Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
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_____, 1820, La mort de Kléber, ou, Les Français en Égypte: mimodrame historique et militaire en deux actes, Paris: Fages.
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Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Within the postmodern aesthetic, pantomime functions to bestow fluidity or uncertainty of identity to performance, so that performance itself signifies unstable or dynamic relationships between text and action, speech and bodily gesture, music and sound, performer and spectator, the imaginary and the real, the solitary self and the communal persona, or technology and “humanness.” These fluidities of identity become equivalent, at least theoretically, to an enhanced state of freedom, of release from the constraining, ideologically formed barriers or “limits” defining identities. But fluidity of identity in relation to the concept of “performance” perhaps inevitably requires that postmodern performance expand its power through its ability to intensify fluidity of sexual identity and desire. But with this goal in mind, pantomime is merely doing what it already had done for centuries during the Roman Empire, revealing the “metamorphosis” of the body when neither speech nor dance is able to prevent the spectator from seeing it.
A good example of a postmodern pantomime of fluid sexual identity is Iha, which in Estonian means Desire or Craving or Lust, a performance piece by an undergraduate student in the Choreography Program of Tallinn University, Keithy Kuuspu (b. 1994). Desire was Kuuspu’s graduation piece. It had its premiere in April 2019 at the Kanuti Gildi SAAL in the Old Town district of Tallinn. The Kanuti Guild Hall operates primarily as a space for experimental forms of performance, but for Desire, Kuuspu and her colleagues cleaned out several storage rooms in the cellar of the building and shaped the performance in relation to these spaces made available to them. The piece involves seven performers, all women, and Kuuspu inserts herself into the performance at various moments. Lasting about an hour, Desire depicts erotic and domestic interactions between women living together, although none of the performers embody “characters” or named identities: the point of performance is to show tropes of interaction that are not specific to particular motives or personalities; they are specific to female-to-female desires. The relation of the performance to its audience is dynamic insofar as spectators move from one site or room of performance to another, but not together. However, the audience is together for the first and last scenes. The first scene takes place at the entrance to the cellar, with the audience standing and watching from the lobby of the Kanuti Guild Hall. The performance begins with a muscular woman (Agnes Ihoma) slowly gyrating and caressing herself behind a transparent plastic screen, as if she is looking at herself in a mirror and trying to see how she looks when she signifies erotic desire or provokes it. Soon the audience hears the recorded sound of a woman gasping or panting, as if she is pleasuring herself. From out of the audience, the other women in the ensemble, wearing shiny scarlet pants and black sweaters or shiny scarlet robes, approach the transparent mirror-wall or another transparent mirror-wall perpendicular to the one before the muscular woman. One dark-haired woman in a scarlet robe, pressing against the transparent sheet, reproduces the movements made by the muscular woman as she presses herself against the transparency. Other women slowly undulate before the perpendicular transparency. Then all the women converge on the mirror-wall separating them from the muscular woman. The woman in the scarlet robe begins to touch the muscular woman’s image in a manner that is independent of the muscular woman’s movement. This distinction inspires the other women to retrieve damp cloths from a pale of water and begin scrubbing the transparent screen, as if to wash away the “invisible” barrier between them and the muscular woman. They kneel down while the muscular woman stands tall, with her arms upraised, like a priestess before her acolytes. The whole scene appears to dramatize the erotic fantasy the muscular woman devises while gazing at her own image. She imagines herself wanting and desired by more than one woman; even if all the women she imagines wear variants of the same “uniform,” one woman is not “enough” to complete her desire. A group or community of women is necessary for the fulfillment of rapturous self-reflection. When the fantasy women tear down the transparency, they pass by the muscular woman and descend into the cellar rooms. The muscular woman gazes at the audience before she turns and leads the audience into the cellar.
The audience passes through a dark, narrow corridor, against the walls of which some of the women, illuminated expressionistically by soft-glowing copper light, writhe and pant, as if performing a strange, solitary exercise that they share with the public without actually being a group. At the end of the corridor is a sunken space designed to resemble a living room bathed in a flaming orange light. The audience can move through the scene as it plays and view the action from a staircase on the other side of the room. A television set is on, but it displays only a blizzard of electronic “snow.” After sitting on the couch watching the television set, the muscular woman and another woman (Dana Lorén Warres) engage in a kind of slow ritual of putting on and removing sweaters, of putting sweaters on each other, of removing their sweaters, of trying to bind each other within the same sweater, of pulling down each other’s pants. With the sweaters discarded, they fondle each other on the couch. Kuuspu enters, fixes herself a drink, sits on the couch, and stares at the television set. The muscular woman and her partner tease each other with a sweater as they amble, staring into each other’s eyes, up the staircase and into a corner of it, where they nuzzle each other. They then return to the positions they assumed when they began the piece and perform the scene over again, as if it is a loop. All scenes in Desire occur as loops to allow all portions of the audience to see all scenes but not together or in the same order. The spectator chooses which room to enter, but all scenes happen at the same time; the “looping” of the scenes enables the spectator to see different things happening at once.
In another room, two women in black Spandex shorts and tank tops (Silvia-Kairet Põld and Amanda Hermiine Künnapas) perform actions that apparently occur in a public restroom. A pillar in the center of the room supports two wash basins and mirrors, but these point in opposite directions, one bathed in green light, the other in blue light. One woman slowly approaches the green basin, the other the blue basin. They undulate and caress themselves before the mirrors, then suddenly dart away and “discover” each other in the shadows. They run in opposite circles around the entire space, as if trying to avoid and attract each other at the same time. One woman stops to splash and refresh herself at the blue basin. The other woman slips behind her and makes caressive movements, which they both observe in the mirror. They move away from the basin and start embracing in the shadows. But they emerge from the shadows performing combative actions, with both women performing both stalking and fleeing strides until one of the women abruptly halts and the other woman studies her closely, making caressive gestures. The two women begin dancing together in a sexual, voluptuous manner. Kuuspu enters the scene and pours something from a jar into the “blue” basin. She tries to insert herself into the dance, but this leads to conflict, with the two dancers uncertain who should “possess” Kuuspu or if Kuuspu should even be in the dance. An ambiguous configuration of movements makes unclear if the dancers expel Kuuspu from their dance or Kuuspu ejects herself from the dance. But with Kuuspu gone, the dancers exchange desiring glances at each other, touch hands, and retreat slowly and separately into the shadows. The scene begins again for another portion of the audience that had watched another scene in another room.
A third scene takes place in a room dressed to resemble a small kitchen. Two young women, dressed in shiny scarlet pants and black sweaters, inhabit the space. Pink tones pervade the scene: pink coffee cups, pink spoons, a pink clock, a chandelier made out of dangling pink gloves, even the lighting is pinkish. Woman A (Kristiina Heinmets) does something at a stove in a dark corner of the room while Woman B (Alma Nedzelskyte) stands up from a chair to watch her. When Woman A returns from the stove and goes to a cupboard on the other side of the room, Woman B moves a kitchen utensil on a wall from one peg to another, and when Woman A returns from the cupboard, she returns the kitchen utensil to its original peg, while Woman B adjusts the item that Woman A had handled at the cupboard. Woman A and Woman B face each other with Woman A holding a pink plastic spoon; when Woman B does not accept the spoon, Woman A lets it drop to the floor. Variations of this sequence of actions occur three more times, once in slow motion, until Woman B catches the spoon. Woman B goes to the stove and retrieves a pot of coffee, while Woman A adjusts the pink wall clock. But Woman A blocks Woman B from returning to her chair until Woman B dodges her and they both sit down, side by side, and begin to assume different sitting poses without looking at each other. Then they swivel and face each other. Woman A places both hands on Woman B’s hips, but Woman B flings her hands away. They repeat this swivel-touch-fling movement several times while Kuuspu, holding a pink goblet, enters, opens the refrigerator and peers into it before bending to pick up plastic spoons dropped on the floor. Kuuspu’s “intervention” disrupts the game playing of the two women. Woman A goes to the stove, while Woman B resets the pink clock, Kuuspu tidies pink objects on the little tea table. She leaves the scene; Woman A and Woman B then ceremoniously stand and pour water from a pitcher into each other’s tea cups and sit sipping from the cups until Woman B reaches for a cigarette, which she lights with a match. Woman A draws a cigarette from the same pink pack and awaits a light from Woman B. When Woman B notices Woman A awaiting the light, she leans toward her and lights her cigarette by touching it with her own cigarette, as if the women kiss each other with their cigarettes. They smoke languorously for a moment, then simultaneously put out their cigarettes. They stand and embrace; they walk to the stove, from which Woman A withdraws a pan. She holds the pan ceremoniously before dumping the contents on the floor, spaghetti apparently. So the scene ends and begins again for another section of the audience.
The final scene occurs after all sections of the audience have seen the previous scenes performed simultaneously in different rooms. The entire performance ensemble appears together in the final scene before the entire audience. The action takes place in the same room where the bathroom scene occurred, but now the scene evokes the atmosphere of a nightclub, and the music here as elsewhere in the production is disco-electronica, although no one really dances in the scene. Virtually all of the action revolves around a large pillar in the center of the room; the audience surrounds the performance space, seated against the four walls of the room. A small metal railing, about a foot high, surrounds the pillar and enables performers to stand on it to reach and hang on to fixtures attached to the ceiling. The scene begins with Kuuspu, dressed, as elsewhere, in a black blouse, black pants, and sneakers, treading stealthily through space, scanning the audience for people or opportunities. She draws to her a pair of women in transparent tank tops and Spandex shorts; the women surround Kuuspu, but she slips away and leaves the two women to interact with each other. These women play a kind of game, encircling the pillar, darting and looping around each other, alternating stalking and evading each other, so that it is not clear who desires whom—or rather, the women convey an ambivalence about desiring or being desired. The appearance of another woman in a transparent tank top and shiny red pants complicates this game of ambivalent desire. Three women sneak, wind, and coil around the pillar, flinching when one woman touches the hand of another gliding down the pillar. Further complication ensues when a fourth woman, in transparent black tank top and Spandex shorts, enters the game, with the movements of the women becoming somewhat both predatory and furtive. A fifth woman enters, shadowed by Kuuspu, and the women study her before drawing her into their game. When a sixth woman enters the game, the action becomes very complex, with some women stepping onto the railing around the pillar, where they display themselves voluptuously, while other women gyrate and undulate alone or in pairs or slip into fleeting, unsustained or incomplete embraces. Every time, women form pairs, a third woman intrudes to break up the pair and form a new one. Whenever a woman seems drawn to another woman, a third woman distracts her. The women radiate away from the pillar into the shadows and gyrate voluptuously and individually before the audience. But the pillar draws them back and they all step onto the railing and display their bodies, prowl over each other’s bodies until finally they all step down at once to the floor and bend over in a circle around the pillar with each woman resting her head on the buttocks of the woman before her. They simultaneously raise their heads and lower them so that the other cheek of each woman rests on the buttocks of the woman before her. Each woman supplements this gesture with caressive strokes on the thigh or hip of the woman before her. But the body-chain collapses when the women break away to form pairs, three of them. The couples embrace, rather passionately, and perform provocative, gyrating movements within their embraces. Kuuspu re-enters the scene and approaches one couple; immediately this couple ceases to move as they and Kuuspu stare at each other. But when Kuuspu moves on, the couple begins to perform combative movements, as if each is fighting the other to prevent the other from attaching herself to Kuuspu. Yet Kuuspu drifts toward another couple and embraces these two women, starts dancing with them as a trio, until one of the women breaks away or is thrust out, so that Kuuspu is now a couple with the remaining woman. But the woman who left the trio causes the disruption of the other two couples when she tries to insert herself into them. Bodies become entangled and dispersed. A dispersed woman orbits the pillar and encounters Kuuspu and her partner, who thrusts Kuuspu toward the gang or “pack” of other women. One woman “confronts” Kuuspu, and the two stare at each other until they embrace and kiss. The other women form a line behind Kuuspu, with one woman embracing her from behind, leaning her head against Kuuspu’s neck. Each of the women embraces the woman before her and rests her head against the preceding woman’s neck. But this communal, physical unity does not last long: Kuuspu slips away from the chain and wanders off; then the other women separate and each wanders alone out of the space (Kuuspu 2019) [Figure 121].
Desire constructs an impressive postmodern ideology of homoerotic female desire without relying on either speech or dance. Kuuspu fragments her narrative across different performance spaces and in doing so, she fragments her audience, so that the culminating scene in the nightclub does not result from an “objectively” linear progression of actions but from a linear progession of actions shaped by the desire of the spectator, who chooses the order in which to see the scenes. Desire drives the narrative organization of life within the ideology of female homoeroticism. Yet all of the scenes show women disclosing an ambivalent attitude toward the desire for another woman. In the living room, restroom, and kitchen scenes, pairs of women perform actions that alternatively provoke and depress desire, creating an intensifying tension between the women that eventually produces an oppressive stasis, an atmosphere of emotional stagnation. In all of the scenes, each woman uses physical actions alone to signify her desire for another woman but also her ambivalence about desiring the woman before her and her ambivalence about being desireable to the woman before her. But this ambivalence does not arise in relation to homoerotic feeling; it arises in relation to the idea of pairing or couplehood. The scenes in the living room, kitchen, and restroom show pairs of women seemingly trapped within a domestic milieu in which they repetitively perform mundane actions they hope will manifest some measure of vulnerability in which desire might reawaken and enable a desireable “metamorphosis” within the couple. But Kuuspu’s intrusion into all of the scenes implies that such metamorphosis is not internal to couplehood. Desire always deepens or expands in relation to another woman, a third woman, a woman outside or “free” of the realities of the couple. It is not relevant whether this other woman is real or a fantasy: she functions to reveal that desire cannot be contained within a couple; desire invariably includes “someone else.” The opening mirror scene and the corridor scene suggest that erotic desire is both the negation and revelation of one’s aloneness. You look into the mirror and see so many “others” gazing back at you with desire. In the corridor, solitary women pose voluptuously and writhe with masturbatory pleasure, as if the “other” one desires could be any of the shadowy spectators passing through the darkness of the passage to scenes of couplehood. The concluding nightclub scene provides relief from the desire-draining stasis or stability depicted in the domestic scenes. In this scene, women try to make contact with each other, they even try to form pairs, but they cannot become couples: another woman invariably “distracts” a partner or the shadowy Kuuspu appears and inserts herself between a pair. The women are actually closest when they form a chain, with all bodies connected and pressed against each other, as if the desire for any woman entailed desiring all the other women. Yet even this omnivorous desire cannot sustain the communal sharing of bodies: the desire for “more” or some “other,” more powerful body disrupts the chain, and the women disperse, disappear alone into the shadows and out of the space. As a whole, the piece asserts that erotic desire reveals itself most accurately and transparently through physical actions, not speech or dance. These physical actions are largely mundane: gazes and glances, “confrontational” stances, timid or tentative touches, predatory approaches and evasive steps backward, darting toward and flinching away from others, the handing of spoons or cups to another, the putting on or removal of an item of clothing, voluptuous poses and lurid gyrations, uncertain caresses and incomplete embraces. But none of the actions derive from the institutionalized movement vocabularies that define the sequestered studio aesthetics of mime culture and dance. Kuuspu and her ensemble appear to have devised a pantomime aesthetic that derives from their observations of female interactions in life. It is a pantomime aesthetic that arises out of a unique personal, sexual, and subcultural experience. Yet it is this uniqueness of physical experience that accounts for an exciting infusion of freedom into the postmodern performance scene.
