Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
The Pantomime Performance Program
The imperial aesthetic of the ancient Roman dance-theater appealed to audiences through a complex of opportunities to exploit props, costumes and fabrics, facial expressions, nudity, peculiar movements and poses, luxurious color effects, acrobatic stunts, and the fusion of dancer and musician into a single figure. The performance of these “opportunities” further entailed interludes involving performances by musicians, choirs, singers, and narrators. A hypothetical sequence of acts preceding the star pantomime might include a rendition of the pyrrhic dance, which leads to an accompanied song, followed by a series of solo acrobatic stunts, a nude female dance duet, a poetic recitation with choir accompaniment, and a group dance of maenads with choir accompaniment. The audience is then ready to receive the herald’s grandiose proclamation of the star pantomime. This “loose” way of organizing theatrical entertainment, according to the talents of particular performers rather than to the storytelling needs of audiences, allows the theatrical producer to expand or contract the number of individual performance pieces to fit the circumstances of specific performance occasions. The evidence for these dance and acrobatic performances does not suggest an effort to impersonate imaginary characters, as in a drama, for the mask, such an important element of the pantomime itself, is conspicuously absent from the evidence of performance by the dancers and acrobats. Indeed, nudity, not masking, dominates perception of this theatrical pleasure. Dance and acrobatic performances were much more abstract than the pantomime; they focused exclusively on the excitement generated by different bodies rather than characters. But in resisting the urge, through impersonation, to show the “otherness” within bodies, the existence of “imaginary” identities, these pieces, individually, lacked the power to sustain audience interest beyond several minutes. It is therefore unlikely that a series of dances, stunts, and musical interludes lasted more than an hour, if even that long. The important thing is that the performers could reconfigure the hour and their talents in relation to a different emotional logic, so that, for example, the performance before the appearance of the star pantomime might begin with a maenadic dance and conclude with a pyrrhic dance, or dispense with a maenadic dance and include instead a rope dance by children wearing diaphanous costumes and glittering jewels. Obviously such entertainment depends on the efforts of a disciplined, professional troupe capable of conveying some measure of confidence in the idea of performance as a triumph of group or ensemble activity. And yet it is remarkable how rarely one encounters evidence of group dancing from the fourth century BCE onward. The images of the pyrrhic dance in the Acropolis Museum and the Villa Borghese are well known, as are occasional depictions of maenads linking hands. In contrast to the post-Hellenic eras, the fifth century Greek enthusiasm for depicting festival and cult group dances seems astonishingly abundant. And this diminishment of interest in depicting group dancing hardly coincides with a diminished interest, from the fourth century BCE onward, in the representation of group actions of great variety and complexity. Rather, with the Hellenistic era, the artistic imagination perceived dance as a phenomenon that amplified awareness of isolated individual figures rather than of group cohesion. The culture no longer perceived dance as a physical action that encourages and sustains the unison, choral identity ascribed to the festival, cult, and tribal groups of the pre-Hellenic era. Yet representation of group identity through dance by no means disappeared. On the contrary, a more complex perception of group dance emerged through the fragmentation of the performance ensemble across a sequence of pieces. This aesthetic encouraged the perception that unison group dance was either the pleasure of a provincial sensibility longing for village uniformity and synchronicity of movement or an image of myth-inspired communal coherence that was unable, due to individualizing impulses within it, to sustain itself beyond a brief “number” in a set of pieces. The dance section of the performance satisfies a need to see group unity as a power that extends across different bodies, moods, talents, and references without necessarily including everyone in the group at the same time and without requiring an imaginary set of references (a story) to show a connection between figures in one discrete segment to figures in another. What connects the performers to each other is an effort to bestow pleasure on the idea that an aesthetically satisfying group contained an assortment of individuals who represented different talents and different cultures in different relations to each other in different spatial and acoustic configurations that produced different sensations and emotional currents: different bodies moving differently nevertheless created a unified image of The Body. The sequence of songs, dances, stunts, musical interludes, and recitations absorbed influences not only from the Greeks, but from the Egyptians, the Etruscans, the Italians, and Near Eastern cultures, and the sequence as a whole proposed a body-centered rather than word-centered idea of group action that could combine and recombine disparate cultural strands. It is an aristocratic aesthetic of group identity, in contrast to a demotic aesthetic promoted above all through mass unison movement or, as in the case of the mimes and even the obscure performance of a tragedy, through the stabilization of performer identities by subordinating them to the imaginary “characterizations” of a story imposed upon The Body. This aristocratic perspective resists the idea of the group as a unity of class, ethnic, physiognomic, linguistic, or narrative identities and instead favors an idea of the group as a reconfigurable assortment of allegiances governed by the concept of a troupe or company rather than by the authority of a star, a story, or a synchronized mass ensemble.
