The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Pantomime Provokes Theoretical Disputes

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

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Pantomime Provokes Theoretical Disputes

The belief that pantomime needs to be “contained” within another art to reveal its proper value arises from deep uncertainty about the relation between gesture and signification. By the 1770s, pantomime was as much a part of opera as it was of ballet’s efforts to establish the ballet d’action (cf. Buch 2008: 146-148). André Grétry (1741-1813) composed numerous comic operas into which he often inserted pantomime scenes, presumably because audiences delighted in seeing actions performed without speech or singing yet were not dances (Law 2010: 255-267). These pantomime scenes were usually three to five minutes long, and a peculiar feature of the few that have been recorded, especially Céphale et Procris (1773), a ballet héroïque, is their frequent tempo and key changes, indicating that the music follows the action rather than drives it. In his memoirs, Grétry explained why he considered pantomime “dangerous.” He believed that pantomime contributed to the “decadence” of the Roman Empire, because it was incapable of embodying complex ideas. “Yes, pantomime is adequate to say what is easy to understand, in order to repeat through gestures what we have already said to ourselves with words. But try to set an original subject as pantomime, and you will see whether it will be explained, and whether anything will equal the impatience of the spectators” (Grétry 1829 III: 153-154, 156; Law 2010: 268). Pantomime is “dangerous” because it conceals its limitations behind “magical spectacles”—that is, visual effects or “illusions” that “do not nourish the other genres” (Grétry 1829 III: 157). Grétry insinuates that pantomime says things that can be said much more effectively and efficiently through words and music, although he describes music as a “pantomime” of words, for “the rules of language or musical discourse are the same as those for ordinary speech,” and gestures are a pantomime of the words they accompany. Without musical accompaniment, pantomime and dance are “ridiculous” (Grétry 1829 III: 279). Music bestows meaning upon pantomime because music embeds “ideas” within configurations of “tones”; while music can thrive on its own, pantomime without words or music is unintelligible. Pantomime cannot develop ideas or insights with any complexity that compares with the work of Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Gluck, or Rousseau (Grétry 1829 III: 156-157). Grétry saw pantomime as translations of words into gestures, and the body was simply incapable of constructing a physical vocabulary that could accommodate the power of language and speech to encode morality, philosophy, and “the splendors of empire” (Grétry 1829 III: 156). Thus, at best, pantomime should have no more than three to five minutes within an opera or ballet. Grétry did not see that, without words or without any correspondence to words, gesture became enigmatic, a sign whose meaning was “arbitrary,” because it was something imposed upon the sign by the spectator, by an intense subjectivity. Pantomime made transparent what the body “says” when language (or dance) did not situate it within a system for regulating meaning. Hedy Law puts a generous spin on Grétry’s not especially lucid distaste for pantomime:

Grétry’s struggles with pantomime remind us again that the dangers of pantomime are inextricably entwined with its charm. Repeatedly, eighteenth-century composers were beguiled by physical gestures. They were spurred to plumb the abyss of muteness for meanings. Just when they fathomed how music and gesture could be used interdependently to heighten intelligibility, they discovered the unforeseen potential of muteness for attracting, generating, producing original meanings, or escaping preconceived ideas of legibility. In this way, eighteenth century pantomime became crucial to the invention of new social meanings, new narrative structures, and prompted new ways of watching and of listening, and legitimating the quest for extra-musical meanings in music (Law 2010: 268).

