The Rise and Fall of Pierrot: Pantomime Noire: The Cercle Funambulesque

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

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Figure 105: “Pierrot” (1913) by German artist August Macke (1887-1914). Photo: from Ernst-Gerhard Güse (ed.), “August Macke. Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen,” Munich: Bruckmann, 1986, page 256.

Pantomime Noire: The Cercle Funambulesque

Although L’Enfant prodigue had a transformative effect upon him, Séverin was skeptical of the efforts to modernize pantomime by the Cercle Funambulesque. For example, he disliked that Carré had given Pierrot a mother and father, even though the story very much depends on Pierrot, as the prodigal son, having parents. Pierrot, he believed, should be utterly alone in the world, without family or friends (Séverin 1929: 169). His own idea of modernization moved in a different direction: he introduced recurrent characters outside of the commedia format, such as the dancer and eventual film star Musidora (1889-1957); he perfected a gestural economy built around an elegant vocabulary of hand movements—a feature of the Mediterranean style of pantomime, which was “warm” because of its restrained realism; and he favored realism in his scenarios, such as Conscience, in which Pierrot grapples with a profound moral crisis and avoids engaging in extravagantly absurd stunts. He was imaginative at expanding the expressive power of the face, especially the eyes. Catulle Mendes shared Séverin’s reluctance to embrace the Cercle Funambulesque, whose productions, outside of L’Enfant prodigue, suffered, they believed, from amateurism, a lack of sufficient training in pantomimic art, and an excessive emphasis on literary attitudes toward pantomime. But Mendes and Séverin had less interest in reviving some “traditional,” romantic-era idea of Pierrot than their adaptation of ‘Chand d’habits might suggest. Rather, they wanted to free Pierrot from the supposedly Symbolist affectations they believed the Cercle Funambulesque had imposed upon him; they wanted to develop a Pierrot who thrived in the materialistic and often socially conscious aesthetic of realism. Séverin’s approach to Pierrot gained popularity at about the same time that the Cercle Funambulesque was reaching its end. But the Cercle was significant in raising expectations of pantomime at a time when the conventional theater culture showed little inclination even to produce pantomime. The Cercle “officially” operated from 1888 to 1898, and the membership included many prominent writers and artists in Paris, including among others: Champfleury, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jules Lemaitre, Jules Massenet, Leon Hennique, Jean Richepin, Eugene Larcher, Felix Galipaux, Jules Chéret, and Paul Huguonet. However, the ideas that formed and animated the society had received their impetus in the early 1880s from a co-founder of the society, the writer Paul Margueritte (1860-1918). Ostensibly, both Margueritte and the Cercle aimed to achieve contradictory goals: to create a modern pantomime aesthetic and to restore pantomime to what it was in the eighteenth century and the time of the foires (Huguonet 1889: 238). In reality, a muddled idea of modernity triumphed inadvertently over a languid idea of traditional pantomime. A peculiar achievement of Margueritte’s program was that it treated Pierrot as a role among many that an actor could play rather than as an identity that supersedes all others assumed by the actor. 

In 1883, Alexandre Guyon and Jean Richepin produced, as part of a program that included other scenes, recitations, and musical interludes, Richepin’s scenario Pierrot assassin at the large Trocadero Theater with an orchestra of thirty musicians, which played, among other pieces, the march from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845). In Richepin’s three-scene scenario, never published, Colombine persuades Pierrot to murder the widow of Cassandre to obtain her bag of money; he kills the widow and Colombine tries to pin the crime on the widow’s bodyguard Flamberge. At Colombine’s house, the ghost of the widow appears as the couple eats dinner; Colombine and Pierrot try to escape, but Flamberge and the police arrive to arrest them. In the final scene, a doctor declares that Pierrot is insane. He tries again to escape, but the gendarmes capture him. He is furious with Colombine, and succumbs to the “final crisis of despair: he at last knows what his love for a woman is worth. He is cured” (Huguonet 1889: 149-152). The scenario exemplifies the trend in the 1880s onward toward depicting the dark, criminal Pierrot, the so-called “pantomime noir.” But the production was also innovative in that Guyon and Richepin persuaded the famous actresses Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Gabrielle Réjane (1856-1920) to play Pierrot and Colombine. For Bernhardt, playing Pierrot was merely a kind of experiment, an opportunity to demonstrate another facet of her acting skill; she apparently worked with Legrand and Guyon in developing her pantomimic skill, although Ariane Martinez (2008: 118; Martinez 2020) doubts the audience believed Bernhardt, known for her “golden voice,” took the part seriously, and she contends the production was a “fiasco,” partly because the Trocadero was much too big for pantomimic performance. The show therefore did not continue there or anywhere else, never enjoyed a revival, and Richepin never published his scenario, although it must be said that the performance was a benefit for an institute for the blind. But Nadar made photographs of Bernhardt and Réjane in their costumes, and these, with their bizarre erotic quality, kept the memory of the innovative event alive, for here the actresses are clearly performing something poetic for the camera that was perhaps not visible in the theater. The crossdressing element also included Alexandre Guyon (1830-1905), who played the role of Cassandre’s widow. Guyon had himself on occasion played Pierrot, but more often performed as Arlequin, and for much of his career he wrote pantomime scenarios for the Funambules and other theaters. Since 1880, he had been working with the Trocadero, the Funambules having disappeared altogether in 1862 to accommodate Baron Hausmann’s expansion of the Parisian boulevards. He, like Richepin, Bernhardt, and Réjane, regarded the commedia style pantomime as a kind of playful laboratory in which to explore strange aspects of acting rather than as a submission to a revered tradition. This attitude, which pervaded the Cercle, probably contributed to the perception that the efforts to modernize Pierrot arose from impulses that were dilettantish, amateurish, or decadent. 

