Searching for Guignol in Lyon Part 1
Arriving in Lyon off of a six hour bus ride from Paris was a new experience for me. I am used to trains. But I haven’t spent much time on European buses before. They do not ooze seediness like Greyhounds do back in the old USA. Rather they are quiet efficient, rides. Uneventful, though the mandatory roadside stop halfway certainly reminded me of an American rest stop, complete with fast food and restrooms. But that parking lot was so much cleaner. But enough about European bus travel, which will remain a cheaper oddity for me, it was time now to look for Guignol in the city of his birth, Lyon.
I was accompanied again by friend and French language translator Paulette Caron. After settling into the hotel we had to scurry uphill on the a special train to go find Daniel Streble, whom Pascal Pruvost back in Paris had recommended highly, as did the folks at the Gadagne museum. Streble worked out of small theatre called Guignol Un Gone de Lyon. This was to be a children’s show and yet it was more. Streble turned out to be a voluble man with reams of data to unspool regrading this very French, nay practically the soul of Lyon, vrais lyonnais, character. We watched the show – La Fille Guignol a Disparu (Guignol’s daughter is lost). It was an enjoyable lark seeking to find and free Guignol’s daughter. Near the end the evil man was rather brutally beaten by our rascally hero. In fine French style the children present entered into the proceedings with many vocalizations and cheers.
After the show Daniel Streble graciously showed us many original handwritten Guignol plays dating from as far back as the early 19th Centuryincluding versions of Romeo and Juliet and Faust. These were truly museum pieces that were still living. Streble even accidentally torn one of the pages. But his position was that these artifacts were still alive, not ready to be embalmed in a museum. And one had the feeling that for Streble that they would never be ready for a pleasant burial. Streble then spoke with enthusiasm and eloquence about the meaning of Guignol as a character, a presence in Lyon. For him turning Guignol into a universal French character was impossible, Guignol was first and always a representative of the culture of Lyon.
I discovered Lyon for the first time back in 2012 when I came searching for more information about Guignol. I roamed the old town and discovered hidden traboules (dark passageways connecting the old buildings to protect the silk produced here from the elements). Paulette had been here before but never entered one, so she was properly introduced to the dark labyrynths. We also had a few truly representative French meals, which always seemed to include the tastiest imaginable versions of meats Americans usually did not even touch, cow lips, tripe, kidneys, etc. There was also the possibility of going to a French performance one evening, but when we found out that it featured only nude actors, even Franco-American Paulette had to bow out of that one.
But there was indeed more Guignolism to uncover. On the second day we had an appointment with Clair Deglise the new Directrice of the Musée Gadagne. We did wonder if she would be amenable to the project. We had received questions from her office about whether we had insurance or not before filming anything at the museum. Evidently someone thought this was a big production. The museum was winding up an exhibition entitled Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre (Guignol 1914-1918 Mobilize for World War I and survive). It was a fascinating exhibition featuring much material on the use of Guignol as a propaganda character in puppet shows and illustrations to foster local support for the Great War. Interestingly Guignol was often enlisted in the service of nationalism. Guignolistes performed at the trenches. And evil Germans were added to Guignol’s repertoire of figures to smack around. Although at other times Guignol was also hijacked by the Left as well.
Clair Deglise proved to be quite sympathetic to Gravity From Above and encouraged us to return later with the crew to film puppets. With hope, and Swiss money, I plan to return either in the fall or in Spring of 2017 to capture some of the puppets at the Gadagne Museum, for this is indeed the national repository of French puppetry. Meanwhile since this show was coming down at the end of February I was given permission to photograph a bit. The glass cases and bright lighting discouraged filming.
However I would soon being meeting one of the historians who helped to put this show together. As well as members of the more postmodern troupe of guignolistes, Le Collectif ZonZons. But more about them in the next installment of our journey.