Law connects Grétry’s attitude toward pantomime to Michel-Paul-Guy de Chabanon’s “fear” of gesture, as revealed in his Observations sur la musique, et principalement sur la métaphysique de l’art (1779), in which he adopted a view of gesture that was almost completely opposite of Grétry’s. A composer and author of literary works, Chabanon (1730-1792) proposed that, “the study of gesture is precisely the inverse of the operations that led to the establishment of language [langue].” Gesture is a different kind of “language” [langage] and “the truth of this language is something frightening: it says what words do not say.” He theorized that in the formation of language (langue), gestures and shouts transformed into words; then humans have “undone what we did then”: gestures began “substituting” for words, and then they began to “compensate” for words (Chabanon 1779: 89). The Greeks and Latins, he reflected, had a “larger” concept of music and dance than those two words possess in French: “this was the art of gesture and pantomime; an art so powerful in its means, so energetic in its expression, that it overcame the same art of speech that had helped gesture; a superiority that we cannot conceive” (Chabanon 1779: 84). Chabanon believed that the ancient Roman emphasis on education in oratory spawned “the art of pantomime,” a kind of counterpoint to speech. By “admitting to gestures for irony, for contempt, for ailments of the soul, and for metaphysical states, one creates a language [langue] for the eyes as there is one for the ears. This ocular language, less clear than the other in several of its parts, [is] more expressive than everything that makes for natural institution: the gesture of fury says infinitely more than the word ‘fury’” (Chabanon 1779: 86-87). But Chabanon also acknowledged that the ancient pantomimic action was “vague and indeterminate,” subject to mysterious contradiction. For example, when Hylas, a student of Pylades, appeared as Agamemnon, his audience criticized him because he had made Agamemnon a tall man rather than a great man (Chabanon 1779: 87-88). Moreover, with the Romans, pantomimic gesture was so vivid because it appeared “without even the help of the face,” as the performer wore a mask (Chabanon 1779: 84-85). The “talent for pantomime,” he concluded, “belongs more to actors and their art than to dancers,” although he acknowledged that in serious ballet pantomime, such as Noverre’s Médée, performers could produce pantomimic action that “even the greatest actors would have difficulty surpassing” (Chabanon 1779: 90). Chabanon supposed that pantomime was a “language” for signifying and provoking emotions rather than ideas, and that was what made it both “frightening” and exciting. When detached from words, pantomimic gesture produced signs that were difficult to interpret: one can only respond to these signs emotionally, without assistance from the “meanings” that language embeds in words. These emotional responses make the spectator feel alone, suffused with uncertainty about what the signs mean, and released from the shared or systemic, societal sense of meaning that language exists to create. 

Though they held opposing attitudes toward pantomime, Grétry and Chabanon discussed pantomime from the perspective of men whose primary work was the composition of music. Chabanon regarded pantomime as a visual or “ocular” phenomenon. It is therefore worthwhile to examine ideas about pantomime from a visual artist, the distinguished engraver Charles-Nicholas Cochin (1715-1790), who published his Pantomime dramatique, ou Essai sur un nouveau genre de spectaclein 1779. Cochin observed that Italian operas, in spite of fine libretti, were boring and unintelligible to French audiences. They were boring because they contained long passages of recitative and dialogue in which characters explained the story in which they were situated, producing arid scenes that lacked either musical or poetic interest. He therefore proposed that pantomimic action replace these recitatives and dialogues with the idea that a “magnificence of tableaux” might “obviate disgust for lengthy dialogues scenes in an idiom that one ignores.” He consulted with an unnamed academic, who raised nine objections to his idea, such as the “peculiarity” of a character acting silently and then suddenly starting to sing an aria; passions “sing” rather than gesture; recitatives “prepare” the listener for arias; the shift from “silence” to song was too abrupt and “violent” (Cochin 1779: 3-7). But these and other objections did not justify the boredom that resulted from accommodating them. Therefore, to demonstrate how pantomime would replace recitatives, Cochin used the example of the libretto for Demophon (1731), by the prolific and enormously successful librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), which was the basis for 73 “serious” operas in the eighteenth century, including one by Gluck (1743). Metastasio’s libretto offered an extravagantly contrived variation on the Oedipal theme of committing sins without knowing it. The King of Thrace, Demophon, has received the message of an oracle, which says he can protect his kingdom from catastrophe through the immolation sacrifice of a virgin woman not of royal blood chosen through a lottery. Dirce, the daughter of Demophon’s chief adviser, Mathusias, is not exempt from the lottery, although she is secretly married to Timanthes, the first son of Demophon and has a son by him. Demophon plans for Timanthes to marry the Phrygian Princess Creusa, whom Cherinthus, Demophon’s other son, loves. All these characters are ignorant of each other’s desires, while at the same time they struggle to comply with the authority of the King to enforce the law that benefits the kingdom as a whole. Eventually a letter turns up written long ago by Demophon’s dead wife; this document indicates that Dirce and Timanthes are actually brother and sister. This news spares Dirce a fiery death, but threatens to cause havoc within the royal family. Then a second letter from the dead mother is discovered, and it explains that Timanthes is not actually the son of Demophon and that the mother switched babies at birth. Thus, all ends happily: Timanthes and Dirce can remain married, Creusa can marry the new first son Cherinthus, and the kingdom can avoid the need for the immolation sacrifice (Metastasio 1766; Metastasio 1767: 237-349). 

