrous”. As Magnien notes, “the main objective of this play was to offer plenty of spectacle and set changes”. (Charles Magnin, Histoire des marionnettes en Europe: depuis l'Antiquité et jusqu'à nos jours, Paris, Michel Lévy frères, 1852, pp. 297-298)
24. Manuscrit de “Crasmagne à l’académie”, pp. 47 - 48, dossier « Pièce pour marionnettes : ‘’La Passion’’ et ‘’Crasmagne à l’Académie’’ (début) », inv. 93P25, Fonds Pitou.
27. M. « Crasmagne à l’académie », p. 88, id.
28. M. « Crasmagne à l’académie », p. 29, id.
29. A. Roule, “Chez Pitou’’, supra.
30. Pierre Nora, “Entre Mémoire et Histoire. La problématique des lieux”, in Pierre Nora (dir.), Les Lieux de mémoire. I. La République, Paris, Gallimard, 1984, p. vii. Indeed, while for Nora “[these] places, they have to be heard in all senses of the word […] from the most material and concrete object […] to the most abstract and intellectually constructed one”, it seems obvious to us that Crasmagne fits perfectly with this perspective.
31. “I will refer to the actively circulated memory that keeps the past present as the canon and the passively stored memory that preserves the past as the archive. (…) [The archive] is the storehouse for cultural relicts. These are not unmediated; they have only lost their immediate addressees; they are de-contextualized and disconnected from their former frames which had authorized them or determined their meaning”. (Aleida Assmann, “Canon and Archive”, in Astrid Erll, Ansgar Nunning (Eds.) Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, Berlin, De Gruyter, 2010, pp. 98-99)
32. A. Roule, “Chez Pitou’’, supra.