Whatever its defects, the Bernhardt-Richepin production at the Trocadero succeeded in stimulating efforts to imagine Pierrot as an emblem of modernity. Most of these efforts came from people who were outside of the pantomime culture and, in many cases, had only an occasional involvement with theater: literary men who also wrote novels, journalism, historical works, poetry. A few were major artists, like Adolphe Willette (1857-1926) and Jules Chéret (1836-1932), whose many posters and illustrations in journals did much to promote a modern image of Pierrot. These images depicted Pierrot as an energetic, pleasure-loving Parisian, not as an idle, carefree village buffoon; Willette sometimes even showed Pierrot wearing a black rather than white costume. Pierrot’s image promoted manifold non-theatrical events and products, and in 1888, Willette launched an illustrated magazine called Le Pierrot, although Pierrot’s image appeared only intermittently. Poets wrote macabre, melancholy, and even morbid poems about Pierrot: Paul Verlaine, “Pierrot” (1869), “Pantomime” (1882) and “Pierrot gamin” (1886); Achille Melandri, Les Pierrots (1885), with illustrations by Willette; Jules Laforgue, Les Complaintes (1885)—“Complainte de Lord Pierrot”—and L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune (1885); Albert Giraud, Pierrot lunaire (1884), which, in German translation (1892) became the basis for Arnold Schoenberg’s famous, expressionistic song cycle of 1912, as well as several other song cycles by German and Austrian composers in the early years of the twentieth century. The silent, speechless figure of Pierrot awakened in these poets a dark, pessimistic, desolate voice, as if modernity entailed a confrontation with the failure of love to overcome a fundamental estrangement from the world. In 1881, Leon Hennique (1850-1935) and Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) published the pantomime scenario Pierrot sceptique, which included illustrations by Chéret, who depicted Pierrot wearing a black costume. The pantomime has never been performed, although the actions in it do not seem any more “unperformable” than those in scenarios for the Funambules. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the scenario is its violence. Pierrot’s wife has died, which is the reason he wears black, and most of the action consists of his efforts to avoid paying those who provide funeral services, such as a tailor, a hairdresser, an undertaker, and a marble headstone carver, while he becomes involved with a female mannequin-like character, La Sidonie, who comes to life in the hairdresser’s shop and with whom he has a grotesque dinner scene. He doesn’t mind trying to kill everyone he meets, and the piece ends with all the stores and his apartment going up in flames as he escapes with La Sidonie. But for Hennique and Huysmans, the deluxe publication of the text was the performance, the interplay of typography, illustration, page space, and paper texture. The book was about the “impossibility” of performing a modern Pierrot outside of a suave, aesthetically designed text. Hennique pursued this idea of an anti-theatrical, Book Pierrot in “pantomimes” that were not published until 1903, La Redemption de Pierrot, with illustrations by Louis Morin, and La Songe d’une nuit d’hiver, with illustrations by Chéret. These seem like decorative short stories, packaged as exquisite little books, most of which are told through spoken dialogue, not physical actions, including Pierrot himself. In La Redemption, Pierrot abandons his evil habits and becomes a kind of holy figure as a result of his erotic desire for a statue of the Virgin Mary, with whom he engages in spoken dialogue about his sinfulness in attempting to rob the church where the statue resides. Such was the decadent mind: demonstrating a love or fascination for a theatrical character meant putting him in a precious little book rather than on stage; it meant imagining a Pierrot for readers intoxicated by exotic libraries rather than for spectators agitated by raucous theaters. But the desire to “give voice” to Pierrot or to describe him through the voice, through poetry, song, opera, or purely instrumental musical pieces, spread beyond France, especially in the early twentieth century, as a result of the decadent fetishizing of Pierrot, even if many of these works could claim no affinity with the decadents. Brinkmann (1997: 163-166) identifies at least fifty “musical Pierrots” composed in Europe and the United States between 1873 and 1926, the great majority of these appearing between 1899 and 1915. A 1917 anthology, Mon ami Pierrot, contains seventy-five poems about Pierrot, most of which were the work of American authors. One of the more peculiar of works of the decadent eighties was the ballet pantomime Pierrot macabre (1886) authored by the Belgian poet Theodore Hannon (1851-1916) and the Belgian-Italian composer Pietro Lanciani (1857-1912). The piece was performed in Brussels at La Monnaie with a fairly large orchestra; Paul Legrand was supposed to play Pierrot, but had other commitments, so Joseph Hansen (1842-1907), formerly ballet master at La Monnaie, played Pierrot and did the choreography, for which he received praise from the La Guide Musical (23, 12, 25 March 1886: 92). While mourning the sudden death of Colombine, Pierrot encounters a seductive fairy, Laetitia, who distracts him from his sorrow. After an almost expressionistically “somnolent” funeral cortege, Pierrot dances with spiders and spectres before finding himself in Laetitia’s voluptuous garden. But then Colombine comes to life after experiencing what was a profound “lethargy” only to discover that Pierrot’s focus is now Laetitia. She therefore takes up with a pair of “Polchinelles,” which drives Pierrot to despair and then to his death. But a kiss from Colombine, recommended by Laetitia, revives him, and he falls into Colombine’s arms. Pierrot macabre contains numerous striking images, perhaps because the entire scenario is written in rhymed verse and in different rhyme schemes, none of which can be experienced through the performance of the piece, but which nevertheless produce in the reader a memorable and genuinely macabre sense of movement among the many characters and perhaps in any performance of the piece as well (cf. Mayeur 2009). 

Paul Margueritte developed another innovative way of defining the relation between scenario language and bodily movement in actual pantomimic performance. The son of a distinguished general and a nephew of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Margueritte was able to indulge a youthful enthusiasm for amateur theatricals in a precocious manner. For a couple of summers in the 1870s, he operated a theater in Valvins, a suburb of Paris, where he put on Pierrot pantomimes and serious plays with his friends and citizens of the town. Romantic authors inspired him: Gautier, Banville, Poe, Hoffmann, and these decided his conception of an “ultra-romantic” and “very modern Pierrot,” “a refined Pierrot, neurotic, cruel and ingenuous, combining all contrasts, a veritable psychic Proteus, a little sadistic, willingly drunk, and perfectly wicked” (Margueritte 1910: 11-13, 15). This modern Pierrot appeared in the scenario Pierrot assassin de sa femme, written in 1881. The first performance took place either in Valvins in the early eighties or at a soirée given by Alphonse Daudet in 1886, with Margueritte playing Pierrot, and then subsequent performances took place “here and there,” including André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in 1888, when, Margueritte says, Antoine played the undertaker, although this role scarcely exists in the text (Margueritte 1910: 17; Margueritte 1925: 22-26). The piece is really a silent monologue of physical gesture. In a barren room, Pierrot contemplates the corpse of his wife, Colombine, whose body lies on a bed. He drinks cognac and gazes at a portrait of Colombine. He reflects on the process of committing the crime. He killed her because she stole from him, drank his best wine, beat him, and cheated on him. But he wasn’t sure how to kill her—most methods seemed too violent and messy. While massaging his foot, he decided to tickle her to death. The murder scene then occurs as kind of flashback. Colombine, whom Pierrot has bound and gagged, awakens from her sleep and cries out almost orgasmically (“twists in a frightful gaiety”), and then suddenly she dies from the excitement. The flashback over, Pierrot resumes drinking and studying the smiling portrait of Colombine, but the alcohol only agitates him, and he becomes filled with fear and desire for the woman in the picture. “The music wanders.” He becomes drowsy and decides to go to bed. The room becomes dark, so that “nothing can be distinguished but a white and vague Pierrot” holding a candle. But the bed bearing the corpse starts to glow red, “like a huge lantern,” and then the portrait exudes a strange light: “first the frame glows, phosphorescent [ . . . ] and then Colombine [in the portrait] lights up: her laugh bursts red and white.” Pierrot responds indignantly, tries to be brave in facing the luminous phantom. But the sound of Colombine’s laughter as she was being tickled to death intensifies, causing Pierrot to twist into convulsions. He falls dead before the portrait (Margueritte 1882; 1910: 99-105). The piece is remarkable for its representation of Pierrot’s psychic-emotional turbulence, a state of trauma. But what is even more remarkable is that Margueritte shifts into first person voice to describe actions meant to be performed silently, for, as he reminds the reader, “Pierrot is mute.” He describes Pierrot’s “thoughts” as if the character is talking to himself, and these thoughts appear in a larger font than the actions that only describe scenic and physical actions. For example: 

Colombine, my charming wife, the Colombine in the portrait, was sleeping. She slept there in the big bed: I killed her. Why ? … Ah, there you go! She stole my gold; drank my best wine; beat me, and harshly; as for my brow, she furrowed it.

