The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Pantomimic Melodrama

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

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Figure 95: Baptismal scene from “Le renégat ou La belle géorgienne” (1812), pantomime de Cuvelier; costume de Marie Franconi (Aldina) et de Laurent Franconi (Saint-Amand) / dessinés par Joly. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Pantomimic Melodrama

Meanwhile, in France, the Revolution, constantly afflicted with monumental internal conflicts and a formidable array of hostile foreign powers, required vast, unprecedented experiments in governance to prevent the project from collapsing altogether, and these unfolded under the complicated political system called the Directory (1796-1799), whose very complexity of organization created instabilities that no single political faction could manage successfully yet which nevertheless assured that the concentration of political power favored those who created instability rather than resisted it. The spectacular confusions, corruptions, and conspiracies spawned by the Directory provided a huge stimulus for making melodrama the dominant form of theatrical entertainment in Paris and then elsewhere for decades to come. Melodrama transformed Parisian theater into a major industrial engine of the economy. Charles Nodier (1780-1844) astutely claimed that melodrama, with its inclination toward absolute moral clarity in the construction of dramatic action, functioned like a religious experience “in the absence of a truly moral religion,” like Christianity, which the Revolution had completely undermined, “for Christianity no longer existed, if it had ever existed” (Pixerécourt 1841: viii). Melodrama achieved such a potent hold over enormous and diverse audiences that other forms of theater, even comedy, seemed like incidental, perhaps even anomalous, features of theater culture. The genre and its most successful author, Guilbert Pixerecourt (1773-1844), have therefore long attracted intense scholarly attention, most notably from Ginisty (1910), Mason (1912), Hartog (1913), Lacey (1928), Rahill (1967), Heilman (1968), Brooks (1976), and Waeber (2005). However, with melodrama absorbing so much theatrical energy and imagination and appropriating so many other genres, including pantomimic effects, it is not altogether self-evident how pantomime not only survived but even prospered under the Empire, although on a much smaller scale than the melodrama. Indeed, without Cuvelier and his close association with theThéâtre de la Cité-Variétés and the Théâtre de la Gaîté, pantomime might have disappeared completely, except, perhaps, for whatever remnants of the commedia format that managed to persist, however shabbily, long enough to enable the famous Duburau to construct the iconic, “poetic” Pierrot figure in the 1820s. In his introduction to an anthology of Pixerecourt’s melodramas, Nodier offered some insight into why audiences might prefer pantomime over melodrama as he explained why the language of melodrama was so popular and yet so corrupt:

The education of the people coming out of the revolution was like no other human education. It was made in sections, in the clubs, in the galleries of the Convention, where the French language had undergone an ordeal that threatened to be fatal. Speech had been in peril along with the whole society. They spoke falsely; it was the distinctive character of the epoch. Expressions of that time were matched to the empty and disjointed exaggeration of ideas. Logical orders of thought had given way to a hollow phraselogy, mere sonority, whose impact had become a habit and a need for the public ear. There was a universal mold, useful as a platform, in the bureaucracy, the Cabinet, the press, where the oratorical period infallibly took its form; it was a banal kind of language which was sentenced to receive an imprint [value] before entering circulation, and then fall as a currency in the popular trade. Good writers were not allowed to be surprised by the invasion of this artificial verbiage, whose duration could only be ephemeral, but good writers compose for posterity, and only concern themselves with that (Nodier 1841: x-xi).

Nodier contended that this corruption or hyper-inflation of language under the Revolution and the Directory opened up an opportunity, which Pixerecourt exploited, to produce voices that spoke within a kind of linguistic domain bearing the deflated signs of what one might call a popular (Nodier calls it “epochal”) codification of “sincerity” or “authenticity.” But Nodier also observed that melodrama produced its own kind of “hyperbolic” language to signify the release of the voice from the tyranny or “falseness” imposed on speech outside the theater (1841: xiii). Pantomime appealed to audiences that were distrustful, not only of the extravagant philosophical and political language of the “epoch,” but of the pretensions within melodrama to a mode of speaking that was somehow more sincere or innocent than the society allowed in real life. While the plots of pantomimes often resembled those of melodramas, the point of pantomime was to show the extent to which the moral clarity of narrative and dramatic action was an entirely visual phenomenon, as if speech itself was inescapably the sign of “falseness” imposed upon the body and its movements. Pantomime purported to show how the body alone could articulate moral values through a gestural performance that was closer to nature or some deeper condition of moral truth than was possible as soon as the body, through the voice, entered into an alliance with society or “the epoch” by becoming infiltrated with language. It may seem, then, that pantomime under the Empire had moved, theoretically, far away from the “old” perspectives of Marmontel, Diderot, Cochin, Gretry, Aulnaye, and even Angiolini and Arnould, who understood that human movement lacked any inherent moral value without a spoken or inscribed attachment to language. But Empire pantomime did not actually repudiate the eighteenth century philosophies of the art; rather, it existed to support the perception that language was not necessary, perhaps even irrelevant, to the embodiment or performance of moral qualities.  

