The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: French Pantomime Adapts to State Power

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 83: La foire Saint-Germaine around 1670. Photo courtesy of Association de la Régie Théâtrale.
Figure 84: Foire performance in the sixteenth century of a “foreign farce,” engraving by Jean de Gourmont (1483-1551). Photo courtesy of Association de la Régie Théâtrale.

French Pantomime Adapts to State Power

In France, meanwhile, pantomime evolved, as usual, in relation to the politics of monarchial absolutism. In the waning days of Louis XIV’s reign, the foire theaters began to organize an effort to institutionalize their productions, so that they could operate throughout the year instead of only for brief periods in the fall or spring and thus achieve greater protection from their marginalization by the state-run theaters. This collaboration began at the end of 1714 and resulted in the formation of the Opera-Comique, which probably occurred in large part because the Opera was willing to accommodate some of the foire requests in exchange for the alleviation of large debts it had incurred. The King granted the foire group a “monopoly” on certain theatrical entertainments that was somewhat similar to the “patent” or licence sanctioned theaters received from the king in England, which is to say that the foire companies received the “privilege” of performing in a conventional theater without receiving any subsidy. But the establishment of the Opera-Comique, initially in the Hotel de Bourgogne, did not go smoothly for a variety of reasons, only some of which were financial, and years passed before there was any clarity about what role this theater should play in French cultural life, for the foire theaters did not disappear with the creation of the Opera-Comique. In 1719, the King issued a decree that forbade all performances in the foire districts, except for marionette shows and rope dancing. The decree supposedly prevented the foire theaters from competing with the Opera-Comique as well as with the Opera and the Comédie-Française. But enforcement of the law was apparently erratic, because, by 1721, the foire theaters had resumed staging productions in their traditional districts (St. Germain and St Laurent), although foire companies, including the Hotel de Bourgogne, tended to schedule their performances throughout the year so that they did not compete against each other on the same days, a feat requiring an extraordinarily sophisticated level of collaboration ( 2016). This situation was opposite to that which prevailed in ancient Rome or in eighteenth century England, where the public encouraged head-to-head competition between pantomimes. 

            The French pantomime operated within this highly controlled yet imprecisely defined zone of theater culture lacking any official status. As mentioned earlier, pantomime in France emerged and evolved in response to the French government’s determination to control, through its own state theaters, the transmission of the “official” French language, speech, and voice, so that a function of the state theater was to establish how French should be spoken, sung, and even written. The idea of a “standard” or idealized form of speaking French was central to the government’s vision of a unified French identity. The foire theaters trafficked in dialects and “foreign” modes of speaking, and, moreover, as a demotic form of entertainment, they attracted audiences in large part because of their ability to appeal to audience resentments toward official pronouncements and to audience pleasure in the lampooning of “pretentious” figures and aspects of state institutions. From the royal and state perspective, language achieved its most “serious” or idealized voicing through tragedy, which, during the first half of the eighteenth century, almost invariably dealt with figures of state and themes of struggles for power. But to prevent comic language in the theater from undermining or degrading the “serious” language of tragedy, the state reserved comic dialogue exclusively for its own theaters, the Comédie-Française and the Opera, and thus, through the decree of 1697, forbade the foire theaters from using in performance anything but fragments or scraps of spoken or sung language. The lack of access to “serious” language meant that foire performances appeared almost entirely in a comic mode. But the foire theater companies overwhelmingly understood comic performance in relation to the commedia archetypes imported from Italy. It is difficult to grasp why the foire artists throughout the century relied so relentlessly on Arlequin, Colombine, Pierrot, and other buffoons from the commedia roster to set up almost every comic situation. To say that audiences “liked” the characters simply displaces the question: why was the foire public incapable of appreciating comic performance outside of the commedia framework? The answer is probably somewhat similar to why the English became devoted to pantomimic commedia archetypes. Unlike the English, the French believed that movements of the body could communicate “serious” sentiments and ideas without speech or voice to frame them, but only through ballet, a rigid, prescribed regulation of bodily movement. Otherwise, wordless actions resulted in an amusingly absurd “scene.” But the enduring insistence on commedia archetypes to inhabit this scene suggests that the goal of wordless actions was to preserve stability of identity. Despite the persistently fantastic absurdity of the scenes they inhabited, Arlequin, Colombine, Pierrot, and their fellow archetypes thrived—they never changed, they never became other than the grotesque specimens of humanity that are the inevitable result of “unregulated,” wordless movements. The commedia framework was effective not just in Paris, but in Brussels, Milan, London, Hamburg, or wherever the foire companies traveled. Actors often became identified with a particular character, such as Arlequin, for much of their careers, reinforcing the idea in public consciousness that the characters are “eternal” emblems, not of humanity, but of the stability of a social order that functions to preserve unity of identity. No matter how chaotic or arbitrary their environment, the commedia characters remained resilient, unperturbed, fixed, their stupidity incapable of destroying them. Such a benign world-view, so heavily infused with the Christian theme of “authenticity” of identity, could hardly cause alarm for the chief guardian of the social order, the government itself. But it was an ideological framework for pantomimic performance that was opposite the imperial aesthetic of the Roman pantomime, which emphasized the “metamorphosis” or instability of human identity and allowed for a far more volatile relation between pantomimic performance and social order. 

