The Return of Pantomime: The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: The English Experiment with Dumb Shows

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

The Return of Pantomime

The dumb show scene from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Shift from Oblivion to Paris

The English Experiment with Dumb Shows

Christian-medieval beliefs regarding relations between voice, body, and narrative in performance assured that knowledge of the pantomime aesthetic remained in deep obscurity for many centuries. The Renaissance and the invention of the printing press expanded ideas about the body in performance inspired by ancient texts and art, but knowledge of pantomime played a negligible role in the restoration of proscenium theater culture. Even Lucian’s On Dancing was scarcely known in theater circles until the late seventeenth century (Hall 2008: 365-366). When ballet began in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in Italy, princes and choreographers built elaborate court dances on ancient mythological themes from the framework of medieval patterns of aristocratic social dance and ceremonial movements with music (Strong 1973: 23-25). In the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), in Paris, fostered the development of the ballet de cour as a way to enhance the prestige of the Valois dynasty, but from its beginning, with Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx’s Ballet de Polonais, in 1573, ballet derived from a specific movement vocabulary (“positions”) under the command of a choreographer, whose task was to show how the harmonious movement of bodies resulted from following a rational system of action sanctioned by royal authority. 

In the early seventeenth century, in England, the royal court, especially during the reigns of James I (1566-1625) and Charles I (1600-1649), sponsored elaborately choreographed masques, spectacular political allegories, several supervised by the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), which sometimes integrated aristocratic spectators with performers hired by the king (Orgel 1975: 60-83; Strong 1973: 213-243). These, however, were not ballets, because the British court was never able to establish a unified way of moving for the many performers in this type of political entertainment. Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), staged for James I, contains a brief pantomime performed by “several strange Shapes, bringing in a banquet; they dance about it with gentle actions of salutation; and, inviting the King, & c. to eat, they depart” (III, iii). Hamlet (1599-1602) contains an even more complex pantomime (“dumb-show”) in which five performers wordlessly enact the murder of a king by a poisoner and the “wooing of the Queen with gifts” (III, ii; 1982: 296):

Enter a King and a Queen; the Queen embracing him, and he her. She kneels, and makes show of protestation unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her neck: lays him down upon a bank of flowers: she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the King’s ears, and exit. The Queen returns; finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead body is carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts: she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts his love.

In discussing this scene, Harold Jenkins observes that dumb shows in Shakespeare’s time were “common enough” and that it is “easy […] enough to exaggerate the singularity” of such scenes, but he focuses on describing the manifold scholarly controversies surrounding Shakespeare’s puzzling motive for inserting the dumb show. He concludes that evidence of the text allows for no greater motive than to allow the actor playing King Claudius to appear “inscrutable” in response to the pantomime depicting the King’s murder of Hamlet’s father (Shakespeare 1982: 501-505). But to say that dumb shows were “common enough” implies a theatrical convention or tradition more familiar to Shakespeare than to anyone studying dramatic texts from his time, for dumb shows are rare indeed in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Forty years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, mysterious dumb show scenes preceded each act of the very dark five-act tragedy Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Norton (1532-1584) and Thomas Sackville (1536-1608), with each dumb show enacting in pantomime the actions occurring in the ensuing act burdened, to say the least, with huge speeches. Consider, for example, the pantomime beginning Act II:

First, the Musicke of Cornettes began to playe, during which came in upon the stage a King accompanied with a nombre of his nobilitie and gentlemen. And after he had placed him self in a chaire of estate prepared for him, there came and kneled before him a grave and aged gentelman and offred up a cuppe unto him of wyne in a glasse, which the King refused. After him commes a brave and lustie yong gentleman and presents the King with a cup of gold filled with poyson, which the King accepted, and drinking the same, immediately fell downe dead upon the stage, and so was carried thence away by his Lordes and gentelmen, and then the Musicke ceases. Hereby was signified that as glasse by nature holdeth no poyson, but is clere and may easely be seen through, ne boweth by any arte: so a faithful counsellour holdeth no treason, but is plain and open, ne yeldeth to any undiscrete affection, but giveth wholesome counsell, which the yll advised Prince refuseth. The delightful gold filled with poison betokeneth flattery, which under fair seeming of pleasant words beareth deadly poyson, which destroyed the Prince that receyveth it. As befell in the two brethren Ferrex and Porrex, who, refusing the holsome advise of grave court counsellours, credited these yong Paracites, and brought to them selves death and destruction therby (Norton 1883: 29-30). 