Jean-Guillaume-Antoine Cuvelier (1766-1824) was the dominant author of pantomimes during the Directory, the Empire, and the early years of Bourbon Restoration, but he did not confine himself to this genre. He wrote numerous melodramas, comedies, and musicals for the Théâtre de la Cité-Variétés, the Théâtre de là Gaité, the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique and the Cirque Olympique, all of which shared a consortium of investors, including the Franconi circus family. These theaters did not produce only pantomimes, and actors in pantomimes also performed in melodramas, comedies, and light operas. Cuvelier sometimes collaborated with Jean-Baptiste-Augustin Hapdé (1777-1839) on the authorship of pantomimes, although Hapdé composed several on his own, as did Henri Franconi (1779-1849), who specialized in pieces involving animals. Several of the pieces called pantomimes produced by these authors nevertheless contain speeches or spoken dialogues, but none of them contain nearly as much verbosity, tedious expository talk, voicing of sentiments, or speechifying of motives, moral views, or personal history as one inevitably encounters in melodrama. These authors produced slightly more pantomimes than they published, and sometimes publication of the scenarios appeared a few years after the original performance. The point of publication is somewhat obscure, because none of the published scenarios appears to have been performed anywhere but in the Parisian theaters that originally produced them, and even these theaters seldom revived them. The scenarios document the theatrical imagination of their authors; they demonstrate how the authors exploited dramatic and theatrical effects to attract diverse audiences and sustain the sponsoring theaters as powerful commercial enterprises. They are not interesting because of the stories they tell, but because of their skillful compilation of “show business” tropes for which the narratives provide a logic for their display, although the stories are by no means irrelevant in relation to their coding of moral and political values. 

Pantomimes under the Empire and Restoration contained three acts, and almost all of them were “serious” in tone. Yet none ever approached the ambitions and level of artistry achieved by Viganò. Historical themes in exotic settings were standard and provided excellent opportunities for unusual costumes and spectacular scenery; a pantomime with even a scene set in contemporary Paris was perhaps unthinkable. For example: Cuvelier’s Saint-Hubert, ou le cerf miraculeux (1814), takes place in 688 CE, in the Ardennes forest; his Les Hommes de la nature et les homes policés (1801) is set in the New World among Native Americans (“savauges”); La femme magnanime (1812) recounts historical events in Rochelle in 1628; L’Enfant du Malheur, ou les amans muets (1817) takes place in Persia “in the time of Caliph Harooun al Raschild”; Les Tentations, ou tout les diables(1800) is set “in Hell, in the deserts of the Thébaïde, and in a temple of Nature” in an ancient time “before the reign of emperors of the Orient”; Le Mort de Kleber (1819) unfolds in Egypt following Napoleon’s invasion in 1799; for La fille Hussard (1798), “the scene is Germany, near Belgrade”; Le renégat, ou la belle georgienne (1817), set in Palestine in 1191, features Ethiopians, eunuchs, and various Arabic figures in addition to a heroine from Georgia and Crusaders; Le Main de fer, ou l’épouse criminelle (1810) occurs in fifteenth century Dalmatia. Production values were grand: each act entailed a scene change, and often scenes changed within acts. Many scenes take place in the gardens or apartments of palaces, in rural landscapes, forests, deserts, mountains, arbors, or groves. Prison scenes, when called for, apparently belong only in the second act, although scenes of bondage may occur in the third act. But Cuvelier does not describe settings in much detail. For example, for the first act of La fille hussard (1798), set in Germany, “the theater represents a forest; to the left, one sees a little house” (Cuvelier La fille 1798: 3). The scene for the second act exemplifies one of his longer instructions for the scenographer: “The theater represents the park of the chateau of Baron Traumandorf, in which the count and his daughter were received. The back of the theater allows one to see the inside of the fortifications surmounted by an old tower; a guard paces on a platform” (Cuvelier La fille 1798: 9). Scenes often nevertheless required compex lighting effects to represent dawn, twilight, or subterranean grottos: “the twilight of the evening begins to obscure the countryside” (Cuvelier Saint-Hubert 1814: 8). Equestrian and military pantomimes included not only the performance of horses, but also of elephants, as in La Lanterne de Diogene (1808), of a wolf, as in Saint-Hubert, of deer, as also in Saint-Hubertand in Franconi’s Genevieve (1812). Le Mort de Kleber opens with two Arabs “arriving on a camel drawn by a slave” (Cuvelier La Mort 1820: 5). The Cirque Olympique was usually responsible for performing the pieces involving animals, because it had a large stage attached to its arena (McCormick 1993: 29). But this theater also produced works that involved no animals, such as Le coffre de fer (1818), apparently in violation of the theater’s licence, which forbade the production of any dramatic works, including pantomimes or performances involving acting instead of acrobatics. But under the Empire and Restoration, the Cirque Olympique produced shows of such patriotic grandiosity that the government probably found greater benefit to itself by ignoring the law rather than enforcing it. The great majority of pantomimes contained a large number of characters, sometimes as many as twenty-three, requiring separate, named actors, supplemented by plentiful supernumeraries representing crowds, armies, entourages, and such things as “peasants” or “jugglers” or “troupes of Croations” or “ladies of the court.” Occasionally a piece included a small child as a character; Saint-Hubert requires two, Lilirose, age three or four, and Theobert, age five or six, this role performed by a Monsieur Blin, who the following year, 1815, played a three year old in Genevieve, although he had played a similarly aged child in the 1812 production of La Femme magnanime. While the actors remained attached to theaters rather than to authors, Cuvelier, Hapdé, and Franconi clearly wrote parts for specific actors, even if their styles of narrative construction remained consistent across theaters. A variety of composers created or arranged music for the pantomimes, including Othon Vanderbroeck (1758-1832), Alexandre Piccini (1779-1850), and Charles Foignet (1750-1823), among others. Scenarios named scene designers (Isidore, Justin Leys, Moenck) only occasionally and identified those responsible for the mise-en-scène even more rarely, mostly when the author himself was the director, but the Belgian choreographer known as Eugène Hus (1758-1823) received credit as early as 1805 for directing Le Gnome, a “pantomime-magico-buffounne” composed by Cuvelier’s wife, Flore. These persons may seem deeply obscure, but Cuvelier and the other scenarists probably had them more in mind when writing the scenarios than the characters the scenarios propose to be performed. This way of thinking about the “inspiration” for the scenarios was probably fundamental in constructing a pantomimic performance aesthetic that was consistently alluring and powerful insofar as it created an image of humanity that was phantasmal rather than vivid. 

