The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Diderot and Rousseau: How Pantomime Embodies Ideology

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

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788). Photo: Public Domain
Denis Diderot, portrait by Louis-Michel van Loo (1707-1771). Photo: Public Domain.

Diderot and Rousseau: How Pantomime Embodies Ideology

However, from another, emerging perspective in Paris, the chief source of conflict within society was not the body but language. Noverre believed that the ballet had become sterile, excessively grandiose and oppressively rigid, and utterly dependent upon the opera and texts to justify its existence. In 1751, however, the philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) had already published his essay Lettre sur les sourds et muets, in which he examined the authority of language to define consciousness, reveal emotion, or allow for accurate perception of the body. He contended that pantomime was an attempt to translate language into gesture, but because “it is impossible to translate a poet into another language,” pantomimic action was inauthentic or at any rate artificial compared with the authentic gestural semiotics of deaf mutes (Diderot 1916: 164, 216). Perhaps the fascination with pantomime in Paris inspired him. In Rameau’s Nephew (1761), which remained unpublished until long after his death, Diderot used the term “pantomime” to describe actions that construct social identity as a theatrical phenomenon and therefore establish a fundamental distinction between what might be called the “natural” self and a social self, which embeds the need to be someone else within the awareness that one “needs someone else.” These actions are “the different pantomimes of the human species.” The dialogue clarifies the idea of human social life as a pantomime through the concept of “positions […] derived from others”: 

HIM: I move around from one piece of earth to another. I look around me, and I take up my positions, or I amuse myself with positions which I have derived from others. I’m an excellent mimic, as you’re going to see. 

Then he begins to smile, to imitate a man admiring, begging, obliging. He sets his right foot forward, his left behind, with his back bent over, his head raised, with his gaze looking directly into another person’s eyes, his mouth half open, his arms stretched out towards some object. He waits for his orders. He receives them. He dashes off, comes back. He’s done the job and is giving an account of it. He attends to everything. He picks up what falls down. He puts a pillow or a footstool under someone’s feet. He holds a saucer. He goes up to a chair. He opens a door. He closes a window. He pulls the curtains. He observes the master and mistress. He is immobile, his arms hanging down, his legs lined up straight. He listens. He seeks to read what’s on their faces. And he continues, “That’s my pantomime, almost the same as what flatterers, prostitutes, valets, and beggars do.” 

The antics of this man, the stories of Abbe Galiani, and the extravagances of Rabelais sometimes force me to profound reflections. There are three stores where I have acquired some ridiculous masks which I put over the faces of most people. I see Pantalon in prelate, a satyr in a judge, a pig or an ostrich in a minister, and a goose in his first deputy. Myself serious in a monk. 

ME: But by your count there are lots of beggars in this world, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do some steps in that dance of yours. 

HIM: You’re right. In the entire kingdom, there’s only one man who walks. That’s the king. All the rest take up positions. 

ME: The king? Isn’t there more to it than that? Don’t you think that, from time to time, he finds beside him a little foot, a little curl, a little nose which makes him go through a small pantomime? Whoever needs someone else is a beggar and takes up a position. The king takes up a position before his mistress and before God. He goes through the paces of his pantomime. The minister goes through the paces of prostitute, flatterer, valet, or beggar in front of his king. The crowds of ambitious people dance your positions in hundreds of ways, each more vile than the others, in front of the minister. The noble abbe in his bands of office and his long cloak goes at least once a week in front of the agent in charge of the list of benefices. My goodness, what you call the pantomime of beggars is what makes the earth go round. Everyone has his little Hus and his Bertin. 

HIM: That’s a great consolation. 

But while I was speaking, he was imitating in a killingly funny way the positions of the persons I was naming. For example, for the little abbe, he held his hat under his arm and his breviary in his left hand; in his right hand he lifted up the train of his cloak. He came forward, with his head a little inclined towards his shoulders, his eyes lowered, imitating the hypocrite so perfectly that I believed I was looking at the author of the Refutations appearing before the Bishop of Orleans. For the flatterers and for the ambitious he crawled along on his belly–just like Bouret at the Ministry of Finance. (Diderot 2002: 60-61).