Pantomime Performance in Theaters
The notion of reconfigurable relations between bodies allowed the pantomime troupes to perform in a wide range of spaces. The troupes did not depend on a particular set of spatial conditions for their performances to take place. Rather, performances took place in relation to occasions and circumstances determined by the owners of the troupes, the aristocratic patrons, who assigned their troupes to perform mostly in three types of spaces: 1) theaters; 2) villas; and 3) hippodromes. But pantomimes sometimes found assignment in other types of spaces, such as public and cult processions, and, most likely, at least in the later empire, nightclub or brothel environments. Freedom of bodily movement implied a freedom to inhabit all kinds of spaces and theatricalize them. The pantomime aesthetic transcended the spaces in which it materialized. The body of the performer was the dominant source of spectacle, and the scenic context was seldom more than the “reality” in which the performance took place. The idea that environment determines identity or character, which drives scenic art to achieve greater and greater complexity and detail, was completely alien to the pantomime culture. However, while government officials showed little or no inclination to ban pantomimes from particular spaces or sites, the culture as a whole determined that some spaces were not appropriate for pantomime performance. Pantomimes never appeared in the amphitheater, the site pervasively designated for the performance of gladiatorial combats and venationes. It is not clear why the pantomimes had no place in the amphitheater, but probably the primary reason was political. The owners or sponsors of pantomime ensembles aligned them with “factions” or fan clubs that a sponsor could mobilize on behalf of his political ambitions. Factions functioned like political parties—or rather, like guilds capable of testing political authority. However, Cameron (1976: 193-229), contradicting other scholars, argues that the factions, designated as “Blues,” “Greens,” “Reds,” or “Whites,” arose first with the pantomimes, who in the fourth century CE extended their successful organization of fan clubs to include enthusiasts for chariot teams in the hippodromes. The implication in Cameron is that the fans of chariot teams were above all fans of pantomimes, that owners of pantomime ensembles also owned chariot teams, and that, if the owners of pantomime ensembles and chariot teams were not the same, chariot teams sought pantomimes who brought with them a bloc of fans. In any case, gladiatorial fighters did not inspire fans clubs or factions, even if they had fans, even if, occasionally, aristocrats sponsored gladiators or gladiatorial teams, and even if, in the amphitheater, non-pantomime theater ensembles could perform tragic scenes of old dramas in which the death of a character entailed the actual execution of a condemned prisoner. Audiences might cheer the struggles and triumphs of a particular gladiator, and especially valiant gladiators could stir and unite entire audiences. But, as condemned men incapable of choosing any other life, they could not symbolize or represent a distinct political perspective within an audience, for they were representative of a doom or inescapable fate, not of any choice before the citizenry. Neither the pantomimes nor their audiences would find their pleasure in metamorphosis credible in the amphitheater, which rigidly reduced human identity to a vulnerable body hardened with muscle and armor. The gladiatorial contests appealed to a contrary aspect of a contradictory attitude toward the transformation of identity within the culture, and the culture accommodated this contradiction by separating the function of the amphitheater from any other space inhabited by the pantomimes, who were otherwise “free” to perform in any space that welcomed them. The culture did not assign a special place for them. When emperors or politicians regarded pantomimes as a menace or a troublesome influence on audiences, they banned them altogether from cities and compelled them to wander elsewhere.
Roman civilization invested enormous state and public resources in the construction of theaters, and during the Empire, the scale of investment in theater architecture, as a portion public spending, exceeded that of even those modern societies cultivating a supposedly generous attitude toward theatrical art. Provincial cities throughout the Empire built theaters of a monumental splendor that such cities or cities of comparable size or importance have seemed incapable of achieving since the collapse of the Western Empire in the late fifth century CE. The Romans regarded theaters as large-scale public works projects. The primary function of theater construction was to demonstrate the wealth, generosity, and power of the government and patrons who sponsored the construction. Cities and towns in the imperial era built theaters to signify their economic or social importance, and the signification of this importance depended more on the scale of construction than on the scale of public appetite for theatrical entertainment. Theater designers built according to the desires of patrons, not according to the needs of theatrical artists, which meant that theaters provided other kinds of activities besides theatrical performances. Indeed, most theatrical performances did not take place in the grand municipal theaters at all. The mimes operated more often in an improvised, mobile performance environment that found much of its audience in the street, while the pantomimes performed mostly in villas or in spaces obtained for them by their patrons. The state or municipalities owned theaters open to the public, but outside of the imperial family, neither owned pantomime ensembles. Thus ensembles did not establish residency in theaters; they performed there because their patrons bought time in the theaters. Unlike the mime companies, the pantomime ensembles, subsidized by their owners to demonstrate the wealth and access to luxurious pleasures of a family, did not perform with a commercial motive and therefore did not depend on attracting large audiences to sustain their existence, and even when they did attract large audiences, perhaps more so in the hippodromes than in the theaters, the pantomimes would hardly have regarded the size of the audience as an accurate measure of a “market value” ascribed to the pantomime aesthetic. Pantomime performances functioned primarily as “gifts” to audiences from the patrons, who sponsored performances as a way of defining and developing political constituencies, clienteles, or blocs of patronage beneficiaries. The calendar for performances did not conform to a public appetite for theater; rather, it operated according to the desire of sponsors to commemorate or honor some special occasion, such as a birthday, the visit of dignitaries, a marriage, or the manifestation of a god.
In short, pantomime performance and Roman theater architecture did not evolve in relation to each other. Theater builders did not design theaters around the needs of the pantomime aesthetic, and the pantomime aesthetic did not need theaters to achieve its fulfillment. Nevertheless, pantomimes sometimes performed in theaters, and when they did, their performances could take advantage of architectural features that were unique to Roman theater design. When the pantomime assumed a prominent status in Roman culture at the end of the first century BCE, the Romans had already begun to build theaters in stone and marble, emulating in more durable materials the opulence of the wooden theaters constructed in the east during the Hellenistic era. The enormous theater built in Rome by Pompey in 55 BCE, perhaps the largest theater ever built in the ancient world, established the determination of the Romans to regard theater architecture as a projection of civic power completely independent of whatever happened as performance within it [Figure 37].
The experience of being in the theater must in itself immerse the spectator in an aura of “greatness,” regardless of the motive that brought the spectator into the theater. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans viewed theater as a self-contained institution, separate from the natural world and in no way dependent upon a “beautiful” site for its justification. Because of their skill in building with arches, vaults, and stone foundations, the Romans could erect theaters on completely flat ground: they did not require, as the Greeks did, a hillside to support the audience. They situated a theater in a functional relation to other civic buildings, so that people saw the building as an extension of a unified or connected administrative domain or complex. At the same time, Roman theaters everywhere conformed to a set of architectural conventions that differentiated theatrical spaces from other performance spaces and assured a strict separation of performance categories within the culture.