While the pantomimes constantly take place in a historical milieu, the characters themselves have virtually no past: their qualities or personalities are never more than what they display when they first appear and are seldom subject to modification or evolution as a result of interactions within the environment. Ostensibly this lack of a past that formed the character results from the absence of language, which is so helpful in referring to events off stage or previous to the action on stage that explain the character’s qualities or motives. However, pantomime could create “backgrounds” for characters through a different approach to the organization of narrative action on stage. The French preferred to observe as closely as possible the classical unities of time, place, and action, with the optimum time span for the action on stage occurring within twenty-four hours, which generally requires speech for characters to explain motives for action that were formed well before the time in which the story begins: If a character seeks vengeance for a cruelty inflicted on him as a child, then someone on stage must use speech to explain the influence of the past upon the present motives of the character, because gestural signification alone is too imprecise to create a clear distinction between present and past tense, between what happens now on stage and what happened before anything that appears on stage. But when pantomime moves away from the unities and represents larger expanses of time, it could encompass a more complex conception of character, so that a brief pantomimic scene showing, for example, a rich boy’s tormenting of a poor boy for his failure to impress a girl could lead to further brief scenes showing how, over time, an early cruelty has defined the character of a man determined to seek vengeance against an entire social class. Such a pantomime does not need to be any longer than the three-act, forty-minute shows devised by Cuvelier. Indeed, Cuvelier even experimented with this sort of montage encompassing of large stretches of time in La Lantern de Diogene (1807), which depicts Diogenes, carrying his lamp in search of an “honest man,” encountering Alexander the Great, the Emperor Augustus, and the Emperor Charlemagne, before casting his light upon the greatest of all honest men: Napoleon Bonaparte. But this sort of narrative structure was entirely unique within the pantomime culture of the time. French pantomime scenarists remained devoted to the idea that character and motive arise out of a situation that requires no history to explain them. The obsession with compressing the unity of time, place, and action carried with it a conservative attitude toward human identity: situations change rapidly, but characters scarcely change, if at all. In this respect, despite unprecedented resources at its disposal and despite the unprecedented social fluidity of its time, French pantomime remained remote from the imperial Roman idea of metamorphosis and the fundamental instability of human identity. 