The plot is laboriously convoluted in its attempt to heighten the conflict between patriarchal, royal authority and the claims of sexual desire, and Metastasio’s flowery, verbose, and overwrought language only confirms Cochin’s assertion that so much storytelling talk is boring. But Cochin’s solution was not to replace all the language with pantomime, for the text supports an opera, many opportunities for singing. Pantomime appears only intermittently to dramatize physically sections of exposition; it does not function to shorten the performance but to clarify the mythic and political context of the action. Nevertheless, in his revision of Metastasio’s text, Cochin cut sections of speech or paraphrased them in more economical language. Whereas Metastasio prefaces his libretto with an elaborate explanation of the oracle and the power over Thrace associated with it, Cochin replaces the erudite preamble about “this obscure oracle” with a grandiose pantomime that integrates gesture, movement, writing, and voice. As the overture “paints a frightening storm,” a chorus of priests approaches the sancturary of Apollo; Demothon, his court, and a “multitude of young girls and other spectators” follows and they all prostrate themselves before the statue of the god. Clouds descend, thunder peals, and flaming script appears with the words: 

By order of Apollo

A beautiful virgin

He wishes on this altar

Her blood be spilled

Each year on this day.

Then follows thunder and alarm within the throng. Luminous clouds emerge out of which a voice speaks cryptically: “The anger of the sky will subside when the innocent usurper of the kingdom knows himself.” The priests raise the “urn of fate”; the virgins tremble with fear. One of the virgins, Dirce, approaches the priests and asks that she be exempt from the sacrifice, and the priests do not oppose her. Matusio, a high official, seeks also to exempt Dirce, whom he believes to be his own daughter. He presses the issue, Demothon becomes irritated and orders that the guards to seize Dirce. The throng sinks before the king, who departs in a mood between anger and pity. The throng follows and “the ceremony is suspended,” by which is meant, apparently, that the “pantomime recedes deep into the stage” to create the impression that “they speak without having been heard.” From the front row of the audience, “three interlocutors” appear and “declaim simply” the rules and procedures for selecting the sacrificial virgin by a name plucked randomly from the urn (Cochin 1779: 11-13). None of these actions or words appear anywhere in Metastasio’s text. But after the opening pantomime, Cochin allows the scenario to unfold pretty much as Metastasio wrote it, scene by scene, albeit with fewer words than Metastasio employed and in three acts rather than five. Cochin occasionally adds visual details, such as when Timanthes makes his entrance with his soldiers bearing trophies, draperies, scepters, crowns, and wreaths acquired from their victories against enemies. However, the second and third acts each contain a pantomime. At the end of Scene VIII in Act Two, Cochin calls for another large ensemble pantomime in the temple of Apollo, when the priests, along with the guards and a female entourage prepare Dirce for sacrifice; the priests perform libations and bring the vases to catch the blood. Timanthes appears with his own guard, holds off the temple guardians, and absconds with Dirce (Cochin 1779: 44). The third act begins with a pantomime set in an apartment of the royal palace. Members of the royal entourage surround the miserable Demothon, who “often displays successive movements of pity and anger.” Royal officials and women of rank petition the king to release Dirce and Timanthes. The king is moved but determined to reject their appeals. Creusa supplicates, causing Demothon to reflect. Then Cherinthus presents Dirce and her son Olinthus. The child embraces the knees of the king, who resists the emotion he feels but embraces the child and signals that all are pardoned. Cherinthus leaves to bring the news to his brother, Timanthes. The king retires to the interior of the palace, followed by his entourage amidst great joy. But to “render this scene more intelligible,” Cochin brings back the three interlocutors, who, as in the first act pantomime, provide something like spoken captions or intertitles for the actions and feelings represented pantomimically. In this respect, Cochin follows the example of the interpellator in ancient Roman pantomime, although the action as Cochin describes it probably does not require even this level of assistance from language. 