Some spectators complained that Desire was not dance and that some of the performers did not have “dancer bodies.” They insinuated that Kuuspu had not sufficiently applied what she had learned in classes or in the dance studios. But perhaps these complaints cannot be detached from more subtle objections to the content of the piece, the physical rhetoric of homosexual desire, which perhaps cannot achieve accurate and insightful representation through the idealizing, institutionalized control over the body imposed by dance with its elaborate, step-bound movement vocabularies governed by schools. Homosexual desire apparently “moves” outside of this institutionalization. But in a sense, the performance of female desire as given by Kuuspu’s piece may also be outside of history or outside of the aesthetic “tradition” of performing desire as preserved through academic institutionalization. Kuuspu produced her piece without any knowledge of Estonia’s remarkable and imaginative contributions to pantomime in the decades before she was born. Possibly she conceived Desire without much, if any, knowledge of pantomime in general, for pantomime was not in the curriculum of Tallinn University. Indeed, she relied on pantomimic action because in her mind history offered no models for accurately embodying female erotic desire. But that is the peculiar irony of pantomime history. Pantomime startles and grips the viewer because it seems to discard whatever history of performance the spectator brings to a performance; it is so strange because it is such a brazen break with the past. The “unregulated” performance of the body produces a momentous shift in the way spectators read the body and read performance, a shift away from the past and toward a new way of deciphering bodily significiation. It is always “new” when the body “tells” about the world without relying on speech or dance. From this perspective, the history of pantomime is the history of a mysterious and even intimidating possibility of bodily freedom, a history of a future realm of exploration.
Scenes from Iha, directed by Keithy Kuuspu, Tallinn, Estonia, April 24-25, 2019: a) the mirror scene with Agnes Ihoma, Dana Lorén Warres, Silvia-Kairet Põld, Amanda Hermiine Künnapas, Kristiina Heinmets, and Alma Nedzelskyte; b) the living room scene with Agnes Ihoma and Dana Lorén Warres; c) the restroom scene with Silvia-Kairet Põld and Amanda Hermiine Künnapas; d) the kitchen scene with Kristiina Heinmets and Alma Nedzelskyte; e) the nightclub scene with Amanda Hermiine Künnapas, Alma Nedzelskyte, Silvia-Kairet Põld, and Agnes Ihoma. On the left side of the image is visible the right arm of the shadowy figure of Keithy Kuuspu as she intrudes upon the scene. Photos: Fideelia-Signe Roots.
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Figure 119: Scenes from Lähtö (2013), directed by Kalle Nio, performed by him and Vera Selene Tegelman, Helsinki, Finland. Photos: Tom Hakala.
A fine example of postmodern, interdisciplinary mutation of pantomime is the two-character Lähtö (Departure), created by the WHS production company based in Helsinki, Finland. The company refers to itself as a producer of “visual theater” or “new circus” or “avant-garde theater.” Lähtö involved numerous collaborators, with Kalle Nio (b. 1982), one of the founders of WHS, responsible for the direction; he also performed the male character. But his formal education was in the visual arts, which he has supplemented with a life-long, informal study of magic. In addition to producing theater, he has exhibited installations and made experimental videos (Nio 2018). He claims that some inspiration for the piece came from the austere, enigmatic, elegant, existentialist films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), particularly La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962) (“Magija finske predstave” Odlazak 2014: Paragraph 4). An actor-dancer, Vera Selene Tegelman played the female character and, with Nio, choreographed much of the physical action. The percussionist Samuli Kosminen (b. 1974) composed the soundtrack involving a mix of natural sounds (like rain), electronic sounds, and somber instrumental music. Lähtö had its premiere in Strasbourg in 2013, and since then the one-hour piece has been performed in many European countries as well as in several Central and South American countries. Nio has made some modifications to the piece since its premiere, and the discussion of it here relies on the version presented in Tallinn in autumn 2014.
Lähtö depicts the relationship between a man and a woman who have abandoned speech as a means of communicating with each other. They sit across from each other at a table, separated by a vase with brilliant flowers. The man eats the peas that remain on his plate; the woman, having finished her plate, sips wine. The woman, in a grey dress, studies the man as he eats without looking at her. Impatient, she stands up, pours wine into her glass, taps the glass with her knife, clears her throat, and raises her glass to him, as he gazes at her suspiciously. He reaches in to his pocket and throws some keys on the table. Annoyed, she turns away and moves to the huge, grey curtain behind them. He pours himself a glass of wine, picks up his coat and walks toward her as she opens the curtain to reveal a view of the ocean, with waves crashing before her, as if the couple live near the sea. She stares out at the sea. But as soon as he stands behind her, she moves away and returns to the table, where she sits and lights a cigarette. The man closes the curtain and puts on his coat. When, however, he sees her light the cigarette, he takes off his coat and returns to his seat at the table. The couple performs these same actions the same way two more times. They have nothing to say to each other, yet they still communicate with each other through a speechless, ritual game of repetitive actions that imply a condition of being bound to each other without being able to break free of an impatience, a boredom, a loneliness, and a profound disappointment with each other. The relationship is in an unhappy stasis, a rigid balance of power that reinforces repetitive behavior, a constant loop of signs that merely return the couple to an initial, cold starting point, with nothing worth sharing except a bottle of wine.
After the third performance of these actions, the great curtain descends, and the man and woman enter a nocturnal, blue-hued, phantasmagoric, hallucinatory dimension to their relationship, as if it depends on an imagined, illusory, dreamlike, or supernatural idea of “togetherness.” The pair performs a variety of actions alone and together. The man emerges from behind the folds of the curtain with an ironing board. He tries to iron a shirt, but the shirt keeps moving, as if it is a living thing resisting his efforts to smooth it out. Mila Moisio (b. 1981) and Kaisa Rissanen (b. 1981) designed the costumes to accommodate the magic effects, which also include parts of the woman’s dress moving independently of her or falling off her. When the man puts on a jacket, he seems to sprout other arms that grip him from behind. Alone in a red dress, the woman tries to balance a wine glass on her forehead while smoking a cigarette and dancing before great swirls of the curtain, which also seems alive. The couple treats the curtain as a kind of barrier, a huge, fluid opacity that they must overcome or manage, which involves physical wrestling with it or floundering in it. A storm arises. They try to hoist the curtain by pulling on ropes in a powerful action of physical struggle, as if, as Camillia Burows suggests, the curtain “has finally become a sailing ship that the couple tries to keep afloat” (Burows 2018: Paragraph 2). The scenic elements also involve large, noirish video images of the man and woman looming over the performers, so that their flesh and physical features appear intensely intimate to the spectator. In the rain, they embrace, touch, prod, lift, and move each other, but always ambivalently, not with affection, not playfully, and perhaps not with love. In another scene, with the curtain cleared away, the man and the woman sit at the table as they did at the beginning, except now they appear within a glass cage, surrounded by walls and a ceiling of mirrors that are also transparent windows. They are the same as they were at the beginning, tired of each other. The tablecloth begins to melt, and the vase of flowers slides with the goo to the floor. The pair climbs onto the table to study and touch each other, as if to affirm the reality of the existence, but their clothes, too, begin to melt, and they become entangled in the goo and must peel it away until they are both nearly nude. The couple believes that they must change their environment if they are to change their relationship. The woman moves the table, and the man also moves a table, but her image in the mirror becomes confused with that of her partner. The mirror panels reflect multiple images of the pair, and the woman moves the panels, balances a panel on her hand, in an effort, presumably, to construct a better image of the relationship or a domestic environment less confined by the image. The panels separate and glide away. At the end, the man and woman do not seem to have resolved the conflict between them, but neither have they glided away from each other as the images have. Nor does their dark dream together restore their desire to speak to each other [Figures 119-120].
Lähtö suggests that what holds people together are dreams, illusions, distorted images of the self and others, a fantasy of transforming an environment “together.” But these are not images of mere wish fulfillment; they are images of the mind looking at its owner from outside of the “self,” and so it is not clear who the “author” of the actions is. Physical actions alone determine the “connection” or bonding of one body to another. The connection is only fitfully or inadvertently erotic, and not guided by any pressure for rapture or even happiness. Physical actions happen because the characters no longer believe that language, speech, can move them through the “curtain” separating self and other; indeed, language is like a curtain. Behind this curtain, the mind sees physical action unfiltered by language or speech. The physical actions change relations between bodies, objects, and space only because they occur outside of the curtain separating self and other. The meaning of the physical actions is cryptic, lacking in clear motive, difficult to “understand,” because the actions follow a logic that makes speaking unnecessary; the sound of the rain and the dark music provide a far more satisfying “commentary” by being, like the dream-mind, external to the bodies performing the actions. Speechless actions do not produce a loss of identity or a clarification of it; they produce a sort of mutation of it (a “metamorphosis” of it, as the imperial Romans supposed), the appearance of your body projecting an identity that you did not “know.” Speechless actions make the spectator deeply alone in deciphering their meaning; they intensify subjectivity. But subjectivity is most acute when language, as a society’s chief instrument for clarifying all identities, is not there to “explain” who anyone is, including the spectator. For the spectators as well as for the characters in the performance, an implication of the piece is that togetherness achieves its strongest manifestation when one person and another have moved beyond language, so that only the physical actions they perform are enough to bond them together. Whatever is “beyond” the physical actions they perform will not keep them together. How else can one “know” such things except through pantomimic action? For pantomime is the art that most powerfully reveals what happens to people when they act beyond language. No other art shows so beautifully what people can do when words no longer matter, when there is nothing more to say.
Figure 120: Scenes from Lähtö (2013), directed by Kalle Nio, performed by him and Vera Selene Tegelman, Helsinki, Finland. Photos: Tom Hakala.
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Hartmut Vollmer’s Didactic Response to Postmodernism
The reason performers do not or cannot think pantomimically probably entails the reason for their attraction to postmodern modes of performance: they distrust bodies that project “other identities” rather than a presumed “real” identity. The display of acrobatic skills is proof of a bodily reality or authenticity that does not require masks, the simulation of other identities. As this book has shown, various modernist performers have demonstrated considerable skill in thinking pantomimically. But in the postmodern performance culture, performers often assume that thinking about “other identities” belongs to those who create texts, writers, dramatists, people who find imaginary identities more alluring than real ones, than performers themselves. In relation to pantomime, however, performers are not unique in their postmodern attitudes. The writing of pantomime scenarios since Handke’s Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wußten (1992) is non-existent and practically so since the 1920s. Pantomime has simply disappeared from the literary imagination, despite the numerous fascinating scenarios composed by literary authors in the modernist era. Hartmut Vollmer (b. 1957), who has done so much to retrieve from obscurity the Austro-German literary pantomime, believes that the expressive and aesthetic power of pantomime expands or deepens through association with literary texts. He therefore has published a slender book, Pantomimisches Lernen im Deutschunterricht: Ein Beitrag zur Förderung des sinnlichen Verstehens (2012), in which he proposes that pantomime instruction in German public schools should use literary texts to inspire students and to develop their “sensual understanding” of the world, their “freedom of fantasy,” and the “playful” expression of their bodies (Vollmer 2012b: 26). He accepts the argument advanced with monumental zeal in a nearly 700-page dissertation, Pädagogik der Pantomime (1997), by Frank Nickel, who proposes that pantomime instruction is uniquely capable of developing communication skills and achieving an educational experience that “integrates body, mind, and soul” (Vollmer 2012b: 11). But Vollmer contends that the benefits of school pantomime instruction have deeper impact on youthful consciousness when the instruction involves a close relationship to literature. His explication of this relationship, however, rests upon a limited, old-fashioned idea of pantomime or, perhaps more accurately, an idea of pantomime that has circulated in Germany among teachers since the 1960s and supposedly descends from Decroux by way of Soubeyran but which actually does something different from what either man wanted pantomime to do (19). Vollmer treats pantomime as a gestural language; it is the translation of moods, ideas, and words into bodily gestures. To learn pantomime, he asserts, is to use gestures to invoke imaginary objects, people, or conditions (43). Like so many books that instruct the reader on how to perform pantomime, Vollmer includes exercises to assist the teacher in organizing a pantomime curriculum for children. For example, following the book Pantomime für Kinder (1975), by Pat Keysell (1926-2009), an English mime who produced BBC television shows for deaf children and taught at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, children can learn to mime the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. Fire: “The children lie scattered about like dry branches. Someone lets a burning match fall—sparks flare, and immediately the first branch begins to crackle. The fire spreads, grabs one finger after the other, the arms, the legs, until eventually the whole body burns. […] Flames are like passions, like anger. The movement must come from the center of the body, there must one find the power—not just in the movement of the arms” (Keysell 1985: 74; Vollmer 2012b: 45). Children can also perform the four seasons or different animals. Dog: watchful-observant; cat: creeping; duck: waddling; horse: pompous, galloping; frog: bouncing (45). And children can learn to signify pantomimically various emotions, such as happiness, anxiety, fury, aggression, understanding, surprise, and arrogance. They then may move on to signifying “roles,” “from earliest childhood to great age”: Mother, Father, Prince, Grandmother, Rich Person, Poor Person, and so forth, keeping in mind the importance of evoking “a social environment” (47). Perhaps wisely, Vollmer does not present examples of how one might signify these emotions or roles, for different children might differently “translate” into pantomime these emotions or roles, and pantomime would hardly embody a “freedom of fantasy” if students had to learn a “correct” way of signifying them, even though with fire and the animals a correct way seems implied. At the same time, though, he does not clarify how a teacher or spectator should evaluate a child’s performance of these roles. On what basis does the child improve her performance in relation to the “translation” of the emotion or role? Vollmer suggests that the child should not signify Father or Rich Person as a result of observations in real life; rather, the child should strive for a “generalized, stylized” image of fatherliness or wealth to achieve clarity of communication (47-48). But what is the nature and source of this abstracted gestural image of the Father or the Rich Person? The question only reinforces the sense that the performer translates something already codified into gesture rather than imitates something actually seen or even imagined. Although he refers to “competencies” in pantomimic signification, he does not explain how one measures these competencies, because competency really means skill at translating a socially coded idea of Father or Rich Person into “appropriate” gestures rather than pantomimic skill at narrating an experience of fatherliness or wealth through physical actions. In this respect, pantomime instruction serves to integrate the child into the society that has constructed the code.
