Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Voice and Gesture
Voice persistently accompanied the performance of the mythic theme, but the voice was always that of an interpellator (narrator) or sometimes of a female chorus, never that of the dancer. The interpellator spoke in response to movements made by the dancer; the dancer did not take cues from the narrator or even from the music: the sonic dimension of performance always responded to actions initiated and often improvised by the body of the dancer. Language and speech in the pantomime was somewhat similar to the use of intertitles in silent films. Just as the scripts for silent films possessed almost no literary value, so did the scenarios for pantomime, occasionally produced by distinguished authors such as Ovid and Statius, lack the literary values that would justify their preservation for readers. Nevertheless, speech added considerable value to the performance, insofar as it dramatized the necessity of detaching speech from the body in establishing the body as the force that awakens language rather than language as the force that awakens the body. In pantomime performance, the solo dancer (or sometimes pairs of dancers) performed selected moments from mythic narratives, changing roles, masks, and even sexes according to an aesthetic strategy that reveals the theatrical, histrionic virtuosity of the dancer rather than the dimensions of a character. The dancer therefore might perform seven mythic characters from seven different mythic narratives, from Clytemnestra to Oedipus to Medea to Jason to Hippolytus to Thyestes to Leda. Because the interpellator’s speech served primarily to caption or “title” scenes or movements, the audience did not expect originality on the linguistic channel of signification. Performance imagination depended entirely on the power of bodily movement to construct a new way of looking at “the same old stuff.” What, then, was the point of speaking at all during the performance? It seems that even though audiences knew all the mythic narratives, they could not always or readily associate particular movements with the enactment of particular mythic scenes. They needed some sort of captioning to orient their reading of a scene. Such captioning indicates that pantomime movement did not conform to a highly codified system of signification, as occurs in various forms of Asian theater, in which the performance of a particular character entails the mobilization of an intensely specific, tradition-defined signifying practice. The pantomime world placed a higher value on the expressive qualities peculiar to the body of the performer, even if–or precisely because–these qualities came into tension with preconceived images of either the performer or the character. Movement styles unique to the performer (rather than to a character or emotional condition) allowed the performer to achieve a competitive identity in the intensely competitive atmosphere of pantomime culture. The warrior heritage of the pyrrhic dance infused the movement with an inclination to glorify competitiveness, which operated even in the idea that the performer should invite the audience to compare himself in relation to the different masks and impersonations he adopted in succession. The relentlessly comparative mode of performance created intense competition between performers for the favor of audiences. This competitive spirit was already institutionalized in the friendly rivalry between Pylades and Bathyllus and then assumed an explosive, large-scale political dimension when pantomimes started to represent competing factions of the chariot clubs in the circus even more successfully than the chariot racers themselves. The passionate competitive spirit pressured performers toward innovation in performance, and the genre was thus much more dynamic than previous histories suppose.
The Romans regarded public displays of competitive prowess as central to any understanding of the acquisition and expansion of power. Competitive display of oratorical skills was fundamental in defining the political context of public life. It is therefore useful to examine prized oratorical skills, especially in relation to the communicative significance of physical gestures that might have informed the movement rhetoric or narrative organization of the pantomime. The powerful ancient authority on oratory was and is Cicero (106-43 BC). He wrote prodigiously and probably without equal on oratory, most comprehensively in De oratore (55 BC), but his interest in gesture was almost negligible and he made at best only quite vague references to it. At one point (III. lix. 221), he simply observes: “For delivery is wholly the concern of the feelings, and these are mirrored by the face and expressed by the eyes; for this is the only part of the body capable of producing as many indications and variations as there are emotions […]. Consequently there is a need of constant management of the eyes” (Cicero 1942: 177-179). Locating deeper or even further comment on physical gesture in Cicero is a tedious and unrewarding task. Nevertheless, the absence of commentary on gesture is significant. Cicero did not believe that any “system” of gestural signification or bodily movement was effective in establishing the credibility, authority, or appeal of a speech. A powerful speech apparently did not depend on any gestures for its strength, and the success of a speech in moving its audience depended entirely on the rhetorical logic of the language and the voice and on the coherence of the argument. This