The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Pantomime and the French Revolution

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

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Figure 92: Scene from “Psyche” (1790), ballet pantomime by Pierre Gardel. Photo: New York Public Library.

Pantomime and the French Revolution

On January 13, 1791, the National Assembly of France abolished the “privileges” assigned to state theaters and ended state censorship of the theater. According to the law, “Any citizen may construct a public theater and produce any kind of genre, making prior to the establishment of the theater a declaration of intent to the municipal authorities.” Theatrical “entrepreneurs” must allow municipal authorities to inspect theaters, but municipal authorities could not stop or defend the production of any piece (Tissier 1992: 25; Beaucé 2011: 79). The effect of this law was an enormous expansion of theater culture in Paris. The number of theaters in the city rose from 14, in 1789, to 35, in 1793. By 1796, Paris had at least 50 theaters (Kennedy 1996: 3). Lagrave (1972: 195) estimated that in 1750, about 12.6% of the Paris population attended the theater at least occasionally or about 63,000 persons out of a city population of about 500,000. When the Revolution erupted, the population of the city remained the same. It is difficult, however, to believe that the same percentage of the population could sustain 35 theaters, especially when all theaters now operated commercially. To attract audiences and compete with each other, theaters had to maintain large support staffs and casts to provide the production values (scenery, music, advertising, overhead) that would sell enough seats to cover costs. Emmet Kennedy tabulated 90,000 performances during the Revolutionary period: “No entertainment of this magnitude exists for any previous period in French history” (1996: 3). Such a prodigious increase in theatrical production could not have happened without a substantial increase over the pre-Revolutionary period in the percentage of Parisians who attended the theater at least occasionally. But the degree of increase remains unclear, in part because it is not possible at the moment to calculate the distribution of audiences across theaters, genres, performances, or productions. Presumably most spectators attended different kinds of performances, depending on mood or occasion. Theaters therefore tended to produce a variety of shows, although some theaters did specialize—the Académiede Musique produced operas and ballets, the Theater de Republique focused heavily on new plays, for example. Melodrama arose as a way to combine genres—pathos, comic moments, music, spectacle, even occasionally dance—and thus attract audiences across “mood,” class, and rule-bound categories of aesthetic experience; melodrama followed formulas built around conventional devices or tropes rather than rules that preserved distinctions between one genre and another. The idea that the commercialization of the theater resulted in audiences that were largely illiterate or uneducated or unruly denizens of a “boulevard du crime” requires evidence that no one has yet presented with sufficient credibility. After the law of 1791, theater in Paris became like television in our own time: a commonplace or “popular” media activity enjoyed by increasing numbers of people from different sectors of life. What is particularly surprising is that the law eliminating the conditions that created pantomime did not put an end to pantomime. Although the new theaters became filled with the sound of voices and no one in Paris even considered excess speech an affliction of the stage, pantomime continued to attract audiences and, compared with the pre-1791 period, when pantomime, particularly in the commedia format, was ubiquitous in the foire domain, may even have drawn larger audiences or at least a niche audience that was sturdy enough to sustain the genre. Different theaters in Paris produced pantomimes, but no theater seemed to specialize in it until the Franconi brothers opened the Cirque Olympique in 1807, followed by the Théâtre des Funambules in 1816, although a theatrical entrepreneuer named Saint-Edme in 1798 had corresponded with a state minister about “nationalizing the pantomime” and establishing a theater devoted exclusively to “republican works” of pantomime  (Welschinger 1880: 33-36; 84). Even so, after 1791, pantomime became a marginal or occasional entertainment, never a central feature of Parisian theater culture. The Revolution brought an end to the century of pantomime, the most abundant era of pantomime history since the Roman Empire, perhaps because the Revolution scarcely produced a revolutionary change in pantomime aesthetics. 

