The Pantomime Performance Program: Villa Pantomime and Eroticism

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

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Figure 61: Mosaic of satyr and maenad from a mosaic at the Caddeddi Villa (Villa del Tellaro), Sicily, ca. 370-375 CE. Photo: R.J.A. Wilson for World Archeology.

Villa Pantomime and Eroticism

But this “intimate” scale does not mean that triclinium design was large enough to support only a solo pantomime performance. From the writings of Xenophon, Petronius, and Plutarch, it is evident that banquet entertainments followed conventions that, at least in terms of modes of performance, endured across hundreds of years. Sometimes banquet acts or scenes involved two performers, independent of musicians or assistants. In the final chapter (9.1-7) of The Symposium, Xenophon describes a sort of two-person pantomime as the culminating entertainment of the banquet; the performance could well have taken place at a banquet in Rome hundreds of years later, except that for his banquet Callias has hired a troupe of professional entertainers owned by a “Syracusan,” whereas of course during the imperial era, the host would own the entertainers. The performance depicts the marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne:

[A] sort of throne was first erected in the inner room abutting on the supper chamber. Then the Syracusan entered, with a speech: With your good pleasure, sirs, Ariadne is about to enter the bridal chamber set apart for her and Dionysus. Anon Dionysus will appear, fresh from the table of the gods, wine-flushed, and enter to his bride. In the last scene the two will play with one another. He had scarce concluded, when Ariadne entered, attired like a bride. She crossed the stage and sate herself upon the throne. Meanwhile, before the god himself appeared a sound of flutes was heard; the cadence of the Bacchic air proclaimed his coming. 

At this point the company broke forth in admiration of the ballet-master. For no sooner did the sound of music strike upon the ear of Ariadne than something in her action revealed to all the pleasure which it caused her. She did not step forward to meet her lover, she did not rise even from her seat; but the flutter of her unrest was plain to see. 

            When Dionysus presently caught sight of her he loved, lightly he danced towards her, and with show of tenderest passion gently reclined upon her knees; his arms entwined about her lovingly, and upon her lips he sealed a kiss; she the while with most sweet bashfulness was fain to wind responsive arms about her lover; till the banqueters, the while they gazed all eyes, clapped hands and cried “Encore!” But when Dionysus rose upon his feet, and rising lifted Ariadne to her full height, the action of those lovers as they kissed and fondled one another was a thing to contemplate. As to the spectators, they could see that Dionysus was indeed most beautiful, and Ariadne like some lovely blossom; nor were those mocking gestures, but real kisses sealed on loving lips; and so, with hearts aflame, they gazed expectantly. They could hear the question asked by Dionysus, did she love him? and her answer, as prettily she swore she did. And withal so earnestly, not Dionysus only, but all present, had sworn an oath in common: the boy and girl were verily and indeed a pair of happy lovers. So much less did they resemble actors, trained to certain gestures, than two beings bent on doing what for many a long day they had set their hearts on. At last when these two lovers, caught in each other’s arms, were seen to be retiring to the nuptial couch, the members of the supper party turned to withdraw themselves; and whilst those of them who were unmarried swore that they would wed, those who were wedded mounted their horses and galloped off to join their wives, in quest of married joys. (Xenophon 1897: 397-398)