Vollmer moves on to suggest seventeen scenic situations that children can perform in the classroom in an improvised manner, such as: “A child visits a shoe store with his parents. He tries on various shoes, shows his pleasures and distastes. What else can happen? What encounters or experiences in the shoe store are thinkable?” Or: “A family travels by car on a vacation trip. On the highway they run into a traffic jam. How do the family members respond? In a larger time frame of play, the children can stage the arrival at a hotel or camping site.” Or: “In the morning, a married couple wakes up in their bedroom. Stretching their bodies, they try to shake off their sleepiness. Then they drift into the bathroom to make themselves fresh. Subsequently they have breakfast. Strange, comic things transpire. What?” (52-53). Such scenic situations allow for different interpretations by the children, and Vollmer suggests that child spectators assist the performers in constructing the scenes, which might begin with the use of spoken dialogue and then proceed with the incremental elimination of words. But the situations remain hypothetical “exercises” insofar as Vollmer does not describe any actual application of them, any account of how real children responded to the suggested situations. The situations, however, apparently function as preparation for the main goal of school pantomime instruction—the interpretation of literary texts. To create space for pantomime instruction in the public school curriculum, Vollmer finds justification in the official guidelines for the appreciation of literary texts, which are important in activating the imagination, in building awareness of “unfamiliar” lives, places, sensations, and times, for reading is not only a cognitive activity, but a sensual, emotional experience (60). Pantomime from this perspective is a “sensualization of language.” Vollmer then discusses dramatic, prose, poetic, and non-fiction texts that children can interpret pantomimically. These include, among others, the shaving scene from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837), the children’s novel Das war der Hirbel (1973) by Peter Härtling (1933-2017), Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1912), small poems by Ursula Wölfel (1922-2014), Bertolt Brecht, Christa Reinig (1926-2008), and Henriette Hardenberg (1894-1993), and a small newspaper article about insects resisting pesticides (66-106). By translating these texts into physical gestures, Vollmer contends, children gain a deeper appreciation of the power of words to affect them viscerally while enhancing their analytical skills, although, again, he does not provide empirical evidence for this assertion nor does he give examples of how children might or actually pantomimically interpret any of these texts. He only describes, persuasively, why the texts offer good opportunities for pantomimic interpretation. Thus, the primary goal of pantomime instruction is not to improve skill at pantomimic communication, but to deepen appreciation for literature. It is a mode of translation that becomes entangled with the interpretation of words. Pantomimic thinking then becomes synonymous with translating, with correlating words and “appropriate” gestures, whereas pantomimic thinking, in the realm of theater and film history, largely means constructing narratives through physical actions. While some of the texts, especially by the poets, contain intimations of pantomimic thinking in their descriptions of physical actions, Vollmer does not examine the process by which one puts together a series of physical actions; he only explains how pantomime might make the performer appreciative of a meaning he ascribes to the text. Toward the end of his book, he discusses two pantomime scenarios by literary authors—Hermann Bahr’s Die Pantomime vom braven Manne (1892) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Das fremde Mädchen (1911)—but mostly as examples of how pantomime has achieved an underestimated significance in Austro-German literary history. He thinks children are capable of performing these scenarios as the culmination of their instruction in the earlier stages of pantomimic activity or at least capable of discussing them in class in relation to pedagogic questions such as: Why did Hofmannsthal choose to present his subject matter through pantomime? How does the piece gain expressive power through pantomime rather than through spoken dialogue? He includes still photos from the 1911 theatrical production and the vanished 1913 film production of Das fremde Mädchen, but advises teachers not to show the pictures to students for fear that the images would influence how the students perform the work (126-127), rendering the point of publishing the pictures obscure and reinforcing the implication throughout the book that one does not learn pantomime by observing it. Vollmer could have made reference to any number of excellent examples of silent film pantomime, but invariably those examples were not the work of esteemed literary authors. School pantomime instruction thus remains subordinate to instruction in literature and to bolstering the authority of literary authors in guiding bodily performance.
Despite the problems with Vollmer’s thinking about pantomime and school education, his proposals for school pantomime instruction deserve implementation, even if evidence is lacking to support the claim that pantomime instruction enhances the learning of literature or social integration or cognitive skills, for learning is always more or other than what one teaches. Learning to appreciate literature is a good thing, and if pantomime instruction helps to appreciate literature, then it, too, is a good thing. But a more serious problem is the failure of the literary imagination to produce much at all in the way of pantomime scenarios since the 1920s, and Vollmer does not even acknowledge the problem in his zeal to connect pantomime instruction to literary texts. He sees that literature helps performers to construct “other identities,” but he seems unable to explain why writers have failed to create these other identities for theatrical pantomime since the 1920s, except indirectly through poems and stories meant mostly to be read, and have left it to performers to produce pantomimes. It may be that pantomimic thinking cannot be taught, for it involves a mysterious learning process derived from observing pantomime performances and observing the performance of physical actions by persons in life itself. Pantomimic thinking entails a cognitive capacity to identify a significance for physical actions without further knowledge, through language, of the motives for the actions. Angna Enters discovered her own pantomimic imagination largely through looking at pictures and inventing in her mind actions performed before or after the moment captured by a picture. The ambiguities of signification, the corporeal “hieroglyphics,” as Mallarmé called them, so often associated with pantomimic action are always a problem for educational institutions, which generally exist to provide a unified basis for “understanding” the world. Since the reign of Tiberius in the Roman Empire, pantomime has resisted codification of its bodily significations, has operated most powerfully outside of academic systems for standardizing or regulating the “meaning” of physical actions. Dance academies expect pantomime to conform to “rules” established by dance—or just exclude pantomime altogether. Established or mainstream theater in the Christian world has sanctified speech, the authority of the Word, as a way to control the ambiguity of bodily actions. For a long time, it has simply never occurred to people who write for the theater to write pantomimes anymore than it occurred to anyone in the Roman Empire, other than Seneca, to write plays with spoken dialogue, and nobody in the Roman Empire considered Seneca a man of the theater. The Austro-German writers of pantomime scenarios that Vollmer has retrieved from neglect never studied pantomime nor did they even see much pantomime performance beyond early specimens of silent film. These authors imply that a deep distrust of speech and language is not essential to the formation of a pantomimic imagination. Rather, what is essential is a unique capacity to see that speech or language is not necessary to “understand” a physical action, to become emotionally invested in a physical action seen in relation to an actor’s performance of actions, to music, to silence, and to scenic elements. The process of composing a pantomimic narrative, of building a sequence of physical actions that emotionally engage the spectator with some degree of seriousness, is extremely difficult. Even those literary authors who wrote pantomime scenarios in the early modernist era were unable to write more than two or three. Film pantomime is somewhat easier to do because filmmakers can rely on numerous cinematic devices to engage the spectator with the image. Theater culture has not marginalized pantomime because audiences do not care for it—audiences generally find pantomime fascinating when it reveals the strangeness of human actions. The talent and passion for producing emotionally dramatic pantomimic narratives is far too rare for mainstream theater culture to rely on it. It is rare because of large-scale social-historical constraints on the capacity of people to accommodate the ambiguity of human actions. In the Roman Empire, pantomime prevailed to the exclusion of any other theater because a pervasive ideology of metamorphosis encouraged a mode of performance that detached the body from words (laws), which functioned largely to determine where people belonged within a complex social hierarchy. Pantomime thus presented an image of freedom embedded in the multiplicity of identities projected by the unspeaking body. Christianity has encouraged a pervasive ideology of a unified self, of unity between word and action, between voice and body, to contain or diminish the ambiguities of meaning or identity associated with the performance of physical actions. In its serious manifestations, pantomime exists to estrange its audience from any unified idea, illusion, or understanding of its society or itself. It exists to amplify the subjectivity of the spectator; its ambiguities expand the spectator’s responsibility for the meaning of action. Serious pantomime simultaneously deepens the spectator’s sense of being alone, distinct, and free.
Pantomime is not now in a culminating or decisive moment in its long, volatile history. The art does not face any crisis confronting its existence, nor is it enjoying a time of peculiar prosperity, especially when compared to the pantomime mania of the eighteenth century or to the half dozen centuries in which pantomime totally dominated the concept of theater in the Roman Empire. But since the beginning of the twentieth century, the varieties of pantomimic performance and imagination have far exceeded the scope of pantomime in the nineteenth century, when, after the Napoleonic era, almost no one seemed able to imagine pantomime without Pierrot. For many decades, Pierrot and Pierrot-like emulators were, in popular consciousness, synonymous with pantomime, even though Pierrot also signified a profound and seemingly interminable decadence of French pantomimic imagination. Pierrot caused many to avoid the word “pantomime” to describe their voiceless performances, including even the descendents of the Pierrot archetype responsible for the postwar “mime culture.” The fluidity of postmodern aesthetic categories has allowed the pantomimic imagination to diversify and operate under terms such as “movement theater,” “visual theater,” and “intermedial performance,” which may include pantomimic action without being completely defined by it. Pantomime has adapted well to a postmodern performance environment that encourages the dissolution of aesthetic, linguistic, political, and cultural boundaries to reach a “global” or international audience, which responds enthusiastically to what bodies “tell” instead of what texts prescribe or voices conceal.
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Pantomime and Postmodern Performance
Performer-driven productions of voiceless performance tend to build narratives out of the physical skills of the performers, so that narratives organize the sequential display of one skill after another. For example, the Ockham’s Razor Theatre Company, formed in 2004 and based in Bristol, England, is a recurring guest of the London Mime Festival. The company specializes in “aerial theater and circus,” in which performers construct a variety of complex, choreographed stunts using ropes, swings, floating platforms, rotating wheels, and mobile poles. The physical virtuosity of individual performers depends on collaboration with other performers, on the skillful display of teamwork: thus, a message of the shows is that the ability of humans to navigate and adapt to complicated environments on which one lacks secure footing requires trust in the ability of others to provide support, assistance, or “balance” when taking action. This type of show, made hugely popular by Cirque du Soleil, was always a part of circus performance, except that Ockham’s Razor subdues theatricality and eliminates any notion of conflict from the narrative. The performers wear drab costumes or “working clothes” rather than the glamorous costumes and masks that circus performers wore in earlier times to show that they were rare, “special,” even alien creatures. The narrative, devoid of conflict, avoids altogether any sense of dangerous, “death-defying” drama associated with the old circus trapeze and tightrope acts. The solo mime performances inspired by Marcel Marceau also featured narratives that displayed the gestural skills of the mime, usually through the evocation of imaginary objects, but these performances adopted the theatrical pretense of creating a character, a performance persona, a Pierrot or Bip, even if Decroux never approved of even this degree of theatricality in mime. Postmodern performance—or postdramatic theater, as Hans-Thies Lehmann calls it—favors performances that “free” narrative from the pressure to engage the spectator through the enactment of conflicts that immerse audiences in the emotional intoxications provoked by imaginary lives. The postdramatic theater is “ceremonial” rather than dramatic:
Postdramatic theatre […] liberates the formal, ostentatious moment of ceremony from its sole function of enhancing attention and valorizes it for its own sake, as an aesthetic quality. […] The whole spectrum of movements and processes that have no referent but are presented with heightened precision; events of peculiarly formalized communality; musical-rhythmic or visual-architectonic constructs of development; para-ritual forms, as well as the […] ceremony of the body and of presence; the emphatically or monumentally accentuated ostentation of the presentation (Lehmann 2006: 69).
By avoiding conflict and emphasizing “ceremonial” actions, post dramatic theater constructs “non-hierarchical” relations between performers, between performers and “text,” and between performers and spectators (86-87). The object of performance is to create an image of a non-hierarchical community that is “free” of conflict, which is invariably the source and result of struggles for power that cause social pathologies. “The actor of postdramatic theatre is often no longer the actor of a role but a performer offering his/her presence on stage for contemplation” (135). In other words, the narrative for postdramatic voiceless performance consists of “scenically dynamic formations” that reveal the reality (or “presence”) of the body through the performers’ skillful application of physical techniques, which create an image or microcosm of a non-hierarchical society. Postdramatic theater constructs a “state” of equilibrium, in which all performance components can claim an equality of value or significance, for the teamwork that creates the production is the ceremonial goal of production, not anything the production purports to “represent” or imagine outside of the moment of performance (68). But this ideological foundation for performance is really not much different from Decroux’s idea of mime as the transformation of bodies into abstract forms. As with Decroux’s mime cult, this postmodern vision of performance as the microcosm of a non-hierarchical community depends on a sequestering of the performers from the world: on the stage or in the studio, the performers feel sufficiently secure with each other to build the team, the non-hierachical community. They trust each other more than they trust in the “roles” or “characters” that inhabit the narratives devised by a world riddled with conflict, struggles for power and control over desires. This is an ideology that is actually deeply distrustful of theater, of masks, of the simulations, disguises, and deceptions entailed in the acquisition and circulation of power, of bodies that always contain “other identities” rather than a “real,” absolute, authentic self. But it is an ideology that appeals to people who want to perform, to display performance skills, without having to display acting skills. It is also an ideology that appeals to some postmodern audiences that want speechless bodies to signify an end to conflict, an end to the ancient struggle for control over the narrative of what the body “tells.”
It is therefore possible that pantomime is inherently incapable of postmodern performance; after all, in its original meaning and in nearly all applications of the word, it refers to performers who “imitate” others. Pantomime could build a firm, if neglected, place in modernism, but in Lehmann’s theoretical framework it was perhaps too enamored of modernism to be worthy of postmodernism. It is also possible, though, that performers lack the skill to contruct narratives involving “other identities” than those they regard as their “own.” Postmodernism then provides the aesthetic ideology that justifies performance designed to dissolve the apparently unhealthy distance between “real” and imaginary identities by eliminating imaginary identities altogether, for these are unnecessary or irrelevant in clarifying or amplifying the value of the presumed real identity of the performer, which is who you are when you are not in “somebody else’s” story, when you do not have to build actions around the motives, goals, or qualities of people other than yourself and the people you trust as part of your team. But even this argument seems limited in its ability to explain why so much of postmodern voiceless performance favors narratives of no greater ambition than the sequential display of physical skills in “difficult” environments. It is perhaps more plausible to argue that postmodernism provides access to performance by performers who lack skill in acting or in the construction of conflict-oriented narratives, and this expanded access is the basis for the non-hierachical society envisioned by the postmodern sensibility. The ancient Roman pantomime was also performer-driven: performers created pantomimic narratives out of the conflict between competing identities, mortal and divine, within what the Romans regarded as the “self.” Moreover, pantomimes and their claques created further drama out of the competition between each other. But this form of performance narrative, no matter how flexible and innovative, would have no place in the postmodern performance culture as Lehmann conceives it because it embodies an ideology of bodily “metamorphosis” that arises from a hierarchical, imperial society. The solo pantomimes of Ilka Schönbein and Veronika Karsai resemble the Roman pantomimic narrative structures, but they, too, would not fit into the postmodern performance culture, because their performances also dramatize the multiplicity of identities within the body of the performer, and this multiplicity of identities is synonymous with conflict between them. The struggle between identities within the self is the foundation of a hierarchical organization of identities within and external to the body.
