The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Pierre-Henri Cami (1)

December 13th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Pierre-Henri Cami (1884-1958) is all but forgotten today.  But in the ’20s, his work was popular in France; he was translated in Vanity Fair; Chaplin called him the “greatest humorist in the world.”

His preferred form was the short and stupid play: an unstageable drama that moved swiftly from one gag to the next.  He’s been called the French Tex Avery, and it’s not a bad comparison; he has the same directness, disdain for realism, and boldly illogical logic.

In later years, he took to writing novels and drawing cartoons, often with disappointing results.  He also took to recycling his gags, which didn’t help.  His career petered out; by the time he died, he had been forgotten.

But his early work is still cherished by his admirers; and it still champions a unique gallery of ingenious idiots: the knight who takes his castle doors with him to the Crusades, so they can’t be forced open in his absence; a Noah who saves all the fish from the flood; the farmer who serves his pigs aperitifs to stimulate their appetites; the poor family who can’t afford masks for Mardi Gras, and make do by disguising their voices.

I’ve translated for you here one of Cami’s historical dramas.  As usual, there’s an untranslatable pun embedded in it; my best course, I think, is just to mention that “black butterflies” (papillons noirs) are “melancholy thoughts,” and let you take it from there.

(Posted by Doug Skinner) 


A Carnival drama.

ACT ONE: Governor and prisoner.

(The scene is a cell in the Bastille.)

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Because my walk resembles his, King Louis XIV has riveted me into an iron mask and thrown me into the Bastille, so that I cannot be mistaken for him.  I need not add that I am seeking an opportunity to escape.

THE GOVERNOR OF THE BASTILLE: I have learned, sir, that you tried to bribe your guard, so that he might assist your plans to escape.  To prevent this from reoccurring, you now have an armless guard.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: An armless guard?

THE GOVERNOR OF THE BASTILLE: Yes.  That way, he cannot lend a hand to your plans to escape.  (He exits.)

ACT TWO: Preparations for escape.

(Same scene, the next day.)

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Thanks to my armless guard, who cannot lock the doors, I was able to leave the Bastille this morning and purchase a file.  I regained my cell without being noticed; my plan for escape is now ready.  I shall leave my cell in one month, that is, the day of the Carnival.  It is the only day I can pass unnoticed with my iron mask.

THE GOVERNOR OF THE BASTILLE, entering: Sir, your armless guard has forwarded a letter in which you request permission to play slide trombone in your cell.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Yes, that would divert me.

THE GOVERNOR OF THE BASTILLE: I grant you permission to play slide trombone; but only two hours a day, so as not to disturb the other prisoners.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Your amiability encourages me to ask another favor.


THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: I would like to have a butterfly net in my cell.


THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Yes.  I am so bored.  This net would help chase the “black butterflies” from my mind.

THE GOVERNOR OF THE BASTILLE: Granted.  The armless guard will soon bring you, in his teeth, the butterfly net and the slide trombone.  (He exits.)

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: A file, a slide trombone, and a butterfly net: that’s all I need to escape from the Bastille on the day of the Carnival.

ACT THREE: Armless music.

(The same scene.)

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: The armless guard has just brought me the slide trombone and the butterfly net.  To work!  (He attaches the file to the trombone slide, and places it against the bars on the window.  He then plays a stirring tune, imparting to the trombone slide the back-and-forth motion characteristic of the instrument.)  The trombone music prevents one from hearing the grinding of the file.  The armless guard will suspect nothing.  This is marvelous!  By playing the trombone two hours a day, my prison bars will be sawed through in time for the Carnival.  But there is no time to lose.  (He continues to play the trombone-file.)

ACT FOUR: The escape.

(The same scene.)

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Greetings, day of deliverance!  Greetings, Carnival!  For thirty days I have sawed the bars of my cell with my slide trombone.  Today, my work is done.  I can escape.  My cell is seventy feet above the ground.  But I have foreseen everything: thanks to my butterfly net, I can leap safely into the void.  (He leaps, holding the butterfly net in his right hand.  When he is two meters from the ground, he places the net beneath him and falls into it.)  I have used the classic technique of acrobats, who perform above a net to prevent injury if they fall.  (He mixes into the crowd of Carnival masks, and heads, unnoticed, for parts unknown.)


Tags: Literature

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // Dec 16, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Very nice! It’s just short and sweet and stupid enough to be really interesting and entertaining – a standard four-act or one-act format might have become a little wearing on the soul.

    This reminds me a little of Flann O’Brien.

  • 2 mamie // Dec 23, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    It’s so beautiful! I don’t find it so stupid – I do think it’s very funny.

  • 3 Norman Conquest // Oct 26, 2012 at 8:59 am


    I’d like to reprint THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK…please let me know who translated this…is it Doug Skinner? If so, can you put me in touch with Doug?

    please email:

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