The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Pantomime Outside of the Commedia Model

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

Pantomime Outside of the Commedia Model

Throughout the 1780s, pantomime had begun to resist its “containment” within the ballet pantomime and within the commedia format of the foires, which in the early 1770s faced renewed circumscriptions and suppressions from the government at the behest of the Opera and the Comédie-Française. With the growth of the “serious” ballet pantomime after Don Juan and Semiramis, the commedia pantomime gradually shifted focus away from Arlequin to the somewhat more melancholy, pathetic Pierrot figure. Neverthess, even before the Revolution, significant innovations in both the scale and content of pantomime performance came from people seeking to build large audiences through stirring, rapidly moving spectacles that connected spectators to grand historical events and the movements of society as a whole. Nicolas-Médard Audinot (1732-1801), a founder of the 1250-seat Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique in 1769, was a pioneer in the early 1780s in the development of the pantomime héroïque and the pantomime Romanesque—three act pantomimes on historical or fantastical themes, with orchestral accompaniment, performed by actors, including children, rather than dancers. Audinot started his career in theater working with marionettes, which perhaps encouraged him to assume the function of a director at a time when the concept of the stage director scarcely existed (Faul 2013: 65-75; Mason 1912: 4-11). Until well into the nineteenth century, the production of stage plays generally unfolded around the ambitions and priorities of leading actors or, as at the Comédie-Française, of doyens and their hierarchical committee decisionmaking. Plays rigidly followed “rules” of composition that seldom allowed more than three persons on stage at the same time and consisted almost entirely of dialogue or monologues that severely restrained the movement of actors and compelled them to conform to the gestural codes or tropes aligned with the rules governing a particular type of scene. Choreographers handled the wordless movement of dancers in ballets, but they tended to focus almost entirely on the assignment of steps, positions, and geometric patterns; they didn’t really direct action in the sense of bringing some emotional quality out of the actors that was not prescribed, encoded, prescribed or regulated by a text or movement “system.” In collaboration with Jean Mussot, known otherwise as Arnould (1734-1795), Audinot expanded the pantomime beyond the small scale, commedia productions of the foires. The three-act pantomime required not only a more complex visual-kinetic imagination, but a grander subject matter to sustain the attention of audiences. Dorothée (1782) is a good example of this new kind of pantomime. In a Milanese “salon,” Dorothée and a couple of women work at embroidering scarves while a governess instructs her son. An army courier arrives bringing a beautiful portrait of “his master,” which “she receives with transport.” The mayor arrives and tries to seduce Dorothée, who repulses his advances. He then orders her arrest for subversive activities. Act two shows Dorothée brought to prison and chained to a stone bench; her jailer displays signs of affection for her. But the mayor appears with Dorothée’s son and offers her and her son a happy life if she accedes to his desires. When she refuses, he condemns her to death. In the final act, set in a “public place,” preparations are underway to burn Dorothée at the stake. General Dunois and his troops arrive, and he shows indignation at the savage behavior of the guards. Violence flares between the troops and the guards, and the troops kill the chief of the guards. Trémóuille, the husband of Dorothée, arrives and snatches her from the stake. The mayor appears and, enraged, draws his sword against Trémóuille. But Trémóuille and his entourage hurl the mayor into the flames. “Dorothée recovers from her fainting and opens her eyes to contemplate a husband she adores.” Fête générale. Fin de la pantomime

Much of his audience was supposedly illiterate, but Audinot nevertheless found it helpful to insert placards or supertitles (as at the beginning of the third act of Dorothée) to explain actions that had occurred off stage or “during the interval.” Though he himself felt little inclination to publish his pantomime scenarios, the scenario for Dorothée remained the basic model for published pantomime scenarios for many decades. Indifferent to literary merit, it only described one action after another, so that an entire story taking place in different locales could be understood without a single word spoken, without any spoken or written explanation of who the characters are, without any confusion about which characters are good and which bad, without any reference to a didactic or elevating purpose, and without any suggestion of comic moments. It is like reading a play consisting entirely of stage directions, with everything usually revealed through dialogue or monologues compressed into physical actions that need no explanation. For example, this paragraph that concludes the first act: 

Archers appear; they have their warrants for Dorothée, who, with almost no strength to the look, expresses her despair by sighs, moans and sobs, to which they respond with hard and menacing gestures. Dorothée stands protectively before her women, adjusts herself, and demands to see and embrace her child, which the barbarians mercilessly refuse. Finally, they lead her off more dead than alive (Audinot 1782: 15).