Conflict-oriented ensemble pantomime narratives by performer-driven groups may display fine teamwork, but they would not qualify as postmodern according to Lehmann because they remain attached to hierarchical representations of identity, which invariably include imaginary identities, for consolidations of power and the formation of hierarchies depend inevitably on the construction of imaginary or possible identities. Familie Flöz is a pantomime company based, since 2001, in Berlin. Hajo Schüler (b. 1971) and Markus Michalkowski (b. 1971) formed the company in 1994 while they were acting students at the Folkwang Schule in Essen. In the late 1990s, Michael Vogel (b.1962), a theater director, joined the company and has collaborated with Schüler on the direction of the shows since 1998. The company abandoned speech altogether in its productions when it staged Ristorante Immortale (1998), and all of its productions since then have been pantomimes. Familie Flöz specializes in comic scenes based on themes from mundane contemporary reality. A distinctive feature of the company’s productions is that all the actors wear bizarre, slightly grotesque, vaguely porcine, flesh-colored masks that makes the characters seem like members of a mutant subspecies or tribe of humanity, even though they inhabit a very familiar bourgeois world (cf., Vogel 2001). Much of the action performed by the ensemble, which usually involves four actors who each play multiple roles, consists of slapstick gags and intricate relations between actions and sound or musical effects, such as the use of different dog barks by unseen dogs. In Ristorante Immortale, all the action depicts interactions between the incompetent staff members of a decrepit Italian restaurant that has no customers; in Teatro Delusio (2004), the action occurs backstage during the performance of an opera; in Hotel Paradiso(2008) the action unfolds in the lobby of a modest hotel, whose modesty serves in various comic ways to conceal the criminality, perversity, fraudulence, or pathos of the staff and guests. The company began using video imagery in its productions with Garage d’Or (2010), which depicted three middle-aged men, bored with their wives and domestic life, who escape, through a strange door, into a fantasy of traveling into outer space and “into the darkest depths of their own selves.” In Haydi! (2014), the company tackled the theme of refugee immigration with a scenario about a young, idealistic border agency official who finds his political, humanitarian aspirations compromised or undermined by bureaucratic careerism, “paragraph pedants, office zombies,” and the mercantile self-interest of his superiors. While Familie Flöz makes abundant and inventive use of slapstick gags, the company is peculiarly effective at suddenly inserting moments of pathos, emotionally dark perturbations. Infinita (2006), for example, consists of discrete scenes describing the beginning and the end of life. In one scene, a pair of toddlers tries to steal the doll of a third toddler in a crib. The efforts of the pair to enter the crib and the clumsy resistance of the third are simultaneously funny and touching, because the scene also shows how struggles for power and possession shape human relations at the very beginning of life. A fourth child enters, a little girl, who helps the third toddler escape the crib with his doll, leaving the bully pair in the cage. But as he leaves with the little girl, the third toddler swats one of the other toddlers with the doll [Figure 118]. In another scene, the little girl perches on the edge of an expressionistically oversize table and lifts her skirt to the three toddlers on the floor below her, and they gaze at her in awe, as if receiving a sign from a goddess. In yet another scene, three old men in white suits sit on a bench along with a fourth in a wheel chair. The men perform a musical piece by tapping their canes and feet while at the same time competing with each other by sneaking swats at each other and then performing little dances with their canes, as if relentless competitiveness is the thing keeping them alive. A particularly memorable example of the company’s work is a scene in which a man sits on a bench apparently preparing a dish while his wife sits beside him bird-watching with the help of a guide book. A duck flying overhead fills her with rapture, and she shows her husband the identity of the bird in the book. A hunter then struts in and takes a commanding, intimidating pose on the bench. When another duck flies overhead, he shoots it down with arrogant satisfaction. The woman kneels before the corpse, tries to revive it, cradles it, and tries to shame the oblivious hunter, who has seized the corpse and carries it like a trophy. The husband intervenes and casts a scolding stare at the hunter, who accepts that he has also deeply wounded the woman. He gives the husband the doll-corpse and his stick rifle. He picks up a rose and offers it to the woman. She seems touched; he offers her his arm, and they wander off together, leaving the husband holding the corpse and the rifle. Stunned, he wanders away in the opposite direction, but first picks up his wife’s bird watching book. The scene seems simple in its dramatization of how physical actions radically change people’s attitudes toward each other. Yet such scenes are quite rare in voiceless performance, even if they carry a vague reminiscence of old commedia schema, because it is so difficult to construct pantomimic narratives, to think pantomimically. Familie Flöz may not be postmodern performance, but it operates in a postmodern or postdramatic culture that uses the word “mime,” as in London Mime Festival, to present self-identified, performer-driven postmodern performances. More precisely, postmodernism functions to destabilize terms like “mime” (or make the word more “inclusive”) rather than to define any particular type of performance that does not rely on a prescriptive text or a “linear” idea of narrative or a desire to represent imagined lives.
Figure 118: Scenes from the Familie Flöz production of Infinita, Berlin, 2006. Photos: Andrea Zani.
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical ideology: Table of Contents
The London International Mime Festival
Since the 1990s, varieties of voiceless performance in the theater have emerged that either expand the definition of pantomime or, more likely, render inadequate the “mime culture” idea of performance issuing from Paris so pervasively from the 1950s to the 1980s, for after all, performers and audiences in various countries had moved beyond French-defined mime culture well before 1990. In Eastern Europe, however, performers were less afraid than in Western countries to use the term “pantomime” to describe their performances. Except for Handke’s Die Stunde da wir nichts von einander wussten, the world literary imagination had nothing to do with this project of expanding the definition of theatrical pantomime since 1990. Because mainstream theater institutions were unable to make a stable place for pantomime, the mime culture, scattered across a multitude of small, often non-professional troupes, institutionalized itself not only through the mime schools that began to proliferate in the 1960s, but through international mime festivals formed in conjunction with the networks of mime schools. The problem with the festival format was that it insulated mime culture: mimes performed largely for other mimes, and festivals functioned like professional conferences. Festivals did little to expand the space for pantomime in theater culture outside of the mime culture network. Instead, festivals, with their numerous auxiliary workshops and technique demonstrations, emphasized mime as a pedagogic enterprise. Learning mime was an end in itself, a path to the self-development of the performer; under the spell of Decroux, mimes quite often regarded performances for diverse audiences outside of the mime network as an unhealthy compromise of pedagogic ideals. The pedagogic environment persistently stressed the display of performer skills, dexterity of technique, at the expense of narrative innovation, representational imagination, or scenic complexity. This academicization of mime has led to the creation, in 2011, of the Mime Centrum in Berlin, with its busy schedule of workshops, lectures, demonstrations, trainings, and archival activities, but it has not led to any pantomime performance in subsidized theaters in Berlin or indeed in any German subsidized theaters other than revivals of Handke’s pantomime dramas from 1969 and 1992. The Mime Centrum primarily serves teachers and students who wish to enhance the instructional quality of classroom and studio activities. In Germany, pantomime has become an acceptable therapeutic activity in public schools for improving socialization and communication skills as well as body awareness; it is a way of integrating children into the society. While it is probably a beneficial aim, pedagogic pantomime reinforces the perception that pantomime is primarily an activity for children and young people and therefore detached from “serious” artistic ambition.
The London International Mime Festival, established in 1977, is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious of the international mime festivals. The Festival began through the initiative of the English clown-mime Nola Rae (b. 1950), who had studied under Marcel Marceau. She persuaded a theater manager, Joseph Seelig (b. 1948), to organize the event at a theater he managed in London. Seelig soon soon supervised the operations of several theaters, and in 1986, he began co-directing the Festival with Helen Lannaghan. Since then, the Festival has followed their shared vision of voiceless performance, although Seelig has said that the word “mime” is not accurate to describe the scope of the Festival (Martin 2012: 2). Nola Rae proposed the Festival because she felt the public needed a larger idea of pantomime than the media’s tendency to reduce it to Marcel Marceau, if not the annual Christmas pantomime. The Festival has always brought in performers and companies from different countries, but for economic reasons, the performances are on a small scale, though not without challenging technical and physical complexities. A diverse array of voiceless performances have filled Festival programs, including acrobatics, jugglers, quasi-dance concerts, puppet and marionette shows, circus stunts, kinetic sculptures, performance art ritual actions, and forms of “physical theater,” in which performers show different movements or effects they can create with their bodies rather than represent characters or construct narratives out of a sequential, linear logic of physical actions. Many of these performances are not pantomime insofar as the performers do not “imitate” others, as is implied in the original meaning of the word. The Festival treats all these types of voiceless performance as “mime” apparently under the assumption that the word is more vague or more inclusive in its meaning and connotations than the word “pantomime” and thus will attract a wider range of spectators. The Festival unfolds in different theaters and neighborhoods throughout London and attracts a much less unified audience than festivals organized by the mime culture networks established in the 1970s. Originally, Seelig promoted a festival of “mime and visual theater,” but he soon dropped the term “visual theater,” because it seemed even more vague or confusing than just “mime” to describe voiceless performance that was not dance: spectators tended to regard any kind of theater performance as a visual experience anyway, even if some performance groups used the term to describe speechless, though by no means soundless, performances emphasizing dynamic imagery, stunts, technical effects, acrobatics and/or bodily communication, including sometimes but not always pantomime. Even in 2016, Seelig complained about the “unnatural prejudice” against mime that the Festival has sought to dissolve, but in his efforts to redefine mime, he has inadvertently reinforced a prejudice against “pantomime,” insofar as this word presumably has come under the control of school teachers or become implacably identified with the Christmas pageant and thus irreparably signifies an infantilizing mode of bodily performance (Martin 2012: 2). Nevertheless, while it is hardly comprehensive in its presentation of voiceless performance since 1977, the Festival has across its history provided a good cross section of “mime” that reveals how postmodern aesthetics has destabilized the modernist semantic relationship between “mime,” “pantomime,” and “visual theater.”
Many of the voiceless performances featured at the Festival employ tropes or unique performance devices that broaden the meaning of mime or pantomime while narrowing the scope of their performance aesthetic, so that they specialize in applying the trope rather than building different performance strategies around different types of narrative. For example, a French group led by Camille Boitel (b. 1979) has specialized in scenes wherein characters inhabit mundane environments of evolving chaos. The characters, in L’Immédiat (2002), perform routine tasks, such as getting dressed, while the clutter of daily life collapses around them: tables crumble, objects fall off walls, shelves tumble, walls cave in; the characters stumble over things, bang into them, fumble their way through doorways or underneath tables or chairs; they treat cabinets or closets as looming obstacles or escape hatches; they treat other bodies as objects in need of removal or displacement. The entire scene dramatizes the precarious, perpetually transforming environment of daily life in which no one who inhabits the environment seems in control of it. The company’s productions require fantastically detailed technical cues and intricately engineered props and scenic structures, with some of their more recent productions requiring many thousands of objects, all of which move from one place to another on the stage (cf. Gallagher 2016). By contrast, the Belgian Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté, founded in 1985 by Nicole Mossoux (b. 1956) and Patrick Bonté (b. 1956), uses super-abstract, bare, cold, minimalistic settings, often bathed in cold blue or white light, to emphasize the power of bodies to dominate, override, or negate any context. More precisely, the company focuses on how the display of bodies and physical responses to bodies form groups, communities, and power relations between members of the communities, power relations between bodies. The performers highlight gestures, poses, postures, “impostures,” and movements that signify their power to attract, scrutinize, adjust, ignore, study, devalue, glorify, rank, re-position, assemble, or separate other bodies, usually accompanied by ominous, heavy electronic soundscapes. Juste ciel (1985/2012) builds a 45-minute solo piece out of gestures of prayer, supplication, and obeisance. Some of the company’s pieces feature complete nudity of both men and women: Les dernières hallucinations de Lucas Cranach l’Ancien (1991), Hurricane (2001), Le corps et la mélancolie (2006), Nuit sur le monde (2007), Les corps magnétiques (2009), Les buveuses de café (2013). Although Mossoux studied under French ballet choreographer Maurice Béjart (1927-2007), her works with Bonté are not dance, but elaborately choreographed kinetic poses, like clinical or scholarly visual analyses or catalogues of bodily signifying practices. When productions occasionally contain scenic props, these are grandiosely symbolic, such as the enormous bed in Les sœurs de Sardanapale (1994) on which the performers pounce, lounge, leap, crawl around, or submerge themselves. Migrations (2012) featured seven performers skating their power relations on an ice rink. In Les sœurs de Sardanapale, Les buveuses de café, and Taste of Poison (2017), the company makes very imaginative uses of tables to reveal how people use them to show their control over their bodies or their control over other bodies. Katafalk (2002) features a half-nude woman who lies, stands, or crouches on a table or platform while video images loom behind, on, or before her. Some of these video images depict her wearing a bizarre mask, but the scale of these images varies, so that she interacts with sometimes huge, sometimes equivalent, and sometimes small images of herself. In one scene, she lies, as if asleep, while an image of a girl bounces up and down on her. At the end of the piece it is difficult to differentiate the real woman from the video image of her; as she lies perfectly still on the platform, she also seems to levitate, as the hovering video image of her lying on the platform replaces the living performance of her lying. But then another image enters of her lying, nude with pearl-like golden lights coiling around her body, which has become glistening black. She undulates as the image recedes into the darkness (Mossoux-Bonté 2018). The piece dramatizes an evolving conflict between a body and images of it that are presumably the projections of an internal, psychic attempt to control the idea of a “self.” It is exceptionally effective in showing how electronic image technology “enters” the body and controls the very idea of the self. But this concept of a projected self defined by image technology controlling a “real” self derives from the puppet aesthetic that Mossou explored with Twin Houses (1994). Here Mossou used five different puppets or “mannequins,” male and female, attached to one shoulder-arm or the other, to show, in five scenes, how the puppet controlled the puppeteer, how different “projections” of her identity, her sexuality, her body transform her into a puppet or at least undermine distinctions between the “human” self and the projected self (cf. Piris 2014: 33-35).
The perceptual trope of technology erasing distinctions between puppet and puppeteer has given rise to the concept of pantomime performed by non-humans or robots. Several companies specialize in such performances. The French company L’Insolite Mécanique, in which Magali Rousseau is the only human performer, specializes in Rousseau’s interactions with delicately, mechanically constructed birds and insects, as in her Je brasse de l’air/Lift Off (2014), in which she depicts “a little girl who wishes to escape by becoming a master of the air,” although the escape depends on creating completely robotized creatures rather than becoming immersed in an intensified, glorified image of natural flying creatures. In 2011, the Israeli theater director Amit Drori created Savanna, a performance involving the interaction of robotized animals resembling African wildlife, such as a giraffe, an antelope, a stork, a monkey, a tortoise, and an elephant. Because the robotized creatures interact with their human creators, Drori contends that the performance dramatizes the “discovery of nature” rather than the replacement of it (Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne 2011). A more completely robotic type of pantomimic performance comes from the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, created in 1989 in St. Petersburg by a woodcarver, Eduard Bersudsky (b. 1939), and his wife, the theater director Tatyana Jakovskaya (b. 1947); since 1995, the company has resided in Glasgow, Scotland. Bersudsky builds enormous kinetic sculptures involving sometimes hundreds of moving parts and figurines attached to twirling mobiles, rotating wheels, swinging pendulums, pumping levers, or churning conveyer belts. The dynamic lighting designs, by Sergey Jakovsky (b. 1980), constantly change perception of the fantastic apparatus. For Bersudsky, this elaborate updating of the archaic automata performance represents a “mechanical paradise” designed by entirely invisible humans and operating completely according to inhuman laws of physics (cf. Kassabova 2013). But this form of robotic pantomime carries with it a vaguely non-modern aura of fairground quaintness, an extravagant obsession with creating a “happier world,” as Jakovskaya says, out of toys, with invoking a childhood feeling of control over objects, an experience entirely opposite to that staged by Boitel.
