From the time of ancient kings, people have appreciated humor arising from the behavior and appearance of fools. Throughout history, such characters have taken many forms. Comedic actors have created entertaining personas that reappear in performance after performance. Others adapt idiotic conduct to real-world figures in an attempt to mock the powerful. Antics such as these make us laugh. So, to celebrate April Fools’ Day, I thought I’d write about some of France’s most famous zanies as well as the French festivities that feature them.
The French word bouffon historically refers to a performance artist from the Middle Ages or Renaissance who entertained kings or members of the nobility. However, some bouffons traveled from town to town, juggling, singing, telling stories, and performing magic at fairs or markets where average people could enjoy their performances. Those employed by the royal court often played an important political role since they would deliver bad news to the king that no one else dared announce.
Frequently, people with mental or physical disabilities became bouffons de la cour, or court jesters. It was believed that such outsiders, who were normally shunned by society, harbored a unique perspective of the world. Their unconventional insights helped inform those in positions of power.
One of the most famous French bouffons, known for his quick wit, is Triboulet, born with microcephaly in 1479. Triboulet is said to have served both King Louis XII and King Francis I. Legend has it that Triboulet perpetually got away with insulting his masters but after the jester slapped Francis I’s royal behind one day, the humiliated monarch had had enough. He threatened to hang Triboulet unless the cheeky clown could think of an apology that would be even more offensive than the disrespectful swat.
Triboulet offered his apology by saying that he hadn’t realized he was spanking Francis since he had mistaken him for the Queen. Apparently, this wasn’t the kind of retort the king had hoped for. He planned to execute Triboulet anyway but would allow the fool to choose the method of execution. Triboulet asked to die of old age. This time, his quick wit saved his skin and King Francis let him live.
The classical portrait of a court jester or bouffon dressed in red is believed to be based on Triboulet.
In the mid-16th-century, theater groups from Italy began to appear in France. Their performances were largely farcical improvisations. The actors spoke Italian so performances relied heavily on gestures. Familiar scenarios, with minor variations, were employed over and over again. Even the commonly recurring characters fell into 4 recognizable categories:
- Pantalon—an old debaucherous, miserly type who usually dresses in a tight-fitting suit emphasizing the groin, all flattery of which is understood to refer to days long passed.
- Le Docteur—a know-it-all figure who actually knows next to nothing and dresses in black, scholarly-looking clothing.
- Le Capitaine—a boastful, swaggering soldier (often Spanish) adorned with myriad braids, a feathered cap, and a huge ruff, who pursues the ladies vigorously but deep down is a coward.
- Le Zanni—the bouffon of the group who is usually a servant to Pantalon. This indispensable role received the widest range of interpretations, from cunning manipulator to devoted counselor to bumbling fool.
Little by little, these groups spoke more and more French until, at the end of the 17th-century, Louis XIV saw them as a threat to French theater and banned them from France. The fact that La Comédie-Italienne sometimes mocked the king may have also had something to do with their expulsion. However, shortly after Louis XIV’s death in 1715, Phillippe II, Duke of Orléans, welcomed a newly assembled troop of Italian actors to Paris where again they produced plays entirely performed in French.
An Artist’s Portrayal
In looking for portrayals of French bouffons, I came across a large collection of colored engravings attributed to Maurice Sand. I wondered if this artist was in any way connected to the famous French novelist, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who went by the masculin pen name George Sand. As it turns out, Maurice was her oldest child and only son and the two were very close.
Born Jean-François-Maurice-Arnauld Dudevant, Maurice took a cue from his mother and adopted the pseudonym Maurice Sand for his professional work as an author, artist, and entymologist. He studied under Eugène Delacroix and during his lifetime produced numerous paintings, engravings, and a large collection of marionnettes. He also wrote several novels and a few plays but never attained the level of success enjoyed by his prolific mother.
Below are some of Maurice Sand’s depictions of famous characters from La Comédie-Italienne. The year listed on each engraving corresponds to the year when that particular character was introduced. Sand made all of the engravings around 1860.
Another character that sprang from La Comédie-Italienne is Pierrot. Pierrot emerged at the end of the 17th-century as a secondary zanni. Another bouffon, naive and servile, who was often duped by his fellow comics. In the mid-1800s, however, the French actor, Jean-Gaspard Deburau, transformed Pierrot into a major character. Instead of a timid, lazy, and greedy bit-player, Poirrot now dominated the scene with his clever and enigmatic personality, relying heavily on pantomime.
Deburau also drastically altered the clown’s costume by getting rid of the large ruffled collar, adding voluminous sleeves and pantlegs, and substituting a skullcap for a hat. For the next century, a succession of Poirrots kept the popular character alive and well—not only on the Paris stage but in paintings, sculptures, novels, and poetry. Even 20th-century superstars like Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin modeled many of their characters’ gestures, mannerisms, schemes, and behaviors after those of the Poirrots that had come before them.
In the weeks between New Year’s and Lent, many European communities hold carnivals that feature parades of people wearing extravagant costumes and carrying large puppets. There is music, dancing, and singing in the streets, and downpours of confetti. According to Wikipedia, Le Carnaval is most popular in France and Belgium, with over 90 cities in France hosting some form of this annual street party.
Le Carnaval has Christian roots, providing an occasion for adherents to feast on fatty foods, drink, and make merry before the more introspective fasting period of Lent. However, festivities where people celebrated with masks, music, flowered floats, and other forms of fanfare pre-date Christianity.
France’s premier Carnaval is held each year in Nice. The 17-day celebration begins in mid-February and spans 3 weekends. Nice is proud of its annual extravaganza that first kicked off in 1873 and has only been canceled during times of war and more recently in 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Many of the bouffons mentioned in this post, from Triboulet to Pantalon to Pierrot, have made repeated appearances in the form of massive puppets. This year’s towering jesters included mannequins of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Everybody Loves a Fool
Why do people love the antics of a fool? Perhaps, because we’ve all experienced times when our own behaviors left us feeling like idiots. Comedy seems to have healing properties. It lets us forget about our own gaffs and focus on the absurdities commtted by another. In a performance setting, it binds spectators and participants. All present are in on the joke and momentarily united against the undesirable forces of the world. Some people believe that in addition to making us laugh, comedy helps hold the powerful in check. Why do you think fools never seem to go out of fashion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.