"Joseph Pujol, the Fartiste"

Sample chapter from The RE/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids by Paul Spinrad Available at better bookstores nationwide

One summer's day in the mid-1860's, a young French boy named Joseph Pujol 
had a frightening experience at the seashore. Swimming out alone, he held 
his breath and dove underwater. Suddenly an icy cold feeling penetrated his 
gut. Frightened, he ran ashore, but then received a second shock when he 
noticed seawater streaming from his anus. The experience so disturbed the 
lad that his mother took him to a doctor to allay his fears. The doctor 
complied. 
 
The boy didn't know it at the time, but this unsettling rectal experience 
at the beach not only indicated no illness, but it also foretold of a gift 
that would later make him the toast of Paris and one of the most popular 
and successful performers of his generation. 
 
Joseph Pujol was born in Marseilles on June 1, 1857 to Francois Pujol and 
Rose Demaury, a respected stonemason/sculptor and his wife, both of whom 
had emigrated from Catalan. Young Joseph went to school until the age of 
13, whereupon he apprenticed himself to a baker. Several years later, he 
served in the French army. 
 
While in the army, he mentioned his childhood sea-bathing experience to his 
buddies. They immediately wanted to know if he could do it again, so on a 
day's leave soon afterward he went out to the shore to swim and experiment. 
He successfully reenacted the hydraulics of his childhood experience there 
and even discovered that by contracting his abdomen muscles, he could 
intentionally take up as much water as he liked and eject it in a powerful 
stream. Demonstrating this ability back at the barracks later provided the 
soldiers with no end of amusement, and soon Pujol started to practice with 
air instead of water, giving him the ability to produce a variety of 
sounds. This new development provided even more enjoyment for his buddies. 
It was then and there, in the army, that Pujol invented a nickname for 
himself that would later become a stage name synonymous throughout Europe 
with helpless, hysterical laughter: "Le Petomane" (translation: "The 
Fartiste"). 
 
After his stint in the army, Pujol returned to Marseille and to a bakeshop 
his father set him up in, on a street that, today, proudly bears the name 
"rue Pujol." At the age of 26 he married Elizabeth Henriette Oliver, the 
20-year-old daughter of a local butcher. Pujol enjoyed performing, so in 
the evenings he entertained at local music halls by singing, doing comedy 
routines, and even playing his trombone backstage between numbers. He 
continued amusing his friends privately with his "other" wind instrument, 
but only at their suggestion and urging did he decide to turn this parlor 
trick into a full-fledged act for public audiences. 
 
Pujol worked up a Le Petomane routine, and with some friends he rented a 
space in Marseille to perform it in. They promoted the show heavily 
themselves through posters and handouts, but word-of-mouth soon took over 
and they packed the house every night. Fin de siecle European audiences, 
deeply repressed but newly prosperous and trying to be modern"-- the same 
people Freud observed (Freud was one year older than Pujol)-- must have 
found a man on stage building an entire act out of mock farting and other 
forms of anal play considerably more shockingly funny than we would today. 
Pujol's was a good act by any era's standards, but back then his scatology 
hit a raw nerve, and hit it hard, at an especially vulnerable time. Like 
Alfred Jarry, whose epoch-makingly scatological Ubu Roi actually post-dates 
Pujol's Paris debut by several years, Pujol was a French Revolutionary of 
the modern theater. Jarry gets the credit today because he was a "serious 
playwright" and not a lowbrow cabaret performer, but Pujol clearly laid 
some of the groundwork. 
 
Word-of-mouth spread reports of the quality and uniqueness of Pujol's new 
show, and soon people from all over Marseille were coming to see it. 
 
After the hometown success, Pujol's friends urged him to take the act to 
Paris. Pujol hoped to, but cautiously decided to play several other 
provincial cities first to refine the act and test the breadth of its 
appeal before taking it to the capital. He performed in Toulon, Bordeaux, 
and Clermont-Ferrand with great success, and in 1892 was finally ready to 
try his act at Paris's Moulin Rouge. It was then that Pujol reputedly 
uttered a line oft-repeated in cabaret lore; looking up at the windmill 
sails of the landmark Moulin Rouge ("Red Mill") building, he exclaimed, 
"The sails of the Moulin Rouge-- what a marvelous fan for my act!" 
 
In getting booked at the Moulin Rouge, Pujol wasted no time. He walked in 
and demanded to see the director with such confidence that the secretary 
showed him in immediately. He then told the director, a man named either 
Zidler or Oller depending on whose account you follow (I'll use "Oller"), 
"I am Le Petomane, and I want an engagement in your establishment." He said 
that he was a phenomenon and that his gift would be the talk of Paris. When 
Oller asked for an explanation, he calmly replied, "You see, sir, my anus 
is of such elasticity that I can open and shut it at will. . . . I can 
absorb any quantity of liquid I may be given. . .[and] I can expel an 
almost infinite quantity of odorless gas." After this, he gave Oller a 
quick demonstration. 
 
Oller put Pujol on stage that very night. 
 
Pujol dressed formally for his act, wearing a coat, red breeches, white 
stockings, gloves, and patent leather shoes-- a stuffy, old-fashioned 
outfit that, coupled with his unrelentingly deadpan delivery, must have set 
up an abrasive comedic dissonance against the actual content of his 
performance. To begin his act he introduced himself and explained that he 
was about to demonstrate the art of "petomanie." He further explained that 
he could break wind at will, but assured his audience not to worry because 
his parents had "ruined themselves" in scenting his rectum. 
 