A far more demonic vision of robotic pantomime is the work of Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), which has never performed at the London Mime Festival or attempted any association with pantomimic theater. Founded in 1978 in San Francisco by Mark Pauline (b. 1953), an art school graduate, the company specialized in outdoor performances involving very large, remotely controlled robots built out of recycled machine parts (cf. Hicks 2012). The machines looked like monstrous predators, for Pauline equipped them with large claws, hammers, ramrods, torches, and explosives. The object of performance was for the machines to attack and destroy each other, creating an orgy of destruction. For a while in the 1980s, Pauline amplified the violence of the performance by including the corpses of slaughterhouse animals. Productions of SRL reached enormous audiences internationally. A peculiar feature of the machines was that they projected unique personas, albeit sinister and menacing, and spectators cared about which machines would “win” or survive the contest. It was emotionally unnerving to watch a hobbled robot continue to attack and struggle to keep moving, so that the robots actually seemed “alive,” because of their somehow visceral ability to simulate pain, affliction. The robotic pantomimes of SRL proposed that technology inescapably creates destruction, expands capacities for violence, imposes conditions of sacrifice, is an intimation of death. Though humans create the performance, their “invisibility” during the performance implies that the violence is inherent to technology, regardless of whether humans created it. It thus seems as if the machines come from an alien world, even though humans created them out of the debris of their own world.
However, in the twenty-first century, a much more postmodern manifestation of robotic pantomime has emerged through motion capture technology. This technology “captures” the movement of bodies without showing the body itself. The capture of movement alone allows the image-maker to “map” the movements onto different bodies and to place these bodies and their movements in different physical contexts. To capture movements, performers wear special body suits covered with sensors, which send signals to a computer that tracks the movement of the sensors. The more sensors the performer wears the more movement data the computer will record. Motion capture can record facial or hand movements with great precision. Some motion capture systems can handle ten or twelve bodies moving at the same time. But generally, to create large ensemble scenes, it is more effective to take data from individual bodies and combine them with data from other bodies to produce ensemble scenes. Motion capture allows an artist to create performance with a wider range of bodies and movements than is possible in live performance. Movements of humans can be mapped onto objects, so that it is possible, for example, to have a chair crawling like a human. The image-maker can model bodies through programs that either provide numerous body models or allow the artist to construct entirely original bodies. In the modeling process, bodies can be distorted or transformed while the movement remains stable. With motion capture, the camera sees the action at 360 degrees and thus allows the image-maker to see the action from any angle and move in or away from the action at will and at varying speeds. Aside from its scientific use related to biokinetics, physical therapies, and athletic performance, motion capture provides the basis for movements and actions performed by characters and objects in many video games, 3D animations, and live action motion pictures. Occasionally theater productions have used motion capture for unusual spectacular effects, such as The Royal Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the performance of the magical character Ariel was a projection achieved through motion capture. But motion capture is most likely to operate most significantly in projects that are independent of live performance—in performances intended for digital distribution and consumption. The main reason for using the technology is to extend the movements of the body beyond the moment of their performance, to show how a movement inhabits other bodies, things, or spaces, to show how movement or action has a “life of its own,” so to speak, independent of the bodies that perform it (cf. Jochum 2014). The problem with motion capture in relation to pantomime is that the potential of the technology greatly exceeds the imagination of those who might use it. Digital image technology requires a different kind of pantomimic imagination and a different approach to what pantomime “says” or “means” in relation to audiences who exist outside of the conventional live performance culture. For example, motion capture might be an effective way to reconstruct ancient Roman pantomime within different performance contexts or in relation to competing ways of performing the roles assumed by the actors in the ancient performance spaces. But perhaps the power of motion capture is more alluring when applied to achieving the ancient Roman pantomime goal of revealing the “metamorphosis” of the body, of showing how an action transforms or migrates from one body to another. Such an application may require a pantomimic narrative imagination such as the Romans possessed but which seems completely outside of the modernist or postmodern performance imagination, for at the moment, pantomimic action achieved through the technology remains overwhelmingly subordinate to cinematic narratives that depend heavily on a great deal of speech to “explain” the action. It is largely in video games that motion capture-derived pantomime, with intensely realistic imagery, sometimes renders speech “unnecessary,” as Bergman remarked. The future of robotized pantomime perhaps resides in digital image technology, whereby motion capture can build large databases or dictionaries of movements and actions from which consumers can purchase or at least download specific tropes and apply them to arrays of model bodies and objects to construct their own narratives for distribution across digital media that quite possibly replace or diminish the need to consume already made narratives. In this future, the virtual reality does not replace “live” reality; it simply has more authority than live reality insofar as it is a record of life rather than a memory of it: to construct identities through robotized pantomimic actions intensifies pressure on consumers to model themselves after the images they create and after the narratives they share, which probably means that their lives and bodies would “metamorphose” in relation to images or pantomimic objectifications of themselves that they control. In this respect, Mossou’s Katafalk, which hauntingly depicts how the electronic image “enters” the body and defines the self, seems prophetic.
But robotic pantomime probably has a minor place in the general future of pantomime. After all, dance has always been a much more effective way to robotize human movement than pantomime, which has led to perpetual tension between dance and pantomime since the eighteenth century and made pantomime such a troublesome phenomenon in relation to societal efforts to regulate the performance of speechless bodies. Nevertheless, the general future of pantomime increasingly entails performance designed explicitly for video and digital media distribution. The London Mime Festival and postmodern performance companies associated with “mime” or voiceless performance rely on video to promote their existence, even if the videos merely record performances designed for the stage, and the scope of this book is the result of access to videos of performances that otherwise would remain, if they existed at all, highly local cultural activities rather than the “international” art proclaimed by the Festival. Unlike the mime culture of the 1970s and 1980s, voiceless performance groups show less inclination to establish schools as a reliable revenue stream, probably because schools today must accommodate much greater accountability and are much more vulnerable to liability laws. Instead, performance groups favor collaborations with theaters and organizations in different cities or countries in the awareness that their audiences will grow in relation to a particular demographic class of international spectators rather than in relation to an expanding demographic diversity within a stable or growing local population. Voiceless performance tends to “travel” more easily than speech-dependent performances, and as is evident from the history of pantomime, audiences have displayed far greater interest in pantomime than performing arts institutions have cared even to acknowledge. With the decline of the school-oriented mime culture since the 1990s, voiceless performance has expanded considerably in scope and quantity, especially in Europe. Yet the postmodern attitudes adopted by many performance groups stress the advantages of blurring rather than clarifying distinctions between pantomime and other forms of voiceless performance, partly because pantomime seems like an “old” phenomenon that lacks the innovative significance associated with “intermedial” performance and “postdramatic theater,” even though pantomime in its manifold postmodern incarnations in the twenty-first century hardly seems less innovative than other forms of postmodern voiceless performance. But postmodern pantomime does seem less innovative—or perhaps less ambitious—than its modernist manifestations, which provokes scrutiny of the ideological implications embedded within postmodernist performance aesthetics.
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
The Silence (1963)
In the postwar era, motion pictures have shown greater propensity than theater to explore the possibilities of pantomimic action, particularly since the 1960s, when the film industry internationally made a concerted effort to free itself from the excessive reliance on talk that dominated filmmaking in the 1940s and 1950s. Movies anyway often contain actions in which characters do not speak, and the screen time for these actions increased considerably from the 1960s onward, although the purpose of these actions was seldom to focus the viewer’s attention on how actors performed them or to make unspeaking actions the subject of cinematic narrative, and the postwar film industry has never believed that the artistic or financial value of films would expand if they contained no voices at all. Even so, films have appeared, largely in a comic vein, that consist almost entirely of pantomimic actions, such as the comedies Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), directed by Jacques Tati (1907-1982), the Mr. Bean films (1997, 2007) and television show (2002-2004; 2015-2016) produced by and starring the English comedian Rowan Atkinson (b. 1955), or The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius (b. 1967), a black-and-white film that strives to emulate qualities of silent films in the late 1920s and depicts the relationship between a Hollywood film star and a young actress during the period when movies transitioned to “talkies.” The American independent film Trapped by Mormons (2005), directed by Ian Allen, was another black-and-white effort to reproduce the qualities of a silent film from the 1920s by having the story take place in the 1920s, and Allen modeled his film after the English silent film melodrama Trapped by Mormons (1922), directed by H. B. Parkinson (1884-1970). Both The Artist and Trapped by Mormons associate cinematic pantomime with silent film and not with the time in which the films were made: pantomime signifies an “old” way of acting, it evokes a nostalgic mood, or, as in Trapped by Mormons, it affirms a “camp” pleasure in celebrating unfashionably extravagant, melodramatic action. The Canadian director Guy Maddin (b. 1956) has also appropriated silent film gestural tropes in films like Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) and Archangel (1990), always for a comic or “camp” effect, but he tends to integrate bodily actions into montage imagery that relies on many editing and photographic processes: pantomime does not construct the narrative; rather, the narrative consists of complex images that reference silent film poses and gestures in the desire to create a dreamlike, mythic vision that is also “old,” an element of cinematic consciousness whose “kitsch” style still exerts an appeal for “our” time.
A more “serious” approach to pantomime in film entails pantomimic action that the filmmakers do not build around the unique skills of a particular actor to perform gags, slapstick, or stunts or around a director’s unique skill at visualizing a narrative. That is, the pantomimic action is unique to the narrative and its characters, and different actors and directors will perform the pantomimic action differently. The pantomimic action constructs a narrative that is larger, so to speak, than any interpretation of it or even the medium of interpretation. The literary imagination is the primary source for such narratives. Directors like Tomaszewski and Mackevičius created powerful pantomimes inspired by literary works their authors never considered as pantomimes. Since the end of the silent film era, however, filmmakers have shown little inclination to construct narratives out of pantomimic action, for this would involve building sequences of physical actions related to the theme of the body’s detachment from speech, to what the body “says” rather than what the performer or director “says” in performing them. The pantomimic imagination is a vision of how bodies signify uniquely in relation to a theme in which speech is an unhelpful distraction, if not an ailment—but rare are the filmmakers with an interest in this theme. That is to say, the pantomimic imagination is the subject of the film—the sequence of physical actions is in the story, not in the screenplay or film, although these may include pantomimic action in their adaptation of the story. Directors, however, may possess literary imaginations insofar as they are authors of stories and think pantomimically in constructing their stories.
A good example of this “serious” approach to cinematic pantomime is the 1963 Swedish film The Silence (Tystnaden), directed by Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who shot the film in September 1962. Although he is famous as a film and theater director, Bergman also wrote plays, short stories, and novels as well as the screenplays for all the films he directed and screenplays for films directed by others. He possessed a literary imagination in that his way of seeing of the world, his “stories,” entered his mind at a level above their realization in a particular medium. The Silence is not a pantomime film like The Artist. The film contains brief passages of dialogue, but these bear directly on the theme of “silence” accompanying the actions of the characters, and Bergman himself, though proud of the film, later concluded that much of the dialogue was “unnecessary” (Bergman 1994: 109). While making The Silence, Bergman kept a notebook in which he self-consciously described his efforts to make a film that did not rely on speech. He described his own films as suffering from what he called “dialogue disease.” “I have to curb my delight in [writing] dialogues. […] But how… incredibly dependent one has become on talking. Now I work with one arm tied [behind my back]. I really, once and for all, have to get away from dialogues. I’m damned tired of all these meaningless words and discussions. Besides it’s very hard finding oneself mute. Given that all my life I’ve practiced [writing] dialogue, it certainly gives you a sense of loss and anxiety not to be allowed to use it anymore.” Thus, in the film, “the dialogue [should be] only a rattle on the soundtrack without any meaning. Ignoring all that talk will be delightful…[and] cinematographic” (Koskinen 2010: 70-71). The film is important because it makes imaginative use of pantomimic action in relation to narrative and because it makes innovative use of pantomimic action in relation to cinematic devices. The entire story transpires over a period of a little more than 24 hours in an imaginary European country whose language is unintelligible to the main characters: two sisters, Anna and Ester, and Anna’s young son, Johan. Because Ester suffers from a mysterious illness, perhaps tuberculosis, the trio interrupts their train ride to Sweden to stay in the city of Timoka until Ester is able to continue the journey. They stay in a huge, luxurious, but mostly empty hotel. An intense heat wave oppresses the city. While Ester lies in bed, Anna takes a bath and asks Johan to scrub her back. Mother and son then take a nap, as Ester tries to work at her typewriter in bed. But a powerful feeling of loneliness overwhelms her, and she masturbates to alleviate her agitation. When Johan wakes from the nap, he leaves his mother sleeping and wanders alone through the corridors of the hotel and encounters different persons, including a troupe of Spanish dwarves, who invite him into their room, put a dress on him, and entertain him until their leader arrives and puts an end to the revelry. In the hotel room, Anna wakes and changes into a clean dress. She tells Anna she is “going out” and leaves, but Ester again becomes agitated by a feeling of abandonment and collapses with fear that she will die before reaching her homeland. She rings for the elderly hotel servant, who lifts her into bed and calms her through a series of comforting actions. In a café, Anna sits at a table, smokes, orders a beverage, and buys a newspaper written in the language of the country. The waiter performs several actions indicating his sexual attraction to her, but they do not exchange any words. Johan returns to the hotel room, and Ester invites him to eat some of the food the servant has brought. She tells him the the good things that will happen to him when he reaches home, but he prefers that she not touch him. He goes into an adjacent room to draw a crude picture of a human face. Anna visits a theater, and from a balcony seat, watches a clown tumbling act performed by the Spanish dwarves. A man and a woman in seats near her engage in sexual acts that horrify her, and she leaves the theater. After some hesitation on the street, she returns to the café and gives a subtle, wordless signal to the waiter. Johan wanders the hotel corridors again and encounters the elderly servant eating his meal. The servant shares a piece of chocolate with Johan and shows him some photographs apparently of his family decades earlier. When Anna returns, Johan leaps to greet her; she enters the room, but Johan remains in the corridor and hides the photographs under the carpet. Anna changes into a bathrobe, washes, as Ester, elegantly dressed, watches her, then returns to her writng desk. Anna approaches her and warns her to mind her own business, which leaves Ester tense. In the evening, Ester, in pajamas, listens to Bach on the radio, while Anna, in another dress, holds Johan in her arms. The servant brings coffee to Ester, and she asks him the word for music. He replies with a word that is similar to music. “Bach” is another word they share. After Johan leaves to wander the corridors, Anna and Ester converse in the shadows of the room. Ester asks where Anna went in the afternoon, and Anna delivers a story that is a lie, an account of a sordidly promiscuous sexual encounter with a man in a movie theater. But after Ester wonders if the story is true, Anna admits she lied. Ester does not want Anna to go, and she physically discloses an erotic, homosexual desire for Anna, who repulses her: “I have to go.” In the corridor, she encounters the waiter. They enter another room, secretly watched by Johan from the shadows of the corridor. Johan returns to his room, where he sees Ester sleeping. He watches a tank rumble through the street below, recalling the scene in the train carriage when he saw another train carrying many tanks. Ester awakes and asks him to read to her, but he instead puts on a Punch and Judy puppet show, in which the characters speak an unintelligible language. In the other hotel room, Anna and the waiter lounge in speechless post-coital anticipation of further sex. Ester works again on her translation and Johan asks why she translates books. He asks also if she knows the language of the country they are in, but she says she only knows a few words. He then asks her to write down the translations of the words. Ester learns from him that Anna is in the other hotel room. Anna complains about Ester to the waiter, who understands nothing and says nothing. She hears Ester calling, weeping. Anna opens the door, Ester sees Anna in the arms of the waiter, and sits at a table in dismay, wondering why Anna torments her. Anna gives an accusatory speech in which she condemns Ester’s “egotistical personality”: “You can’t live without feeling superior.” Ester denies the accusation, and claims that she loves Anna. “Poor Anna.” But Anna can’t stand the patronizing tone and orders Ester out of the room. But Ester repeates: “Poor Anna,” caresses Anna’s hair and leaves. Anna laughs, then starts crying, as the waiter initiates another coital session. In the corridor, the troupe of dwarves returns from the theater in their strange historical costumes; they nod to Ester standing alone in the corridor. In the morning, Ester leaves the waiter sleeping, but when she opens the door, she finds Ester slumped against it. With Ester in bed again, the hotel servant helps her drink some juice. Anna informs her that, after a snack, she and Johan will leave on the next train. Johan and Ester say good-bye. Through gestures, Ester asks the servant for her writing tablet. But she soon begins talking to the uncomprehending servant, explaining that, “It’s all a matter of erectile tissue and secretions. […] I stank like a rotten fish when I was fertilized. […].” With her hand gently resting on the servant’s head, she says “I don’t want to accept my wretched role […], submission to “the horrible forces […] of ghosts and memories. […] All this talk. There’s no need to discuss loneliness. It’s a waste of time.” “Feeling better,” she speaks fondly of her father. But she suddenly becomes wracked by another seizure, gasps desperately for air: “Must I die all alone?” An air raid warning sounds. She calls for her mother. Johan returns and approaches the bed. Ester tells him not to be afraid. “I’m not going to die.” On the train leaving the city, rain pours against the carriage windows. Johan pulls out the “letter” Ester gave him with the words translated from the language of the foreign country (actually a language invented by Bergman). He shows it to Anna. “Nice of her,” she says. She opens the carriage window to let the rain fall on her. The final shot is of Johan’s face reading the words Ester has translated.