Adele de Sacy, a three-act pantomime by Charles Gaullard-Desaudray (1740-1832) from 1793, performed by students at the Théâtre du Lycée des Arts in the Palais Royal, resembles Dorothée in subject matter and structure. Set in the Middle Ages, the narrative focuses on Adele and her daughter Caroline, who hide in a cave in a mountain near Montcenis. They have fled there after the murder of Adele’s troubadour parents by Armand, who has seized the family chateau. Armand desires to possess Adele, who awaits the return of her husband Godefroi and her brother Sacy from Palestine, where they have been fighting in a Crusade. Othello, the nephew of Godefroi, brings her a letter from her husband that announces his imminent arrival. Caroline reveals her attraction to Othello. But when Godefroi and Sacy arrive, a hungry lion appears; Godefroi attempts to pursue it, but Caroline becomes lost in the mountain. The lion comes back to menace a village festival, but Godefroi and his troops arrive to kill the beast. Then Othello appears and announces that Armand and his army approach. Storm. Armand’s army swarms down from the mountain and abducts Adele and Caroline. The last act takes place in the chateau, where Adele resists the attentions of Armand, but then agrees to his terms to protect her daughter. Godefroi and his troops attack the chateau and force Armand to accept peace terms. But he can’t be trusted; his troops reverse the situation. Then the army of Othello and Sacy attacks; they hurl firebombs and a huge fire consumes the chateau and the village. Othello saves Godefroi from Armand’s sword, while Sacy releases Adele and Caroline. “Godefroi is reunited with his dear Adele,” and Caroline pairs with Othello: Celebration within the village, triumphal march (Gaullard-Desaudray 1793).    

The appearance of a lion, however enacted, and the use of firebombs to create a burning chateau presented a spectacle never previously seen in pantomime. Just as interesting is the character of Othello. In Dorothée, the Page was a minor character; in Adele, the Page (Othello) moves from the periphery of the narrative to the chief heroic figure, displacing the husband as the savior and creating in the spectator greater uncertainty about which male figure to trust in defeating an evil competitor. L’Esprit des journaux françois et étrangere published a lengthy and enthusiastic review of Adele. The unidentified author observed that ancient Roman pantomime relied entirely on gestures, delivered with a “high degree of perfection,” to produce “extraordinary sensations and effects.” The “modern” pantomime, he contended, seeks to “surpass” the Romans or at least equal them by connecting human movement to painting, architecture, scenic technology (“méchanique”) and “above all music” to discover a mode of representation “not found among the ancients.” “Our pantomimes are therefore galleries of tableaux that present to the eyes, by the disposition of the personages and with the aid of gestures, the principal points of a noble or voluptuous action, a terrible or touching action, an action that perhaps looks different under a different face.” “A pantomime is therefore like a painting or drawing”; it presents “nuances of feeling” that are underneath or outside “the language the characters might say in the situation” in which they find themselves. Adele de Sacy is “a large drawing” with strong characters and “manifold interesting situations” performed effectively in a space as unfavorable as a theater school. The reviewer, however, found unbelievable the notion of a lion inhabiting the environs of Montcenis. Then, in the second act, Adele appears in a very brilliant costume, even though a lion may have devoured her still missing daughter. With Armand pursuing her, when has she had time to consider her toilette? The need for “verisimilitude” requires the sacrifice of the second costume; the first costume is more interesting because it keeps the viewer focused, “without cessation,” on the character’s misfortunes. Finally, the battle scene might be more effective if the troops guarding the castle hurled down heavy stones and tar on the assailants, as was done in medieval times. In short, the whole pantomime would be stronger with greater historical, biological, and psychological accuracy (“Théâtre du Lycée des Arts”1793: 347-354). 