does not mean that Cicero regarded physical movement as an unimportant means of communication; rather, he did not perceive any codification of gesture as useful in determining the importance of a speech. Indeed, Cicero’s reluctance to discuss gesture would suggest that movement was a form of communication in conflict with speech and not a supplement to it. Writing almost 120 years later, around 75 CE, Quintilian in his huge Institutio Oratoria devoted a section (XI. iii) to use of gestures in oratory. He describes a variety of commonsense gestures that provide effective support for speech, and some gestures that are always inappropriate. However, “the orator should be as unlike a dancer as possible” (Quintilian 1922: 291). Furthermore, when condemning “the unsightly habit of swaying” while speaking, he makes clear that movements supporting speech should always avoid any resemblance to dance: “Above all we must avoid effeminate movements, such as Cicero ascribes to Titius, a circumstance that led to a certain type of dance being nicknamed Titius” (313). On the whole, Quintilian professes deep skepticism toward the use in oratory of gestures borrowed from the theater; these distract from the power of the speech, even though, like Cicero, he acknowledges that orators can learn much from actors about vocal technique. In relation to an understanding of the pantomime, perhaps his most important comments concern the use of hands:
As for the hands, without which all action would be crippled and enfeebled, it is scarcely possible to describe the variety of their motions, since they are almost as expressive as words. For other portions of the body merely help the speaker, whereas the hands may almost be said to speak. Do we not use them to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion or fear, question or deny? Do we not employ them to indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation, confession, penitence, measure, quantity, number and time? Have they not power to excite and prohibit, to express approval, wonder or shame? Do they not take the place of adverbs and adjectives when we point at places and things? (289-291).
Quintilian makes perfunctory reference to a code whereby the hands signify the emotions he names. For example: “Wonder is best expressed as follows: the hand turns slightly upwards and the fingers are brought into the palm, one after the other, beginning with the little finger, the hand is then opened and turned round by a reversal of this motion” (297). He describes several other gestures of equal complexity, implying that study and proficiency of hand gesture is not instinctive or “natural” and must be practiced. He devotes special attention to the movement of the fingers, although he insists that, “the tremulous motion now generally adopted by foreign schools is, however, fit only for the stage” (299). But Aldrete (1999: 67-73) observes that Quintilian contradicts himself in his attitude toward the use of gestures borrowed from the theater, and he argues that oratorical gesture became more elaborate in the time between Cicero and Quintilian as a result of theatrical influences. At the same time, orators could maintain credibility with their audiences only if their speeches did not seem theatrical and decorated with contrived (“mimicking”) gestures that undermined the authority of language. Thus, for example, “instructors in the art of gesture will not permit the hand to be raised above the level of the eyes or lowered beneath that of the breast, since it is thought a grave blemish to lift it to the top of the head or lower it to the lower portions of the belly. It may be moved to the left within the limits of the shoulder, but no further without loss of decorum” (Quintilian 1922: 303-305). Dance at any time was unlikely to abide by such a “rule.”
Aldrete (1999: 50) contends that public awareness of oratorical gesture was so pervasive that one can speak of a code that informed physical communication in daily life as well as on the stage. But he doesn’t present any evidence to show that the pantomimes relied on some sort of common oratorical gestural rhetoric to construct mythic characters. Instead, he discusses in detail the illustrations (published in Jones and Morey 1931) accompanying an illuminated Terence manuscript from the fifth century CE to establish the idea of a gestural code informing theatrical practice. However, it is difficult to see how these illustrations reveal much about a common gestural code, let alone a code for the pantomime. For one thing, the artist represented neither actions nor movements in sequence. Rather, he depicted a pose that typified a character in the play to produce a visual typology of the archetypal figures in Terence’s plays [Figure 12]. Even so, the poses depicted do almost nothing to differentiate theatrical gestures from the gestures of figures in artworks commemorating historical or mythic events or scenes from daily life. The obvious masks for the figures are what connect the viewer to a theatrical context. Moreover, if we assume that they indeed constitute a “code,” the gestures depicted in this manuscript or described in detail by Quintilian over three hundred years earlier, while viable and perhaps even useful in dance performance, could hardly establish the pantomime as a unique and enduring mode of spectacle. But then the question arises: to what extent did the theater and especially the pantomime borrow gesture from oratory as a way of bestowing dignity or seriousness upon an art so persistently accused of lacking “decorum”?
