Pierrot (// PEER-oh, US also / /, PEE-ə-roh, PEE-ə-ROH, French: [pjɛʁo] (listen)) is a stock character of pantomime and commedia dell'arte whose origins are in the late seventeenth-century Italian troupe of players performing in Paris and known as the Comédie-Italienne; the name is a diminutive of Pierre (Peter), via the suffix -ot. His character in contemporary popular culture—in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, often pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat, usually with a close-fitting crown and wide round brim, more rarely with a conical shape like a dunce's cap. But most frequently, since his reincarnation under Jean-Gaspard Deburau, he wears neither collar nor hat, only a black skullcap. The defining characteristic of Pierrot is his naïveté: he is seen as a fool, often the butt of pranks, yet nonetheless trusting.
It was a generally buffoonish Pierrot that held the European stage for the first two centuries of his history. And yet early signs of a respectful, even sympathetic attitude toward the character appeared in the plays of Jean-François Regnard and in the paintings of Antoine Watteau, an attitude that would deepen in the nineteenth century, after the Romantics claimed the figure as their own. For Jules Janin and Théophile Gautier, Pierrot was not a fool but an avatar of the post-Revolutionary People, struggling, sometimes tragically, to secure a place in the bourgeois world. And subsequent artistic/cultural movements found him equally amenable to their cause: the Decadents turned him, like themselves, into a disillusioned disciple of Schopenhauer, a foe of Woman and of callow idealism; the Symbolists saw him as a lonely fellow-sufferer, crucified upon the rood of soulful sensitivity, his only friend the distant moon; the Modernists converted him into a Whistlerian subject for canvases devoted to form and color and line. In short, Pierrot became an alter-ego of the artist, specifically of the famously alienated artist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His physical insularity; his poignant lapses into mutism, the legacy of the great mime Deburau; his white face and costume, suggesting not only innocence but the pallor of the dead; his often frustrated pursuit of Columbine, coupled with his never-to-be-vanquished unworldly naïveté—all conspired to lift him out of the circumscribed world of the commedia dell'arte and into the larger realm of myth. Much of that mythic quality ("I'm Pierrot," said David Bowie: "I'm Everyman") still adheres to the "sad clown" of the postmodern era.
He is sometimes said to be a French variant of the sixteenth-century Italian Pedrolino, but the two types have little but their names ("Little Pete") and social stations in common. Both are comic servants, but Pedrolino, as a so-called first zanni, often acts with cunning and daring, an engine of the plot in the scenarios where he appears. Pierrot, on the other hand, as a "second" zanni, is a static character in his earliest incarnations, "standing on the periphery of the action", dispensing advice that seems to him sage, and courting—unsuccessfully—his master's young daughter, Columbine, with bashfulness and indecision.
His origins among the Italian players in France are most unambiguously traced to Molière's character, the lovelorn peasant Pierrot, in Don Juan, or The Stone Guest (1665). In 1673, probably inspired by Molière's success, the Comédie-Italienne made its own contribution to the Don Juan legend with an Addendum to "The Stone Guest", which included Molière's Pierrot. Thereafter the character—sometimes a peasant, but more often now an Italianate "second" zanni—appeared fairly regularly in the Italians' offerings, his role always taken by one Giuseppe Giaratone (or Geratoni, fl. 1639-1697), until the troupe was banished by royal decree in 1697.
Among the French dramatists who wrote for the Italians and who gave Pierrot life on their stage were Jean de Palaprat, Claude-Ignace Brugière de Barante, Antoine Houdar de la Motte, and the most sensitive of his early interpreters, Jean-François Regnard. He acquires there a very distinctive personality. He seems an anomaly among the busy social creatures that surround him; he is isolated, out of touch. Columbine laughs at his advances; his masters who are in pursuit of pretty young wives brush off his warnings to act their age. His is a solitary voice, and his estrangement, however comic, bears the pathos of the portraits—Watteau's chief among them—that one encounters in the centuries to come.
An Italian company was called back to Paris in 1716, and Pierrot was reincarnated by the actors Pierre-François Biancolelli (son of the Harlequin of the banished troupe of players) and, after Biancolelli abandoned the role, the celebrated Fabio Sticotti (1676–1741) and his son Antoine Jean (1715–1772). But the character seems to have been regarded as unimportant by this company, since he appears infrequently in its new plays.
His real life in the theater in the eighteenth century is to be found on the lesser stages of the capital, at its two great fairs, the Foires Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent. There he appeared in the marionette theaters and in the motley entertainments—featuring song, dance, audience participation, and acrobatics—that were calculated to draw a crowd while sidestepping the regulations that ensured the Théâtre-Français a monopoly on "regular" dramas in Paris. Sometimes he spoke gibberish (in the so-called pièces à la muette); sometimes the audience itself sang his lines, inscribed on placards held aloft by hovering Cupids (in the pièces à écriteau). The result, far from "regular" drama, tended to put a strain on his character, and, as a consequence, the early Pierrot of the fairgrounds is a much less nuanced and rounded type than we find in the older repertoire. This holds true even when sophisticated playwrights, such as Alain-René Lesage and his collaborators, Dorneval and Fuzelier, began (around 1712) to contribute more "regular" plays to the Foires.
The broad satirical streak in Lesage often rendered him indifferent to Pierrot's character, and consequently, as the critic Vincent Barberet observes, "Pierrot is assigned the most diverse roles . . . and sometimes the most opposed to his personality. Besides making him a valet, a roasting specialist, a chef, a hash-house cook, an adventurer, [Lesage] just as frequently dresses him up as someone else." In not a few of the early Foire plays, Pierrot's character is therefore "quite badly defined." (For a typical farce by Lesage during these years, see his Harlequin, King of Serendib of 1713.) In the main, Pierrot's inaugural years at the Foires were rather degenerate ones.
