Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: A Hypothetical Scene

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

Václav Jindřich Nosecký and Michael Václav Halbax, Feast of Thyestés and Átreus (ca. 1700), Zákupy Castle, Czech Republic. Photo: Public Domain.

A Hypothetical Scene

Consider, for example, a situation in which the performer enacts the scene from the House of Atreus myth in which Atreus welcomes his brother Thyestes to his home for the purpose of reconciling the brothers after Thyestes had seduced Atreus’s wife and become her husband. But the reconciliation banquet is only a ruse: the dinner consists of Thyestes’ sons, but he does not know that until Atreus informs him, completing one of the most sensational scenes in the mythic repertoire and providing an excellent opportunity for memorable theatrical sorcery. What might be the relation between music and movement in this scene? Assume an orchestra of three female musicians playing an aulos, a tympanum, and cymbals. The scene begins with the pantomime assuming the pose that completed his previous scene, and the music is that which concludes the previous scene. The pantomime’s assistant comes forth from the chorus to remove the dancer’s mantel while the dancer removes his mask and displays it, assuming briefly a new pose. The aulos player recapitulates the theme that pervaded the previous scene. The musicians would then vamp while the assistant attaches a new mantel to the pantomime, who places the mask in the mask rack and reaches for the mask of Atreus, displays it next to his face, and then covers his face with it, as the assistant fastens it from behind. At the moment the mask covers his face, the musicians begin a new composition, let us say in a brisk 6/8 time and in a shiny Dorian mode. The pantomime strikes the “Atreus pose” as the assistant retreats to the chorus. The aulos plays the “inviting” melody, supported by a rhythmic accentuation in which the cymbals clash on the second beat and the drum taps on the fifth beat. The pantomime then initiates the “welcoming” section of the scene with movements appropriate to the deception Atreus executes, such as: imploring a god to bless the reconciliation of the brothers, presenting an attitude of graceful humility, urging his guest to receive gifts, encouraging the perception that he is harmless or weak or regretful or preoccupied by a noble wish or perhaps all of these things. And if the audience requires orientation to the mythic context, the interpellator, standing slightly apart from the musicians, can speak a helpful caption: “Atreus, poisoned with desire for revenge, welcomes his adulterous brother Thyestes to his palace.” Such a caption is sufficient to establish Brilliant’s “synoptic” function for the scene. The pantomime could conclude the welcoming section by balancing with upraised arm a sumptuous platter piled with cooked meats and, after turning or gliding acrobatically, setting the platter on a tripod. At this point, the pantomime might assume another pose, which displays Atreus in a mood of profound anticipation, a frozen struggle to constrain an intensity of excitement at the bestowal of a “gift.” The music shifts into a darker, Lydian mode, chromatic harmony in a slow tempo of 4/2. The aulos blows a somber melody in a lower register, while the drum strikes on the first and third beats. The pantomime then moves into the “revelation” section. Again, the cymbals clash on the second beat, but they also clash whenever the pantomime turns his head or moves his left hand in a sweeping, lifting, or thrusting gesture. The aulos player distorts the melody through rubatoexaggerations whenever the dancer moves forward or raises both arms above his waist. In the revelation section, Atreus projects an aura of triumphant fulfillment. He encircles the platter, as if in a trance; he extends his right arm and receives from the assistant an opulent goblet, from which he takes a sip and vibrates with exhilaration. With his left hand, he draws a dagger from his belt and spins around and around, brandishing the weapon and the goblet, while the cymbals clash with each revolution. Then abruptly he approaches the platter, flipping the dagger and sipping. He pokes the meat with the point of the blade, as if offering it to his imaginary guest. He sways, as if performing some mysterious culinary rite, until suddenly, from underneath the meat, is revealed a small pair of masks, signifying the faces of Thyestes’ sons. With the dagger, Atreus plucks the masks from the platter and lifts them high. He advances toward the audience, displaying his gruesome trophies and performing a giddy, self-enthralled dance. He delicately sets the masks in the great goblet and strikes the final pose of the scene, in which he gazes at the ghastly goblet in his uplifted hand as if admiring a marvelous piece of art. The pantomime is now ready to initiate the next scene, which might even be the same story fragment seen from Thyestes’ point of view. 