Criticism of Adele de Sacy of a different sort came from “sans culottes” carrying out the “surveillance” of public institutions promoted by the Committee on Public Safety. These revolutionaries denounced the pantomime because in it the viewer could see a close parallel to Marie Antoinette and her son, who were under arrest and very soon to die, and the pantomime might awaken divisive sympathy for them. The administrators of the Lycée des Arts appeared before a tribunal to defend the “public utility” of their theater and school. The administrators invited the tribunal to a special closed performance of Adele and, in the interest of “public tranquility,” suspended all public performances pending a decision by the police and the court. The school won its case in court (Estree 1913: 90-91). But the motives for denouncing the pantomime may have arisen from more than a suspicion of royalist sentiment embedded in the characters. The author of Adele, Gaullard-Desaudray, a metals engineer, founded the Lycée, in 1792, because he “felt that scientists and craftsmen should be in closer contact than they were before the Revolution.” He had submitted proposals to the National Assembly and Convention to form a national organization of scientists and craftsmen to register inventions and issue grants to inventors. But these proposals failed to gain support. He then became a member of a Bureau set up to support inventors, and when this agency was unable to accomplish what he envisioned, he established the school, which would integrate the arts and sciences on behalf of practical applications (Smeaton 1955: 309-310). It may be, then, that the lion, the brilliant dress, and the firebombs in Adele functioned as opportunities for the students to solve particular technological problems. The pantomime embodied a seductive educational philosophy that operated independently of the state educational program. Gaullard-Desaudray, who brought knowledge of the Birmingham steelmaking process to France, had received, in 1790, a “bonus” of 15,000 livres from the Revolutionary government, which annulled the pension he had already received under the monarchy for this contribution (Proces-Verbal 1792: 57). In his efforts to establish a national organization of scientists and bureau of inventions, Gaullard-Desaudray faced a formidable opponent in the Baron Claude-Urbain Servières (1755-1804), who was head of the Société des inventions et découvertes and, in 1792, accused Gaullard-Desaudry, head of the competing Société du Point central, of “immorality,” envy, and jealousy in his efforts to discredit him, Servières, the aristocrat who “democratized” his name as “Reth,” with accusations of dissembling and prevarication (Demeulenaere-Douyère 2008: 70-71). Gaullard-Desaudry prevailed in the conflict, so it may also be that a resentful faction of scientists or politicians affiliated with Servières organized the denunciation of Adele to undermine Gaullard-Desaudry’s growing influence within the Revolutionary government. Thus, as in ancient Rome, the political ramifications of pantomime during the Revolution reverberated well beyond the narrative content of pantomime performance. 

But Adele de Sacy was a peculiar, exceptional, even bizarre example of pantomime performance during the Revolution, although a revival of it took place in Bordeaux in 1798 (Tourneux III 1900: 865). For several years (1791-1796), pantomime performances occurred rarely, according to program listings for all the new theaters that emerged after the law of 1791. Supporters of the Revolution appear not to have regarded pantomime in itself as a threat to the Revolution or as an emblem of aristocratic privilege; the various citizens’ committees charged with managing the Revolution never developed a coherent program or policy in regard to the organization of theater culture as a whole. Moreover, the public seemed preoccupied with hearing a multitude of voices in the new theaters: dramatists and theatrical entrepreneurs devoted their energies to speechifying the stage. Confusion and uncertainty about what a theater of the Revolution should embody in the way of aesthetics, institutions, and politics gave space for a good deal of improvisation in the sphere of pantomime as well as other theatrical genres. But audience tastes were hardly as radical as their politics. Pantomime performances almost disappeared completely between 1792 and 1796, even though most of what appeared in the theaters was work from the pre-Revolutionary period or work that emulated pre-Revolutionary aesthetics. The idea of using pantomime as propaganda for the Revolution never progressed beyond a couple of attempts by civic groups to celebrate the victory of French forces against the Austrians at Lille, in 1792: Le Siége de Lille performed in Lyon a couple of months after the battle and then again in Toulouse (1793), and Le bombardement de Lille, performed in Paris, outdoors, in the Champ de la Réunion, 1793; the Lille battle was also the theme of several stage plays (Gonon 1844: 202; Lefebvre 1890: 40). In 1794, the Gaité theater in Paris produced a program of pieces that included a one-act pantomime, Le tombeau de Nostradamus, a revival of a scenario that premiered, before a royal audience, in 1787 and was a “silent” adaptation of a 1714 one-act comic opera by Lesage and featured Arlequin interacting with “machines” (Aulard 1898: 103). More ambitious perhaps was a three-act pantomime, L’Enlèvement ou la Caverne dans les Pyrénées, “by a citizen” (apparently Cuvelier), which appeared in 1792 at the Théâtre des Variétés in the Palais Royal, where Adele was performed, and then enjoyed forty-five more performances up to 1798. Relentlessly action-packed, this show depicted the struggle between two men, Don Carlo and Don Pedro, to win the affections of an orphan girl, Rosina, who loves only Don Carlo. When brigands (“Miquelets”), led by Barbamo, kidnap Don Carlo and Rosina, the action shifts to a cave in the Pyrenees, where Barbamo has imprisoned the pair, while plotting to gain treasure deposited in Rosina’s chateau. Much of the second and third acts consist of combats between Barbamo and Don Carlo, Barbamo and Don Pedro, and Don Carlo and Don Pedro, although, after various reverses in Barbamo’s favor, Don Carlo saves Don Pedro, and then Don Pedro and his troops save Don Carlo and Rosina. “Rosina falls to her knees before her guardian [Don Pedro]; he raises her and unites her with the one she loves and who saved her life [Don Carlo]” (L’Enlèvement1792: 21).So ends the pantomime. The action featured the use of pistols and carbines as well as swords, but, aside from the startling reversals of fortune experienced by the characters, what is interesting about the scenario is the conflict between two good men, although the sinister Barbamo is probably the most engrossing character. The idea of conflicting forms of goodness or, as with the character of Don Pedro, of goodness that appears only after being seen as not so good or even evil somewhat resembles the Roman preoccupation with metamorphosis. But strong characterization is less important in pantomime than fluidity of identity—indeed, the problem with the commedia format was that the characterizations were so strong (fixed) that the characters kept performing the same actions, the same stories over and over again. As the anonymous reviewer of Adele pointed out, spectators of “modern” pantomime do not so much as identify with characters as they identify with a scene, with a “painting,” with what may be called a cinematic image: one sees oneself within a situation, within an image of action, just as, in Roman imperial times, the spectator did not identify with Clytemnestra or Ajax but with the phenomenon of metamorphosis as embodied by the performer, with the concept of “another” identity within oneself. 