            French pantomime became trapped within the commedia format, just as ballet became trapped within the Opera hierarchy. Indeed, pantomime evolved as a kind of counter-ballet, if not exactly an anti-ballet. By the early 1720s, many foire shows consisted of parodies of operas, ballets, and tragedies performed in the state theaters (Dictionnaire des theaters de Paris II 1756: 662), and it was through these parodies that pantomime was somewhat able to break out of the commedia framework. The dramatist Alain-René Lesage (1668-1747) was significant in developing the pantomime culture of the foires. His comic play Turcaret (1708), which satirized the corruption of moneylenders and borrowers, was a great success at the Comédie-Française in 1709, but lobbyists for the banking industry persuaded the theater (or its actors) to withdraw the work after seven performances (Lesage 1905: viii). Disgusted, Lesage thereafter wrote for the foire theater companies. For several years, he wrote short comic plays, such as Le Monde rendverse (1718), which, despite their heavy dependence on dialogue, somehow evaded the ban on dialogue in foire performances; this probably caused them to be published in Amsterdam rather than in Paris (Lesage 1731 IV; 1733 II). Lesage worked within the commedia framework insofar as Pierrot, Columbine, Scaramouche, and especially Arlequin are recurrent characters and at least one or the other always seems to find a place in any of the author’s pieces. But he greatly widened the range of comic characters in his pieces, so that usually no more than two commedia types appeared within a cast of uniquely individuated comic characters. But the ban nevertheless shaped most of his pieces. In 1713, the foire in St. Germain produced his  Arlequin, Roi de Serendib, a three-act vaudevillian “piece” that interspersed pantomimic scenes with scraps of songs (“airs”) without actually using any dialogue. The pantomimic scenes only describe broad actions, without reference to gestural inflection or performance instructions, as for example this from the end of Act One, Scene One:

The thieves take the barrel, smashing Arlequin into it, and go after recovering the funds. Arlequin, seeing no hope of salvation, cries, shouts, rolling in the barrel. There comes a hungry Wolf, who seeks the pasture. He will smell the barrel; and when there senses the flesh inside. He makes every effort to break the lid. While this goes on, Arlequin passes his hand through the hole in the plug, and catches the tail of the Wolf, who, before seeing the hand, is afraid and wants to abscond; but pulls the barrel, his tail remaining in the hands of Arlequin, so that for a moment the barrel is divided into two. The Wolf flees to one side, Arlequin to the other.

Theater changes scene, and shows the capital of the island.

