The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Pantomime in the Shadow of Ballet

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

Figure 58: Diagram from Feuillet’s Choreographie ou l’art de’crire la dance (1701) showing the steps and movements of a sarabande for female dancer in relation to specific musical notation. Fueillet (1701). 

Pantomime in the Shadow of Ballet

In Italy (Venice), ballet evolved in relation to opera, which began to include choreographed dances as interludes in the early seventeenth century and then by 1644 as a device for advancing the operatic plot itself, derived from ancient mythological themes (Hall 2008: 365-366). The Italians tended to see ballet as something to be integrated into a larger narrative framework dominated by singing, whereas the ancient pantomime subordinated the singing voice to the movement of the dancer. It’s not clear if they adopted this approach because they were unaware of the ancient pantomime aesthetic or because they believed their own time required a different relation between dance and voice than the Roman model offered. In France, under Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715), ballet became an autonomous art that could tell a fairly elaborate story entirely in movement. French ballet showed a great fondness for themes taken from ancient mythology and history. But the French insisted that all movement conform to a system of positions, gestures, and kinetic tropes that was always larger or more powerful than any dancer or choreographer’s imagination in the sense that one could not make a ballet without using only the elements defining the system [Figure 58]. Ancient Roman pantomime never followed any unified or standardized system of movement other than the pyrrhic step. The French architects of ballet in the seventeenth century do not indicate any awareness of ancient pantomime. Ballet evolved in France, and then elsewhere in Europe, independently of the Roman model of narrative dancing and has made no attempt ever to become anything like it. This is not to say that ballet did not develop pantomimic movements, only that in ballet movements were “pantomimic” insofar as they conformed to an authorized, balletic definition of pantomime that had nothing to do with pantomime in the original meaning of the word. 

Yet it was the French who brought the term “pantomime” from the shadows of history and oblivion. In 1682, Claude-Francois Menestrier (1631-1705), a scholar with a prodigious range of interests, published Des Ballets anciens et modernes selon les règles du theater, which includes numerous references to ancient pantomime as a danced performance of “fables” dealing with the theme of “metamorphosis” (Menestrier 1682: 42). While he cited ancient texts, including Lucian, and inscriptions to explain Roman pantomime, he saw pantomime in the image of the ballet of his time: “The ancients gave the name of pantomimes to dancers of ballets,” and their name—as imitator of all–comes from their ability to imitate more than human actions (136). Menestrier did not discuss the pantomime movement aesthetic, other than to quote Lucian about pantomimes “expressing passions through the movement of the arms,” nor did he examine the performance contexts for pantomime, although he did claim that the Greeks invented ballet as an accompaniment to the singing of Homeric epics (172, 296-297). He avoided any reference to the manifold moral ambiguities associated with ancient pantomime, because for him ballet always “conforms to good morals” and presents “nothing indecent” (146). Instead, he identified the themes or “passions” danced by pantomimes, for the important thing was that pantomimes depicted through movement passions, multiple identities, and conditions of metamorphosis. Without signifying anything other than itself, dance lost all moral power, for dances that “express beauty without representing anything” are “disgusting” (301). It is evident that Menestrier regarded ballet as any kind of dance sponsored by a state or royal government, and such governments sponsor dances that reveal “the mysteries hidden within Nature”—or the order or “harmony” of things that is otherwise invisible to the spectator (41). In his mind, the invisible order of things achieved optimum representation through geometric organizations of movement, and his book, curiously, includes several pages of schematic diagrams of geometric relations between dancers for a 1667 court dance celebrating a marriage in Parma to show how ballet “in our time” differs from that of the ancients (178-187). Menestrier conflated pantomime, ancient Greek dancing, and ballet, because his purpose was to bestow the authority of ancient knowledge and practice upon French efforts to establish ballet as a cultural priority and a powerful emblem of national seriousness in the arts. In pursuing this goal, he wound up, perhaps inadvertently, redefining pantomime much more broadly than the Romans did: it means telling a story through movement alone. Since Menestrier, this is the definition that most people have applied when using the word, for most people use the word without any awareness of the original Roman meaning. 

