Thursday, October 15, 2009

Joseph Pujol: Le Pétomane

The true story of the highest paid and most popular French performer of fin de siècle France. The story of a man who hobnobbed with artists like Renoir and Matisse. A genius who it is said was beloved by classical giants Ravel and Faure. A man of whom Sartre would supposedly later proclaim: "He gets it!"

"One summer's day in the mid-1860's, a young French boy named Joseph Pujol had a frightening experience at the seashore. Swimming out alone, he held his breath and dove underwater. Suddenly an icy cold feeling penetrated his gut. Frightened, he ran ashore, but then received a second shock when he noticed seawater streaming from his anus. The experience so disturbed the lad that his mother took him to a doctor to allay his fears. The doctor complied.

The boy didn't know it at the time, but this unsettling rectal experience at the beach not only indicated no illness, but it also foretold of a gift that would later make him the toast of Paris and one of the most popular and successful performers of his generation.

Joseph Pujol was born in Marseilles on June 1, 1857 to Francois Pujol and Rose Demaury, a respected stonemason/sculptor and his wife, both of whom had emigrated from Catalan. Young Joseph went to school until the age of 13, whereupon he apprenticed himself to a baker. Several years later, he served in the French army.

While in the army, he mentioned his childhood sea-bathing experience to his buddies. They immediately wanted to know if he could do it again, so on a day's leave soon afterward he went out to the shore to swim and experiment. He successfully reenacted the hydraulics of his childhood experience there and even discovered that by contracting his abdomen muscles, he could intentionally take up as much water as he liked and eject it in a powerful stream. Demonstrating this ability back at the barracks later provided the soldiers with no end of amusement, and soon Pujol started to practice with air instead of water, giving him the ability to produce a variety of sounds. This new development provided even more enjoyment for his buddies. It was then and there, in the army, that Pujol invented a nickname for himself that would later become a stage name synonymous throughout Europe with helpless, hysterical laughter: "Le Petomane" (translation: "The Fartiste").

After his stint in the army, Pujol returned to Marseille and to a bakeshop his father set him up in, on a street that, today, proudly bears the name "rue Pujol." At the age of 26 he married Elizabeth Henriette Oliver, the 20-year-old daughter of a local butcher. Pujol enjoyed performing, so in the evenings he entertained at local music halls by singing, doing comedy routines, and even playing his trombone backstage between numbers. He continued amusing his friends privately with his "other" wind instrument, but only at their suggestion and urging did he decide to turn this parlor trick into a full-fledged act for public audiences.

Pujol worked up a Le Petomane routine, and with some friends he rented a space in Marseille to perform it in. They promoted the show heavily themselves through posters and handouts, but word-of-mouth soon took over and they packed the house every night. Fin de siecle European audiences, deeply repressed but newly prosperous and trying to be modern -- the same people Freud observed (Freud was one year older than Pujol)-- must have found a man on stage building an entire act out of mock farting and other forms of anal play considerably more shockingly funny than we would today. Pujol's was a good act by any era's standards, but back then his scatology hit a raw nerve, and hit it hard, at an especially vulnerable time. Like Alfred Jarry, whose epoch-makingly scatological Ubu Roi actually post-dates Pujol's Paris debut by several years, Pujol was a French Revolutionary of the modern theater. Jarry gets the credit today because he was a "serious playwright" and not a lowbrow cabaret performer, but Pujol clearly laid some of the groundwork.

Word-of-mouth spread reports of the quality and uniqueness of Pujol's new show, and soon people from all over Marseille were coming to see it.

After the hometown success, Pujol's friends urged him to take the act to Paris. Pujol hoped to, but cautiously decided to play several other provincial cities first to refine the act and test the breadth of its appeal before taking it to the capital. He performed in Toulon, Bordeaux, and Clermont-Ferrand with great success, and in 1892 was finally ready to try his act at Paris's Moulin Rouge. It was then that Pujol reputedly uttered a line oft-repeated in cabaret lore; looking up at the windmill sails of the landmark Moulin Rouge ("Red Mill") building, he exclaimed, "The sails of the Moulin Rouge-- what a marvelous fan for my act!"

In getting booked at the Moulin Rouge, Pujol wasted no time. He walked in and demanded to see the director with such confidence that the secretary showed him in immediately. He then told the director, a man named either Zidler or Oller depending on whose account you follow (I'll use "Oller"), "I am Le Petomane, and I want an engagement in your establishment." He said that he was a phenomenon and that his gift would be the talk of Paris. When Oller asked for an explanation, he calmly replied, "You see, sir, my anus is of such elasticity that I can open and shut it at will. . . . I can absorb any quantity of liquid I may be given. . .[and] I can expel an almost infinite quantity of odorless gas." After this, he gave Oller a quick demonstration.

Oller put Pujol on stage that very night.

Pujol dressed formally for his act, wearing a coat, red breeches, white stockings, gloves, and patent leather shoes-- a stuffy, old-fashioned outfit that, coupled with his unrelentingly deadpan delivery, must have set up an abrasive comedic dissonance against the actual content of his performance. To begin his act he introduced himself and explained that he was about to demonstrate the art of "petomanie." He further explained that he could break wind at will, but assured his audience not to worry because his parents had "ruined themselves" in scenting his rectum.