The Mezzetin appears, dressed as a high priestess, the idol worshipped there. Pierrot comes as confidente and makes reflections on customs of the island, and the state of their business. “Airs” by the Mezzetin and Pierrot follow. (Lesage 1810: 8-9)

It may seem that writing such a scene is fairly simple, but a somewhat coherent, visual structuring of wordless, physical actions over three acts, or even one act, is actually quite difficult, easier to “see,” perhaps, as a comic strip than as a text. Yet pantomime performers could make quite a bit out of this collection of words, they could find manifold ways of performing each action humorously. The text awakens opportunities for physical movements without prescribing them, nor does it build actions around an assumed vocabulary for performing them, as in a ballet scenario. Lesage showed that pantomime could attract major literary talent, even though, aside from the bland lyrics to the brief airs, pantomime concealed rather than revealed literary talent. It took a literary mind to produce skillfully constructed pantomime narratives—thinking in terms of actions, rather than gestures or movements, requires a kind of syntactic visual imagination that performers seldom possess, and even many literary talents, including dramatists, lack it, although pantomime never seems to become ambitious without the infusion of an external literary intelligence that is self-consciously aware of actions that do not need speech to connect them to each other, one thing after another.

            Even so, Lesage and his fellow scenarists for the foires,“protected by persons of distinction,” continued to insert dialogue passages in their “pieces,” which in turn continued to irritate the state theaters and even the shadowy organizers of the Opera-Comique (Chauveron 1906: 74). He even satirized the effort to “silence” the foire shows in his allegorical one act “piece,” Les funérailles de la foire (1718), in which the Opera, the Comédie-Française, the Italian Comedy, and the Opera-Comique preside over the death and burial of “the Foire,” an “extravagance” which excited Paris too much when in reality “it is beautiful to die of the boredom” provided by the “good” theaters (Lesage 1733: 177). The 1719 law, which forbade all shows in the foires except marionette “pieces” and rope dancing, apparently benefited the Opera-Comique more than the state theaters. Some foire companies wanted to produce shows that featured grander elements of spectacle than were possible in the open-air performance spaces of the foire districts: they needed a proscenium theater (Hotel de Bourgogne) that could handle complex scene changing machinery. Like the English, the French increased their focus on pantomime as they became more involved with spectacle. But as the Opera-Comique developed, and the foire aesthetic along with it, a kind of music theater emerged that accommodated an elaborate nomenclature of forms which had no place in the state theaters: spectacle-pantomime, parodie-pantomime, divertissement-pantomime, pantomime-pastorale, tragédie-burlesque, tragi-comédie, pantomime italienne, and other hybrid names for music hall entertainments that combined singing, pantomime, and scenic spectacle, as listed in the volumes of the Dictionnaire des théâtres de Paris. Out of this messy profusion of “unofficial” theatrical forms came the thing called “ballet pantomime,” which perhaps had a larger impact or wider currency as a term than the other genres invented by the foire producers in the 1720s. 

            The first use of the term was apparently in August 1729 to describe a short piece, Noce Angloise, which followed a one act by Lesage and a Spectacles malades at the Opera-Comique (Dictionnaire des Théâtres1756 II: 200). The composer Michel Corrette (1707-1795) used the term to describe a small work, L’Ages, for which he wrote the music and which the Opera-Comique performed in 1733. Subsequently the Opera-Comique produced the ballet pantomimes Pygmalion (1734), L’Estaminette Flamande (1735), L’Ecole de Mars et le Triomphe de Venus (1736), and L’Art et la Nature (1737), so that the term seems originally to have designated a peculiar kind of “serious” performance produced at the Opera-Comique. Ballet pantomimes were an occasional rather than regular feature of foire programs, and many of them, featuring one or more commedia characters, were brief parodies of Opera ballet interludes, so that for several years “ballet pantomime” seemed to signify a parody of something danced at the Opera, although not all pantomime parodies took this name. In 1738, however, the Comediens Italiens presented in the Hotel de Bourgogne Les Filets de Vulcain, by the Italian actor and theorist of acting Antonio (Antoine) Riccoboni (1707-1772), with music by Adolfe Blaise (1712-1772). Riccoboni had in 1734 produced Pygmalion, a kind of “afterpiece” ballet pantomime, with the Comediens Italiens (Dictionnaire des Théâtres 1756 IV: 307). The scenario for Les Filets de Vulcain derives from the same mythic material as Weaver’s “serious” pantomime of The Loves of Mars and Venus presented in London twenty years before. But Riccoboni’s production created a more erotic atmosphere, with more actions describing the mutual affection between Mars and Venus, and more elaborate spectacle: “Then one sees Olympus, the gods and goddesses on clouds, each with their attributes. All the divinities descend to earth. [ . . .] the goddesses regard Venus with indignation; the gods in contrast take care for her” (Dictionnaire des Théâtres 1756 II: 577). Riccoboni included more characters in his piece than Weaver in his, and most importantly, he, like Weaver, included no commedia archetypes, although unlike Weaver, Riccoboni avoided actions or “bits” designed for comic effect. Riccoboni’s pantomime was a suave erotic drama, in which the adulterous love between Mars and Venus can only be resolved through the direct intervention of divine powers. Riccoboni, who “understands perfectly the art of the pantomimes,” himself performed the part of Vulcan, and although the reviewer for the Mercure de France shows some uncertainty about calling the performers dancers, he does refer to the piece as a ballet (Dictionnaire des Théâtres 1756 II: 575-578). 

