Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

PDF version of the entire book.


Silent film pantomime: a scene from the German film “Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” (1922), directed by Fritz Lang (1890-1976), cinematography by Carl Hoffmann (1885-1947), with at left Gertrude Welcker (1896-1988) as Countess Told and Rudolf Klein-Rogge (1885-1955) as Dr. Mabuse; at the piano: Alfred Abel (1879-1937) as Count Told.

Pantomime is a deeply misunderstood and marginalized art, largely because for so long people have had such limited experience of it. Yet when they encounter it, pantomime can exert a fascination on spectators by allowing them to see the narrative power of the body more vividly than any other form of performance. But the marginal cultural status of pantomime is not due to any inherent cognitive or semiotic deficiency within the art that justifies a society deeming as “unnatural” the construction of performances in which characters act without speaking. In other words, the politics governing cultural institutions are responsible for a society’s marginalization of pantomime. A marginalization of pantomime arises from ideologically formed attitudes toward relations between speech and bodily signification. The ideological shaping of these attitudes becomes apparent by examining the long history of pantomime within Western civilization. When and why do societies encourage pantomime? How do societies define pantomime? Why or under what circumstances do audiences favor pantomime over spoken performance or dance? 

The chief purpose of this book is therefore to create a new understanding of pantomime and to establish an importance for the art that previous writings on it have severely underestimated. Achieving this goal entails writing a larger history of pantomime than has yet existed to show 1) the varieties of pantomimic performance that have appeared across different eras of Western civilization and across different media; 2) the peculiar socio-political circumstances that have allowed Western societies to encourage pantomimic performance; 3) the qualities that separate pantomime from dance and other forms of speechless performance; and 4) the ideological pressures within a society that encourage an inclination to favor dance over pantomime to “regulate” speechless performance. But these motives are subsidiary to the larger aim of showing how bodies construct narratives or “tell” something otherwise hidden when the performers have no need for speech or the movement devices of dance. In its clearest manifestation, pantomime builds narratives entirely and exclusively out of “unregulated” physical actions. Actions are verbs, a narrative is the sequencing of verbs to reveal an otherwise “invisible” relation between them. The performance of the actions is unique to the performer, unlike in dance, where the movements of the performer are unique to an external system of kinetic signs imposed upon the performer and derive from steps, positions, and movement tropes that have aesthetic value in themselves and do not depend on a larger narrative logic to justify their use. The pantomime performer moves from one action to the next according to a unique narrative logic. Pantomime does not “translate” words into gestures. In its clearest manifestation, pantomime is not the glorification of a semiotic system or gestural technique; it is the bodily performance of “other” identities that tell a story without speaking. Pantomimic action is “unregulated” in the sense that the performer determines how to perform it in relation to the unique goal of the narrative. Both dance and speech “regulate” bodily signification insofar as they compel the perception that the body needs the voice or a movement “vocabulary” to “make sense” of the actions it performs. Speech filters and even stunts perception of what the body “tells,” because the minds of both spectator and performer require so much space to process linguistic signifiers, as opposed to musical or sound effect signifiers. On the other hand, dance subordinates action to movement derived from a system of steps, positions, or kinetic tropes that define performance as “dance.” For dance, especially ballet, narrative exists to provide opportunities for dances, but the dances are always “free” of the narratives that contain them. Dance tends to integrate the spectator into the ideology of bodily “discipline” that forms the steps, positions, and kinetic tropes; pantomime tends to estrange the spectator from the ideology of semantic logic or “sense” that justifies the need to consume performed narratives. 

In recent years, pantomime has been the subject of several excellent scholarly books. However, all of these books focus on a narrow segment of pantomime history and avoid looking at its larger historical scope as a Western cultural phenomenon. In the imperial era, the Romans adopted the Greek term “pantomime,” used as early as 80 BCE, to designate a form of performance they considered an invention of imperial taste (Webb 2012: 222). Although prototypes of pantomime performance originated in Greece, the Romans regarded pantomime as something uniquely fashioned according to their wishes, according to an ideology of “metamorphosis” that was fundamental to the imperial consciousness. Recent books on Roman pantomime have thoroughly compiled the literary-historical textual references to the art, and this book, too, makes use of these references. Important recent books dealing with Roman pantomime have come from Hartmut Leppin (1992), Charlotte Roueche (1993), Margaret Malloy (1996), Ismene Lada-Richards (2007), Marie-Hélène Garelli (2007), Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles (2008), Ruth Webb (2009: 58-94), and Katherine Dunbabin (2016: 85-113). These works interpret and evaluate the ancient sources from different perspectives. But they tend to see pantomime as a largely static art that remained unchanged in the early sixth century from what it was in the first century CE. They underestimate the extent to which competition, political pressures, and economic circumstances encouraged dynamism and innovation in pantomime. This book integrates the evidence of pantomime from ancient textual sources with the evidence from archeological, iconographic, musical, and political sources to produce an understanding of Roman pantomime more from a theatrical than a classical studies perspective. Perhaps this approach can provide a more persuasive answer to a question that the classical studies approach has so far not addressed with much clarity: why did pantomime dominate imperial Roman theater culture for half a dozen centuries? A more dynamic conception of Roman pantomime performance, its narrative structure, and its production process is necessary to answer this question. The idea here is to complement the mythic-philological preoccupations of classical studies with attention to political-ideological ambitions that shaped the course of pantomime history in the Roman Empire and in the Western civilization that emerged after the Empire. The implication of this approach is that the ramifications of Roman pantomime extend far beyond the Empire because the Romans saw pantomime as their invention, as a socially destabilizing phenomenon, as a thing that superseded Greek-originated performance “traditions” and physicalized most economically and persuasively a pervasive, imperial anticipation of change, of transformation, or, as they themselves might have called it, of metamorphosis. Roman imperial society encouraged a more volatile and unruly pantomime culture than is often implied in histories that stress the continuity of the art with Greco-ritual origins, with other sectors of Roman culture, or even with supposedly analogous Asian forms of theater. 

