French writer and puppeteer. After a short career in the postal service, Louis Lemercier de Neuville moved into literature and journalism. He founded several short-lived newspapers in the years 1850 and 1860 before working for Le Figaro, Le Nain Jaune, and Le Monde Illustré. Mixing in bohemian society, he suggested the creation of an erotic puppet theatre inspired by the puppet theatre of Louis Edmond Duranty in the Tuileries gardens. He found a venue for his theatre in the home of Amédée Rolland, in the Batignolles area, Rue Santé (Rue de Saussure today). He called it the “Erôtikon Théâtron” and the inauguration was on May 27, 1862 before an audience that included all the Parisian celebrities of the time and which was the subject of a report in the Revue des Deux Mondes.
Lemercier de Neuville not only directed the theatre but also worked as its author, painter, designer and machinist. Other writers included Albert Glatigny, Henry Monnier, Jean du Boys and Tisserant. Lemercier had the texts published (illegally) in Brussels in 1864 by Charles Baudelaire’s editor, Auguste Poulet-Malassis, with frontispiece illustrations by Félicien Rops. For a year, the Erôtikon Théâtron encouraged a small group of writers, painters, actors and musicians to poke fun at common stupidities and bourgeois stereotypes, sometimes even parodying themselves.
In 1863, when Amédée Rolland moved and the theatre had to close, Lemercier de Neuville went back to the cut-out cardboard figures that he had once created to amuse his son, and presented them in solo shows in Paris salons (private drawing rooms) as caricatures of contemporary personalities. Lemercier de Neuville’s pupazzi were born. Gustave Doré painted some of the characters on wood, a pianist or cellist accompanied the performance, and demand for these shows grew. Lemercier played in revues – even before the Emperor and his family – all over France and in many parts of Europe. At this time the texts did not hesitate occasionally to support the dominant ideologies: colonialism, anti-Semitism, anti-parliamentarianism … Little by little he abandoned the flat cut-outs to model his pupazzi in three dimensions.
Cataracts ended his puppetry career and in the 1890s he returned to journalism. He published dozens of pieces, some by other authors: vaudevilles, short novels, sensational stories, memoirs and various biographies, such as the Théâtre des Pupazzi (1876), Les Pupazzi Noirs (The Black Pupazzi), Les Pupazzi Inédits (Unpublished Pupazzi), Le Théâtre Erotique de la Rue de la Santé (The Erotic Theatre of the Rue de la Santé), followed by La Grande Symphonie des Punaises (The Great Symphony of the Bedbugs, 1864), written by Félix Nadar and Charles Bataille. A new edition of Les Deux Gougnottes (The Two Lesbians, 1869), written by Henri Monnier, followed.
The Pupazzi of Louis Lemercier de Neuville
To entertain his sick son, Louis Lemercier de Neuville created pupazzi by cutting up caricatures by Étienne Carjat (1828-1906) from the newspaper Le Boulevard. He wrote, “I had fun gluing these pictures on pieces of cigar boxes whose porous and soft wood is easy to carve into with a knife. I would separately cut the arms in the movement of the character and made them move by means of strings hidden behind the playboard (French: planchette), then, using watercolours, I coloured them as best I could.” (Souvenir d’un montreur de marionnettes Remembrances of a Puppet Showman, 1911[/lier]).
Lemercier de Neuville had actively participated in the Erôtikon Théâtron, on Rue de la Santé, created by a group of intellectuals and artists (including Georges Bizet, Théodore de Banville, Paul Féval, Louis Edmond Duranty) who would meet to discuss theatre at their friend Amédée Rolland’s house. Lemercier de Neuville wrote a one-act vaudeville play, Un Caprice (A Whim), for the repertoire of this intimate theatre (twenty-one spectators and a piano), consisting of six plays presented during the summer of 1862 and the winter of 1863. It was Étienne Carjat and Gustave Doré who encouraged him to present his flat pupazzi to the public and even helped make them. On November 28, 1863, he presented Profils et Silhouettes (Profiles and Silhouettes) which was a resounding success among the “Tout-Paris” or “high society” of Paris (155 performances).
Due to technical difficulty Lemercier de Neuville stopped trying to sculpt the heads of his pupazzi out of linden wood and decided to use model clay to create the heads of his puppets. He moulded them and made them from cardboard; later he made them from “superimposed Joseph paper” (probably papier-mâché silk paper see [lier]Casts and Mould-Making[/lier]) and dressed them.
As a solo performance artist, he created several tricks and trick puppets. His castelet (small puppet theatre or booth) had several playboards on which he could leave several puppets on stage. Since their heads were mounted on rods with springs, they always had a slight movement. Rods fitted inside their arms were connected by strings attached at the bottom by a transverse bar that he only had to press on either side to raise one of the arms. Below were two trays (French: “servantes”), one for the puppets that were to make their entrance, and the other to accommodate the puppets exiting the stage. Lemercier de Neuville wrote, “And when, my arms in the air, standing in my little theatre, 0.60 metres deep and 1.5 metres wide, I speak, I sing, I imitate the instruments, I even dance if necessary, the spectator, whom I try to amuse, does not know that just for him I had to become writer, actor, singer, dancer, imitator, painter, stage designer, scene painter, model-maker, wig-maker, hat-maker, tailor, engineer, sculptor, mechanic, etc.” (Ernest Maindron, “Marionnettes et guignols” Puppets and Guignols, Revue encyclopédique, June 12, 1897).
On January 31, 1869, Louis Lemercier de Neuville played for Napoleon III. The Empress, whose curiosity had been aroused by what she had heard of his shows, which were very much in vogue in the salons, had sent for him to entertain the Emperor and his retinue during a family meal at the Tuileries. Lemercier de Neuville set up his castelet in the Salon Blanc (White Salon) and animated a puppet that looked just like him, concluding his prologue with, “But if Napoleon is amused, make sure the Emperor does not find out!”
Over thirty years, Louis Lemercier de Neuville performed 106 of his own plays. He manufactured 274 flat pupazzi, “manipulated by the use of strings hidden behind the characters”. From 1865 on, his pupazzi became glove puppets. He was also interested in silhouette and shadow theatre using black pupazzi.
- Jurkowski, Henryk. History of European Puppet Theatre. Vol. I. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996, pp. 391-399.