After complimenting Rameau’s nephew on his pantomime, Diderot nevertheless remarks: “But there’s one creature who can do without pantomime. That’s the philosopher who has nothing and who demands nothing.” The dialogue indicates a major shift in thinking about pantomime. Diderot uses the term pantomime to refer to more than a mysterious entertainment that reveals the expressive power of the body; pantomime is a system for defining a body’s relation to a vortex of power—in this case, the King. For Diderot, pantomime is not a metaphor for a society’s control over social identity; it is the way in which a person physically encodes his or her identity within a social order or hierarchy. This physical coding is pantomime because it “derives from others,” it is a theatrical performance, it masks the “natural” identity of the performer. Rameau’s nephew is merely self-conscious of his pantomimic supplements to the dialogues with his friend; it is an aspect of his self-acknowledged “mediocrity.” But Diderot presents himself as a philosopher who lives outside of the pantomimic system controlling social identity and disguising “mediocrity” within his society. By the time he wrote Rameau’s Nephew, pantomime could no longer claim to be a marginalized popular art that assumed its “silent” form because an elite, royalist ruling class had deprived the common people of a “voice” in their own public theaters, although Madame de Pompadour’s role in effecting this change should not be underestimated. Pantomime had become so skillfully integrated into the French entertainment culture, especially through the commedia archetypes, that it no longer constituted a “threat” to the state theaters and perhaps was no longer even capable of signifying popular resentment against aristocratic privilege. The expanding pantomime culture functioned as a sign of social stability in much the same way as television sitcoms in the United States today are understood as “mainstream” entertainment. Diderot felt himself in conflict with a society that articulated its “mediocrity,” its complacency, its excessive stability through pantomime. Indeed, he had already been imprisoned in 1749 for his critical views of the government, and subsequently sectors within the government and the clergy worked to undermine and then suppress (1759) his work on the monumental Encyclopédie (1751-1772). And yet it was a French ballet pantomime that provoked considerable civil disorder in London at the Drury Lane Theater in 1754, although the riot of course did not reach the scale of violence that in their day the Roman factions on occasion had perpetrated. While imperial Roman society was perhaps no more tolerant of civil disorder than eighteenth century English or French society, it was certainly more tolerant of internal instability, a situation encouraged by the ideology of “metamorphosis.” It may be, then, that Diderot underestimated the capacity of pantomime to “agitate” audiences desirous of changing their “positions” within society, especially if he saw pantomime in the foire theaters dominated by the oppressively “eternal” qualities of commedia characters. The Encyclopédie article on pantomime, written by Louis de Jaucourt (1704-1779) and published in 1765, made scant reference to pantomime of its own time: “This art would probably have much greater difficulty succeeding among the northern nations of Europe than the Romans, whose vivacity is so rich in gestures, which mean almost as much as full sentences. […] However, we have seen in England, and on the scene of the comic opera in Paris, some of these actors play dumb scenes that everyone could understand. I know that Roger and his brethren must not be compared with pantomimes of Rome; but does the London theater not now own a pantomime that could oppose Pylades and Bathyllus? The famous Garrick is an especially wonderful actor, who performs all kinds of tragic and comic subjects.” The article overwhelmingly cited ancient Roman commentaries on pantomime, but Jaucourt nevertheless inserted a moral tone that aligned well with Diderot’s contention that pantomime had an enervating effect on culture: “Rome was too rich, too powerful and too immersed in softness, to become virtuous; the art of pantomime, which was introduced so brilliantly under Augustus, and was one of the causes of the corruption of morals, ends only with the destruction of the empire” (Jaucourt 2017: 11: 829). In his 1773 dialogue essay, Paradoxe sur le comédien, Diderot never mentioned pantomime. Yet he applied to the art of acting the same argument about pantomime that he introduced in Rameau’s Nephew: the actor performs best when he does not feel the emotions he either feels or represents but derives the representation of feeling by carefully observing it in others. The “paradox” of the great actor (such as Garrick) is that in performance he is completely estranged from what he “naturally” feels at the moment and is at the same time completely estranged from the emotions he must represent. This idea of “self-control,” as Diderot calls it, when applied to pantomime, means that movement does not arise spontaneously in performance; movement derives from the “system” of physical signification imposed on the body by the social order. Diderot, however, believed that the “system” was incapable of transforming itself because the collective members of a corrupt society, who unconsciously produced the system in relation to the vortex of power and from whom pantomimes “derived” their physical signification, were too estranged from their “natural” selves and therefore could not envision a more “natural” or greater social order. He did not believe that pantomimes could see outside of the system to produce a physical signification that created a more powerful, more liberated image of the body and the emotions within it. But the ballet pantomime, insofar as it operated outside of the commedia format and followed a “serious” direction, at least offered an opportunity to question the idea of a system controlling social identity, physical signification, and the representation of sentiment. The very ambiguity of the term “ballet pantomime” opened up great uncertainty about what “system” was in control of the body or perhaps whether a new system was necessary for a new audience. Despite his prodigious learning, Diderot was nevertheless too dogmatic, too deeply attached to language, to see physical signification as something more than a system “derived from others,” as something felt or constructed internally rather than observed. 