In his monograph on Gorboduc, Homer Watt discussed in some detail the dumb show scenes, which “are the most striking native element in the tragedy.” Like other commentators on the play, Watt contends that the verbose tragedies of Seneca were the model for Norton and Sackville’s play, which “is so Senecan as to be absolutely without action,” “interesting only to a learned and courtly audience.” The dumb shows exist to satisfy an “English” craving for “some action on the stage” and to highlight the “moral lesson” of the play, although if anything it is actually the other way around: the dumb shows present enigmatic, “inscrutable” actions that require an entire act of tedious, moralizing speeches to explain. Watt rejects the idea that the dumb shows derive from Italian intermedii pantomimes that supposedly took place during the performance of commedia dell’arte comedies in Italian court theaters. These intermedii are perhaps similar to the French divertissements—small dance pantomimes separating acts in a play or opera and, unlike in Gorboduc, mostly irrelevant to the play or opera. According to Watt, Norton and Sackville, who never visited Italy, were innovative in linking pantomimic scenes to tragedy, and he accepts that Norton and Sackville invented the dumb show for English tragic drama. But he also asserts that the authors adapted a tradition of allegorical pantomimes that appeared in court masques or civic pageants, although the only evidence he presents of such pantomimes comes from descriptions of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation procession. He implies the existence of an undocumented tradition of allegorical pantomime that may have descended from medieval times (Watt 1910: 78-82). Dumb show scenes also appear in another English drama, the revenge tragedy Locrine, written between 1585 and 1591 and published anonymously in 1595, though once ascribed to Shakespeare. Here an allegorical pantomime featuring mythological or animal characters precedes each act, for example, preceding the second act: 

Enter Ate as before. After a little lightning and thundering, let there come forth this show:–Perseus and Andromeda, hand in hand, and Cepheus also, with swords and targets. Then let there come out of an other door, Phineus, all black in armour, with Aethiopians after him, driving in Perseus, and having taken away Andromeda, let them depart, Ate remaining (II, I; Locrine 1734: 14). 

Ate, “a goddess of revenge,” then gives a little speech explaining the significance of the pantomimed actions, as she does after every dumb show, although she does not play a role in the drama itself, which concerns Trojans and Scythians in Britain. Act III: “Enter Ate as before. The dumb show. A Crocodile sitting on a river’s rank, and a little Snake stinging it. Then let both of them fall into the water” (Locrine 1734: 27). The final, fifth act dumb show is just as peculiar as the rest: “Enter Ate as before. Jason, leading Creon’s daughter. Medea, following, hath a garland in her hand, and putting it on Creon’s daughter’s head, setteth it on fire, and then, killing Jason and her, departeth” (47). The pantomimes function as capsuled allegorical analogies of the ensuing, speech-driven dramatic action, unlike in Gorboduc or Hamlet, where the dumb shows function as premonitions or enigmatic intimations of actions in the play otherwise “explained” by speech. In the notes to their own 1778 edition of Locrine, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and George Steevens (1736-1800) quote Bishop Thomas Percy’s (1729-1811) remark about the play: “This tragedy is in the old turgid pedantick style of the academick pieces of that time, which were composed by the students to be acted in their colleges, on solemn occasions. It has not the most remote resemblance to Shakespeare’s manner” (Johnson 1780: 728). From this perspective, the “tradition” of dumb shows refers to a practice of schools inserting pantomimes into tragic dramas to achieve pedagogical goals in relation to the schoolboys who performed the plays. Even so, how this practice emerged remains quite obscure, as does further evidence of dumb shows in tragic dramas. Regardless of their mystifying origin, the dumb show scenes in GorboducLocrine, and Hamlet disclose a vivid pantomimic imagination in relation to tragic themes that had almost no knowledge of Roman pantomime. Elizabethan dramatists apparently did not grasp the Roman concept of pantomime even from ancient sources that were available to them (cf., Mehl 2011). In The Roman Actor (1626), a dark play based on Suetonius’s gossip about an affair between Paris and Domitia, the wife of the Emperor Domitian, Philip Massinger (1583-1640) believed that Paris was an actor of tragic plays rather than a pantomime; nevertheless, the play, which assumes an audience quite learned in Roman history and culture, does capture well a turbulent imperial environment in which tempestuous theatrical personalities intersected erotic and political sentiments, with violent consequences. Paris explains why the greatness of the Roman Empire depends more on theater than on philosophers:

if, to inflame

The noble youth with an ambitious heat

T’ endure the frosts of danger, nay, of death,

To be thought worthy the triumphal wreath

By glorious undertakings, may deserve

Reward, or favour, from the commonwealth;

Actors may put in for as large a share

As all the sects of the philosophers:

They with cold precepts (perhaps seldom read)

Deliver, what an honourable thing

The active virtue is: but does that fire

The blood, or swell the veins with emulation,

To be both good and great, equal to that

Which is presented in our theaters? (I, iii; Massinger 1813: 345-346)

But the English dramatists loved too much the sound and power of their language to invest further in their obvious talent for constructing speechless actions in a tragic mood, and it would be a long while after The Tempest before they returned to a “serious” idea of pantomime. 

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