This question presupposes that pantomime could survive only by achieving decorum, a measure of respectability it never was able to attain in the several centuries of its prosperity. If anything, however, the pantomime followed a code that subverted decorum and glorified freedom from respectability. But it is hardly evident that the pantomime adopted a gestural or choreographic code that preserved some sort of stable, ancient mode of anti-decorum. Yet the idea persists that the pantomime endured for so long because it perpetuated a movement code that performers handed down from one generation to the next. This idea supports the larger belief that the culture favored stability and “tradition” in the appreciation of aesthetic experience. Richard Beacham (1991: 142-143) contends that pantomimes “were expected to learn” movements (“a gestic vocabulary”) “set by firm tradition from which the actor strayed at his peril.” Yet it is extremely doubtful that the pantomime “tradition” entailed a choreographic code that even remotely resembled the complexity and precision of ballet, let alone the encyclopedic codifications of classical Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian theatrical dance cultures. The philosopher and dramatist Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), in Natura 7.32.3, indicated that the First Century BCE pantomime Bathyllus established a school in Rome. His rival, Pylades, according to Macrobius, writing centuries later, in Saturnalia2.7.12, apparently had several students, including the star Hylas. At least seven other pantomimes took the name Pylades in the following century (Leppin 1992: 284-288), but not because of any formal process for receiving the name. Pylades I did not actually establish a school that codified his unique style of performance, although Athenaeus (1.20) claimed the dancer had composed a theoretical treatise on the pantomime. Most likely, later performers took his name because they wished to evoke the luxurious style associated with him. But the evidence for the conflict between Bathyllus and Pylades is helpful in understanding the degree to which the pantomime conformed to a “firm tradition” requiring mastery of some sort of choreographic code. Bathyllus purportedly represented a comic strand of pantomime, a “satyr pyrrhica,” by which was meant a kind of erotic travesty of mythic themes designed to entertain aristocratic patrons at villa banquets; whereas Pylades cultivated a voluptuous, refined style favored by audiences at the theater. However, in spite of the school he established, the obscene, irreverent, deconstructive style of performance Bathyllus perfected did not survive far into the First Century CE. The luxurious voluptuousness associated with the Pyladian style prevailed because it provided greater opportunities for performers to project the glamour and mystery of personality necessary to achieve stardom. Stardom did not depend on displaying superior command of a conventional movement vocabulary; it depended on superior manipulation of production effects and on the cultivation through performance onstage and off of a unique, seductive, and cosmopolitan personality.
Perhaps the most comprehensive authority for the existence of a gestural code in ancient Rome was La mimica degli antichi investigatta nel gestire napoletano, published in 1832 by the priest-archeologist Andrea de Jorio (1769-1851). In this vast work, de Jorio attempted to align the gestural behavior he observed among the Neapolitans with the movement vocabulary found in artifacts of ancient art he had collected from his many excavations and which formed much of the collection preserved in the Naples Museum. His purpose was to show how the ancient civilization still lived in the gestural language of the Neapolitans. He compiled a kind of dictionary of gesture, an “ABC” of gesture, but he used entry categories that defined the emotion or motive of the “speaker” rather than the physical action performed by the speaker, because the same emotion or motive might be signified by different gestures, and the same gesture might be used to evoke different emotions. De Jorio catalogued about 115 emotions or motives. His method was to classify the repertoire of emotions accommodated by the gestural system, identify the gesture that signified the emotion, identify the evidence for the gesture, comment on the cultural context and significance of the gesture, and identify variant or alternative gestures for the emotion. To signify “Avarice,” for example, a “concentric” form of love that urges one to place one’s own interests above anyone else’s, the performer uses the “hands as fists drawn toward the chest” (De Jorio 2000: 104). De Jorio refers to historical works that support his observation, and provides an illustration of contemporary life that describes the gesture, among other gestures discussed elsewhere in the text [Figure 13]. He then describes two other gestures, “snarl,” and “index and middle finger horizontally extended edgewise, the other fingers closed,” that, alone or in combination with the first gesture, may also represent avarice. But de Jorio did more than describe a gestural vocabulary; he described a “power of the speaker to choose” gestures in constructing narratives that revealed not only the uniqueness of the “speaker” but of the culture to which he belonged. He explores this point when he explains the condition of “Periphasis”:
Thus someone lacking a gesture to denote being gravely ill or close to death, will first express “Robustness” and follow this with a gesture for “Past.” Then he will denote the present (See Ora“Now”), adding to it a gesture for “Negative.” This will be followed by a gesture denoting the near future (see Domani“Tomorrow”), and finally he will make the gesture expressing “Death.” Thus, with a necessary periphasis, he will have shown that someone who before was in good health, has passed into a state close to death. He can greatly expand his discourse by indicating the cause, the circumstances, the relations, the effects, and whatever else he believes necessary (De Jorio: 2000: 325).
