Tableau Vivant translates literally as “living picture”: a costumed group or individual in a static and carefully arranged pose, usually accompanied by elaborate sets and props. The Tableau has usually served to illustrate popular mythologies; famous paintings; or a classical, archetypal or historic event. Performed variously as a parlour game, a carnival attraction, pageant, pedagogical tool or propaganda image, the history of the tableau vivant is most commonly located in popular entertainments and is usually found within the context of informal social gatherings.
Originally a parlor game for the wealthy, tableau vivant gained wide popularity in the 19th century only to fade away with the coming of radio and moving pictures. There are numerous examples of tableau vivant in European culture ranging from the refined to the crude. In late 19th century London, for example, the still pose of the tableau cleverly by-passed laws on public nudity making it possible for clubs, like The Windmill, to put naked ladies on display for the ostensible purpose of edifying the (male) public by recreating classical scuptures!
The art of Tableau Vivant was also a wide spread popular entertainment in the United States. In fact, the practice of “living pictures” holds a special and very unique place in the culture of Golden Age New Orleans.
THE TABLEAU BALLS OF NEW ORLEANS
February 2, 1857, Julia Street, New Orleans. Torchlights shatter out of the darkness of the night. They are carried by black men who would come to be know as the flambeaux. Eager citizens crane their necks to get a glimpse. It is Mardi Gras and news paper reports all week have told them to line the streets and await The Mistick Krewe of Comus, an anonymous and unknown entity.
The crowd now erupts in wonder and awe. New Orleans first ever night parade proceeds past them like a haunting through the streets. Upon enormous decorative floats of a type never before seen sit Comus and Satan. They are flanked by a masked krewe of at least a hundred who are spectacular and grotesque in their disguises as Milton’s Demons from Paradise Lost. Slowly they proceed through the streets.
Meanwhile, at the Gaiety Theatre, Louisiana’s best society also awaits the arrival of their mysterious hosts. Three thousand invitations have been issued and more clamour at the door for entry to this tableau ball whose granduer and imagination would stun a city accustomed to fabulous balls. The theatre has been bedecked with lush hangings, festooned with flowers to a degree of that inspires awe. Finally upon the stage appear the Mistick Krewe of Comus. No two costumes are the same, each one more grotesque then the last.
Four tableaux are given. Tartus – Pluto and Prosperpine preside over the fates, the furies, the harpies, and the gorgons. The Explusion – Moloch, Dagon, Belial and a “host of other infernals”. The Conference of Satan and Beelzebub – Gluttony, Drunkeness, Indolence, Avarice, Murder, Vanity, and all their siblings flooded with colored lights most awesome to behold. After the fourth, a musical interlude, and then a fifth scene. A bare stage. Suddenly at the back in a “great arch of gas jets”, appear the words of fire: “Vive la danse!”
This description of the first Comus parade is a roughly paraphrased account given us in Perry Young’s wonderful book Mistick Krewe, Chronicles of Comus and his Kin, Carnival Press, 1931.
The Mystic Krewe of Comus was, and still is, a secret society comprised of the city’s most wealthy and well connected men. In the mid-19th century they conceived a spectacle whose opulence and imagination would astonish the city’s populace and change the face of Mardi Gras from that night forward. The Tableau Balls of the Mystic Krewe, and the many other krewes who would arise in their mold in the following decades, were the most sought after invitations of the year. This was the realm of wealth, blood lines, and debutantes. It was also the realm of arcane fancies and myths, of masquerades and magic.
After a street procession on floats the krewe would arrive at the Gaiety Theatre, and later the Variety Theatre, to enact their tableaux upon opulently decorated stages for New Orleans’ best society before opening the ball to dancing. As the have years passed by the balls have continued, but the tradition of the tableau spectacular has largely fallen by the way side.
The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant pays homage to this tradition of the city’s Golden Age. A time when secret societies staged fantastical scenes whose themes were often obscure – Vathek, Ninth Caliph of the Abassides (Momus Krewe, 1905), comes to mind.
Theses tableau spectaculars could be dark and poetic, like The Conference of Satan and Beezelbub (Comus 1857), exotically historical, like The Ramayana, Momus’ 1857 interpretation of the Hindu epic poem, or delriously fantastical. Nymphs, Fairies, and Elves were all on hand for The Legends Beautiful, Momus’ 1885 parade and Tableau Ball. It is worth remembering that these otherworldly sprites were in fact a privileged society of men underneath their masks.
Below are some images of Tableau Balls and their memoribilia all courtesy of the Tulane University Special Collections Library to whom we are indebted for a glimpse into this spectacular world.
Ornate (non-transferable, highly sought after) invitations were deriguer aspects of old line Mardi Gras krewe tabeau balls as were beautifully conceived dance cards and other memoribilia. After the opening tableaus of the ball, young society ladies would be “called out” for dances with the masked members of the all male krewes.
