Monday, October 29, 2018


Guillaume Apollinaire’s (1880-1918) published his poem titled Le Musicien de Saint-Merry in 1913 and in July 1914 it became the basis for another creative venture titled A Quelle Heure un Train Partira-t-il Pour Paris? (What Time Does a Train Leave for Paris)? This second work, a pantomime, was in the development stage one month prior to the start of World War One. Apollinaire wrote the scenario in collaboration with two visual artists and a musician.

                                                      APOLLINAIRE on August 2, 1914
The three artists who worked on this project with Apollinaire were Marius de Zayas (1880-1961), a caricaturist and author from Mexico, who was also a member of the New York avant-garde.  He was closely associated with Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) a New York photographer and promoter of contemporary art at his gallery “291.” It is believed de Zayas would stage the pantomime. The second visual artist was Francis Picabia (1879-1953). Picabia was a French avant-garde painter and poet. He was to design the scenic backdrops and costumes. Alberto Savinio (1891-1952) was to write the score. Savinio, an Italian composer and author, was a man of multiple talents and a variety of intellectual pursuits. This was an amazing cadre of international talent drawn to Apollinaire’s project during the Summer of 1914.

What Time Does a Train Leave for Paris? has six scenes and numerous characters. The Musician with no eyes, no nose, and no ears is the major character. He was the catalyst in Apollinaire’s poem The Musician of Saint Merry. It was determined by the four creators that the Musician would play his flute through an opening in his throat covered by a rubber or metal washer. Following World War One, this character became a favorite of several visual artists. Avant Garde painters renamed this character the Faceless Man. Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) who was Alberto Savinio’s brother and a friend of Apollinaire, painted his version of the Faceless Man many times.

Scene One of What Time Does a Train Leave for Paris? is to be staged in front of a screen of white cloth. The Poet stands to the side near the footlights. Black silhouettes of “beings whom the poet does not know but whom he has the right at last to greet” pass behind the screen. He greets each with “a brief, jerky, automatic gesture.” Then a black curtain falls in front of the screen, hiding even the Poet. In complete darkness a voice cries through a megaphone lines 5, 6 and 7 from the poem.

Scene Two immediately establishes the date as “21st day in the month of May 1913.”  The roof line of a city appears as the lights come up. It is very low in the background, but slowly emerges since actors represent the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and Tall Factory Chimney. A placard reads “Rue Aubry-le-Boucher.”  The Musician appears and crosses into the street designated by the placard as described in lines 10-12 of poem. Sounds of city life are heard and shouts including:
       “Help!” ---- “An airplane is buzzing us.”
                               “Long live liberty!” ----“We are leaving for America.”

Scene Three. All the architectural characters are assembled at different intersections. The Musician appears playing his flute and numerous women begin to follow him. Women appear from the various streets. The women follow the Musician off-stage as the music fades.

For Scene Four the creative team envisioned either a light show or moving pictures to cover the movements of the monuments off-stage. Then, accompanied by music and projections, they wanted the history of Paris with its ancient processions to be created on stage, however this idea and the previous one was not developed. Some Republican Guardsmen are to be represented and Napoleon III (1808-1873) appears as Automatic Sovereign. He is wearing a modern costume and appears with two attendants. (Napoleon III was President of France from 1848 to 1852 and Emperor from 1852-1870.)

Scene Five is another Paris street. Stage right is an ancient house with broken windows. It is for sale.  The front door is open. When the Musician arrives, he enters the house.  He is followed by all the women. Before entering the house, each one cries out her name. This event is observed by two men—Soldier and Poet. Each man arrived from a different direction. Each one halted, waited and watched the entire procession. Night falls as the music fades and all the women have disappeared into the house.  Soldier and Poet force open the locked door to discover the house is empty.

Scene Six is located at the same square seen in Scene Three. The Musician is standing stage right. Soldier and Poet enter from a door on the left and see him. The Automatic Sovereign crosses the stage with his two attendants, who are blowing their noses. Automatic Sovereign commits suicide with a single shot from his revolver. The pantomime ends.

This pantomime appears to capture some of the moods and influences of the period felt by Parisians. It experiments with available theatrical and film technologies, literary and artistic avant-garde styles, contemporary philosophical ideas and popular political ideology. Also it includes bits of mythology and other elements of the past as well as current Parisians fears about an impending war. It contains many elements and characters that are not in Apollinaire’s 1913 poem.

The four artists planned to produce What Time Does a Train Leave for Paris? in Paris. Alfred Stieglitz agreed to have the pantomime staged in New York City early in 1915. There is even a hint that plans were being made for a tour to four other American cities. When the war broke out in August 1914, its American production was cancelled. The various artists who worked on the pantomime returned to their own countries.

Apollinaire desired to join the French military. He was not a French citizen, however becoming a soldier would earn him citizenship. By December,1914 Apollinaire joined the French artillery at Nimes. On March 17 1916, he was wounded in the head by shrapnel. He recovered, but his health was never totally restored. He died in November of 1918, two days before the Armistice, as a result of contracting the Spanish Flu.

The pantomime’s scenario had not been published and following Apollinaire’s death the manuscript was lost. It was discovered in a private library in the United States by Willard Bohn (1939-    ). He published his English translation of the pantomime’s scenario in an article titled “A New Play By Apollinaire” in Comparative Drama, Volume 11, No. 1 (Spring 1977), pp. 73-87.  The pantomime was published in its original language in France during 1982.
    I also read another English translation by Peter Read.  It is published in The Lost
         Voices Of World War 1 by Tim Cross. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

    Another excellent reference: Bohn, Willard. Apollinaire and the Faceless Man. 
          Salem: Associated University Presses Inc., 1991.  Photo of Apollinaire is from
          this book, page 20.

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