Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: The Pantomime Performance Scene

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

Roman Pantomime Aesthetics

The Pantomime Performance Scene

To grasp the imperial nature of the pantomime aesthetic, one has to gather evidence from a variety of contexts–literature, dance, art, archeology, music, political history, domestic history, religious history–and in doing so, the scholar experiences perhaps the feeling of being an outsider entering foreign territories and staking some sort of claim within them. The pantomime operated in different performance contexts, yet a peculiar feature of the aesthetic was that it detached human action from any precise sense of context. It concentrated theatrical signification in the movement and decoration of the performer’s body, so that performance migrated easily from the theater to the stadium to the villa and to the ceremonial procession. This is not to say that the pantomime did not take advantage of the unique expressive properties of particular performance sites. But rather that the pantomime belonged to a general performance culture that preferred to see the expressive power of human actions as independent of a “scene” or a highly specific, localized physical environment. Such enthusiasm for decontextualizing bodily performance was not unique to the pantomime; in artistic representations of other forms of performance, such as gladiatorial combats, Cybeleian processions, and acrobatic spectacles, one observes a constant effort to foreground the performer’s body against an empty background [Figure 1]. 

Figure 1: Marble relief in the British Museum of a procession a maenad with a tambourine, a tibia player, and a god or Hercules figure with a panther companion, showing the tendency of Roman artists to foreground performing bodies against neutral, “empty,” or undefined backgrounds. Photo: British Museum.

The extravagantly “theatrical” style of the Third and Fourth periods of Pompeian wall painting has led some historians to suggest that it is difficult to differentiate Roman representations of theatrical performances from representations of the myths which were the subject of the performances. But when representing the myths themselves, the artists tend to situate their subjects within a physical context. They at least put in a tree, hills, an architectural structure, some visual reference to a generic physical reality external to the human figures. In the altogether rarer images (in wall paintings and mosaics) of performances themselves, the artists tend to place the human figures against an empty white or colored background and to thematize overtly the tension between the human face and a mask or masks [Figure 2]. Figure 2: Man wearing mask with woman lyre player against an “empty” background in painting from Herculaneum, ca. 60-79 CE. Photo: Mimmo Jodice, from Guillaud (1990). The extravagantly “theatrical” style of the Third and Fourth periods of Pompeian wall painting has led some historians to suggest that it is difficult to differentiate Roman representations of theatrical performances from representations of the myths which were the subject of the performances. But when representing the myths themselves, the artists tend to situate their subjects within a physical context. They at least put in a tree, hills, an architectural structure, some visual reference to a generic physical reality external to the human figures. In the altogether rarer images (in wall paintings and mosaics) of performances themselves, the artists tend to place the human figures against an empty white or colored background and to thematize overtly the tension between the human face and a mask or masks [Figure 2]. 

Figure 2: Man wearing mask with woman lyre player against an “empty” background in painting from Herculaneum, ca. 60-79 CE. Photo: Mimmo Jodice, from Guillaud (1990). 

The Pompeian wall paintings are an important source of evidence concerning the pantomime aesthetic, but not because they represent performance with much accuracy. Rather, the images theatricalize domestic space and articulate a sophisticated, theatrical attitude toward the relation between space and daily human actions performed within it. The image was a metaphor for an attitude toward relations between space and body. The metaphor was not the image of performance; performance was actually another image of a similar attitude. 

Figure 3: Stucco frieze from the underground vault of Porta Maggiore in Rome depicting a pantomimic performance of Agave displaying the head of Pentheus, with musician accompanying the scene. Photo from Weege (1926). 

Figure 3 is perhaps the earliest image of pantomime performance that has survived. It comes from the underground stucco frieze vault in the Basilica of Porta Maggiore in Rome, dates from sometime in the first century CE, and depicts Agave brandishing the severed head of her son Pentheus while a companion maenad dances ecstatically. The severed head bears exaggerated, mask-like features, but it is extremely difficult to tell if Agave herself wears a mask. The female musician to the left emphasizes the idea of performance by tapping her drum in a sober, composed manner that contrasts with the ecstatic movement of the dancers. It is possible that the background contained a painted landscape, but this seems unlikely, because the frieze is not large, and painted objects in the background would make it difficult for the viewer to notice or read at a distance the bodily action with any clarity. And in any case, the whole point of the frieze technique is to foreground the bodies. 