But Arnould and Audinot had bigger ambitions for pantomime than the crude melodrama of Dorothée. In 1786, Arnould produced L’Héroïne américaine, a three-act pantomime based on the then well-known story of Inkle and Jarika, which was already the subject of a popular play, La Jeune Indienne, by Chamfort first produced in 1764, although Arnould claimed that he had been inspired by an account of the story in Raynals’s Histoire des deux Indes (1770). On a forested Caribbean island, the English officer Inkle leads toward the sea a squad of soldiers who guard several chained Native American women. A group of Indians (“savages”) attack them. The Indian maiden Jarika helps Inkle to escape. She hides him in a grotto, where they grow romantically attached to each other. Eventually she guides Inkle to an English captain whose ship has dropped anchor in the distance. The captain becomes enamored of Jarika, and he offers to buy her from Inkle. At first, Inkle “hesitates,” but then agrees to the captain’s offer when he doubles the price. (This part of the plot is closer to the original Inkle and Yarico story recounted in Richard Ligon’s  A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657) than to the sentimental version Chamfort developed in which the English officer and the Indian girl end up married.) The captain has Jarika shackled and orders an attack on the Indians. The Indians, however, strike back and drive the captain back to his ship after capturing Inkle. The Indians are ready to burn Inkle at the stake, but their Chief does not wish to engage in atrocities. Jarika discovers that her heart is with the Chief. Inkle pleads for her forgiveness, but “she vows an eternal hatred toward him and his nation.” The Chief banishes Inkle from the island, and the tribe celebrates the union of Jarika and the Chief. 

The scenario contains many more actions and scenic effects than this elementary synopsis indicates, including more battles between the Indians and the English, cannon shots fired from the anchored ship, and Jarika deceiving her own people to protect Inkle. Here Arnould does not introduce any supertitles. The performer playing Jarika must signify entirely through movement an array of intense emotions: sexual desire, tenderness, eagerness, shock, despair, fury, hatred, and yet desire again and joy. Arnould organizes the scenarios into brief, fast-paced paragraphs, so that reading it is like watching a silent film without intertitles. With L’Héroïne américaine, Arnould got pantomime to embody overt political perspectives: the emphasis on Jarika’s point of view urged the spectator to adopt an anti-slavery, anti-British attitude and to see female sexual desire in relation to a conflict between a colonial, “civilizing” force and a native, “savage” primitivity. Indeed, the political aspect of the scenario puts it in sharp contrast to the popular 1787 opera, Inkle and Yarico, produced in London by George Colman (1762-1836), which concluded with the Englishman marrying the Indian girl, presented no scenes of violence between Indians and English colonialists, and included only one other Indian character, the comic female Wowski. In 1792, the French theatrical entrepreneur Alexandre Placide (1750-1812), formerly “the first rope dancer to the King of France,” brought his company to New York City, where they performed Arnould’s pantomime under the title The Indian Heroine, “which was frequently repeated all over the United States, sometimes under the title of The American Heroine, during the next quarter of a century” (Moore 1961: 7, 13). Colman’s opera also enjoyed some success in several cities of the new United States between 1794 and 1797, but it’s not clear if Placide or audiences saw any competitive opportunity in the contradictory constructions of the tale (Seilhamer 1891: 410-411). A March 1792 performance of Arnould’s pantomime in London, prior to a July revival of Colman’s opera, was, however, “very ill-received” (Oulton II 1796: 102; Hogan 1968: 1465). In addition to numerous commedia pantomimes and tightrope acts, Placide, in 1792, introduced American audiences to Dorothée and another Arnould pantomime, Le Maréchal des Logis (1783) (Moore 1961: 11-12). Vanessa Boulaire (2013: 227) observes that L’Héroïne américaine was one of the first theatrical works to represent a sexually attractive “woman of her nationality” as the focus of dramatic interest. 