The formation of French ballet was responsible for the redefinition of pantomime, but the managers of French ballet culture were not eager to embrace pantomime, at least as defined in this new, broad manner. French ballet masters and their sponsors felt a distinction between ballet and pantomime was necessary to establish the authority of ballet. It was not that ballet did not include pantomime scenes, but rather that ballet used pantomime within its own movement language. Pantomime in a ballet conformed to the gestural signs designated for it by the general system of movement defining ballet, and ballet defined itself as a kind of language-calculus that followed specific rules for moving the body and for bodies to move in relation to each other. Ballet achieved authority, “legitimacy,” and royal status to the extent that it was a language that could be standardized, regulated, assigned corporeal-spatial classifications, and therefore recombined systematically. If ballet was a language, then it could be “inscribed”—that is, notated or schematized. Menestrier in 1682 had described ballet as a kind of geometrical organization of movement. In 1700, Raoul-Auger Feuillet (1653-1709) published Choréographie, ou l’art de d’écrire la danse, which notated, with both words and diagrams, hundreds of positions, steps, thrusts, turns, “demonstrative signs,” and their “mutations” used in ballets performed at the Paris Opera and approved by Louis XIV himself [Figure 58]. The book, which had numerous editions, showed how “characters” in a ballet were the product of particular combinations of signs and their mutations, and its clarity and scope of presentation allowed it to dominate thinking about choreographed balletic movement throughout the eighteenth century. The Opera subsequently issued an annual edition of notations that expanded the vocabulary of movements acceptable in ballet. “The publication of these dances was intimately associated with the status and popularity of dancing at the court of Louis XIV” (Goff 1995: 206). But publication of the dances was also fundamental in transforming ballet from a court into a public entertainment, which meant that the Opera, as a “legitimate” theater, was (since 1689) now a major institution worthy of subsidies paid for by all citizens of the kingdom. The notation and publication of French opera ballets greatly strengthened the authority of ballet to define the optimum representation of characters and subject matter in dance and establish a unified movement aesthetic by which choreographers and audiences could measure the skills of dancers and the value of individual ballets. Feuillet’s book did not contain a single use of the word pantomime, and indeed the myriad diagrams in the book convey the impression that the beautiful movement of bodies depends on principles which are highly abstract, geometric, and mathematical—quite technical but learnable through repetition. Eventually, in 1760, the ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) published his also hugely popular Lettres sur la danse, in which he complained that opera ballets were cold and remote from the “passions” that animated the body, and he repeatedly referred to pantomime as “warmer, truer, and more intelligible” than the official ballets, even though “the art of pantomime in our day is probably more limited than it was in the reign of Augustus”; ballet, he asserted, “must become Pantomime in all gestures and speak to the soul through the eyes” (Noverre 1760: 18, 20, 31). He did not include a single diagram or image in the entire book.

But Noverre’s enthusiasm for pantomime was possible because of the peculiar circumstances under which pantomime operated in tension with the “legitimate” theaters of Paris. In 1697, Louis XIV expelled the Comedie Italienne from Paris, after the company had enjoyed royal support since at least middle of the seventeenth century. An ostensible reason for the expulsion was that the troupe had prepared a show that made fun of the king’s wife, Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719). The company, housed in the Hôtel de Bourgogne, had specialized in commedia dell’ arte improvisations in Italian, but to maintain its competitiveness in relation to the newly established Comédie-Française and the unregulated popular entertainments that took place in what the French called the Théâtre de la Foire, the company had formed partnerships with French dramatists to produce French language plays that featured the perennial characters of these entertainments, including Pierrot, who seems to have made his first appearance by that name in 1673 (Duchartre 1929: 102, 261). 

Figure 59: Painting of the foire St. Laurent, Paris (1767) by an unidentified artist. Photo: Public domain. 