I do not propose that this speculation constitutes a “reconstruction” of how pantomime actually took place, although I have imagined a performance according to the knowledge of pantomime production available from the historical record. Indeed, a problem with such a speculation is that it is perhaps too generic, in the sense that it does not account for the historical periodization of the pantomime: the speculation could apply equally to a pantomime in the first century BCE and to a pantomime in the fourth century CE. How performances of the Atreus scene differed across different times in terms of theatrical and musical tastes or styles remains obscure in such a speculation. Nevertheless, it is clear from the speculation that in a performance involving these generic features, the theatrical elements considerably complicate the relation between music and movement. This complexity only increases if other possible musical and theatrical effects enter the performance, such as a song sung by a lone voice, a choral song, a larger orchestra, a more elaborate costume and mask, more props, a more active participation of the interpellator, a more acrobatic mode of movement, or the addition of another performer impersonating Thyestes. Historical periodization of pantomime performance styles probably entails identifying the extent to which such complexities “color” or modify the generic model imagined here. But further complexity would distort the model if it were possible to identify movement styles unique to a performer or performance group or to performance locale: even if the same performance concept were followed, the Atreus scene might well appear differently if it were performed for an audience in Alexandria or Gaul rather than in Rome. Yet it is precisely the intricate embroidering of such sensuous, material details in the telling of myth that so annoyed the ancient theorists of music across several centuries, from Plato to Aristoxenos to the Pseudo-Plutarch to Ptolemy to Aristides, and urged them to complain that music had sunk into a decadent phase, having become the servant, so to speak, of unwholesome fantasies that prevented people from a deeper, supposedly “universal” intimation of the “incorporeal beginning of the soul.” However, the complexities introduced by the model enactment of the mythic scene indicate that the “synoptic” approach to the use of mythic material did not entail a simplification or reductivism to satisfy less demanding or less sophisticated audiences than supported the epic poets or idealized festivals of Greek drama in times long past. On the contrary, the pantomime represented for its audiences a more “advanced” form of mythic narrative than the poetry and drama of earlier and more “primitive” eras, in somewhat the way that the imperial idea of governance in the Mediterranean world superseded the tribal and city-state political structures that preceded the Hellenistic period. The pantomime did not function to prepare audiences to assume civic responsibilities nor to connect civic communities to destinies and moral crises embedded in myths; it functioned to estrange audiences from myth and to treat myth as a manifestation of a collective imaginary shaped, modified, intruded upon, transformed, or metamorphosed by “reality,” all those sensuous, material details and stylistic idiosyncracies imposed upon myth by performance. As will become evident, the audience that cultivated the pantomime was aristocratic, in the sense that pantomimes molded their aesthetic to accommodate the tastes of a ruling class and expected audiences from other classes to emulate those tastes. The taste of the ruling class was for experiences that demonstrated the aesthetic authority of “reality,” not the moral authority of myths or ideals associated with a mysterious cosmic order. The Atreus scene is not “about” how powerful passions destroy family ties, nor is it an “explanation” of how the passions defining the “fate” of an individual contribute to the fate of an entire society. The scene is “about” how a person may employ beautifully executed gestures to conceal violent, depraved motives. It is “about” the disturbing mutability of human identity, the inability or refusal of humans to see corruption beneath beautifully contrived gestures, movements, and details. Myth is not the raw material for understanding the logic or “story” of a fate bestowed upon a society; it is the raw material for understanding the process of metamorphosis. The central problem for the culture is not how to move humanity toward the ideal, toward a more just or unified society; but how to recognize “reality,” how to perfect perception, how to trust one’s senses and thus respect the limitations of one’s trust in others, no matter how intimately others are known.  

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