Anould, meanwhile, embarked on an even bigger project, the four-act pantomime La Mort du Capitaine Cook (1788). With this production, Arnould introduced the concept of the documentary, historical-ethnographic pantomime, although he was not the first to use Captain Cook’s adventures as a subject for pantomime. In 1785, the Irish dramatist John O’Keefe (1747-1833) collaborated with the scenic artist Philip de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) on Omai, or, A Trip round the World, a Christmas pantomime presented at the Covent Garden Theater in London. This show did not include Cook as a character; instead, the story developed mostly around the character of Omai, a Polynesian, who came to London with Cook in 1773 and returned to Huahine with Cook in 1777. Omai purported to present spectacular scenes of Polynesian tribal ceremony and the exotic landscape of Kamchatka, but anthropological accuracy was hardly a priority, for, as usual with the Christmas pantomime in London, O’Keefe fashioned a kind of vaudeville pageant with numerous songs, choruses, and recitatives, as well as a constant stream of comic “bits”; Harlequin and Colombine appear as servants and consume more stage time than Omai or anyone else (See Carr 2014: 39-42). Arnould composed a genuinely tragic pantomime that attempted to depict life on Hawaii (“O-Why-e”) as reported in Cook’s journals. He broadened the range of pantomimic expression. The whole first act sets up a conflict between two Hawaiian chiefs, Oki and Etoé for the affections of the King’s daughter, Emaï, who loves Oki. The tribe prepares for the wedding of Oki and Emaï with the gathering of flowers and ritual performances by the “savages,” who, “half-nude,” wear plumes and beads and other accessories identified as “Hawaiian” (Arnould 1788: 9). The music, by Jean Baptiste Rochefort (1746-1819), used some music ascribed to “primitive” people (Carr 2014: 43). However, Etoé does not relinquish his desire to possess Emaï, and during the ceremony he attacks Oki, who overpowers Etoé just as Cook’s ship begins to fire its cannons. In the second act, in which Cook and the English first appear, Cook trades with the Islanders, exchanging Western utensils for Island foods, including a mirror that Emaï receives. Island women pair up with English sailors and marines. But Etoé attempts to rape Emaï while she gazes in the mirror. Cook arrives and assures Emaï and Oki that he will protect them. Etoé gathers his followers, and launches an attack on the King’s troop; Cook’s marines attack Etoé’s forces—Arnould likes battle scenes in which one side drives the other into retreat, and then the other side counter-attacks to reclaim the scene and then loses it again only to reclaim it, so that it is not immediately clear which side is stronger or will prevail. When Cook’s men finally triumph, he urges mercy for Etoé, but Etoé is incapable of overcoming his “savage” inpulses: he grabs a knife and stabs Cook in the back, then the marines kill him. Most of the fourth act consists of a monumental funeral procession involving the English and Islanders toward a huge volcanic mountain; the mourners carry various gifts to the mountains, including fruits, large sculptures of heads, and roasted pigs. The drumming of the marines gives way to the drumming of the Islanders. The Island priest taps the earth with his staff and inaugurates a solemn dance of the Islanders, which concludes with a final salut from the cannons of the English ship. 

