Hysterically Entertaining

Hysterical yawning
Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot.
Salpetriere was a major psychiatric hospital in Paris, a former dumping ground for women diagnosed as "hysterical"
Polaire, one of the most famous of the "epileptic" performers.
image from Polaire 1900
Cafe Concert performer Paulus is credited with bringing a frenetic, grimacing gesticulation to the stage in 1871.
He imitated "invalids and limping women." Another singer recalled, "The excited stamping of epileptic choreography" caught on.
In 1905, 21 American patients' seizures were filmed—called ”epilepsy biographs”— by the
American Mutoscope and Biograph company
documentary images, Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière
by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot
Edgar Degas, At the Cafe Concert: The Song of the Dog, 1875-77
Thérésa, a popular 19th century gommeuse
"idiot" comic Dranem, 1905

The maniacal British acrobatic troupe the Hanlon-Lees, c. 1878. Bibliotheque Nationale
 It is certain that today, primarily in cities, hysteria is the illness in vogue. It is everywhere."
— Dr. Paul-Max Simon, 1881

Progress and fashion have just given us a new way to go nuts. It replaces snobbery, the races and the occult... It’s neurasthenia. All the world has it my friends.—
the song “Neurasthenia,” 1906

A good half of the hit songs of [today] belong to the jiggling pit of Charcot...
they have gesticulatory hysteria—critic Georges Montorgeuil, 1896*

Polaire! The agitating and agitated Polaire! ...What a devilish mimic, what a coffee-grinder and what a belly-dancer!  ...Polaire skips, flutters, wriggles, arches from the hips, the back, the belly,
mimes every kind of shock, twists, coils, rears, twirls... trembling like a stuck wasp, miaows,
faints to what music and what words! The house, frozen with stupor, forgets to applaud.
—Jean Lorrain Decadent novelist and critic

When I first researched and posted about the early 20th century cabaret performer Polaire, I came across the description gommeuse epileptique. Lazily, I relied on Google translate to elucidate. It spit forth "gummy epileptic" which didnt help much, so I was amused and left it at that. It wasnt until a recent commenter tipped me off to a wonderful book that explained that peculiar phrase and revealed that "epilectic singers" were an entire genre of entertainment in late 19th and early 20th century France. Why the French Love Jerry Lewis: From Cabaret to Early Cinemaby Rae Beth Gordon is not so much about Jerry Lewis as it is a fascinating interdisciplinary study of the intersection of early French mass entertainment and psychiatric pathology. I especially love 'rogue' scholarship which brings together unlikely academic bedfellows and Gordon doe not disappoint. She juggles mesmerism, somnabulism, music hall entertainment, high brow/low brow divide in culture, Darwin, Nordau's theory of degeneration, "savages", Georges Melies’ films, and mental illness. All this before she even gets to Jerry Lewis.

The book discusses a particular kind of performance which first appeared in the music halls of France in the 1870s and 80s. It was a comedic style characterized by frenetic movements, tics, facial grimaces, and other bizarre behavior that, Gordon asserts, mimicked various nervous disorders such as hysteria, epilepsy, and Tourette's Syndrome beginning to get coverage in the popular press. It was just at this time that modern psychiatry and neurological study were emerging. Hysteria and later neurasthenia were the focus of professional and public attention alike. Jean-Martin Charcot, dubbed the Napoleon of Neuroses, was instrumental in the popularization (or “vulgarization”) of hysteria. The foremost French neurologist of his day and a professor of anatomical pathology, Charcot used photography for the classification and diagnosis of hysteria and published the widely circulated Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (1876-80) and the New Iconography of the Salpetriere (1888—1918). Referring to the Salpetriere, a hospital
in the middle of Paris which confined 4000 women as incurable or insane, Charcot stated he was "in possession of a kind of museum of living pathology whose holdings were virtually inexhaustible.” He opened the doors of that museum to Paris and put on demonstrations, allowing the spectacle of illness to seep into into the public psyche and vernacular. (It is also of interest that a noted experimental psychologist, Alfred Binet, wrote for the Grand Guignol Theater—which deserves a post of its own.)

The French public was fascinated and entertained by watching
pathology as spectacle in both the (medical) amphitheater and at the theater. (After all, it was only a step removed from the earlier, well-established bourgeois pass time of touring insane asylums.) For the high brow—Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourt brothers, Huysmans, and Jarry all published works relating to hysteria or neurasthenia— to the lowest common thrill-seeker these nervous diseases and the shocks of psychiatric treatment became short hand for the notion of “modernity,” a motif later picked up by Dada and the Surrealists.//

It seems to me that in America anything similar to this style would be black entertainment—ragtime, cakewalks, jazz—and the dance crazes of the teens—the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot. Although Gordon doesnt discuss her, the book explains why the French would go wild for Josephine Baker.

*Songs such as “Too Nervous,” “Tata's Tic,” “La Parisienne Epileptique,” and “I’m a Neurasthenic.”

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