Despite the paucity of attention to pantomime during the Revolution, entrepreneurial associates of Jean-Guillaume-Antoine Cuvelier (1766-1824), the presumed author of L’Enlèvement, embarked in 1794 on a scheme to establish in Paris a “théâtre de la pantomime nationale” on the Ile de la Cité. However, producing other kinds of theater instead, they soon changed the name of the place to Le Théâtre de la Cité-Variétés. Then, on September 10, 1794, the theater produced Cuvelier’s three-act “military pantomime” Les Royalistes de la Vendée. Cuvelier had served as an adjutant-major in the campaign to suppress the Vendée insurrection, although he himself had worried for a while that his own aristocratic heritage would bring him under the scrutiny of the Committee on Public Safety. The scenario for Les Royalistes de la Vendée was a variation on that for L’Enlèvement, with Royalist forces functioning like the brigands in the latter piece. At a village in the Vendée, Royalist marauders disrupt the festivities celebrating the betrothal of the Republican hero Leon and Rose. Led by “the Capucin,” the Royalist gang abducts Leon and Rose after murdering her father and then chaining the lovers in a dungeon. The Royalist general Rudemont attempts in vain to convert them to the Royalist cause; the Capucin offers her lover’s freedom if Rose submits to his sexual advances, but she refuses. She manages to escape with the help of a disguised Republican, Romain. In the countryside, she runs into Romain, and they hide while the Royalists prepare to burn Leon in a great bonfire. The Republican forces appear, and Rose leaps over the bonfire to save Leon. When Rudemont attacks her, she draws her pistol and compels him to surrender. But the Capucin grabs her; Leon seizes him as Romain kills Rudemont. The Capucin escapes as the Republicans celebrate their victory, but he falls from a tree into a river (see L’Esprit des journaux françois et étrangere, September 1794, 266-268; Foster 1998: 180-182). In this piece, Cuvelier introduces a more aggressive female central character than in previous heroic pantomimes: Rose physically battles the Capucin, uses a pistol smuggled to her by Romain to make her escape from prison, kills a Royalist soldier, saves her lover Leon from burning, and captures Rudemont. She is willing to sacrifice her lover to defend the Republic, and, at the end, it is not altogether clear if she is closer to Leon than Romain. As Susan Leigh Foster remarks: “As a woman fighting side by side with all other republicans, Rose signaled the preeminence of citizenship over gender […] and marked the realization, however brief, of utopian conceptions of gender equality” (1998: 182). In addition to the cannon shots, numerous combats, fire effects, and reversals, Les Royalists contained, in the second act, a powerful pantomimic scene in which Rose and Leon, chained to the walls of the dungeon, struggle to touch each other, but can’t quite manage it, a startlingly graphic image of sexual frustration. The pantomime achieved 25 performances, not especially impressive compared with 75 for Dorothée (since 1782), the 59 for Le Mort du Capetain Cook (since 1788), or the 311 for Arnould’s hugely successful pantomime, La Forêt-Noire (1791) but sufficient for the management of Le Théâtre de la Cité-Variétés to produce another three-act Cuvelier pantomime, La Damoisel et la Bergerette, ou la Femme vindicative (1795) (Kennedy 1996: 96-97, 132). In this work, Cuvelier amplified the theme of female aggressiveness by building the action around the conflict between two women. Ravenstein loves Caroline, with whom he has a son, Love. The Princess of Witermgk loves Ravenstein, who is indifferent to her. Enraged by her failure to inspire his affection, the Princess indicates to her brother, the Elector of Witermgk, that, “a simple shepherdess may not have a son and that she [Caroline] has become mad.” Such is the excuse for the obligatory abduction scene. The Elector orders the arrest of Caroline. Cuvelier’s fascination with prison scenes continues, in the second act, with Caroline incarcerated in a madhouse run by an abbess. The scene requires the pantomiming of different inmates suffering from various delusions: a Roman emperor, Don Quixote, village fiddlers imagining themselves as Orpheus, an Asian princess—they perform their ballet, “for it is dances, minuets, that nourish their passion” (Cuvelier 1795: 8). Ravenstein enters the madhouse dressed as a woman, whom the abbess takes for a “pretty girl” and kisses his forehead, as do all the other nuns. The disguise enables Caroline to escape, not without difficulties, as the Princess appears unexpectedly and again threatens Caroline’s son, Love. Transvestism recurs in the third act, when Caroline appears disguised as a man. The piece is apparently set in the past a couple of centuries ago, for the final act involves a scene shift from a tavern to a “carousel” for a jousting tournament that involved the use of actual horses requiring “skilled riders.” Apparently the carousel functioned like a revolving platform that enabled the horses to encounter each other while remaining in place, similar to a treadmill. Hidden by his visor-helmet, Ravenstein faces the Elector and defeats him. He then raises the visor and denounces—spoken words–the Elector’s cruelty and perfidy. The furious Elector responds—spoken words–by threatening Love with death. They fight; Ravenstein again disarms the Elector, motivating the Princess to attack Ravenstein with her sword. But Caroline intervenes and fights with the Princess, while a battle ensues between Ravenstein’s forces and the Elector’s. Caroline kills the Princess, Ravenstein kills the Elector, and the village celebrates the defeat of the aristocratic tyrants, with the horses executing “cadences.” Despite all of these remarkable narrative and pantomimic innovations on behalf of the Revolutionary spirit, a reviewer for the Journal des spectacles remained unimpressed: “The problem with pantomimes, in general, is that they lack development and resemble each other: they nearly always take place in prisons, towers, chateaux, with attacks and combats. It is difficult to imagine anything new, and that is the reproach that one may make against this new production by Cuvelier […]. [Le Damoisel] offers interest, without doubt, but one finds here nothing very new” (L’Esprit des journaux 1795: 291). But Cuvelier’s greatest work in pantomime was yet to come, under the Empire, when pantomime achieved a much grander imaginative scope than during the Revolution. And yet the Revolution did open up possibilities for pantomimic action that were previously unimaginable.    