In the archetypal Roman theater, the audience faced the stage in a perfect half-circle of concentric rows or rings of seats (the cavea) that rose above the lowest point in the theater, the orchestra, from between 30 and 45 degrees. The orchestra was also generally a half-circle that magnified the distance between the spectator and the action on the stage. The performance function of the orchestra is obscure when one considers it relation to the stage. Some theaters, such as Djemila (in Africa), Pompeii, and Herodes Atticus (in Athens), provide steps from the stage into the orchestra, indicating the passage of action from the stage to the orchestra (Bieber: 1961: 203, 212). But, according to documentation in Bieber (1961: 191, 206, 209), other theaters, such as Aspendus (in southern Turkey), Ostia, and Sabratha (in Africa), do not provide steps; moreover, at Ostia, for example, the stage is over five feet above the orchestra, making a transition of action from the stage to the orchestra awkward at best, although it is possible that in the same scene some action could enter the orchestra from the paradoi while other action entered the stage from behind the scaenae frons, without any action moving from the orchestra to the stage or vice versa. According to Vitruvius Pollio, in De architectura, 13-16 (ca. 15 BCE), the orchestra is reserved for spectators of high rank; therefore the stage must not rise above five feet to assure the visibility of the action to these spectators. But this explanation raises questions. Because the orchestra is a flat space, it could accommodate only a few spectators (who presumably supplied their own chairs) without blocking the view of others in this space. However, if these few privileged spectators sit on the periphery of the orchestra, the space also provides excellent opportunity for performance. Indeed, the orchestra seems designed precisely for this purpose. Bieber (1961: 215, 217) contends that in Greece, where the Romans did not build amphitheaters, gladiatorial combats, animal combats (venationes), and aquatic spectacles took place in the orchestra. These shows, she contends, are the reason why we find thick parapets surrounding some orchestras there. To further support her contention, she quotes Dio Chrysostomus (Oratio, XXXI, 121), who remarks (ca. 100 CE) on the slaughter of fighters “among the very seats in which the hierophant and other priests must sit.” If it is the case that gladiatorial combats took place in some theater orchestras, such as the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, it is not clear why the parapet is necessary, especially when it partially obscures the view of the action for high-ranking spectators seated behind the parapet in ornate stone chairs (Bieber 1961: 213). If the parapet completely walled the perimeter of the orchestra, spectators in the orchestra could reach their seats only through the paradoi. Gladiatorial combats seem feasible in the orchestra, though never on the scale that was possible in the amphitheater, but the orchestra was a doubtful site for wild animal fights and aquatic spectacles. The parapet was not high enough to contain animals, nor was the orchestra deep enough to hold water capable of supporting any aquatic spectacle (not to mention the difficulty of damming up the paradoi and sealing all the leaks in orchestra floor brickwork), although at Corinth, the evidence, dating from 217 CE, both architectural and iconographic, for animal fights in the orchestra is persuasive (Bieber 1961: 216-217, 252-253). At Pompeii, which had its own amphitheater for gladiatorial combats, the small theater contains a remnant of a parapet around the periphery of the orchestra, which itself has four rings of steps each wide enough to hold chairs for spectators (Bieber 1961: 175). The orchestra is too small for gladiatorial combats, although large enough for theatrical action. In general, then, the parapet most likely functioned to separate spectators according to some class or privileged distinction that arose from spectator proximity to the performers, which implies that the orchestra was an expected or frequent site of performance. However, this peculiar parapet class distinction does not appear to have been universal in ancient theater architecture anymore than the presence or absence of steps leading from the stage to the orchestra. It would seem therefore that the inclusion or exclusion of steps into the orchestra was a choice made by the builders of a theater and not the result of a universal assumption about the performance relation between the stage and the orchestra.
The issue of steps from the stage to the orchestra amplifies the possibilities of pantomime performance. The performer brings to the theater a repertoire of mythic scenes. But the choreography is flexible enough to adapt to a peculiar architectural configuration and spectator expectation whereby each mythic scene can 1) take place entirely on the stage, or 2) take place entirely in the orchestra, or 3) take place partially on the stage and partially in the orchestra (given steps into the orchestra), or 4) take place entirely on the stage with the musicians in the orchestra, or 5) take place entirely in the orchestra with the musicians on the stage, or 6) take place entirely in the orchestra or entirely on the stage, even though the architecture provides steps from the stage into the orchestra or the performers insert their own steps. The advantage of the orchestra is that it allows for depth of action in the sense of forward-backward movement. The advantage of the stage is that it allows for strong lateral, panoramic, frieze-like movement. Because of its ambiguous relation between orchestra and stage, Roman theater architecture offered greater freedom of action than the classical Greek theater, where all of the action took place in the full circle orchestra. The stage was actually an invention of the Hellenistic era, which saw the end of the orchestra as a site of dramatic action and which relegated the chorus (insofar as a chorus still had a place in the theater) to the orchestra (Bieber 1961: 117-119). In the Hellenistic theater, the stage was quite high above the orchestra (twelve feet or so). By elevating the action and pressing it more tightly against a decorative scenic backdrop or architectonic context, the Hellenistic theater, which emphasized the authority of performers and spectacle over that of authors and texts, achieved a monumentalization of theatrical action that was not possible within the orchestra alone. The Romans appreciated the monumental effect, but grasped that monumentality intensified by increasing the elevation and the scale of the scenic backdrop (the scaenae frons) rather than the stage (see Courtois 1989: 81). A low wide stage against a high backdrop reinforces the monumentality of human action more effectively than a high stage against a high backdrop, because a high stage cuts into the scale of the scaenae frons and intensifies the perception of the action as constrained on a kind of precipice that entails either a laborious ascent or an elevated remoteness of the actors from the spectators which was perhaps incongruous with their social status. The Roman scaenae frons could rise three stories and well over 100 feet, but the theater artists in the Roman theater world never appear to have considered staging action anywhere but on the low stage and in the orchestra.
At the advent of the Imperial era, the Roman stage (pulpitum) was already typically 30 meters wide and only about 5 meters deep. A wide, shallow stage prevailed everywhere the Romans built theaters, but the size and scale of the stages did not conform to any convention. At the Theater of Marcellus in Rome, completed about 15 BCE, the stage was about 45 meters wide and about nine meters deep. The theater held about 11,000 spectators. The North African theater at Sabratha, built around 200 CE, contained a stage that was 42.7 meters wide and 8.55 meters deep, although the cavea held only about 5,000 spectators (Caputo 1959: 26). At Lecce, the second century CE theater held about 6,000 spectators, but the stage was only 25 meters wide and 5 meters deep (D’Andria 1999: 28-29). It took me 33 steps to traverse the 30 meters width of the stage, which is 5 meters deep, in the large theater in Pompeii; this theater, transformed from a Greek to a Roman model between 200 and 80 BCE, held about 5,000 spectators (Bieber 1961: 171-173; Baker 2005). A proportionate correlation between stage width and seating capacity doesn’t seem valid. From a performance perspective, the obvious advantage of a wider rather than narrower stage is that a wider stage can hold more performers. But this advantage is obscure when considering that plays seldom had more than four persons on stage at once, and pantomimes, with musicians, seldom more than five. A wide stage could present several acrobatic performances at once, and, presumably, would enhance the display of spectacular stunts, such as a sequence of somersaults, leaps, flips, or canon-like dance movements. But widening the stage by ten or fifteen meters beyond the norm of thirty meters would not provide any special advantage in displaying even these actions, because the excitement of a stunt does not intensify by increasing the number of actions it takes to complete it, but by increasing the physical complexity of the stunt, which, given the size of the human body, seldom depends on increasing the space needed to accommodate the complexity. (This principle does not apply, however, to the performance of tightrope acts.)