This “pantomime” as such does not include much physical action. Ariadne enters and for the most part simply sits on her throne; Dionysus performs most of the physical action, dancing before her, reposing at her knees, and then lifting her. The scene is primarily a sequence of poses, ending with the lovers passionately embracing before exiting–“retiring to the nuptial couch.” Ariadne stirs the audience by a mysterious action that reveals her pleasure in hearing the music—“a flutter of unrest”—even though she does “not even rise from her seat.” The idea of the scene is to awaken a beautiful emotion in the audience without relying on elaborate physical tricks—such as the girl dancing with hoops earlier in the banquet—or on language. In this milieu, nothing is more beautiful or intimate than two beautiful bodies drawn together. What pleases the audience above all is being close to the performance of erotic gestures and poses, and these do not require much space; indeed, they require a small space wherein the distinction between the real and the imaginary becomes blurred. The diners are close enough to the performers to see that they are not acting but actually love each other. This real emotion in the performers has the power to provoke intense erotic desire in the spectators, which brings the performance and the banquet to an end—or rather, allows erotic feeling to triumph over entertainment and representation. Intimacy of performance facilitates the realization of erotic desires within the spectators. At the conclusion of The Symposium, the married men, inspired by the erotic pantomime, hurry away to make love to their wives, while the single men drift into masturbatory reveries of carnal conjugality they expect someday soon to enjoy. In the Satyricon, after Encolpius, Asclytos, and Giton leave Trimalchio’s house and stumble back to the inn where they are staying, Encolpius attempts sexual activity with Giton, but Asclytos “steals” Giton and “carries” him away to his own bed, “where he wallowed around without restraint with a ‘brother’ not his own, while the latter, not noticing the fraud, or pretending not to notice it, went to sleep in a stranger’s arms, in defiance of all human rights” (Chap. 79). Pantomime performance created an atmosphere that urged spectators to materialize their erotic desires—that is, to regard the occasion for the performance as an opportunity for the gratification of sexual desires, which circulate within the dinner party as “gifts” or “favors” provided by the host. In The Golden Ass (Chapter X), Apuleius blatantly links pantomime to pornographic entertainment that dissolves distinctions between real and mimicked sexual performance. The reputation for licentiousness ascribed to pantomimes derived from their skill at suffusing the villa scene with an implicit or unspoken understanding of expanded permissibility in experiencing the relation between conviviality and intimacy. The movements, the poses, and the aura of the pantomime, always anyway the physical embodiment of a mythic level of reality, equated intimacy with sexual attraction, with the freedom of bodies to function as beautiful gifts. This power of pantomime to dissolve, in the villa milieu, the various social distinctions between bodies was why some owners would not even own pantomime ensembles and why other owners who did own ensembles might not use them to entertain guests whose “traditional” moral values echoed Cicero, who, in De legibus (2.39 ca. 43 BCE) denounced dancing at banquets as a “source of destruction” that will “overturn entire states.” Anthony Corbeill (1997: 104-107) argues that for late Republicans like Cicero and Lucilius, dancing at banquets by men, either performers or diners, was synonymous with pleasure in effeminacy and disclosure of homosexual inclinations; a pagan, Nonius (ca. 400 CE) remarks: “among the ancients, dancers or pantomimes were called cinaedi [queer sluts]” (Compendiosa Doctrina 1888: 8), and around 500 CE, a Syrian bishop, Jacob of Sarugh (ca. 451-521 CE), wrote several lengthy “homilies” (actually diatribes) against pantomime dancing, for it is “a foster-mother who teaches her sons to commit fornication” (Jacob of Sarugh 2008: 414); Craig Williams (1999: 194-196) provides further examples of Latin writers using the term cinaedus to describe dancers and pantomimes in a derogatory manner. But this centuries-long prejudice among moral conservatives against the power of pantomimes to undermine sexual inhibitions and to encourage the feminization of men was obviously not strong enough to constrain the increasing use of pantomime entertainments in the villa milieu. During the imperial era, laws were necessary to regulate (rather than suppress) pantomime performances for “private” audiences. Under Augustus, the lex Juliana (18 BCE) and lex Papia Poppea (9 CE) established a legal framework that simultaneously preserved the moral stigmatization of actors and yet allowed and perhaps even encouraged the villa culture to develop the erotic ambitions of pantomime entertainments. These laws, which defined adulterous relations and their penalties, clarified distinctions between actors and other social classes: persons of the senatorial class were forbidden to marry freed persons; neither freeborn persons or members of the senatorial class were allowed to marry persons who were actors or whose father or mother was an actor, according to the lawyer Ulpian (ca. 170-223CE) in one of his “fragments” (Tituli 13.2). The main concern of these laws was to prevent sexual desires from undermining class distinctions, so that marriage best served the state when it existed only within social classes and not across them. Moreover, the laws apparently exempted some categories of people from prosecution and penalties, and although the extent of these categories remains uncertain, actors and dancers, along with slaves, appear in virtually any list of exempt categories (McGinn 1998: 194-195). Aside from the shadowy lex Scantina, which was an anti-rape law, proscription of homosexual behavior and of those “who give themselves up to works of lewdness with their own sex” was not a feature of Roman law until Justinian published his Institutes in 533 CE (Justinian 1910: 505). In practice, these laws established that the state would not prosecute anyone for adultery who had sexual relations with persons belonging to an exempt category, and indeed, it is not altogether clear if unmarried persons could be prosecuted for adultery by having sexual relations with married persons outside of their social class (McGinn 1998: 195). These lacunae in the laws help explain why Messalina’s affair with Mnester, her plaything, did not distress Emperor Claudius so much as her liaisons with the aristocrat Gaius Silia. They also explain why for centuries the villa culture could build around pantomime performance a permissive atmosphere of sexual opportunities and “favors.” The voluptuous sensuality of pantomime movements and bodies, the constant invocation of bodily “metamorphosis,” and the assertion of pantomime performance that the most powerful or seductive “scenes” in life do not depend on speech or skillful use of language to dissolve the distinction between reality and representation imbued star pantomimes with a mysterious glamor, affirmed that even slaves could project a captivating aura, and stressed the authority of images, poses, and masks to achieve the realization of desires. This erotic allure of the pantomime extended well beyond the exclusive domain of villa entertainments and accounts for the great, enduring public fascination with pantomimes, for the eagerness of public audiences to accept pantomime performances in the theaters as important gifts bestowed upon them. 

From the perspective of the imperial government, the marriage laws were strong enough to assure that pantomime performances did not disturb the social order, for it is difficult to find any further legislation effecting pantomimes until very late in the empire. Occasionally emperors such as Augustus, Tiberius, and Domitian banned or restored public performances of pantomimes in Rome or elsewhere, but these proscriptions and restorations, which arose from political calculations related to public fan clubs of pantomimes, covered only performances in theaters and were in any case imperial decrees subject to the whims or moods of the emperors who imposed them; they were not laws, they were not statutes requiring ratification from the Senate, for the decrees never constrained aristocratic access to pantomime performances in the villas, only aristocratic use of the pantomimes to stir and manipulate public sentiments. A combination of moral and sexual conventions, a government always careful to maintain clear categories of social identity that overwhelmingly privileged members of the aristocracy, and aristocratic ownership of pantomimes was sufficient to prevent the erotic allure of pantomime performance from escaping the control of it by the villa culture and becoming symbolic of a “new” social order, a “new” vision of freedom across the empire. If pantomime performance had been a commercial venture, it would be subject to laws, to contractual obligations, to court decisions, and to testimonies. But it was not; it was the property of an estate, and thus subject primarily to laws governing the formation and distribution of estates. In the late empire, many and perhaps most Christians understood pantomime performance as a much greater threat to the “new” social order they sought to build than managers of the state, even when Christian, ever supposed was the threat it posed in relation to any social order. No magnitude of public love for pantomimes, no measure of concern for state security, no level of Christian indignation, no condition of economic crisis, no power of artistic ambition, and no intimation of commercial opportunity could, until the the late second century CE, dislodge pantomime performance from the villa culture and the social and political goals it served so “intimately” and with such erotic intensity in the convivial ambiance of a triclinium

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