Genre Police, Arrest This Man

by John Holbo on June 14, 2014

More bits that came up, researching caricature. No chance in hell this is going to squeeze into the final piece, but Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris [amazon], tells a good story.

OK, just one detail. Wechsler makes the correct point that caricature goes with mime. She writes about the Théâtre des Funambules. Thus we learn:

The Funambules was a silent theatre. Legislation of 1806 obliged theatres to stay within their assigned genres: pantomimes were forbidden to use dialogue … The silence of this theatre became its trademark and strength. In the prolonged period of censorship until 1830 and from 1835 to its demolition in 1863, it was able to introduce subversive notes through ‘gait, glance, and gesture’. (44)

I love the idea of genre police. The idea that you would get arrested for violating genre rules. Genre jail. ‘What’re you in for?’ Also, I think someone should make a movie – possibly a silent movie – about ‘Mouthy the Mime’, a Parisian Pierrot who simply will not shut up, being chased all over Paris by the genre gendarmerie. I recommend he be played by Bobcat Goldthwait.



John Holbo 06.14.14 at 6:17 am

And John Goodman will play King Louis-Philippe.


Matt Heath 06.14.14 at 8:43 am

There’s a bit in Amadeus where Mozart has a run in with the genre police about putting dance in an opera. Quite how true to lifr that was, I don’t know.


Shatterface 06.14.14 at 4:18 pm

They’ll throw the book at China Mieville if the Genre Police ever catch up with him.


Harold 06.14.14 at 7:15 pm

It is hard to imagine now, but from antiquity to very recently, people and things were expected to stay within the orderly boundaries allotted to them by Providence (God) in the “Great Chain of Being” as described by A. O. Lovejoy . No mixing was allowed — excepting during the Saturnalia, when everyone changed places for comic effect (of course there was a corresponding Saturnalian literary genre, which would have included the Pasquinade among many other works.) But these sanctioned reversals just had the effect of enforcing, rather than challenging orthodoxy. Just for reference:….1B&data_type=PDF_HIGH&whole_paper=YES&type=PRINTER&filetype=.pdf

This way of looking at the world extended to literature and rhetoric. Every genre also had its set procedures and function: there was the Encomium, for example, a speech of praise, in which every paragraph proceeded according to a strict formula, and the corresponding Invective, or rhetorical attack, in which you began by comparing the chosen object of scorn to an animal, and so on. (Renaissance humanists were especially enamored of this last). It made things easier for students of composition, that’s for sure.

The seventeenth century, which was when caricature began to really flourish, had a positive obsession with laying down the law; for example, the architectural orders of the columns and the theatrical unities, both of which were much more rigid than the actual ancient practices on which they were purportedly based.

There were also rules of deportment and court etiquette, one of the most interesting being that which forbade laughing out loud to members of the aristocracy, though one was occasionally allowed to smile! I think the convention of the grave demeanor has lingered longer in Russia and France than elsewhere. I have read that virtually no one recognized François Mitterrand when he was shown in a photograph smiling.

So, yes, there were genre police, in fact, everyone was a genre policeman because that’s just how things were.


Shatterface 06.14.14 at 8:29 pm

The word ‘genre’ shares a root with ‘gender’ so maybe there’s a historical reason for policing the boundaries.


shah8 06.15.14 at 5:18 am

China Miéville has nothing to fear from the genre police. As might be infered from Shatterface’s number five comment, one has every confidence we’ll be seeing Margaret Atwood frog-marched before the judges at WorldCon, and made to answer for her crimes. As a safely foreign national, Haruki Murakami would be by her side, as a comforter (he had his own violations, back home), and as an advocate to all writers who’d like to jog over to the wild side.


shah8 06.15.14 at 5:26 am

But seriously, mimes are French, right? How come the fashion nazis haven’t stuck them all in reeducation camps by now? La vêtement? Trés gauche.


Harold 06.15.14 at 7:21 am

The mimes were Italian originally. They were banned by Louis XIV or rather by his mistress and secret wife, Mme De Maintenon, who thought they were making fun of her, and sorely missed by everyone else — this is why there are all those enchantingly nostalgic paintings of them by Watteau and others. When Louis XVI came to the throne, the first thing he did was to invite them back (I have just been reading Marc Fumarolli’s When the World Spoke French.)


ChrisB 06.16.14 at 12:38 am

Back in the sixties the Thais couldn’t afford to have English-language movies dubbed, so they had a couple of people standing up the back of the theatre doing all the voices. I’m told they often improved the scripts considerably, but they were eventually phased out because the government didn’t like their inserting sly political references.


jake the antishoshul soshulist 06.16.14 at 1:42 pm

Wonder how many years John Carpenter would be serving for Big Trouble in Little China?


Ogden Wernstrom 06.18.14 at 6:04 pm

Bobcat is now primarily into directing.

Might I suggest Penn Jillette? (Teller would be too obvious, and having him speak would be too reminiscent of “Penn and Teller Get Killed”.)


gmoke 06.20.14 at 2:52 am

Albert Brooks did a bit about a mime who turns into a Henny Youngman style comedian complete with cigar on the Tonight Show many years ago.

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