To use the 1895 terminology of Georges Polti, the most common “dramatic situation” in French pantomimes of this era is a conflict of sexual passions, in which character A loves character B, who loves character C, who also loves character B; character A therefore resorts to the abduction of character B, which leads to the rescue of character B by character C and the restoration of the loving relation between B and C that prevailed at the beginning of the piece. This dramatic situation was of course a convention of “serious” pantomime well before Cuvelier exploited it, but he and other scenarists developed interesting variations on it. In La Main de fer (1810), for example, one of the longest of all pantomimes, the Dalmatian Duchess of Spalatro has conspired with her palace security officer, Vardowiki, to murder her husband, “the man with the iron hand” (which was the result of a war wound), because she loves his nephew, Stephanos, who, however, loves Angolina, the daughter of the Duke’s closest associate, Bonelli, and his wife, Alexa, a promiment member of the Duchess’s court. The Duchess attempts to imprison both Stephanos and Angolina when they resist her demands, and she devises a scene in which she orders Bonelli, disguised as one of her conspirators, to insert a burning iron rod into the eyes of his own daughter, but father and daughter manage to deceive their enemies into thinking this torture has actually taken place. Disguises are a useful trope for Cuvelier in extricating good people from bad situations. He suavely constructs a scene in which Alexa assists the Duchess in her treachery to protect her daughter Angolina. In the ruins of an ancient mansion, the Duchess, “the ferocious Regilde,” becomes engulfed by the flames of a fire she has set to trap her enemies, and in the fire she sees approaching her a warrior. She draws her sword against him, but the figure transforms into “the horrible skeleton” of the Man with the Iron Hand. This figure, bearing the name of the pantomime, has appeared only once previously, in the second act, when the Duchess has a dream in which she sees her dead husband, as a shadow, accompanied by demons, “monsters with human faces,” who warn, through an intertitle, that before the day is over she will die. Cuvelier acknowledged that he borrowed ideas from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Cuvelier La Main de fer1810: 30). Saint-Hubert opens with an audacious scene: Hubert, the Merovingian Duke of Acquitaine, in the presence of his wife, Fleuribane and their two small children, expresses his “violent love” for Hildefrede, Countess of Louvain. While initially skeptical, Hildefrede finds herself attracted to Hubert and then possessive of him, demanding of him that he make sacrifices as proof of his love. These include his initiation into a wild Druid ceremony, in which, under the spell of an enchantress, he renounces Fleuribane. Hildefrede arranges to have Fleuribane framed for the murder of her own father, Dagobert, whom she, Hildefrede, has engineered through poisoning. In the third act, Hubert and Hildefrede go hunting on horseback, with Hildefrede accompanied by her entourage of “Amazons,” also on horses. Suddenly a violent storm fills the landscape. A “monstrous wolf” enters the scene, causing great “disorder,” as it chases Fleuribane, now a starving fugitive in the forest with her children, and various village women before scattering the hunters. Hildefrede falls from her horse and manages to recover when the wolf returns and chases her until they both fall into a pit to catch wild animals. The shadow of Dagobert appears before Hubert and vocally proclaims Fleuribane’s innocence. Then a deer, “a miraculous animal,” appears, “advancing on a group of clouds,” with “the sign of a new law, brilliant and luminous.” The deer reveals a Christian altar, from which emerges a swan with a gold key tied around its neck by a fire-red ribbon. A “mysterious voice” instructs Hubert to take the key to save his wife and receive the blessing of God. Hubert is deeply repentant, and Fleuribane forgives him, so that the piece concludes with the reunited family on their knees, along with the rest of the huge cast, arms raised toward God, “celestial signs in the clouds.” With this image, “the bloody cult of the Druids is abolished in the Ardennes and France is no longer idolatrous.” The complexity of physical action in this act, with so much going on almost at the same time, suggests how the Cirque Olympique could connect action on its rather large stage to action in the arena, and then create an image at the end whereby, one assumes, the entire cast, on its knees in the arena, extends its arms toward the sign of God in the clouds projected from the stage. Les hommes de la nature et les hommes polices (1801), set on an island in the New World, begins with different Native Americans, “savages,” offering the Indian maiden Hea various gifts, such as crocodile and tiger skins, to win her hand, with Ohi her choice, when a storm arises, causing a ship on the horizon to sink. The Indians save one survivor, the aptly named Badman, the Governor. Hea seems momentarily attracted to Badman, who is aware of her attraction and nourishes it. Cannon fire announces the approach of another English ship coming to the aid of Badman. The captain of the ship arrives and also shows an interest in Hea, but defers to the Governor, which provokes the jealousy of Ohi and precipitates a conflict between the Native Americans and the English marines. Badman abducts Hea and imprisons her on the ship. In his palace, the Governor lives a luxurious, “perfumed” life with the atmosphere of a seraglio. But as an experiment, he allows Hea to wander about alone in a glamorous room, which allows a peculiar scene to develop: Hea discovers her image in a large mirror for the first time and begins to smile at herself. She also uncovers jewels and Western garments and admires herself wearing them. Women from the seraglio, bayadères, enter and instruct her on how to dress in the Western style. Seeing her dressed as a European, Ohi, captured trying to rescue Hea, is amazed and angered, but Badman invites him to adopt a European military uniform and instruction in military arts, which he accepts. Ohi, however, soon realizes that Hea dislikes Badman, even if she is fond of European fashion. Badman does not trust Ohi and has him imprisoned in a dungeon, but Hea develops a plan, involving the jewels for bribery, to free him, which leads to a battle between the Indians and the English, with the Governor triumphant. He orders the execution of Hea and Ohi, but the storm is not over. Lightning strikes Badman and kills him, scattering the English forces. “A luminous cloud develops and brings the two spirits to earth. Ohi and Hea sink to their knees.” In this pantomime, the central characters perhaps experience a greater measure of change than one usually finds in these works insofar as Hea and Ohi apparently remain clothed in European garments at the end, and, by sinking to their knees before the “luminous cloud,” they assume a vaguely Christian pose, although reference to Christian symbols is elsewhere absent. 

