While you may regret that your seats are in the nosebleed section, in France they call the amphitheater – where the true fans congregate – “paradise.” This ballet, based on a beloved French film, revolves around theater and those who create it: impassioned people who live for the adoration of an audience, even when they only find one in a second-rate venue.
Actors, and their marginal world, also live in our imagination as emblematic of liberty: free spirits who reject bourgeois conventions and authoritarian strictures. The nostalgic melancholy of the black and white original, filmed under strenuous circumstances during World War II and released at the Liberation, responded perfectly to the public mood.
The story takes place in pre-Haussmannian Paris, the cluttered and vibrant city about to be lost forever, as caught between the photographs of Daguerre and Marville. For nearly a century the Boulevard du Temple had housed a jumble of hugely popular theaters devoted to offering the cheap thrills of vaudeville, pantomime, and melodrama. Indeed, because of all the violent action onstage, Parisians had nicknamed the street Le Boulevard du crime. But this world was destined to disappear in 1862, during the Second Empire. By targeting these buildings for demolition in the name of progress, Haussmann was attacking the very essence of « le peuple » and « le populaire. » This tale brings us back to a shabby paradise now truly lost forever.
Many of the characters are based on real people: Baptiste Deburau, still remembered as the greatest mime of the 19th century; the larcenous Lacenaire, guillotined in 1836. And there really was an actor named Frédérick Lemaître. The character he invented — the amoral but attractive bandit Robert Macaire – is the exact contemporary of Balzac’s Vautrin.
(Please note: the following summary is based on my notes from the ballet’s creation in 2008. Since then Mr. Martinez has made cuts and changes).
ACT I [1hour 15 minutes]
Prologue: where an aged Jean-Louis Barrault, the actor who created Baptiste in the film, returns to the abandoned soundstage and begins to remember…
Scene 1: The Boulevard du Temple Crowds jostle in front of the theaters as actors, acrobats, jugglers, and carnies try to tempt them inside. Lacenaire, an amoral dandy, public scrivener by day and assassin by night, cases the crowd. Frédérick Lemaître, an aspiring actor, tries to put the moves on Garance, a beautiful sometime actress. She is not interested. The ragman Jericho [also a snitch and a fence], shows Lemaître a jewel he thinks Garance might fall for…
A crowd gathers in front of the Théâtre des funambules, which specializes in mime. As the actors enchant the crowd with a preview, Lacernaire picks pockets and melts away. Garance happens to be standing next to one of the victims and is grabbed by the police.
Baptiste, the mime, saw everything from the stage and re-enacts what actually happened. Garance is freed.
Scene 2: The Théâtre des Funambules Nathalie, a young actress, lingers backstage and dreams of Baptiste. Jericho surprises her with a wedding dress. When Baptiste arrives, he has no patience for Jericho and shoos him away. While Nathalie at first thinks that the red flower Baptiste holds is for her, she soon realizes that he is dreaming of another.
The show goes on…badly. The actor playing the lion flounces out after getting accidentally conked on the head. Frédérick sees his chance. He dons the lion costume and improvises masterfully to the delight of the audience. Baptiste hires him on the spot, and the two men go out to celebrate.
Scene 3: “Le Rouge-Gorge” dance hall Frédérick quickly gets drunk and tries to pick up girls while the melancholy Baptiste looks on. When Garance enters on the arm of Lacenaire, of all people, Baptiste tries to ask her to dance. Lacernaire’s henchman attacks him, but Baptiste defends himself skillfully and leaves with Garance. Lacernaire’s hoods, on a lead from Jericho, head out to beat him up. But they mistake an innocent passer-by for Baptiste…
Scene 4: Madame Hermine’s boarding house Garance offers herself to Baptiste. Her easy ways startle him. He wants true love, not just sex. She wants love, but to be free too. He just cannot bring himself to embrace her, and flees.
In the adjoining room, Frédérick happily fools around with Madame Hermine. But when he sees Baptiste leave – which means Garance is all alone in her bed – Frédérick cannot resist the opportunity lying in front of him, to Madame Hermine’s frustration.
