The Disappearance of Pantomime in the West: The Ideological Shift from Performer-Driven to Text-Driven Performance

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

Illustration for Hrosvitha’s play Dulcitius (ca. 990) published in Nuremberg in 1501.

The Ideological Shift from Performer-Driven to Text-Driven Performance

The fall of the Goths and the Vandals in the west and Justinian and Theodora’s consolidation of virtually absolute power in the east brought an end to the pantomime culture by 534. The Church–Arian, Catholic, and Orthodox–played at best only an incidental or subsidiary role in the extinction of the pantomime, even though it was the most hostile force in relation to the art. Pantomime was enormously popular without being a popular art, for its aesthetic, under the Romans, embodied an imperial-aristocratic understanding of relations between human identity and action—the imperial ideology of metamorphosis. That is to say, pantomime depended for its existence upon the will of emperors and aristocrats to appreciate its significance in achieving a larger political goal of structuring the distribution of power, “gifts,” identities, and opportunities (“movement”) within imperial society. Pantomime did not arise “organically” from a sector of the society as a ritual or cathartic activity in which people believed that watching or performing pantomimes produced some magical beneficial effect or provided, as mime did, an amusing, distorted image of human absurdity. The mimes were a popular art, even if their performances were never really popular in the sense of gathering large audiences; they depended on the occasional and often meager generosity of street spectators, who regarded them as humble representatives of what was most “common” about human beings. The appeal of mime lay in its “organic” relation to a “common” set of enduring comic archetypes, the performance of which could always make spectators feel superior to much more imperfect incarnations of human identity. Mime depended on the market for such archetypes, even though the market was not large or prestigious or capable of asserting any serious “influence” over its audience. This independence of mime from an ideological rationale allowed it to survive, often in a rudimentary or even impoverished form, through many centuries and in different cultural contexts, so that remnants of its identity could reappear, for example, as commedia dell’arte or the Turkish karagöz puppet theater or the comedies of Goldoni (Reich I 1903: 648-680). The pantomime, however, depended for its existence upon a world-view that was unique to an aristocracy or imperial ruling class. The appeal of pantomime lay in its power to evoke a superior, higher, or at least “uncommon” view of human identity that only a ruling class could provide. Christianity may have played a greater role in dissolving the world view supporting pantomime than in vanquishing pantomime itself, but most likely the ruling class adopted another world view that was more useful to itself in an era of expanding Christianity. Christian theology stresses the idea of authenticity of being, the idea that a human being has a “true” self that is the work of God. The spiritual transfiguration of a human identity and body, which unites a person with God and “eternal life,” entails the “revelation” of this authentic or true self. This theology, which, under imperial management, became an ideology, eclipsed the ideology of metamorphosis embodied by pantomime culture, but not because the pantomime failed to adapt to the new ideology, but because emperors, beginning with Justinian, decided that they achieved greater or more “authentic” power if they involved audiences in elaborate court ceremonies rather than seduced them with pantomime performances. 

The pantomime aesthetic presents human identity as a transparently theatrical phenomenon. It openly dramatizes the idea that the human body contains within it multiple identities, and some of these identities are even “divine” when pantomimes enact the actions of gods. The performance of these identities requires a sequencing or narrative organization of action that emphasizes the metamorphosis of the performing body from one figure to another, so that all the “characters” are subordinate to a larger, montage image of human transformation. The pantomime is the “story” of a body’s movement across several identities until it reaches a final pose of mythic glorification of the performer’s capacity for theatrical transformation. The pantomime aesthetic is performer-driven rather than text-driven, because it assumes that voice and indeed language obfuscate perception of the body as the foundation for the theatricality of human identity. Masks are fundamental in establishing metamorphosis as a theatrical phenomenon. What the audience wants to see is, not the “story” of a character, but the theatrical signs attached to a motive for action, how a desire to do something entails the wearing of a mask, a shift in identity. This mode of performance is highly effective at comparing one identity with another and at comparing one performer with another, which then fosters an intensely competitive attitude toward performance on the part of performers, spectators, and sponsors. Claques and factions are a product of this competitiveness, but so, too, is innovation in performance. The dramatization of competitiveness as a process of metamorphosis functions as an analogy or symbolic representation of the society’s understanding of the struggle for power and the construction of empire as theatrical phenomena, as a matter of skillful deployment of masks, the performance of glamourous movements and poses, freedom from textual constraints, and the success of individual bodies (rather than “characters” or imaginary identities) in attracting sponsors, wealth, constituencies, even violent forces. But this mode of performance, this symbolization of how imperial power works, has credibility, authority, and immense appeal only when it comes, as a “gift,” from those who have power, from a ruling class. It may be that by the beginning of the sixth century the ruling class believed that this theatrical model of understanding imperial power could not sustain the Empire, but it is also the case that when the pantomimes disappeared, the Empire got smaller and smaller. 