Pantomime may not have benefited much from the Revolution to the extent that revolutionaries considered pantomime as a “popular” art associated with the foires or with the “reform” of a state institution, the Opera. The ballet pantomime, however, prospered during the Revolution, probably at the expense of the ballet itself, which had largely depended on the support of aristocratic claques. In the 1789-1790 season for the Paris Opera, 14% of the works performed were ballet pantomimes, as opposed to 9% for ballet, 3% for ballet héroïque, and 74% for various genres of sung music theater. For the 1790-1791 season ballet pantomime defined 17% of works performed, while ballet declined to 2% and ballet héroïque rose to 6%. The following year, 1791-1792, the Opera moved toward simplifying the range of genres it accommodated: “lyric tragedies” defined 43% of the works performed, but 31% of works were ballet pantomimes, while ballet and ballet héroïque lingered at 4% and 3% respectively. For the 1792-1793 season, ballet pantomime claimed 24% of works performed and ballet héroïque 4%, while ballet completely disappeared, as the Opera began experimenting with new genres like the “Scene patriotique.” More new genres appeared the following year, 1793-1794, such as “Tableau historique” (7%), “Fait historique” (1%), and “Ballet anacreontique” (1%), but ballet pantomime retained a 19% share and ballet héroïque a 6% share. However, in the period April to August 1794, the Opera plunged into a maelstrom of genre redefinition and invention, as ballet and ballet pantomime disappeared completely, ballet héroïque claimed a 7% share, opera an 11% share, and lyric tragedy a 12% share, while the new revolutionary genres consumed almost 70% of works performed, with something called the “Sans-culottide dramatique” achieving a 26% share (Darlow 2012: 209-211). While these Opera statistics are not especially helpful in explaining the impact of the Revolution on pantomime in general, they do suggest that the Revolution discovered innovative uses for ballet pantomime, if sometimes under new names, such as “Tableau historique” and “Fait historique.”

