Thinking big

This long essay posted at 3 Quarks Daily — which is rapidly becoming my favorite Web site — starts with an extraordinary subject: Royal de Luxe, a French street theater company that specializes in telling simply, childlike stories with immense marionettes that transform whole cities into stages. The Nantes-based group does everything it can to avoid hype. Its awe-inspiring show is meant to be seen by accident and leave spectators feeling they have just stumbled through a waking dream.

Here’s the description of what it took to mount The Giant Who Fell From the Sky, part of a sprawling, multi-year epic called The Saga of the Giants:

The inaugural show, The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, was conceived for the people of Le Havre in 1993. Lying supine, his ribcage rising and falling as he exhaled white dust for his own cloudy atmosphere, the 38-foot carved wood sleeping Giant was laced Gulliver-style to the street. Baffled onlookers hesitantly prodded him, and he opened basketball-sized eyes in which blood vessels showed, taking on the look of terrible suffering nobly borne that would never leave him. To walk the city, he was hauled up into a scaffolding six stories high; red-liveried actors hanging onto ropes leapt from it to the ground, landing slowly, counter-weighting and lifting his sandaled feet. He swung his arms, he turned his head this way and that, he parted his lips and gazed down, sweeping the crowd with his eyes as he marched, looking as if he did not quite believe what he saw or the fix he was in, a haggard incredulity being one of his signature expressions. And the faces of the townspeople, from toddlers to the very old, lining the streets six or eight deep and leaning out of windows, were solemn and rapt.

Trucks figured in this — big ones — for here was serious tonnage. Apart from drivers, more than thirty liveried actors, in choreographed motion all over the scaffolding, were needed to keep the Giant groomed and on the move. One man turned a wheel the size of a helm to open and close his mouth, another hovered near his shoulder to brush dusty traces of respiration from his lips with a broom. It is one of the paradoxes of the Giants that, seeing an unbelievable thing, and seeing plainly the levers and ropes and pulleys and humans required to make it work – for none of this is ever concealed in a Royal de Luxe performance — you believe in it utterly.

The stories of the Giant, written by Courcoult, are always very simple – just a few lines long, with deep cultural resonances. To cite a feature that counts heavily with him, you could tell them to a child. Each is enacted over several days, nights included, it being of the utmost importance that the Giant abide with the town. During that entire time, the Giant is out in the open, his hair and face getting wet in the rain, sleeping by night in a chair the size of a cantilever bridge, breathing always — and dreaming.

On that first visit to Le Havre, the story goes, the Giant was frightening to the people of the town only when he dreamt; the morning after, cars were found impaled on trees, or pinned to the asphalt with a 10-foot fork, the work of his dreams. And so, on the second night a wall of light – motley thousands of battery-operated headlights mounted on a twenty by thirty foot frame — was erected to prevent his losing consciousness. Head dropping to his chest again and again in the painterly golden light, the Giant spent a wakeful night. A blonde singer, Peggy, wearing a long blue opera cape with a stiff collar, climbed out of a white limo and was lifted thirty feet onto the scaffolding to sing to him, the better to divert him from dreaming. Un bel di vedremo, sang Peggy, a few yards from his face, the anguished and sleepy longing she saw there finally making her turn away. On the morning of the third day, a hole had been torn in the wall of light, the immense scaffolding was torqued and knocked aside, flattening still more cars, and the Giant was gone.

He returned to Le Havre on two occasions between 1993 and 1998. In that time, he would lose a leg – causing middle-aged Frenchmen ordinarily nothing if not buttoned down to weep openly – acquire a son, a 20-foot black giant, on a trip to Africa, regain the leg, and, in 2000, send a crate of giraffes to Le Havre. The giraffes, a tender, tree branch-tearing mother towering delicately over the city, and her calf, all legs, were the crane-operated forerunners of the 46-ton elephant seen by more than one million people in London in 2006.

The Giant’s last appearance anywhere was in August, 2006, in the South of France. Looking as relaxed as his watchful countenance allows, he sat barefoot on a lounge chair anchored to the river bed by the Pont du Gard. Just as it is understood that the Little Black Giant is his son, Little Girl Giant, last seen in Chile in January, when she chased down and caged a rhinoceros, is his daughter. It is rumored she will face her father in Reykjavik in the spring, and that the meeting might not be friendly.

Be sure to take some time to watch the YouTube segment from The Sultan’s Elephant, another chapter in the saga.

