Tonkin has definitely conquered France: yellow-skinned garrisons, with slanting eyes and prominent cheekbones, stand guard at the gates of the palaces of the Invalides exhibition; fascinated Parisians crowd around an Indo-Chinese painter, spreading bright colours on the calico; there is a fear of a coachmen's strike - rickshaws are soon circulating and preparing to replace the traditional fiacres; the theatres are thinking of closing down - what a bargain! Even, without leaving the Exhibition, one could find, without much effort, something to lodge in, to amuse oneself, to eat, to drink, to sleep, to pray, to laugh and the rest in the Annamese or Tonkinese style.
It is worth noting that the peoples conquered by France have always exerted an irresistible seduction on her. The infatuation with chinoiseries has taken hold of us following our campaigns in the Far East, just as the expeditions across the Rhine had, at the beginning of the century, inoculated us with romanticism and German reverie. From Malplaquet we bring back Marlborough's song, and from the wars of Charles VIII, the taste for Italian architecture and the seeds of our entire Renaissance.
These indolent Annamites are sad conquerors; nothing seems to cause them any surprise, and Dr. Harmand, who, better than any other and before any other, has travelled through their country, tells us that, on his first trip, the things that usually strike savages, i.e., the rifle, the revolver, the spyglass, and a magnet, produced absolutely no effect on the Annamites, even when their attention was strongly drawn to them: They were content to murmur with an expression marked by disdain: "Bo hou tiac! We don't know that!
Bo hou tiac!" That is what they seem to say, these poor out-of-towners whom we see standing under the portico of the painted plaster pagodas, or crouching, with their chins in their hands, between the stretchers of their two-wheeled carts. They feel nothing but absolute indifference to the crowd around them, and the onlookers, who huddle together to watch for the slightest of their movements, are all, before their eyes, as if they were not!
The Exhibition, the domes, the golden dome of the Invalides, that royal pagoda where the great Mandarin of France lies, our theatres where they have been taken, Paris where they are taken for a walk, all this, Bohou tiac! and they remain there, following in the sky, with an eye of boredom, some flight of imaginary storks. So it was a great surprise when the Annamite Theatre gave its first performance the other evening in front of the press. An extraordinary din, - this is the prelude. The melody resembles that of a kitchen battery tumbling down the stairs: the tom-toms storm, the gongs thunder, the trumpets wail, the iron shudders, the violin creaks... A door is lifted, and a man - a monster with an impassive mask and a shuffling beard - rushes onto the stage: he does not scream, he grumbles; he does not gesticulate, he writhes; and as he struggles to cover the outburst of the orchestra, a disquieting and formidable bass drum chimes with repeated blows in this bewildering declamation.
A second character appears; and the same contortions, the same screams; a procession crosses the stage waving flags and Chinese umbrellas of an unheard-of richness... then it is a battle where spears are mixed, where large swords, curved in the oriental style, cut off the heads with painted masks. Corpses litter the theatre, the din increases, a grave stage manager in a black robe steps to the edge of the stage and says a few words: entr'acte.
And up there, in the galleries surrounding the theatre, a long murmur runs: I turn around, what a scene!
All the Annamites, men and women, all the Tonkinese with their black buns, are there, massed at the top of the tiers, forming the most picturesque groups, adding to this unforgettable spectacle of exoticism, a note of local colour of unforgettable intensity. They follow with their little eyes, wide open, the improbable adventures of the king of Duong Ly-Tieng-Vuong; their parchment faces light up, their impassive features come to life: they nudge each other, and softly communicate their impressions.
They have all come, moreover, the inhabitants of the colonial villages: serious Arabs in long burnous; Tunisians with black moustaches, in small light-coloured jackets; Senegalese, of whom one can only distinguish, in the half-light, the brilliant eyes and white teeth; Canaques with frizzy hair and a broad laugh; Javanese, bemused and timid, with yellow and beardless faces... and all of them, filling the theatre's promenade, grouped against the wooden columns, cut out in the Chinese style, perched on the finely carved furniture, sitting with their legs dangling on the balustrades, impassive, with their necks stretched out, put there like one of those paintings in which one sees, in fanciful architectures, crowds of colourful people, the work of some oriental Veronese.
And the raised canvases, because of the great heat, show outside a deep tropical night sky: the minarets stand out under the clear light of the electric lamps, nestled in the foliage; the contoured spires of the pagodas whiten in the shade. Where are we? In Peking, in Tunis, in Yeddo, in Java? This unknown star which, over there, above the domes and the white palaces, shines like a lighthouse, mysterious and changing colour, is it not the Southern Cross? It is a dream!
But the din starts again, the show continues: this time, the unfortunate monarch whose adventures we are depicted as having had is obliged to flee to the plain; his enemy pursues him: an extra appears, he holds in one hand a torch of petrol, in the other a bottle of brandy, from which he drinks a large swig. His cheeks puff out, he crouches down, and suddenly, at a signal from the stage manager, he blows the alcohol onto the flame of his torch; the stage ignites, the fire falls back into luminous dust: this new kind of vaporizer, this staging of ancient simplicity, is the climax of the drama: It means that the enemies of Ly-Ticng-Vuong, giving up pursuing him, set fire to the moor in which he had taken refuge; we see him, moreover, in a corner of the theatre, this unfortunate monarch, writhing in pain, with his retinue, and imitating the contortions of a man in the process of roasting. I confess that I would not have understood, had it not been for the libretto which had been distributed to us, the full significance of this dramatic incident.
Then the king, stripped of his rich costume, his hair untied and flowing, wanders about without suite, without mandarins, without an army, until his adopted son, a very brave young man with beautiful feathers on his head, finally rids him of his enemies and restores to him a little of the tranquillity and calm that he must need so much.
Such is, sketched in broad strokes, this strange play from which our colleagues will perhaps try to extract some theatrical aesthetic. We have only wanted to show the external side of this show and summarise the impression it made on those present. Nothing was neglected to ensure the success of this curious exhibition; the costumes, real marvels of silk and shaded gold, are of a richness to make one dream; the actors, who answer to the names of Tho, Cho, Qui, Thinh, Bueb, Rit, Thao, Phung, Dang, are endowed with an unforgettable spirit and verve. Even, to make the gods favourable to them, they have placed in their theatre the image of Buddha, the protector of war, industry and the arts. Let us hope that Buddha will favour this very interesting enterprise, and continue to attract to the Annamite Theatre the crowd that has been pressing in since the opening day.
© L'exposition de Paris - 1889