These are only three variations of the triangular dramatic situation based on sexual conflicts between characters A, B and C. The dramatic situation seems capable of yielding evernew possibilities for narrative invention. But while this dramatic situation functioned as the foundation for manifold narratives that motivated the performance of the picturesque and often astonishing physical actions that attracted audiences, one cannot overlook the impact of this convenient ordering of dramatic imagination in compromising the power of pantomimic performance, let alone insight into sexual identity or sexual relations. Pantomime narratives serve to uphold utterly conventional ideas of sexuality. Characters never change sexual partners happily. A true and good love is always reciprocated, always given at the beginning of the piece, and, if threatened, restored by the end of the piece. A character whose attraction to another character is unreciprocated is invariably evil and doomed. Powerful, ambitious female characters are demonic, cruel, and insatiably demanding, while “good” female characters, though capable of heroic sacrifices, clever ruses, and amplified signs of resistance, demonstrate their innocence by being in some way imprisoned and the object of unwanted desires. Good male characters, while sometimes deceived or misguided, invariably display martial qualities through combat, although they are not always victorious. L’héroïne suisse, ou Amour et courage (1798), however, deviates somewhat from this template: Esther, the daughter of a former French officer living in Switzerland, is the object of the Swiss governor’s unwanted desire. Frustrated by her disdain for him, the Governor imprisons her, her father, Franker, and her lover, Armand. But she devises an escape, and then returns, in the third act, dressed as a Swiss soldier, to protect her father and boyfriend, bringing with her an insurgent army of peasants. She kills the Governor; Armand and Franker are throughout powerless and function like the innocent, unjustly imprisoned women of later pantomimes. On the level of narrative, it does seem that pantomime became less interesting the further it operated after the Revolution. But Cuvelier did not always stick to the triangular dramatic situation of sexual conflict. In Le Mort de Kleber(1808), a young French officer, Jules, saves his mother, Georgette, from abuse by three Arabs, but Jules himself is attracted to an Arab girl, Samea, who reciprocates his desire, although Georgette tells him that Samea is “not for him.” Samea lives with Kadilla, her grandmother, and Ziska, an Ethiopian slave girl, all of whom are enthusiastic about the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Kleber (1753-1800), the commander of the French army in Egypt following Napoleon’s departure for France in 1799. These three women believe that Kleber will make Egypt a colony of France and as a result Egypt will “enjoy the benefits of civilization and the arts,” a new era of freedom that will bring an end to “wicked harems and dismal prisons.”[1]Yet Kadilla becomes unwittingly the instrument of Kleber’s murder. Much of the pantomime consists of scenes depicting Kleber’s humanitarian qualities, his generosity toward the poor, his concern for the wounded, his tolerant attitude toward the Arabs and even his Mameluke adversaries. He is, moreover, a brilliant general, a skillful negotiater, and a wise administrator. The scenes with Kleber contrast with the scenes of a group of Muslim fanatics, who believe that Kleber’s liberalism will undermine “true faith” in God. These men recruit a young religious student, Soleyman, to precipitate their plan to overthrow the French. The imam, Seid, and Soleyman approach Kadilla and ask her if Soleyman, who claims to be traveling on personal business related to his father, can spend the night in her Cairo home because French troops now occupy the nearby mosque. Kadilla respectfully agrees to accommodate the imam. When night falls, Seid informs Soleyman of Kleber’s presence on a terrace at a table with other officers. As Kleber walks along the terrace, Solyeman stabs him and the engineer who accompanies him. The death-cry of the general ignites pandemonium, cannon fire, fusillades, as the Janissaries commence their insurrection. The French, however, prevail and “massacre” all the insurgents. Jules, having discovered Soleyman hiding in a cistern, battles Seid and then arrests Soleyman. The pantomime ends with the gruesome executions of Seid and Soleyman, who has his right arm burned off before the both of them die slowly as the curtain falls. Cuvelier included a note, one of several bestowing academic dignity on the text, describing how calmly Soleyman accepted his death, crying out when burned that this punishment was not part of the sentence. Le Mort de Kleber is perhaps closer to tragedy than any other scenario Cuvelier composed. In some scenes, he relied heavily on dialogue to reveal the political sentiments of the Arab women, the humanitarian qualities of Kleber, and the conspiratorial framework of the Muslim insurgents. As Cuvelier notes, some of Kleber’s lines were actually quotations ascribed to the general (“Treason needs the shadows of night; true courage reveals itself in broad daylight”), and to some extent Le Mort de Kleber revived the idea of the documentary pantomime introduced by Le Mort de Capitaine Cook. The pantomime was also unusual in combining so much dialogue of a political, philosophical, and diplomatic nature with scenes of men, French and Arab, on horseback and even one scene with Seid and Soleyman on a camel. It is doubtful, though, that Cuvelier used as much dialogue as he did because he did not trust pantomime to signify the ideas constructed with the words. Rather, the effect is of words being powerless to overcome the profound cultural conflict they articulate. Only force, superiority of physical action, resolves this conflict, because force itself presumably carries within it a moral dimension that language may make transparent but not victorious. 

In 1812, Cuvelier returned to the theme of conflict between Muslims and Christians with Le renégat, ou La belle géorgienne, which he revised for its revival in 1817, when he published the scenario (Spieth 2007: 118, 143). It’s not clear what changes Cuvelier made in the piece after five years; most likely the changes accommodated performance possibilities offered by the newly constructed Cirque Olympique. The story divides focus between two characters. Aldina is a Georgian woman sold into slavery and has become a member of Saladin’s harem in Palestine in the year 1191. As a “Circassian beauty,” she represents for Saladin the apex of womanly beauty. But she also awakens the desires of Saint-Amand, a French Templar Crusader and Humfrey, a former Crusader who has become an associate of Saladin in his fight against the Christians, who plan to attack the seraglio and free the women in the harem. Saladin appears as a humane figure, who releases Aldina and allows her to return to Georgia after she intercedes on behalf of Saint-Amand, who has most reluctantly killed Saladin’s brother after the young man willfully failed to acknowledge the Frenchman’s superior combat skills. Saint-Amand, however, remains imprisoned, and Aldina, in collaboration with a eunuch, develops a scheme to free the Templar, whom she loves. Saladin leaves for Egypt and appoints Humfrey the Emir of Palestine. Humfrey discovers the escape attempt and imprisons Aldina and Saint-Amand. The last half of the third act takes place in an ancient Roman “amphitheater-circus,” where Humfrey, perched on his Emir throne above the arena, plans to have wild beasts devour Aldina and Saint-Amand. But Conrad, King of Jerusalem, appears with a great army, launching a huge battle between the Christians and the Saracens, which culminates with the burning of the seraglio palace and the release of the wild animals, who end up devouring Humfrey instead of Aldina and Saint-Amand. The piece is more emphatic than the Le Mort de Kleber in making female identity and freedom the basis for conflict between Islam and Christianity. Picturesque details abound: the sumptuous seraglio, odalisques, a suggestion of lesbianism among the odalisques, “black” eunuchs, “white” eunuchs, “mute” eunuchs, Ethiopians, Arabs and “Saracens,” a harem ballet, Aldina’s Georgian costume, a view of Jerusalem, veiled women, “European ladies” accompanying Conrad’s army of resplendent Crusaders, as well as scenes of Arabs and Crusaders on horseback (the scenario is not clear if any “European ladies” also appear on horseback). Yet this pantomime is less interesting aesthetically than Le Mort de Kleber. Cuvelier incorporates much more dialogue, perhaps because he did not see how physical action alone could make transparent Humfrey’s treachery or Saladin’s humanness. He also included some songs sung by the “old Ethiopian women.” But when Cuvelier writes dialogue or any kind of speech, he becomes verbose and crude, as is more than evident in his melodramas. The piece makes no serious reference to religious or ideological differences between Islam and Christianity: the Crusade seems entirely a project to abolish harems and to affirm European men as more desireable to women than Muslim men. The spectacle contains plenty of combat in all three acts, but this violence lacks the imperial sense of purpose and anti-imperialist insurrectional ambition that brings Le Mort de Kleber to such a dark, bloody conclusion. Le renégat suggests that by 1817 the “serious,” Empire-style pantomime had itself become imprisoned within an exhausted narrative structure built around the show business dramatic situation of “saving” innocent women from corrupt male or female aristocrats. This mode of pantomime could not advance without coming up with better reasons for telling stories that engaged audiences with coherent opportunities for extravagant “action” and spectacle. If it could not advance, then, as will become evident, this mode would disappear. 

