Mercure (Poses Plastiques in 3 Tableaux)
Music by Erik Satie
Libretto by Léonide Massine
Sets and Costumes by Pablo Picasso
Choreography by Léonide Massine
Première: 2 June 1927, Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, Paris
Europa Danse: 2007
Mercure (Mercury, or The Adventures of Mercury) was originally produced at the “Soirées de Paris” of the
Comte Etienne de Beaumont in 1924.Mercure was commissioned by the Soirées de Paris stage company and
first performed at the Théâtre de la Cigale in Paris on June 15, 1924. The conductor was Roger Désormière.
The choreography was by Léonide Massine, who also danced the title role. Subtitled "Plastic Poses in Three
Tableaux", it was an important link between Picasso's Neoclassical and Surrealist phases and has been
described as a "painter's ballet."
Concert Review: Soirée de Paris, Mercure, June 16, 1924
All lovers of the arts should appreciate the magnificent scandal and glorious flirtations of last night’s
performance entitled Mercure: Poses Plastiques. As a member of the audience last night I was privileged
enough to witness this masterpiece amidst a rather unimpressive program. Although rumors are no doubt
already flying concerning the riotous response to the performance, I must say that this spectacle of artistic
fusion and intellectual musing is worthy of reverence and those who cannot appreciate it are either blinded by
irrelevant political views or are simply not elevated enough to understand the pithy undertones and humorous
intent of this work.
For those of you who were in attendance or who may have already heard news of the evening’s events bear
with me. I shall explain the ruckus caused by a few extremists so consumed with their own political and artistic
views that they cannot respect the statements of leaders within the artistic community. As the lights dimmed
and a hush fell over the audience, suddenly a cry of “Long live Picasso! Down with Satie!” could be heard
from the corner of the room. Suddenly similar exclamations erupted from seats all throughout the Theatre de
la Cigale covering the sound of Satie’s artistry and riling the audience further and inhibiting the performance.
At one point the management took it upon themselves to lower the curtains in an attempt to quiet the riotous
audience. I hope this demonstration does not deter future listeners from Satie’s work, for although it has been
received poorly by many it is not due to any merit or lack thereof within the artwork itself, but rather an
objection to the composer and an overzealous appreciation for the designer.
To add to the scandal further, many high profile artists and impresarios were in attendance and their own
reactions were witnessed by the crowd. Many members of the audience speculated that Erik Satie’s early
exit midway through the performance was due to this embarrassing hassle, however I have verified through
the charming Mademoiselle Milhaud that he simply had a train to catch. His unexpected exit did however add
to the mayhem of the première leading to the whisperings I’m sure you have heard all day since. The infamous
Serge Diaghilev, King of Ballet, was in attendance and was notably “pale, agitated, and nervous” at the
première, no doubt because his former collaborators (Satie and Picasso) had turned to a new venue and
with some success I might add. Diaghilev is not one to mince words and has been publicly claiming artistic
ownership of this new form of ballet for quite some time which will no doubt feed the fire of this scandalous
All of this hassle and distraction is still not enough to detract from the genius of the end product which was
a collaborative work, greatly influenced by the designer, the choreographer and the funder alongside the
composer. The creation of Mercure was made possible by the wealthy, and often bored, Comte de Beaumont.
According to the Count himself, who is very vocal about his influence on the work, he arranged to meet with
Satie in February of this year and there they negotiated the content, collaborators, and payment. From the
very beginning it must be understood that the Count was involved. His personal vendetta against Diaghilev
and Cocteau is woven into the piece in a masterful way. The Count’s choice of subject was almost certainly
a dig at Cocteau, who regularly turns up at masked balls dressed as Mercury, and the Count has certainly
made it clear that he intends to outdo Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by stealing his artists and creating something
better. As you can see, the main motivation behind the work is in no way related to Satie’s own views but rather
the whimsy of the benefactor, Comte de Beaumont.
After Comte Beaumont stamped his ideas upon the work, it was handed off to Satie, Picasso, and Massine
who produced the artwork seen at the première last night, and any respectably educated audience member
would recognize that this was not a subjugation of the choreographer and designer, but an embrace of them.
Picasso created the sets, costumes and interactive props which tastefully intrigue the eye with the new bold,
block color aesthetic. Although his presence caused a stir, I have it on good authority that he and Satie’s
working relationship was and is solid, and the two have no personal disagreements. It would appear that the
protesters simply used his presence as a springboard for their own campaign against Satie.
All those who would mark the piece with slander due to the composer, must see the error in their ways, when it
is explained that although Satie was the composer of the music, he was only minimally involved in the creation
of the entire production, and that his own personal political views are not present within the work. In his own
“Though it has a subject, this ballet has no plot. It is a purely decorative spectacle and you can imagine the
marvelous contribution of Picasso which I have attempted to translate musically. My aim has been to make my
music an integral part, so to speak, with the actions and gestures of the people who move about in this simple
exercise. You can see poses like them in any fairground. The spectacle is related quite simply to the music-
hall, without stylization or any rapport with things artistic”
Rather than inserting political ideas within the work it is meant as an exercise in triviality and frivolity, focusing
on the increasing emphasis on décor that has become so popular recently.
The spectacular genius of this work is not in the “high art” or philosophical import, but in its clever irony and
the juxtaposition of Greek and Roman mythology with our modern sensibilities. Although supposedly plotless,
the ballet clearly focused around ancient mythological characters including, Mercury, Apollo, Venus, Pluto,
Proserpine, and Cerberus. Each of the three tableaux represented a different aspect of Mercury himself, 1st
as God of fertility, 2nd as a musician and cunning thief, and third as henchman of the Underworld. The
movements of Massine were nothing extremely out of the ordinary, mainly coinciding with the content as one
would expect, the surprise of course came in the music and the sets which were in extreme contrast.
Throughout the performance many music-hall tunes were easily identifiable and even a simpleton could not
miss the obvious ragtime references made within Satie’s score. This in combination with Picasso’s particular
brand of modern art creates a beautifully incongruous collaboration which is meant to tickle the fancy of the
sophisticated art aficionado.
I highly recommend a public reconsideration of this piece and encourage attendance tonight at their second
performance which will once again be in the Théâtre de la Cigale alongside Les Roses. Although I find the
rudeness of the fanatics appalling it has brought up debate which in turn has caused word of this performance
to spread. Although Satie’s Mercure may not be next monumental achievement in musical innovation, it is a
delightful romp in intellectual humor and the artistry of Picasso is always worth revisiting.