The Western world knows of three great temptations, that of Saint Anthony, Faust and Don Juan. These three types have been raised to the rank of myths: Anthony’s ascetic struggle against the enticements of the Devil; Faust’s insatiable thirst for forbidden knowledge; and Don Juan’s devouring quest as a deceiver playing with love and death.
A legendary saint, Anthony was the true creator of monasticism. He spent almost of his entire long life (one-hundred-and-five years, 251-356 CE) in the solitude of Egyptian deserts. It was during his retreat at Pispir that he was attacked by demonic visions as told in his Life by Athanasius of Alexandria (c.360), which appeared in the West in La Légende dorée (The Golden Legend) by Jacques de Voragine (between 1250 and 1280) and known under the name “tentations” (“Temptations”). During the Middle Ages, the Order of Antonine Hospitallers could let its pigs run free with a bell attached to them. From this was born the association, frequent since the 14th century, of Anthony and the pig in representations of the hermit saint. He is the “father of monks”, the patron of pig sellers, butchers and weavers (makers of frocks); he also protects people from St. Anthony’s fire (Ergotism), from the plague and is the protector of the Suidae family (pigs). He is also the patron saint of gravediggers because at the age of ninety, he went to bury the hermit Paul in the desert – with two lions that dug the grave with their paws. Popular piety often confuse him with the younger Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), who is invoked to find missing objects.
The type of farcical morality tale of The Temptation of Saint Anthony leads us to believe that it could have been presented as an interlude during the performance of a more serious play. However, the model, which must be at the source of the multiple versions performed in the innumerable travelling booths or theatres where The Temptation string and rod puppet shows were presented throughout France and Belgium, is unknown.
Gaston Baty gave a compiled version of this in 1939. The play starts with a council of devils. Because Anthony’s prayers are blocking clients from Hell, Pluto sends his troops to tempt him. In the Thebaid (a region of ancient Egypt), Proserpine tries, in vain, to use her charms to seduce Anthony who resists Pluto himself. All the demons then unleash themselves, light the pig’s tail on fire, destroy the hermitage and take Anthony away in their sarabande. An angel then appears who rebuilds the chapel and transforms the Pluto-dragon into a basket of flowers. In apotheosis, Antoine ascends to heaven followed by the pig. The entire account is related with songs composed on ancient tunes. Baty had wondered if Michel Jean Sedaine’s Airs du pot-pourri de la Tentation de saint Antoine (Medley of Tunes from the Temptation of Saint Anthony) could have inspired the puppeteers. However, Sedaine’s composition (c.1750) does not show any indication of key scenes like the burning of the pig’s tail and the demolition of the chapel, both accompanied during theatrical performances by songs that had much more of a folklore nature than his. More likely, it was the puppets that inspired Sedaine.
In any case, The Temptation was already a classic at the very beginning of the 18th century. It was used in shadow theatre since 1791 and extended by the use of image cards (leaves of imageries) from Metz, Épinal and Nancy. In the 19th century, the theme was so popular that the word “tentation” was sometimes used in the sense of “puppet theatre”. In 1888, Henri Rivière produced superb shadows and scenery for the creation of The Temptation at the theatre Le Chat Noir. This vogue disappeared around the time of World War II. However, in 1924, Michel de Ghelderode “recreated” a short Tentation for the Toone repertoire. Using synopses from old puppeteers, Jacques Ancion re-wrote a long version of Tentation, which, since 1976 at the Théâtre Al Botroûle, renders the full glory of the play to Anthony, the troop from Hell and the faithful pig.
With regards to the pig, it was often the case that a live piglet was used during performances, notably at the Liège Fair around 1860. Léopold Bouret, who at his Baraque Saint-Antoine (Saint Anthony Booth), gave a final performance at the 1962 Gilly Fair, stated that: “Once in a while, my wife and I used to buy a piglet. We would bathe him several times a week and give him only our household food to keep him from growing too fast. His ration also included one litre of gin per week.”