The barbarian kingdoms that formed in the collapsing Empire followed a different understanding of how performing bodies articulate a ruling class ideology of what gives identities power. This was the proto-skaldic tradition. The barbarian elites believed that their distinctive languages had given them power to defeat their enemies and establish kingdoms. They believed that words, voices, song possessed magical powers to infuse audiences with the strength to dominate others. The proto-skaldic performer voiced the names of ancestors, recounted the deeds of warriors, and recited the struggles for power that had shaped the “fate” of the tribe. The narrative assumed a genealogical linearity and unity of kinship identity. The body of the proto-skaldic performer might contain multiple voices, but the performer always remained only himself or “true” to himself, the descendent archivist of the tribe, who “remembered” others rather than embodied them. The proto-skald performed without a mask, and his voice immobilized his body in an effort to focus attention on the referents of words, thus affirming the pantomime presumption that speech and voice veil or obscure the reality of the body. The warrior ethos of the barbarians limited their understanding of power as something measured in relation to the strength of individual bodies. In the battlefield, however, the strength of an individual body is so often insufficient to overcome the arbitrary or unanticipated conditions that bring injury or death. Perhaps this is why the barbarians distrusted the body as a sign of power in performance and placed so much weight on words, on referents, on imaginary identities or “spirits” who were not really “present.” Nevertheless, the barbarian distrust of bodily theatricality was congruent with the Christian belief that the body is a thing to transcend, that attachment to the body is a sign of weakness or sinfulness. 

Pantomime fell into oblivion because the historical record of its achievement vanished, was inaccessible to peoples who did not know Latin or Greek, or was largely controlled by a clergy with no incentive to remember this “Satanic” art. The Church made a strenuous effort to get Christians to forget theater of any sort, although dance, even of a religious nature and in spite of numerous Church proscriptions against it, assumed many new and often bizarre forms that may have assumed a vaguely pantomimic manifestation, such as the Dance of Death processions (see Backman 1952, especially 154-161). Ancient Greek drama disappeared from consciousness for centuries, and during this long slumber all but a tiny portion of it was lost. But the forgetfulness of societies is due more to political than religious reasons. The Romans, and even the Greeks themselves, had forgotten Greek drama as a thing for the stage long before the beginning of the Empire, and it’s more than probable that no one who lived at any time during the Empire ever saw a performance of any Greek play that has survived to this day. Roman drama for the stage during the imperial era has completely and irrevocably disappeared, but actually it scarcely even existed, because although the Romans nurtured a deep fascination with theater and invested enormous resources in providing theatrical entertainments, they simply did not believe that the writing of plays produced satisfying theatrical performances. Even after the fall of the Empire, it took several centuries for the concept of drama to achieve credibility as a basis for theatrical performance. Since the Renaissance, however, and the rediscovery of ancient drama, Western civilization has believed that carefully constructed texts provide the strongest justification for watching theatrical performances and even performances in other media, such as dance, television, radio, film, and video games, for which directors and choreographers are often considered the “authors.” In performance, texts tend to subordinate actors to “characters” imagined by the author, so that the spectator, theoretically, “sees” the character rather than the actor. But for the spectator to see the character, the character needs to be situated within a unified narrative context in which the spectator will not confuse the actor with other characters in the narrative or suppose that the performance is about the relation or difference between the actor and the character or suppose that the narrative is about the difference between one performance and another. The text regulates the power of the actor, so that, theoretically, neither the character nor the narrative are dependent on the actor to establish their value, which should always be greater than that of the performance or “spectacle,” as asserted by Aristotle, in The Poetics, even though when he wrote this treatise (ca. 335 BCE), text-driven theater as he prescribed it was already in serious decline. 

In his hierarchy of values in dramatic art, Aristotle subordinated character to narrative or “plot,” because actions beyond the control of any character determine the identity or outcome of the character. A character does not change so much, if at all, so much as the situation in which the character finds himself or herself. The situation, given by the plot, by the actions of others beyond the control of a character, changes the condition of the character but not the character himself. Sophocles’s Oedipus (429 BCE) exemplifies the Aristotelian theory in a tragic vein: without knowing it, a good and great man has done the wrong thing for a good reason, and so have other characters in the drama, but all of these “good” actions have led to an unfortunate outcome for Oedipus and the city for which he was once king. Oedipus was king, and then, because he discovered that he had killed his father and married his mother, he blinded himself and went into a lonely, wandering exile. The character’s situation changes drastically, but he himself does not. 