An important factor that probably hastened his degeneration was the multiplicity of his fairground interpreters. Not only actors but also acrobats and dancers were quick to seize on his role, inadvertently reducing Pierrot to a generic type. The extent of that degeneration may be gauged by the fact that Pierrot came to be confused, apparently because of his manner and costume, with that much coarser character Gilles, as a famous portrait by Antoine Watteau attests (note title of image at right).
But in the 1720s, Pierrot at last came into his own. Antoine Galland's final volume of The Thousand and One Nights had appeared in 1717, and in the plots of these tales Lesage and his collaborators found inspiration, both exotic and (more importantly) coherent, for new plays. In Achmet and Almanzine (1728) by Lesage and Dorneval, for example, we are introduced not only to the royal society of far-off Astrakhan but also to a familiar and well-drawn servant of old—the headstrong and bungling Pierrot. It was also in the 1720s that Alexis Piron loaned his talents to the Foires, and in plays like Trophonius's Cave (1722) and The Golden Ass (1725), one meets the same engaging Pierrot of Giaratone's creation. The accomplished comic actor Jean-Baptiste Hamoche, who had worked at the Foires from 1712 to 1718, reappeared in Pierrot's role in 1721, and from that year until 1732 he "obtained, thanks to the naturalness and truth of his acting, great applause and became the favorite actor of the public." But Pierrot's triumph was short-lived. "The retirement of Hamoche in 1733", writes Barberet, "was fatal to Pierrot. After this date, we hardly ever see him appear again except in old plays."
But as he seemed to expire on the theatrical scene, he found new life in the visual arts. He, along with his fellow commedia masks, was beginning to be "poeticized" in the early 1700s: he was being made the subject, not only of poignant folksong ("Au clair de la lune", sometimes attributed to Lully), but also of the more ambitious art of Claude Gillot (Master André's Tomb [c. 1717]), of Gillot's students Watteau (Italian Actors [c. 1719]) and Nicolas Lancret (Italian Actors near a Fountain [c. 1719]), of Jean-Baptiste Oudry (Italian Actors in a Park [c. 1725]), of Philippe Mercier (Pierrot and Harlequin [n.d.]), and of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (A Boy as Pierrot [1776–1780]). This development will accelerate in the next century.
Prior to that century, however, it was in this, the eighteenth, that Pierrot began to be naturalized in other countries. As early as 1673, just months after Pierrot had made his debut in the Addendum to "The Stone Guest", Scaramouche Tiberio Fiorilli and a troupe assembled from the Comédie-Italienne entertained Londoners with selections from their Parisian repertoire. And in 1717, Pierrot's name first appears in an English entertainment: a pantomime by John Rich entitled The Jealous Doctor; or, The Intriguing Dame, in which the role was undertaken by a certain Mr. Griffin. Thereafter, until the end of the century, Pierrot appeared fairly regularly in English pantomimes (which were originally mute harlequinades but later evolved into the Christmas pantomimes of today; in the nineteenth century, the harlequinade was presented as a "play within a play" during the pantomime), finding his most notable interpreter in Carlo Delpini (1740–1828). His role was uncomplicated: Delpini, according to the popular-theater historian, M. Willson Disher, "kept strictly to the idea of a creature so stupid as to think that if he raised his leg level with his shoulder he could use it as a gun." So conceived, Pierrot was easily and naturally displaced by the native English Clown when the latter found a suitably brilliant interpreter. It did so in 1800, when "Joey" Grimaldi made his celebrated debut in the role.
A more long-lasting development occurred in Denmark. In that same year, 1800, a troupe of Italian players led by Pasquale Casorti began giving performances in Dyrehavsbakken, then a well-known site for entertainers, hawkers, and inn-keepers. Casorti's son, Giuseppe (1749–1826), had undoubtedly been impressed by the Pierrots they had seen while touring France in the late eighteenth century, for he assumed the role and began appearing as Pierrot in his own pantomimes, which now had a formulaic structure (Cassander, father of Columbine, and Pierrot, his dim-witted servant, undertake a mad pursuit of Columbine and her rogue lover, Harlequin). The formula has proven enduring: Pierrot is still a fixture at Bakken, the oldest amusement park in the world, where he plays the nitwit talking to and entertaining children, and at nearby Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest, where the Harlequin and Columbine act is performed as a pantomime and ballet. Pierrot—as "Pjerrot", with his boat-like hat and scarlet grin—remains one of the parks' chief attractions.
Ludwig Tieck's The Topsy-Turvy World (1798) is an early—and highly successful—example of the introduction of the commedia dell'arte characters into parodic metatheater. (Pierrot is a member of the audience watching the play.)
The penetration of Pierrot and his companions of the commedia into Spain is documented in a painting by Goya, Itinerant Actors (1793). It foreshadows the work of such Spanish successors as Picasso and Fernand Pelez, both of whom also showed strong sympathy with the lives of traveling saltimbancos.
When, in 1762, a great fire destroyed the Foire Saint-Germain and the new Comédie-Italienne claimed the fairs' stage-offerings (now known collectively as the Opéra-Comique) as their own, new enterprises began to attract the Parisian public, as little theaters—all but one now defunct— sprang up along the Boulevard du Temple. One of these was the Théâtre des Funambules, licensed in its early years to present only mimed and acrobatic acts. This will be the home, beginning in 1816, of Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796–1846), the most famous Pierrot in the history of the theater, immortalized by Jean-Louis Barrault in Marcel Carné's film Children of Paradise (1945).