Figures 4 and 5: Wall paintings from Pompeii deposited in Museo Archeological Nazionale, first century CE. Photo: Rito Bacchico.  

Figures 4 and 5 display a somewhat similar aesthetic principle. These are fragments of Pompeian wall paintings from the first century CE now deposited in the Naples Museum and they also depict Dionysian rituals. In Figure 4 especially, the self-consciously theatrical style of the image seems intensified by contrasting the brazen movement of the maenad at the left with the blatantly statuesque poses of the three other human figures and the leopard. A shift from extravagant movement to frozen pose was a feature of the pantomime; movement culminated in a spectacular pose. Both Plutarch and Lucian remarked on the delight of pantomime spectators in observing the details of a complex pose, and that early third century CE connoisseur of the pantomime, Philostratus, in his Imagines, compiled a sort of catalogue of popular and sophisticated poses for paintings inspired by theatrical enactments. The bodies in Figures 4 and 5 glow with an eerie luster that the black background intensifies. Even the doorway in Figure 5 opens into emptiness. But while these images of performance avoid contextualizing human action by giving much in the way of form to the physical environment, they nevertheless ascribe a powerful abstract identity to the space in which the bodies appear. Pantomime movement was partly about the emotional value, not of the objects that fill in space, but of space itself. The colored background sensualized the emotional value of space. This technique, which was not original with the Romans, appeared inevitably when artists wished to extract the performing body from the mythic body, as in Figure 6one of a series of dancers depicted in a Pompeian wall painting of the first century CE. The technique is even more dramatically evident in the famous mural of the Villa of Mysteries depicting the performance of a stunningly enigmatic ritual against a blood-red background [Figure 7]. 

Figure 6: Pompeiian wall painting of a dancer representing “Summer” with black background, from the Villa of Diomedes. Photo: Fausto and Felice Niccolini (1896). 
Figure 7: Wall painting of a mysterious ritual, part of the fresco depicting the ritual at the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii. Photo: Karl Toepfer. 

At the moment, however, my purpose is merely to identify an enduring, imperial attitude toward the aesthetic performance of the body. It is an attitude governed more by the body’s relation to space than to place. It is an attitude dominated by the belief that the freedom and power of human identity becomes most visible or “real” when human action transcends the constraints or “borders” imposed upon it by a localized notion of place other than the space of performance. The pantomime appropriated spaces for performance; it did not claim a particular place, such as the theater, as its exclusive domain. This imperial attitude toward the relation between body and space controlled the organization and use of other performance elements in the performance culture: theater architecture, costume, musical composition, chorus deployment, and, of course, the treatment of language, speech, and voice. As Bier (1920), Robert (1930), and Weinreich (1948) long ago observed, the idea that the pantomimes Pylades and Bathyllus “invented” the genre in Rome in 22 BCE derives from a misreading of ancient texts, chiefly Atheneus (Deinosophistae, I, 20) and remarks in the Anthologia Palatinae (IX, 248). These imply that the two pantomimes so enchanted the Emperor Augustus that he bestowed state protection on them and thereby accorded the genre the official recognition it needed to become fully institutionalized. It seems logical to assume that Augustus favored the pantomimes for a political reason: their art advanced the imperial objective of being comprehensible to large audiences everywhere in the Empire. But the imperial impulse of the aesthetic preceded Augustus, and the reasons for ascribing a Roman origin for the pantomime on the part of both ancient Greek writers and modern historians are themselves more political than scholarly. Although Greeks assumed some responsibility for shaping the pantomime aesthetic, the cultural identity of the aesthetic was always ambiguous. Alexandria was the major home and training center for pantomimes in the century that Augustus encountered Pylades and Bathyllus, both of whom came from Alexandria, where the dance drama absorbed not only Egyptian but oriental ideas about bodily expressivity. This is not to say, however, that the Romans did not make significant contributions to the art or that archaic performance values cultivated by the Etruscans and Italian tribes did not influence Roman appreciation of the art. The point is merely that, from the ancient perspective, the aesthetic was imperial because its identity was multicultural, insofar as it projected a cultural identity without any clear sense of “context.”

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