There are lyrics that cling like a drowsy bat to the dingy ceiling of a dungeon deep within the labyrinthine palace of memory, a melody that tickles the spine with an icy narcotic chill, and the faint honeyed echo of a beeswax taper….

Pedrolino. Pagliacci. Pierrot. Petrushka.

Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot…whether in the guise of this popular children’s song, or embodied by David Bowie, most of us are acquainted with Monsieur Pierrot in one form or another. Do you recognize him?

David Bowie, Blue Pierrot

David Bowie, Blue Pierrot

Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) wrote and performed Don Juan, or The Feast with the Statue, at the Palais-Royal theater in the 1660’s.  Pierrot made an initial appearance in Molière’s play, as a supporting character. At the same time, the stories and traditions of the bawdy street-theater commedia of Italy were insinuated and stylized within the cultural oeuvre of France and much of Europe as commedia dell’ arte. 


Harlequinade flip book, 1780

In England, and in other places, this phenomenon was popularized through the pantomime, in variations of the classic love triangle of the Harlequinade. Arlecchino, the rascal Harlequin, conquers the heart of Columbina, while  the moon-mad Pierrot continues to pine for her.

Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) Pierrot ("Gilles"), Louvre

Antoine Watteau (1684–1721)
Pierrot (“Gilles”), Louvre

Pierrot, as a stock character, represented, at first, a bumbling servant, unlucky in love. Jean-Gaspard Deburau, born in the Czech Republic into a family of actors, remade the figure of Pierrot and developed it on-stage with such a sense of poignancy, urgency, and melancholy, that even poets began to take notice. Duchartre wrote of Deburau that he was as  “…pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, supple and acute as the serpent, tall and straight as the gallows.”

Charles Deburau as Pierrot, 1854

Charles Deburau as Pierrot, 1854

Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and T.S. Eliot were all fascinated by Pierrot. Arnold Shoenberg composed a cycle of songs based on  Albert Giraud’s poetry, Pierrot Lunaire, which premiered in 1912. Stravinsky’s Petrushka injected a uniquely Russian dramatic liveliness into the persona.  A notable Pierrot: Charlie Chaplin. Alexander Blok’s The Puppet Show (Balaganchik) was based on commedia performances that had begun to appear in St. Petersburg in the 19th century. The boundaries between commedia dell’ arte and commedia erudita blurred.

Tap here for a tour of The Enchanted Masquerade: Alexander Blok’s The Puppet Show.

Allow me to introduce one of my favorite reincarnations of Pierrot: the Russian actor, poet, and song-writer Alexander Vertinsky.

Alexander Vertinsky, 1918

“I know the story of a certain resolute ball, which was tossed around from one corner to the other, until one day it leapt up to heaven!” Thus reads the inscription on a photograph of Vertinsky in the role of Blok’s The Puppet (Balaganchik) from 1918.

Vertinsky as a volunteer

Vertinsky as a volunteer

In 1914, during the first World War, Vertinsky volunteered as a nurse on the front on a medical train, where he served until 1915 when he was wounded. It was recorded in a book on that train that Vertinsky bound 35,000 wounds during that year. An altered man, Vertinsky, when he returned, began to perform his own compositions in Moscow’s Theater of Miniatures in the character of a “black” Pierrot.

vera holodnaya II

Vera Holodnaya

The silent film star Vera Holodnaya, for whom he composed many of his early lyrics, was Vertinsky’s own unrequited Columbina.  Apparently shy of audiences at first, and afraid of his own face, Vertinsky covered himself in Pierrot’s thick grease paint: with those lead-white cheeks, blush, a scarlet mouth, and in a mysterious, mooning twilight of his own manufacture, he coyly performed song after song dedicated to Holodnaya. In delicate gestures, Vertinsky managed to convey the irony of his position; he confirmed and poeticized human frailty; he  demonstrated empathy. They say female fans tossed flowers at him, while he fled out the theater’s back door.

Dark Pierrot

Vertinsky, Black Pierrot

After the Bolshevik coup of 1917, the presence of Vertinsky, who had written a song commemorating the death of 300 young cadets (This is what I must say), was no longer welcome in Moscow. He fled through Constantinople in 1920, sang his way through Eastern Europe, and spent 10 years in Paris before settling in Shanghai. In 1943, Vertinsky, who had always wanted to return home, successfully petitioned enter the Soviet Union with his young wife Lidia, 34 years his junior.

What he found when he returned to his native country, shocked him. Vertinsky brought years of professional experience, and the je ne sais quoi of the Paris cabaret and prewar Shanghai cafés into unheated, ramshackle theaters from Moscow to Ulyanovsk to Khabarovsk. Those who attended his concerts said it was as if a lone figure from the Silver Age had stepped incongruously into their unsophisticated, hungry midst, bringing with him the shadow of the past. His daughter Anastasia later said of him that he would pause before every performance, and the whole hall would hold its breath, waiting for him to begin, “as if he were a mystic” who had cast a spell on the audience.

Vertinsky was forced by bureaucrats (who confiscated most of his earnings) to perform as many as 24 times a month, often before groups of rowdy, half-drunk miners or factory employees. He did not condescend; he said, “There is nothing to eat, and only cognac to drink, here in the Donbass, where the air is noxious and the water unfit for consumption.” Only 30 of the 100 songs Vertinsky had composed were considered acceptable to Soviet censors. Vertinsky died while on tour, exhausted, at age 68, leaving his beloved wife and two daughters behind. Lidia Vertinskaya became a respected Soviet actress.

Finally, I have arrived at the Vertinsky song that has haunted me since I first heard it. The title is, Your Fingers Smell of Incense, written by Vertinsky-as-Pierrot, in honor of his Columbina.  Vertinsky happened to be on tour in Rostov-na-Donu in 1919 when Vera Holodnaya died of the Spanish flu. The story is that he received this telegram from Odessa, Vera Holodnaya is dead, he then tore out the page of the score of the song from his notebook and wrote this dedication: “To the Queen of the Screen–Vera Holodnaya.”

Vertinsky’s legacy lives on, in the romances he composed, and in those who imitate his delicate style–he was a dark, elegant Pierrot, with a steadfast love for his mother-land, which remained mostly unrequited–to the end. Vertinsky humbly donned the “mask” of the dark Pierrot, and under its service, he managed to transcend, to blur the lines between low and high art. In this role within the human comedy, he gradually became the most aristocratic of fools.

Your fingers smell of incense,
And in your lashes sorrow sleeps.
We no longer need a thing,
Are not sorrowful  for anyone.
And when as Spring’s messenger
You are brought to the far-off realm,
The Lord Himself, on a white staircase
Will lead you to a bright paradise.

A gray-haired deacon quietly whispers,
Bowing his head again and again
And sweeps with his scant beard
The dust of the ages from the icons.
Your fingers smell of frankincense,
And in your lashes sorrow sleeps.
We no longer need a thing,
Are not sorrowful  for anyone.

Alyona Sviridova, as if assuming both the role of Pierrot and his Beloved, performs Vertinsky’s song here, in a video from a 1990’s film:

Pierrot plays in the garden,
And all the roses know
That Pierrot loves his music,
But I love Pierrot.

–Sara Teasdale



(Posted by Jillian Parker)

4 thoughts on “Commedia

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