Adopting the stage-name "Baptiste", Deburau, from the year 1825, became the Funambules' sole actor to play Pierrot in several types of comic pantomime—rustic, melodramatic, "realistic", and fantastic. He was often the servant of the heavy father (usually Cassander), his mute acting a compound of placid grace and cunning malice. His style, according to Louis Péricaud, the chronicler of the Funambules, formed "an enormous contrast with the exuberance, the superabundance of gestures, of leaps, that ... his predecessors had employed." He altered the costume: freeing his long neck for comic effects, he dispensed with the frilled collaret; he substituted a skullcap for a hat, thereby keeping his expressive face unshadowed; and he greatly increased the amplitude of both blouse and trousers. Most importantly, the character of his Pierrot, as it evolved gradually through the 1820s, eventually parted company almost completely with the crude Pierrots—timid, sexless, lazy, and greedy—of the earlier pantomime.
With him [wrote the poet and journalist Théophile Gautier after Deburau's death], the role of Pierrot was widened, enlarged. It ended by occupying the entire piece, and, be it said with all the respect due to the memory of the most perfect actor who ever lived, by departing entirely from its origin and being denaturalized. Pierrot, under the flour and blouse of the illustrious Bohemian, assumed the airs of a master and an aplomb unsuited to his character; he gave kicks and no longer received them; Harlequin now scarcely dared brush his shoulders with his bat; Cassander would think twice before boxing his ears.
Deburau seems to have had a predilection for "realistic" pantomime—a predilection that, as will later become evident here, led eventually to calls for Pierrot's expulsion from it. But the pantomime that had the greatest appeal to his public was the "pantomime-arlequinade-féerie", sometimes "in the English style" (i.e., with a prologue in which characters were transformed into the commedia types). The action unfolded in fairy-land, peopled with good and bad spirits who both advanced and impeded the plot, which was interlarded with comically violent (and often scabrous) mayhem. As in the Bakken pantomimes, that plot hinged upon Cassander's pursuit of Harlequin and Columbine—but it was complicated, in Baptiste's interpretation, by a clever and ambiguous Pierrot. Baptiste's Pierrot was both a fool and no fool; he was Cassandre's valet but no one's servant. He was an embodiment of comic contrasts, showing
imperturbable sang-froid [again the words are Gautier's], artful foolishness and foolish finesse, brazen and naïve gluttony, blustering cowardice, skeptical credulity, scornful servility, preoccupied insouciance, indolent activity, and all those surprising contrasts that must be expressed by a wink of the eye, by a puckering of the mouth, by a knitting of the brow, by a fleeting gesture.
As the Gautier citations suggest, Deburau early—about 1828—caught the attention of the Romantics, and soon he was being celebrated in the reviews of Charles Nodier and Gautier, in an article by Charles Baudelaire on "The Essence of Laughter" (1855), and in the poetry of Théodore de Banville. A pantomime produced at the Funambules in 1828, The Gold Dream, or Harlequin and the Miser, was widely thought to be the work of Nodier, and both Gautier and Banville wrote Pierrot playlets that were eventually produced on other stages—Posthumous Pierrot (1847) and The Kiss (1887), respectively.
In 1842, Deburau was inadvertently responsible for translating Pierrot into the realm of tragic myth, heralding the isolated and doomed figure—often the fin-de-siècle artist's alter-ego—of Decadent, Symbolist, and early Modernist art and literature. In that year, Gautier, drawing upon Deburau's newly acquired audacity as a Pierrot, as well as upon the Romantics' store of Shakespearean plots and of Don-Juanesque legend, published a "review" of a pantomime he claimed to have seen at the Funambules.
He entitled it "Shakespeare at the Funambules", and in it he summarized and analyzed an unnamed pantomime of unusually somber events: Pierrot murders an old-clothes man for garments to court a duchess, then is skewered in turn by the sword with which he stabbed the peddler when the latter's ghost lures him into a dance at his wedding. Pierrot, in an unprecedentedly tragic turn of events, dies from the wound.
The pantomime under "review" was Gautier's own fabrication (though it inspired a hack to turn it into an actual pantomime, The Ol' Clo's Man , in which Deburau probably appeared—and also inspired Barrault's wonderful recreation of it in Children of Paradise). But it importantly marked a turning-point in Pierrot's career: henceforth Pierrot could bear comparisons with the serious over-reachers of high literature, like Don Juan or Macbeth; he could be a victim—even unto death—of his own cruelty and daring.
When Gustave Courbet drew a pencil illustration for The Black Arm (1856), a pantomime by Fernand Desnoyers written for another mime, Paul Legrand (see next section), the Pierrot who quakes with fear as a black arm snakes up from the ground before him is clearly a child of the Pierrot in The Ol' Clo's Man. So, too, perhaps, is Gustave Doré's undated Grimacing Pierrot and, even more probably, Honoré Daumier's Pierrots: creatures often suffering a harrowing anguish. In 1860, Deburau was directly credited with inspiring such anguish, when, in a novella called Pierrot by Henri Rivière, the mime-protagonist blames his real-life murder of a treacherous Harlequin on Baptiste's "sinister" cruelties. Among the most celebrated of pantomimes in the latter part of the century would appear sensitive moon-mad souls duped into criminality—usually by love of a fickle Columbine—and so inevitably marked for destruction (Paul Margueritte's Pierrot, Murderer of His Wife ; the mime Séverin's Poor Pierrot ; Catulle Mendès' Ol' Clo's Man , modeled on Gautier's "review").
Deburau's son, Jean-Charles (or, as he preferred, "Charles" [1829–1873]), assumed Pierrot's blouse the year after his father's death, and he was praised for bringing Baptiste's agility to the role. (Nadar's photographs of him in various poses are some of the best to come out of his studio—if not some of the best of the era.)
