Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 9, 2012

Théâtrephone

Longtime readers will recall following along as I spent a year reading all of of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, commonly — misleadingly — translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past. Nothing in the ensuing years has altered my opinion that it stands as one of the best literary experiences of my life. I would even like to think that I might read it once again before I shuffle off this mortal coil, but, life is short, and art — especially in M. Proust’s instance — is extraordinarily long.

Currently, I’m reading an extremely thorough and enjoyable biography of the author, Marcel Proust, A Life, by William C. Carter. I’d like to thank The Counselor  for giving me this excellent book. As even a casual reader of Proust might expect, the biography provides a wealth of detail about how the writer forged real events and living people from his life into the fictional world of his book. It also details Proust’s astoundingly introverted, eccentric lifestyle and his lifelong battle against illness (real or psychosomatic) and isolation. Proust’s engagement with the cream of France’s aristocratic, literary and artistic society includes nearly every notable figure of the Belle Epoque. He led a charmed life, meeting Degas and Whistler, Verlaine and Cocteau, DeBussy and Gide, Diaghilev and Sarah Bernhardt, among scores of others.

One of the things that strikes me most powerfully in reading about Proust’s life (1871-1922), is how modern his world was. Proust came of age with the telephone, the automobile, the airplane and, near the end of his life, modern warfare’s ability to destroy on an unprecedented scale. Proust was a fierce correspondent, and left a voluminous mass of letters, delivered via regular mail, pneumatic tubes (throughout Paris), and telegraph. Born during the German siege of Paris, he lived to witness the age of radio, recorded sound and, of course, the proliferation of moving pictures.

Before I read this biography, I was unaware of a fascinating late 19th-Century technological innovation: the Théâtrephone. Proust had a lifelong love of theater and opera. Music plays an important role in his book, and Proust’s circle included many of his era’s foremost composers and performers. As Proust entered his forties, his increasing ailments, drug addictions and radically irregular lifestyle often prevented him from venturing out of his apartment more than a few times a month. In 1910 or 1911, he subscribed to a service called Théâtrephone, which sent “broadcasts” of performances from the Paris Opera, Comedie-Francaise and other Parisian performance halls via phone lines to receivers in hotels, cafes, clubs and the homes of subscribers. Proust, as it turns out, was a late adopter. Théâtrephone had been operating in Paris since 1890, and similar services existed in many European cities.

This is one of those “aha” moments, in which we understand that the “modern” world is far older than we often credit. Certainly, technology has taken us a long way from audio signals transmitted via phone lines (although, note: Théâtrephone was in stereo!) to cable TV, satellite signals, YouTube and iTunes, but the paradigmatic model hasn’t changed. Radio and mass-produced recordings eventually put an end to Théâtrephone, but we find here, more than a hundred years ago, our “modern” world, utterly recognizable.

Read more about Théâtrephone and see some visuals HERE on Wikipedia.

© 2013 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. OK, that’s cute! When were you at the corner of Rue Vavin and Blvd. Montparnasse? BTW, neat evening photo of Gai Paree.

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    • I knew that if ANYONE would know that precise location, it would be La Boheme, habitue’ of Paris. I was there on a video shoot in 2004, and had the evening to roam around on my own. My crew frittered away their time eating fancy food somewhere. I was staying ‘way out in La Defense, but rode the Metro and covered a lot of the city that evening. A sunset like that lasts only a few minutes, and I was fortunate to be in that storied precinct at just the opportune moment, with the lights of Le Dome and La Rotonde just balancing against the sky!

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      • Amazing coincidence! I, too, was in Paris in 2004 (Christmas holidays – brrrrr), and spent a lot of time in Montparnasse, famous quarter to artists and writers of the 1920’s and 30’s. Enjoyed dining at La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole very much. A lot of history there.

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