Cuckold, yes, she did that to me, and to the point, but what does that matter? I killed her; because I liked it, what is there to say? To kill her, Yes … it smiles at me. But how did I do it? 

The author describes the state of the murderer’s mind through the voice of the murderer, which the spectator never hears; instead, the pantomimist must choose gestures and movements that “translate” the monologic voice into its physical equivalent. Margueritte undoubtedly developed his own set of gestures for performing the “voice,” but the point of the voice is to indicate that the performer must come up with his own gestural “translation” of it, that different bodies “understand” the voice in ways that cannot be inscribed or imposed upon the body through a transcending choreography that is supposedly understandable across variable physiognomies. But he also insisted that selecting the appropriate accompanying music was “indispensable” to completing the pantomimic action and was perhaps even more important than the scenario language in constructing the physical gesture, which, in the case of Pierrot assassin de sa femme, was the work of Paul Vidal (1863-1931), a figure well-connected to almost all the composers of the Paris musical world during the Symbolist era: “The music is in pantomime a sticky garment and fluid, which is reflected even in the décor and reaches, by invisible extensions, the most tenuous states of mind in the spectator-listener” (Margueritte 1925: 158-159). Yet discussion of the text as a literary object has overwhelmed discussion of Margueritte’s innovative approach to pantomime performance. The Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), a friend of Margueritte, wrote a cryptic mini-essay, “Mimique,” about the piece, in which he deliberately made unclear whether he was responding to the performance or to the text, although he does conclude the little prose poem by remarking that “between the sheets [pages of text] and the gaze reigns a still silence, the condition and delight of reading,” which apparently is different from the “silence within an afternoon of music” that is the performance. But he also mentions “the unpublished reappearance of Pierrot or the poignant and elegant mime Paul Margueritte. [ . . . ] the face and gestures of the white phantom [are] like a page not yet written [ . . . ] The scene [i.e., ‘the artifice of a notation of feelings’] illustrates only the idea, not an actual action, in a hymen (from which the Dream proceeds), vicious but sacred, between desire and accomplishment, perpetration and remembrance: here ahead, remembering, the future, the past, under a false appearance of the present. Thus operates the Mime […]” (Mallarmé 1897: 187). Mallarmé’s text may seem almost fantastically obscure in explicating anything about pantomime, but Margueritte found the poet’s response very helpful in advancing his own ambition to create a modern pantomimic aesthetic, for the poet’s enigmatic language conferred an intense aura of mystery on the phenomenon of pantomime that strengthened the “seriousness” with which Margueritte’s elite cultural network applied to the art (Margueritte 1925: 28). In 1969, the Parisian literary journal Tel Quel sponsored a “Double Session” (“Double séance”) featuring two presentations on literary ontology by the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), which the journal published across two issues in 1970 (Hill 2007: 33-34). In the First Session, Derrida provided an enormous analysis of Mallarmé’s tiny text in relation to Margueritte’s scenario, in which he claimed that it was “irrelevant” whether “Mimique” was a response to a performance or to the scenario, for the performance could not exist without the scenario, and in any case, “we,” like Mallarmé, can “see” the text whereas “we” cannot see the performance. Derrida’s point is that what literature “is,” what establishes literature as a “presence,” is the interplay of signifiers constituting the text rather than anything performed on a stage that the text compels the reader to “see” or what Mallarmé calls “the false appearance of a present.” But this assertion allows Derrida (and Mallarmé) to suppose that “it is prescribed [ . . . ] to the Mime that he not let anything be prescribed to him but his own writing, that he not reproduce by imitation any action or any speech. [ . . . ] The Mime ought only to write himself on the white page he is; he must himself inscribe himself through gestures and plays of facial expression” (Derrida 1981: 148). Pantomimic action is therefore a “hieroglyphic inscription” that lies outside the power of language to “translate,” “for the Mime is not subject to the authority of any book” (144-145). While construing the “white phantom” of Pierrot as “the white page” on which the performer inscribes a “hieroglyphic” message is, for Mallarmé and Derrida, a useful metaphor to define literary “presence,” the metaphor assumes that the whole of pantomime is synonymous with the “whiteness” of Pierrot, which makes pantomimic action a separate kind of “writing” that cannot be deciphered linguistically, an argument Marmontel made back in the eighteenth century. Recall, however, that the argument against Marmontel was not that pantomimic action was indecipherable or untranslatable, but that it amplified the subjectivity of the spectator, who, without access to any sort of understandable language of gesture, assigned a meaning to the “hieroglyph” that was more likely unique than shared. But by consolidating all of pantomime within the figure of Pierrot (even in 1969!), the French had found a way to reduce or confine pantomimic action within a realm of bodily “inscription” that served to eliminate differences between spectators in reading the gestures. In this sense, Pierrot was and remains a national cultural project to preserve the authority of language—and specifically writing—to restrain subjectivity and unify the Subject, as the deconstructionists call the “presence” of the reader, with some kind of ideological structure operating to make the body understandable rather than a divisive source of misunderstanding. It is difficult otherwise to explain why French civilization has invested so much energy in cultivating Pierrot (cf., Jamain 2001). 