Pantomime in the modern era has inspired admirable monographs by Ariane Martinez (2008), Gilles Bonnet (2014), Arnaud Rykner (2014), and Pinok et Matho (2016). However, these authors focus almost entirely on pantomime as it developed in France, especially in the period 1880 to 1930. France has made huge contributions to pantomime history, but, especially since World War II, the whiteface, romantic, melancholy, nineteenth century figure of Pierrot has dominated perception of these contributions to such an extent that many people equate pantomime with Pierrot and Pierrot-like variants such as Marcel Marceau’s Bip and with French control or ownership of pantomime. But the fixation on Pierrot as the basis for defining the French contribution to pantomime history has seemed dependent on not only ignoring pantomime outside of France but even large sectors of French pantomime history without Pierrot. Pantomime has enjoyed a much busier existence in the West, including France, than the Pierrot cult implies. Hartmut Vollmer (2011; 2012a) has produced a detailed, revelatory reclamation of the ambitious experiments of the Austro-German literary pantomime between 1895 and 1920. Although he acknowledges briefly the Roman concept of pantomime, Vollmer confines his project to the Austro-German scene of a particularly auspicious era for pantomimic imagination cultivated by suave literary personalities. A much larger history is necessary to comprehend the scale of the pantomimic imagination released by modernist ideology and the diversity of pantomimic performance strategies arising from different cultural milieu, from elsewhere in Western and Eastern Europe, from the United States, from motion pictures, and from early modern dance. Germanic pantomime, Eastern European pantomime, silent film pantomime, and pantomime experiments from the pioneer modern dancers brought an emotional intensity, complexity or darkness to pantomime that the art had avoided since the early nineteenth century. Pantomime has always reserved a large space for comedy, but the perception persists among many contemporary practitioners of pantomime and among dramatic writers that pantomime is only about comic effects, that acting without speaking is inherently ridiculous. The perception persists probably because comic effects do not create nearly as much ambiguity or uncertainty of signification as “serious” voiceless performance and therefore produce a much more stable (and usually affectionate) relation between performer and spectator. But a widespread distrust and even hostility to pantomime results from the perception that pantomime is not “serious,” that it is a childish entertainment, that it relies on “charming” evocations of a human sweetness otherwise obscured by talk (the Pierrot archetype), that it is an art of caricature and stereotyped identities, that it is too limited in its capacity to destabilize relations between performance and audience. This book thus focuses largely, though by no means exclusively, on “serious” or emotionally and intellectually intense forms of pantomime from the Roman Empire until the present. It is not a history of clowns, the circus, or the traditional English Christmas pantomime, for other books have already covered these subjects effectively, especially by Janina Hera (1981), John O’Brien (2004), and Jeffrey Richards (2015). But the main point here is that ideological, rather than economic, pressures shaping performance institutions rather than audiences or societies are what create such large presumption that pantomime should be comic rather than “serious.” 

Étienne Decroux was a major architect of the French “mime culture” that flourished internationally from the 1950s to the 1980s. His ideas concerning mime were quite serious, and this book devotes much attention to them. But his seriousness did not produce much in the way of serious performance, in part because of his aversion to any sort of public performance. His disciples have nevertheless published many books on mime. However, these books focus obsessively on the theme of how to be a mime. They identify attitudes, techniques, exercises, rules, and schools that prepare readers to live as mimes, which, as will be evident, is not the same thing as preparing readers to construct pantomimic performances for audiences who are not also mimes. Such books pay little attention to the history of pantomime outside of its descent from Pierrot, and they place almost no weight at all on the study of actual pantomimic performances. I will, of course, examine the reasons for these biases of the mime culture. At the moment, though, I will simply assert that mime culture is school culture; it equates mime above all with the teaching of techniques, exercises, the execution of small-scale “episodes” or sketches. None of the Decroux-influenced books on mimes provides any guidance about how one constructs narratives out of physical actions. They teach the reader how to live as a mime, not how to think pantomimically. Since the eighteenth century, French culture for various reasons has struggled to impose a system of signification on pantomime, to regulate it, to put it in a school, to contain it within some kind of gestural or bodily “language.” The implications of this philosophy inspire some scrutiny in this book. The mime culture emerged from ideological pressures issuing from an existential anxiety about what the body “tells.” A large-scale history of pantomime reveals that pantomime achieves its most powerful manifestations when it is “unregulated,” when it is not the product of a technique or school, when it builds narratives and “other” identities out of physical actions rather than affirms the authority of a technique for shaping the narrative of one’s life. Pantomime itself reveals the limit of the mind to allow the body to act without speaking, to tell a story without the “help” of spoken words. This limit of the mind, of the pantomimic imagination, is the work of ideology.

Previous Section

Next Section


Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s