But the most important Pierrot of mid-century was Charles-Dominique-Martin Legrand, known as Paul Legrand (1816–1898; see photo at top of page). In 1839, Legrand made his debut at the Funambules as the lover Leander in the pantomimes, and when he began appearing as Pierrot, in 1845, he brought a new sensibility to the character. A mime whose talents were dramatic rather than acrobatic, Legrand helped steer the pantomime away from the old fabulous and knockabout world of fairy-land and into the realm of sentimental—often tearful—realism. In this he was abetted by the novelist and journalist Champfleury, who set himself the task, in the 1840s, of writing "realistic" pantomimes. Among the works he produced were Marquis Pierrot (1847), which offers a plausible explanation for Pierrot's powdered face (he begins working-life as a miller's assistant), and the Pantomime of the Attorney (1865), which casts Pierrot in the prosaic role of an attorney's clerk.
Legrand left the Funambules in 1853 for what was to become his chief venue, the Folies-Nouvelles, which attracted the fashionable and artistic set, unlike the Funambules' working-class children of paradise. Such an audience was not averse to pantomimic experiment, and at mid-century "experiment" very often meant Realism. (The pre-Bovary Gustave Flaubert wrote a pantomime for the Folies-Nouvelles, Pierrot in the Seraglio , which was never produced.) Legrand often appeared in realistic costume, his chalky face his only concession to tradition, leading some advocates of pantomime, like Gautier, to lament that he was betraying the character of the type.
But it was the Pierrot as conceived by Legrand that had the greatest influence on future mimes. Charles himself eventually capitulated: it was he who played the Pierrot of Champfleury's Pantomime of the Attorney. Like Legrand, Charles's student, the Marseilles mime Louis Rouffe (1849–1885), rarely performed in Pierrot's costume, earning him the epithet "l'Homme Blanc" ("The White Man"). His successor Séverin (1863–1930) played Pierrot sentimentally, as a doom-laden soul, a figure far removed from the conception of Deburau père. And one of the last great mimes of the century, Georges Wague (1875–1965), though he began his career in Pierrot's costume, ultimately dismissed Baptiste's work as puerile and embryonic, averring that it was time for Pierrot's demise in order to make way for "characters less conventional, more human." Marcel Marceau's Bip seems a natural, if deliberate, outgrowth of these developments, walking, as he does, a concessionary line between the early fantastic domain of Deburau's Pierrot and the so-called realistic world.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the pantomime reached a kind of apogee, and Pierrot became ubiquitous. Moreover, he acquired a counterpart, Pierrette, who rivaled Columbine for his affections. (She seems to have been especially endearing to Xavier Privas, hailed in 1899 as the "prince of songwriters": several of his songs ["Pierrette Is Dead", "Pierrette's Christmas"] are devoted to her fortunes.) A Cercle Funambulesque was founded in 1888, and Pierrot (sometimes played by female mimes, such as Félicia Mallet) dominated its productions until its demise in 1898. Sarah Bernhardt even donned Pierrot's blouse for Jean Richepin's Pierrot the Murderer (1883).
But French mimes and actors were not the only figures responsible for Pierrot's ubiquity: the English Hanlon brothers (sometimes called the Hanlon-Lees), gymnasts and acrobats who had been schooled in the 1860s in pantomimes from Baptiste's repertoire, traveled (and dazzled) the world well into the twentieth century with their pantomimic sketches and extravaganzas featuring riotously nightmarish Pierrots. The Naturalists—Émile Zola especially, who wrote glowingly of them—were captivated by their art. Edmond de Goncourt modeled his acrobat-mimes in his The Zemganno Brothers (1879) upon them; J.-K. Huysmans (whose Against Nature  would become Dorian Gray's bible) and his friend Léon Hennique wrote their pantomime Pierrot the Skeptic (1881) after seeing them perform at the Folies Bergère. (And, in turn, Jules Laforgue wrote his pantomime Pierrot the Cut-Up [Pierrot fumiste, 1882] after reading the scenario by Huysmans and Hennique.) It was in part through the enthusiasm that they excited, coupled with the Impressionists' taste for popular entertainment, like the circus and the music-hall, as well as the new bohemianism that then reigned in artistic quarters like Montmartre (and which was celebrated by such denizens as Adolphe Willette, whose cartoons and canvases are crowded with Pierrots)—it was through all this that Pierrot achieved almost unprecedented currency and visibility towards the end of the century.
He invaded the visual arts—not only in the work of Willette, but also in the illustrations and posters of Jules Chéret; in the engravings of Odilon Redon (The Swamp Flower: A Sad Human Head ); and in the canvases of Georges Seurat (Pierrot with a White Pipe [Aman-Jean] ; The Painter Aman-Jean as Pierrot ), Léon Comerre (Pierrot , Pierrot Playing the Mandolin ), Henri Rousseau (A Carnival Night ), Paul Cézanne (Mardi gras [Pierrot and Harlequin] ), Fernand Pelez (Grimaces and Miseries a.k.a. The Saltimbanques ), Pablo Picasso (Pierrot and Columbine ), Guillaume Seignac (Pierrot's Embrace ), Théophile Steinlen (Pierrot and the Cat ), and Édouard Vuillard (The Black Pierrot [c. 1890]). The mime "Tombre" of Jean Richepin's novel Nice People (Braves Gens ) turned him into a pathetic and alcoholic "phantom"; Paul Verlaine imagined him as a gormandizing naïf in "Pantomime" (1869), then, like Tombre, as a lightning-lit specter in "Pierrot" (1868, pub. 1882). Laforgue put three of the "complaints" of his first published volume of poems (1885) into "Lord" Pierrot's mouth—and dedicated his next book, The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon (1886), completely to Pierrot and his world. (Pierrots were legion among the minor, now-forgotten poets: for samples, see Willette's journal The Pierrot, which appeared between 1888 and 1889, then again in 1891.) In the realm of song, Claude Debussy set both Verlaine's "Pantomime" and Banville's "Pierrot" (1842) to music in 1881 (not published until 1926)—the only precedents among works by major composers being the "Pierrot" section of Telemann's Burlesque Overture (1717–22), Mozart's 1783 "Masquerade" (in which Mozart himself took the role of Harlequin and his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange, that of Pierrot), and the "Pierrot" section of Robert Schumann's Carnival (1835). Even the embryonic art of the motion picture turned to Pierrot before the century was out: he appeared, not only in early celluloid shorts (Georges Méliès's The Nightmare , The Magician ; Alice Guy's Arrival of Pierrette and Pierrot , Pierrette's Amorous Adventures ; Ambroise-François Parnaland's Pierrot's Big Head/Pierrot's Tongue , Pierrot-Drinker ), but also in Emile Reynaud's Praxinoscope production of Poor Pierrot (1892), the first animated movie and the first hand-colored one.
