February – Tableaux Vivants in Literature

This is the last day of February and I’ve been trying all month to come up with a suitable submission for our Literary Year-category. And I can’t! There simply isn’t any particular work of literature that reminds me of February.  

There is, however, have a literary theme that reminds me of February, so I’ve decided to make that my literary contribution this month. You see, here in Denmark, as in a number of European country, we have a tradition of celebrating Shrove-tide by dressing up, and since Shrove-tide is (almost always) a February holiday, what better way to celebrate it here on the blog than by doing a post on the tradition of Tableaux Vivants in literature? 

The tradition of tableaux vivants was a particular kind of social entertainment that had its prime back in the 19th century and it consisted basically of people, usually wealthy guests at a party, dressing up and posing as a painting or etching of their own choice. Piquant and lustrous, it used to be a very popular form of entertainment, but it has more or less completely died out, probably as a result of the boom of the entertainment business in the 20th century, and the birth of cinematography – especially the rise of talkies.

It is my personal theory that the silent movie genre was a more or less direct offspring from the tableau vivant. Surely the tendency towards archtypes and the highly dramatic gesturing of silent movies have more in common with the stylized, silent tableau vivant than with the much more verbal theatre which had moved on towards the realistic by the time the first silent movies where made. 

However, while the tradition of tableaux vivants has gone out of style in practise, it has lived on via another aesthetic form, namely literature, and what a life it has found for itself here! Several 19th century writers have found inspiration in this meta-artistic form of entertainment used tableaux vivant as the pivotal point of crucial scenes in novels and short stories, and I’d like to quote and discuss a few of these.  While doing the research for this post it struck me as interesting that all the writers I could think of who had included tableaux vivant in their works were women writers.

Behind a Mask 

The first of these, and the one to make the most significant use of the motif is Louisa May Alcott. Alcott is most famous for her celebrated novel Little Women, this very modest story about four sisters’ coming of age in the time of the Civil War, however in the 1930s literature critic Madeleine B. Stern unveiled a well-hidden secret about Alcott: She had written several gothic and almost grotesque stories under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, the most prominent of these being the lengthy short story “Behind a Mask: or A Woman’s Power”, an eerie tale about the middle-aged failed actress Jean Muir who, by way of her charms and her skills as an actress (or simply as a woman?) makes a noble household employ her as their governess in the belief that she is a quaint and virtuous 19-year-old, and three of the men in the household fall in love with her. At the centre of her scheme stands the chapter five: “How the girl did it”. I should like to quote a passage from this chapter: 

At home he [Gerald Coventry, the eldest son of the household] found a party of young friends, who hailed with delight the prospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour later, the blithe company trooped into the great saloon, where preparations had already been made for a dramatic evening. Good Sir John was in his element, for he was never so happy as when his house was full of young people. Several persons were chosen, and in a few moments the curtains were withdrawn from the first of theseimpromptu tableaux. A swarthy, darkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger skin, in the shadow of a tent. Oriental arms and drapery surrounded him; an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a table where fruit lay heaped in costly dishes, and wine shone redly in half-emptied goblets. Bending over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. One hand turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar; one slender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic; her purple mantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound her hair, and jewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath, as if they also heard a passing footstep. “Who is it?” whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her. “Jean Muir,” answered Coventry, with an absorbed look. “Impossible! She is small and fair,” began Lucia, but a hasty “Hush, let me look!” from her cousin silenced her. Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir itwas. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity ofexpression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they wereas fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepestand bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was expressed–even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the tiger skin. “Oh, isn’t she splendid?” cried Bella under her breath. “She looks as if she’d use her sword well when the time comes,” saidsomeone admiringly.  “Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain,” added another.  “He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on.” “Doesn’t she look as if she really hated him?” “Perhaps she does.”  Coventry uttered the last exclamation, for the two which preceded it suggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all art: the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object of her hatred was in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having the key to a part of her story, Coventry felt as if he caught a glimpse of the truth. It was but a glimpse, however, for the curtain dropped before he had half analyzed the significance of that strange face.” 

A glimpse, yes, but as a talented actress – or tableau vivantess for that matter – Jean Muir manages to keep her audience guessing, by choosing a much completely different attire and character for her next performance, and enchanting her most attentive audience, young Coventry, who’s been most sceptical about her thus far in the story, by inviting him to join her in a tableau:

“With a smile, Coventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two lovers, the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl, who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment Coventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use, for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover toperfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect, the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as he had never looked before.” 

A protective, loving quaker maiden – she could hardly have chosen of part more different from the one of the Judith the hateful avenger, and of course this is a premeditated move on Alcott’s morally dubious heroine’s part. What Jean has grasped is the fact that she – like all women – must essentially become a living paradox in order to survive and pave the way for herself. You could say it’s the classic whore-Madonna complex put into action: Coventry will not fall in love with the dangerous Judith, and he will get bored of the quaint, innocent maiden, but the woman who can be both at the same time wins his heart. The tableau vivant is in Alcott’s story used as a way of emphasising her main character’s hiding behind a variety masks, and the unspoken pressure put upon her by her surroundings – by society, one might say – to do so. 

