Food for Thought: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak

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I had no idea what to expect as I wandered down the alley round the back of Tower Hill on Wednesday night. My mad friend Sanjay had invited me there, so it literally could have been anything. As I cautiously opened the dilapidated doors of Wilton’s Music Hall – the oldest such venue in the world, dating back to the 1800s – I was immediately won over by its rustic, faded charm.

I grabbed a glass of wine and a bag of crisps at the bar, and settled in for a night of song and silliness – he’d said it was a ‘muppet opera’ or something, so I was kind of expecting Sesame Street meets Pavarotti. But as the lights went down and the eyeless physician began his darkly comical autopsy of a rotting corpse, singing in sombre tones as he rummaged through its innards for buried treasure, I realised we were in for something far, far darker. Think Sweeney Todd. With puppets. Suddenly, I’d gone right off those crisps.

Written and composed by Tom and Tobi Poster of Bristol’s Wattle & Daub figure theatre, we follow the story of Tarrare the Freak – a Frenchman with an insatiable appetite who’s hired as The Glutton in a travelling show. He devours (and all too realistically at times, regurgitates) an eclectic menu ranging from pocket watches to live cats and human limbs in a quest to quell his perpetual hunger – but he never succeeds, lamenting: “I just want to be full.”

You know that saying ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’? This guy probably did.

The production is lovingly brought to life through the skilful manipulation of two puppeteers; the impressively adaptable voices of two singers (one was literally like a male Mariah Carey); and the talents of two dexterous musicians (a pianist and a violinist). Together, they trace Tarrare’s journey as he munches his way from one disappointment to the next – an unfulfilled love story, a failed military mission, and a fruitless search for a cure – until his eventual hideous demise in a rancid expulsion of bodily fluids. Incredibly, about 90% of this grotesque tale is actually true.

Tarrare had one of the first known documented cases of polyphagia – an excessive desire to feed. Born around 1772 in Lyon, he was soon eating his family out of house and home as his parents struggled to provide for his ferocious appetite (he once ate a meal intended for 15 people in a single sitting), and they turfed him onto the streets in his teens. He ended up falling in with a bunch of thieves and prostitutes before participating in the freak shows, swallowing whole apples and live animals for a living.

Despite his enormous dietary intake, he only weighed 100lbs and never got any bigger, described as being slim and of average height. When he hadn’t eaten, the skin hanging from his belly could be wrapped round his waist, while his wrinkly cheeks hung loosely from his face; when stretched, he could fit 12 eggs in his mouth. He also suffered from terrible body odour and chronic diorrhea, which was said to be “fetid beyond all conception”.

Persuaded to use his digestive capacities during the French Revolution, he was caught crossing enemy lines disguised as a German peasant, and once he confessed to having swallowed secret documents, he was chained to a latrine. When the wooden box finally emerged, both parties were dismayed to discover it didn’t contain any vital information at all – only a dummy message. It had been a test. Tarrare escaped being hanged, but took a brutal beating before being returned to the French.

Desperate to avoid any further service, he went to a military hospital and agreed to be studied and experimented on in a bid to find a cure. But laudanum, tobacco pills and soft-boiled eggs did nothing to curb his hunger, and Tarrare was regularly caught drinking patients’ blood and nibbling on corpses when he got too peckish. After being suspected of snacking on a baby that mysteriously vanished from the premises, he was chased from the hospital grounds, and died of tuberculosis some four years later.

For all the production’s black humour, I was genuinely moved by the characterisation of the puppets and what became of that poor, gaunt soul with the haunted eyes. There was something deeply disturbing about Tarrare’s tale that has pricked at me ever since – causing me to think about my own relationship with food.

There’s the purely physical side – I’m hungry, therefore I eat. My body lets me know it’s running out of fuel (I feel faint, my stomach rumbles etc.) and that I need to fill up at the nearest gas station. And then there’s the emotional side – the feeling of contentment after a good meal, the joy of flavour, the psychological associations, both negative and positive (also touched on in my post January 8 2006). How often do we ‘reward’ ourselves with food when we feel happy or sad, or deny ourselves as punishment or an exercise in self-control?

This guy had no control over anything. He was a slave to his stomach. The food no longer served a purpose – it brought him no pleasure, it gave him no sustenance, it never sated his hunger. In fact, his condition actually worsened with every meal.

For Tarrare, food had stopped being fun, functional or fulfilling – and yet he was forever compelled to feast.

So far (touch wood), I’ve been lucky enough to be able to take eating for granted; to eat for fun or to socialise or just out of sheer boredom rather than mere survival. How many times have you eaten something just because it was there? That half pack of biscuits? The rest of the spag bol? Do you ever stop to wonder what a privilege that is?

I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from, and I’ve never truly known what it means to be hungry. And without truly knowing how that feels, there is, of course, a limit to my understanding when I say that I’m grateful for that. But whilst it’s easy to see how terrible it must feel to yearn for something you can’t have, having everything you could possibly consume, and yet still feeling empty, must leave a really bad taste in your mouth.

I’d been looking forward to a bacon sarnie all day, but my appetite still hadn’t returned by the time I got home. After what I’d just witnessed, I almost felt guilty for wanting one. I wasn’t that hungry – I totally could have gone without. And then I thought to myself: what would Tarrare do?

: )

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is at Wilton’s Music Hall until February 18th, before continuing its UK tour until March 10th.

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