In the realm of ancient tragedy, the “learning,” upon which a “change” of character usually depends, always comes too late to avert an unfortunate outcome or “fall.” Pantomime, however, aligned itself with an altogether different concept of “tragic” action. What the Romans apparently expected in the way of tragic action from pantomime was something “serious” (not funny), an emotionally intense scene, with a mythological origin. The pantomime performed different characters, and these characters changed from pose to movement to pose, and from, say, ebullience to rage, without changing in relation to any larger, external action other than the pantomime’s decision to embody them. If the pantomime performed Oedipus, he would only perform a moment out of many possible ones in the whole, epic story of Oedipus—say the moment at which Oedipus appears after having blinded himself. The point of the scene, then, or the performance as a whole, was not to show why Oedipus blinded himself or what he may have “learned” that motivated his unfortunate condition; the pantomime showed how a blind man moves, using the pyrrhic step, and still appears as a king, even if he has lost his throne. The character has not changed, but in this context, the character only exists to reveal the power of a particular kind of action, a physical movement, that is larger or “greater” than any character or body that performs it. The pantomime could add or omit, reconfigure or revise the different characters in his or her repertoire, so that the narrative organization of the characters, the “plot” of the performance, was dynamic, adaptable to different performance environments. The pantomime detached a character from one narrative context, the mythic story, and placed it in another narrative context, the story of the pantomime’s metamorphosis, how different characters live within a single body, and thus how even a humble body may move like a king. But this was possible only to the extent that the spectator was as aware of the actor as of the character and saw both almost simultaneously. The pantomime aesthetic appealed to people across different classes and eras because it transparently connected the concept of metamorphosis, as a theatrical phenomenon, to a power or freedom to release identities from the contexts that created them rather than (as with Aristotle) to the power of contexts or stable, carefully constructed “plots” to determine identities. In this respect, the pantomimes linked identities to actions in a very physical sense rather than to the referents of actions that occur in a time and place that is not actually present, which inevitably happens when the performer uses speech to tell a story. The “tragic” dimension to the pantomime aesthetic and indeed to the imperial ideology of metamorphosis ultimately lay in the inescapable comparison of one identity to another through performance, which engaged or “agitated” audiences to the extent that it inspired and escalated competition between identities, actions, performances, so that the outcome of performance, the outcome of metamorphosis was victory or defeat, a winner and a loser—something quite “serious” was at stake. And in the absence of any clear or even feasible standard for evaluating this mode of performance, the seriousness of the pantomime aesthetic and the whole ideology of metamorphosis entailed the formation of claques and factions, power struggles, which in turn harbored a greater capacity for social disruption than perhaps any other theatrical aesthetic has been able to achieve. A kind of violence and even a provocation to violence seems inherent to this aesthetic, which presents human identity as divided within itself, in conflict with itself: human identity is itself in a state of schism. 