By the time of the Revolution, the ballet pantomime was almost entirely the work of ballet companies attached to opera houses, following the model of the Opera in Paris, for the foire theaters, which had invented the genre, and the new commercial theaters no longer saw any potential in it, although they occasionally they did produce works, like Le Damoisel, that contained little “ballets” of a crude, popular character, as if reversing the fate of pantomime within the ballet companies that wished to “contain” the unruly but appealing genre. The success of the ballet pantomime during the Revolution and its persistence well after it was due to Pierre-Gabriel Gardel (1758-1840), the ballet master and chief choreographer for the Paris Opera ballet, who had assumed this position in 1787 and maintained it until 1827. His brother, Maximilien (1741-1787) was the previous ballet master at the Opera; his father, Claude (?-1774) had been ballet master in Württemberg, Mannheim, and Nancy; his sister, Agathe, was a dancer at the Opera and so was his wife, Marie Boubert (1770-1833). Because of the tightly knit conditions that made his career possible, Gardel saw ballet as a closed world, populated by people who lived almost completely within their own self-regulated environment. He was, however, politically astute. Even before the Revolution, he advocated for the ballet d’action that would detach the ballet from the opera. When the Revolution erupted, he succeeded admirably in protecting the ballet from accusations of being an aristocratic extravagance. He openly embraced Republican political ideals, even though, as an administrator, he systematically worked to make the ballet company an utterly sequestered domain impervious to external influences, and, indeed, during the Revolution, the Paris Opera ballet became a separate administrative unit. He choreographed mass spectacles (Fêtes) celebrating Revolutionary achievements and occasions. His ballet pantomimes, always “serious” in mood, focused on the neo-classical themes and tropes favored by leaders of the Revolution, whereas the pantomime tended to focus on contemporary, medieval, or “Gothic” themes and tropes. Along with Noverre, he realized that ballet would become an autonomous art only if it produced evening length pieces, managed large-scale narratives. Ballet historians often credit Gardel with instituting the idea that the chief theme of ballet is dance itself: narrative provided opportunities for dances, was subordinate to dance, rather than the other way around. More precisely, narrative provided opportunites to glorify dancers’ bodies and their virtuosity of movement, whereas pantomimes never thought of narratives as opportunities to display their virtuosity of gesture, for in pantomime, economy of movement always carries higher value than the embellishment of it. In ballet, virtuoso dancing in a sense “redeems” narrative, bestows a glamor on an “obligation” to tell something, whereas pantomime integrates narrative into the body—it “embodies” narrative, it embeds movement and telling within each other, even if it doesn’t “explain” anything the way words are meant to do. Gardel found it very difficult to construct large-scale ballets without pantomime. But he sought to regulate and even limit pantomime within the ballet by codifying the movement of different pantomimic scenes, so that dancers could perform them systematically, according to techniques taught in the ballet studio. He was not an especially imaginative choreographer, and within the closed world over which he presided, innovation was mostly an inconvenient reminder of a world outside of the glamorous sanctuary. He built ballets around dancers rather than characters, and he built dances out of the virtuoso turns, leaps, swivels, flutterings, and fancy footwork that his dancers perfected. Ballet could thus make stars out of dancers and perhaps could not survive at all without stars, whereas pantomime produced stars, if at all, only incidentally or in any case, only when, well into the nineteenth century, the stage fetishized the lonely, melancholy figure of Pierrot and the performer played no one but Pierrot. Pantomime producers attracted audiences, not with stars, but with innovative spectacle and emotional stories. Gardel was a suave administrator. With the Revolution, he saw that the ballet attracted audiences because of its grand spectacle of female beauty rather than because of its aristocratic luxuriousness. He filled the stage with female bodies while reducing, even to zero, the presence of male bodies, and all the stars were women. He accommodated the “fashion for antiquity and simple costumes, which allowed him to undress his nymphs without seeming to compromise their modesty” (Homans 2010: 251) By the early nineteenth century, ballet had become an intensely “feminine” art managed by male choreographers, male sponsors of ballerinas, and male journalists. Men had little incentive to enter the profession, and indeed, “by the 1830s male dancers were being reviled as disgraceful and effeminate creatures” (Homans 2010: 294). Pantomime, however, gave opportunities for the display of male bodily movement without the stigma of “effeminacy.” As a result of Gardel’s long control of the Opera ballet, pantomime within the ballet pantomime became completely separate from pantomime presented as such, became, increasingly, a distracting decorative effect, so that by the middle of the nineteenth century, lovers of ballet could rejoice that the art could dispense altogether with the need for any pantomime at all.  