However, the motive for expelling the Italian company was more complex than the issue of Madame de Maintenon’s reputation. The Comédie-Française, founded in 1680 as the state theater of France, feared competition from the Italians would destroy it if the Italians succeeded in their efforts to perform their repertoire in French. But the theater also feared competition from theatrical groups that performed plays in foreign languages. Louis XIV therefore issued a law, also in 1697, that forbade any kind of dialogue in performances produced in the Théâtre de la Foire or the production there of any written text for the theater (Campardon I 1877, xviii-xix). Up until this time and long afterward, the Théâtre de la Foire in Paris consisted of theatrical productions appearing irregularly at primarily two sites in Paris: Saint Germain and Saint-Laurent [Figure 59]. Shows took place outdoors or under canopies or on makeshift stages and attracted bystanders visiting the “fairs” or marketplaces set up at these sites. These theatrical companies had no official status, no subsidies, and for the most part no corporate benefactors or investors; they survived off the generosity of bystanders. Different wandering companies performed at different times of the year, and sometimes they competed directly with each other in the same open public space. In addition to commedia dell’arte entertainments, these fair sites might feature marionette shows, tightrope walking, juggling, acrobats, or any productions of plays in a foreign language or by a foreign company. The foire theater companies responded to the royal ban on dialogue in clever ways, such as characters speaking or singing to the audience instead of each other or speaking only monologues or, as in Roman pantomime, having a narrator speak “for” the characters on stage. But a major consequence was the development of pantomimic action to tell stories, although most of the stories derived from the old commedia scenarios and their characters. The pantomime Alard (or Allard) had performed in things called pantomimes at the St. Germain foire at least since 1697, when he performed as Arlequin in a version of Scaramouche (Memoires I 1743: 4). His troupe also performed in London around 1700. In his book, The History of the Mimes and Pantomimes (1728), the English ballet master John Weaver remarked that in Alard’s London performances, the vestiges of Roman pantomime had “sunk and degenerated into Pleasantry and ludicrous Representations of Harlequin, Scaramouch, Columbine, Pierot, etc” (Weaver 1728: 3). By 1707, however, an erudite German theorist of dance, Johann Pasch (1661-1709), in an enormous mess of a book intended, evidently, for both dance teachers and skeptical Protestants, had reached the conclusion that pantomime, as the French practiced it through the character of Harlequin, was entering ballet as a comic dimension, which, although quite remote from the tragic or “serious” idea of pantomime favored in ancient times, was nevertheless capable of provoking complicated (“bizarr”) dramatic emotions (Pasch 1707: 61; Winter 1974: 46). The scenario, of unknown authorship, for a 1710 pantomime, Arlequin et Scaramouche, performed at the foire St. Laurent, gives some idea of how pantomime operated in this environment that restricted the characters from speaking, except through song. The following passage (Act I, Scenes iii and iv) from the three-act scenario gives an indication how language functions in relation to foire pantomimic action.


Colombine appears at the window & goes to retrieve the dog from his hut. Arlequin salutes his mistress, & seeing the Doctor leave the house: he starts to dance with Scaramouche; this is followed by a lazzi of giving a letter to Colombine.


A troupe of male and female grape pickers comes and offers some [grapes] to the Doctor. Arlequin & Scaramouche engorge themselves. The Doctor opens a large purse and distributes money to the grape-pickers. Arlequin & Scaramouche intervene, so that they receive all the shares of their comrades and then they leave. (Arlequin 1711: 9)