With Le Mort du Capitaine Cook, Arnould greatly expanded the scope and scale of pantomime. He saw the future of pantomime as dependent on an international approach. Successful pantomimes did not need to have a French subject or even French characters to please a French audience. “Serious” pantomime could take on historical subjects and incorporate ethnographic details and did not need to introduce comic effects, and in this respect, pantomime was capable of handling themes conventionally associated with neoclassical tragedy, without depending on ballet performers or choreographers to organize the action. In effect, he showed that pantomime would develop to a “higher level” through actors rather than dancers. His scenarios required actors to display much greater complexity in the physical signification of a wider range of emotions than was expected of dancers, singers, or actors of stage plays. Yet his cinematic style of rapid succession of actions and scenes assured that the emotional impact of the performance derived from the skillful structuring of visual elements rather than from characterization or from the showcasing of acting virtuosity. Pantomime could greatly compress otherwise elaborate narratives into fairly brief periods of time; the four-act Le Mort du Capitaine Cook probably took about forty minutes to perform. This efficiency allowed a foire theater like the Ambigu-Comique to produce more shows of greater variety than text-oriented works that invariably required more rehearsal time, especially to remember lines and find the proper “voice” for the characters. To compete with the official literary theaters, the foire theaters had to produce new shows more rapidly and present programs that packed more variety. It was not necessary for the foires to rely on the pantomime dialoguée (scroll texts, supertitles, airs) to “explain” the action to the audience. Arnould also perfected the “soundtrack” approach to musical accompaniment and even sound effects, like cannon shots and thunder, which meant deciding the action then finding music that supported the mood of the action rather then dictated it. With these advantages, pantomime could cross national, linguistic, class, and cultural boundaries more easily than literary theater, opera, and even ballet, for Arnould’s Cook pantomime achieved huge success in London, Dublin, Canada, and the United States (Worrall 2007: 140-146). Mason (1912: 16) contended that, “Arnould prepared the way for the greatest of the melodramatists, Pixerecourt […] He was the first author on the Boulevard to discover what were the requirements of a popular drama.” Pantomime may well have opened up possibilities for melodrama after the Revolution, but melodramatists, including Pixerecourt, never really grasped the implications or possibilities of pantomime as Arnould envisioned it. They seemed to assume that pantomime would be even better or more emotional with the addition of spoken words, voices that would strengthen the appeal of characters. But Arnould saw that pantomime’s emotional power did not depend on strong characterizations but on vivid, stirring, kinetic images of bodies moved to action by fundamental moral, sexual, or political motives. He envisioned a completely visual-sonic theater in which the performance of bodies “explains” everything and creates a different kind of narrative than opera, vaudeville, ballet, or conventional theater. In this respect, he was probably more modern than his successors and anticipated many modernists who perceived that language, speech, constrain perception of the body and inhibit understanding of identity as an image rather than as a referent of language. He anticipated the image-saturated cinematic consciousness of twentieth and twenty-first century modes of representation. Arnould saw pantomime as an art evolving independently of the repressive laws in France that created it, which made him close to the Roman pantomime mentality but also capable of moving pantomime in a direction that neither the Romans nor his own time nor even perhaps our own time ever imagined. Through his innovations, pantomime embodied the spirit of the Revolution that, however, in the end, spawned the rather reactionary melodrama.

Pantomime scenarios allowed for variations, improvisations, elaborations, or revisions of the gestural vocabulary in performance, so that the narrative either brought a measure of instability to the performance or the performance brought a measure of instability to the narrative. For example, in 1788, the choreographer Jean Dauberval (1742-1806), a student of Noverre, staged Audinot’s Dorothée in Bordeaux, with a soundtrack compiled from the music of various composers, preceded by a “pantomime prologue,” D’Orleans sauvé, set in the time of Joan of Arc and an updating of Audinot’s pantomime Des preux chevaliers (1782). For both pantomimes Dauberval added characters and manifold supernumeraries, including, in D’Orleans sauvé, Joan of Arc, who does not appear in Audinot’s Des preux chevaliers, although the narratives remained basically the same. Each pantomime involved a different cast, so the program was a huge production requiring the participation of well over a hundred performers, most of whom were probably amateurs, although not all, for Dauberval’s wife played Dorothée, and in Bordeaux the following year (1789) played the lead role in Dauberval’s most famous ballet, La Fille mal gardée. Dauberval explicitly invited audiences to compare his work with Audinot’s: “I desire that the audience, in comparing my tableaux with those of Mr. Audinot, approves the augmentations that I thought my duty to make, these being changes which seemed to me essential” (Dauberval 1788: 4). Without changing the stories at all, Dauberval, in every paragraph corresponding to Audinot, introduced “augmentations” in the performance of the stories that revealed the distinctive imprint of a directorial rather than literary sensibility. Compare Audinot with Dauberval in the scene (paragraph) from Dorothée in which the Page visits Dorothée to deliver the portrait of her husband. 

Audinot Version (1782: 14)

A Page comes from the army, brings to Dorothée a letter that he has difficulty retrieving. Finally, he gives it to Dorothée who opens it with excitement on the bed with an action that designates what it contains. The Page then gives her a case that contains the portrait of his Master. She receives it with transport, kisses and shows it to the other women who admire the resemblance. 

