In 1866, Théophile Gautier, the author of Giselle, published a remarkable essay, Le Rat. In it he describes, with a combination of deep affection, cynicism and humour, the life and habits of 'les rats', the young dancers who formed the Corps de Ballet at the Paris Opera where Giselle was first performed.
As we explain elsewhere (see 'Silly Girl'), you can read Giselle in the light of this essay in a new and quite unexpected way. So it feels like an important document and since, up to now, it has only, so far as we can tell, been available in French we have produced a (partial) English translation.
"What is the rat?" Asks the reader unversed in Paris slang. "That is the question," as Hamlet said.
Is this the rat of natural history, so well described by Buffon? Is it the cellar rat? the sewer rat? the church rat? Not at all. The rat, despite its masculine name ['rat' is a masculine noun in French], is an eminently feminine creature. You will only find them at the Rue le Peletier, at the Royal Academy of Music, or in the Rue Richer, at dance classes; they only exist there; you would search in vain anywhere else in the world. Paris possesses three things that all other capitals envy: the urchin, the grisette and the rat. The rat is a theatre urchin who has all the faults of the street urchin, fewer good qualities, and like the latter is a product of the July Revolution.
Rat is what we, at the Paris Opera, call the young girls who are training to become dancers, and who appear in the crowd scenes, the backgrounds, the flights, the set pieces and other situations where their size can be excused by a limited view. The age of the rat varies from eight to fourteen or fifteen; a sixteen year-old rat is a very old rat, a horned rat, a white rat; this is as old as they ever get; at this age their studies are more or less finished, they have had a debut, danced a solo, their name has appeared in capitals on a poster; they have graduated as a 'tiger' and now become first, second, or third class ballerinas or member of the chorus, according to their merits or their patrons.
Where does this bizarre, inappropriate, semi-insulting name, which on the face of it has so little connection with its subject, derive? The etymologists are stumped; some see it derive from the Sanscrit, some from Coptic, some from Syriac, others from Mandarin or High German, whichever language it is that they don't know.
We believe that the rat is so called on account of its diminutive size as well as its gnawing and destructive instincts. Up close to the rat you'll see it nibble at an almond like a squirrel; you can't pass by without noticing the crackle of pralines and nuts or slices of bread devoured by its sharp little teeth which make a sound like a mouse in the skirting boards. Like its homonym, the rat likes to make holes in curtains, to enlarge gaps in the scenery, pretending to get a better view of the scene or the room, but in truth just to make a mess; it comes and goes, trots and descends the staircases, climbs on the ladders and ropes, through the corridors, down to the third level basement and all the way up to the gods; only the rat can find its way through the dark and subterranean labyrinth, the complication of which the public has only the vaguest inkling.
The rat is only at ease in the Royal Academy of Music; this is its real milieu. Here it moves as easily as a goldfish in its crystal bowl; it folds its arms against its body like the wings of a bird, it shuffles, shiny, past the longest lines of people. The trapdoors open, the floor disappears beneath its feet, the tops of a forest sprout suddenly in flower from the earth: the lamp-men scurry here and there carrying their long lighters; a palace ceiling comes down from the flies, the stage hands (which is what we call the mechanics) carry on their backs a gothic arch with menacing curves: the rat never swerves from its path, it makes light of all these obstacles. Have no fear, no harm will come to it; the Opera takes good care of it, its sharp angles fit perfectly with the angles of the Opera's passages. The theatre is its carapace, here it lives (ugliness apart) like Quasimodo in Nôtre-Dame.
The rat's mother is either a pensioner or a doorkeeper; but this second case is less common: doorkeeper's daughters mainly devote themselves to tragedy, singing or other heroic occupations; they prefer to be princesses. As to the father, the situation is always extremely vague and can only be assessed on probabilities. He might be a marquis; he might be a fireman.
What peculiar destiny lies in store for these poor little girls, frail creatures offered as a sacrifice to the Parisian Minotaur, this monster at least as formidable as its ancient equivalent, which devours hundreds of virgins every year and never a modern day Theseus to come to their rescue!
The world doesn't exist for them. Talk to them about the simplest things, they know nothing; they know only the theatre and the dance class; the natural world is a mystery to them; they scarcely know if there is a sun in the sky and they see it only seldom. They spend their mornings doing exercises in a gloomy darkness, lit with a red glow from smokey lamplights, not knowing if it's day or night except by the shafts of light that glance through the rafters and under the doors. When they leave at two or three in the afternoon, they feel themselves swimming in the blue glow of the morning in the reflection of a blue pool, which is so much of a contrast with the yellow nights of the ball and the orgy: they can't tell the difference between an oak and a beetroot; they only see painted trees, sad creatures! They are surrounded by an artificial nature: oil-fired sun, gas-powered stars, Prussian blue skies, forests made of cut-out cardboard, palaces made of sheaves of fabric, torrents powered by a hand-crank; they live in limbo, in a world of convention, where one see always man and never God.