In 1750, Riccoboni published a book on “the art of the theater,” in which he explained his attitude toward movement on the stage. He placed great emphasis on the weight and speed of a gesture rather than on the geometric relation of a movement to the body. But his most important point was that movements should occur “naturally,” rather than as components of a beautiful image, which meant that one could not improve one’s performance by studying it in a mirror. One must link movements to the expression of emotions, and these movements come from the performer’s unique relation to particular emotions rather than to an image of himself or to an institutionalized code of performance or even to the emotions defining a character. He divides all emotions into two general categories: tender and forceful. Within these two categories, the physical signification of emotion evolves out of a fundamental struggle for dominance between the weight and speed of gestures. He believed that movements on stage could be simpler, stronger, more elegant, and more natural than “customarily” performed. But he also grasped that relations between movements are relations between emotions; one emotion develops out of another, just as all emotions develop out of the two basic categories of emotion—no emotion is discrete or autonomous. As he remarks mysteriously: “[T]enderness is almost never in the theater a single movement, and it is ordinarily accompanied by some other gesture that characterizes the situation and serves to guide the actor in the manner by which he is moved” (Riccoboni 1750: 48). The book makes frequent reference to the performance of tragic material—unusual, indeed, for an author who spent most of career with the Italian Comedy Company—but it is also clear that the whole point of the book is to move “the art of theater,” both tragic and comic, away from “customary” modes of performance and toward a more emotionally powerful kind of representation that arises out of movements which find no place in either the ballet or the conventional pantomime. 