De Jorio’s treatise showed how a code was not simply a prescribed way of using the body to signify emotions, motives or conditions. Rather, a code consisted of a large set of bodily movements that, when used in various combinations, might signify a particular emotion or condition while at the same time revealing the unique expressive power of the performer. The code does not prescribe rules of signification; it describes conditions under which movement may be understood. However, de Jorio contended that the Neapolitan gestural code was unique to the environment of Naples and not altogether shared by other Italian gestural “dialects,” even if the dialects shared common ancient antecedents (De Jorio 2000: 17). Moreover, he largely excluded evidence from the theater, “because it is extraneous to our particular aims and also because it is a subject that has been widely dealt with by others,” primarily Johann Jakob Engel (1741-1802), to whose Ideen zu einer Mimik (1785) de Jorio makes frequent reference (De Jorio 2000: 13).
Engel’s treatise described in abundant detail the code for acting on the stage in the eighteenth century. This code derived from the assumption that moral, psychological, and emotional conditions manifested themselves through specific gestures or movements; in other words, movements were correlates of a universal moral code that revealed itself through a universal language of bodily signs.
Astonishment, which is merely a superior degree of admiration, only differs from it in this respect: the traits which I have just pointed out become more characteristical; the mouth is more opened, the look more fixed, the eyebrows more elevated, and the respiration more difficultly retained […] To throw up the hands to heaven is an expression of admiration, amazement and astonishment, used by those who flatter and excessively praise (Engel 1822: 74).
To lift up the right hand to heaven is the form and ceremony of an oath; an expression first used by the Patriarchs. To extend and raise both hands to heaven implies a double oath. Lauretus says, the lifting up the right and left hand signifies an oath with a communication and a promise (Engel 1822: 130).
The large repertoire of gestures inventoried by Engel probably does constitute a “universal language” of expression, insofar as people from different cultures or historical eras would read in the gestures the emotions or moral qualities Engel ascribed to them, even if people in any culture seldom actually use this “language,” on stage or off, to reveal their emotions. In the eighteenth century cultural milieu, the code revealed above all a moral order that a more “realistic” deployment of gesture would obfuscate. Engel often referred to ancient writers to confirm the universality of the gestural code. But when he devoted a section to the Roman pantomime, he encountered a movement aesthetic that seemed outside the universal code he described. He reflected on the story told by Lucian (1936: 267-269) about a barbarian visitor to the court of Nero, who expressed great admiration for one of the emperor’s pantomimes. When Nero later asked his visitor what gift he might give him, the barbarian replied that he would like to have the dancer. He said that the dancer could use gestures to interpret the ideas of “barbarian neighbors who do not speak the same language.” But Engel disclosed deep skepticism toward the suggestion that ideas from different languages could be understood when translated into a movement code shared by peoples speaking different languages. Movement could communicate emotional conditions but not ideas embedded in particular cultures or localities (Engel 1822: 233-240). “[P]antomimical language will partake the inconvenience of all other languages, of being forced to recur to certain radical signs, and to analogies which, in designing equally a crowd of objects, do not indicate any with exactitude or precision, and of which it is impossible to divine the true signification, without first having gained a groundwork by instruction or by practice” (238). He further concluded that the complexity of the numerous themes Lucian ascribed to pantomime made it “almost impossible to form any idea of them” as performances (236). That is to say, the ideas embedded within the mythological themes could achieve expression through movement only when movement operated according to a code that was unique to the performer rather than to the culture. Saint Augustine reinforced this point when he reported that, “during the establishment of the pantomime at Carthage, an interpreter was necessary to explain them to the people” (239).