Unmasking through the Tableau Vivant

It’s a very different use of the tableaux vivant that we find in the novel by another woman writer, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Opera director Kasper Bech Holten recently did a staging of Carl Nielsen’s Masquerade in which the characters wore masks all the time, except when they were at the masquerade that marks the climax of the opera. A reversal similar to this is what we find in the chapter in Wharton’s tragic story that deals with the unfortunate main character Lily Bart’s participation in a tableau vivant at a party:  

“…there could be no mistaking the predominance of personality–the unanimous “Oh!” of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds’s “Mrs. Lloyd” but to the fleshand blood loveliness of Lily Bart. She had shown her artistic intelligence in selecting a type so like her own that she could embody the person represented without ceasing to beherself. It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’s canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty bythe beams of her living grace. The impulse to show herself in a splendid setting–she had thought for a moment of representing Tiepolo’s Cleopatra–had yielded to the truer instinct oftrusting to her unassisted beauty, and she had purposely chosen apicture without distracting accessories of dress or surroundings. Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm. The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment anote of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part. 

“Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn’t a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!”  These words, uttered by that experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van Alstyne, whose scented white moustache had brushed Selden’s shoulder whenever the parting of the curtains presented any exceptional opportunity for the study of the female outline, affected their hearer in an unexpected way. It was not the first  time that Selden had heard Lily’s beauty lightly remarked on, and hitherto the tone of the comments had imperceptibly coloured hisview of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt. This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a judgment on Miranda? In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing to be with her again. He was roused by the pressure of ecstatic fingers. “Wasn’t she too beautiful, Lawrence? Don’t you like her best in that simple dress? It makes her look like the real Lily–the Lily I know.” He met Gerty Farish’s brimming gaze. “The Lily we know,” he corrected…” 

Lily Bart is the opposite of Jean Muir; while Jean Muir manages to play the parts society wants her to play, Lily Bart fails to do so, their success and failure at this become their source of happiness and eventual downfall respectively, and the two very different tableaux vivants-scenes emphasise this. Lily is an extremely beautiful and accomplished young lady and as such she should have been married – the success criteria for a woman of her time – a hundred times to a wealthy gentleman, except, as one of the characters in the novel notes: it’s as if she always consciously ruins her chances for such fortune-bringing unions, as if she doesn’t really want to give up herself for sale this way. We are told in the story that Lily has put much thought into it when picking her character for the tableau, and that she has estimated that Joshua Reynolds’s “Mrs. Lloyd” (which may be seen here) would show off her beauty most efficiently, but as Lawrence Selden and his cousin Gertie note, it’s hard not to see Lily’s choosing Reynolds’s study of pure and unspoiled sensuality as a way of stripping herself publicly of the demands of striving for success that clings to her like dirt in the life she’s leading, and thus setting herself momentarily free.  