Cuvelier himself seems to have recognized that the genre needed to move to a new level of seriousness and artistic ambition, which may account for why he turned his attention to pantomimic adaptations of Shakespearean plays, first with Macbethou Les sorcières de la forêt (1817) and then with Le more de Venise: ou Othello (1818), both produced at the Cirque Olympique. Macbeth unfolds in four acts instead of three. The storm-laden first act consists largely of dialogue, most of it spoken by the three witches, while the last three acts are almost entirely without speech. In a lengthy footnote, Cuvelier explains that he has eliminated the figure of Lady Macbeth because he finds it implausible that Macbeth would commit his crimes to satisfy the ambitions of his wife: it must be his own ambition that is responsible for killing Duncan; moreover, he observes, only one historical source available to Shakespeare makes reference to the “complicity” of Lady Macbeth. Cuvelier’s witch dialogue is not a translation or even a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s, but it is much more economical and mysterious than dialogue that appears elsewhere in his work. Too rational to believe in supernatural beings, he treats the witches as allegorical figures, agents of prophecy, who articulate Macbeth’s insatiable ambition (“Ambition devours his soul”), while Macbeth remains completely silent as they address him with their portents. The figure of Destiny appears, bearing a large book in which is inscribed Macbeth’s future, although only two of the three witches ever speak. In the second act, Cuvelier introduces Idamia, daughter of Duncan, to whom Macbeth proposes marriage in an elaborate dumb-show celebrating Macbeth’s victory over the Norwegians and his appointment as Thane of Cawdor, a scene that is amazing in the amount of political, ceremonial, sexual, and personal information that the performers must convey entirely through pantomimic action. Idamia remains ambivalent toward Macbeth. In this vast scene, Cuvelier includes another female character, Comalla, a gardener in Duncan’s castle, who develops a mutual affection for Hietar, son of Duncan’s steward, but although these two characters assist in Macbeth’s downfall, Cuvelier does not make much of their romance. Instead of Lady Macbeth, Cuvelier constructs Seyton (Satan), his deputy and partner in crime. The drugging of the guards and the murder of Duncan unfold in pantomime, as does the discovery of the murder by Malcolm, Banquo, and Idamia, Macbeth’s feigned shock, and the suspicion directed toward him by Malcolm, Rosse, Banquo, Macduffe, Menteth, Lenox, and Idamia. In the third act, Seyton and his troops pursue Banquo, Malcolm, Rosse, and Lennox on the heath before Macbeth’s castle, where Seyton kills Banquo and captures Malcolm, but the others escape. The scene changes to a garden before a “huge Gothic gallery with a stairway”; statues of Ossian and Fingal adorn the garden. Comalla tries to comfort the sorrowing Idamia, when an “old bard” appears and requests of Comalla that a troupe of bards, led by Hietar, be allowed to pay homage to the statue of Ossian. The old bard plays the harp while Princess Idamia watches “with the aspect of a prophetess.” The old man approaches Idamia, opens his robe, and reveals the senior of the three witches. This witch conducts Idamia to the statue of Fingal, on the pedestal of which are engraved in fire the words: “Macbeth is the assassin.” Macbeth then appears to pursue his idea of a union with Idamia, but Idamia shows him the inscription, which provokes his ire and feigned bafflement. The witch shows Macbeth the murder dagger, then flies off mounted on a dragon. Unperturbed, as if what had transpired was merely a hallucination, Macbeth proceeds with the ceremony of having himself crowned as king, but Idamia and Comalla leave “coldly.” The coronation banquet unfolds in the garden, with the bards singing for a large crowd of soldiers and servants, followed by a ballet. Seyton invites Macbeth’s officers to a “richly serviced table,” and Macbeth descends from his throne to join them. But thunder and lightning explode, and the shadow of Duncan arises, terrifying Macbeth. With the fourth act, Cuvelier returns to more familiar territory with a prison scene in which Hietar, his father, Palm, and Comalla, collaborate with Idamia to free Malcolm from his tower cell by disguising Idamia and arranging for Idamia to take Malcolm’s place in the cell. Macbeth appears, becomes, of course, furious at Malcolm’s escape, and orders the arrest of the collaborators. In the forest, Macbeth and Seyton, with their guards, capture Malcolm, but then flames burst from a rock, revealing the three witches. They release a serpent that attaches to Macbeth’s chest—he screams, and he and his men scatter into the forest while Malcolm sinks in gratitude before the witches, who present him with a horn by which he may call his supporters. Inside a huge military tent, Macbeth suffers intensifying anxiety, a sense of “falling into an abyss.” The three witches visit him and taunt him by conjuring up, through a dark cloud, the phantasmal image of Duncan; they then disappear, and Macbeth “searches to divine whether what he has seen is a dream or reality.” But Seyton and Angus arrive with war banners, ready to attack Malcolm’s army. The final scene is the battle, with Birnam Wood, aflame, advancing toward Macbeth’s forces and led on horseback by Malcolm, Lennox, Rosse, and Macduffe. The three witches appear on an “elevation” overlooking the scene, and the senior witch announces that “the reign of crime is over.” A great battle ensues with Macbeth’s castle becoming engulfed in flames. Malcolm delivers a blow that causes Macbeth to fall from his horse to his death. Macduffe battles Seyton and strikes a mortal blow. Macbeth’s forces surrender. Idamia, all officers, and “the people” gather around Malcolm on his horse, a white steed given to him by the witches, and salute him as the “legitimate sovereign.” 