Dauberval Version (1788: 20-21)

One hears a knocking at the door; Dorothée hides her son: one ignores in Milan that she has the happiness to be a mother; one ignores that Trimouille is her husband. The noise increases, Dorothée fears that it is her uncle, the Viceroy [the Mayor in Audinot], who bothers her with his affections. Armante [the male tutor, unnamed and female in Audinot] opens the door. This is the page of Trimouille. Dorothée advances eagerly toward him: her women surround her, he seeks the letter, which he retrieves with difficulty; finally he gives it. Dorothée opens it with excitement and reads it with emotion, indicates the declarations of love that it contains. While Dorothée is so deliciously occupied, the women refresh themselves with the Page. Benjamin [the child] reappears, he already wants to play with him; but the Page is too distracted to notice, and Benjamin maliciously goes on tiptoes to read the letter his mother holds. The end of this letter announces a box that contains the portrait of her belovedTrimouille. She requests it of the Page. The wretched Page isn’t sure where it is. Painful impatience of Dorothée, reproachful stares of Armante and the women…. Finally the Page feels the box in his belt and gives it to Dorothée. She seizes it transported with sweet emotion, almost as if the original were before her, seized all of her senses; she opens the box, covers the portrait with kisses, shows it to the women, who admire the resemblance. Watching, Benjamin deftly slips between the arms of Dorothée and kisses the portrait of the author of his days, and leans his pretty head to receive his mother. 

Whether all these details added by Dauberval were really “essential” to the performance is perhaps less important than the idea that such details were the essence of performance. Audinot’s scenario provided opportunities for various performative and visual “bits” that came from the director of the scene, and Dauberval wanted his readers to “see” what his unique vision of the story brought to the performance. On the eve of the Revolution, pantomime had evolved to a level of performance complexity that compelled the viewer to evaluate the experience according to theatrical rather than narrative or even acting values. Pantomimic action was now effective insofar as the director coordinated it with distinctive use of costume, music, scenography, and props, such as books, letters, boxes, portraits, scarf embroidery, swords, mirrors, plates of food, money, keys, torches, or flags. The dance world has always showed a deep aversion to the use of props, which seem to hinder the virtuoso glorification of the dancer’s body and movement, a bias that constrained the development of the ballet pantomime. But for pantomimes and their directors, props opened up possibilities for inventive movement. However, the comparison of the scenario passages obviously indicates that including the details of the performance means adding more words to the description of it, even though no one in the scene ever says anything. These are the words spoken “behind the scenes,” in the director’s mind, in preparing the scene for performance. In this respect, then, pantomime was no more free of language than the enthusiastic Angiolini or the skeptical Marmontel assumed. Yet as a reading experience and as an approximation of the swift, “cinematic” style of performance that Audinot and Arnould developed, Audinot’s spare scenario seems more satisfying, because of the focus on the actions motivating performance rather than on the performance of the actions.

            As serious pantomime expanded its scale and subject matter, it became a favored form of theatrical entertainment in France, because of its innovative spirit, because of the controversy it provoked, and because of the growing uncertainty of its political and class affiliations. The state ban on dialogue in non-state theaters had created an appetite for a mode of performance that by 1789 seemed to regard speech, singing, and even dancing as obstacles to theatrical pleasure. But with escalating innovation came increasing instability of the genre. Through the ballet pantomime, the government attempted to “contain” pantomime within the ballet companies and subordinate it to ballet. The foire theaters, however, understanding the need to move beyond the commedia format and guided by the ambitions of Audinot and Arnould, saw the future of pantomime in relation to actors rather than dancers; from the 1780s onward, then, pantomime and ballet pantomime diverged to the point of belonging to almost entirely separate artistic worlds, even if some figures, like Dauberval, occasionally inhabited both worlds, and even if pantomimes still occasionally included dances, songs (“airs”), and projected texts. As pantomime became more “serious,” it attracted more diverse theatrical talents and more theatrical innovation, which created a broader, more diverse audience for it. This diversity deepened uncertainty about how to define or “regulate” the genre, which then precipitated further uncertainty about how to define the political or class affiliations of the genre. In June 1778, the King watched at Marly Programe de la Pucelle d’Orléans, a “grand spectacle” and pantomime héroïque, which celebrated the victory by Joan of Arc’s army over the English at Orléans. The published scenario does not identify an author for it, yet considerable organizational skill was nevertheless necessary to produce this huge piece, which involved large battle scenes, the appearance of various historical figures and their minions, as well as spectacular scenes of civic agitation. The singing of a great many brief airs interrupts the flow of pantomimic action and produces the curious perception of a turbulent historical event, of the seething movement of bodies, simultaneously provoked and restrained by lyrical voices. The Programe was probably a government project designed to awaken patriotic feeling and to connect the King and his government to a great historical moment that involved the participation of citizens, male and female, across different sectors of society. A second performance of the piece took place on January 2, 1786, at the theater in Rouen, perhaps to prepare the public there for the visit of the King a few months later. Of course, since the days of Madame de Pompadour, the royal court had shown greater enthusiasm for pantomime than the state theaters. But with the Programe, the government made innovative use of pantomime for grandiose propaganda. 

