I Love a Parade!

There is work to be done, to be done

There’s a war to be won, to be won

Come, you son of a son of a gun,

Take your stand

Fall in line, yea a bow

Come along, let’s go

Hey, leader, strike up the band!

IRA GERSHWIN, “Strike Up the Band”

Cocteau and Picasso returned from Rome not only with Diaghilev’s endorsement of their ballet idea but, in Picasso’s case, a new love. He’d fallen for one of the impresario’s dancers, Olga Khokhlova. She joined him in Paris. At their July 1918 wedding in the grandiose Russian Orthodox church, Cocteau was one of the witnesses.

Olga danced in the first performance of Parade, a charity matinee that began at 3:45 p.m. on May 18, 1917. Although the piece only lasted thirty minutes, Diaghilev’s favorite Paris venue, the three-thousand-seat Théâtre du Châtelet on the right bank of the Seine, within sight of Notre Dame, was jammed. Before the war, it had specialized in spectacles, in particular a multimedia production of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, which ran intermittently for more than two thousand performances and was only mothballed when the Nazis occupied the city in 1940. As a child, Cocteau saw this showcase of theatrical effects. It excited him so much that he ran a temperature. The family thought he was ill. Jean concurred. “I had caught something—the red-and-gold disease, theatre-itis.” It proved incurable.

During the staging of Parade, Cocteau complained that there was insufficient light on stage.

“Monsieur Colombier,” I said to the chief electrician. “I want the lighting you had for the Vegetable Kingdom in La Biche au Bois.”

“How old were you then, Monsieur Cocteau?”


“The lighting was the same as you have now,” he replied. “At that date, the theatre did not possess one quarter of the present equipment.”

Alas, the gold on the crimson curtain and the brazier footlights will never again scorch our sceptical childish eyes.

In December 1915, continuing its tradition of spectacle, the Châtelet staged Les Exploits d’une Petite Française—The Exploits of a Little French Girl—which, according to the publicity, “had them talking in the trenches.” The story, which echoed, presumably not by accident, Verne’s classic adventure, revolved around a new explosive invented by a Frenchman living in Australia. Attempts to get the formula across the world to France are impeded by a German spy, but he is outwitted by the inventor’s servant and his resourceful girlfriend. A review of the show suggests what the Châtelet could achieve when it pulled out the stops. “After some agreeable ballets, an oil field in flames and an encounter between a zeppelin and an aeroplane, the little French girl tips the spy into a vat of molten steel in a German factory. There’s an explosion of horror on stage and of joy in the theatre.”

In expectation of similar, if more intellectual fireworks, spectators crowded the Châtelet for Parade. A collaboration between three such avant gardistes as Cocteau, Satie, and Picasso had already caught the attention of the Montparnos. According to the buzz round the cafés, Picasso’s cubist costumes were astonishing and Satie’s music typically quirky. As for Cocteau . . . well, who knew what he would come up with?

The loges, or private boxes, were taken by Diaghilev’s unfailing supporters and financial backers: Etienne and Edith de Beaumont, Misia Sert, and the Princess de Polignac, all with their entourages. But the audience was genuinely international. Young American writer e. e. cummings, absent without leave from his ambulance unit, had scrounged a seat. Picasso’s involvement guaranteed a Spanish contingent, including piano virtuoso Ricardo Vines and painter Juan Gris. Diaghilev, as well as inviting some Russian soldiers on leave, shrewdly sent tickets to tastemakers from Montparnasse and Montmartre. They included Guillaume Apollinaire, who’d written the program notes even though his head was still bandaged from a war wound, and the young composers George Auric and Francis Poulenc, barely out of their teens but already disciples of Satie.

The irascible Satie made no secret of his anger at Cocteau’s additions to his score, in particular mechanical sounds: typewriting, Morse code, a dynamo, sirens, a locomotive, an airplane, and a passage played by banging on milk bottles filled to different levels with water.

Asked to describe his music, he said acidly, “I composed a background to certain noises that Cocteau says he needed to point up his characters.” At rehearsals, the orchestra struggled to understand his meticulous notation and initially treated it as dance music. When he insisted on precision, a flautist said, “Monsieur Satie, you must think I’m stupid.” Satie said mildly, ‘I don’t think you’re stupid—but I could be wrong.” Cocteau had to call on another member of Misia Sert’s circle, the composer Maurice Ravel, to quell the revolt.

Almost as attractive to the audience as the promise of novelty was the sense that Parade itself and one’s presence at the premiere was a way of defying the war. “The holocaust was now in its third year,” wrote Cocteau’s biographer Francis Steegmuller. “Russia had defaulted. Allied morale was low. The first half of May was a period of almost incredible slaughter on the western front; each day thousands of Frenchmen and their allies perished in seemingly futile attacks against German lines along the River Aisne, and among the French troops there were mutinies against the incessant commands to commit almost certain suicide by going over the top in the face of machine-gun fire.”

Attendance at Parade was not only fashionable but a gesture of support for the city’s embattled theatrical managements and performers. Wartime Paris was no place for first-nighters. Buses and the métro halted at 10:00 p.m. With the gas shortage, taxis had almost disappeared. Electricity for light and heating was rationed, and street lighting dimmed. Worse, a new ordinance cut to four the number of nights on which a theater could open; hence the afternoon premiere of Parade. Venues were also required to close at 11:00 p.m. Those that didn’t close their doors altogether shut off their upper circles and the promenoirs where so much socializing took place.