The piece is exceptionally demanding and even astounding as a pantomimic performance, especially in the monumental second act. But it is doubtful that Cuvelier brought a higher level of seriousness to pantomime by replacing Lady Macbeth with Idamia. His obsession with dramatizing the innocence of women was probably central to Empire-style pantomime’s failure to escape its narrative prison. He was afraid of a morally ambiguous female character, because he apparently assumed that such a character would upset the moral clarity of the performance as a whole. Lady Macbeth is a demonic figure, but she also has a conscience that ultimately destroys her. The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are sinister, amoral creatures, who prophesize but do not assist the “good” characters or the bad. For Shakespeare, ambition, the achievement of power, entails a great struggle with conscience, even if a position of power is a destiny, ordained by mysterious forces beyond human understanding. The lack of moral clarity in the signs of destiny or prophecy allowed Shakespeare to create a far more violent drama of ambition than Cuvelier dared to imagine with basically the same set of signs. Shakespeare has the “innocent” woman in his play, Macduff’s wife, killed off by Macbeth’s hit men; Cuvelier doesn’t even provide Macduffe with a wife, for Idamia, Comalla, and the witches already suffuse the pantomime with the female innocence that brings moral clarity to the world. He contrasts the wifeless Macbeth with all the other wifeless male characters, suggesting that Macbeth’s “illegitimate” quest for power somehow arises out of his partnership with Seyton, although Cuvelier doesn’t really develop this idea with sufficient seriousness, perhaps because he did not understand how to do it. In 1813, Cuvelier’s sometime professional partner, Hapdé, had produced, at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin, a version of Macbeth, Les visions de Macbeth, ou, les sorcières d’Écosse: mélodrame en trois actes, a grand spectacle, as “Tableaux in the genre of Servandoni,” which the police shut down, even though the police had approved production in 1812. Later in 1813, Hapdé submitted the piece as a melodrama for production at the Théâtre de la Gaîte, but the committee there refused to approve its production, because it was too expensive to stage a play with such a “somber” mood (Hapdé 1817: vi). In 1816, Hapdé again submitted to the police the same manuscript approved in 1812, but again was unsuccessful in obtaining approval for performance. Cuvelier’s pantomime Macbeth enjoyed much success at the Cirque Olympique in 1812 and obviously did not suffer suppression when the theater revived the piece in 1817. In a lengthy introduction to his melodrama, Hapdé explains why the work has not been performed. He acknowledges Cuvelier’s Macbeth, “disquised as a pantomime,” but contends that he informed the Cirque Olympique of his own project, which would not cause the Cirque any anxiety. Much of Hapdé’s introduction focuses on the politics and administrative problems of Parisian commercial theater, which is so obsessed with containing costs that it is difficult to produce anything that succeeds. What “ruins” theaters, or theater administrations, is a lack of seriousness and ambition. Macbeth is about an ambitious man. But Hapdé’s Macbeth is “a victim of destiny,” controlled by supernatural powers, like Oedipus (Hapdé 1817: vi-vii). Macbeth is therefore a drama of how great ambition becomes engulfed by great “remorse.” But it is not difficult to see why Cuvelier’s Macbeth achieved success and Hapdé’s did not. Hapdé’s version contains plenty of expensively spectacular scenes, but it also contains a great deal of speech, in prose, as if the theme of remorse requires extensive explanation, an abundant amount of voicing, because pantomimic action is incapable of signifying the deepest measure of guilt, conscience being a voice, not a body, although Hapdé nevertheless includes a pantomimic scene (Act II, Scene vii) in which the labeled, allegorical figure of Remorse, “a species of infernal spirit with long claws,” rises from the floor in Duncan’s room to grab Macbeth, as “the shadow of Duncan escapes the room and places Macbeth between shadow and Remorse.” This Macbeth not only has a wife, Fredegonde, but a small son, Edward, though Fredegonde is more of a supportive than an ambitious wife: she seeks above all to protect her husband from his enemies and regards the prophecy of his kingship as a divine command rather than a motive for action. The witches, however, inform Fredegonde that she can protect her husband from Malcolm’s forces only by sacrificing Edward, and they will not accept the sacrifice of her own life instead. The melodrama ends as Fredegonde, after placing her child in the arms of a witch, sinks with Macbeth into an abyss of fire, while the Spirit of Scotland, Malcolm, the Bards, and the shadow of Duncan appear in an “amphitheater of clouds,” before which soldiers and citizens prostrate themselves. With this scenario, in which his dialogue is on a much higher level than any dialogue Cuvelier wrote, Hapdé tried to move to a more serious level of boulevard performance that did not depend on telling a story of imperiled female innocence. But he discovered that telling a story involving a deeply “remorseful” woman required a lot of talk and a lot of spectacular scenic effects, which, nevertheless, the Théâtre de la Gaîte considered too expensive in relation to such a “somber” representation of marital devotion. Hapdé’s difficulties in getting his Macbeth produced perhaps indicate why Cuvelier decided not to give Macbeth or any other character a wife and to fall back on the popular trope of the innocent female (Idamia) threatened by the desires of a dangerously powerful man. It wasn’t that Cuvelier lacked imagination or courage to move pantomime to a higher level of artistry, which Viganò was achieving at the same time; it was that his society remained too hungry for narratives of endangered female innocence to accommodate other narrative frameworks or female characters who embodied the moral ambiguities embedded in struggles for power and elevated status. 