            A different approach to propaganda pantomime was Julia, ou la Vestale, the performance of which took place at the newly established Théâtre des Variétés in the Palais Royal on June 16, 1786, perhaps in conjunction with the King’s visit to Rouen. Again, the published version of the scenario does not indicate an author nor even a list of the cast members, although a note at the end of the text assures the reader that two different officials had approved the publication and performance of the three-act pantomime in January 1786. Lecomte (1908: 136) simply notes: “Succes de mise en scène.” The story is set in ancient Rome, before the imperial era, when the Romans are at war with the Gauls. Rome has selected Julia to take vows to become a Vestal Virgin, even though she loves Camille, an officer involved in the campaign against the Gauls. After she takes the vows, however, she and Camille have a secret rendezvous. But the priests learn of the love affair and condemn Julia to death for violating the sacred vows that protect Rome. Camille manages to gain access to the vault in which the priests have imprisoned Julia, but Julia does not want to flee with him if it means that he must abandon his duties as an officer, especially at the moment when the Gauls have launched an invasion of Rome. But she persuades him to go fight and leave her to “rest alone.” Most of the third act consists of a spectacular battle between the Romans and the Gauls, including fighting before a gate, on walls, and across a bridge. Finally the Romans prevail; the priests, priestesses, and Vestals appear and greet Camille as their savior. The only reward he will accept is the release of Julia, conveyed through one of four scroll texts in the performance: “Revoke her arrest; the gods will be saved” (Julia 1786: 29). The citizens realize that Julia is as much the savior of Rome as Camille, and so she and Camille receive laurel wreaths. The piece concludes with a triumphal march. It is an interesting piece for several reasons, not least of which is the idea of patriotic feeling awakened by the spectacle of the Gauls suffering defeat. Julia appears to have been a government project, but the political goal of the performance remains obscure: along with the Joan of Arc pantomime, Julia may have been designed to show how women can protect the state in unexpected but powerful ways. But unlike the Programe, Julia contains no songs and moves with the cinematic rapidity of an Arnould production, although in the first act a group of children perform a “little ballet” (Julia 1786: 5). The dramatic structure is peculiar. The first act is monumental: Julia takes the vows before the sacred flame while surrounded by priests, priestesses, and Vestals, with such impressive moments as when the Great Priestess takes Julia’s hand and leads her to the statue of the “goddess” before which they kneel as the flame grows. The third act is even more grandiose, with the great battle and masses of Roman citizens. Yet the entire second act is quite intimate, featuring only Julia and then Camille in the vault. Even more peculiar is the inscription of meditative feelings that the actress must signify through pantomimic movement. For example, Julia, alone in the vault:

The image of her lover mixed with dark ideas agitates her. What is Camille doing? Where may he be? Ah! Why could she not perceive his eyes in the crowd of spectators of her execution; they would penetrate the walls of the tomb. But he will not survive Julia. But until his last breath, he blames her for the terrible fate that his love was preparing him (Julia 1786: 17).

That an actress could convey these and various other “thoughts” in Julia’s mind without relying on supertitles or songs suggests that by the mid-1780s, pantomime performance could achieve a level of sophistication that would be extraordinary in any era.

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