But the French cultural investment in Pierrot becomes inescapably entangled in a pervasive mood of “decadence” that preceded rather than resulted from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and the vacant years of pantomime in the 1870s. By the time of Pierrot, assassin de sa femme, pantomime was no longer in any sense a popular art; it was a “taste,” a refined pleasure, cultivated by connoissseurs who were members of a cultural elite dominated by literary ambitions, as Margueritte acknowledged when he recalled his nostalgic meeting with the withered Paul Legrand (Margueritte 1925: 34-35). From a literary perspective, however, pantomime could be taken “seriously,” as a manifestation of modernity, only if Pierrot became a dark figure, immersed in crime, and driven by perverse impulses more aligned with psychiatric disorders than with anarchic nonsense. But making Pierrot dark meant giving him a troubled erotic life with Colombine that the Pierrot of bygone days would gladly have sacrificed in favor of yet another fine meal. The sexual intimacy ascribed to Pierrot motivated encounters with death: he became a murderer, he tried to kill himself, he died anyway and repeatedly, which, because formerly he was so “innocent” in his bizarre whiteness, made pantomime “decadent” at the same time the Parnassians revived it as a cult art. Pantomime (Pierrot) within the Parnassian-Symbolist milieu became a kind of luxurious, but peripheral, research project within a larger aesthetic program, a thing that was useful in showing what else one did as an artist. The pantomime performances of the Cercle Funambulesque occurred only occasionally, mostly in salons and sometimes in a small theater, where the atmosphere was as much social as it was artistic. Margueritte wrote many novels, verse plays, memoirs and historical works, but he wrote (with the writer of song lyrics Fernand Bessier [1858-1936]) only one further pantomime of any significance, Colombine pardonnée (1888), in which, again, he played Pierrot and his friend Paul Vidal composed the music, although the person who played Colombine remains unidentified (possibly Félicia Mallet). Again he used the device of spoken dialogue to describe the thoughts of the characters that the actors translated into entirely pantomimic action. But this time, Colombine is very much alive and has her own thoughts in dialogue with Pierrot’s. This piece is startling for its almost pornographic depiction of the sadomasochistic relationship between Pierrot and Colombine. Pierrot throws Colombine out of his house because of her infidelity, but he still kisses objects of hers that she has left behind, although the cuckoo clock reminds him that he is a cuckold. While he sleeps, Colombine returns, covered with snow, but when she removes her coat, she appears in a diaphanous tunic under which she is nude. She starts drinking and eating. Pierrot wakes, and they begin their sadomasochistic interplay. She begs forgiveness, dances lasciviously for him, urges him to kiss her and recognize that he has already forgiven her. Pierrot attacks her, attempts to rape her, and she cries out. She demands that he ask forgiveness on his knees, and when he does prostrate himself, she puts her foot on his neck. When the cuckoo clock strikes again, he seizes her as if to strangle her. But she is haughty and unafraid; she dismisses him with a smile and goes to bed behind the curtain. Alone, Pierrot sees the knife stuck in the bread and then his own image in the mirror, which causes him to laugh. “The knife attracts him! Without turning, with his arm stretched back, he seizes it and brandishes it, shining, sharp, terrible.” When Pierrot disappears behind the curtain, the spectator hears “a cry to make the hair stand up” and then “an eternity of silence” before Pierrot opens the curtain to reveal Colombine dead, with the knife plunged into her heart. Then he closes the curtain, “with his finger lifted to his mouth,” as if to tell the spectator to keep what was seen a secret (Margueritte 1910: 115-122). In his rather lengthy review of the performance at the Théâtre Libre for the Journal des débats, the prominent literary critic Jules Lemaitre (1853-1914), a member of the Cercle, praised Margueritte’s innovative spirit, his creation of a “tragic and neuropathic” Pierrot. He considered the piece as the equal of contemporary literary works by Alphonse Daudet, Paul Bourget, and Edmond de Goncourt that dealt with morbid psychology; indeed, the piece “contained the entire substance of all these works [and] thirty centuries of literature and human experience,” because “it is nonetheless true that the more serious disadvantages of written or spoken theater disappear in pantomime. […] The psychology of a pantomime always seems credible, because it is ourselves who create it in proportion, for pantomime is of all dramatic genres that to which the spectator collaborates most” (Lemaitre 1889: 347-350). But in spite of such an encouraging response, Margueritte never followed up with another pantomime scenario of similar innovation or intensity. 

The Cercle was not unified in its approach to the modernization of pantomime. On the same program as Colombine pardonnée was the one-act pantomime L’Amour de l’Art, by Raoul de Najac (1856-1915), who played Arlequin. In this piece, Pierrot displays his love of stealing by swindling Arlequin in a dice game and then stealing objects from various people he encounters, including the police who come to arrest him for theft. For Pierrot, stealing is an “art” that he “loves” for its own sake as a proof of his superior intelligence. Pierrot here is much closer to the Pierrot of Deburau’s time, and Lemaitre acknowledged that he “enjoyed it less laboriously than the tragic fantasy of Paul Margueritte. At least the characters were old acquaintances; and there was, in the pleasure they gave me, more security: I confess the timidity of my mind” (Lemaitre 1889: 355). Najac was nostalgic for the “old pantomime” of earlier decades, and he was at odds with the crypto-Wagnerians who dominated the Cercle and sought to modernize pantomime by making Pierrot tragic. In 1888, he published Les exploits d’une Arlequin, a transcription of his conversations with François Fredon, a pantomime who had operated his own ensemble in the 1850s and presented commedia pantomimes in provinicial towns throughout France but never in Paris. Fredon described the many pleasures and adventures of playing Arlequin with a group of performers who enjoyed the itinerant, often improvised fairground life. Najac saw in Fredon’s life a healthy integration of pantomime and communal culture, whereas in Paris Pierrot had become a morbid creature, contaminated by a sinister, Teutonic pessimism. His idea for modernizing pantomime was to shift focus from Pierrot to Arlequin, Polchinelle, and other members of the commedia ensemble; in his Petit traité de pantomime (1887), however, he doubted that elevating Colombine or introducing any new female characters to the commedia format would create a more vibrant pantomime culture (Najac 1887: 24). He favored making Arlequin the dominant figure of pantomime, which certainly does not happen in L’Amour de l’Art or in Barbe-Bluette (1890), in which Arlequin dies in the middle, killed by Colombine. In Le Retour de Arlequin (1887), he composed a completely solo performance for Arlequin, but he mostly succeeded in imposing on Arlequin qualities associated with Pierrot’s melancholy affection for Colombine (Najac 1887: 36-48). But the Parisian cultural press, which to a large extent was under the control of Cercle members, responded enthusiastically to Najac’s pantomime productions (cf. La Revue d’art dramatique XIII 1889: 240-241; La Plume 15 September 1892: 404-407); the Cercle even produced a three-scene Arlequin pantomime with no Pierrot, Lysic (1890), by Eugène Larcher, one of the founding members of the Cercle. After Deburau, though, Arlequin ceased to interest Parisians as much as Pierrot, and Najac simply lacked the imagination to renovate Arlequin beyond what Fredon had managed to do with the character in the 1850s in provincial France: Arlequin was just too rustic to carry any weight as a figure of modernity. The Cercle focused instead on exploring what was modern (or perverse) in the sexual dimension to Pierrot’s character, which entailed making Colombine more complex as a sexual being and central to Pierrot’s motives for action, for the idea of a male homosexual Pierrot was obviously unimaginable within the cultural milieu, even if the all-male members of the club did encourage sexual ambiguity. Richepin and Bernhardt had shown that a stronger female presence was necessary to modernize the pantomime. Félicia Mallet (1863–1928) played Pierrot in L’Enfant prodigue, the Cercle’s most successful production, which established her as a major talent in the Paris theater world; the artist Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) did several sketches of her in her black Pierrot costume, which emphasized an androgynous look that other artists also wished to capture (Cogeval 2003: 107-109; Performance, not results 2014) [Figure 106]. 

Figure 106: Left: Zinc silhouette of Colombine by Fernand Fau for a marionette pantomime produced at the cabaret Chat noir (1887). Photo: Musées de Châtellerault. Right: Félicia Mallet as Pierrot, a photographer, a photograph taken by Arthur da Cunha, published in the Bulletin de Photo-Club de Paris, March 1896. 

Another Parisian actress, Jane May, closely emulated Mallet’s performance when, in 1891, she brought her own production of L’Enfant prodigue to London, at the Prince of Wales Theater; the show, “a little tragedy of a family of fools,” greatly impressed reviewers for The Spectator and The Author, although the reviewer for The Author felt that, in spite of May’s excellence as a performer, “it is utterly impossible for a woman’s figure in man’s clothes to look otherwise than anomalous. […] Pierrot is not a ‘jolie jeune garcon,’ but a ‘gamin maladie,’” a view, however, not shared by the reviewer for The Spectator (The Author I, 12, 15 April 1891: 323-324; The Spectator 4 April 1891: 15). In 1896, May took the production to New York, where she worked with the dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), who played Colombine. In her autobiography (1927), Duncan, who disliked pantomime, described how rehearsals with May were a “martyrdom”: “Jane May acted the part of Pierrot, and there was a scene where I was to make love to Pierrot. To three different bars of music I must approach and kiss Pierrot three times on the cheek. At dress rehearsal I did this with such energy that I left my red lips on Pierrot’s white cheek. At which Pierrot turned into Jane May, perfectly furious, and boxed my ears” (Duncan 2013: 24-25). But this level of crossdressing and subtle allusion to lesbianism was perhaps the limit of what the Pierrot paradigm could allow in the way of an enhanced female presence in pantomime or of some idea of innovative sexual relations. After her performance as Colombine in Barbe-Bluette, Mallet abandoned the Cercle to pursue opportunities as a cabaret singer, dancer, and pantomime outside of the commedia format. Indeed, it seems almost incredible that the Cercle was incapable of imagining pantomime without the commedia format or even without Pierrot, even though the members were well aware of ancient Roman pantomime if reluctant to acknowledge any idea of pantomime outside of the commedia format after the seventeenth century (Huguonet 1889: 11-38). 

