Where did Pierrot go? Deburau's 19th-century innovations

Until the early 19th century, Pierrot was very much like any other role in the Commedia dell’Arte: he had his own distinctive features, yet had to fit into the framework and expectations provided by Commedia traditions. When the Commedia waned in the 19th century, that framework and set of expectations loosened, allowing Jean-Gaspard  Deburau to develop a new Pierrot. He played the buffoon, but often he was a more serious buffoon than the Commedia previously allowed, capable of making the spectator cry or feel fear or awe when he impaled his adversary on a rock as much as laugh when he gave them one of his famous kicks in the pants. He was a comic performer, but managed somehow to hint at tragedy. He could be as petulant, uncouth and cowardly as earlier Pierrots, but also imperturbable, nuanced and stoic. He deployed lazzi and was capable of physical stunts like a ‘saut de carpe’, but was also well-known for his subtle, restrained facial expressions and gestures. He had nothing of the exaggerated body movements of the contemporary English clown, but his face alone could be clownish in a subtle sort of way. Unlike his forebears in the ‘Pedrolino’ family of roles, he played the hero of the action rather than just a servant. These contrasts are an important sign of transformations, and arguably the demise of the Commedia dell’Arte, but Deburau is also key to understanding subsequent developments in mime. He created the most enduring model of mime which mime artists have had to either embrace or reject.

Edward Nye
Symposium Title: 
Dancing in the theatre of Europe in the long 18th century 2012
Author affiliation: 
Lincoln College, University of Oxford