Western civilization has subsequently, overwhelmingly favored performance narrative strategies that unify actor and character by submerging the actor within the character, so that the performance focuses entirely on the character imagined by an author, and not on the construction of the character, this “other identity” within the actor, by the actor. Christianity has perhaps exerted a significant influence on performance narrative through the idea that a character may change in a major way or initiate actions that produce an outcome in alignment with the character’s desires. This was not an idea that either Aristotle or the ancient dramatists took seriously, at least in relation to tragedy. But the concept of conversion was central to Christian theology of personal transformation and redemption. It breeds the notion of characters as moral emblems: a good character becomes bad or a bad character becomes good, which is not a classically tragic mode, because in a tragedy, actions beyond the control of a character change the situation of a character but not the character herself. The seven plays of Hrosvitha (ca. 935-1002) provide a good example of the Christianization of characters in a performance text. The plays of Terence (185-159 BCE) inspired her to write in dramatic form, although it is not clear why she chose this form to tell her stories when she also wrote similar stories in verse and when it seems that absolutely no one else had even written a play since Seneca nearly a thousand years earlier. In her short plays, probably written around 975-980, characters convert to Christianity after leading sinful or errant lives (Gallicanus, Callimachus) or they repent their sinful lives to embrace holiness (Abraham, Paphnutius) or they remain utterly steadfast in their Christian faith in spite of great pressures to abandon it, including prison, horrible tortures, and the death of loved ones, so that the Christian authority of a character proves stronger than any situation the character faces (DulcitiusSapientia) (Forse 2002: 62-65). The compactness of the dialogue, the zippy pace of the action, and the variety of scenic contexts suggest that Hrosvitha was aware of the practicalities of theatrical performance and of dramatic structure that engage audiences rather than readers. Even scenes such as Sapienta’s discourse on numbers when asked the age of her daughters and the discussion of music in Paphnutius, which veer toward Platonic dialogue, can achieve a comic effect when performed in a theatrical manner. Forse (2002: 65-66) proposes that Hrosvitha wrote the plays as a contribution to the ecclesiastical reform movement of the late tenth century. Hrosvitha, he says, intended the texts to be read aloud by students learning Latin as well as “elements of decorum and civility within ecclesiastical, royal, and aristocratic circles.” The plays, however, possess an aesthetic complexity that implies a larger sense of purpose than classroom exercises or pedagogic goals. Hrosvitha probably knew very little about the ancient pantomime culture, if she knew anything at all, but with her aristocratic heritage and close connection to the court of Otto II (955-983), she was familiar with the skaldic aesthetic that dominated the Teutonic taste for performance. Skaldic entertainments were probably what Bishops Luitprand of Cremona and Ratherius of Verona had in mind when they condemned clergy for enjoying “profane games and performances” (Reid 1991: 161; Butler 1960: 4). That Hrosvitha set all of her plays in the heyday of the Roman Empire may well have some connection to Otto’s attempts to invade Italy and to restore the Roman Empire under a German dynasty: she wanted to model relations between emperors and women in a supportive way that would allow strong, Christian, female voices to be heard and appreciated as influential in the fate of empire. That is why she chose to write in a dramatic-theatrical form as opposed to the skaldic form, where the male warrior voice controlled all the characters in the narrative. The audience for the plays, then, was something other and larger than students in a classroom. Hrosvitha may have written the plays as a series of entertainments for the edification of aristocratic patrons of the abbey at Gandersheim, where she lived. It is even possible that she staged the plays in different rooms of the abbey or a similar large building. The scenic variety of the plays suggests that scenes moved to different rooms and audiences moved accordingly. Dulcitius, for example, contains a scene in which three women, imprisoned for their Christianity by Diocletian’s governor Dulcitius, watch from their cell as Dulcitius, possessed by Satan and thinking he is making love to the women, kisses pots and pans in a kitchen (Roswitha 1923: 38-39). This scene gives the impression that the author had a specific performance site in mind when she wrote it, such as a pantry attached to a kitchen in the abbey. The performers would have been nuns or young women studying at the abbey, which means that women would have played male roles. In her prefaces to the plays, Hrosvitha makes no mention of their performance, but by writing prefaces, she obviously anticipated an audience, of “learned and virtuous men,” that was somehow already aware of her dramatic work, because, “impelled by your kindly interest,” she agreed to submit her work to them, albeit full of doubt and humility about its quality (Roswitha 1923: xxviii, xxx). With their almost complete reliance on voice and dialogue to construct action, the plays would seem not to offer much in the way of opportunities for physical movement in performance. Each play contains numerous, often quite brief, scenes in different settings, but each scene projects a tableau-like quality, a sense of characters speaking from poses assumed in unique perfprmances spaces, although occasionally characters do refer to the performance of physical actions, such as in Abraham, where Abraham says, “Come nearer, Mary, and give me a kiss,” to which Mary responds, “I will take your head in my arms and stroke your neck”; later, the characters say things like, “Sit down and I will take off your shoes” and “Oh, Mary, why do you turn your face away and stare at the ground?” and “You go first, dearest father, like the good shepherd leading the lost lamb that has been found. The lamb will follow in your steps” (Roswitha 1923: 83, 85, 88). The author retains much of the Gothic belief that when bodies move much during performance it is because demonic spirits have possessed them, like Callimachus in the kitchen, although in her last play, Sapientia, Hrosvitha does introduce actions that would be quite bold in performance: “Then fling this rebellious girl into the boiling liquid.” […] “I will leap into it joyfully of my own accord […] I am swimming merrily in the boiling pitch” (Roswitha 1923: 146). Other fantastic speech-actions ensue. The plays of Hrosvitha reveal an enigmatic transitional phase in the evolution of theatrical consciousness in Western civilization. She wanted the voices of strong, chaste women to be heard in a way that they could not if she relied on the otherwise highly constricting predominate modes of narrative performance in her time: the skaldic entertainment, the tiny, emergent liturgical drama of the Quem quaeritis, or the elaborate imperial ceremonials modeled by the Byzantines. In her mind, a Christian mode of theatrical performance emphasized voice and word at the expense of “demonic” bodily expression. Yet in Sapientia, it is evident that she struggled against the temptation to make her chaste characters move with a power that diminished or even subverted the authority of (at least male) voice and word and perhaps even the narrative itself, which of course was a major reason the Church had condemned the Roman pantomime. But Hrosvitha’s Christian plays inaugurate a long, unfinished era in which it is incredibly difficult for people to construct theatrical actions without speech or dancing.

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