Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Combinations of Aesthetic Variables

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

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The pantomime scene from Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass,” as illustrated in 1923 by Belgian artist Jean de Bosschère (1878-1953). Photo: from “The Golden Asse of Lucius Apuleius,” translated by William Adlington, London: John Lane/Bodley Head, 1923.

Combinations of Aesthetic Variables

The idea of a “mathematical” awareness governing choreographic choices appears transparent when we simulate the conditions of its application. The performer may execute the pyrrhic step quickly or slowly, and may move the hands, arms, head, torso, or shoulders quickly or slowly. The body may move forward, backward, diagonally, or in profile to the spectator. Speed and direction of movement are only two variables that complicate perception of the pyrrhic step in relation to a single arm movement [Figure 11]. The pyrrhic step itself may be performed in different ways: as an exultant march, as a stealthy circumnavigation, as a funereal procession, or as a voluptuous stride. In combination with turns, spins, sways, or abrupt shifts in rhythm, the step allows for the dramatization of fairly complex emotional conditions. Another set of variables enters when the step operates in tandem with different gestural possibilities for the hands, arms, head, torso, and shoulders. But these movements and combinations of them expand their expressive potential when the performer adds props and costume effects and cause the same movement to signify a different emotional aura. When occasionally the action involved two or more performers together, as is evident from Apuleius’s description of the pantomime in Corinth, movement and pose may interact, and indeed, several bodies may be in movement employing different combinations of gestures. What is impressive about Apuleius’s description of “The Judgment of Paris” pantomime in The Golden Ass (ca. 150 CE) is that he shows how the performance entails a luxurious interaction of props, costume effects, nudity, and elaborate combinations of movements. For example:

[…] And by and by, there approached a faire and comely mayden, not much unlike to Juno, for she had a Diademe of gold upon her head, and in her hand she bare a regall scepter: then followed another resembling Pallas, for she had on her head a shining sallet, whereon was bound a garland of Olive branches, having in one hand a target or shield: and in the other a speare as though she would fight: then came another which passed the other in beauty, and presented the Goddesse Venus, with the color of Ambrosia, when she was a maiden, and to the end she would shew her perfect beauty shee appeared all naked, saving that her fine and dainty skin was covered with a thin smocke, which the wind blew hither and thither to testifie the youth and flowre of the age of the dame. Her colour was of two sorts, for her body was white as descended from heaven, and her smocke was blewish, as arrived from the sea: After every one of the Virgins which seemed goddesses, followed certaine waiting servants, Castor and Pollus went behind Juno, having on their heads helmets covered with starres. This Virgin Juno sounded a Flute, which shee bare in her hand, and mooved her selfe towards the shepheard Paris, shewing by honest signes and tokens, and promising that hee should be Lord of all Asia, if hee would judge her the fairest of the three, and to give her the apple of gold: the other maiden which seemed by her armour to be Pallas, was accompanied with two young men armed, and brandishing their naked swords in their hands, whereof one named Terror, and the other Feare; behind them approached one sounding his trumpet to provoke and stirre men to battell; this maiden began to dance and shake her head, throwing her fierce and terrible eyes upon Paris and promising that if it pleased him to give her the victory of beauty, shee would make him the most strong and victorious man alive. Then came Venus and presented her selfe in the middle of the Theater, with much favour of all the people, for shee was accompanied with a great many of youth, whereby you would have judged them all to be Cupidoes, either to have flowne from heaven or else from the river of the sea, for they had wings, arrowes, and the residue of their habit according in each point, and they bare in their hands torches lighted, as though it had beene a day of marriage. Then came in a great multitude of faire maidens: on the one side were the most comely Graces: on the other side, the most beautifull Houres carrying garlands and loose flowers, and making great honor to the goddesse of pleasure; the flutes and Pipes yeelded out the sweet sound of Lydians, whereby they pleased the minds of the standers by exceedingly, but the more pleasing Venus mooved forward more and more, and shaking her head answered by her motion and gesture, to the sound of the instruments. For sometimes she would winke gently, sometimes threaten and looke aspishly, and sometimes dance onely with her eyes: As soone as she was come before the Judge, she made a signe and token to give him the most fairest spouse of all the world, if he would prefer her above the residue of the goddesses. Then the young Phrygian shepheard Paris with a willing mind delivered the golden Apple to Venus, which was the victory of beauty (Apuleius 1919: 531-537; Apuleius 1972: 257-259).