The few ideas they do acquire relate to operas and ballets from the repertoire. "Oh yes! that's just like in La Juive or La Revolte au Serail" is the kind of remark they often make: this is how they've learnt that there are Italians, Turks and Spaniards, and that Paris, London and Vienna are not the only cities. Erudition is not their forte: it's a bonus if they can read, and their writing is perfect hieroglyphics, Champollion wouldn't be able to read it; they would do better to write with their feet: they are better trained and more nimble than their hands! As for their handwriting, there's no point talking about it: Gavarni's Letter Box provides numerous samples. But the paper is glossy, textured, moiré, gilded, embellished, to make up for the poverty of the writing by its magnificence; and all this is sealed with superfine sealing wax, scented, red, green, white, glistening with powdered gold, at least if it isn't sealed with mashed up breadcrumbs borrowed from the grocer which happens pretty often.
Other women in the theatre don't get started until sixteen or eighteen; until then they're out in the countryside; enjoying the sunshine; they've seen men and women, shopkeepers and gentry; they have some idea of society, and understand how the different classes relate to each other. The rat, on the other hand, has been swept up at such an early age in this immense prison theatre, it has had no time to taste everyday life. At an age when red roses bloom in the cheeks of young children, these little victims are already looking pale underneath their grease paint; their limbs have already been broken by the tortures of the dance class; their natural youthful grace replaced by the artifice of choreography. Its mother gives it lessons in eye rolling and fluttering just like ordinary children learn geography and their catechism. On this poor skinny creature, with spindly arms and eyes darkened by exhaustion, rests the hopes of the family, and what hope, good Lord!
By a strange alliance, the rat combines aspects that seem impossible to go together: it is as corrupt as an old diplomat and as naive as the most innocent savage. At twelve or thirteen it can make a captain of dragoons blush and teach the most debauched courtesans new tricks: while at the same time the angels weep with laughter listening to the adorable simplicity of their conversation: they know debauchery but not love, vice but not life.
We will now describe, for the edification of the public, who have no idea what horrible work they do in order to please them, a day in the life of a rat. The life of a cab horse or a galley slave is a picnic by comparison.
[Gautier now describes a day in the life of the rats. Translation to come.]
[The essay concludes with a jaw-dropping account of the sexual economics of the rats.]
We have to report that a new fashion has taken hold back stage. Previously, the rat would come and go alone, come home or not, without her mother giving it a moment's thought. But now, mother and daughter have discovered that modesty is worth more than vice and the innocence of a sixteen year-old virgin is worth much more than the debauchery of a child of thirteen. Not all slave markets are in Turkey. Here in Paris, in the middle of the 19th century, they sell more women than in Constantinople. The more famous the modesty of the child, the higher goes the bidding. Some have sold for as much as sixty thousand francs. For this money you could buy half-a-dozen, or more, exotic women from the Caucausus, India or Egypt.
Previously, the lure of four or five louis would have persuaded these virtuous mothers to rent their daughters out for suppers, parties, masked balls and carnival orgies; now, they teach their children principles of order and economy that would do credit to the housewives of the Marais and the Rue Saint-Denis. Catch-phrases like 'You have to make an effort! Don't forget your mother when you find happiness!' fill their conversation.
Rats with deposit accounts! Now we’ve seen everything. The wild and crazy life has been superseded by good housekeeping and beef stew. Enfantin would search in vain for a single woman at the Opera. Everyone there is part of a couple, like the animals in Noah's Ark, they live in married bliss. These morganitic unions [relating to or denoting a marriage in which neither the spouse of lower rank, nor any children, have any claim to the possessions or title of the spouse of higher rank.] are all the rage and we should say that, with only a few exceptions, their fidelity is as closely observed as anywhere else. The marcheuses [a double entendre meaning both women extras who appear on stage but neither dance nor sing and street walkers i.e. prostitutes] whose sadly appropriate name shows that they would be better on the streets where they came from than treading the boards at the Opera, are the only ones who keep up the old licentiousness. But what was once a crazy elegant debauchery, with them becomes a stupid sluttishness. At least, the rat is an artist and she has another ambition apart from money: fame. That beautiful passion maligned by lesser mortals has her in its grip. Offer her a hundred louis or a solo pas, a solo pas in a leading role, and she won't hesitate. She loves fame at least as much as cashmere and fine dining.