In the cabaret world, Mallet found a protégé, Georges Wague (1874-1965), whom she educated in pantomimic art and introduced to organizers of cabaret performance. His career began when he collaborated with the songwriter Xavier Privas (1863-1927) to produce “cantomimes” at the soirées sponsored by the arts maganzine La Plume at the famous Café Procope. Cantomimes were pantomimes of songs sung off stage, so that pantomimic performance entailed moving from one song to the next, one mood to the next; in this respect the cantomime was somewhat similar to ancient Roman pantomimes. Wague often performed the cantomimes in the conventional white Pierrot costume, and in 1896, he played the father of Pierrot in a production of L’Enfant prodigue, a role he reprised in the 1907 film version, the first feature length European film, as well as in a 1916 remake. By the middle of the 1890s, however, Wague had determined that pantomime could not develop in a modern direction as long as it remained fixated on Pierrot. Pantomime, he believed, had to incorporate elements from the other arts. He himself performed in plays, ballets, operas, and eventually in numerous silent films; in 1929, he performed in the first French talking film, Les Trois Masques. From Mallet, he learned how to connect movement to emotion, and he rejected Séverin’s philosophy of developing a kind of gestural vocabulary or sign language that supposedly translated words or sentences into movements. Pantomime was not the “translation” of emotion into movement; rather, emotions released or propelled movements in different ways depending on the character or situation, so that the pantomime showed emotion in an innovative, unique, and insightful way—“a maximum of feeling with a minimum of gesture” (Wague [1923] in Martinez 2008: 155). Anger, for example, should not always be translated as clenched fists or clenched teeth. Wague stressed facial expression at the expense of broad movements of the hands and arms and “reliance on slow and exaggerated gestures” (Williams 2012: 116; cf. Martinez 2008: 146-155). In 1910, he openly published his thoughts on “La pantomime modern” in the Paris Journal (November 19, n.p.), in which he repudiated altogether the Deburau/Pierrot paradigm and asserted that pantomime could only become modern and “human” when it expanded the range and complexity of emotions the body was capable of signifying. From Wague’s perspective, breaking away from the commedia format and deepening the emotional power of pantomime meant strengthening the presence of women within it. In 1899, he formed a company with his wife, the actress Christiane Mandelys (1873-1957), with whom he performed in numerous cantomimes, pantomimes, and silent films. He worked with numerous female partners in producing small pantomimes with potent emotional, often erotic, intensity: Christine Kerf (1875-1963), Marietta Ricotti, Caroline Otero (1868-1965), Angèle Héraud, Stasia Napierkowska (1891-1945), Ida Rubinstein (1883-1960), and the Danish actress Charlotte Wiehé (1865-1947), who developed her own unique style for combining song and pantomime and who contended that “gestures should be avoided as much as possible. The expression of the face, the general movement of the body must be enough to express all the ideas. It should not be believed, in fact, that the art of pantomime consists of a sort of deaf-mute language, a whole long line that a good mime expresses in a striking manner with a single movement.” However, she acknowledged that, “certain things are impossible to render” in pantomime, “for example, ‘I have a brother.’” Furthermore, “An essential condition for a pantomime to be attractive is absolute, intimate harmony with music. It is essential that the gestures fall with mathematical precision on the note that is needed” (Martinez 2020). The most famous of Wague’s partners was Colette (1873-1954), but apparently he also worked briefly with the early film director Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) on developing a cinematic style of acting that would come close to “life itself” and possess its own “visual rhythm” (Williams 2012: 108-109). But more importantly than his conflict with Séverin over the nature of pantomimic movement, Wague understood that freeing pantomime from the suffocating grip of the commedia format and Pierrot meant finding female partners who could expand the emotional power of movement and provide a wider array of tensions between male and female bodies. In the twentieth century, pantomime moved in a “modern” direction in large part because of female performers who were not imprisoned within the Pierrot fantasy that for so long had dominated the French male romantic imagination.

French pantomimes of the Symbolist era that avoided the image of Pierrot have certainly not received much attention. Thanks to the publicity generated by the Cercle, other theaters occasionally experimented with pantomime in the late 1880s and 1890s, including the famous bohemian left bank cabaret Le Chat Noir, which operated from 1881 to 1898 and attracted as customers numerous prominent literary and artistic figures. The cabaret produced only a few small pantomimes over several years: L’Épopée, pantomime à grand spectacle en 20 tableaux (1887), by the cartoonist and wordless comic strip artist Caran d’Ache (1858-1909), Cruelle énigme, pantomime burlesque (1891), by the satirical artist Fernand Fau (1858-1919), Pierrot pornographe, pantomime en 6 tableaux (1894), by the illustrator Louis Morin (1855-1938), and Le roi débarque, pantomime en 4 tableaux (1895), also by Morin. These pieces appeared on programs with other experimental performance pieces that combined acting, music, and the display or shadow projection of illustrations by the artists (Maindron 1900: 343-348). Scenarios are difficult to locate. According to Jules Lemaitre’s review in Les Annales politiques et littéraire, Cruelle énigme showed the private lives of people living on four floors of a mansion. On the ground floor, the caretaker caresses his cat and two friends play billiards. On the second floor, a young woman searches for fleas, while a neighbor spies her through a keyhole. On the third floor, a bourgeois family reads a newspaper. Suddenly four clowns descend from the fourth floor and crash through the windows of the other floors. The décor transforms into the roof of the house, where a squadron of police officers pursue the clowns around the chimneys. But the clowns raise a ladder to the moon “and take refuge in this star dear to poets, lovers and people who are a bit crazy” (Lemaitre 1891a: 40). Cruelle énigme was a shadow play in which Fau used silhouette cut outs to represent the characters. Lemaitre appreciated the imagery but complained that the simultaneous actions occurring in three or four floors made it difficult for the viewer to achieve any “unity of impression,” creating a pantomime that lacks “precision, variety, flexibility, and speed of movement.” Figurines cut out of zinc were “capable of only a small number of gestures and subject to the unavoidable sluggishness of pulling strings.” “The Chinese shadow is doomed, either to immobility of the limbs, or to the gesticulation of very simple attitudes and attitudes” (40). But Le Chat Noir continued to produce zinc silhouette pantomimes. Pierre pornographe was also a zinc silhouette pantomime, with music by Charles Sivry (1848-1900), who composed numerous songs for the cabaret. In this piece, Morin pokes fun at his reputation as an illustrator of erotic and pornographic scenes. A lecherous judge lusts after Colombine, who is in love with Pierrot, a painter, for whom she models in his studio. Pierrot visits the Jewish ghetto to sell paintings to the dealer Isaac Laquedam (a vein of anti-semitic satire sometimes appeared in the cartoons of Chat Noir artists). With his riches, Pierrot visits a grocer for fancy foods. Isaac displays in the window of his shop Pierrot’s painting of Colombine nude. The judge, accompanied by a pair of prudish priests, recognizes Colombine in the painting, and the three of them express alarm at the moral degeneracy of the era. The judge summons the police to seize the painting and arrest Pierrot. Colombine sobs in Pierrot’s studio. One of the priests offers her diamonds, but she pushes them away. The judge offers to free Pierrot if she accommodates his sexual desires, but she refuses. “Funereal images” of prosecuted artists and writers appear. Pierre goes on trial, with “prosecution and argument in music,” and then “condemnation in music.” “Pierrot is doomed! But the great Christ of the background lights up and these words appear: Loi Berenger,” which refers to laws passed in 1885 and 1891 sponsored by senator René Bérenger (1830-1915) that emphasized the rehabilitation and integration of persons convicted of crimes rather than their punishment and encouraged leniency toward convicts who demonstrated sufficient capacity to “correct” themselves. In the final scene, Pierrot and Colombine embrace in his studio, which glows with pink light. The stage displays the reformed Pierrot’s future, non-pornographic paintings: a wedding, a family walk, and palms of academic glory (Morin 2009) [Figure 74]. But with the death in 1897 of the inventive “charlatan” Rodolphe Salis (1851-1897), the owner of Le Chat Noir, the cabaret could not survive, and even pantomimes as peculiar though slight as Cruelle énigme and Pierre pornographe simply disappeared, despite the appearance of new cabarets. 