This account of the story leaves out many actions and details that construct the narrative pantomimically and cinematically. For example, in the opening scene set in the railway carriage, pantomimic action alone reveals a variety of details about the relationship between the three main characters and their status as foreigners. That Anna and Ester are sisters seems communicated by placing the two women next to each other rather than facing each other and having Johan sitting beside Anna, although none of the characters actually looks at any other until quite a bit into the scene. The heat is intense and signified by the listlessness of the two women: Ester, played by Ingrid Thulin (1926-2004), drowses, while Anna, played by Gunnel Lindblom (b. 1931), gazes blankly into space, as if recalling something very remote. The scene also shows that Anna has a very close, loving relation to her son, played by Jörgen Lindström (b. 1951), who is about ten years old: when Anna moves to the other side of the carriage to doze, Johan follows and presses his head against her breast; she strokes him, urges him to curl up and sleep next to her as she places a protective hand on his shoulder while gazing again into space until, for the first time she directs her gaze toward Ester. Ester is sick: she suddenly starts suppressing a cough and breathing heavily; when Anna moves to comfort her, Ester resists and leaves the cabin. Ester brings her back and lays her on the seating bank. Costumes convey some of the upper class status of the women, who, after all, travel in a first class carriage: Ester in a pale business suit; Anna in a sleeveless white dress and a necklace made of thin gold rings. But the two women also disclose an elegant physical composure associated with their class, which, however, does not disguise fundamental differences between them: Anna is more restless and outward looking, shifting from one seat to the other. She likes to display herself, whereas Ester is more withdrawn into herself, turns away when she coughs, and tries to hide herself. Anna is more physically demonstrative, touching herself, touching her son, and touching Ester. Johan is like his mother: restless, but exhibiting a curiosity about the environment that the women do not share. In the only dialogue in the entire train carriage scene, which is seven minutes long, he points to a sign in the train and asks Ester: “What does it mean?” To which she responds: “I don’t know.” He pronounces the unintelligible words. When Anna shuts him out of the cabin to attend to Ester, he wanders down the corridor, gazes out the window as the sun rises over mountains, but when he slumps down to the floor to sleep, the train conductor enters to announce that the train is stopping soon at Timoka, although the viewer cannot understand his short declaration. Johan peers into a carriage cabin and sees military officers awakening, but he does not want them to see him. He finds another place in the corridor to sit and look out the window as the train enters the city. He sees the train carrying the tanks moving in the opposite direction, creating the impression of entering a country facing a conflict that words may not solve. As he gazes out the window at the strange city, his mother comes behind him and they both stare out the window intently, but Gunnel Lindblom gives Anna a wary, hawk-like stare that contrasts with Johan’s wondrous gaze and fixes Anna with a “hardness” lacking in Ester. The entire railway carriage scene presents characters inhabiting a world of “silence,” in which they prefer not to talk, prefer to communicate through subtle bodily gestures, because silence creates greater or enough closeness between people than speaking.
At the same time, though, silence creates a space between the family members, silence makes them seem alone, solitary. This silence is not oppressive; rather, it fuels a tension, an anticipation, an expectation, a sense of entering a “foreign” domain of the self. Despite the seemingly cramped setting, Bergman creates a powerfully dramatic atmosphere in which speech is “unnecessary” and would merely amplify the oppressive heat. Speech would intensify an oppressive atmosphere of confinement, as indeed it does in the later hotel room scenes. It is words that cause a fatal sickness and apparently contribute to the translator Ester’s illness: she starts coughing after Johan asks her what the railway sign means. The scene invites viewers to look at the characters without spoken “explanations,” without talk that identifies where the characters are coming from, why they are together, why the boy has two “mothers” and no father, or where they are going. The idea is to see the characters free of any language that would frame them within a “motive” that clarifies why the viewer is watching them. The viewer watches them to see how “silence” keeps them together. The camera constructs the viewer’s perspective on the pantomimic action in an innovative way, and the cinematographer, Sven Nykvist (1922-2006), obviously contributed to the innovation. In the cabin of the railway carriage, the camera, in mid-shot, pans from one character to another or characters move toward or away from the camera to emphasize the space between the characters; the camera avoids point-of-view shots or even cuts, except when Anna casts a dark stare at the dozing Ester, who suddenly begins coughing. The viewer sees the action as if sitting where the window is between the two seat banks, which creates a sense of closeness to the characters without being certain whose point-of-view is in control of the narrative. When Johan enters the corridor of the railway carriage, Bergman employs more shots and a great variety of camera angles, including point-of-view shots for Johan when he sees the sun rising over a mountain ridge, looks into the cabin with the awakening officers, and watches the tanks racing by on the opposing train. In a couple of angles, the camera looks at Johan gazing through the window from outside the window. Nykvist uses heavily expressionist lighting to show Johan moving in and out of shifting shadows, but, as always with Bergman, the lighting gives Johan’s face a soft luster against dark backgrounds. Yet these corridor actions do not establish Johan as the protagonist of the narrative nor even that the narrative issues from his point of view. That is clear from the powerful shot outside the window of Anna looming hawk-like behind the rapt Johan as the train arrives in the city: they gaze outward in the same direction, but the image shows that they have quite different points of view that neither “knows.” The film never does settle on a dominant point of view, for the point of view shifts back and forth from Anna to Ester to Johan to show how, despite their closeness, each lives separately and unknowingly from the other. Johan is, so to speak, “between” the sisters: he loves Anna and Ester, and they both love him; Ester feels a deep attachment to Anna, but Anna hates her sister and achieves her freedom from Ester only by abandoning her. No point of view can prevail when neither the boy’s love for the two women nor their love for him makes it possible for them to love each other. Pantomimic action best represents Bergman’s perception that love precariously binds people together through “silence”—that is, a condition of doing things together, of traveling together, of living together, in which it is not “necessary” to speak to signify the presence of love. Words, especially speech, invariably undermine this precarious balance “between” love and hate. Yet Ester’s work as a translator, Johan’s curiosity about the meaning of the words in the foreign country, and Ester’s “letter” to Johan translating the words she has learned from the servant imply that less precarious expressions of love might happen by communicating in another, “foreign” language, although Anna, responding with a tepid “That’s nice” and a dismissive gesture, seems skeptical [Film Series B].
Of course, the film goes on to present many more scenes of imaginative pantomimic action in combination with innovative, cinematic ways of seeing pantomimic action. After Anna and Johan get into bed to take their nap, the camera focuses on Ester as she works in bed in her pajamas, reading, notating, coughing, gasping, smoking, and drinking. The camera, at low angle, pans from her face to her hand and watches her hand, stub out a cigarette, pour a drink, turn on the radio, tap to the music, and change the channel, as her head comes into view, pressed against her hand on the radio. The camera follows her head as she lifts herself upward and seems to inhale the serene music, causing her to smile, before returning to her book and pen. But she can’t concentrate. She wanders, smoking, toward the the doors leading to room inhabited by Anna and Johan, but the camera does not follow her; it watches her recede and actually tilts down to show her receding figure obscured by the bed covers and the radio. On the other side of the door, the camera watches Ester from a higher angle as she approaches the bed and studies the sleeping pair; she leans against the bedrail, lightly touches Anna’s hair, considers touching Johan but hesitates, then leaves them. It is a pantomime of small, subtle gestures rendered intimate by the camera’s closeness to the performer. When she returns to her room, the camera follows her face in profile as she smokes, deeply melancholy, and moves to the window to gaze down into the busy street, with the film cutting to a view of her from outside the window. She sees a wagon pulled by an emaciated horse roll into view, although buses and cars also crowd the street. An old man in a black derby drives the wagon, stops it, and gets down. The wagon is full of furniture, plants, and strange, unidentifiable objects. Perplexed, Ester returns to her bottle, turns off the radio, pours another drink, which empties the bottle, the camera panning up from the little table to her face. The camera then pans from her face to the servant (Håkan Jahnberg [1903-1970]) entering the room and holds on his profile as Ester, also in profile, appears, full figure, reflected in the full length mirror behind him, so that she seems further away from him than she actually is. She asks him in French, English, and German if he speaks any of those languages, but he politely indicates he does not. She therefore mimes that she would like another bottle of liquor. He understands. She sits down and lights another cigarette, with the camera again studying her profile, her exhalations, her desire for some sort of voluptuous pleasure, as the camera more closer to her face, while an air-raid warning signal sounds in the distance. The servant places a tray with a glass of brandy and a bottle of it before Ester, who savors the aroma from the glass and examines the bottle. She offers the servant a cigarette, but he refuses, as the camera now shifts to a low angle shot behind her to observe him. She gestures for him to tell him the word for “hand” in his language, and he responds by speaking the word and writing it on a piece of paper. The bell rings summoning him to another room, and he gestures that he must run off. She studies the piece of paper, pronounces the word, then grabs the bottle of brandy as the camera follows her back to the bed, where she drinks and caresses her lips with the paper. She falls back onto the bed, while the camera watches her from above as she unlooses her her pajama top, caresses her breast, opens her legs, and inserts her hand into her pajama pants to masturbate with her eyes closed. The camera moves in on her face; at the moment of orgasm, her eyes open wide as she gasps. She closes her eyes again and turns into the billowing comforter to sleep as the sound of jets suddenly roars overhead. The entire scene is rich in captivating pantomimic action that dramatizes Ester’s loneliness, her gathering anxiety about being excluded from the sleeping pair in the next room, and her sense of being excluded from the strange, foreign culture in the street below her. But the scene also reveals her sensuality, her pleasure in voluptuous sensations, quite in contrast to the image of primness she projected in the opening scene, although these become entangled with self-destructive addictions. She makes the camera look at her from different angles and move toward and around her, as if searching for a way to stabilize its view of her. It is an astonishing sequence of physical gestures and actions that exposes the basis for the woman’s deepest anxiety: that she has not been loved as she has deserved nor has she been allowed to love as fully as she is capable, the most powerful cause of loneliness. Ingrid Thulin performs this melancholy sequence with a confidence that is riveting, as if she felt completely at ease and lilted by the character’s sorrow, utterly fearless at incarnating Ester’s intense vulnerability and intelligence. Bergman himself remarked that making the film was an “enormous amount of fun” because all involved with the production felt “uninhibited,” and the actresses were “always in a good mood” in relation to performing quite daring scenes, although Gunnel Lindblom did insist on some inhibition when she refused to perform a scene with the waiter in the nude (Bergman 1994: 112; Lindblom 1995: 62). Indeed, it is doubtful that pantomime as precise, imaginative, and uninhibited as appears throughout the entire film could happen without a profound sense of trust between the director and the performers: this sort of elegant, “uninhibited” pantomimic action is possible when the performers and film crew know each other so well from their extensive previous work together without necessarily “knowing” the characters well at all. The characters take the performers into an unknown region of humanity that requires a lack of inhibition, but ironically, this lack of inhibition depends on a fundamental condition of trust between people that the film itself neither refutes nor treats as a salvation (cf. Fischer-Kesselmann 1988).
In subsequent scenes, however, the film explores aloneness from different perspectives: being alone without being lonely. When the jets roar overhead, Johan awakes. He leaves his mother sleeping and, with his toy pistol, he wanders through the cavernous hallways of the hotel, firing his pistol at a service worker changing a lightbulb in a chandelier, watching the elderly servant in his tiny office and running away from him when the man approaches him, observing a huge erotic painting of a centaur grasping a nude woman, running away again from the grasp of the elderly servant, casting his distorted shadow against the wall of a stairway, and coming upon the open door to the room with the troupe of dwarves, all male, who silently play cards, read, drink, smoke, or mend costumes. Johan shoots two of the dwarves and a third wearing a lion’s costume, and the play with him by pantomiming their deaths. The raucous, but wordless dwarves put the dress on him and entertain him with one of them leaping up and down on a bed wearing a clownish gorilla mask until the apparent leader enters and orders them to cease, though he graciously escorts Johan out of the room. In a corner, Johan pisses on the floor, then walks away whistling, as if whistling negates his bad behavior. A homosexual aura pervades the old servant’s affection for the boy and the dwarves’ invitation to him to join their strange, foreign society, dramatized so well by the wonderful close up shot of a dwarf’s hand beckoning Johan to enter the room. Johan clearly enjoys being alone; the hotel offers happy opportunities for adventure, and he finds pleasure in the freedom of speechless wandering.
