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‘Mise en Scent’: The Théâtre d'Art's Cantique des cantiques and the Use of Smell as a Theatrical Device

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Assistant Professor of English, North Carolina State University


In December 1891, an adaptation by Paul-Napoléon Roinard of the Old Testament text of the Cantique des cantiques (Song of Songs) of Solomon was performed at the recently created Théâtre d'Art, expressly to present a new idea of theatre as total art by engaging the visual, aural, and olfactory senses of the audience. One of the few theatre historians who has mentioned this remarkable endeavour notes that in it,‘music, words, colour, even perfume, were to be harmonized; all the senses were to be involved, simultaneously, in the one overwhelming experience’. Roinard's synaesthetic experiment drew on a range of sources including Baudelaire, Wagner and Rimbaud, and, most strikingly, featured scents pumped into the auditorium on cue by young symbolist poets stationed in the far edges of the proscenium and in the balcony and using hand-held vaporizers. According to the outline Roinard provided in the programme, nine scents were used: frankincense, white violets, hyacinth, lilies, acacia, lily of the valley, syringa, orange blossom, and jasmine. Each of these odours had corresponding orchestrations of speech (specific vowel sounds), tones (original music composed by Mme Flamen de Labrély), and colours.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1999

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26. Ibid., Jules Bois's speech.

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