Throughout his career, Gardel remained devoted to neoclassical themes and iconography. His style and approach to his mythic material scarcely evolved from Psyche (1790) and Le Jugement de Paris (1793) to Achille a Scyros (1812) and perhaps his last major work of choreography, Proserpine (1818). Nearly all of his works take place in a charming, idyllic, idealized, mythic world, in which ethereal human figures float and glide through glamorous glades, salons, and palaces far removed from the prisons, “combats,” pyres, passionate embraces, maternal anxieties, violent crowds, props (letters, sewing!), money transactions, storms, pistols and swords bestowed upon pantomime characters. Nymphs and goddesses inhabited this enchanting world, not women; male figures appear as exotic, utterly unique visions, allegorical emblems of masculinity, not men. In the published scenarios for his ballet pantomimes, it is difficult to distinguish the pantomime scenes from the dance scenes, which raises the question: What is the difference between the language of balletic imagination and pantomimic action? Here, for example, is Act III, Scene 8, from Le Jugement de Paris, typical of any passage from any scenario by Gardel, wherein it is not clear if the language describes pantomime or dance: 

It is Pallas who approaches the timid shepherd [Paris] with a proud air; seeing his anxiety, she reassures him and offers him strength and courage; she paints his glory in all its beauty; and to raise his spirit, she makes warriors appear [apparently performed by female dancers], who dispute by force of arms, over the olive branch, the flattering prize assigned to him and his valor. Paris seems not very sensible to the charms of glory, and his air is that of indifference; the goddess appears furious; she wants to paint her wrath, when sweet and voluptuous sounds announce the impatience of Venus: Pallas moves away promising to avenge well this insult (Gardel 1793: 15). 