The stage was usually built of wood; most likely its surface was painted with brilliant decorative patterns. The stage was shallow compared with theaters built since the Renaissance. The shallowness assured the expansion of action laterally and panoramically rather than trajectorally, although even at five meters depth, a performer still had sufficient room for the powerful display of backward and forward movements. At five meters, the stage comfortably could hold a rack displaying the pantomime masks, the performer lifting and turning the mask to all sections of the cavea, an assistant (or even two) helping the performer to attach costume accessories, and several musicians or a chorus behind these persons, though such crowding of bodies on such a wide stage was probably not common. Because the musicians followed the dancer, they most likely performed on stage with the pantomime, so they could see his or her movements. The extant iconography depicting the relation between musicians and dancer suggests that the musician or musicians stood to the left of the performer as seen by the spectator [e.g., Figure 3]. Conceivably the musicians could perform in the orchestra when the dancer was on stage, but then they would have to face the stage to see the performer and the sound would not radiate as effectively to the audience. The interpellator was probably also on stage, perhaps to the right of the performer as seen by the spectator, or at any rate on the opposite side of the performer in relation to the musicians, assuming the Roman fondness for panoramic or frieze-like sequencing of human figures in imagery. It is not clear what the advantage is of a left to right reading of the figures on stage that flows from chorus to musicians to pantomime to interpellator. If the arrangement was right to left, the effect would seem pretty much the same, and, lacking more abundant proof to support the left to right hypothesis, it might well have been the case with some ensembles that the musicians were on the right and the interpellator on the left, perhaps even switching positions within the same performance.
However, in later centuries, when the pantomime appears to have evolved beyond the glorification of a solo star pantomime, the Romans may have explored the options for producing “planes of actions” in the sense of introducing tensions between foreground and background actions. The enigmatic fourth century CE silver plate described by Jahn (1867) depicts three levels of action involving thirteen figures, with four each on the “top” and “bottom” levels and five in the middle level [Figure 30]. If one supposes that this entire image represents a single scene, then how would it look in a theater? The bottom level, with the masks displayed, could take place in the orchestra, while the torch-bearing dancers of the middle level perform on the stage. The top level, with a woman leading a female prisoner, could depict an action issuing from behind the scaenae frons and breaking up the dance: the strange machines on either side of the action at the top suggest levers for raising and lowering a curtain, although why the spokes radiating from the wheels do not extend throughout their circumference is yet another of many puzzling details in this bizarre theatrical scene (Jahn proposed, unpersuasively, that the devices are water organs). But an even more confusing depiction of depth of action occurs in the first century CE Pompeian painting of a pantomime discussed by Olga Elia (1965). The painter has crowded six figures together, including a rider on a horse [Figure 31]. They perform in or on the periphery of an orchestra-like stage or podium, but, unlike Jahn’s plate, the figures do not produce a unified effect. It is as if the artist wished to depict all at once different elements of a performance program (nude shield dances, equestrian stunt, dramatic scene, and actor stepping backstage to the prop room) without relying on a left-to-right sequencing of the discrete actions in the program. If we assume that the artist’s subject is “theater” rather than any particular mythic scene represented in the theater, then he has foregrounded the nude shield dancers because they perform closest to the audience, on the periphery of the orchestra, and perhaps they also performed first (if we are sorting for a consecutive sequence of actions). The dramatic scene then occurs deeper in space, and the horseman performs his act above or behind the spaces occupied by the other performers. If, however, we assume that the artist did indeed represent a mythic scene as might be seen in the theater, with so much extraordinary action happening all at once, then his picture confirms that in the first century CE the Romans treated the orchestra and the stage as a unified performance space that allowed for grandiose mythic scenes that could include exultant female warrior dancers celebrating on the periphery of the orchestra the union of the man and woman in the middle while the rider on the stage makes his horse and cape leap exuberantly.
But with either assumption, it is at least evident from this otherwise confusing picture and from the silver plate that the Romans saw action in the theater unfolding in planes as well as fresco-like on the stage. Apuleius’s description of “The Judgment of Paris” pantomime in The Golden Ass(ca. 152 CE) reinforces this point: the scene contains goats feeding on grass, a hill with a sprouting brook, and numerous figures dancing, parading, and posing. It is difficult to see how the spectacular swirl of action depicted could happen on a conventional Roman stage, though the author definitely assigns the action to the theater in Corinth. The author describes in succession the appearance of Paris, Mercury, Minerva, Juno, and Venus, who apparently do not leave the scene, for he describes them again and the large entourages that accompany them, playing music and dancing. Then: “After the judgment of Paris was ended Juno and Pallas departed away sadly and angrily, shewing by their gesture that they were very wroth and would revenge themselves on Paris; but Venus, that was right pleased and glad in her heart, danced about the theater with much joy, together with all her train. This done, from the top of the hill through a privy spout ran a flood of wine coloured with saffron, which fell upon the goats in a sweet-scented stream, and changed their white hair into yellow more fair” (Apuleius 1972: 259). A credible performance of this swarming spectacle in a conventional Roman theater would require most of the action to occur within the orchestra, with the goddesses and their entourages streaming in from the paradoi while the stage was reserved for Paris, Mercury, the goats, and the hill with the gushing stream. To produce the stream, theater technicians could have funneled water through the central door of the Corinth scaenae frons into the hill on stage that most likely would have concealed the door. Getting water to the theater was not a problem, for the remains of a fountain exist in the courtyard behind the theater. But the water might have been piped under the stage and funneled up into the hill on stage through a trap door. A cavern under the stage was a common feature of Roman stages, and the theater at Corinth appears to have accommodated one. Caputo (1959: Plate 15, Figs. 27 and 28) provides excellent documentation of the understage, less than two meters deep, at Sabratha, which indicates that trapdoors opened up only onto the stage, not into the orchestra. (See also Bieber 1961: 205 for an illustration of the understage at Dugga in Tunis.) Moreover, the Romans do not appear to have developed underground or catacomb-like spaces for their theaters as they did for their amphitheaters. With no deep underground space in which to store very large objects, like monumental statues or horses, it was quite difficult for anything larger than a crouching man to arise onto the stage from beneath it. But Apuleius does remark that, “by certain engines the ground opened and swallowed up the hill of wood” (Apuleius 1972: 259). Such an effect could happen fairly easily using the central door of the scaenae frons to feed the rigging that dismantled the hill. But to have the “engines” located in the understage would seem unnecessarily complicated and inefficient, given the tightness of the space under the stage and the difficulties involved in moving and operating the machinery in the space. But perhaps an effect such as Apuleius describes occurred using a combination of the central door and a sliding trapdoor that allowed parts of the hill to fall into the understage while other parts got pulled through the central door, assuming that the piping to produce the stream and wine spray was built into the scenery rather than into the theater.