In Belgium, where the Decadents and Symbolists were as numerous as their French counterparts, Félicien Rops depicted a grinning Pierrot who is witness to an unromantic backstage scene (Blowing Cupid's Nose ) and James Ensor painted Pierrots (and other masks) obsessively, sometimes rendering them prostrate in the ghastly light of dawn (The Strange Masks ), sometimes isolating Pierrot in their midst, his head drooping in despondency (Pierrot's Despair ), sometimes augmenting his company with a smiling, stein-hefting skeleton (Pierrot and Skeleton in Yellow ). Their countryman the poet Albert Giraud also identified intensely with the zanni: the fifty rondels of his Pierrot lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot ) would inspire several generations of composers (see Pierrot lunaire below), and his verse-play Pierrot-Narcissus (1887) offered a definitive portrait of the solipsistic poet-dreamer. The title of choreographer Joseph Hansen's 1884 ballet, Macabre Pierrot, created in collaboration with the poet Théo Hannon, summed up one of the chief strands of the character's persona for many artists of the era.
In the England of the Aesthetic Movement, Pierrot figured prominently in the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley; various writers—Henry Austin Dobson, Arthur Symons, Olive Custance—seized upon him for their poetry ("After Watteau" , "Pierrot in Half-Mourning" , "Pierrot" , respectively); and Ernest Dowson wrote the verse-play Pierrot of the Minute (1897, illustrated by Beardsley). (The American poet William Theodore Peters, who commissioned Dowson's piece and would play Pierrot in its premiere, published a poetic "Epilogue" for it in 1896, and the composer Sir Granville Bantock would later contribute an orchestral prologue .) One of the gadflies of Aestheticism, W. S. Gilbert, introduced Harlequin and Pierrot as love-struck twin brothers into Eyes and No Eyes, or The Art of Seeing (1875), for which Thomas German Reed wrote the music. And he ensured that neither character, contrary to many an Aesthetic Pierrot, would be amorously disappointed.
In a more bourgeois vein, Ethel Wright painted Bonjour, Pierrot! (a greeting to a dour clown sitting disconsolate with his dog) in 1893. And the Pierrot of popular taste also spawned a uniquely English entertainment. In 1891, the singer and banjoist Clifford Essex, inspired by Michel Carré fils' pantomime L'Enfant prodigue (Pierrot the Prodigal ), which he had seen at the Prince of Wales' Theatre in London, resolved to create a troupe of English Pierrot entertainers. Thus were born the seaside Pierrots (in conical hats and sometimes black or colored costume) who, as late as the 1950s, sang, danced, juggled, and joked on the piers of Brighton and Margate and Blackpool. Obviously inspired by these troupes were the Will Morris Pierrots, named after their Birmingham founder. They originated in the Smethwick area in the late 1890s and played to large audiences in many parks, theaters, and pubs in the Midlands. It was doubtless these popular entertainers who inspired the academic Walter Westley Russell to commit The Pierrots (c. 1900) to canvas.
It was neither the Aesthetic nor the popular Pierrot that claimed the attention of the great theater innovator Edward Gordon Craig. The appeal of the mask seems to have been the same that drew Craig to the "Über-Marionette": the sense that Pierrot was a symbolic embodiment of an aspect of the spiritual life—Craig invokes William Blake—and in no way a vehicle of "blunt" materialistic Realism. Craig's involvement with the figure was incremental. In 1897, Craig, dressed as Pierrot, gave a quasi-impromptu stage-reading of Hans Christian Andersen's story "What the Moon Saw" as part of a benefit for a destitute and stranded troupe of provincial players. Two years later, in his journal The Page, he published (under the pseudonym "S.M. Fox") a short story, "The Last of the Pierrots", which is a shaming attack upon the modern commercialization of Carnival. However, his most important contribution to the Pierrot canon was not to appear until after the turn of the century (see Plays, playlets, pantomimes, and revues below).
Pierrot and Pierrette (1896) was a specimen of early English film from the director Birt Acres. For an account of the English acrobatic-mime troupe The Hanlon Brothers, see France above.
Although he lamented that "the Pierrot figure was inherently alien to the German-speaking world", the playwright Franz Blei introduced him enthusiastically into his playlet The Kissy-Face: A Columbiade (1895), and his fellow-Austrians Richard Specht and Richard Beer-Hofmann made an effort to naturalize Pierrot—in their plays Pierrot-Hunchback (1896) and Pierrot-Hypnotist (1892, first pub. 1984), respectively—by linking his fortunes with those of Goethe's Faust. Still others among their countrymen simply sidestepped the issue of naturalization: Hermann Bahr took his inspiration for his Pantomime of the Good Man (1893) directly from his encounter with the exclusively French Cercle Funambulesque; Rudolf Holzer set the action of his Puppet Loyalty (1899), unapologetically, in a fabulous Paris; and Karl Michael von Levetzow settled his Two Pierrots (1900) in the birthplace of Pierrot's comedy, Italy.