            Les Filets de Vulcain probably had greater impact on theater outside of the foire culture than in it. In late 1738, Riccoboni produced a second ballet pantomime at the Opera-Comique, Orphee, which was even more “serious” and perhaps more spectacular than Les Filets de Vulcain, featuring a larger ensemble and a wider range of emotions (Dictionnaire des Théâtres IV 1756: 44-47). In 1739, the Opera-Comique stage Boizard de Pontau’s Diane et Endymion, another ballet pantomime based on a mythic theme devoid of any commediacharacters (Dictionnaire des Théâtres 1756 II: 305). Then in 1740, Riccoboni produced another large ballet pantomime, Les Nocturnes Rendezvous, this time for the Theater Italien, which had become an adjunct of the Opera-Comique (Dictionnaire des Théâtres IV 1756: 425-426). Despite the apparent enthusiasm for these “serious” manifestations of ballet pantomime, the Opera-Comique faced difficulties in developing any more “serious,” non-commedia constructions of ballet pantomime. Part of the problem was that such productions required a larger orchestra, and the Opera-Comique had to lure musicians away from the Opera, further exacerbating tensions between the two institutions. Audiences for ballet pantomimes seemed to associate the term with spectacular scenic effects and large ensembles, which entailed financing schemes that may have caused resentment among foire troupes with less ambitious agendas, for the producers of “serious” ballet pantomimes sought to attract new audiences rather than to please traditional foire audiences. But the biggest obstacle to the Opera-Comique’s ballet pantomime project was the Opera. The administrators of the Opera saw the “serious” ballet pantomime as a major threat: the Opera-Comique was trying to invade the domain of “seriousness” by attaching ballet to pantomime and thereby avoiding the rules governing seriousness (that is, a higher quality of aesthetic experience) in the state theaters. In 1742, the Opera succeeded in shutting down the Opera-Comique altogether for a decade. During this period, the foire theater culture suffered a “complete eclipse,” producing trash “unworthy of the name artwork” (Soubies 1887: 17-20). The Opera apparently considered the ballet pantomime as kind of corruption or appropriation of the ballet héroïque, a genre the Opera launched with Colin de Blamont’s Les Fêtes grecques et romaines (1723). The ballet héroïque was actually a large-scale operatic work of a “serious,” allegorical nature. It usually featured, in addition to a prologue, three or four acts related to each other by a theme rather than by characters or a single plot. Les Indes galantes (1735), for example, presented in each act a different exotic setting, different characters, and a different expression of sexual love in a remote, despotic land: Turkey, Inca Peru, Persia, and an unidentified land of “savages.” Dances functioned as interludes within and between the acts, but most of the ballet héroïque was sung. The Opera enlisted the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) to create ballets héroïques beginning with Les Indes galantes and following with Les fêtes d’Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques (1739), La Temple de la Gloire (1745), Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les dieux d’Egypte (1747), and Les surprises de l’Amour (1748). The ballet interludes in these pieces displayed a grandeur the foire companies could never emulate, only parody, but they were largely devoid of pantomimic movement. By 1740, however, the ballet pantomime did more than offer a movement aesthetic that operated outside of the rule-based, step-focused movement aesthetic of ballet. Ballet pantomime demonstrated a capacity to develop “serious” themes entirely through movement, and this capacity amplified awareness of the incapacity of the Opera ballet to produce “serious” dances independently of opera. In a sense, pantomimic movement—especially the ballet pantomime—exerted a strain on the political-administrative structure of the Opera, a pressure to allow ballet to become an autonomous art with its own agenda. The government found it more expedient to suppress the Opera-Comique than to deal with the political-economic complexities of establishing a separate ballet institution. 

But the ballet pantomime did not disappear. Following the suppression of the Opera-Comique, the Foire St. Laurent produced the ballet pantomime Les Quatre coins (1746), and then in 1747, the Foire St. Germain produced Les Fêtes du Bois de Boulogne, with a libretto by Valois d’Orville (1713-1780), who was notable at the time for his parodies of ballets in operas by Rameau, with whom he nevertheless collaborated on the opera Platée (1745). These, of course, were not “serious” productions. Meanwhile, however, the Franco-Dutch choreographer Jean-Baptiste-Francois Dehesse (1705-1779) had entered the circle surrounding Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), who had installed a little theater at Versailles, Les Petites Appartements, where she was herself an occasional performer. Dehesse staged there several ballet pantomimes: Les Chasseurs et les petits vendangeurs (1746), Bûcherons ou le Médecin de village (1748), L’Operateur chinois (1748), Le Pedant (1748), and Les Savoyards ou les Marmottes (1749) (Jullien 1874: 24, 46, 53, 74). Although these pieces, which soon migrated to public theaters under the auspices of the Comédie-Italienne, probably do not qualify as “serious” manifestations of the genre; nevertheless, with the exception of Le Pedant, which features Pierrot, they did not rely on commedia archetypes and briefly presented amusing scenes involving workers or peasants in pastoral settings (Histoire anecdotique V 1769: 482-490). In 1753, however, Dehesse staged at the Italian Theater the ballet Acis et Galatée, and it was not a parody of Lully’s 1686 opera of the same name, which the Opera had revived shortly before; it was, according to the Parfaict brothers, “a Tragedie Pantomime” that “could not fail to make a fortune” (Dictionnaire des Théâtres VII 1756: 343). Dehesse used Lully’s music without any of the singing, thereby demonstrating that pantomime could tell the same “serious” story without relying on language or the voice to bestow seriousness on the subject matter. By this time, the King had rescinded the ban on the Opera-Comique, which then continued to operate in partnership with the Comédie-Italienne, the major purveyor of ballet pantomimes; Madame de Pompadour was no doubt influential in achieving this situation. But Dehesse shifted his attention to the production of pastoral ballets for the Italian company and did not pursue the idea of “tragic pantomime” that he introduced with Acis et Galatée—he was more comfortable with pastoral than with tragic modes of performance, although the commedia format was not especially attractive to him. 