Artificiality and Charade

Thus, presented in literature, the tableau vivant may serve to emphasise certain sides of characters. As one will observe, the frozen, immobile state of the tableau tends to function in the story that’s told as a means of stopping time momentarily – the air in both “Behind a Mask” and The House of Mirth seems to stand still as the audience literally holds its breath in admiration of the witnessed scene – and creating a condensed space within which the character performing the tableau may reveal to the reader something crucial about herself. I did a university paper on “Behind a Mask” last year with a somewhat feminist angle, exploring the character of Jean Muir as the epitome of woman in society, and her masquerade as a result of her being restricted to a gray area by the contradicting demands she meets from her surroundings (i.e. the innocence and worldliness that were expected, all at once, from a governess), and I’d like to extend this theory now onto the tableau vivant-theme: Might one not say that these women writers were fond of the tableau vivant as a literary theme, because if reflected in an extreme sense the kind of masquerade that women were expected to perform daily? That would, in any case, also explain the use Charlotte Brontë (undoubtedly a significant source of inspiration for Alcott) made of the tableau vivant in her most famous novel Jane Eyre: “…A considerable interval elapsed before it again rose. Its second rising displayed a more elaborately prepared scene than the last. The drawing-room, as I have before observed, was raised two steps above the dining-room, and on the top of the upper step, placed a yard or two back within the room, appeared a large marble basin—which I recognised as an ornament of the conservatory—where it usually stood, surrounded by exotics, and tenanted by gold fish—and whence it must have been transported with some trouble, on account of its size and weight. Seated on the carpet, by the side of this basin, was seen Mr. Rochester, costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head. His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring. Presently advanced into view Miss Ingram. She, too, was attired in oriental fashion: a crimson scarf tied sash-like round the waist: an embroidered handkerchief knotted about her temples; her beautifully-moulded arms bare, one of them upraised in the act of supporting a pitcher, poised gracefully on her head. Both her cast of form and feature, her complexion and her general air, suggested the idea of some Israelitish princess of the patriarchal days; and such was doubtless the character she intended to represent. She approached the basin, and bent over it as if to fill her pitcher; she again lifted it to her head. The personage on the well-brink now seemed to accost her; to make some request:- “She hasted, let down her pitcher on her hand, and gave him to drink.” From the bosom of his robe he then produced a casket, opened it and showed magnificent bracelets and earrings; she acted astonishment and admiration; kneeling, he laid the treasure at her feet; incredulity and delight were expressed by her looks and gestures; the stranger fastened the bracelets on her arms and the rings in her ears. It was Eliezer and Rebecca: the camels only were wanting. The divining party again laid their heads together: apparently they could not agree about the word or syllable the scene illustrated. Colonel Dent, their spokesman, demanded “the tableau of the whole;” whereupon the curtain again descended. On its third rising only a portion of the drawing-room was disclosed; the rest being concealed by a screen, hung with some sort of dark and coarse drapery. The marble basin was removed; in its place, stood a deal table and a kitchen chair: these objects were visible by a very dim light proceeding from a horn lantern, the wax candles being all extinguished. Amidst this sordid scene, sat a man with his clenched hands resting on his knees, and his eyes bent on the ground. I knew Mr. Rochester; though the begrimed face, the disordered dress (his coat hanging loose from one arm, as if it had been almost torn from his back in a scuffle), the desperate and scowling countenance, the rough, bristling hair might well have disguised him. As he moved, a chain clanked; to his wrists were attached fetters. “Bridewell!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, and the charade was solved.”  In Brontë’s controversial novel about an independent woman, who, true to her own feelings and ideals, achieves what she wants without stooping to play the game that Jean Muir masters and Lily Bart loses, the tableau becomes the symbol of the vanity and artificiality that Jane despises. What the audience perceives as a lovely confirmation of a mutual affection rising between Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram, Jane recognises as “acting”, “disguise”, and “attire”, she “knows” Rochester in spite of his costume, and she sees the tableau as well as the supposed mutual affection for what it is, a charade on Rochester’s part. The subtle point made about tableaux vivants by Alcott and Wharton is emphasised by Brontë: the tableau vivant is, in all it’s meta-artisticness, a reflection of the artificiality of our lives.

Tableaux Vivantes today

What, then, of the tableau vivant in our time and day? Have we come so completely to terms with our own self-staging that we don’t need the tableau vivant to let off the steam anymore? Well, one might say the tableau vivant is still around, in some form. Interestingly, in the – excellent – movie adaptation of House of Mirth from 2000, director Terence Davies had chosen a different painting for Lily’s tableau vivant, namely Watteau’s Ceres, supposedly thinking that this painting would show off his Lily’s, the ginger-haired Gillian Andersons’, beauty most efficiently. As such one might say he revived the tableau vivant-tradition momentarily – by consciously creating a new tableau and, thus, lingering consciously on the delicious subject of the staging of a woman’s beuaty, instead of staging the tableau that had been thought out a century earlier by Wharton. The tableu vivant is still a piquant occupation, and I’ll venture to say that there is still a need for it: As equalisation has run its course within the battle of the sexes, the gray area is more gray than ever, and the sex roles have become even more complex. Perhaps it’s time to let the artificial into our lives and to let ourselves start posing again? I think that photography, made so easy by the invention of the flexible digital camera, would be an obvious media for this. In the childhood of photography the tableau vivant was a popular way of going about portraiture. 19th century photographers such as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame) were partial towards having his subjects posing as mythological or fictional characters when portraying them, but somewhere along the line that tradition was lost, too, and instead followed decades and decades of awkward holiday photographs, with the subjects smiling stiffly, trying to look natural while pointing half-heartedly towards the Colloseum, the Eiffel Tower, or the Statue of Liberty, refusing to embrace the fact that as soon as we stand in front of a camera we are adding to Life a phrame and thus stepping into the realm of art, or, at least, artificiality, and no utterance of the word “Cheese” is ever going to change that. We, the Confidential Attachées, have acknowledged as much, which is why we swear by the Staged Photo, and we highly recommend this form of photography!  I couldn’t say whether the masquerade is bringing us closer to an understanding of our true selves or our sex roles, but hey, if it is that’s not too bad a side-effect, is it? And in the meantime we have a lot more fun taking pictures. Because it really is piquant to be allowed to pose as a Tosca or a Anita Ekberg. 🙂We are currently planning a field trip to Danish museum of art Louisiana, to see the current exhibit there of Cindy Sherman’s works, a highly estimated staging photographer, who’s definitely aware of the (sex-) roles she presents through her photography. We’ll make sure to make a report of our experience later on./marie


February 28, 2007. A Literary Year, Art, Literature, Photos, The course of the year.


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    February – Tableaux Vivants in Literature | The Confidential Attachées

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