In Germany, Frank Wedekind introduced the femme-fatale of his first "Lulu" play, Earth Spirit (1895), in a Pierrot costume; and when the Austrian composer Alban Berg drew upon the play for his opera Lulu (unfinished; first perf. 1937), he retained the scene of Lulu's meretricious pierroting. In a similarly (and paradoxically) revealing spirit, the painter Paul Hoecker put cheeky young men into Pierrot costumes to ape their complacent burgher elders, smoking their pipes (Pierrots with Pipes [c. 1900]) and swilling their champagne (Waiting Woman [c. 1895]). (See also Pierrot lunaire below.)
Canio's Pagliaccio in the famous opera (1892) by Leoncavallo is close enough to a Pierrot to deserve a mention here. Much less well-known is the work of two other composers—Mario Pasquale Costa and Vittorio Monti. Costa's pantomime L'Histoire d'un Pierrot (Story of a Pierrot), which debuted in Paris in 1893, was so admired in its day that it eventually reached audiences on several continents, was paired with Cavalleria Rusticana by New York's Metropolitan Opera Company in 1909, and was premiered as a film by Baldassarre Negroni in 1914. Its libretto, like that of Monti's "mimodrama" Noël de Pierrot a.k.a. A Clown's Christmas (1900), was written by Fernand Beissier, one of the founders of the Cercle Funambulesque. (Monti would go on to acquire his own fame by celebrating another spiritual outsider much akin to Pierrot—the Gypsy. His Csárdás [c. 1904], like Pagliacci, has found a secure place in the standard musical repertoire.)
The portrait and genre painter Vittorio Matteo Corcos produced Portrait of Boy in Pierrot Costume in 1897.
In 1895, the playwright and future Nobel laureate Jacinto Benavente wrote rapturously in his journal of a performance of the Hanlon-Lees, and three years later he published his only pantomime: The Whiteness of Pierrot. A true fin-de-siècle mask, Pierrot paints his face black to commit robbery and murder; then, after restoring his pallor, he hides himself, terrified of his own undoing, in a snowbank—forever. Thus does he forfeit his union with Columbine (the intended beneficiary of his crimes) for a frosty marriage with the moon.
Pierrot and his fellow masks were late in coming to the United States, which, unlike England, Russia, and the countries of continental Europe, had had no early exposure to commedia dell'arte. The Hanlon-Lees made their first U.S. appearance in 1858, and their subsequent tours, well into the twentieth century, of scores of cities throughout the country accustomed their audiences to their fantastic, acrobatic Pierrots. But the Pierrot that would leave the deepest imprint upon the American imagination was that of the French and English Decadents, a creature who quickly found his home in the so-called little magazines of the 1890s (as well as in the poster-art that they spawned). One of the earliest and most influential of these in America, The Chap-Book (1894–98), which featured a story about Pierrot by the aesthete Percival Pollard in its second number, was soon host to Beardsley-inspired Pierrots drawn by E.B. Bird and Frank Hazenplug. (The Canadian poet Bliss Carman should also be mentioned for his contribution to Pierrot's dissemination in mass-market publications like Harper's.) Like most things associated with the Decadence, such exotica discombobulated the mainstream American public, which regarded the little magazines in general as "freak periodicals" and declared, through one of its mouthpieces, Munsey's Magazine, that "each new representative of the species is, if possible, more preposterous than the last." And yet the Pierrot of that species was gaining a foothold elsewhere. The composers Amy Beach and Arthur Foote devoted a section to Pierrot (as well as to Pierrette, his Decadent counterpart) in two ludic pieces for piano—Beach's Children's Carnival (1894) and Foote's Five Bagatelles (1893).
The fin-de-siècle world in which this Pierrot resided was clearly at odds with the reigning American Realist and Naturalist aesthetic (though such figures as Ambrose Bierce and John LaFarge were mounting serious challenges to it). It is in fact jarring to find the champion of American prose Realism, William Dean Howells, introducing Pastels in Prose (1890), a volume of French prose-poems containing a Paul Margueritte pantomime, The Death of Pierrot, with words of warm praise (and even congratulations to each poet for failing "to saddle his reader with a moral"). So uncustomary was the French Aesthetic viewpoint that, when Pierrot made an appearance in Pierrot the Painter (1893), a pantomime by Alfred Thompson, set to music by the American composer Laura Sedgwick Collins, The New York Times covered it as an event, even though it was only a student production. It was found to be "pleasing" because, in part, it was "odd". Not until the first decade of the next century, when the great (and popular) fantasist Maxfield Parrish worked his magic on the figure, would Pierrot be comfortably naturalized in America.
Of course, writers from the United States living abroad—especially in Paris or London—were aberrantly susceptible to the charms of the Decadence. Such a figure was Stuart Merrill, who consorted with the French Symbolists and who compiled and translated the pieces in Pastels in Prose. Another was William Theodore Peters, an acquaintance of Ernest Dowson and other members of the Rhymers' Club and a driving force behind the conception and theatrical realization of Dowson's Pierrot of the Minute (1897; see England above). Of the three books that Peters published before his death (of starvation) at the age of forty-two, his Posies out of Rings: And Other Conceits (1896) is most notable here: in it, four poems and an "Epilogue" for the aforementioned Dowson play are devoted to Pierrot. (From the mouth of Pierrot loquitur: "Although this pantomime of life is passing fine,/Who would be happy must not marry Columbine".)