            Cochin was unique in proposing to expand pantomime within opera rather than restrain it. This expansion comes at the expense of language or, more precisely, at the expense of text, because the expansion of pantomime entails a compression of the text as a whole rather than an addition to it. Most likely, this trade off of text for pantomime would strengthen the dramatic power of the narrative. Cochin never intended for pantomime to replace language altogether; rather, he saw pantomime as compelling language, at least on stage, to become more economical, more elemental. As a visual artist, he saw actions and emotions as physical movements instead of as things evoked through poetic linguistic tropes or through musical devices. Indeed, Cochin could have applied his pantomimization strategy to the entire text and told the story of Demothon effectively by having the performers pantomime actions and sentiments captioned by the three interlocutors; the piece would then be even shorter, much shorter. But Cochin saw pantomime as an integrative art that made other arts, like singing, orchestral music, declamation, or scenic effects, appear stronger, more dramatic. But by being integrative, pantomime was also disruptive to the institutional organization of the arts. Diderot wrote a review of Cochin’s Pantomime dramatique in 1779. He viewed Cochin’s project as a contribution to efforts, such as Philidor’s tragic, Viking opera Ernelinde (1769), to adopt the melodic, song-oriented Italian style of opera over the “monotonous and timid,” dance and recitative-infested French model favored by conservative aristocrats and their claques at the Opera. Cochin, he observes, understands how “cries and gestures touch” the spectator more than speech, and “silence broken by lonely interjections” of pain or joy produces “great effects” (Diderot 1875 VIII: 459). Cochin’s scheme is impressive in its construction of ensemble pantomime scenes that possess a “truly picturesque disposition” (Diderot 1875 VIII: 463). But the main thing is that pantomime serves to make the narrative “clear, terse, and interesting,” whereas many beautiful verses often make only bad (dull) scenes. Friedrich Grimm also reviewed Cochin’s project, but he was more skeptical than Diderot, with whose review he was familiar. He sympathized with Cochin’s desire to relieve opera spectators of the boredom caused by “dreary, barbarous or monotonous” recitatives, but he felt that pantomime as Cochin imagined it was not practical. It was too difficult for performers to sing, act, and move with equal excellence. Cochin’s approach was too visual. Grimm implied that the solution to boredom in the opera lay not with visual artists, writers, or choreographers, but with composers: opera had to engage the audience through the ear, by which he seems to have meant the presence of strong, seductive melodies (Grimm 1880 XII: 317-318). He did not acknowledge what was evident to Cochin and Diderot: though Metastasio’s libretto had already been set to music by almost innumerable composers, none of them had succeeded in making the telling of the story interesting. Music might make fine arias and interludes, but the value of performing the narrative depended on dramatizing the relation between idea, feeling, action, and movement. Pantomime might have its own limitations in representing ideas, but it also showed up the limitations of music and language to create “interest” in the performance of human actions and sentiments framed within a narrative.  