Here is a passage, of similar size, from the second act, set in the madhouse, from Cuvelier’s Le Damoisel; unlike Arnould, Cuvelier does not break his acts into separate scenes:

The lovers are dismayed. Ravenstein wants to release his beloved [from the cage]. He files away at a bar. He shakes with multiple tremors: Caroline helps as much as her strength may permit. Suddenly a sharp noise resounds: the angelus of the morning bells. Le Damoisel [Ravenstein] stops, petrified with fear. Caroline collapses in a faint. Already he perceives a light: it is the lantern of the abbess, who, accompanied by a tower guard and two jailers, makes her rounds. Ravenstein looks at the moment to be surprised, but he knows how to evade them and moves to the opposite side [of the jailroom]. The abbess approaches the cage, sees Caroline overwhelmed on her stool, reaches the cell bars, and sees nothing [to disturb her]. She leaves (Cuvelier 1799: 10-11).

From a linguistic or literary perspective, it may seem as if the same person wrote both passages and that each author’s use of words is the same to describe the actions the characters perform. The passages do not seem different in relation to narrative construction, the sequencing of physical actions, although, in performance, Gardel’s piece probably runs twice as long as Cuvelier’s, because the “actions,” as dance, involve the protraction and repetition of movements. Perhaps a theory of verb use or of the relation between verbs and nouns could clarify the difference in attitude toward language between balletic and pantomimic scenarists in the two passages. But such a theory, requiring evidence from a much larger database than these passages to be credible, does not yet exist, and I lack the qualifications to construct one. Otherwise, it is only the referents of the signs (words) that create the differences between the two scenes, not the signifying practices of the writers. Both authors omit altogether from their scenarios the language they use to describe how the dancers or actors should perform the inscribed actions. For Gardel, such language describes the steps, positions, and patterns the dancers should assume to perform each action constructing the narrative, with an emphasis on highlighting movements that are worth seeing regardless of their value in communicating more narrative information (thus, the repetitions and protractions of movements). For Cuvelier, such language describes the emotions that the pantomimists translate into movements, describes the emotional relation of bodies to spaces, objects, and to each other. But this language emerges only after the scenarios have been imagined; it is not the language that constructs the narratives. Theoretically, then, actors and dancers should be able to to perform either scene according to their distinct modes of movement, because fundamental differences in attitude toward language are not what separate pantomime from dance, and in any case are not what lead to differences in the imagining of wordless bodily performance. In reality, however, it is easy to imagine pantomimes performing both scenes and very difficult to imagine dancers performing Cuvelier’s scene. It is not that dancers are somehow incapable of performing within the set of referents inscribed by Cuvelier—it is that they never imagine themselves within such a set. Ballet dancers do not imagine themselves in prison, carrying lanterns, filing cell bars, or writhing in chains, because in their minds dance in itself is a condition of freedom that doesn’t exist if the body must represent a state of bondage or an older woman must carry a lantern or a person must file the bars of a cell, even though it is quite possible to represent these actions through choreographed rather than pantomimed movement and even though ballet entails the severe regulation of bodily movement. In the minds of dancers, dance ceases to exist when it represents something other than itself, with all of the repetitions, protractions, and extensions of limbs defining the “system” defining dance. In the minds of pantomimes, however, the condition of freedom has nothing to do with any particular mode of movement or with the age of the performer or with the extent to which the body is attached to any objects. Freedom for the pantomime lies in the ability of movement to represent something other than itself or the body that performs it. A state of bondage is simply another opportunity to show how movement achieves aesthetic value. In the ballet, dance continually sought to “emancipate” itself—from the opera, from pantomime, from representation itself and thus increasingly closed itself off from that which did not accommodate the concept of freedom nourished by its system of movement; whereas pantomime “emancipated” itself to the extent that it expanded its domain of representation and claimed more of what words, music, and the visual arts claimed for themselves. It was therefore not differing attitudes toward words, narration, or even the body that separated pantomime from the ballet pantomime so intensely and irrevocably at the time of the Revolution; it was opposed attitudes toward representation and perhaps even toward the Christian belief in the “authenticity” of signs. 

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