But Bergman intercuts the scenes of Johan exploring the hotel hallways with the scenes of Anna washing and getting dressed to go out and, after Anna leaves, of Ester’s despair, collapse, and return to bed with the kind assistance of the elderly servant. The intercutting implies that the contrasting conditions of solitude experienced by Ester, Johan, and Anna are dependent on each other—that is, on causing Ester’s loneliness, on one person abandoning another, as, in a small, “innocent” way, Johan has abandoned both women. But he returns to Ester, and she shares her dinner with him as she explains his future when he returns home, where his grandparents will take care of him. The film then focuses on Anna’s solitary visit to the café, her silent interaction with the waiter, played by the longtime Bergman actor Birger Malmsten (1920-1991), her entrance (wearing dark glasses) into the Variete Theater, where, smoking in the shadows, she watches the dwarf tumbling act and the couple near her engaging in sexual intercourse partially in the glow cast by a spotlight. The super-expressionist lighting amplifies Anna’s horrified stare at a couple utterly shameless (or “uninhibited”) in succumbing to their lust. She is a person who lives in shadows. Later, when she enters the hotel room with the waiter, she commands him not to turn on the lights. Yet when Ester comes into the room, Anna turns on the lamp, so that Ester feels humiliated by Anna’s shamelessness in cavorting with the nude waiter in bed. When Anna leaves the theater, she enters the sunny street crowded entirely with men—soldiers, workers, students, pensioners, and professionals, although a few women sit outdoors at the café when she returns to give the waiter an almost invisible signal to rendezvous. The camera follows her with a telescopic lens to produce a surveillance mode of viewing and to imply that she is moving in a society that does not encourage speaking. Indeed, in the café, in the theater, on the street no one is seen speaking and no voices are heard, although the street is noisy with activity. Bergman then cuts to Johan wandering through the hotel again holding his pistol. He watches the elderly servant in his office eating and drinking with quietly ritual deliberation. When the servant notices Johan smiling at him, he performs a miniature puppet pantomime using a sausage that he then swallows. Seeing that Johan has not enjoyed this cannibalization of the sausage character, the servant offers to share with him a chocolate bar. Johan sits beside the servant, munching the chocolate as the man pours himself a drink, swallows, and sprinkles Johan’s head with droplets, which causes Johan to smile with amusement, although nothing the man has said is intelligible. The servant then pulls from a large wallet the photographs that apparently depict his parents and what appears to be an outdoor family funeral ceremony long ago. He puts the photos in Johan’s hand and puts his arm around the boy, and with his face conveys a profoundly sorrowful sense of his own loneliness. But Johan hears the sound of his mother entering and runs off to greet her; she fondles him, but they do not speak as she opens the door to the room. Left alone again in the corridor, he studies the photographs before slipping them under the carpet. Perhaps with this mysterious action, Johan hopes to “bury” the memory that binds him emotionally with the old servant, as if loneliness were contagious, an illness, such as already afflicts Ester.
The Silence contains numerous other scenes of comparably imaginative pantomimic action, which fascinate viewers because of the unusual ways the camera sees the action. It is pantomime designed for a motion picture camera capable of a highly dynamic relation to the performers, capable of observing subtle inflections of gesture, and capable of interweaving separate pantomimic sequences into a larger “view” of the semiotic relations between bodily actions performed by people when they are alone. Bergman showed how film technology widened the meaning of “pantomime” and expanded the expressive power of the body to communicate large ideas when speech has lost its authority to control the narrative. It is an “uninhibited” form of pantomime insofar as Bergman completely trusts his actors to perform “natural” actions and avoids stylized movements that treat the body as an abstract form rather than as an instrument of consciousness in material reality. The film does not even employ any soundtrack music to accompany the pantomimic action. All music in the film comes from sources within the image, such as the radio, the jazz vibraphone in the café, and the pit orchestra in the Variete Theater. In the evening, in the shadowy atmosphere of her room, Ester listens to the radio play a Bach cembalo prelude while Anna holds and embraces Johan on her lap in the room behind Ester. The servant enters bringing coffee, and Ester asks him the word for “music” in his language. He replies with a very similar sounding word. Ester says, “Sebastian Bach,” and the servant repeates the name, nodding his familiarity with the name and the music. A few moments later, after Anna asks to borrow cigarettes from Ester and Ester suggests that Anna and Johan leave this evening, Anna asks what the music is, and Ester replies, “Bach. Sebastian Bach,” to which Anna replies, “It’s nice.” Ester turns off the music, which soon precipitates the quarrel between the sisters over Anna’s appetite for promiscuity and their competitive relation to their father. It is as if music was a translation of a foreign language that otherwise no human understands. But the music is not an accompaniment to pantomimic action; it is a peculiar intrusion upon the “silence” that is the default accompaniment to this “natural” performance of pantomimic action [Film Still Series B].
This “uninhibited” mode of pantomime caused enormous controversy from the moment The Silence premiered in Stockholm in February 1963. Bergman believed that the film would not attract any audience, and Svensk Film Industri, believing the project was too obscure, originally did not want him to make the film, but he went ahead with it anyway, an act of great confidence and courage (Sima 1970: 195). The Silence, however, became the most successful film in the history of the company, and in West Germany it was the most successful film since 1955, with eleven million viewers (Schmitt-Sasse 1988: 17). Of course, the boldness of the sex scenes startled many viewers around the world, but this boldness was perhaps unthinkable without a new way of seeing the body, without seeing the body as a thing in tension with the voice trying to control it, as a thing that made speech “unnecessary” or an encumbrance to knowledge of others. The film precipitated an immense amount of discourse that contended or merely insinuated that the “silence” referred to the absence of God in the modern postwar world, because the narrative contained so many actions “free” of any voice contextualizing them within a morality encoded through language (cf. Theunissen 1964; Schmitt-Sasse 1988). Pantomime elevated the power of film technology to see humanity without much, if any, deference to Christian morality. For this reason, the pantomimic action of The Silence signified for many people a dangerously radical image of the body: with voices largely absent, “naturally” performed actions, rather than stylized movements, appeared intensely mysterious without evoking a religious aura, like translating from a foreign language, producing a disturbing proliferation of “interpretations,” an astonishing upheaval of words. But for probably all audiences The Silence signified a freedom to see that precipitated the immense transformation of cinema in the 1960s and, in subsequent decades, a vast, global investment in expanding and perfecting image technologies (cf. Koskinen 2010: 43-66). Yet The Silence remains unsurpassed in its synthesis of pantomimic action and cinematic seeing. Although Bergman deployed adventurous pantomimic sequences in later films such as Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), and Cries and Whispers (1972), he himself never again relied so much on pantomimic action to construct a film narrative as he did in The Silence nor was his pantomimic imagination quite as inventive or complex. His focus shifted more toward exposing the destructive or repressive powers of speech than toward revealing the cryptic varieties of voiceless bodily communication. As Bergman indicated, in the postwar era, the capacity to construct cine-pantomimic narratives of such seductive seriousness depends on a peculiar condition of being “uninhibited,” of feeling on the threshold of a freedom to see the stories that bodily physical actions tell, and it is just incredibly difficult to possess that lack of inhibition or even the circumstances that enable one to possess it.
Bergman’s highly imaginative use of pantomime in The Silence owed nothing to a Swedish tradition of pantomime in the theater, for pantomime had a negligible presence in Swedish theater long before and well after the making of the film. It is true that he found much inspiration from the distinctive silent films that Sweden made when he was a boy, especially works directed by Victor Sjöström (1879-1960) and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928), as well as from German expressionist films directed by F.W. Murnau (1888-1931). But Swedish silent films achieved international distinction in part because of the sophistication with which they applied a verisimilar mode of acting, and this in itself was a break with a traditional (histrionic) mode of acting associated with the stage. Bergman further credited two films by Czech director Gustav Machaty (1901-1963) with deepening his attraction to film narratives “without dialogue”: Ecstasy (1933) and Nocturno (1934), both of which contained almost no speech but complex music and noise soundtracks (Bergman 1994: 291). These films urged Bergman to write and direct a largely pantomimic episode (No. 2) in his anthology film Secrets of Woman (1952), and he included powerful pantomimic scenes in subsequent films, such as Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and The Virgin Spring (1960). Bergman linked pantomime with inventive film performance, with a way to expand the expressive power of film. Pantomime was “traditional” for him only insofar as he disclosed a pattern of fascination with it in film since boyhood. Despite, however, many years as a major, distinguished director of stage plays, Bergman never showed an interest in pantomime for the theater. He depended on cinematic devices to construct pantomimic performance: editing, expressionist cinematography, close ups, mobile camera. As a director for the theater, he worked almost entirely with dramatic texts by other authors, and these authors avoided pantomime. For Bergman, pantomime signified a radical break with the Swedish “tradition” of a voice-dominated dramatic theater, and he never seems to have considered making such a break, perhaps believing that voiceless performance in the theater belonged more appropriately to the prestigious Royal Swedish Ballet. If Sweden had anything resembling a tradition of pantomime before Bergman, it lay with the Royal Ballet, which between 1786 and 1871 staged or hosted numerous “pantomime-ballets,” “historical pantomimes,” and “pantomime idlylls” in a French style, choreographed by ballet masters: Jean-Rémy Marcadet (1755-?), Louis Deland (1772-1823), Jean-Baptiste Brulo (1746-?), Anders Selinder (1806-1874), August Bournonville (1805-1879) (cf. Klemming 1879: 497-506). By 1871, though, the Ballet had sufficiently “freed” itself from pantomime to dispense altogether with using the word to describe anything it produced. As discussed earlier, Jean Börlin staged his very innovative pantomime El Greco with Rolf de Maré’s Swedish Ballet in Paris in 1920, but he referred to it as a “mimed drama” to diminish association with the somehow less appealing term “pantomime.” Bergman himself never used the term “pantomime” to describe his attraction to scenes “without dialogue” in film, perhaps because during his lifetime the word had become too narrowly defined. More precisely, it had come to mean what ballet wanted it to mean: a codified, stylized way of regulating bodily gesture to support ballet narratives whose artificiality supposedly allowed dance to transcend them. It was a French attitude toward pantomime that assumed a performer could not justify voiceless performance without having experienced a rigorous education or training with teachers in a school that sufficiently respected the stylized code (“tradition”) regulating bodily signification whereby, for the most part, the body created an artificial, abstract world of imaginary objects rather than interacted with a world of material objects. Such a narrow definition of pantomime could account for why Bergman preferred to speak of cinematic scenes “without dialogue” rather than explain how pantomime migrated across performance media instead of remaining imprisoned within a definition of it imposed by theater institutions determined to control it severely if not suppress it altogether.
Film Still Series B: Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963). Film technology allowed Bergman to produce unprecedentedly imaginative pantomimic performance. His use of the face to construct character and narrative is well known, but the face was never so free of speech as in The Silence (1-6). But in this film Bergman also made dramatic use of hands to create a remarkable and unstable relation between bodies or even between characters and their own bodies (9-13, 15, 21). The film builds much drama out of the performance of simple, yet intensely observed pantomimic actions, such as walking through corridors, reading, typing, combing, washing, smoking, drinking, comforting, serving or sharing food, or looking out windows (5, 7-8, 11, 16-18, 20, 22, 24, 28). However, the great dramatic power of these actions does not diminish the “shock” effect of other, equally “simple” actions, such as Ester’s masturbation, Anna’s horror at witnessing a couple copulate in the theater, the dwarves putting a dress on Johan, and Anna’s sexual rendezvous in a hotel room with a nameless stranger she encountered in a café (14, 25-27). Yet Bergman did not rely entirely on close ups of fragmented pantomimic actions to amplify their dramatic allure; he amplifies numerous “simple” actions by having them performed within complex, precisely detailed scenic contexts that evoke persuasively a country in which the characters do not understand the language of its citizens (19, 21-23), including mirror reflections (19-20). Actors; Ingrid Thulin as Ester, Gunnel Lindblom as Anna, Jörgen Lindström as Johan, Håkan Jahnberg as the hotel servant, Birger Malmsten as Anna’s sexual partner, the dwarves: the Eduardinis. Photos: Bergman (2003).
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
The only other notable postwar literary dramas that resemble pantomimes are Das Mündel will Vormund sein (1969) and Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten (1992), by the Austrian novelist and dramatist Peter Handke (b. 1942). Das Mündel will Vormund sein (The Ward Wants to Be the Guardian) belongs to Handke’s youthful period of radically questioning the institutionalized conventions of theater, including the roles that speech and language play in accommodating these repressive conventions, with his most famous work of that time, Kaspar (1967), consisting of a single character on stage, Kaspar, struggling to speak a single sentence with competence, conviction, authority, power, insight, uncertainty, freedom, or other conditions masked by the words. Das Mündel will Vormund sein is a two-person pantomime set in a rural space, a farmhouse before a large beet field. The text prescribes in great detail the physical actions of two men, the ward and the warden, farmers who wear masks and engage in a competition to determine to what extent the warden can control the actions of the ward. A cat is also part of the beginning and ending scenes, and “does what it does.” In the opening scene, the ward eats an apple unself-consciously until the warden appears, holding a pumpkin, and attempts to control the ward through a steady stare, an act of aggressive surveillance that makes the ward increasingly self-conscious and somehow imperfectly “compliant.” The scene becomes dark and “we” can only hear a strange breathing that “is ‘like’ the strongly amplified breathing of an old man, but not quite; on the other hand, it is ‘like’ the strongly amplified breathing of a wild animal that has been cornered, but not quite, either; it is ‘voracious,’ ‘frightened,’ ‘ominous,’ but not quite; at times it seems to signify someone’s “death throes” to us, but somehow it doesn’t either because it appears to change constantly” (Handke 1973: 14; 1970: 65). The breathing vanishes, replaced by music, the chord strumming of “Colors for Susan” (1967), by Country Joe and the Fish. When the stage is bright again, the scene shows the interior of the farmhouse, which the text describes in elaborate detail. While the ward and warden listen “pleasantly” to the music, the warden continually performs small physical actions that apparently test or define the ward’s capacity to respond to them:
The warden folds the newspaper page in half and goes on reading.
The ward pulls a pencil out of his pants pocket, a carpenter’s pencil like the warden’s, only smaller; he uses it to mark the book while reading.
The warden goes on folding the paper.
The ward no longer marks in his book but crosses something out.
The warden goes on folding as best he can.
The ward is obviously starting to draw in the little book.
The warden folds.
The ward exceeds the margins of the book while drawing and begins to draw on palm of his hand.
The warden: see above.
The ward draws on the back of his hand.
The warden is gradually forced to start crumpling the paper, but we don’t actually notice the transition from folding to crumpling.
The ward draws on his lower arm; what he draws doesn’t necessarily have to resemble the warden’s tattoos.
The warden is obviously no longer reading or folding but is vigorously crumpling.
Both figures are vigorously occupied, one with drawing, the other with crumpling.
The warden completes the crumpling process and the paper is now a tight ball.
The ward is still drawing.
The warden is quiet, the ball of paper in his fist; he looks at his opposite who is drawing (1973: 20-21; 1970: 68).
The scene continues with the warden making different movements at the table, then walking around, then climbing onto the table, elevating himself higher than the ward, who always remains “lower.” But then, the warden lies down and the ward cannot make himself lower than the warden. A profusion of other actions occur. At one point, the warden cuts his toenails and then his fingernails, while the ward picks up the clippings. Later, the warden fills a teakettle with water from a hose and the ward grinds coffee until the teakettle blows. After another dark scene, the ward tosses thistles on the back of the warden, while the warden writes obliviously until he turns around and the ward throws the remaining thistles onto his chest. A while later, the warden physically and “non-violently” adjusts the position of the sitting ward and, after a prolonged stillness, begins tossing bottles at the ward, who displays complete incompetence at catching them, except for the last one: “We are startled.” The warden eventually decides to leave the kitchen, and the ward intends to follow, but the warden insists on closing the door behind him and overcomes the ward’s effort to open the door. The ward nevertheless crawls outside through another door “as if for a dog.” Outside again, rain is imminent. The ward unveils a beet slicing machine and demonstrates the slicing of beets. The ward, however, has difficulty operating the machine. The warden watches him fail repeatedly as the stage grows dark and the ominous breathing returns. In the final scene, the ward enters the place before the house carrying a small tub and rubber hose. “He is no longer wearing his coveralls.” He sets the tub down, places one end of the hose into it, and “we hearing running water into the tub.” The ward returns with a sack, from which he draws a handful of sand. He lets the sand fall through his fingers into the tub and repeats this action until the stage goes dark (Handke 1973: 7-38; 1970: 62-83).