In his Discours sur la poesie dramatique (1758), Diderot proposed that a higher form of theater would emerge through the unity of music, pantomime (gesture), and scenic design (tableau) (Diderot 1771 I: 183). As the dialogue-essay develops, he explains that for this unity to occur, performance spaces must be much larger and scenic décor must become more richly detailed, more naturalistic. His fictional dialogue partner, “Dorval,” having observed that “we speak too much in our dramas,” argues that silent, pantomimic scenes should alternate with speaking scenes, so that “gesture responds to discourse” (163), and Diderot and Dorval discuss examples of how pantomime might alternate with speech in the bourgeois domestic dramas they feel the stage needs (182-185). Diderot scarcely mentioned the relation of music to pantomime, but he had an acute sense of how silence works to dramatic effect in conjunction with particular bodily movements that unfold as a living “tableau.” Indeed, he supposed that when “silence reigns” over the tableau, the spectator is more likely to perceive how society imposes movement or pantomime on the body, because the whole process of “interpreting” the movement, like the movement itself, “derives from others” (272-273). Yet as an element of a new kind of theater, he favored pantomime over ballet and dance in general, which he described as “measured pantomime.” Dance, however, “awaits a genius” who understands this, can lift the art out of its awful artificiality, and reveal the natural movement of the body, for “dance is to pantomime as poetry is to prose, or rather as natural declamation is to song” (251; cf. Rebjekow 1991: 65-67). But to develop this theme would require a deeper understanding of the relation between music and movement than he provided. His friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) expanded the philosophical discourse on pantomime by focusing on the unity of music and movement. In 1752, Rousseau achieved considerable success with his one-act opera Le Devin du village, about lovers who distrust each other and seek advice from the village soothsayer. The work, given at the Opera, contained a lengthy pantomime scene, although the libretto does not indicate the actions performed: Rousseau thus signified that pantomime required or inspired a different sort of music than ballet or opera. The following year (1753), he participated in the so-called “Querelle des Bouffons” by publishing his Lettre sur la musique française, in which he argued that Italian opera was superior to French opera because the Italian language was more melodic than the French language. Melody for Rousseau was central to connecting musical sound to the voice, to the body (Rousseau 1753: 34-40). As the representative of French opera, Rameau created music according to abstract principles of rhythmic and harmonic structure at the expense of melody. These principles conformed to “universal” laws of physics or “language” that operated outside of the body, outside of the “heart” and independently of what was inside of the body. Melody was the natural expression of feeling, of emotional movement within the body. Rhythmic and harmonic structures regulated the movement of the body; particular time signatures, tempi, chords, and instrumental effects were necessary to synchronize the body with “universal” pressures external to it, as exemplified by the “coldness” of ballet. But melody released feeling from within the body, and it is feeling that moves the body “naturally” rather than in relation to an external pulse or harmonic configuration (Rousseau 1753: 64-78). This point is significant for pantomime in that melody inspires the movement of the body but the bodily movement does not become synchronized with the melody. The melody articulates a feeling, and the feeling awakens a movement that is unique to the moment rather than prescribed by a score or text or rule. It’s not clear if Rousseau actually implemented this way of thinking in Le Devin du village, although the music is quite tuneful while the harmony and instrumentation are rather clumsy. But perhaps the implication of Rousseau’s thinking is clearer if we consider an action performed in pantomime: Pierrot approaches Columbine, who sits under a tree reading a letter and does not notice him. A melody, played on any instrument or sung, can apply to both characters. But each character may feel a different emotion. For example: Columbine responds with voluptuous pleasure to the letter from one of her admirers, while Pierrot approaches her with great apprehension, fear of being rejected by her. The actions may be performed differently by different performers or even differently by the same performers on different occasions. Columbine may depict her pleasure with a great exhalation or an intense shiver of delight. Pierrot may move toward her in a surreptious manner, almost on tip toes or he may swagger toward her and then abruptly stop and walk backward in a hunched, diminished manner. The performers do not move their bodies in synchrony with the notes of the melody or even with the rhythm of the melody. They move according to how the melody stirs the character’s feeling within them. The performers therefore determine the movement, not a choreographer or a score or any kind of acoustic-geometrical relation between music and physical signification. Music for pantomime, as Rousseau understood it, is therefore intensely melodic or rather, it requires powerful melodies that stand alone, so to speak, when detached from complex harmonic edifices and elaborate sonic structures that conceal a fundamental emptiness of feeling. Rousseau’s thinking about music may seem closer to the ancient Roman pantomime than the French obsession with ballet and heavily regulated movement allowed. However, the Romans tended to think of music as a counterpoint to the movement of the pantomime: music, usually sung, followed the movement rather than motivated it; melodies were much more elaborate and mellismatic, functioning as commentaries or responses to the actions of the pantomime. But Rousseau’s ambition was not to recover ancient Roman pantomime. His main objective was to show how the unity of melody and gesture was the path to revealing a more “natural” representation of feeling. As a result, he made music much more integral to pantomime performance. But both he and Diderot were actually at odds with the ancient Roman idea of pantomime, because, in their focus on revealing a repressed, “natural” expression of human identity, they remained completely oblivious to the Roman concept of metamorphosis–the idea that human identity is unstable and assumes multiple manifestations. Indeed, Rousseau developed a hostile attitude toward theater, which, like all the arts, was the product of a civilization that transformed natural beings into artificial identities, who inevitably become fixated on representations rather than on reality, which for him means living in a more equitable society or community. Or rather, as Tracy Strong (1997) contends: “Rousseau does not so much want to keep theater out of life, but to experience life as theater.” That is, the relation between melody, feeling, and movement does not remain confined to the stage or to the enactment of scenes and characters; it is a central element in the performance of everyone’s daily life in a more just or natural formation of society.

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