Then Le Petomane performed some imitations, using the simple, honest format of announcing and then demonstrating. He displayed his wide sonic range with tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds. He imitated the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night (tiny), the same bride the day after (loud), and a mason (dry-- "no cement"). He imitated thunder, cannons ("Gunners stand by your guns! Ready-- fire!!"), and even the sound of a dressmaker tearing two yards of calico (a full 10-second rip). After the imitations, Le Petomane popped backstage to put one end of a yard-long rubber tube into his anus. He returned and smoked a cigarette from this tube, after which he used it to play a couple of tunes on a song flute. For his finale he removed the rubber tube, blew out some of the gas-jet footlights from a safe distance away, and then led the audience in a rousing sing- along.

This first night, a few tightly-corseted women in the audience literally fainted from laughing so hard. Oller immediately gave Pujol a contract to perform at the Moulin Rouge, elsewhere in France, and abroad. Turning audience-fainting into a great gimmick, Oller later conspicuously stationed white-uniformed nurses in the hall at each Le Petomane show and instructed them to carry out any audience members rendered particularly helpless by the hilarity. Meanwhile, to quash any rumors that his performance was faked, Pujol occasionally gave private men-only performances clad in a bathing suit with a large hole in the seat rather than his concealing regular costume.

It was after one of these private performances that a distinguished-looking man put a 20 franc gold coin in the collection plate. When Pujol questioned him, he turned out to be the King of Belgium, who had come incognito just to see his act.

After signing up with the Moulin Rouge in 1892, Pujol moved his growing family (starting in 1885, Pujol and his wife had a child every two years for eighteen years) into a chalet staffed by servants who soon became family friends. As he predicted, he became the talk of Paris, and admirers saluted him affectionately as he rode by in his carriage. Paris doctors examined him and published an article in La Semaine Medicale that described his health but offered no new explanation for his ability. It did however record that he could rectally project a jet of water 4 to 5 yards. Box office receipts alone attest to Le Petomane's popularity. One Sunday the Moulin Rouge took in 20,000 francs for a Le Petomane performance, an amount which dwarfs the 8000 francs typically grossed by Sarah Bernhardt at the peak of her career there.

But another thing happened in 1892 that provoked a series of battles between Pujol and Moulin Rouge management, the litigious nature of which makes it sound more like 1992. Pujol visited a friend of his who sold gingerbread, and to attract customers to his friend's stall, he did some Petomane tricks right there in the marketplace. Word of this "unauthorized performance" got back to Oller, who took it up with Pujol and threatened to sue. Over the next couple of years, Pujol, who dreamed of opening up his own travelling theater, had more rows with Oller. In 1894, Oller brought suit against Pujol over the gingerbread stall incident and won. Pujol was fined 3000 Francs. The next year, Pujol left the Moulin Rouge to start his own venture, the Theatre Pompadour. Soon after Pujol left, the Moulin Rouge put up a new act, billed as a "Woman Petomane" (they concealed a bellows under her skirt). Pujol then brought a lawsuit against the Moulin Rouge for plagiarizing his idea. At about the same time, however, a newspaper panned the "Woman Petomane" act, and the actress, Angele Thiebeau, sued the paper for libel. The judgement against Thiebeau was so harshly worded and humilating that Pujol, satisfied at the harm done to the Moulin Rouge's reputation, withdrew his own lawsuit against them.

Pujol's new Theatre Pompadour included mime and magic and other acts performed by Pujol's family and performer friends. He changed his own act into a woodland tale told in doggerel punctuated at the end of each couplet by Le Petomane sound effects and imitations of the animal and bird characters in the story. Paris audiences liked the winning charm of this home-grown variety show and still yucked it up at Pujol's fart noises, so the Theater Pompadour prospered for many years.

Le Petomane continued to be an enormous draw in his new venue until around 1900, when the interest of the show-going public began to wane. The Pompadour continued to do pretty well, however, until World War I, when four of Pujol's sons went off to fight and the theater had to close down. One son was taken prisoner and two of the others became invalids, and Pujol was so shattered that after the war he had no interest in returning to his performing career. The family moved back to Marseille and Pujol ran bakeries with his sons and unmarried daughters. In 1922, he and his family moved to Toulon and he set up a biscuit factory which he gave to his children to manage. He lived the rest of his life there, surrounded by his many dearly loved children and grandchildren. His wife died in 1930 and he died in 1945. One medical school offered the family 25,000 francs to be allowed to examine his body, but out of respect, reverence and love for this warm, funny, and caring man, not one of his children agreed to let them." — Paul Spinrad

"In the following decade Pujol tried to 'refine' and make his acts 'gentler'; one of his favourite numbers became a rhyme about a farm which he himself composed, and which he punctuated with the usual anal renditions of the animals' sounds. The climax of his act however involved him farting his impression of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake." — wikipedia