The Underground Theater: The Slaughter of the Innocents



CHRISTMAS, that luminous pause in the long winter night, is that moment when heaven and earth unite; it is a stained glass window with lights behind it, a high dream of hope which all men on earth dream together. And then there is that silver star. Oh, don’t say it is made of cardboard sprinkled with ground glass . . . that star is the promise of a better world! It lights up cold churches and children’s nurseries. For the children it leads the way toward the future. For me, that star, whenever I recalled it, would plunge into the past, and at its passage all the Christmases of other years returned — the beautiful nights around the lighted tree, in front of the miniature Nativity where the most wonderful drama ever conceived was played! Memories of that loving vigil! Let me tell you of one that will make you smile.

It was more than forty years ago. My ambition as a small boy was not to become the rival of Buffalo Bill or Nick Carter; but all the same I dreamed of a life of adventure, full of danger and brilliant deeds. I scorned Indians and gentlemen crooks! Who was my ideal? He wore a sword and top boots, a gold-laced coat and a feathered hat; he had a thundering voice, a magnetic eye, and magnificent mustaehios. You’ve guessed! I was the constant companion of those prodigious swashbucklers, Athos, Porthos, and Arands. I was held spellbound by their rodomontades and, at the sight of the sparks struck from their swords, was ready to do or die! Bad company, you’ll say. I was fully aware of that. So, it was shamefacedly and with cautious hypocrisy that I used to slip down into certain cellars in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Brussels, where I was sure of finding my favorite heroes. Yes, I used to go to see the underground marionettes. I loved them passionately, those dolls whose heads were hollow but full of grandiose thoughts; I adored their fantastic parades, their strutting selfimportance, their strange grandiloquent rhetoric, in those far-off days when simple folk were easily pleased, and children my age would be lost in wonder at a penny show. . . .

Well then, at dusk on the evening of December twenty-fourth, the principal episode had just come to an end in that smoky cellar, a regular witches’ den. Happy youngsters were still seething with excitement over the slashing swordplay of Monsieur de la Guerche! But the show was not over yet. For the Christmas season, the “Toone”1 oifered his audience, as an extra attraction, a special play for the occasion: The Slaughter of the Innocents.

It was ludicrous and pathetic, this Christmas play, but ludicrous and pathetic in a way no artist could ever succeed in creating. I invite you to sit beside me on the rickety bench, for now with a sharp rap the curtain vanishes. We are in St. Joseph’s house. The Holy Couple is squabbling in the adorable Frenchified Flemish of the Marches2 district in Brussels. It is all about that complicated day on which the angel has appeared to Mary, and Mary, at the same time, is expecting her confinement immediately, and must also set out on a long journey with her husband because Herod’s men are going to take a census of all the children. Poor things! They will not go by train, they will travel on foot, without forgetting to take sandwiches along. It begins badly and continues to get worse. In Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary are manhandled by a ruffianly policeman. No hope of finding lodgings with any of the innkeepers, who are all full up. When the “onion,”that is the policeman, threatens to take them to the police station, the unhappy couple flee to the suburbs where they take refuge in the stable decreed by Providence. Then Mary bursts into tears, exclaiming:

“Oh, Joseph, how miserable we are! What is going to become of us?”

And the crestfallen St. Joseph gives her an answer no playwright would ever have thought of:

“Well, my dear Mary, we’re going to become a little more miserable.”And he begins bawling too.

Happily, this episode is followed by a charming pastoral scene: some shepherds are rejoicing at the appearance of a star (sparkling at the end of a string). Never before have they seen such a “blinkant” star. To crown their joy they hear strains of sweet music all around them (played on a mouth organ). They are discussing whether it is a solo or a duo when an aerial sprite appears. He tells them: “I am the Director of Music. Shepherds, it is winter and it has snowed. Shear your sheep and take the Wool to Jesus, for he is cold. I will guard your flocks.”And the shepherds go off singing Gloria in Excelsis.

