By Lise Schreier
In June of 1816 Lady Morgan, the daughter of a famous Irish actor, hastily vacated her seat at the Comédie Française in a state of shock. “I had suffered so much from fear, agitation, heat, and noise,” she noted, “that the moment the curtain dropt [sic] I left the box […] to take some refreshments while the hurricane of the house still assailed our ears.” The tumult in the audience had been so great that she had not heard a word uttered on stage. People had hissed, shouted, clapped, jumped, stomped, and roared with laughter. She was forced to leave the premises amidst a “wild uproar” unlike any she had ever experienced before at the theater. Only after a restorative “ice and capillaire”––a trendy syrup made from fern leaves––did she manage to gather her wits.
Did Lady Morgan go to the theater on a particularly bad day? Not at all. For the French, such boisterousness was business as usual. Indeed, playhouses were loud in nineteenth-century France. The director of La Force, a Parisian prison, boasted of not having to read theater reviews because he could tell how bad a play was by the number of combative youths brought to him after a premiere.
Women join in on the fun
All sorts of noises could be heard in performance halls, from the screams of factions throwing apples on stage and vowing to “turn the theater into a hospital,” to the bawling of infants, to the laborious mastication of men eating French fries in the nosebleed rows. Disruptions were to be expected on any given night, regardless of what kind of production was staged or what kind of public had gathered. A tragedy could cause as much pandemonium as a melodrama or a vaudeville play, for neither fashionable crowds nor popular audiences thought twice about causing a ruckus. Women join in on the fun Such unruliness was not only the work of restive men and overtired children. Working class women routinely sang, cried, sneezed, yawned and snored during a performance. And while in most public social realms, French ladies were expected to be silent, they too were allowed to make noise at the theater.
In fact, in France, generations of high society women brought to the theater an object whose sole purpose was to make noise: a whistle. These small instruments, made of silver or a much sought-after Dieppe ivory, and often adorned with a gold ring and a ribbon, tell us that unlike other shared spaces such as drawing rooms or ballrooms, where watching and being watched was the main concern, playhouses allowed even proper ladies to let loose.
Whistling, it should be noted, was how French theater-goers booed actors off the stage. The practice was so common that there was an expression for it: “calling Azor.” According to popular lore, the father of a young actor became so distraught when the public whistled during his son’s performance that he unwittingly let his dog run onto the stage. A generous spirit managed to convince him that the audience members were not so much whistling at his son, as at Azor (a popular dog’s name at the time), whom they had noticed even before the dog’s escape. Comforted by the thought, the father began to whistle as well.
Nineteenth-century audiences called Azor high and low. The working class whistled with their fingers. Middle class troublemakers owned wooden whistles and used them with gusto. But only high society women could jeopardize an artist’s career with a luxury item. And use their whistles they did, to the horror of their male companions. The author of a handbook for theater lovers did not hide his scorn for such uncouth behavior, describing some spectators as self-declared magistrates of dramatic arts: “In certain provincial playhouses,” he wrote disdainfully, “it is not unusual to see women armed with a small silver or ivory whistle and call Azor two or three times.” Gentlemen were permitted to shout, howl with laughter, or box their neighbor’s ears in anger, but the thought of having ladies audibly participate in a public remonstrance was clearly unbearable. Such behavior was not sensible. Worse, it was not Parisian.
The fashionable, feminine whistle
This did not stop women from using their whistles. These fine accessories helped them show that fashion, femininity, social standing and gleeful participation in public manifestations of displeasure could––and did––go hand in hand. The elegant ivory effigies shown here, with their exquisite features, perfect hairdos and even a very fashion forward straw hat, demonstrated that ladies could make strident noises while remaining ladies.
And so, all that men could do was develop coping strategies. When the public called Azor, artists had to endure it in their own way. The late nineteenth-century philologist Émile Gouget reported that the actor Domenico Cimarosa swore under his breath “like a pagan,” Niccolò Piccini sucked on candies, Giovanni Paisiello stuffed his nose with Spanish tobacco, and Gioachino Rossini got up and bowed deeply, which stopped the audience in its tracks. One can only imagine what the ladies’ male companions did, for their part, when the female whistlers chimed in with their sounds. Surely they must have needed something stronger than fern syrup to recover.
Lise Schreier is Professor of French at Fordham University. She is the author of Seul dans l’Orient Lointain: Les Voyages de Nerval et Du Camp and Gens de Couleur dans Trois Vaudevilles du Dix-Neuvième Siècle. She is completing a new book entitled Playthings of Empire: Child-Gifting and the Politics of French Femininity.