As written, the pantomimic action appears incoherent, confusing, and perhaps even unintelligible, although the scenario consistently maintains this vein of absurdity. Some scenes include brief songs, almost ditties, performed by different characters, but a performance of the entire scenario probably lasted at best about a half-hour. There is no plot as such, but rather a series of scenes featuring different characters in the ensemble who perform different kinds of amusing physical actions in different settings and even different disguises: no matter how absurd the situation or the action, the characters remain implacably fixed in their identities, with Arlequin always in love with Colombine, the wife of the foolish Doctor. The language describing the actions is vague, “unregulated,” in the Roman sense of pantomime, even though French pantomime utterly lacked the montage principle of “metamorphosis” to establish the relation between one scene and the next. The actions in the two little scenes are “unregulated” because they can be interpreted in manifold ways of moving the body, and for this reason they cannot be dance or at any rate ballet. Within the hierarchy of French cultural milieux, dominated by royal institutions, including the ballet, the term “pantomime,” though accepted as a Roman invention, nevertheless meant above all unregulated movement of the body to tell a story, and unregulated movement was by implication comic—it told stories that were incoherent, not “logical,” ludicrously absurd. But while French pantomime did not regulate the movements of the performers, as ballet did with the kind of notational precision described by Feuillet, these unregulated movements seemed confined to a narrow set of archetypal, ridiculous characters who remained eternally incapable of any action that could bring them to a “higher” level of being or at least lift them out of an otherwise permanent state of absurdity, stupidity, or grotesquerie. 

            However, even this narrow, deformed idea of pantomime constituted a threat to the state theater institutions, which complained to the king for years that the law of 1697 did not go far enough to limit competition from the foire theaters. In 1719, the Comédie-Française, along with the Opera, finally succeeded in getting a law issued that forbade all performances in the foires, with the exception of marionette troupes and tightrope walkers (Campardon I 1877: xxi). This law significantly reduced the glut of crude or debased theater performances that the Comédie-Française believed diminished public enthusiasm for theater in general. Some companies that were actually French had registered as foreign to avoid aspects of the 1697 law. But the 1719 law had the effect of elevating the foire entertainments as they shifted to the newly established Opera-Comique, because the public itself was apparently sympathetic to the law and felt the foires had become oversaturated with mediocre and careless theatrical entertainments, which often included nasty parodies of Opera ballet intermezzi. In the 1720s, French pantomime therefore became more sophisticated, developing a thing called the “ballet pantomime” or what the Italians soon perfected under the term “ballo pantomimo.”

              But if the French were critical of foreign troupes for degrading the foire theater culture, foreigners were critical of the French for exporting their own degradations of foire theatrical entertainment. In England, the dance scholar and ballet master, John Weaver (1673-1760) thought that French pantomime as he had seen it in London failed to be anything more than buffoonish skits, although he was deeply appreciative of French ballet, having translated, among other French dance works, Feuillet’s dance notation treatise as Orchesography (1706) (Goff 1995: 209). In his mind, French pantomime, as performed in the foires, had betrayed the imperial aesthetic of ancient pantomime because it lacked seriousness of purpose. Pantomime and ballet, he reasoned, could benefit from a closer association with each other, which meant that pantomime had to move away from comic themes and ballet had to move away from a subordinate relation to opera. Ballet in Paris was an adjunct to the Opera, and the political-administrative structure of the Opera imposed on ballet an incidental relation to the larger operatic narrative, so that ballets functioned only as entr’actes, interludes, intermezzi, or divertissements. The French had not developed ballet as an autonomous art form, despite the efforts of Menestrier and Feuillet to move ballet in that direction. Under its first artistic director, the composer and choreographer Jean-Baptist Lully (1632-1687), the Opera, from 1673-1683, demonstrated seriousness of purpose through the genre known as tragédie lyrique, which followed many rules that he prescribed. The ballet interludes for these lyric tragedies were “serious” insofar as they contributed a ceremonial gravity and splendor to the operatic enterprise. The dancers often wore masks and extravagant costumes, and many of their movements derived from the court ballets involving aristocratic guests that Lully had choreographed (frequently with Moliere) for Louis XIV before the establishment of the Opera (Cowart 2008: 18-33; Buford 2001: 71-74). Under the monopoly over state musical entertainments granted him by the King in 1672, Lully exerted almost total, absolute control over the Académie Royale de Musique, but this power was possible only if he subordinated ballet to opera. With the court ballets, such as Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653), Lully created long, spectacular, allegorical dances that presented different, picturesque scenes, moods, and ensembles without telling any story; these, however, were occasional affairs, connected to a calendar of court social events. If, with the establishment of the Académie Royale de Musique, ballet became independent of opera, then ballet would require its own its own considerable resources, its own theater, and its own season, which would compete for the time of audiences and the energies of Lully, who was expected to compose operas every year as well as stage them. This situation would entail the appointment of a separate artistic director and staff, who would then compete with the opera for resources, setting up a perpetual power struggle within the Académie. Lully made many enemies, partly because of his ruthlessness in dealing with rivals, partly because of his role in getting the Comedienne Italienne expelled, and partly because of his flamboyant homosexuality, which offended the pious Madame de Maintenon and her austere cabal within the royal circle, who had their own protégés within the Opera. Under pressure from her, the King reluctantly fired him in 1687. And yet for decades afterward, because of the political complexity of the Académie administration, ballet in Paris remained subordinate to the opera in the intermezzi format established by Lully. 