The narrator treats the performance, not as a predominantly choreographic experience, but as an almost monumental, dynamic mosaic of visual and musical sensations. Bodily movement is important here, not because it is a display of acrobatic virtuosity, but because it amplifies emotional contrasts and complexity. The narrator describes movement in the language of fundamental actions: dancers “show,” “throw” their eyes,” “accompany,” “carry,” “shake” their heads, “wink,” “threaten,” “look aspishly,” and “make signs.” But above all, they “bear” all sorts of glamorous props and physical beauty. The competition between the three goddesses does not unfold as a choreographic contest. Rather, it is more like a contest of processions, structured according to a predictable escalating scale of sensation. Venus wins the contest because her appearance is the most sumptuous. The performance makes no effort to dramatize any conflict within Paris about which goddess to choose. Until the end of the description, he adopts the pose of a transfixed spectator. Suspense lies entirely in the anticipation of an intensifying level of voluptuous imagery, bodies, and tones. If, as seems evident from the description, the audience recognizes the mythic scene, then no one watches the performance to see how the story will end; this was known before the day began. The narrative organization of action depends on the emotional resonance provoked by or correlated with purely formal properties of performance. 

            Yet the performance as a whole is not without serious narrative unpredictability and disruption. The passage merely describes the prelude to the main action of the performance, which is the copulation on stage between the donkey narrator and a woman accused of murder among many other crimes; the bestial act is part of her public humiliation before being eaten by wild beasts. Theatrical machines change the scene and display a luxurious bed “finely and bravely prepared, and covered with silk and other things necessary.” With great anxiety, the narrator describes the anticipated copulation as an action designed for maximum theatrical effect without, however, proposing that the scene is anything other than “reality.” This extravagant blurring of distinction between representation and reality arises out of the same impulse to treat reality astheater that established the appeal of chariot races and gladiatorial combats. The “Judgment of Paris” ballet then seems like a grotesque parody or travesty of glamorous ritual performance efforts to evoke the mythic spirit of Venus on behalf of the ecstasies of carnal desire. 

            The “meaning” of the pantomime performance does not result from some special understanding of character, myth, social relations, history, or people, as is expected of text-driven performances. The “moral” of “The Judgment of Paris” is, for Apuleius, nothing more than an opportunity for extravagant satire. Social order in the performance is merely a sequence of ornamental processions; the concept of “judgment” appears utterly detached from any condition of doubt or internal conflict over the consequences of a decision. Although the performance functions ostensibly as a punishment of a monstrously immoral woman, the narrator makes clear in the complicated passage preceding the description of the performance that a large number of people, practically an entire society, is somehow implicated in her crimes. In other words, escape from intellectuality or insight is not a function of “entertainment” as such; nor is it the basis for a collapse, confusion, transcendence, or discarding of distinctions between representation and reality. Rather, the narrator describes how performance metamorphoses into reality—that is, into a condition when life itself is governed (or at least amplified) above all by aesthetic instead of moral, political, or economic values. Entertainment, as it appears in the passage on the pantomime, is not a matter of escape from reality or even from intellectuality. It is an escape from morality, from a religious or mythic justification for justice and social harmony. The invoking of mythic powers through theatrical performance leads to the staging of a sort of ecstatically obscene reality. At any rate, the narrator refuses to participate in the obscene punishment and runs away from it. But the passage reverberates with a larger implication when set against the other evidence of the pantomime aesthetic. The “meaning” of the pantomime lies in its power to free both performer and spectator from morality as it is encoded in narrative and representation. The pantomime adopts a form of performance that allows the spectator to observe the conditions under which a personality manifests its uniqueness, its freedom, its aloneness, beneath or despite layers of mythic fantasy, character, mask, costume, artifice, ceremonial procession, technical virtuosity, and even language. Personality asserts itself most freely or uniquely through physiognomy and physical movement. That this freedom from being compelled to find one’s place within a story told by others has the potential to create an ecstatic experience is the basis for transforming pantomime performers into stars and for establishing the appeal of pantomime performers around star personalities. The problem with the pantomime described in The Golden Ass is that it descends into monstrous vulgarity: the “unique personalities” revealed by the “reality” of performance, including especially that of the audience, are bestial. The beautiful evocation of myth in “The Judgment of Paris” not only fails to prevent Corinthian society from sinking into bestiality; it justifies the descent. Of course, this grotesque irony is the basis for extravagant comic effect in Apuleius’s narrative, but it also exposes a disconcerting ambiguity of consequence embedded in the freedom of metamorphosis, the freedom to transform representation into reality. 

