“American Savages” in Les Indes Galantes

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Far from presenting a happy image of colonization, Rameau and Fuzelier question the myth of the good savage and question again the links between Americans and Europeans.

The heroic ballet Les Indes Galantes was the fruit of a collaboration between Jean-Philippe Rameau and Louis Fuzelier. At its premiere in 1735, it had just three acts: Les Incas du Pérou, Le Turc généreux and Les Fleurs. It was only in the 1736 revival that a fourth act was added by the two authors: Les Sauvages d’Amérique. These different acts, with their separate love stories, were still connected by a common theme: gallantry. For, Rameau and Fuzelier had it at heart to display its universal nature, without limiting its presence to a single continent, as Campra and Destouches had done, for example, in L’Europe galante (1697).

That Peru, Turkey or America could be part of the same geographic zone may seem like a strange idea but, at the time, what was called the Indies covered a huge territory, divided into two blocs: the “East Indies” and the “West Indies”. The former were part of Asia; the latter covered the entirety of the American continent. So there is no reason to be surprised if Rameau and Fuzelier located the dramatic action of their opera-ballet, by turns, in “a desert in Peru” (first entrée), in “the port of a Turkish island in the Indian sea” (second entrée), in the gardens of Tacmas with Persian festivities (third entrée), then in “a copse of an American forest, neighbouring the French and Spanish colonies” (fourth entrée).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, historians thought that humanity had experienced a progressive change from "savagery" to a policed state, and that societies worldwide had reached very different stages of cultural development: while Europe had reached the privilege of civility, to them, America seemed to be stuck in a state of "savagery", as stated in 1724 by Père Lafitau, who compared its inhabitants’ customs to those of the earliest times. It had long been an ethnocentric commonplace in scientific discourses to consider Americans as “savages”, or even barbarians, and many literary figures saw America as an immense land, inhabited by ferocious beasts. Louis Moréri, in his Grand Dictionnaire historique (1674) noted that the peoples of this continent “were generally savage and cruel, with little courage and bad inclinations”, before Furetière, in his Dictionnaire universel (1690), made a connection between “peoples who cannot easily be mollified or civilised” with the Americans being “naked, furry, covered with hair”. His conclusion was irrevocable: “almost all of America is inhabited by savages”.

Naturally, all these ideas were echoed in the world of entertainment: at the Grand Carrousel in 1662, the Parisian public saw a confrontation between “the five most glorious nations in the world”, including a quadrille of “Savages from America”, wearing green and white feathers. The same applied to the ballets danced at the Court, then the Opera: Americans were part of a vast folklore reservoir, just like Africans, Egyptians or Turks, appearing on stage dressed in sumptuous costumes, intended to transport the audience’s imagination. So it was that Henri de Gissey or Jean Bérain set about designing a large number of theatre costumes, without trying to confirm their historical accuracy. And when, in 1725 at the Comédie-Italienne, Rameau saw two Indians dancing “dressed a little more modestly than is the case in Louisiana, but in such a way that their naked bodies were clearly suggested”, a few months later he characterised the singing and dancing of these two performers by composing a harpsicord suite entitled Les Sauvages, whose musical material was reused in the entrée of the same name in Les Indes galantes.

Far from defending colonisation, Rameau’s librettist was on the contrary sympathetic to the Native American cause. After denouncing in the first entrée the brutality of the conquerors of the New World, in the last one he set about illustrating the myth of the "Noble Savage" as popularised by La Hontan. Trampling on the prejudice according to which the Americans embodied the very figure of otherness, on the borderline between humans and animals, Fuzelier transformed monstrosity into naïveté. For example, when the “savagesse” Zima declares that she is following “innocent nature”, when she rejects the advances of the Frenchman Damon and the Spaniard Don Alvar, who try to seduce her, the former bragging about ephemeral love, the latter praising constant love. Faithful to the chief of her nation’s army, the young Native American woman sends the two colonists packing, preferring an “artless love” to the “tyrannical laws” which they want to use to ensnare her heart. Sad, rejected, the two of them then join the ceremony of the peace pipe, which seals the reconciliation between the peoples, the “sigh” and “regrets” of the two Europeans being smothered by the triumph of “pleasures and games” among the American. It is hard to imagine a more striking turnaround: far from proclaiming the domination of French gallantry over the entire world, Fuzelier on the contrary pointed to the moral weakening of civilised colonists, being reduced in affairs of the heart to “such a sad enslavement” – even if a eulogy of naturalness and the valorisation of spontaneity remain, lest we forget, trick compliments.


Published in may 2021

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