It is doubtful that Cochin’s proposal had any impact on the performance of pantomime in opera or elsewhere, but not because his thinking was inappropriate for opera. It was just inconvenient for opera companies, because, as Grimm implied, it blurred distinctions between singers, actors, and dancers. Pantomime didn’t seem to need the opera as a platform for its expansion, as long as the theater world assumed that ballet pantomime was the genre in which pantomime achieved its most “serious” expression. Partisans of ballet and opera, and the institutions that supported those arts, were content to let pantomime serve other arts rather than itself. For Cochin, Diderot, Rousseau, and Grimm, pantomime was a phenomenon that operated outside of the aesthetic realms defining dance, opera, drama, and even theater. But others contributed to this discourse on pantomime as an art that could “belong” with other arts but not necessarily. The prolific dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) considered pantomime to be like a “sketch” for a painting that he, as the spectator, completed in his mind: “when an actor [ . . . ] has fire and there is truth in his gestures, I imagine in my spirit the most beautiful words in the world, in verse, in prose, however I wish” (Peters 2000: 299; Goodden 1986: 94; cf., Robert 2015). However, Mercier’s immense output as a dramatist did not include any attempt at pantomime. Like many dramatists of his time, he believed that theater should “educate” the spectator, and education tended to mean moral instruction. Without words and speech to frame them, human actions and gestures appeared detached from moral values, perhaps even amoral. Performances that were “sketches” bestowed too much freedom on spectators to imagine “however they wish” the meanings of gestures when the goal of performance was to get spectators to learn the “correct” meaning of human actions provided by the moral authority of a text that followed the “correct” rules of composition.  

Another dramatist, Jean-Francois Marmontel (1723-1799), developed this moral perspective on pantomime with some fervor in comments he wrote between 1756 and 1787 mostly as supplementary entries for the Encyclopédie. During the quite vehement conflicts between the “Gluckists” and “Piccinniists”—a conflict he helped to foment, Marmontel opposed the reforms Gluck had introduced to the opera and favored the much more conservative reforms advocated by Niccolo Piccinni (1728-1800), with whom he collaborated on several libretti that evoked the era of Lully and Quinault. His own era, he believed, was less accomplished artistically than that of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere. Public fascination with pantomime was proof of this decadence. The problem with pantomime, he explained, is that it is an entirely visual experience. “The eyes introduce only sensations; the ears transmit thoughts. For the most picturesque and restless passions are not always those that elicit the most beautiful movements, the finest gradations, the most interesting developments, the most sublime traits.” Eloquence was central to Marmontel’s aesthetic judgment:

A single gesture and facial expression may express without equivocation the coarse movement of jealousy, spite, fury; but the gradations of mood, of reflection, of retort, of contrast, of passions stirring, in a word, this analysis of the human heart, which makes for the inimitable beauty of roles like Dido, Ariadne, Phaedra, Hermione, etc., all this, I say, is not made for the eyes; and yet in that is the sublimity and purity of action. If one reduces it to pantomime, it is nothing more than commonplace. To the eyes, the Phaedra of Racine will be the same as that of Pradon; it will be even worse; it will be the Phaedra of this or that spectator, who, in explaining the silent play of the actress, imposes his morals, his sentiments, and his language […] Pantomime is a canvas that each spectator fills in with his own thoughts (Marmontel 1819 IV: 76-77). 

Pantomime signified a failure of literary skill through an abundance of beautiful movements and tableaux (77). Marmontel acknowledged that pantomime could “move” the spectator, but it could not provide a moral compass for the emotions it awakened detached from ideas, from language. He even asserted that pantomime produces a “force and warmth” that no language can equal and that is more “vehement” than “eloquence itself,” for “passion alone is its guide,” and passions do not instruct or “correct” illusions. Eloquence in the theater requires the unity of speech and gesture, and this unity must always come at the expense of beautiful, seductive movements of the body. That is because an “actor who speaks or sings with pantomimic gestures seems to us exaggerated to extravagance.” Marmontel occasionally blurred the distinction between dance and pantomime in his zeal to expose the corrupting effect of visual beauty on the stage, but he did see pantomime as the most powerful and “dangerous” invention of theater. Pantomime, he claimed, destroyed comedy and tragedy as literary forms in the Roman Empire. “The Romans were not a people sensible, like the Greeks, to the pleasures of the spirit and the soul […] Pantomime gave to actors a previously unknown beauty to the body” that dissolved the authority of the voice and the word to perfect the mind and soul of the spectator. “Roman idolatry and Roman idolization of pantomime were a cult of beauty,” which destroyed “taste” and from which no one learned anything. Pantomime was like a “strong liqueur” that clouded the mind pleasantly without in any way strengthening it, and for that reason it “corrupted the morals of Rome.” Thus, “a wise government will take care to protect its people from the dominant taste of the Romans for pantomime, and will favor spectacles where reason clarifies and where feeling purifies and ennobles” (Marmontel 1819 IV: 821-827). Nevertheless, despite his almost violent distaste for pantomime, Marmontel made a very haunting observation about it: “An actor is continually the copyist of the poet; the pantomime is original: the one serves the sentiment and thought of another; the pantomime is his own book and abandons himself to the movements of his soul. It therefore must be that between the action of the actor and that of the pantomime is the difference and the distance between slavery and liberty” (823).     