Of course, the language in Apuleius is fiction: the author did not intend the reader to evaluate the passage on the basis of its accuracy in depicting an actual sequence of actions in the theater. Nevertheless, the extravagance of action he describes was plausible within the conventional Roman theater architecture of his era and well before that time. Indeed, the narrator describes with nearly perfect precision and detachment the mixture of wonder, enchantment, and expectation of a mysterious transformation of bodies that would most strongly motivate a person to attend the theater. The author’s objective is not only to satirize the provincial world the narrator encounters, but the whole concept of metamorphosis that was central to any understanding of “reality” in the pagan consciousness of that time. The pantomime scene is only one of many variations on the theme of metamorphosis in the book. But no matter how exaggerated the scene may appear, the author has to present it in a way that was familiar to his reader in order to set up the real object of his satire, which is the metamorphosis of theater into a spectacle of death, when the narrator, the ass, suddenly discovers himself implicated in the theatrical action: the audience expects him to copulate with a vile adulterous woman in a “bed finely and bravely prepared, shining with tortoise-shell of Ind, rising with bolsters of feathers, and covered with silk and other things necessary” (Apuleius 1972: 259). Following this degradation, wild animals would tear apart the woman and devour her. With this section of the book, Apuleius shows how the glamorous pleasures of pantomime performance mask a dark, bestial, malignant desire in the audience for the degradation, slaughter, and punishment of others. The object of satire is not so much the extravagances of the theater as the Roman obsession with the metamorphosis of theater into reality, which means the staged, aesthetic transformation of life into death. Apuleius apparently anticipated by more than sixty years the actual transformation of the theater at Corinth in 217 CE into a site capable of offering theatrical spectacles, gladiatorial combats, and animal fights, although whether any of these spectacles were combined to the extent that he imagined in The Golden Ass remains unknown.
Perhaps the most impressive, dominant feature of Roman theater architecture, the scaenae frons was an elaborately decorated wall rising behind and high above the stage. In many theaters, the height of the scaenae frons was equivalent to the height of the highest point in the cavea, sometimes more than thirty meters. The scaenae frons for the theater in Orange, built in the first century CE, rose 36 meters. The typical facade contained three stories, with the first story somewhat higher than the upper two. In the early years of the Empire, a two-story scaenae frons was typical, and in the eastern part of the Empire two-story walls remained the norm [Figure 38]. The first story usually contained a central door onto the stage flanked by two slightly smaller doors, although some theaters did contain as many as five or six doors on the first story. The second and third stories also contained doors, but these did not open onto any staging area as such. While it was not impossible to stage spectacular stunts using the upper stories, the primary purpose of these levels was to bestow magnificence and grandeur upon the theatrical enterprise. All stories offered elaborate configurations of columns, niches, statues, tabernacles, entablatures, podia, and pediments. Twenty columns per story was normal, although the enormous wall at Sabratha used 32 columns on each of its three stories (Bieber 1961: 206; Caputo 1959: 27). Some columns supported niches holding tabernacles and statues. The life-sized or larger statues, sometimes twenty or more, represented gods, muses, or emperors. Niches often indented the wall, and sometimes the indentations were curved. The elaborateness of the façade seems to have depended entirely on the amount of money the builders had to spend. The low wall supporting the stage itself also contained elaborate decoration that functioned in unison with the ornamentation of the scaenae frons. On this low wall appeared sculpted friezes; some theaters constructed niches for the insertion of more statues, and these niches could be curved inward, as at Sabratha, Ostia, Dugga, Djemila, or Pompeii, or set into cave-like tabernacles, as at Leptis Magna.
The niches exude an enigmatic aura. The evidence for their theatrical function comes primarily from wall paintings, most particularly from the images in the House of the Gladiators in Pompeii. But the evidence is confusing. Bieber contends (1961: 232) that a painting in the House of the Gladiators depicts a pantomime performance of Apollo and Marsyas, with the actor posing for each role in each of the niches, left to right, in the sequence in which he performed them [Figure 39]. However, it is difficult to see how the niches functioned practically, given the architectural conditions the painter describes. Both the regiaand the two flanking hospitalia appear to enclose the posing figures in columned pillars that would obscure the view of any spectator not seated directly in front of the stage. The shadows cast by these enclosing structures would further complicate efforts of spectators to see the poses ascribed by the artist, who pays no attention at all to the intricate shadow effects his elaborate architectural scheme would produce. In this and other paintings from the House of the Gladiators, the artist even attaches half doors to the niches, further amplifying the drama of bodily revelation or pose, especially since some of the bodies (actors and athletes) are nude. Most likely the artists have produced composite images that strive to idealize things they have seen in performance and things the performance urges the spectator to imagine. It is therefore plausible that pantomimes used the regia and the hospitalia, with their little staircases, to present the poses that initiate and end the movements of the pantomime, although in reality these niches would have to dispense with the columns if spectators were to appreciate the dramatic effect of the poses. Probably these paintings refer to niches specially built of wood for use in an indoor theater; niches of the sort depicted do not seem to belong to the architecture of the large outdoor theaters, which sometimes contained statues but otherwise could not function as the artists for the House of the Gladiators represent them. At any rate, the regia and the hospitalia function as extensions of the scaenae frons, the purpose of which is to transform all action occurring before it into an eternal monument, with human figures ever seeking to become statues, immortal beings frozen in poses of physical or expressive perfection. The painting of Apollo and Marsyas shows a nude male holding a lyre in the regia, while on either side of him are clothed males speaking from a pulpitum, which would suggest that the artist saw the pantomime musicians as taking their positions either in the regia or in a niche and the interpellator assuming a position in the pulpitum or in a similar indentation of the scaenae frons. The visibility of these figures was perhaps not vital to the performance, and indeed, by placing them in these shadowy niches, the performance would become more mysterious, as voices and music emanated from bodies the spectator could not see distinctly.