Thence we are transported, without transition, to Herod’s palace, which is a Louis XVI room. Now things begin to hum. Herod is furious and is giving his magician a piece of his mind. That wicked pinnemouche3 has foretold bad fortune. For, you must know, the poor soothsayer has dared tell Herod the truth, has predicted that someone is going to “put him down.”The great Herod, the famous king of the Holy Bible, is going to be dethroned! And the one who will do it is a poor infant whose birth has come to pass “with a star.”

Herod has the pinnemouche beheaded by his myrmidons, and orders his Captain to kill all the schoppekes, the innocents, so as to be sure not to miss Jesus, the infant who is going to “put him down.” For good measure, they are to chop off the head of John the Baptist who, if you please, has baptized Jesus, and they are to bring Herod his head “on a plate.” . . . As the myrmidons are leaving Herod shouts after them: “A few children don’t count anyway. We’ll buy some more. . .”

The slaughter of the innocents having been decreed, we begin to shake in our boots. But wait. The supernatural is the rule. An angel comes to announce that Mary and Joseph have succeeded in escaping to Pharaoh’s kingdom of Egypt. So now the slaughter can begin. The slaughter? No idle word . . . but deeds! The myrmidons fight one another. Superb duel. All the musketeers are on the stage, swords drawn. They fall down, they get up again. They are swung around and knocked against each other in bunches, and finally celebrate victory. But what of the innocents in this free-for-all? os, what of them? But everybody knows they have been slaughtered. From behind the scenes comes a faint wail: “Mouma. . . .” And a tiny wooden doll falls down in the midst of the musketeers to symbolize, in the interest of synthesis, all the unhappy mites of that shocking day. Is it all over now? No, one more scene, the last.

Herod in his palace watches the procession of his returning myrmidons. Here is a sample of the dialogue in which we seem to be listening to Jarry’s old Père ubu4 himself:

The Captain: Sire, they have all been killed.

Herod: That’s not true.

The Captain: It is the truth.

Herod: You lie. The child Jesus has skedaddled. How many children have you beheaded?

The Captain: 200,357. exactly.

Herod: That isn’t enough. Start again.

The Captain: Mercy. Sire! I haven’t the heart . . . Herod: Traitor, die! . . . (He kills the Captain.) And you, myrmidons, you have disobeyed my orders. Perish! (The whole battalion falls dead.)

Lucifer (appearing): Miserable butcher!

Herod: Wait a minute, Lucifer! I’m going to repent. Lucifer: Too late! (Terrific struggle. Fire. Flames. Herod is dragged off to Hell with the myrmidons and the Captain.)

The curtain would then fall with a crash. And everybody was satisfied — the wicked were going to be hurled into the fiery furnace, and the Holy Family was safe.

Other times, other customs! The young people of today would undoubtedly make fun of this childish spectacle, and even the little children would refuse to be seduced. Childhood today is quickly shorn of grace! But if it is true that there are no children left, we’ll buy some more, as Herod said. Let us hope there will be others, and real ones, for whom the world will begin afresh on some beautiful purple evening under peaceful stars.

Translated by Louise Varèse

  1. Toone: Diminutive of Anton or Antoine. In Brussels, a “Toone” is a manipulator of marionettes, provided, that is, he shows them in a cellar. Those who exhibit marionettes in a theater are not considered real “Toones” by true marionette fans. This title is derived from the name of a famous puppeteer of the last century, “Old Toone” or “Toone the First. When he died his successor took over the name along with the marionettes. The line of “Toones” or “Antoines” was established. I hardly need say that there were many dynastic quarrels. The real name of Toone de Locrel, with whom I once worked, was Jean Hembauf, number IV in the genealogy of Toones.
  2. Marolles: Name of OTIC of the most populous districts of Brussels where a very ancient jargon is still spoken. It is a mixture of French and Flemish with a sprinkling of German, Spanish, and Yiddish words.
  3. Pinnernouche: A pointed bonnet worn by this marionette.
  4. Père Ubu: the leading character in a play by Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, which created a sensation when it was produced in Paris in l896, and which later became one of the bibles of the Surrealists. Pere Ubu represents the zany wisdom of extreme folly.