A far more ambitious pantomime, utterly remote from the commedia format, was Néron, presented at the Hippodrome in February 1891 and recalling the equestrian pantomimes of the Cirque Olympique during the Napoleonic era. The scenario was the work of Paul Milliet (1848-1924), the librettist for famous operas by Massenet, Mascagni, and Cilea, among others. Édouard Lalo (1823-1892) wrote the music for the huge spectacle in three tableaux. Lalo never published the orchestral score, which has been lost, but some parts of it included music he composed for his opera Fiesque (1867), based on a play by Schiller (Hale 1918: 1056). The piece depicted three grandiose scenes from the life of the Roman emperor Nero. In the Golden Palace,

Agrippina is pursued by the vision of Britannicus wrestling the crown the imperial crown from the brow of the usurper, Nero, her son; Britannicus must die, and she will poison him; the poison is prepared and tried on a slave, who falls dead. Britannicus and Junie arrive, accompanied by their friends; Britannicus is invited to drink; he does so without fear, and dies poisoned. Junie takes refuge with the vestals, to escape from Nero, and is protected by them and by the Christians. Furious, Nero condemns the Christians to be devoured by wild beasts, but before delivering the Christians Nero organizes a fete in his own palace and we see the gladiatorial combats in all their exactitude. The combats finished, the conquerors receive golden palms, the dead are carried away and the Christians make their entrance. Immediately an iron cage, large as the arena, springs up from the earth, the [lion] tamer makes his appearance, goes to the lions’ den, sees that the Christians are thrown into this den, from which jump six [actually twelve]enormous lions. The tamer then amuses himself with his lions, chasing them about the cage in the wildest manner. This is the first time that Parisians have seen lions liberated in so large a space as the arena of the Hippodrome. After [the lion tamer] drives the lions back into their den the cage descends to give place for the tableau, the burning of Rome [ . . . ] (Salvador 1891: 13).

The final tableau showed the burning of Rome and the violent death of Nero, followed by the entry of legions supporting the new emperor, Galba. Néron inspired an exceptionally long “review” by Jules Lemaitre in Les Annales politiques et littéraire, but he preferred to meditate on the character of the emperor and avoided discussing the production, although he claimed it was a “brilliant pantomime” (Lemaitre 1891b: 281-282). However, the science and technology journal La Nature discussed in some detail the innovative mechanics involved in the staging of the second tableau. The Hippodrome engineer Ernest Berthier was responsible for the design of the machines, which included a conveyor belt on which gladiators engaged in combat against a metallic backdrop on which were painted scenes amplifying the sense of being in a Roman amphitheater. At the conclusion of the gladiatorial combat, the painted backdrop ascended upwards and in its place an enormous iron grill rose from the floor and created a huge cage in less than a minute. Trap doors opened and a dozen lions, perched on elevator platforms, leapt onto the stage and attacked effigies of Christians strapped to pillars in the arena. These machines employed a hydraulic piston system linked to an electric engine and levers that allowed a single technician to command all the scenic changes (Mareschal 1891: 411-414). The Hippodrome invested heavily in Roman costumes for over a hundred performers, a chorus, a full-scale orchestra, and extravagant props like a horse-drawn chariot, and during rehearsals, the lions mauled the then-famous German lion-tamer Julius Seeth, who survived the attack and performed his scene (Salvador 1891: 13) [Figure 107]. Néron attracted huge audiences and international attention, but the Hippodrome produced no more pantomimes of anywhere near this scale. The cost of producing the show was perhaps too great for whatever profits it yielded. Lemaitre’s motive for discussing Nero at length rather than Néron probably arose from his ambivalence toward both. The show obviously stirred him, but he disliked the “fashion” of “young writers,” who for the past decade had cultivated a more favorable attitude toward Nero than ancient authorities like Tacitus and Suetonius and regarded the Emperor as an aesthete, a dilettante, an intelligent poet, rather than a cruel despot. Perhaps the critic believed that the “voluptuous” spectacular effects of the production diminished too easily the cruelty the scenario ascribed to the Emperor, and he had to remind his readers of a dangerous, corrupting enjoyment in the show. It is more likely, though, that Néron succeeded quite well in dramatizing the alignment of voluptuous aestheticism with monstrous cruelty, and this alignment was far more disturbing than whatever absurd, imbecilic cruelties perpetually befell Pierrot or that he inflicted, for with the Cercle, cruelty was an inescapable feature of his “poetic” personality.

Figure 107: Scenes from the pantomime Néron (1891), staged at the Hippodrome, Paris. Top: Photo by Albert Londe of Nero on his throne. Photo: Musée d’Orsay. Below: Scene with lions and mechanical apparatus for bringing the lions on to the arena stage. Photo: Mareschal (1891: 412-413). 