            Richard Brilliant has explained how, in wall paintings and relief sculptures, Roman artists perfected a “synoptic” or “reduced field” approach to the visual narration of mythic or historical events that was similar to the excerpted compilation aesthetic of the pantomime. Because the narratives were too complex and filled with too many details to be represented completely or efficiently, and because furthermore, it was necessary to interweave two or more narratives into a larger configuration of meaning, artists favored a “reduction of the narrative chain and greater concentration on a primary visual field” so that eventually, “during the course of the second and third centuries, viewers were obliged to change their behavior from reading through the narrative series to reading out from the salient imagery” (1984: 163-164). “Highly concentrated images” or “typological formulations,” he says, were “readily accessible to the eye and mind of the viewer” and thus “could reveal greater content through association” (163). The object of this “synoptic” organization of narrative, which he calls allegoresis, was to “project myths as an allusive presentation” of an “inner truth” or “search for another, higher, form of reality” (164). In this aesthetic, the spectator or “beholder” assumes an increasing responsibility for the meaning of the “visual field,” “manipulating” clarified, reduced forms and extracting “relevant content” in relation to a unique, personal context (164). If we apply Brilliant’s argument to the narrative organization of the pantomime, then it would seem that the performance fulfilled a highly symbolic, ritual function of moving the spectator to a transcendent, elevated reality, “lacking either beginning or end,” in which the viewer was free to encounter, indeed construct, a mysterious relation between myth and reality that a more detailed or complete approach to storytelling prevented him from seeing.  

            Brilliant’s argument is helpful in explaining the increasing tendency toward abstraction in Roman art, wherein mythic imagery becomes obscured by idiosyncratic, cryptic details of an elaborately formal nature, especially in the mosaic paintings from the third century onward. The problem with the argument is that it does not clarify the relation between mythic figures and the “higher reality” signified through abstraction. Why bother with mythic material at all in the face of a decaying belief in the power of myth to “explain” or define reality? In a broad investigation of ancient art before the emergence of Greek civilization, Henriette Groenewegen-Frankfort (1896-1982) described, in 1951, how ancient artists used abstraction and motionless posing to preserve a ritual function for the image. An image assumes a ritual function when it memorializes “the terrifying distance between the human and the transcendent” and serves to prepare the viewer for death and submission to an eternal, immutable power. A lack of dynamism defines temporal-spatial relations between figures. Art that does not pursue a ritual function, she contends, is “unpurposeful,” insofar as it exists only to commemorate the excitement and “movement” of life itself and does “not give substance to the world of the dead through an abstract of the world of the living.” Such art does not “immortalize proud deeds or state a humble claim for divine attention” (Groenewegen-Frankfort 1987: 216). It is art whose guiding objective is to remind the living of the beauties of life and to appreciate the pleasure of movement for its own sake. For Groenewegen-Frankfort, this secular or non-ritual function for art is most evident in Cretan civilization, wherein “the human bid for timelessness was disregarded in the most complete acceptance of the grace of life the world has ever known.” In this art, “the beauty of movement was woven into the intricate web of living forms” and “revealed in human bodies acting their serious games, inspired by a transcendent presence” that nevertheless remained absent from representation itself (216).            

The pantomime, however, does not fit comfortably into either Brilliant’s or Groenewegen-Frankfort’s categories of ritual and non-ritual function. The narrative organization of the action followed abstract, “synoptic” principles that emphasized formal relations between bodies, time, and space without pointing to a “higher reality” for which myth was merely an emblem. The pantomimes subordinated myth to aesthetic objectives; the “higher reality” achieved through abstraction was intellectual, not spiritual, close to Groenewegen-Frankfort’s notion of “serious games.” The pantomime was tragic in the sense that it was a serious engagement with the physical relation between myth and the human body. Whereas literary tragedy attempted, to the extent that anyone in the Empire even bothered with it, to link serious “understanding” of a higher reality to superior storytelling skills, the pantomime linked such understanding to a kind of refined resistance to storytelling in which it was possible for performance to comment on the stories inside a person without actually telling them. On the other hand, the pantomime was not quite the “unpurposeful” art that Groenewegen-Frankfort ascribed to Cretan civilization. The pantomime depended on star performers to sustain its appeal for the public. Performers became stars because they “embodied” various mythic identities to a superior degree, and by becoming stars, they themselves cast an aura of myth, they intimated a “transcendent presence” whose capacity to stir up ecstatic feelings, intoxicating sensations of release and freedom, could seem more real than the gods or immortals they impersonated. Whenever performance moves toward an ecstatic result, it entails, not an “acceptance of the grace of life,” but a release from the mundane world and a powerful sense of coming close to a higher level of being than otherwise seems accessible within “reality.” I would suggest, then, that the pantomime fulfilled neither one function nor the other, nor did it accommodate double, contradictory functions. Rather, it projected an elaborate uncertainty of function that arose from a desire in Roman civilization to permit people to read performance narratives according to different, unstable apprehensions of “reality.”

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