By the middle of the century, pantomime mania, emanating from Paris, pervaded much of Europe, probably because audiences ubiquitously perceived pantomime as a comic mode of performance. How could they not? Pantomime was everywhere the work of people who saw wordless movement as the product of commedia archetypes. Yet the pantomime culture continued to attract artists who sought to bring “seriousness” to the genre. These were, of course, people who were familiar with the history of ancient Roman pantomime rather than people who saw their careers on the foire stage determined by royal decrees and the goals of the state theaters. In 1754, Noverre presented his ballet pantomime Les Fêtes chinoises at the Opera-Comique, although he probably had developed a version of the piece as early as 1751 in Marseilles or Lyon (Dictionnaire des Théâtres VII, 1 1756: 434-435; Kirstein 1970: 111).The show purported to depict scenes of a Chinese festival in spectacular if not altogether accurate detail. There was no story; instead, according to a witness, Boulmieres, the spectator saw a sequence of scenes showing the movements of large ensembles of mandarins and slaves, including “eight rows of dancers who, rising and dipping in succession, imitate fairly well the billows of a stormy sea. All the Chinese, having descended, begin a character march. There are a mandarin, borne in a rich palanquin by six white slaves, whilst two negros draw a chariot on which a young Chinese woman is seated. They are preceded and followed by a host of Chinese playing various musical instruments” (Kirstein 1970: 111; Monnet 1900: 175-176). The idea, apparently, was to pantomime the movements of an entire society. The costumes and scenery were extravagantly luxurious. But the scale of the ballet pantomime was unprecedented: another witness claimed that as many as ninety persons formed the complete ensemble, and that no one had ever seen so many performers on a Parisian stage. The spectacle made the unprecedented point that pantomimic movement could achieve monumental dimensions and did not depend on conditions of “intimacy,” characterization, or familiar cultural milieux to excite audiences or evoke “seriousness.” Upon the recommendation of Jean Monnet (1703-1785), the general manager of the Opera-Comique, David Garrick brought Noverre to London to stage Les Fêtes chinoises at Drury Lane in 1755; Louis-René Boquet (1717-1814) designed the expensive and opulent costumes and scenery. The show was a disaster. Large, proletarian sectors of the audience, supposedly inflamed with anti-French sentiment, rioted, attacked the scenery, attacked the theater, and attacked the performers as well as upper class spectators who supported the show and sponsored the vogue for chinoiserie that was just as strong in London as in Paris. Garrick had to summon the militia to protect him from rioters who besieged his house. These disorders probably arose more in relation to class tensions within the audience than in relation to unified audience hostility toward France, for many in the audience were enthusiastic about the show. The violence recalls the fights between the theater claques of the Roman Empire: rival theaters and newspapers may have sponsored the proletarian agitators in an effort to undermine the authority of the Drury Lane Theater and its aristocratic patrons to control London theater culture (Ou 2008: 34-40). Noverre nevertheless remained in London until 1757 as Garrick’s guest, despite the onset of the Seven Years War (1755-1763) between England and France. There, making use of Garrick’s large library, he began work on his book, Lettres sur la danse (1760), in which he proposed that ballet could achieve greater emotional expression and autonomous power to tell stories by adopting the freer movement of the body found in pantomime (Dahms 2010: 38). From the ballet perspective, or rather, from the official state theater perspective, the riot simply confirmed the suspicion that the wordless, unregulated movement in pantomime agitated audiences, awakened underlying resentments or discontents within a society, and thus contributed to the instability of that society. 

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