The French Pierrot fixation and the Cercle Funambulesque have attracted impressive scholarship since Adele Levillain’s 1943 dissertation, The Evolution of Pantomime in France, which provides excellent summaries of pantomime scenarios not covered here. She regarded the Cercle as significant for moving pantomime toward realism: “The naive buffoonery and fantasy of the earlier classic pantomime of Deburau’s day gave way to mimodramas and comedies of manners, the greater number of which reflected the modern realism, the decadence, pessimism, scepticism and disillusionment of the epoch” (419). Levillain tended to see Pierrot pretty much according to the intentions of his many creators, which led to an absence of insight into the larger cultural pressures that confined pantomime to the figure of Pierrot. Tristan Remy’s biographies of Deburau (1954) and Wague (1964) have been valuable for subsequent Pierrot scholars, including Jean Starobinski’s Portrait de l’artiste en saltimbanque (1970), which treats Pierrot within the concept of “mythological archeology.” Starobinski regards Pierrot as an enigmatic icon, so his work is especially valuable for linking Pierrot to the visual arts of modernism. Robert Storey published two books (1978, 1985) on Pierrot. Although he provided many important details related to the performance of Pierrot on Parisian stages, Storey mainly focused on how Pierrot captivated the modernist literary imagination, often through poetic works that have no connection to the stage. He saw pantomime entirely through the figure of Pierrot, which, after all, was his central subject, but this approach did limit his ability to see the history of Pierrot in relation to the larger history of pantomime. Recently Gilles Bonnet concentrates on the literary texts intended for performance in La pantomime noire 1836-1896 (2014), although the focus is mostly on texts from the period 1880 to 1896. It is largely an exploration of literary rather than pantomimic invention. For the French literary imagination that became preoccupied with pantomime in the 1880s, pantomime was a “spectral” form of performance because it was wordless. As such, “pantomime noire objectifies for the public a distinctive enunciation that is, properly, funereal” (195). Moreover, “pantomime noire brings multiple levels of representation” (142), because it is always about the “repression” of Pierrot and his struggle to reconcile psychic, material, and interpersonal realities beyond the power of language to reconcile. “The art of pantomime noire is profoundly an art of disequilibrium,” and is for that reason an anti-rational art that “forces opponents and otherwise antonyms into dialogue, at least to confront each other, with violence and each time from different angles. From the tragic and the comic, these zigzags of dark grotesquerie are born, or each leaves an imprint in the other, while absenting itself at the sharpest moment of the encounter” (328). Bonnet relies heavily on this sort of highly abstract, philosophical language to explain the significance of pantomime noire, but he does make a convincing case for asserting that Pierrot was a convenient focal point for articulating a “disequilibrium” in French literary imagination, for revealing a crisis of confidence in literary or poetic language rather than a crisis in pantomime and bodily communication. 

Arnaud Rykner has edited two valuable scholarly anthologies that consider the international and interdisciplinary dimensions of French pantomime. Pantomime et théâtre du corps. Le jeu du hors-texte (2009) gathers together essays on various manifestations or influences of fin de siècleFrench pantomime in countries outside of France (Austria, Spain), in film (Marcel Carné’s Drôle de drame[1937]), and in contemporary theater (Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett), among other themes. Especially informative are Ingrid Mayeur’s essay on Hannon’s Pierrot macabre and Rykner’s piece on “Le ‘corps imprononcable’ de la pantomime fin de siècle: de la defection du verbe à l’absolu de l’image,” in which Rykner claims that pantomime confronts the spectator with a body that is “primordial” because it is “unpronounceable” (80). Pantomime, at least as formulated within the Cercle Funambulesque, produces the spectacle of an “illogical” body vulnerable to “epilepsy, ecstasy, and hysteria”—a kind of “dream” body that leads to an “insurrection of representation” and an “impossible theater.” Pantomime is thus like a freak show. “Pantomime is monstrous because it shows itself, and nothing more, and that showing itself shows this limit of the logos that constitutes the body, our body” (91). Subsequently, Rykner compiled an anthology of essays written entirely by himself, Corps obscènes: pantomime, tableau vivant et autres images pas sages (2014), in which he speculates on relations between pantomime and photography, cinema, tableau vivant, and the use of “silent” or still bodies in literary works by Zola and Maeterlinck, although he does not really make clear how anything in the pantomime he discusses creates “obscene bodies.” Meanwhile, Ariane Martinez (2008) provides an excellent account of the continuity of French pantomime (Pierrot) within French modernist performance in theater and film through the first half of the twentieth century, connecting the Pierrot of the “decadent” 1880s to such diverse diverse figures as Jean Cocteau, the futurist Enrico Pampolini, Antonin Artaud, and the actor Jean-Louis Barrault, although she remains focused almost entirely on pantomime in France. A German scholar, Jörg von Brincken (2006), argues that what makes the pantomime scenarios of the Cercle Funambulesque modern is their relation to abstract concepts like the grotesque, the ugly, the uncanny, the horrifying, and the nihilistic, which work to produce a “radical” art that compels the reader/spectator to see comedy as more a “painful” but transforming phenomenon than “normal” constructions of it allow. Brincken’s approach is highly theoretical, although he is reluctant to discuss in any theoretical way the relation between language and movement and reluctant even to mention Pierrot, preferring instead to refer to theoretical figures like “the Clown Monster” (271). His approach creates the effect of seeing the pantomime scenarios detached from a performance context and detached from a clearly delineated historical context, so that they seem like specimens demonstrating a general “pathology of the modern” (244). But while Pierrot is obviously an important cultural icon, the modern scholarly concentration on Pierrot to the exclusion of any other kind of pantomime suggests that even since World War II, intellectual discourse on pantomime remains locked into a late nineteenth century French assumption that pantomime is no bigger than Pierrot. 

Perhaps the most interesting essay in Rykner’s Corps obscènes deals with Le Mort by the Belgian writer Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913), “the Belgian Zola” (2014: 55-67). This was first an 1882 novel set in rural Belgium about a pair of brothers who murder a colleague to gain the lottery money he won. The brothers bury the body, but the body nevertheless keeps revealing itself, both physically and in a spectral way, causing violent, tragic conflict between the brothers, Balt and Bast, which leads them both to Death. In 1891, Lemonnier (with the American mime Paul Martinetti [?-1924]) adapted the novel as a three-act pantomime and then as a three-act “mimodrame,” with music by Léon Du Bois (1859-1935), and then, in 1892, as a five-act tragedy, which, in 1903, he revised as a three-act tragedy. The pantomime, a “farce tragique,” received its premiere at the Alcazar Theater in Brussels in 1894, while the five-act tragic drama, under the title Les Mains, premiered at the Nouveau Théâtre, Brussels, in 1899; the three-act tragedy, under the title Le Mort, apparently had its first performance, in Brussels, in 1903 (56). Though Lemonnier regarded the pantomime as a parody of his novel, it is a quite somber affair, in which the author occasionally employs the interior dialogue pioneered by Margueritte to describe pantomimic actions that depict the brothers descending into a hellish psychic realm in which the image of Death grows overpowering: “Balt and Bast look at each other. Balt thinks: ‘This money will go to me. An old peasant like me does not marry a beautiful girl without grabbing something.’” (Lemonnier 1894b: 4). But the extent to which the mimodrame is really a pantomime is not clear, because the scenario includes so much speech in quotation marks to describe emotions that the author should inscribe as physical actions. The piece is unusual for being a serious pantomime that has no connection with Pierrot or the commedia format, and it was also unusual for the Martinettis (four family members appeared in the production), who were well known in the United States and England for their clown-stunt form of pantomime (Leavitt 1912: 111). But the most striking thing about the piece is its naturalism and the effort to make pantomime achieve documentary accuracy in representing scenic effects: “The storm subsides. The dawn gradually clears the sky. One hears the angelic tolling of the village bells,” while nevertheless introducing numerous Symbolist effects that intensify the seriousness of the piece—“Thus is the simple tale distorted into the supernatural perspective indigenous to Flemish poets” (Grossvogel 1961: 211): “Balt observes the pit. His hands move as they did after the crime, for murder has remained in them and will not leave them”; “Terrified, the two brothers recognize Death. A terrible jostling ensues. Slinking from behind the tapestry, Balt pursues the specter. The tapestry falls onto the notary. Bast, meanwhile, trying to avoid the fall of the tapestry, makes the old man fall. General panic. Suddenly the two brothers realize that Death has disappeared and that in his stead in the pit is the clerk of the notary. This new turn of Death disturbs them; they find themselves face to face with the Irremediable. Meanwhile, the miller boy runs towards Karina. She throws herself in his arms. He persuades her to follow him.” (Lemonnier 1894b: 5, 11). With Le Mort, Lemonnier struggled to find the proper literary form to articulate his story. He moved to a pantomime version, perhaps because he wanted to make the “simple tale” more mysterious by letting the music “speak” instead of words, as if, in performance, the spectator were watching the novel unfold instead of reading it “in silence.” In the mimodrame version, every line in the scenario corresponds to a musical cue and bar in Du Bois’ score (1894a). But Lemmonier did not believe in his own capacity to describe physical action or in Du Bois’ musical intuition to connect motivating emotion to physical action, so he twice more revised the story as a tragic drama. He never attempted another pantomime, although in 1922, a Paris edition of the pantomime scenario appeared with expressionist woodcuts by Paul Baudier (1881-1964), transforming pantomime into a “dark,” visual reading experience, the “hieroglyphic” book that was such a motivating goal of Symbolist involvement with pantomime. 