In England, Weaver had to work within a different socio-political environment. The state did not subsidize theatrical entertainments; instead, the king issued “patents” or licences to commercial theaters, and these theaters competed with each other for public audiences. Unlicenced or “unregulated” theaters simply did not exist, except as private entertainments in the homes of wealthy persons. Because the English theater operated outside of the state opera politics that prevailed in France and Italy, Weaver supposed that England was in a better position to resurrect the ancient art of pantomime by experimenting with “representations of entire stories, carried on by various motions, action, and dumb show” (Weaver 1728: 4). He had in mind a kind of ballet that emphasized acting over virtuoso movement technique: “But should we form our Notions of these [ancient] pantomimes from the Dancing we have among us, we should imagine an Actor rather described here than a Dancer. And indeed the whole Course of the Praise is given them for the Excellence of their Imitation of Manners and Passions, and not from their Agility, their fine Steps, and their Risings” (1728: 27). He also felt that neither ballet nor pantomime benefited from the use of commedia characters, although he himself occasionally produced and performed in “grotesque”or “burlesque” entertainments that featured these characters. In 1717, Weaver produced for the Drury Lane theater The Loves of Mars and Venus, A Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing Attempted in Imitation of the Pantomimes of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, generally acknowledged as the first ballet to tell “an entire story.” However, the ballet, if indeed it was one, was on the same program as a performance of Beaumont and Fletcher’s five-act play The Maid’s Tragedy (1611), so Weaver did not create anything resembling a monumental dance work. It was, nevertheless, a “serious” work, with music specially composed for it by Henry Symonds (Weaver 1728: 55-56). Following the overture, Mars and his entourage of warriors entered performing a pyrrhic dance. Venus then appeared in her dressing room, accompanied by a “symphony of flutes.” The third scene featured Vulcan, performed by Weaver himself, forging a metal net with which the Cyclops and his slaves will ensnare Mars and Venus. After “feverish activity,” Mars and Venus engaged in a dance dialogue, “strength against softness.” Suddenly, the Cyclops and the slaves enveloped Mars and Venus in the net and entangled them. “There was only a single set of variations for the finale.” The piece included a dance in which Venus attempted to repulse Vulcan, which Weaver claimed was “altogether of the Pantomimic kind,” with Venus using fourteen separate gestures to signify her repulsion. He explained how certain “passions” or emotions involved particular gestures. To signify anger, for example, the left hand should be “struck suddenly by the right and sometimes against the Breast.” Admiration (of Vulcan for Venus): signified “by the raising up of the right Hand, the Palm turn’d upwards, the Fingers clos’d; and in one Motion the Wrist turn’d round and Fingers spread; the Body reclining, and Eyes fix’d on the Object.” Contempt (of Venus for Vulcan): signified by “scornful Smiles; forbidding Looks; tossing of the Head, filliping of the Fingers; and avoiding the Object” (Weaver 1717: 23). The piece was not a ballet insofar as Weaver devised movements for the actors that did not follow the geometrical positions and kinetic tropes prescribed by the French. But he tried to “regulate” the pantomimic action by imposing his own semiotic gestural system, so that he produced an idiosyncratic sort of ballet pantomime. 