Another mysterious scenic effect associated with the scaenae frons involves the use of curtains in the niches or doorways. Bieber (1961: 201, 203-206, 216) inventories the archeological evidence of shaft holes inserted into doorways and niches to provide curtain rods in theaters in Orange (France), Dugga (Tunisia), Merida (Spain), Sabratha (Libya), and Corinth (Greece), all built mostly in the second century CE. Radke-Stegh (1978: 69-77) surveys even more theaters, contending that throughout the empire curtains were a common feature of theaters by the middle of the first century CE. She cites literary sources that propose the introduction of theater curtains from Greece in 133 BCE, and by 56 BCE, when Cicero made reference to a theater curtain in his defense of Caelio, it was easy to associate the lifting of a curtain with the revelation of an action one was not supposed to see. It does seem that the use of curtains was by the second century CE pervasive or conventional, although Radke-Stegh argues (85-86) that after the second century they lost their appeal, ostensibly because spectators felt that the use of curtains interrupted the excitement of the performance. But how the curtains functioned in pantomime performance remains obscure. The idea that a huge curtain encompassed the entire length of the scaenae frons remains in dispute, with skeptics probably holding the more convincing position (Radke-Stegh: 70-71), although it is possible that smaller, indoor theaters did have curtains that spanned the entire scaenae frons. However, two types of curtain had no connection to the theater architecture. The aulaeum was a tapestry attached to a large frame to form a screen that concealed the performers until the performance began. Phaedrus, in Book V, Fable 7 (ca. 45 CE), describes this curtain as “falling” as a pantomime commences. Radke-Stegh found no evidence to support the idea that the aulaeum served to separate scenes from each other or assumed any other function than to signify the beginning of the performance by “sinking” (80). Ovid and Virgil make reference to ornamental designs and figures stitched into the tapestry, an effect presumably applied to curtains for doorways and niches (81), with the sponsors of the performance paying for the weaving of the images into the fabric. The Romans also used the term siparium to refer to theater curtains, but almost entirely in relation to performances by mimes, who performed before the curtain and then went behind it when completing a scene or preparing to enter a scene (Beare 1955: 260). The siparium appears to have consisted simply of a large, heavy cloth hung on a movable or easily dismantled frame; this contrasted sharply with the more opulent aulaeum and signified a less refined or vulgar level of performance that supposedly “did not belong in the theater,” even when, in the second century CE, mimes began performing tragedies and comedies in theaters (Reich 1903: I, 608).
How curtains functioned in the doorways and niches is more difficult to ascertain, even though the archeological evidence for their existence is abundant and pervasive. An ambivalent attitude toward curtains seems to emerge from the historical record: the Romans provided abundantly for their use, yet theaters did not use them in a way that has elicited much insight from the artifacts of history. The wall paintings are not especially helpful or at least the artists do not find curtains useful in embellishing their architectural fantasies. Bieber publishes a pair of images of marble sarcophagus friezes in the Louvre that depict actors performing before siparia (250), although these images suggest that the artist has sculpted a curtain as a convenient and less demanding way of signifying “theater” than deploying a theater architectural trope. More interesting is a painting in the Naples Museum that shows a group of women seated around a small table watching another woman, standing, apparently about to begin a dance accompanied by a tibia player at the table who raises her instrument [Figure 31b]. A curtain hangs behind them, and peering behind the curtain are a man and a woman, servants presumably. The dancer appears to hold a ball in her right hand while raising with her left hand a curious object, perhaps some kind of wand or incense holder. The curtain functions to seal off from whatever is behind it any view of the unfolding dance scene, so that what the painter depicts is probably not a theatrical but a ritual performance the excitement of which depended upon an atmosphere of secrecy. Curtains closed off a doorway or niche from the spectator, and as long as they remained closed, the spectator anticipated that eventually they would open to reveal a figure of beauty hidden behind them. In other words, curtains were a device for concealing and revealing particular bodies and costumes at special moments rather than a conventional component of performance that identified the entrances and exits of performers. The Romans apparently associated curtains with the execution of mysterious actions; they projected a symbolic significance rather than served a practical function, since the Romans did not seem to use them to cool rooms or to shut out light. This point achieves reinforcement by examining the painting of a pantomime published by Elia [Figure 31a]. Above the action on the stage hangs a large piece of fabric looped into a kind of bow that resembles a canopy. The purpose of this canopy is quite obscure, though it does fill the space above the performers with a great but pliant weight that at least bestows upon the scene an opulence or luxuriousness otherwise lacking in the architecture itself. That probably was the primary purpose of curtains in pantomime performance: when the patrons felt like spending money on them, they signified a transitory luxuriousness, an ephemeral and velourous plushness, neither hiding nor revealing anything, but contrasting glamorously with the frozen eternity signified by the scaenae frons.
Figure 40: Top: Theoretical relations between the masts, the rigging, and the velum to produce a canopy for protecting spectators or performers from the sun in a Roman theater. From Graefe (1979: 156). Bottom: Reconstruction of theater at Aspendus, Turkey, with velum. From Izenour 1977.
Figure 41: Possible configurations of the canopy extended from the top of the scaenae fronsover the stage of the theater in Aspendus, Turkey. From Graefe (1979: 158).
Figure 42: Reconstruction of the theater at Aspendus, Turkey, showing shadows cast by the velum rather than by the roof over the stage. From Lanckoronski (1890: Plate XXVII).