Another pocket of North-American sympathy with the Decadence—one manifestation of what the Latin world called modernismo—could be found in the progressive literary scene of Mexico, its parent country, Spain, having been long conversant with the commedia dell'arte. In 1897, Bernardo Couto Castillo, another Decadent who, at the age of twenty-two, died even more tragically young than Peters, embarked on a series of Pierrot-themed short stories—"Pierrot Enamored of Glory" (1897), "Pierrot and His Cats" (1898), "The Nuptials of Pierrot" (1899), "Pierrot's Gesture" (1899), "The Caprices of Pierrot" (1900)—culminating, after the turn of the century (and in the year of Couto's death), with "Pierrot-Gravedigger" (1901). For the Spanish-speaking world, according to scholar Emilio Peral Vega, Couto "expresses that first manifestation of Pierrot as an alter ego in a game of symbolic otherness ..."
Inspired by the French Symbolists, especially Verlaine, Rubén Darío, the Nicaraguan poet widely acknowledged as the founder of Spanish-American literary Modernism (modernismo), placed Pierrot ("sad poet and dreamer") in opposition to Columbine ("fatal woman", the arch-materialistic "lover of rich silk garments, golden jewelry, pearls and diamonds") in his 1898 prose-poem The Eternal Adventure of Pierrot and Columbine.
In the last year of the century, Pierrot appeared in a Russian ballet, Harlequin's Millions a.k.a. Harlequinade (1900), its libretto and choreography by Marius Petipa, its music by Riccardo Drigo, its dancers the members of St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet. It would set the stage for the later and greater triumphs of Pierrot in the productions of the Ballets Russes.
The Pierrot bequeathed to the twentieth century had acquired a rich and wide range of personae. He was the naïve butt of practical jokes and amorous scheming (Gautier); the prankish but innocent waif (Banville, Verlaine, Willette); the narcissistic dreamer clutching at the moon, which could symbolize many things, from spiritual perfection to death (Giraud, Laforgue, Willette, Dowson); the frail, neurasthenic, often doom-ridden soul (Richepin, Beardsley); the clumsy, though ardent, lover, who wins Columbine's heart, or murders her in frustration (Margueritte); the cynical and misogynistic dandy, sometimes dressed in black (Huysmans/Hennique, Laforgue); the Christ-like victim of the martyrdom that is Art (Giraud, Willette, Ensor); the androgynous and unholy creature of corruption (Richepin, Wedekind); the madcap master of chaos (the Hanlon-Lees); the purveyor of hearty and wholesome fun (the English pier Pierrots)—and various combinations of these. Like the earlier masks of commedia dell'arte, Pierrot now knew no national boundaries. Thanks to the international gregariousness of Modernism, he would soon be found everywhere.
Pierrot played a seminal role in the emergence of Modernism in the arts. He was a key figure in every art-form except architecture.
With respect to poetry, T. S. Eliot's "breakthrough work", "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), owed its existence to the poems of Jules Laforgue, whose "ton 'pierrot'" informed all of Eliot's early poetry. (Laforgue, he said, "was the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech.") Prufrock is a Pierrot transplanted to America. Another prominent Modernist, Wallace Stevens, was undisguised in his identification with Pierrot in his earliest poems and letters—an identification that he later complicated and refined through such avatars as Bowl (in Bowl, Cat and Broomstick ), Carlos (in Carlos Among the Candles ), and, most importantly, Crispin (in "The Comedian as the Letter C" ).
As for fiction, William Faulkner began his career as a chronicler of Pierrot's amorous disappointments and existential anguish in such little-known works as his play The Marionettes (1920) and the verses of his Vision in Spring (1921), works that were an early and revealing declaration of the novelist's "fragmented state". (Some critics have argued that Pierrot stands behind the semi-autobiographical Nick Adams of Faulkner's fellow-Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway, and another contends that James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, again an avatar of his own creator, also shares the same parentage.)
In music, historians of Modernism generally place Arnold Schoenberg's 1912 song-cycle Pierrot lunaire at the very pinnacle of High-Modernist achievement. And in ballet, Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911), in which the traditionally Pulcinella-like clown wears the heart of Pierrot, is often argued to have attained the same stature.
Students of Modernist painting and sculpture are familiar with Pierrot (in many different attitudes, from the ineffably sad to the ebulliently impudent) through the masterworks of his acolytes, including Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Georges Rouault, Salvador Dalí, Max Beckmann, August Macke, Paul Klee, Jacques Lipchitz—the list is very long (see Visual arts below).
As for the drama, Pierrot was a regular fixture in the plays of the Little Theatre Movement (Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo , Robert Emmons Rogers' Behind a Watteau Picture , Blanche Jennings Thompson's The Dream Maker ), which nourished the careers of such important Modernists as Eugene O'Neill, Susan Glaspell, and others.
In film, a beloved early comic hero was the Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin, who conceived the character, in Chaplin's words, as "a sort of Pierrot".
As the diverse incarnations of the nineteenth-century Pierrot would predict, the hallmarks of the Modernist Pierrot are his ambiguity and complexity.
One of his earliest appearances was in Alexander Blok's The Puppet Show (1906), called by one theater-historian "the greatest example of the harlequinade in Russia". Vsevolod Meyerhold, who both directed the first production and took on the role, dramatically emphasized the multifacetedness of the character: according to one spectator, Meyerhold's Pierrot was "nothing like those familiar, falsely sugary, whining Pierrots. Everything about him is sharply angular; in a hushed voice he whispers strange words of sadness; somehow he contrives to be caustic, heart-rending, gentle: all these things yet at the same time impudent." In her own notes to Aria da Capo, Edna St. Vincent Millay makes it clear that her Pierrot is not to be played as a cardboard stock type:
Pierrot sees clearly into existing evils and is rendered gaily cynical by them; he is both too indolent and too indifferent to do anything about it. Yet in several lines of the play his actual unhappiness is seen,—for instance, "Moon's just a word to swear by", in which he expresses his conviction that all beauty and romance are fled from the world. At the end of the play the line, "Yes, and yet I dare say he is just as dead", must not be said flippantly or cynically, but slowly and with much philosophic concentration on the thought.