The Loves of Mars and Venus provoked considerable excitement in London, but its impact was ambiguous. John Rich (1692-1761), the director of the rival Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theater, staged a parody of Weaver’s show, Mars and Venus; Or, The Mouse Trap. In 1718, Weaver produced at Drury Lane a second “Dramatick Entertainment in Dancing, after the manner of the ancient Pantomimes,” Orpheus and Euridice, which was longer and perhaps even more serious than his previous effort. But audiences were not large enough to sustain his seriousness of purpose. He attempted to elevate pantomime by developing a gestural language that encompassed a larger range of emotional signification than could be found in either ballet or the commedia derived pantomime (Weaver 1721: 144). But he lived in an era that was deeply ambivalent about the communicative value of bodies independent of language and speech. The French assumed that a “higher” level of purely bodily signification entailed elaborate “regulation” of movement. While the English found such regulation stifling or pretentious, they nevertheless tended to believe that bodily significations unframed by speech invariably produced a comic effect. Rich, who was barely literate, was a formidable competitor for the Drury Lane Theater because he exploited this prejudice by presenting pantomimes that abandoned any gestural code that was not buffoonish in the extreme. These shows, always featuring the stock commedia types, specialized in physical gags, pratfalls, and clownish stunts, with he himself, under the name Lun, playing Harlequin numerous times. A 1717 show at Lincoln’s Inn Fields featured for the first time the term “harlequinade,” which subsequently became an English synonymn for pantomime. Rich’s pantomimes attracted large audiences, and also much criticism in the press for their shameless depiction of a ludicrously debased humanity that supposedly crippled the ability of London theater to stage works of more ambitious dramatic imagination. He himself realized that his limited, acrobatic approach to pantomime was not sufficient to sustain the interest of large audiences. But he also grasped that a more elevated gestural language, as Weaver proposed, was possible only by abandoning the commedia archetypes, which entailed taking huge commercial risks that neither Lincoln’s Inn Fields or Drury Lane could afford. Moreover, the harlequinades in both theaters functioned as preludes or “after-pieces” to written comedies and dramas, in which the display of verbal skills was the chief attraction. These after-pieces, which lasted only about twenty minutes, sometimes contained two parts, a “serious” first half and then a comic parody of the serious part. It is, however, difficult to ascertain what was serious about the first part; it was probably just a set up for comic bits in the second part. But Rich’s pantomime aesthetic depended above all on visual and scenic effects, sight gags, “tricks,” elaborate stage machinery, and outlandish costumes: he developed the distinct Harlequin image of a tight body suit checkered with the colors yellow (fire/jealousy), blue (truth/air), black (invisibility/ water) and red (love/earth), “and it was a convention that Harlequin, in striking his attitudes, should always point to one or other of these colors” (Wilson 1935: 58-59). Rich’s Harlequin always carried a kind of bat or paddle that enabled him to perform magical transformations of objects or people, such as leaping over houses or converting humans into animals. Pantomime scenes would include dragons, serpents, and other mechanical monsters, as well as more mundane tricks, such as a table rising and forming a canopy. In The Necromancer and Dr. Faustus (1723), “Rich’s idea was primarily to amalgate the scenic splendors and mythological tone of the masque (which still lingered on the boards) with the schoolboy antics of the Harlequinade” (Wilson 1935: 59; Lawrence 1886: 545). Until the middle of the century, the two theaters were in almost savage competition with each other, and competition escalated primarily through the the deployment of increasingly spectacular pantomimes, even though these remained “after-pieces.” Neither theater could maintain its patent by producing only pantomimes, but neither theater could stay in business by producing only regular plays. In his delightful autobiography (1740), Colly Cibber (1671-1757), the actor-manager of the Drury Lane Theater, explained how “childish Pantomimes first came to take so gross a Possession of the Stage”:

I have upon several occasions already observ’d, that when one Company is too hard for another, the lower in Reputation has always been forced to exhibit some new-fangled Foppery to draw the Multitude after them: Of these Expedients, Singing and Dancing had formerly been the most effectual; but, at the Time I am speaking of, our English Musick had been so discountenanced since the Taste of Italian Operas prevail’d, that it was to no purpose to pretend to it. Dancing therefore was now the only Weight in the opposite Scale, and as the New Theater sometimes found their Account in it, it could not be safe for us wholly to neglect it. To give even Dancing therefore some Improvement, and to make it something more than Motion without Meaning, the Fable of Mars and Venus was form’d into a connected Presentation of Dances in Character, wherein the Passions were so happily expressed, and the whole Story so intelligibly told by a mute Narration of Gesture only, that even thinking Spectators allow’d it both a pleasing and a rational Entertainment; though, at the same time, from our Distrust of its Reception, we durst not venture to decorate it with any extraordinary Expence of Scenes or Habits; but upon the Success of this Attempt it was rightly concluded, that if a visible Expence in both were added to something of the same Nature, it could not fail of drawing the Town proportionably after it. From this original Hint then (but every way unequal to it) sprung forth that Succession of monstrous Medlies that have so long infested the Stage, and which arose upon one another alternately, at both Houses outvying in Expence, like contending Bribes on both sides at an Election, to secure a Majority of the Multitude. But so it is, Truth may complain and Merit murmur with what Justice it may, the Few will never be a Match for the Many, unless Authority should think fit to interpose and put down these Poetical Drams, these Gin-shops of the Stage, that intoxicate its Auditors and dishonour their Understanding with a Levity for which I want a Name (Cibber II 1756: 50-51).