Another transient feature of the monumental theater architecture was capable of introducing a mysterious effect on pantomime performance. This was the vela, an enormous canopy or screen that shielded spectators from the sun and cast deep shadows on the stage. In use as early as 69 BCE and apparently a Roman invention, it was a complicated apparatus that involved a mechanical releasing of masts 30 meters in length from which unfurled large velum, linen, or canvas sheets or “sails,” richly colored, that extended over a large section of the audience; the Romans never developed a solution for covering the entire theater and the orchestra as well as seats close to it never received protection from the sun. Graefe (1979) produced a very detailed treatise on the vela erunt. He annotated all of the many literary references to the canopy, identified all the structures throughout the Roman world that employed the canopy, and described the intricate engineering required to make it work. Figure 40 from Graefe (156) shows one of several theoretical relations between the masts, the rigging, and the velum; it also shows the extent to which the canopy covered the audience at the theater in Aspendus in Turkey (160-180 CE), although it is possible that this theater had a permanent roof (Graefe, Plate 24); and Figure 41 shows a possible arrangement of the canopy extended from the top of the scaenae frons over the stage of the theater in Aspendus. But the velum primarily protected spectators from the sun. It is possible that, through precision use of ropes and pulleys, engineers were able to build canopies capable of tilting up and down and thus when hoisted at an angle more than parallel to the floor of the theater also able to cast a greater shadow over the theater. The theaters never used the velum to protect spectators from rain or wind; the cloth was too fragile to withstand these elements, and it was better to cancel performances due to these elements than to believe that any sort of engineering could defeat them (13-14, 165). Unlike amphitheater performances, which often lasted from early in the morning until dark, performances in theaters occurred only occasionally and lasted maybe three or so hours, usually in the afternoons. The theater used the vela only if the sponsors of a show could afford to pay for its operation, which was expensive and required numerous operators (9), and if the sponsors could they advertised that the canopy would be drawn as an added lure for spectators (8), although the social rank of spectators determined their seating in the theater. But because of the technological limitations of the canopy engineering, even some spectators of fairly high rank might not receive protection from the sun. Of course, a theater’s relation to the movement of the sun ultimately controlled the movement of shadows across the audience and the stage. The evidence for the vela seems most prevalent in theaters facing north, where spectators had the sun at their backs (167); theaters that faced south or west allowed the scaenae frons to cast a great shadow over the stage, although the theater at Aspendus, which faced southeast, had a vela that deepened significantly the shadow already cast by the scaenae frons, as depicted in Figure 42. Even without the vela, the complex architectural configurations of the scaenae frons created an intricate distribution of shadows that became increasingly elaborate and extensive as the sun moved closer to the horizon. Indeed, it may be that covering the stage with a vela was a way to reduce the complexity of shadows cast by the scaenae frons and to create an even, if subdued, level of illumination on the stage. With a theater facing north or east, however, the vela might not have prevented sunlight from saturating the stage. Unfiltered sunlight on the stage may have been very intense for spectators, but one must remember that the scaenae frons was for the most part painted in rich colors that absorbed rather than reflected the light. Even so, bright light would make jewels and metallic costume accessories, as well as powerfully dyed fabrics, gleam intensely, as Nero apparently understood when, according to Cassio Dio (Epit. 62 (63, 6)), he ordered everyone in the theater, on stage and in the audience, to wear gold he provided, and the stage itself contained numerous gold decorations meant to shine extravagantly in the sunlight. But for most theaters, an elaborate scaenae frons would create a labyrinth of shadows that lengthened as the sun sank toward the western horizon. The movement of the shadows across the scaenae frons and even across the stage produced the impression of an animate architecture given life, so to speak, by the performance that motivated an audience to witness the gradual engulfing of the performers in shadows. The degree to which the performers exploited or at least adapted to the interplay between light and shadow on the stage or in the niches amplified the mystery of the performance. Even if a theater had a hard roof over the stage, as was the case at several sites, the scaenae frons would still have created impressive shadow effects insofar as the roof, tilted upward in a calculated relation to the movement of the sun, permitted sunlight on the façade while allowing shadows to encroach upon the stage. The use of a velum canopy would produce another effect. The linen sheets were dyed in brilliant colors, and as the sunlight hit them, the sheets functioned like a filter to soften the light and color it, saffron, red, or blue. Lucretius (4, 74-84) describes (ca. 53 BCE) the mysterious effect of the vela on the entire theatrical experience:
The awnings, saffron, red and dusky blue,
Stretched overhead in mighty theaters,
Upon their poles and cross-beams fluttering,
Have such an action quite; for there they dye
And make to undulate with their every hue
The circled throng below, and all the stage,
And rich attire in the patrician seats.
And ever the more the theater’s dark walls
Around them shut, the more all things within
Laugh in the bright suffusion of strange glints,
The daylight being withdrawn. And therefore, since
The canvas hangings thus discharge their dye
From off their surface, things in general must
Likewise their tenuous effigies discharge,
Because in either case they are off-thrown
From off the surface. So there are indeed
Such certain prints and vestiges of forms
Which flit around, of subtlest texture made,
Invisible, when separate, each and one
(Translation by William Ellery Leonard).
Lucretius suggests that the vela did more than shade the spectators and the performers; it turned them into phantasmal figures, “vestiges of forms,” who reflected “strange glints” and disclosed the “subtlest” intimation of mortality, an exquisitely aestheticized aura of death.