Scene 5: On stage in the pantomime show “Lovers of the Moon” Garance has been hired to play a statue. All she has to do is stand there and incarnate the beautiful goddess of the moon. Baptiste, as Pierrot [a clown], tries in vain to woo
her, then falls asleep at her feet. Frédérick, as Harlequin, has better luck. Baptiste/Pierrot then decides to kill himself, but people keep interrupting him (including Nathalie, who plays a washerwoman).
Baptiste espies Frédérick and Garance kissing in the wings and freezes up. Nathalie sees everything and gets upset too. The poor girl cannot understand why Baptiste won’t just settle for the quiet and gentle love she could offer him.
Scene 6: Garance’s dressing room Garance shrugs when Frédérick proves jealous of Baptiste and tells him to leave. Then the Count de Montray, who had ogled her from the audience, appears in the wake of an enormous bouquet of flowers. Garance is unmoved and tells him she is not for sale. He leaves the flowers…and his card.
Baptiste then enters her dressing room and scatters the flowers in his own fit of jealousy. When Garance begins to try to explain her deep feelings for him, Nathalie intervenes and drags him away.
Enter Madame Hermine trailed by policemen who want to arrest Garance again. The sight of the count’s card – implying protection from high up – stops them. Garance realizes that she has only two options: losing her independence now by becoming the Count’s mistress, or losing her freedom permanently by being jailed.
Intermission [25 minutes]
Make sure you not only visit the Grand foyer…but
glance back at the Grand escalier where you might espy a scene from Othello.
ACT II [55 minutes] Six years later: Baptiste has married Nathalie and they have a child. Garance is living with the Count. Frédérick has become a celebrated actor, renowned for his interpretation of Othello.
Scene 1:At the Grand Théâtre: the première of the melodrama « Robert Macaire » A gaggle of ballerinas provide the backdrop for Frédérick’s newest role: the cynical and insolent master of crime, Robert Macaire. [For logical reasons, as this is a ballet rather than a talkie, Frédérick the actor becomes Frédérick the danseur étoile]. It’s a hit.
Scene 2: At the mansion of le comte de Montray Garance, the struggling actress, has been transformed into a sophisticated kept woman. As she prepares her toilette, the count demonstrates his pride in having captured her. But she seems indifferent to the luxury he showers upon her. She’d avoided prison, but ended up living in a gilded cage. To Montray’s surprise, she refuses to let him accompany her to the theater. Guess which theater.
Scene 3: On stage in the new pantomime “Ragman” The sad character of Pierrot (Baptiste) follows a beautiful stranger to a ball but is denied entry because of his attire. Desperate and penniless, he tries to convince a ragman to lend him some clothes. When the ragman refuses, Pierrot kills him.
Suddenly, Baptiste espies Garance in the audience and freezes up again. Startled, Garance leaves, and Baptiste realizes how deeply he is still in love with her after so many years. He rushes out to find her.
Scene 4: A ball chez monsieur le comte The Count graciously welcomes Lacernaire to the party, but is appalled that Jericho the ragman has tagged along. He orders his lackeys to throw out the intruder. Then Baptiste bursts in and the Count quickly comprehends that the mime wants Garance, and that she wants him.
The moment they are left alone together, Baptiste and Garance fall into each other’s arms. But Lacernaire has seen them, and decides to teach the count a lesson: « you throw out my friend? Then I’ll make sure everyone knows your girlfriend cuckolds you. »
Baptiste and Garance flee. The count is furious and takes it out on Lacernaire, who vows revenge.
Scene 5: Madame Hermine’s boarding house/The Count’s mansion Garance and Baptiste finally give in to their mutual passion. At the same moment, Lacernaire breaks into the mansion and murders the lovelorn Montray.
The feral Jericho leads Nathalie and her child to the boarding house. When she realizes what has happened, Nathalie despairs.
Garance, a free and generous spirit, never meant to hurt anyone. Pained by Nathalie’s anguish, Garance must make another choice. She decides it is time to leave.
Scene 6: Mardi Gras Baptiste runs after Garance, desperate to reach her. But, as in the iconic finale of the film, the crowd separates them. Martinez’s inspired and poetic translation from screen to stage of how Garance slowly disappears from view will take your breath away.
Epilogue: Jean-Louis Barrault, having relived his greatest role, is now freed from his phantoms and he, too, may leave the soundstage forever behind.