Pantomimes made Rich wealthy, and in 1733, he built a new theater, Covent Garden, where his productions were somewhat more refined, though no less spectacular. Drury Lane tried to brand itself as providing a higher level of entertainment (Shakespeare), but both theaters struggled to control the spiraling costs of their competing pantomimes and the resentment of actors in the regular plays. In 1747, the actor David Garrick (1717-1779) became manager of the Drury Lane Theater and remained so until 1776. Despite his disdain for pantomime, he recognized that success in the genre was an economic necessity, although competing against Rich proved a monumental, long-term task. At first he tried to control public appetite for pantomime by launching new pantomimes around Christmas in the hope that audiences would prefer pantomimes as “special,” seasonal entertainments rather than as a constant feature of every theatrical performance. Then, on December 26, 1750, he presented Queen Mab, Harlequin, by the comic actor Henry Woodward (1714-1777), with music by Charles Burney (1726-1814), a work so spectacular and enthusiastically received that Rich momentarily perceived a major threat to Covent Garden’s competitveness. At last, in 1759, Garrick wrote his own, very successful Christmas pantomime, Harlequin’s Invasion, except that it mostly wasn’t: it was a comic play featuring numerous whimsical, cartoonish characters who banter with each other while foiling Monsieur Harlequin’s ludicrous effort to invade England with “fairies, hags, genii, and hobgoblins.” This was apparently the first time that Harlequin spoke, and while he didn’t speak nearly as much as other characters, neither did he or any of the other characters engage in any pantomime. Indeed, the only vaguely pantomimic action in this three-act cartoon show consisted of a dance performed by “children in Pantomime characters” in the first act, and then at the end, when “Shakespear Rises: Harlequin Sinks”–various Shakespearean characters danced with the Three Graces and “several Fairies and Genii” (Garrick 1759). John O’Brien  (2004: 228) suggests that Harlequin’s Invasion was actually an “anti-pantomime” insofar as it was a propagandistic effort to destroy pantomime with the spoken word and enfold its comic function within the patriotic language of Shakespeare, although Pedicord and Bergman observe that Garrick simply didn’t have much, if any, pantomimic talent in his company (Garrick I 1980: 405). Garrick wanted to make the display of verbal skill the dominant motive for theatrical entertainment, and pantomime, as perfected by the patent theaters, undermined the authority of the voice to attract spectators. As an actor, Garrick had achieved unprecedented fame through the use of his voice and through his passionate devotion to Shakespeare, which by 1760 had contributed heavily to the establishment of Shakespeare as the paragon of the English language and even the soul of England itself. Garrick revolutionized acting by developing a naturalistic style of performance. In both serious and comic roles, he relied on subtleties of inflection, rhythm, and dynamics of his voice to construct a vast range of characters on the stage who seemed “alive” to a uniquely intimate degree. His physical gestures were similarly restrained yet perceptive, so that it seemed as if the words and movements issued “naturally” from the characters rather than inflated them. Before Garrick, a declamatory style of acting prevailed, in which actors tended to impress audiences with a sonorous, oratorical projection of words, with a virtuosity of elocution, verbal adroitness, and brilliance of “wit” or “temperament” supposedly defining the character. Performers often spoke from or in poses. The declamatory style emerged as a way to impose respectability on the theater in response to heavy condemnation of it by middle class moralists, most notably Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), whose famous “jeremiad” in 1698 against the immorality of the theater had compelled the culture surrounding the stage to move in a new direction more sensitive to middle class than aristocratic taste. But while the imbecilities and crude physicality of pantomimes for decades provoked pervasive contempt from the London press and literary worlds, it is understandable why audiences may not have found drama on the stage as compelling as pantomime. Grandeur of speech becomes oppressive when it inhibits freedom of movement and action, which is invariably the case when embellished and ornate pronunciation becomes the central value in the display of verbal skill. In his 1728 guide to the “reigning diversions” of London, The Touch-Stone, James Ralph (1705-1762) facetiously proposed that writers of “wit” could benefit from the study of pantomime, with its “silent Rhetorick,” as a way to achieve greater and more poetic economy of mimesis instead of the “tedious” fetishization of words that had overtaken the stage and literature (Ralph 1973: 104-108; Domingo 2009: 52-57). But the spectacular conflict in the English theater between linguistic and pantomimic performance was the consequence of a larger situation. After many centuries of Christian obsession with the authority of the Word to define the world, the eighteenth century opened up the possibility that the body might be as powerful a sign of human identity as language, that the body’s movement could communicate many things for which language was inadequate. The French explored this possibility through ballet and through the foire pantomimes. But they also grasped that when bodies perform with a measure of artistry that does not depend on speech or even a text, such performances can create a mistrust of language, a sense that people use words to conceal, constrain, or deceive identities, to set up a veil or barrier between motive and action, or at any rate to transmit significations that separated identity from body. The French state therefore sanctioned ballet as a national project and then defined it as a severe regulation of the body according to abstract geometrical principles of “harmony” and carefully inscribed rules, while allowing pantomime, as an unregulated movement of the body without words, to thrive only in a comic mode, as an extravagantly absurd anarchy. The English, however, were deeply suspicious of ballet and the French preoccupation with “rules,” and indeed, they continued to regard ballet as a “foreign” art until well into the twentieth century. But they embraced the pantomime as the French had fashioned it in response to the 1697 royal decree, and then, led by Rich, proceeded to Anglicize it as the “harlequinade,” which linked wordless movement not only to the anarchistic imbecility of its narratives, but to “magical” transformations provided by elaborate scenic technology, and to a cartoonish vision of the “legitimacy” bestowed upon the theater by the royal patents. The English had long forgotten the obscure and tragic “dumb show” idea that Shakespeare had included in Hamlet and The Tempest, preceded by the dumb show experiments in Gorboduc and Locrine. But authors embedded these fascinating, tragic dumb show scenes within a vast mass of speech almost as a way to amplify the authority of the voice to represent more accurately what the scenes depicted perhaps too ambiguously. These haunting dumb show scenes remained obscure curiosities, and never became (anymore than Weaver) a point of departure for a more serious approach to pantomime than the later awareness of the ancient pantomime actually produced. The English were too invested in the belief that language is the dominant source of identity to allow pantomime to signify anything other than the fantastically absurd chaos that ensues when words and voice disappear from human actions. 

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