If you’re like me, your first thought after taking in the facts of this remarkable story will be: how can we get something this wonderful in America? And the answer, right now, is that we can’t. The only thing that made Royal de Luxe possible was a steady stream of government-generated arts funding, given without regard for whether the results would be palatable to whatever version of Jerry Falwell afflicts the French. This raises questions that the essay addresses in terms as large as the skyline-dominating puppets themselves:

Artists beset with frequent interruptions of their work, who live without medical care in poor housing and exhaust themselves with two or three dead-end jobs at a time to keep going until they are next paid to perform, may look on the French system as a Utopia greatly to be desired. Yet the same model is repugnant to anyone suspecting that money would only be wasted on cheap red wine, exorbitant rehearsals, and plain old hanging out. Everyone can agree, however, that The Saga of The Giants is no accident, and is anything but the product of social Darwinism in the arts.

The big question, then, is how, in making a policy decision for such as Royal de Luxe potentially to develop and flourish, can anyone be sure the result will not come artistically closer to synchronized swimming than to Royal de Luxe? To the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than to The Sultan’s Elephant? One answer is found in mulling over yet another question – why we would expect public funds spent incubating the arts to produce more precise results than like amounts spent on other necessarily speculative programs in the public interest.

The terrible risk of falling short of the intended superb work is and has always been borne chiefly by artists, the very last people on earth to spare themselves or to value compromise. As the choreographer in Lorrie Moore’s short story, “Dance in America,” says, “I’ve burned up my life for a few good pieces.” But for there to be risk, the vision of the artist must be made real – air-guitarists risk nothing. And art that is real incurs real risk, including that of artistic and commercial failure. The only policy that could ever reduce that risk is the policy that, by default or by design, reduces the occurrence of art for public money; if there is no art, there is no failed or silly art. And there is no revealing – no dreaming – what an era is capable of, no discourse that can reach into the mind of the future, creating it.

The cost of nurturing Royale de Luxe from 1981, when the company did Roman Photo, its first show to tour widely and make a huge impact, through the premier in 1990 of The True History of France, its first show to make extensive use of the engineering gifts of Francois Delaroziere, who designed the 10-ton pop-up book from which asynchronous events in French history sprang, to the present, wherein the company is celebrated all over the world except in the United States, is not a figure that research into public information can produce. Starting in 1989, when the company moved from the South of France to establish a base in Nantes, the scope and ambition of its productions soared. Serious financial support from the French government and from the city of Nantes began in 1990. For the creation in 1993 of The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, Royal de Luxe was given money by the Theatre Le Volcan in Le Havre, led by Alain Milianti, one of France’s most important theatre and opera directors. Edward Taylor, who has followed for many years the evolution of Royal de Luxe, writes that this money came seemingly in the form of “carte blanche to do something,” but no figure attaches to it.

Here’s a telling figure, though. It comes from Helen Marriage of Artichoke. The cost of bringing The Sultan’s Elephant to London amounted to about one million pounds. “At one pound a head,” Marriage says, referring to the number of Londoners who experienced it, “I call that cheap.”

I do, too — certainly cheaper that funneling tax monies to Steve Forbes and Paris Hilton, or squandering billions on contracts to Republican cronies who promptly haul stakes and relocate to friendly Arab dictatorships at the first whiff of a subpoena. The Bush administration, and the Gingrichite upwelling that preceded it, has been our homegrown inverted version of Royal de Luxe: instead of filling the streets with giants to make everyone feel inspired and open to possibilities, the Bush-led Screwyou de Luxe fills them with stunted, greedy dwarfs doing everything they can to make daily life seem a little more vile.

We are, I hope, at the tail end of a blindingly stupid debate that began in the 1980s when conservatives began using Karen Finley and Andres “Piss Christ” Serrano to attack the idea of funding the arts. I say “stupid” because there will never be any art that does not offend somebody somewhere, even if we ignore the pious outrage merchants who started the argument. I say “stupid” again because even the most expensive arts programs are a comparative drop in the bucket.

I can live with a dozen Karen Finleys (and Finley herself was actually pretty funny, the one time I saw her perform at Maxwell’s) if it raises the possibility of a homegrown Royal de Luxe or Cirque du Soleil. It’s the kind of shock and awe that makes the world a more liveable place. Someday, I hope we all get to live there.

2 thoughts on “Thinking big

  1. […] 2007 Giant puppets! Karen Finley! Arts funding! It all comes together, but you have to start by going here. Posted by stevenhart Filed in […]

  2. […] with giants May 23rd, 2007 A couple of months ago, writer Elatia Harris introduced us to Royal de Luxe, the extraordinary French street theater group that tells simple, childlike stories with immense […]

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