This discussion of de Jorio and Engel reinforces the supposition that the pantomime did not conform to an elaborate, culturally determined movement code that required performers to master a repertoire of rules and conventions established by “tradition” or implicit aesthetic consensus. On the contrary, audiences expected pantomimes to perfect a movement style that was original and unique to the performer, a movement style that sharply differentiated the performer from others in relation to shared subject matter. Only the pyrrhic movement remained a constant, defining feature of this performance mode. The performer was free to develop the expressive power of the upper body. Performers realized that the same movement, no matter how simple, could produce quite different effects when juxtaposed with different masks, costumes, music, or scenic environments. The extreme youth of some pantomimes listed by Leppin (1992), including even children, further suggests that a formal system of training performers, if it existed, was less important in establishing the success of a pantomime performer than the display of a unique performance “aura,” personal physical and kinetic qualities that captivated audiences, as Lucian reminded his readers: “[T]hat the appearance of the dancer is seemly and becoming needs no assertion on my part, for it is patent to all who are not blind” (Lucian 1936: 240-241).
Indeed, improvisation was apparently a significant charm of pantomime performance. Lucian devotes numerous pages to describing the manifold mythic themes adopted by the pantomimes, but he says hardly anything about the movements used to enact any theme, and he certainly never describes the “best” or “standard” way to display mastery of a theme. Perhaps his clearest statement regarding choreography applies to the genre as a whole: “In general, the dancer should be perfect in every point, so as to be wholly rhythmical, graceful, symmetrical, consistent, unexceptionable, impeccable, not wanting in any way, blent of the highest qualities, keen in his ideas, profound in his culture, and above all, human in his sentiments” (Lucian 1936: 282-283). He includes anecdotes that indicate the pleasure audiences took in contributing to improvised effects. In Antioch, audiences made fun of pantomimes whose physiques did not match their roles; they called out to the performers to adjust their actions in ways that called attention to ludicrous discrepancies between bodies and roles, for it is the audience that “regulates” the “good and bad points” of dancing (Lucian 1936: 276-279). Macrobius (Saturnalia 2.7.12-14), writing in the fourth century CE, describes how in Rome Pylades watched Hylas, his former student and eventual rival, perform a piece that concluded with the theme of “the great Agammenon.” Pylades interrupted the performance when he called out: “You are making him merely tall, not great.” “The populace then made Pylades perform the same dance himself, and, when he came to the point at which he had found fault with the other’s performance, he gave the representation of a man deep in thought, on the ground that nothing became a great commander better than to take thought for all” (Macrobius 1969: 183). On another occasion, Macrobius reports (Saturnalia 2.7.16), Pylades himself provoked calls from the audience while performing Hercules Furensin a manner that seemed inappropriate. Removing his mask, he interrupted the dance to scold his critics: “Fools, my dancing is intended to represent a madman” (Macrobius 1969: 183). However, Lucian describes a performance of the madness of Ajax in which the dancer may have gone too far (“overleaped himself”) with improvisation. This actor tore the clothes off a musician, struck the actor playing Odysseus, and then stepped into the audience to sit with the senators, “between two ex-consuls, who were very much afraid that he would seize one of them and drub him.” “The thing caused some to marvel, some to laugh, and some to suspect that perhaps in consequence of his overdone mimicry he had fallen into the real ailment” (Lucian 1936: 284-287). While the dancer was soon regretful of his performance, Lucian’s description does reinforce the impression that audiences granted performers wide latitude in interpreting the mythic themes. But perhaps the improvisational element in the pantomime manifested itself most vividly in the hardcore pornographic enactments that sometimes occurred in the villa-banquet performance milieu, where audiences were even more likely to comment openly on the performance. When audiences enjoy the privilege of shaping the outcome of performance, as they certainly did in relation to triumphs, gladiatorial games, and chariot races, performers develop their careers through their skill at adjusting performances to the peculiarities and idiosyncracies of different audiences.
