In myth, men and women are gilded with mysticism. Their stories glitter with magic, like the metallic thread that roams through a rare fabric. Their existences are heavy with explanation: oceans, stars, trees, seasons, winds – all are attached to their fearsome destinies.
In fable, animals face off against each other in stories designed to teach and charm. Blessed with voices and wit, they live side by side in whimsical pairings awash in humanity’s frailties. Fox and lion, tortoise and hare, wolf and crane, ant and grasshopper: their lives are lessons in behavior and etiquette; the gentility of beasts.
In the late 17th century, Jean de la Fontaine continued the tradition of myth and fable. The story of the ant and grasshopper became a poem about “la cigale et la fourmi”: the cicada and the ant. A paen to hard work and dour summers,
“Cicada, having sung her song
All summer long,
Found herself without a crumb
When winter winds did come.
Not a scrap was there to find
Of fly or earthworm, any kind.”
it continues the theme of humiliation and hunger…
”Hungry, she ran off to cry
To neighbor Ant, and specify:
Asking for a loan of grist,
A seed or two so she’d subsist
Just until the coming spring.
She said, “I’ll pay you everything
Before fall, my word as animal,
Interest and principal.”
…the shame of unbridled joy
“Well, no hasty lender is the Ant;
It’s her finest virtue by a lot.
“And what did you do when it was hot?”
She then asked this mendicant.
“To all comers, night and day,
I sang. I hope you don’t mind.”
La Fontaine’s story was re-written as a comic opera in 1890: a garish year of painted faces, legendary waists and the half-world that lurked in velvet evenings and on velvet beds. In “Cigale” the roles changed: during the course of the entertainment, both characters suffered; both behave shamefully.
But this is Paris and the century exposed its decadence like a pair of feminine ankles: something that was always there, but always hidden, until the petticoats were pulled up. “Cigale”, for all of its didactic origins, was full of song and color, performed by actresses whose voices trembled like a bird’s; who wore blissful, feminine costumes. Their curves winked through the sheer fabrics like wicked invitations.
“Cigale” – and her serenade to the golden, endless season – became another word for irresponsible celebration, an excuse for the song and dance which would prove to be her downfall. A nightclub, La Cigale, was opened in 1887 – enlarged in 1894 – and would be the center of many stunning evenings and stunned dawns.
On the Parisian stage, the cicada was portrayed as a generous woman who takes pity on the “La Pauvrette” (the poor little one – no longer the ant). After being comforted and fed, “La Pauvrette” became cruel and heartless when the situation was reversed. Shattered by the north wind, Cigale dies in the snow: her mandolin – which she played throughout the summer – silent beside her.
Braving centuries and interpretations, Cigale’s fate rode a distant journey back to de la Fontaine’s poem…back to the pitiless winter and the ant’s unwelcome answer to her lamentations:
“You sang?” Why, my joy is unconfined.
Now dance the winter away.”