I began work on this book when in 1996 I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on “The Art of Ancient Roman Spectacle.” The Seminar enabled me to spend nine weeks in Italy researching the ancient Roman pantomime. It was one of the happiest times in my academic career. The Seminar was the project of Bettina Bergmann, Mount Holyoke College, and Christine Kondoleon, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, whose joint leadership was the most imaginative, satisfying, and inspiring of any academic enterprise in which I have been fortunate to participate. I am profoundly grateful to both of them for revealing to all of us in that splendid Seminar the wonder, scope, and complexity of ancient Roman spectacle. And I am equally grateful to the NEH for making such opportunities as this Seminar available to me and to thousands of other scholars. It is impossible to overestimate the extent to which these Seminars have transformed for better the thinking and study of the humanities in higher education.
The College of Humanities and the Arts, San Jose State University, guided by dean Carmen Sigler, supported this book with a sabbatical in Spring 1999 that enabled me to do further research in Italy. Students from the Department of TV, Radio, Film, and Theater assisted me in performing experiments in ancient Roman pantomime performance, including Erika Yanin Perez, Donna Vonjo-Tournay, Kathy White, Laura Long, Tim Garcia, and several others who joined the team without ever identifying themselves. Technical Director and scene designer Jim Culley helped me to test and photograph indoor Roman pantomime performance using oil lamps in an indoor stage. The enthusiasm of students for knowledge of ancient Roman pantomime surprised me, but they clearly wanted to understand how bodies could communicate in ways that our society seemed to have forgotten.
I first became aware of ancient Roman pantomime through a Seminar on Tragedy that I took as a graduate student at San Jose State University. Professor Lou Waters invited me to give a presentation on the dramas of Seneca, and in researching this theme, I learned of a strange form of performance, the pantomime, which the Romans preferred to all other forms of theater. But at that time (1978), it was very difficult to access information about the ancient pantomime, and very little scholarship existed on the subject, in spite of the huge proliferation of books on mime back then. Through Dr. Waters, I realized that this marginalization of Roman pantomime was a defect of scholarship, not of the Romans. However, the task of investigating the pantomime was a long, slow process requiring more time and patience than I was able to afford for many years, distracted as I was by other scholarly projects, heavy teaching loads, and then extensive administrative responsibilities. For years, the Inter-Library Loan office of the Martin Luther King University Library provided invaluable access to many publications related to my project. The libraries of Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley also provided me with important texts.
But the nature of the project changed. Originally I planned only to write a monograph on the ancient Roman pantomime. Yet I felt I could not complete that goal without addressing the question: What was the “aftermath” of the Roman pantomime? How has the idea of pantomime evolved since Roman times? But answering these questions entailed writing a work of far greater scale than I ever thought possible. Indeed, a purpose in writing this huge book is to show that the history of Roman pantomime and its “aftermath” requires a book that is far larger than most readers can consume—that is, a book that makes it difficult to treat pantomime as it has been for so long, as an incidental, obscure category of the performing arts with a history that can be summarized in slender monographs, if not in a few paragraphs. But the scale of pantomime history has become so large because of the advent of digital technologies in the twenty-first century. These digital technologies have made it possible to access materials related to pantomime history that in the pre-digital era would have taken many years to read or see in libraries and archives scattered across many countries and cities. Lack of time and resources most likely would have made this book unimaginable less than a decade ago. I therefore must express my gratitude to manifold digital resources that provided access to a history of pantomime that otherwise would have remained buried in local archives. The Google search engine is of course an inescapable resource in locating documents. But the search engine connects one to other digital resources, especially the digitizing projects of many libraries and museums, such as: Gallica, the Internet Archive, the Gutenberg Project, the digital archives for innumerable newspapers and magazines, Google Books, the Estonian Broadcasting Archives, Perseus, YouTube, Vimeo, the universities digitally distributing dissertations produced within the European Union, and the universities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, and South Africa digitally distributing research produced by their students or faculty. Google Translate gave me access to many documents in otherwise unintelligible foreign languages. While Google Translate still betrays frustrating limitations, it nevertheless proves increasingly effective in opening up texts rather than obfuscating them. The benefits of Google Translate far outweigh its limitations. But my larger acknowledgment is that these digital technologies transform the scope and scale of historical writing.
I am also extremely grateful to Hartmut Vollmer for his detailed excavations of Germanic pantomime in the early modernist era and for retrieving these works from undeserved obscurity.
Over the years, several people have provided important support or encouragement for this book: Jo Todd, Susan Manning, Claire Wu, Laurence Senelick, Joshua Dorchak (who was also a participant in the NEH Seminar), Janet Van Swoll, Barbara Sparti, Nancy Ruyter, Sandra Rudman, and Heide Lazarus. David Wilson, of the Early Dance Circle in England, also provided valuable assistance.
Heili Einasto, of Tallinn University, has been a patient and tirelessly enthusiastic supporter of this project since she first became aware of it in 2014. Her enthusiasm inspired me to achieve much more than I ever thought I was capable, and the scope of this book expanded in part because she felt that so much history of pantomime should not be forgotten, ignored, or diminished. She provided and translated many documents related to Estonian pantomime and conducted oral interviews with key figures of Estonian pantomime during the Cold War. Her assistance was invaluable in revealing the political-aesthetic complexity of pantomime. She also helped with the translation of Russian-language pantomime documents. Because of her, I understood how important and exciting it is to examine student performances in relation to a national political performance aesthetic.
I have dedicated this book to the memory of Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy because they believed in this book from its earliest days, believed that a new history of pantomime might do much to bring about an important new understanding of the body in performance. Their deaths cast a shadow of sorrow over this history.