From time to time I have heard about a legendary performer on the French vaudeville stage at the turn of the century named Le Petomane. It seems, incredibly enough, that this man actually made a living out of trained flatulence. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can find no more than a fleeting reference to this maestro of sulphur dioxide. Could you tell me more about him, and how he did it?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
I think it’s poetically appropriate that Joseph Pujol, better known as Le Petomane (which we may loosely translate as “the fartiste”) should emanate from France, without doubt the most pretentious nation on the face of the earth. Le Petomane performed his unique act from 1887 to 1914, and became one of his country’s best-known vaudevillians. At one point he was earning 20,000 francs a week, compared to 8,000 for his contemporary Sarah Bernhardt. The true artistic priorities of the French public are thus admirably revealed.
Joseph Pujol, born in Marseilles in 1857, owed his remarkable career to an extraordinary ability to control the muscles of his abdomen and anus. As a youth he discovered he could take in via the rectum as much as two liters of water, which he could then expel at will. Later he found he could do the same thing with air. At first he employed this talent solely for the entertainment of his friends, obviously a very refined and intelligent bunch, but after working quietly for some years as a baker, he was encouraged to give public performances. The first of these, in Marseilles in 1887, met with some initial skepticism, petomanie (“fartistry”) being something of a novelty even for the French, but within a few days Le Petomane’s winning manner and solidly professional performance had won audiences over. From then on it was one triumph after another.
Le Petomane arrived in Paris in 1892 and was soon hired by the Moulin Rouge, the famous music hall. He became an immediate sensation. In a typical performance, he appeared on stage in red cape, black trousers, and white cravat, with a pair of white gloves held in the hands for a touch of elegance. Having explained that his emissions were odorless — Le Petomane took care to irrigate his colon daily — he would proceed with a program of fart impressions, as it were: the timid fart of the young girl, the hearty fart of the miller, the fart of the bride on her wedding night (almost inaudible), the fart of the bride a week later (a lusty raspberry), and a majestic 10-second fart which he likened to a couturier cutting six feet of calico cloth.
Later, having inserted a tube into his nether orifice (offstage, of course — Le Petomane had a high regard for the delicacies of his audience), he would smoke a cigarette right down to the b — well, pretty damn far. He could also blow out candles and stage footlights. By way of grand finale, he would attach an ocarina to the tube and play popular tunes such as O sole mio, with which he would invite the audience to sing along.
An immensely popular figure in his day (even the king of Belgium snuck into Paris one night to see him incognito), Le Petomane was the subject of numerous articles, poems, and caricatures in popular magazines. One cartoon depicted little cherubs holding his coattails aloft while elaborate melodies issued from his hindquarters. (Actually, Le Petomane could produce only four notes without the aid of an instrument — do, mi, sol, and the octave do.) He bought a house filled with servants for his family, and in 1895 opened his own theatre. He went on foreign tours, sued a false female imitator (she had a bellows concealed in her skirt), and in general enjoyed a profitable career until 1914. Two of his sons (he had ten children) were disabled in World War I, however, and afterward he didn’t have the heart to return to the stage. He resumed his former career as a baker, and died surrounded by friends and family in 1945 at the age of 88. Mel Brooks would be lucky to do as well.
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