Then Le Petomane performed some imitations, using the simple, honest format 
of announcing and then demonstrating. He displayed his wide sonic range 
with tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds. He imitated the farts of a 
little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night (tiny), the same 
bride the day after (loud), and a mason (dry-- "no cement"). He imitated 
thunder, cannons ("Gunners stand by your guns! Ready-- fire!!"), and even 
the sound of a dressmaker tearing two yards of calico (a full 10-second 
rip). After the imitations, Le Petomane popped backstage to put one end of 
a yard-long rubber tube into his anus. He returned and smoked a cigarette 
from this tube, after which he used it to play a couple of tunes on a song 
flute. For his finale he removed the rubber tube, blew out some of the 
gas-jet footlights from a safe distance away, and then led the audience in 
a rousing sing- along. 
 
This first night, a few tightly-corseted women in the audience literally 
fainted from laughing so hard. Oller immediately gave Pujol a contract to 
perform at the Moulin Rouge, elsewhere in France, and abroad. Turning 
audience-fainting into a great gimmick, Oller later conspicuously stationed 
white-uniformed nurses in the hall at each Le Petomane show and instructed 
them to carry out any audience members rendered particularly helpless by 
the hilarity. Meanwhile, to quash any rumors that his performance was 
faked, Pujol occasionally gave private men-only performances clad in a 
bathing suit with a large hole in the seat rather than his concealing 
regular costume. 
 
It was after one of these private performances that a distinguished- 
looking man put a 20 franc gold coin in the collection plate. When Pujol 
questioned him, he turned out to be the King of Belgium, who had come 
incognito just to see his act. 
 
After signing up with the Moulin Rouge in 1892, Pujol moved his growing 
family (starting in 1885, Pujol and his wife had a child every two years 
for eighteen years) into a chalet staffed by servants who soon became 
family friends. As he predicted, he became the talk of Paris, and admirers 
saluted him affectionately as he rode by in his carriage. Paris doctors 
examined him and published an article in La Semaine Medicale that described 
his health but offered no new explanation for his ability. It did however 
record that he could rectally project a jet of water 4 to 5 yards. Box 
office receipts alone attest to Le Petomane's popularity. One Sunday the 
Moulin Rouge took in 20,000 francs for a Le Petomane performance, an amount 
which dwarfs the 8000 francs typically grossed by Sarah Bernhardt at the 
peak of her career there. 
 
But another thing happened in 1892 that provoked a series of battles 
between Pujol and Moulin Rouge management, the litigious nature of which 
makes it sound more like 1992. Pujol visited a friend of his who sold 
gingerbread, and to attract customers to his friend's stall, he did some 
Petomane tricks right there in the marketplace. Word of this "unauthorized 
performance" got back to Oller, who took it up with Pujol and threatened to 
sue. Over the next couple of years, Pujol, who dreamed of opening up his 
own travelling theater, had more rows with Oller. In 1894, Oller brought 
suit against Pujol over the gingerbread stall incident and won. Pujol was 
fined 3000 Francs. The next year, Pujol left the Moulin Rouge to start his 
own venture, the Theatre Pompadour. Soon after Pujol left, the Moulin Rouge 
put up a new act, billed as a "Woman Petomane" (they concealed a bellows 
under her skirt). Pujol then brought a lawsuit against the Moulin Rouge for 
plagiarizing his idea. At about the same time, however, a newspaper panned 
the "Woman Petomane" act, and the actress, Angele Thiebeau, sued the paper 
for libel. The judgement against Thiebeau was so harshly worded and 
humilating that Pujol, satisfied at the harm done to the Moulin Rouge's 
reputation, withdrew his own lawsuit against them. 
 
Pujol's new Theatre Pompadour included mime and magic and other acts 
performed by Pujol's family and performer friends. He changed his own act 
into a woodland tale told in doggerel punctuated at the end of each couplet 
by Le Petomane sound effects and imitations of the animal and bird 
characters in the story. Paris audiences liked the winning charm of this 
home-grown variety show and still yucked it up at Pujol's fart noises, so 
the Theater Pompadour prospered for many years. 
 
Le Petomane continued to be an enormous draw in his new venue until around 
1900, when the interest of the show-going public began to wane. The 
Pompadour continued to do pretty well, however, until World War I, when 
four of Pujol's sons went off to fight and the theater had to close down. 
One son was taken prisoner and two of the others became invalids, and Pujol 
was so shattered that after the war he had no interest in returning to his 
performing career. The family moved back to Marseille and Pujol ran 
bakeries with his sons and unmarried daughters. In 1922, he and his family 
moved to Toulon and he set up a biscuit factory which he gave to his 
children to manage. He lived the rest of his life there, surrounded by his 
many dearly loved children and grandchildren. His wife died in 1930 and he 
died in 1945. One medical school offered the family 25,000 francs to be 
allowed to examine his body, but out of respect, reverence and love for 
this warm, funny, and caring man, not one of his children agreed to let 
them. 
 
Copyright  1994 by RE/Search Publications. Reprinted by permission. 
 
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