June 19, 1921
What a grand spectacle I witnessed the other night at Le théâtre des Champs-Élysées. A ménagerie of the “most important avant-garde events that have been given to this day”1, it was truly a delightful feast for the eyes and ears. The theatre was, as usual, fine and comfortable, and the audience was intelligent and full of a good number of hostile traditionalists2. The newest addition to the Ballet Suédois repertoire, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel is the product of Cocteau’s ingenuity; the commission by de Maré inspired a pièce-ballet to blend spectacle, ballet, music, chorus, and song3. The traditionalists could not quite handle the surrealism of the sets and music, I think perhaps they would have been happier at l’Opéra’s La Walkyrie or l’Odéon’s Les Misérables4.
A collaboration of five of the six composers in Les Six (Louis Durey abstained for reasons which will remain vague5), Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel is fascinating from both a visual and a musical perspective. Cocteau enlisted the help of several close friends to complete a project which he felt could not be realized by a lone individual6, and the synthesis of their unique styles in such a cohesive manner is certainly a rare and remarkable feat7. This production deserves praise to all collaborators: Irène Lagut for the set, Börlin and his troupe for his choreography and excellent dancing, and the composers for their brilliant interpretations8. In Cocteau’s imagining of tableaux vivants9, or living postcards, he depicts a realization of Paris in which the audience experiences everything larger than life. The viewer is transported into a child’s eyes, observing stock figures of Parisian life as if for the first time; Cocteau’s Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel blurs the line of inanimate and animate, reality and imagination.
The plot has a fairly simple (and absurd10) premise: a bourgeois wedding party travels to the first level of the Eiffel Tower for a nuptial luncheon. The photographer’s ‘birdie’ (apparently an ostrich) escapes from his camera, and throughout the rest of the play, various other characters (including a hunter, a swimmer, a child, and a lion11) emerge from it as well. At the end of the ballet, the entire wedding party is swallowed by the camera12. The astonishing proliferation of images is cinematic trickery by means of live actors13; the surrealism of the sets and theatrical situations allows one to recognize the wonder and confusion of viewing the world through fresh eyes. Two performers dressed as phonographs converse with each other, narrating the events of the ballet; this adds to the distortion of reality presented by the camera absorbing real images and releasing caricatured fantastical figures. Their narration provides an adult’s explanation of the world to a child, or perhaps a parental dispute concerning what ‘truth’ to provide.
Iréne Lagut’s setting with “soft tones of blue, grey, white, pink, and green resemble a children’s book illustration”14, and the wacky characters seem to have been lifted straight from a picture book as well15. Cocteau is not only caricaturing familiar elements of Paris for his audience, he is distorting and collaging their features in order to present a false reality, or perhaps a view of the world as seen through naïve eyes.
The music represents this distortion well; Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, and Honegger present brief musical numbers which “employ popular styles and often use musical caricature to reinforce the formal pretensions [of a French wedding ceremony]”16. They have succeeded in finding appropriate musical and instrumental effects to produce an ironic play … while [simultaneously] accentuating the ridiculous side of dramatic situations17. Auric’s ‘Ouverture’ mocks the grace typical of a wedding procession with thuds in the tuba, timpani and double bass; Milhaud’s ‘Marche nuptiale’ satirizes ceremonial pomp with an elongated cadence; Poulenc’s ‘Discours du Général’ employs a polka theme, rather than a march style more fitting for a general’s speech, in order to mock the general’s pretensions18. One could see the musical incongruities as a reflection of a child’s inability to understand the gravity of a serious situation, or as a child’s memory misconstruing the actual events which took place.
In Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, Cocteau presents a piéce-ballet which synthesizes ‘the fairy(tale), dance, acrobatics, pantomime, drama, satire, an orchestra… in a new way’19. He mocks the serious, distorts the familiar, and succeeds in creating a wonderful collage of images which invokes childhood and naïveté.
1. Delaunay de Villemessant, J., & Jouvin, B. (1921, June 18). Figaro-Théâtre. Figaro: Journal Non Politique, p. 3. “[Les Mariés de la tour eiffel sont] les manifestations d’avant-garde les plus importantes qui ont été données jusqu’à ce jour.”
17. Gullentops. 58. “Les compositeurs ont réussi à trouver des formules mélodiques et des effets d’instrumentation adéquats permettant de mettre en scène le jeu ironique tout en accentuant le côté ridicule des situations dramatiques.”