With Gotha attacks a regular event, cinemas and theaters were given the option, providing they displayed a notice in the foyer, of halting or continuing performances during a raid. Most continued. Hector Brewer, a lieutenant in the AIF, was in Paris during March 1918, and experienced an air raid at the Folies Bergère.

The Huns raided the city whilst we were in the music hall and dropped a bomb about one block away. The girls and women were very frightened and some of the men too and it looked as if they would start a panic but some French officers saved the situation by asking the orchestra to continue playing and got everybody to clap their hands and cheer and do anything to keep the minds of the people away from the danger which after all was not very great.

Great credit is due to these French officers for their timely and excellent advice. Had a panic ensued, numbers of people must have been killed in trying to get out. A number of soldiers kept a large section of the crowd busy by dancing and singing. It was not long before the All Clear was sounded by the police going round the city in a car blowing a horn and everybody was soon quite happy and smiling again.

One venue where everyone expected the management to honor the tradition of “The show must go on” was the Grand Guignol, which staged sadistic melodramas of torture, mutilation, and murder. However, the siren halted even its performances. The problem wasn’t audiences but actresses. Women used to miming having their eyes gouged out with a hat pin or their face pressed to a red hot stove could imagine all too well the effect of a bomb landing in the stalls and headed straight for the cellar at the first wail of a siren.

From the moment the curtain went up on Parade, it was clear that this was just what the doctor ordered for the floundering theater. Picasso’s backcloth overflowed with elements direct from the fun fair. As a girl in a tutu balances on a winged white horse, a group of carnies watch without much interest. At the rear, a monkey climbs a ladder. In the foreground, a whippet dozes. In his program notes, Apollinaire, almost in passing, described the conception as “a sort of surrealism”—not fantasy, but the real world twisted at a slightly different angle. In 1917, André Breton was still working in the neurological ward of a hospital in Nantes and Louis Aragon was studying medicine, but once they began formulating their variations and refinements of dada, Breton remembered Apollinaire’s coining the word “surrealism” and adopted it as the name of his creation.

The dancing, choreographed by Léonide Massine, who had replaced Nijinsky in Diaghilev’s bed, affronted balletomanes even more than the score enraged musicians. It incorporated ragtime, the cakewalk, and other dances previously seen only in American minstrel shows. James Reese Europe had popularized—he said “invented”—the particularly scandalous one-step, calling it “the national dance of the Negro.” Francis Poulenc shared the general shock of seeing it on a respectable stage. “For the first time, music hall was invading art-with-a-Capital-A. A one-step is danced inParade! When that began, the audience let loose with boos and applause.”

In designing his cubist costumes for the two “managers,” or barkers, Picasso adapted the appearance of sandwich men who patrolled the streets, draped front and rear in panels promoting cut-price suits or cheap eats. He exaggerated these into cardboard towers eleven feet tall, plastered with advertising, just as he and Braque had pasted scraps of posters and newspaper into their canvases. Half man, half billboard, the managers were physical manifestations of a frenzy to promote. “As they stumped about the stage,” wrote English surrealist Roland Penrose, “they complained to each other in their formidable language that the crowd was mistaking the preliminary parade for the real show, for which no one had turned up. Finally their fruitless efforts brought them to a state of exhaustion and they collapsed on the stage, where they were found by the actors, who in turn also failed to entice an imaginary crowd inside.”

The moment the piece ended, the huge theater erupted with cheers and catcalls. Cocteau, with customary exaggeration, wrote, “I have heard the cries of a bayonet charge in Flanders, but it was nothing compared to what happened that night at the Châtelet Theatre.” Supposedly a group of women shouted “Boches!” They spotted Cocteau crossing the stalls through the milling crowd, yelled “There’s one of them,” and tried to skewer him with hat pins. Apollinaire with his ample bulk and bandaged head saved him. “If I’d known it was going to be this silly,” said a spectator, ”I’d have brought the kids.”

After the performance, music critic Jean Poueigh shook Satie’s hand—only to savage the composer in his review the next day, accusing him of lacking invention, wit, and professional skill. Despite his long beard and playful eccentricities, which included eating only foods that were white and always wearing identical gray suits, Satie, in the words of Nina Hamnett, “had a most malicious tongue and a diabolical face.” He sent Poueigh a series of postcards, beginning with “Monsieur et cher ami—vous êtes un cul, un cul sans musique! Offrez-moi jamais de nouveau votre main sale.”(Sir and dear friend—you are an asshole, an asshole without music! Never again offer me your dirty hand.) The abuse escalated to “Monsieur Fuckface Poueigh, Famous Pumpkin and Composer for Nitwits. Lousy asshole, this is from where I shit on you with all my strength.”

Poueigh brought a criminal case for defamation, claiming the cards might have been read by mail sorters and his concierge, thus damaging his reputation. At the trial, Cocteau brandished his cane at Poueigh’s lawyer. Satie was sentenced to a hundred-franc fine, a thousand francs in damages to Poueigh, and eight days in jail. Press reports infuriated him even more with their patronizing remarks about “the old artist” who “had written what he called ‘the music.’ ” The fine and prison term were finally set aside, but not without a strenuous and protracted fight.

Parade achieved Cocteau’s aim in making a scandal to rival The Rite of Spring. He was even more content when stories got around that sensation seekers with access to a private box liked to have sex while they watched the show. Some Paris theaters already offered loges with lockable doors for patrons who enjoyed this piquant combination of seclusion and exhibitionism, but to experience those pleasures in as vast a venue as the Châtelet was something new. One gossip wrote of “madness in the loges. To make love during Parade was the last word. That harsh lighting, that crude music with no flourishes, went straight to the heart”—or more likely the groin. It really was the hottest ticket in town.

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