The Romans amplified the mysterious effect of shadows by sometimes building a smaller kind of theater covered by a solid roof made of wood, the Odeon, an invention of the Greeks. This smaller theater usually seated at most only a few hundred spectators, although some odea achieved a capacity of 5,000-6,000 spectators. The odeon functioned primarily as a site for concerts and lectures, but it is likely that pantomimes performed more often in odeathan in the grandiose “open” theaters, since those families that owned pantomime ensembles were the likeliest to have the resources to build private odea on their villas or subsidize municipal odea. The design of an odeon followed the basic Roman model for theater architecture: a half-circle for the audience, an orchestra, a raised stage and a scaenae frons with doorways, niches and tabernacles, a backstage scaenae, paradoi, and multiple entrances and exits. The scale of the architectural elements was reduced, although the width of the stage, if not the depth, remained in some cases the same as in the big theaters (20-30 meters); smaller odea had a scaenae frons of only one instead of two stories, as imagined by the wall artists of the House of the Gladiators. Illumination within these roofed theaters is difficult to explain. In 1980, Meinel published an impressively thorough analysis of odea. After examining in detail the construction of odea in Pompeii, Athens, Pergamon, and Corinth, he proposes that illumination within the odeon resulted from a series of windows built into the walls of the theater but situated high above the stage and indeed above the highest level of the audience (42, 55, 75-76). These windows, he speculates (for the physical evidence for their existence has vanished), would all be the same size, all reside on the same plane, and reside on three walls but not on the wall holding the scaenae frons and the stage. The number of windows needed to produce “enough light” is not clear. He suggests that at Corinth, the odeon contained 23 windows based on the evidence of the number of pillars supporting the roof (75), but this supposition is weak without more knowledge of the size of the windows. He does not speculate on the number of windows for other odea. The theater designer George Izenour, who seems not to have consulted Meinel, devoted much less space to lighting in his book on roofed theaters of antiquity while devoting a large amount of space to the unresolved problem of “overreverberation” in odeum acoustics, which was not a major issue for pantomime performance. The excellent architectural reconstructions of odea imply, however, that he, too, believed that the Romans used windows high above the audience to illuminate the interior space (Izenour 1992: 72, 82, 88, 94, 98, 106-107, 118, 125. 131) [Figure 40]. Yet it is difficult to see from these speculative drawings how the windows could have illuminated more than a portion of the audience (or any of the stage) at particular moments of the day. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that no matter how many windows of whatever size were set so high above the stage and away from the scaenae frons that much light ever hit the stage. The light entering the windows would become diffused mostly at the upper level of the theater. Even fairly large windows or apertures have limited power to illuminate much space beyond the immediate vicinity of the opening. Only light coming directly opposite from the stage would have much chance of bringing good illumination to the stage, and that would happen only if the theater stood in a position to allow sunlight to enter through windows high in the back of the theater to penetrate downward and deeply to the stage. But the sun might be able to do that only momentarily, and in any case its movement would create a rapidly shifting web of shadows on the stage, depending on the size of the windows and the amount of space between them, with the brightest light rising up the scaenae frons and away from the action on stage. The most practical way to illuminate with sunlight the stage under the roofed theater is to build a kind of skylight immediately before the scaenae frons, although Meinel contends that lighting for the stage of the Pompeii odeon came from doorways on each side of the paradoi leading to the stage (Meinel 1980: 42). It was not beyond the ingenuity of Roman engineering to construct hatches or gables on the roof that would permit sunlight to pour directly down onto the stage. However, no evidence exists to suggest that the Romans actually constructed such skylights, although they certainly understood the principle well through their skill at atrium design and at devising the captivating ocula of the Pantheon in Rome (126 CE). The purpose of a roof over the odeon is to permit performances when the sun does not shine, when the sky is overcast or it is raining, or when it is night. The primary purpose of the windows is to provide ventilation: as warm air rises, windows at a high level allow cool air to circulate throughout the interior of the building. To enter an odeonwas to enter a cool, dark space that shaded all of its occupants from all the heat, noise, distractions, and elemental intrusions of the world. While the windows may have ushered in some feeble light upon the stage, the primary illumination of the stage came from oil lamps. Torches provide a unique, warm, shimmering, flickering glow that illuminates flesh and fabrics in ways that one will not see in natural or even electric light. Colors become softer and yet more gleaming when suffused with the color of the flame. Research teams have used 3D graphics and animation to reconstruct interior light in ancient times. These research teams have modeled ancient interior lighting conditions in different spaces by measuring the properties of light when it pours through windows at different times of the day, showing that the light hardly diffuses evenly but is concentrated in beams that shift direction significantly as a result of the movement of the sun, leaving much of the interior space in darkness or in considerable shadow (cf., Chalmers 2001). Teams also simulated interior scenes lit by flame after calculated the properties of flame in relation to the positioning of lamps and the properties of different fuel sources, with the chief fuel source being olive oil, which was the common fuel source for oil lamps in the Roman world. These investigations reinforce the assertion that light from oil lamps creates a warm, soft, orange-gold glow that makes figures in wall paintings more “alive” than with electric light or even with sunlight and mosaic floors more vivid and gleaming. In an odeon, however, lighting with lamps entailed some complexity. To avoid impeding action on the stage and to avoid obscuring the action from the spectators, lamps on tripods were best placed in the orchestra and against the paneling that raised the stage above the orchestra. If the action encompassed the entire length of the stage (20-30 meters), which is unlikely, then about 20 lamps on tripods, each capable of producing about 200 candelas of luminosity, would create an eerie footlight glow on the performers. Lamps might also be placed inside the hospitalia or regia or perhaps next to the little staircases leading into these niches. It is also possible that the Romans used candelabras suspended over the stage, although the light from such contraptions would not have helped much in illuminating the action beneath them. The rate of fuel consumption in ancient oil lamps is uncertain and dependent on the amount of fuel in the lamp and the thickness of the wick, with torches consisting primarily of linen rags soaked in oil wrapped around a stick, although the Romans devised a torch that mixed sulfur with lime and continued to burn even when doused with water. Of course, a problem with oil lamps is the smoke they emit. Presumably the drafts created by the multiple entrances to the theater and the windows allowed the smoke to dissipate quickly and waft upward toward the high ceiling and the accelerating air current. It’s not clear if the smoke produced any sort of “veil” on the performance; digital simulation research has yet to yield any confident answer in regard to the effect on performance of smoke from the oil lamp technologies used by the Romans. Figure 43 documents an effort to simulate the effect of oil lamps on a university stage. The images show six torches spaced two feet apart with a masked actor placed before a curtain. While this documentation is not scientific in replicating exactly the conditions that would prevail in an odeonor villa during ancient times, it does reveal the peculiar ambience that torchlight bestows upon performance and the catacombian effect of light from flames that would motivate the Romans to build roofed theaters and to watch the pantomimes perform in enclosed spaces regardless of the time of day or the weather.
Figure 43: Experimental pantomime performance using oil-fueled torch lamps to simulate indoor (odeion) performance conditions at San Jose State University, November 2012. Composite photo of a single figure (from video): Karl Toepfer
Roman theater architecture systematically sought to dramatize the ephemerality of performance with the eternality of the mythic and institutional power structures that made the performances available. The movement of light and shadow within the theater intensified the contrast between the brevity of life and the infinity of death by intensifying the extent to which action occurs under very fleeting conditions, some of which are the result of a natural order that transcends human designs. The authority of the social order to which all persons in the Empire belonged achieved reinforcement from this architectural collaboration with a “greater” natural order and the mythic apparatus for acknowledging it. Even in the odeon, life seems “small” in scale compared with “the order of things” that designed the theater and the occasions for which it was used. As Lucretius intimated in the passage from De res natura, what was most alluring about attending the theater was the evocation of a phantasmal dimension to life when performance collaborated with architecture to exploit the modulating tension between light and shadow.