Handke expects the actors to perform the many actions naturalistically, with the idea of showing how a person controls another person through physical actions alone, and how the other person responds to this control entirely with physical actions that reveal a condition of dependence, incompetent compliance, resistance, provocation, submission, defeat, or (at the end) conquest. The piece is a theatrical allegory of male competitiveness, a sobering demonstration of how assertions of power operate outside of language, in simple, minute physical actions that have no motive other than to cause another person to act “accordingly,” to acknowledge a dependent relation, to accept control by another, even if acceptance means resistance or imperfect obedience. Handke explores how bodies construct power relations, struggles for power without resorting to physical violence, without reliance on the “civilizing” oppressions embedded in language. The final scene suggests that the ward has become independent, free of his guardian. Some commentators read the ending as a triumph of the ward over his oppressor, an allegory of revolutionary overthrow. But the ward never indicates that the warden oppresses or abuses him; rather, the ward responds variously to the warden’s physical assertions of power—the ward assumes he must respond in a “submissive” manner without the warden having even to give a commanding gesture. After all, the ward picks up the fingernail and toenail clippings without the warden signifying that he should do so. The text does not indicate the conditions under which the ward has obtained his independence, nor does the play, in spite of its title, show that the ward and warden have reversed roles. The ward is independent insofar as his guardian is absent and he is able to perform the inscrutable actions of filling a tub with water and pouring sand through his hand into the water: a state of independence, of being “free” of responding to someone more powerful, of having no dependent relation to a guardian, is something the text implies “we” cannot understand, because it happens in darkness. The performance of the play’s actions may at moments seem tedious, but manifestations of power probably do depend on tedious bodily actions or actions that have no greater purpose than to provoke the response of another body. This point seems connected to the “we” invoked by the text, the “we” who are named as spectators of the performance. Bonnie Marranca considers this “we” as “a kind of literary authoritarianism,” a “coercion” of the reader/spectator to respond to the action the same way as the person employing the “we.” The play is thus a “confrontation with the audience in which the dialectic is played out, not on the stage, but in the relationship between stage and audience” (Marranca 1977: 275). In other words, pantomime itself is the revelation of a power dynamic insofar as it provokes the audience to respond to it “accordingly” and pantomimically: “We are startled.” Claus Peymann (b. 1937), whose own distinguished career began with directing premieres of Handke’s early plays, directed the premiere of Das Mündel will Vormund sein at Frankfurt in January 1969. The production attracted much attention, as any work by Handke did and still does, but although the piece has occasionally been revived on the stage, it has not enjoyed as much popularity in the theater as other Handke plays. A production in New York in 1971, under the title, My Foot, My Tutor, provoked some intellectual discussion without provoking much acclaim. The piece did nothing to motivate other writers for the stage to compose pantomime scenarios, and Das Mündel will Vormund sein effectively represented a unique experiment in speechless theater of which Handke had somehow earned exclusive ownership: it was as if, having written a pantomime, Handke had exhausted the possibility of anyone else writing another one.
Nevertheless, Handke himself wrote another one twenty-three years later, Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten (1992). As a performance, however, “the hour we knew nothing of each other” lasts at least a hundred minutes. Although no one speaks a word during the entire performance, Handke calls his piece a play, not a pantomime. He instructs “a dozen actors and lovers” to perform hundreds of roles during the performance, but in practice, theaters have required more than two dozen actors to handle all the roles. Handke claims that the idea for the play came from sitting all day in an outdoor café in Muggia, Italy and watching people pass by. The action of the play unfolds in a brightly lit town square, for which Handke provides no further contextual details other than mentioning in his dedication “to S” the square before the Centre Commerciale du Mail in Vélizy, France, which is actually now a mall. Handke here applies a strategy that is the exact opposite of his strategy in Das Mündel will Vormund sein. In the earlier play, he prescribed a great profusion of minutely detailed actions performed by single, interacting characters. In Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten, he presents single actions performed by a great profusion of characters. The piece begins with a single person of unspecified sex rushing across the stage followed by another rushing in the opposite direction. A third and fourth person cross the stage. Subsequently hundreds of characters appear on the stage, some defined only by the actions they perform, some by their actions and the clothes they wear. Only a few characters appear more than once, so that the performance resembles a grand procession of “types” of people who appear momentarily, hardly more than thirty seconds, and then disappear. Handke strives to provide a constant processional variety of characters and actions:
A woman in a headscarf and rubber boots crosses the square, she drags a watering can and carries a wilted, rotting flower bouquet that she in a high wave throws behind the scene.
In the next moment comes from somewhere else an equally well-dressed type of Old Woman, with a sickle, a travel bag, and a handbasket overflowing with forest mushrooms.
A third woman, undefinable, dressed almost the same, moves in a different direction, with nothing in her hands, the back and neck deeply bent, the face directed to the ground, steady, hardly moving from the spot, and behind her succeeds another wanderer, clogging the path, bit by bit, as if the path was too narrow for overtaking with a long-distance vision, without eyes for the thing before the wandering peaks (Handke 1992: 21-22)
Occasionally characters briefly interact with each other or appear as a group: an ensemble of refugees, a circus troupe, “two or three in winter clothes” meeting “two or three in summer clothes.” Pairs appear once in a while: a man dressed as a woman with a woman dressed as a man; “a man and a woman place their hands on each other’s genitals,” a man follows a woman. Otherwise unrelated individuals perform the hundreds of actions, such as a person whizzing by on roller skates, another reading a book, or a man pulling a wagon full of masks. The actions do not seem related to each other and could happen in a different order, but the second half of the play creates a more hallucinatory panorama than the first half as characters from different historical eras or cultural contexts appear:
[…] a youth blows out the old one’s candle; the lighthouse keeper marches through; a patrol [passes] with dangling hand shells and talons; a wanderer goes audibly through a deep pile of leaves; the grandfather carries a winding snake from the floor; the Portuguese woman leaps up; the girl from Marseille steps onto the harbor dock; the Jewess of Herzliya throws gas masks into the alley, the Mongolian woman strides through with a falcon; the patroness of Toledo pulls a lion’s skin over herself (62).
Chaplin and Moses also appear momentarily. It is clear that the piece does not represent continuous real-time actions but a theatrical abstract of many actions that occur in a generic space over long periods of time. Handke indicates numerous pauses when the stage is empty before a new set of actions resumes. Although no one speaks a word or even intimates they are speaking, some characters make sighs or cries. Dogs bark, bells toll, storm thunder resounds, but Handke indicates no musical accompaniment. The piece ends with a First Spectator leaving his seat to join the throng on stage, but he becomes disoriented and flees; a Second Spectator tries to intervene, but two women hanging wash hinder him. A Third Spectator “threads himself into the scene and meanders, obviously of course, with the undisturbed procession. Coming and going, coming and going. Then the square becomes dark” (64). The piece therefore is not a project to see with documentary precision the actions of people as one might see them from a detached vantage point, such as a table in an outdoor café. Such a project would require a degree of naturalism and anthropological observation of actual persons that is nowhere evident in the play. Rather, the aim is to show how a generic public space hosts an immense variety of actions or types of actions whose “meanings” remain opaque or indecipherable to anyone but those who perform them. The theater spectator may consume the spectacle of multitudinous actions performed by hundreds of people, but the spectacle is only an accumulating phantasmagoria of unknowing. “We do not know each other” by presuming that the crowd, the public, or the community “we” observe is somehow “us,” even if the actions people perform are familiar. In reality, as revealed theatrically rather than anthropologically, the public is nothing more than a procession of individuals who know nothing of each other any more than they know of its “audience” and can only be known as momentary figures who have imprinted themselves in memory because of some inscrutable peculiarity in their performance of a fleeting action. As usual, Claus Peymann directed the premiere of Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten, in 1992, at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The production and the play received abundant acclaim, as did subsequent productions in Bochum (1993), directed by Jürgen Gosch (1943-2009), and in Berlin (1994), directed by Luc Bondy (1948-2015) (cf. Meurer 2007: 159-197). Since then the piece has enjoyed numerous productions internationally, occasionally outdoors, with directors varying widely in their organization of the action, so that some productions seem like civic pageants while others resemble stylized critiques of “modern” society. Despite the cost of acquiring so many actors and costumes to produce it, Die Stunde, da wir nichts von einander wußten remains one of Handke’s most popular works for the theater. Again, though, his venture into pantomime has failed to motivate any other dramatic author to work in the genre, and he himself has made no further attempt. The international postwar literary imagination evidently believes that only one literary writer in the whole world should or needs to write pantomimes, and having written one, it is almost impossible to write another without it becoming a singular, monumental project to overcome, however briefly (100 minutes), an overpowering doubt about the capacity of a “play” to sustain the attention of a theater audience without the performers speaking.
Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Beckett’s Acts without Words
Performers and directors completely defined pantomime culture after World War II, even if literary works sometimes inspired them. Pantomime came from performers and directors who wanted to control the imaginary lives they lived on stage rather than perform the lives assigned to them by the authors of dramatic texts. The literary imagination, which exerted so much influence over pantomime at the beginning of the twentieth century, has been completely absent from pantomime culture since Herzmanowsky-Orlando wrote scenarios in 1941 that he never even published, although by then he realized that theater implacably regarded pantomime as an obsolete genre. Since then, writers have seemed incapable of thinking pantomimically, incapable of imagining theatrical performance without speech, without assuming that spoken language causes and resolves all conflicts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a sector of the Austro-German literary imagination turned to pantomime as a response to a perceived “crisis” in language. Pantomime allowed them to represent “invisible” zones of reality that eluded the power of language to reveal. Since World War II, however, dramatic writers generally have perceived a different sense of crisis in language: if anything, they have tried to restore credibility to language, which otherwise seemed to lack “authority” unless backed by incredible, unprecedented levels of physical violence. In reality, the dramatic literary imagination was afraid of performing bodies that did not speak, could not imagine life without voices, whereas actors and directors could.
In 1956, an English dancer and actor, Deryk Mendel (1920-2013), performed in a Paris cabaret a clown act based on the character of Frollo in Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. The management asked him to come up with a new Frollo piece for the next program. Mendel contacted several French absurdist dramatists in Paris, including Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), inviting them to write a piece for him. Beckett agreed, after his companion Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989) reported enthusiastically about Mendel’s performance. He wrote Act without Words, a pantomime for one actor, but the cabaret could not stage it because the text requires the suspension of scenic objects over the stage and the theater had no flyweight system (Knowlson 1996: 377-378). Eventually Mendel staged the piece in April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, following the premiere performance of Beckett’s drama Endgame. Beckett saw the pantomime as an opportunity to commission his cousin John Stewart Beckett (1927-2007) to write incidental music for it. He claimed to have written the piece out of his affection for comic silent film performers like Buster Keaton (1895-1966), Ben Turpin (1869-1940), and Harry Langdon (1884-1944), but he probably would never have written a pantomime if Mendel had not invited him to and if Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil had not encouraged him to do it as a way of breaking out of a creative “impasse.” Act without Words takes place in the “dazzling light” of a desert. It begins with a man “flung” backwards on to the stage. He responds to the sound of a whistle to the right and to the left, but gets flung back each time. After performing each action, he “reflects,” but all of his actions fail to alleviate his lonely, isolated situation. Objects descend from the sky: a palm tree, a pair of tailor’s scissors, a carafe labeled “water,” a big cube, and then a smaller cube, but he does not notice the objects until the whistle calls his attention to them. He looks at his hands while “reflecting.” He tries to pile the cubes to reach the carafe, but falls instead. The carafe pulls away from his reach. A rope descends; he tries to climb it to reach the carafe, and when this fails, he cuts the rope to make a lasso by which he can capture the carafe, but this strategy also fails, as does his effort to hang himself. Another whistle beckons him from the right wing, but when he tries to exit, he gets flung back. When, however, a whistle sounds from the left wing, he does not move, but merely “reflects” and trims his nails with the scissors. The objects fly upward. When he sits on the big cube, it pulls upwards and dislodges the man. He lies on the ground. The carafe drops down to a few feet from him. The whistle sounds. But the man doesn’t move. The palm tree disappears, the whistle sounds, but the man doesn’t move. “He looks at his hands” (Beckett 1984: 37-40). In Act without Words, Beckett uses pantomime to construct an existential parable of human existence: a human body gets thrown into a deserted, inhospitable place from which no escape is possible. Life in this space offers temptations, rewards, hopes, opportunities, but these are all beyond man’s capacity to realize, they are illusions that leave man in a space he longs to escape. After much “reflection,” he realizes that he must refuse to obey the whistle calls of illusion, that he must find purpose within himself, in his hands, in his powerlessness, his non-response to external distractions.
Beckett apparently wrote Act without Words II around the same time that he wrote Act without Words, but this second short pantomime did not have its premiere performance until 1960, in London. In this piece, the spectator sees a “neat pile of clothes” beside which, in “frieze effect,” are two sacks, B and A, and each contains a man. A long pole, called a “goad,” enters horizontally from the right. The goad patiently succeeds in prodding the man in sack A to move. “A, wearing shirt, crawls out of sack, halts, broods, prays, broods, gets to his feet, broods, takes a little bottle of pills from his shirt pocket, broods, swallows a pill, puts bottle back, broods, goes to clothes, broods, puts on clothes, broods, takes a large partly eaten carrot from coat pocket, bites off a piece, chews an instant, spits it out with disgust, puts carrot back, broods, picks up two sacks, carries them bowed and staggering half-way to left wing, sets them down, broods, takes off clothes (except shirt), lets them fall in an untidy heap, broods, takes another pill, broods, kneels, prays, crawls into sack and lies still, sack A being now to left of sack B.” The goad enters again, this time on a wheel, and prods B, who crawls out of the sack and performs a variety of different actions, among others: “he consults a large watch, puts watch back, does exercises, consults watch, takes a tooth brush from shirt pocket and brushes teeth vigorously, puts brush back, rubs scalp vigorously, takes a comb from shirt pocket and combs hair, puts comb back, consults watch, goes to clothes, puts them on, consults watch, takes a brush from coat pocket and brushes clothes vigorously, brushes hair vigorously, puts brush back, takes a little mirror from coat pocket and inspects appearance, puts mirror back, takes carrot from coat pocket […].” He takes off his clothes and puts them in a pile and moves the sacks to their original position and crawls into his sack to the left of A. The goad enters again now on two wheels and prods A to repeat the action all over again (Beckett 1984: 41-43). The pantomime dramatizes a mechanistic condition of human existence. “Life” is dormant, “sacked away,” until prodded or goaded awake by an abstract, inhuman mechanical power. Existence consists of performing and repeating a series of mundane actions until a moment of “brooding” or “consulting” compels the performer to return to a state of dormancy after arranging the sacks so that he will not be “goaded” awake too soon. Theaters around the world continue to perform either of the two pantomimes fairly often, both were part of the Beckett on Film (2001) project, a Hollywood animation company made a 1960 cartoon film of Act without Words, and the pieces have inspired some complex scholarly commentary (cf. Lamont 1987; Zilliacus 1993; Zhghenti 2014). But after 1956, Beckett never returned to pantomime. With these two little pieces, he prescribed all the actions a voiceless body could perform to represent his existentialist view of humanity.