After Lemonnier, however, pantomime in Belgium seems to have had no theatrical life until Marcel Hoste (1912-1977) established in 1952 his Sabbatini Pantomime Theater in Ghent, inspired by the French mime Marcel Marceau, whom Hoste met in Paris. Hoste’s father was a theater photographer, and previous to his engagement with pantomime, Hoste had devoted his energies to painting, drawing, and the production of marionette and hand puppet plays. In 1959, he established a Mime Academy, while the Sabbatini Pantomime Theater became involved in productions that combined mime with puppetry. In 1964, he staged Höre Israel in Paderborn, Germany, and later the same year, with Maria Van Heirbeeck, he staged for the Flanders Festival in Ghent Patent 2003, a love story that used an electronic music accompaniment supervised by Louis De Meester (1904-1987) (Vyazemskaya 2017; Lanckrock 1971). The Pierrot archetype fashioned by Marceau moved Hoste into pantomime, and he never entirely escaped the archetype, but with Höre Israel and Patent 2003, he, like Lemonnier, realized, toward the end of his performance career, that a distinctly “Flemish” pantomime did not include Pierrot. But perhaps for many decades after the 1890s, Néron had shown how costly it was to imagine pantomime without Pierrot. In a sense, then, resistance to Pierrot within a culture was an absence of pantomime. 

In any event, between 1820 and 1890, pantomime was altogether absent from many continental theaters outside of France, if it did not persist in the lingering remants of the decaying ballo pantomimo in Italy and in Denmark, where the choreographer August Bournonville (1805-1879) maintained a suave, charming, imperturbably ebullient style of ballet pantomime into the 1860s. The pantomime situation in German-speaking lands was peculiar. In 1749, a young schoolteacher, Johann Christian Strodtmann (1717-1756), published Abhandlung von den Pantomimen, a quite erudite essay on the ancient Roman pantomime that skillfully compiled all the literary sources on the subject and critiqued them. Engel published his widely read Ideen zu einer Mimik in 1785. Yet when Henriette Hendel-Schütz performed her somber pantomimes in Berlin in 1811, commentators regarded them as utterly strange, innovative phenomena without precedent in Germany and indeed without descendents. Then in 1838, the Brockhaus Encyclopedia published two very long entries on “pantomimic art,” suggesting the importance with which the Brockhaus editors (and the educated elite) regarded the subject. The first, by the philologist and historian Carl Grysar (1801-1856), covered in considerable detail the ancient Roman pantomime, including many references to presumed performance techniques, impersonated characters, performers, and commentators. The entry was a revised, much more refined, and less arcane treatment of the theme than a long article on Roman pantomime that Grysar had published in 1834. He then returned to the arcane, scholarly format in 1854 with an even longer essay: the most comprehensive treatise in German on “Der römische Mimus” until Hermann Reich published Der Mimus in 1903; Reich rightly criticized him for confusing mimes with pantomimes, which Grysar did not do in his encyclopedia entry. The second encyclopedia entry covered “new pantomimic art” and was the work of the theologian-composer and music theorist Gottfried Wilhelm Fink (1783-1846). But Fink’s prolix entry was entirely theoretical. Probably he had never seen a pantomime performance when he wrote the entry. Except for one reference to Henriette Hendel-Schütz, he did not mention any pantomime performance, performer, or creator of pantomimes for the whole period following the Roman Empire. He did not mention Pierrot or Harlequin or any other pantomime character, except for the title role in Auber’s opera La muette de Portici (1828). Despite his expertise in music, Fink’s discussion of the relation between music and pantomime was perfunctory and nebulous: “The interpenetraion of music and pantomime is necessary for completing the enchantment” (498). He ignores altogether any exploration of the relation between pantomimic action and scenic elements, narrative structures, or entrepreneurial initatives. Instead, he writes at length about pantomime from a murky philosophical perspective, as if pantomime were a hypothetical construct, something the mind had to build according to a logic or an argument that existed outside of any empirical evidence, for his main thesis was that the pantomimic movement of the body must reveal the “soul” within the body: 

The livelier the soul itself is in the matter [of pantomime], the more loyally and truly it shapes [the action], carries it into itself, the more forcefully the expressions and gestures will bring the action to life [ . . . ]. Therefore the less the soul is absent, the fuller it is in the action, and the more vivacious and profound it grips [the matter, the action] and penetrates it, the more powerful, the more accurate and the more definite, the more true and beautiful [the soul] emerges through looks and expressions without art [ . . . ] as the spiritual victory of the inner life in truth and appropriate beauty. [ . . . ] The chief laws thus remain here, as in all life, a pair of simple commandments: Make the Spirit faithful and true as much as possible in the noble, manifold pursuit of perfection, with an inclination for good. Be always with all the power of your being in the thing to which you have surrendered, and fill youself with [the soul] as if it can only exist in the moment of action. [ . . . ] To be sure, the whole body is the organ of the soul [ . . . ] (496).

This foggy, convoluted language provides an intimation of the expressionist subjectivity that Germans brought to pantomime in the next century. More importantly, though, Fink’s entry is a laborious effort to explain how something that is absent from his culture, pantomime, should exist within the culture: it is a potential art. His purpose is to identify good reasons why the culture can benefit from pantomime, and these reasons exist beyond the splendid precedent set by the Romans and beyond any empirical evidence of pantomime as any other culture practices it. The reasons are moral, arising from the Christian concept of the soul. In effect, the “new pantomimic art” did not exist, because no one in Germany had adequately theorized it, no one there grasped its virtue, no one understood how pantomimic action distinctly revealed a profound “inner” being, the soul, a thing otherwise invisible and unspeakable. 

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