Theoretical discourse on pantomime was not entirely French. In Germany, the dramatist and professor, Johann Jakob Engel (1741-1802), published an enormous tract, Ideen zu einer Mimik (1785), in which he made many remarks on pantomime, none of which shared any of Marmontel’s moral concerns about the art. Instead, Engel focused on pantomime as a semiotic enigma. Like Marmontel, he contended that the meaning of gestures was “arbitrary” when they were detached from language or speech. This uncertainty of meaning was because gestural significations did not constitute a language in themselves or a component of a spoken language. Emotions spark human movements that have no inherent meaning, presumably because it is not advantageous for emotions to be altogether transparent, although Engel does not really theorize why gestures produce so much ambiguity of signification (Engel 1786 II: 38). Only in a closed society, he asserted, do gestures conform to a code that makes them “understandable” to members of the society. As evidence for this assertion, he cited an Iroquois tribe’s war dance pantomime and a Sicilian society’s system for communicating with hand movements: members of the tribe or society understand the communications, but outsiders remain utterly baffled (Engel 1786 II: 25-26; 66-68). That is why the ancient Roman pantomime is “completely lost” and irretrievable: the ancient pantomime was “understandable” because it emerged out of a common fund of myths that somehow produced a common gestural code, although Engel did not explain how this happened (Engel 1786 II: 31). Nor did he explain why pantomime was so popular in his own time when its significations were mostly obscure or unintelligible. But, like Marmontel, he acknowledged that pantomime engaged audiences because it allowed spectators to impose their own meanings on gestures (Engel 1786 II: 44-46). Engel’s book wanders often into philosophical abstractions, which, he claims, pantomime is incapable of constructing, and he does not analyze any pantomime pieces that he had actually seen performed. However, the purpose of the book was to show the importance of gesture in relation to speech on the stage: heightened attention to gesture would make acting more lifelike. Actors could learn from pantomime even if the performance of stage plays required less extravagant gestures than in pantomime, for speech always restrains gesture. “In the complete representation of character through the whole mixing and conflicting proportioning of inclinations and powers, in the development of the often very fine play of passions, of concealed drives and movement motives […] therein can pantomime have very strong appeal: what the mind (Geist) loses, the senses may gain” (Engel 1786 II: 53). Yet Engel never developed this idea, although occasionally he introduced examples of gesture taken from theatrical performances in ancient Rome, in Paris, or in Hamburg that he never saw. 