Delightful memorabilia from these grand affairs has been preserved, but it is surprisingly hard to come across any images of the actual tableau.
There are a few exceptions. One of the most documented and discussed of all parade and tableau themes was Comus’ infamous Missing Link of Darwin’s Origin of the Species of 1873. Perry Young describes:
The Tableaux at the Varieties were of a character remarkable in their day. They consisted of dissolving views, introduced by lighting effects which had not been employed before. The depths of the sea were first exhibited, with their marine life of every scale, then the waters receded and the land appeared – a great mound surrounded by fruits, flowers, rodents and insects, reptiles occupying the summit, on the top most peak of which writhed the Serpent – “Author of all our woes.”
The Triumph of the Serpent dissolved from view and the other animals of creation formed the final group for the second tableau. This was the imposing coronation scene, wherein Gorilla was crowned king of all creation, Chacma as his queen…..But before the imposing throne, unawed and unabashed… stood Comus, impersonationg without word or gesture a sovereignty before which the new-crowned master of the world offered impotent contrast.
Today many krewes present parade themes that offer satirical commentary . The Missing Link extravaganza was the origin of this tradition. Not only was this parade a dismissive commentary on Darwin’s theory, it was a stinging political satire.
This was the time of Reconstruction in the South and the powerful members of Comus were none too pleased with the way the war had gone. Insult to injury were the interlopers from the north, military and political, who were stationed around their city, presumably to reconstruct.
Thus, every animal depicted in the parade bore a distinct resemblance to a political figure who displeased the mighty Comus. Though many of the illusions are lost on us today, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Butler, and Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth were all on view in animal guise. These images of Reconstruction figures are plainly racist with many of the politicians given exaggerated “negro” appearances to show where their sympathies rested.
Watercolors can be viewed at Tulane Universty’s Special Collections Digital Library.
While the political views on display in these costumes are regrettable, it is hard to fault the imaginations, nor the ambitions, of the men who wore them. Comus, and the other secret societies in their mold, routinely spent vast sums of money on the lavish costumes, incredible floats, and the decadent entertainments of their unique tableau balls.
For the first few years of this new Mardi Gras tradition, costumes were ordered and sent from Paris, but the french paper machie was too delicate for the bustling and orgiastic activities of a New Orleans Mardi Gras and local costume makers soon grew their own industry.
We will end this brief history of New Orleans Tableau Balls with a mention of Consus. The tableau balls of Consus which began in 1897 and ended, ignominously, ten years later, were perhaps the most fabulous and imaginative of all.
They included Salle des Glaces de Versaille, “possibly the most dazzling historical tableaux in the history of the carnival stage.” It was set within receding walls of mirrors from which “light was reflected from ten million angles”. The effect was that the tableaux and the dancers were “multiplied to an infinity”.
The log from another Consus ball reports that “the dancing kept up so eternally that, although the costumes were originally brilliant, they became worn, and the music itself was in rags.”
… in 1901, for the first time in carnival history the (Consus) stage settings were wholly from nature – forest trees, forest trees, forest flowers, and forest moss – a setting for “Shakespeare and his Creations.” In 1902 (Consus’) theme was “El Cid” and the ladies of the court as well as the cast were attired in Spanish costumes of the eleventh century; invitatins were in Latin, and many of the guests responded in that language….
….His 1906 presentation was an upside-down ball, representing “The Land of Frontinback and Upondown,” clever beyond compare – so clever that the twisted fantasies took on a fatal realism. The clouds and skies were underfoot, the fields and forests growing down from overhead, reversals of nature which, with other oddities filled the scene…. But the unfortunate element in the design was that human characters in that strange land were not made in the divine form of Man, but in its reverse, so that to mankind they had the appearance of walking and dancing and generally comporting themselves backward.
…. These disguises were ludicrous as the cast performed their tableau pantomimes and the traditional vermiculate grand march, and were wholly carnivalesque. But the ladies – susceptible and sensitive as ladies were – when called out for the dance found their partners’ backs turned on them. This could only be disgusting to ladies who had always danced the other way……. So ended (the reign of) Consus, victim of his own cleverness, as the ladies promptly turned thumbs down, and resignations quickly reduced the famous society to a memory. (Perry Young, The Mistick Krewe: Chronicles of Comus and his Kin)
If only we had images to match these descriptions. Alas, this researcher has yet to find them.
Instead we start a new tradtion with the New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant. Truly we pay tribute.
For more information on the tableau balls and all things Mardi Gras you can do no better than read Henri Schindler’s magnificent history of our city’s traditions in his book entitled: Mardi Gras New Orleans, Flammarion, 1997.
The above mentioned Perry Young book, Mistick Krewe, Comus and his Kin, 1931 is also an invaluable record. Both books are out of print but available on line and in the New Orleans Public Library as well as Tulane Libraries.