Paris, Île-de-France, France

The Father of Pantomime As We Know It Was a Murderer

Jean-Gaspard Deburau (born Jan Kašpar Dvořák; July 31, 1796 – June 17, 1846), was a celebrated Bohemian-French mime. He performed from around 1819 to the year of his death at the Théâtre des Funambules, which was immortalized in Marcel Carné's poetic-realist film Children of Paradise (1945), where he appears (under his stage-name, "Baptiste") as a major character. His most famous pantomimic creation was Pierrot—a character that served as the godfather of all the Pierrots of Romantic, Decadent, Symbolist, and early Modernist theater and art.

Born in Kolín, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), Deburau was the son of a Czech servant, Kateřina Králová (or Catherine Graff), and a former French soldier, Philippe-Germain Deburau, a native of Amiens. Some time before 1814, when he appeared in Paris, Philippe had turned showman, and had begun performing at the head of a nomadic troupe probably made up, at least in part, of his own children. When the company was hired, in 1816, by the manager of the Funambules for mimed and acrobatic acts, the young Deburau was included in the transaction.

He probably began his professional life there as a stagehand. Historians of both the mime and the Funambules agree that his debut as Pierrot came no earlier than 1819, perhaps as late as 1825. His "discovery" by the theater-savvy public did not take place, at any rate, until 1828, when the influential writer Charles Nodier wrote a panegyric on his art for La Pandore. Nodier persuaded his friends, fellow men-of-letters, to visit the theater; the journalist Jules Janin published a book of effusive praise, entitled Deburau, histoire du Théâtre à Quatre Sous, in 1832; and by the middle of the 1830s Deburau was known to "tout Paris". Théophile Gautier wrote of his talent with enthusiasm ("the most perfect actor who ever lived"); Théodore de Banville dedicated poems and sketches to his Pierrot; Charles Baudelaire alluded to his style of acting as a way of understanding "The Essence of Laughter" (1855).

He seems to have been almost universally loved by his public, which included the high and the low, both the Romantic poets of the day and the working-class "children of paradise", who installed themselves regularly in the cheapest seats (which were also the highest: the "paradise") of the house. It was before this public of artists and artisans that he found himself in his only true element: when, in 1832, he took his pantomime to the Palais-Royal, he failed spectacularly. The occasion was a benefit performance of a pantomime performed earlier—with great success—at the Funambules, and included actors, not only from the Funambules, but also from the Gymnase, the Opéra, and the bastion of high dramatic art, the Théâtre-Français. Louis Péricaud, the chronicler of the Funambules, wrote that "never was there a greater disaster, a rout more complete for Deburau and his fellow-artists." Deburau himself was hissed, and he vowed to play thereafter before no other public than those "naïfs and enthusiasts" who were habitués of the Boulevard du Crime.

But some of that public, however admiring, made the mistake of confusing his creation with his character, and one day in 1836, as he was out strolling with his family, he was taunted as a "Pierrot" by a street-boy, with ugly consequences: the boy died from one blow of his heavy cane. Deburau's biographer, Tristan Rémy, contends that the incident throws into relief the darker side of his art. "The bottle", Rémy writes, "whose label 'Laudanum' he smilingly revealed after Cassander had drained it, the back of the razor he passed over the old man's neck, were toys which he could not be allowed to take seriously and thus put to the test his patience, his reserve, his sang-froid." And Rémy concludes: "When he powdered his face, his nature, in fact, took the upper hand. He stood then at the measure of his life—bitter, vindictive, and unhappy."

In court, he was acquitted of murder. Carné remarked, "There ensued a trial which le tout Paris crowded into, in order to get to hear the voice of the famed Debureau [sic]." The composer Michel Chion named this curiosity about a voice the Deburau effect. The idea of a Deburau effect has been extended to any drawing of the listener's attention to an inaudible sound—which, once heard, loses its interest.

When he died, his son Jean-Charles (1829–1873) took over his role and later founded a "school" of pantomime, which flourished in the south of France, then, at the end of the century, in the capital. A line can be drawn from that school to the Bip of Marcel Marceau.

Jean-Gaspard Deburau is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The Father of Pantomime As We Know It Was a Murderer