What he did see, however, was the image of gesture. His book was innovative in its use of so many pictures to support his theoretical points. The prodigious number of dance books published during the eighteenth century, when they included illustrations, almost invariably depicted geometric diagrams or schematic, idealized figures assuming positions. Engel used 59 illustrations taken from “life” and occasionally from theater. The illustrations are effective in presenting both male and female figures of different ages performing gestures that provoke an emotional response in the viewer without communicating any clear meaning—that is, the gesture, the sign, triggers some kind of vague feeling in the viewer without signifying anything [Figure 89]. Engel includes a wide range of gesturing figures to show the breadth of the emotional spectrum encompassed by generally simple or “natural” gestures. Sometimes he compares similar poses to each other to demonstrate how subtle variations in a basic gesture alter the emotional ambiance of the body as a whole: for example, he contrasts both arms extended forward with both arms raised and then both arms lowered. One cannot say what any of these gestures “mean,” yet they each indicate a different emotional state, even if the viewer can’t find the words to describe them. Only five other illustrations depict two persons, and of these, four show different variations of the same two-person relation between a person reading a book and her listener. Engel never considered the impact of gestures in succession or in combination. But his whole project amassed around “ideas” to make actors and spectators more conscious of how gestures strengthened or undermined the power of words and their “meanings.” He did not really grasp that people enjoyed seeing pantomimes because they wanted to see what the body “meant” when it wasn’t regulated by words or by the “rules” or crypto-language of dance. He didn’t perceive that uncertainty of the body’s meaning and the pantomime’s movements, so apparently in tension with the Enlightenment goal of semantic transparency, was part of the intensifying spirit of emancipation embedded within the Enlightenment project. 

Figure 89: Illustrations from Johann Jakob Engel’s Ideen zu einer Mimik, Erster Theil (1785), showing gestures that provoke emotional responses without signifying anything in particular. 

Meanwhile, in Paris, as the Revolution began to unfold, Francois de l’Aulnaye (1739-1830) completed the first dissertation related to the ancient Roman pantomime, De la Saltation théatrale, ou, Recherches sur l’origine, les progrès, & les effets de lapantomime chez les anciens (1790). Much of the work consisted of an annotated compilation of ancient references to dance, pantomime, details of theater history related to Roman pantomime, and brief synopses of each emperor’s attitude toward pantomime, followed by almost a hundred pages of notes and original Latin texts. The obscure origins of pantomime in Greece or in a very remote primeval time preoccupied Aulnaye. It feels as if he was disappointed that pantomime did not have much of a life or history before the advent of the Roman Empire and he needed, perhaps in a time of intense anti-monarchial sentiment, to associate the art with a more distinguished, mysterious heritage than that of the warlike and imperial Romans, who nevertheless brought the art to a “perfection” previously inconceivable (Aulnaye 1790: 2). Aulnaye included nine watercolor plates of ancient artworks, but these depicted mimes or non-pantomimic dancers, except for one plate showing pantomime masks and another of engravings purporting to show a sculpted pantomime’s head and a sculpted pantomime scene, copied from “the cabinet of the Duc d’Orleans” [Figure 90]. 

Figure 90: Illustrations (Plate II, 1 and 2) purporting to show ancient tragic pantomime based on artifacts, from Francois de l’Aulnaye’s 1790 dissertation on ancient pantomime. 

But the strength of the dissertation is in its situating of pantomime within a broad, cross cultural, interdisciplinary historical context. Pantomime moved across manifold temporal, cultural, disciplinary, linguistic, economic, and political boundaries. More than any other society, the Roman Empire cultivated to “perfection” this power of pantomime. In perhaps the most interesting section of the dissertation, Aulnaye explains how all the arts intersect through pantomime. He compiles short paragraphs that connect pantomime to dance, music, acting, masking, fashion, sculpture, painting, rhetorical gesture, and even architecture (Aulnaye 1790: 11-17; 78). He never claims that pantomime “translates” words into gestures or has any codified correlate with language or literature. Rather, “the art of gesture is an ocular music.” Pantomime is similar to language insofar as it is a kind of bodily or gestural “poetry” (poésie); “it is an art of dreaming, which, by a magical power, transports us into the milieu it describes.” He then attempts to explain why language is inadequate to the goal of pantomime to create a poésie of sensations that “excite the soul”: “we have introduced rhyme into our verse, and this Gothic invention, without any compensation, gives us hard shackles, attests always, in spite of our vain rationalizations, how little our language is suited to Poesie” (Aulnaye 1790: 16-17). Otherwise, except for a reference to Noverre, Aulnaye made no connection of pantomime to his own pantomime-saturated time. Yet this was the one text of the century that presented pantomime as an art unregulated by music, dance, language, or any other art while being an appropriation of all the arts. 

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