But while the pantomime did not conform to a gestural code, it nevertheless evolved according to aesthetic principles that defined the appeal and distinctiveness of movement within the art form. What did Lucian mean when he said that the dance should be rhythmical, graceful, and symmetrical? But to answer this question, it is useful to consider the “range” Lucian prescribes “for the dancer’s learning,” which entails an inventory of scenes apparently so complex in their physical demands that it is difficult to imagine a solo performer could realize entirely through movement: “the castration of Uranos, the begetting of Aphrodite, the battle of the Titans, the birth of Zeus […] the casting of lots among the three brothers […] the power of the two Erotes […] Then the dismemberment of Iacchus, the trick of Hera, the burning of Semele, the double birth of Dionysus […] the daughters of Pandion, with what they suffered and did in Thrace.” Lucian continues in this vein for several pages, listing “a very few themes that I have selected out of many” (248-265). At first glance, it may seem as if one could enact such themes only by employing almost unimaginable acrobatic agility or fantastic props. Quite possibly such was sometimes the case, although Lucian never pursues this suggestion. Rather, he stresses always the power of movement to reconcile complexity of theme with the manifestation of the elegant, the rhythmical, the symmetrical, and the graceful. So, for example, one might perform “the castration of Uranos” by shifting from an overtly “masculine” style of movement to a “feminine” style. In performing “the dismemberment of Iaachus,” one might plausibly arise from the stage floor wrapped in a large cloth, upon which have been painted arms, legs, and torso; when moving, in the pyrrhic step with the arms draped under the cloth yet manipulating it, one could well convey the impression of limbs detached from the body. Similarly, “the burning of Semele” might transpire when the performer has his assistant drape him with a brilliant, flame-colored robe, which shimmers all the more when he executes writhing, flaming movements that allow the cloth to billow and snap. Alternatively, since “the burning” supposedly results from lightning bolts inflicted by Zeus, the performer, clad in a glittering, filmy chiton, could perform a turbulent spinning while brandishing a pair of shiny rods (lightning bolts) and then spiral downward to the floor to signify the incineration of the character into “ash.” Archeological evidence even more strongly attests to the Roman fascination with props in dance performance. In the first century BCE relief from the Basilica of Porto Maggiore in Rome, the dancer impersonating Agave brandishes a sword and a severed head mask, while her attendant swings a vine [Figure 3]. Rita Paris (1981: 192-193) has described a sarcophagus mural from the first century CE depicting dancing maenads with a nude male who apparently represents Dionysos or Hercules [Figure 14]. In one panel, a maenad clashes cymbals while the nude male swings a cloak or an animal skin. In a second panel, a maenad holds some sort of disk in her outstretched hand, possibly a large tambourine, while the nude male lifts and animal skin above the leopard accompanying him. Reliefs and figurines from the Fifth, Fourth, and Third Centuries BCE indicate a persistent delight in dancers who balance objects on their heads, snap crotali (clappers), or brandish bouquets of flowers [Figure 15]. Tanagra figures, popular throughout the eastern Mediterranean and in Alexandria in the fourth and third centuries BCE, show the exquisite skill with which artists could imagine the expressive possibilities of flowing garments on dancing female bodies (Danz 1962: VI-VIII; cf., Jiammet 2010) [Figure 16]. It is quite likely that dancers in ensuing centuries were aware of these possibilities, and indeed, it is even more likely that the realism and kinetic vitality of these figures results from the artists having carefully observed the performance practices of dancers throughout the Greek cultural domain.
Figure 16: Tanagra dancer showing how her dress is part of her dance. Replica of ca. 350 BCE figurine comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos: Karl Toepfer.