Even Chaplin's Little Tramp, conceived broadly as a comic and sentimental type, exhibits a wide range of aspirations and behaviors. Chaplin alleges to have told Mack Sennett, after first having assumed the character,
You know, this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear—but only in extreme anger!
In this section, with the exception of productions by the Ballets Russes (which will be listed alphabetically by title) and of musical settings of Pierrot lunaire (which will be discussed under a separate heading), all works are identified by artist; all artists are grouped by nationality, then listed alphabetically. Multiple works by artists are listed chronologically.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Pierrot continued to appear in the art of the Modernists—or at least of the long-lived among them: Chagall, Ernst, Goleminov, Hopper, Miró, Picasso—as well as in the work of their younger followers, such as Gerard Dillon, Indrek Hirv, and Roger Redgate. And when film arrived at a pinnacle of auteurism in the 1950s and '60s, aligning it with the earlier Modernist aesthetic, some of its most celebrated directors—Bergman, Fellini, Godard—turned naturally to Pierrot.
But Pierrot's most prominent place in the late twentieth century, as well as in the early twenty-first, has been in popular, not High Modernist, art. As the entries below tend to testify, Pierrot is most visible (as in the eighteenth century) in unapologetically popular genres—in circus acts and street-mime sketches, TV programs and Japanese anime, comic books and graphic novels, children's books and young adult fiction (especially fantasy and, in particular, vampire fiction), Hollywood films, and pop and rock music. He generally assumes one of three avatars: the sweet and innocent child (as in the children's books), the poignantly lovelorn and ineffectual being (as, notably, in the Jerry Cornelius novels of Michael Moorcock), or the somewhat sinister and depraved outsider (as in David Bowie's various experiments, or Rachel Caine's vampire novels, or the S&M lyrics of the English rock group Placebo).
The format of the lists that follow is the same as that of the previous section, except for the Western pop-music singers and groups. These are listed alphabetically by first name, not last (e.g., "Stevie Wonder", not "Wonder, Stevie").
Main article: Pierrot lunaire (book)
The fifty poems that were published by Albert Giraud (born Emile Albert Kayenbergh) as Pierrot lunaire: Rondels bergamasques in 1884 quickly attracted composers to set them to music, especially after they were translated, somewhat freely, into German (1892) by the poet and dramatist Otto Erich Hartleben. The best known and most important of these settings is the atonal song-cycle derived from twenty-one of the poems (in Hartleben's translation) by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912, i.e., his Opus 21: Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds Pierrot lunaire (Thrice-Seven Poems from Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire—Schoenberg was numerologically superstitious). The impact of this work on the musical world has proven to be virtually immeasurable. It has led, among other things, to ensemble groups' appropriating Pierrot's name, such as the English Pierrot Players (1967–70), and to a number of projects—such as the Schoenberg Institute's of 1987 and the composer Roger Marsh's of 2001-2002—that have been devised to pay homage to Schoenberg and, at the same time, to extend his avant-garde reach, thereby bringing both Hartleben's and Giraud's complete cycles to full musical fruition.
But the loony Pierrot behind those cycles has invaded worlds well beyond those of composers, singers, and ensemble-performers. Theatrical groups such as the Opera Quotannis have brought Pierrot's Passion to the dramatic stage; dancers such as Glen Tetley have choreographed it; poets such as Wayne Koestenbaum have derived original inspiration from it. It has been translated into still more distant media by painters, such as Paul Klee; fiction-writers, such as Helen Stevenson; filmmakers, such as Bruce LaBruce; and graphic-novelists, such as Antoine Dodé. A passionately sinister Pierrot Lunaire has even shadowed DC Comics' Batman. The inextinguishable vibrancy of Giraud's creation is aptly honored in the title of a song by the British rock-group The Soft Machine: "Thank You Pierrot Lunaire" (1969).
Pierrot, usually in the company of Pierrette or Columbine, appears among the revelers at many carnivals of the world, most notably at the festivities of Uruguay. His name suggests kinship with the Pierrot Grenade of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, but the latter seems to have no connection with the French clown. Pierrot Grenade is apparently descended from an earlier creature indeed called "Pierrot"—but this name seems to be an outsider's "correction" of the regional "Pay-wo" or "Pié-wo", probably a corruption of "Pay-roi" or "country king," which describes the stature to which the figure aspired. This "Pierrot"—extinct by the mid-twentieth century—was richly garbed, proud of his mastery of English history and literature (Shakespeare especially), and fiercely pugnacious when encountering his likes. Pierrot Grenade, on the other hand, whose name suggests descent from the humble island of Grenada (and who seems to have evolved as a hick cousin of his namesake), dresses in ragged strips of colored cloth, sometimes adorned with cheap trinkets; he has little truck with English culture, but displays his talents (when not singing and dancing) in speechifying upon issues of the day and spelling long words in ingenious ways. A feeble fighter, he spars mainly with his tongue—formerly in Creole or French Patois, when those dialects were common currency—as he circulates through the crowds. Around the mid-twentieth century, he traveled about in pairs or larger groups, contending for supremacy among his companions, but by the dawn of the twenty-first century, he had become rather solitary, a vestige of his former gregarious self.
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