It is therefore not altogether surprising that Cuvelier’s next Shakespearean pantomime was an adaptation of Othello, the tragic story of a husband’s failure to believe in his wife’s innocence. The three-act scenario, however, is quite difficult to obtain. Michelle Cheyne has read the scenario because she believes that seeing the Cirque Olympique production of it in 1818 in part inspired Balzac to write his own, unsuccessful melodramatic version of the story, Le Nègre (1822).Using passages of dialogue and pantomimic dream sequences, Cuvelier was able “to expand rather than simplify the intrigue to normalize the interracial couple” by “developing backstories” for Othello, Desdemona, and other characters (Cheyne 2013: 87). Desdemona, for example, became attracted to the Moor, “the wild African,” because of his “perilous voyages to Africa” and particularly because he rescued her from a fire while she witnessed a ceremony in the Doge’s palace: “a heroic rescue is the true source of this white woman’s love for a man of a different race” (Cheyne 2013: 87-88). Cuvelier deviates from Shakespeare by introducing the figure of Aviano, Desdemona’s brother, with whom she is close, although Othello is unaware of him. Iago exploits this relationship when he “intercepts a message from Aviano criticizing his sister for her marriage and for her liberty while he is prisoner and unable to wed the mother of his child.” Iago obtains the handkerchief that Desdemona uses to staunch the blood from a wound inflicted on Aviano; the handkerchief was a gift to Desdemona from Othello, but Iago presents it to Othello as if Aviano had received it as a gift from Desdemona (Cheyne 2013: 93-94). These seem like major deviations from Shakespeare’s original telling. But in 1819, an anonymous reader of the London Theatrical Inquistor reported to the editor on the Cirque Olympique production: “This Pantomime has completely succeeded […] If Mr. Cuvelier had made his hero speak, I do not think he would have followed the plan of the English tragedy so closely as he has done. Numerous and striking situations, terrible and extraordinary incidents rapidly succeeding each other, have ensured to this production a brilliant success, amongst a people who are not eminent for reflexion.” The writer goes on to say that pantomime is preferable to melodrama, because “it addresses itself only to the eye, and, at least offers no violence to the understanding” (Theatrical Inquistor March 1819: 192). It would seem that of course pantomime, French or otherwise, would regard Shakespeare’s narrative frameworks as more valuable than his language, which obviously is the basis for his greatness. But in making pantomimes of tales told by Shakespeare, Cuvelier attempted to show how pantomimic action, gestural performance, could achieve a semantic, poetic, and intellectual power that approached the level of seriousness and distinction that Shakespeare achieved through voiced language. For Cuvelier, moving pantomime to a “higher level” meant finding more “serious” narrative frameworks in which to reveal—and contain—the pantomimic virtuosity of his performers. But this strategy made him less bold, less ambitious, and less of an artist than Viganò, who saw that pantomime was at its most “serious” when it developed a new movement aesthetic that overwhelmed the power of established narrative structures to contain it and compelled the creation of new modes of narration unique unto itself. 

Perhaps, however, the most successful of the pantomimic adaptations of Shakespeare was the three-act Hamlet devised by the French dancer and choreographer Louis Henry (1784-1836) for the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in 1816. The great French actor François Joseph Talma (1763-1826) had produced a French language version of Shakespeare’s text a few months earlier (October 1815) at the Académie Royale de Musique, a “profound” performance, “among the most beautiful in a long time” (Journal de Paris 20 Octobre 1815: 3-4). Henry’s piece was also successful—in Paris and beyond. He toured with his Hamlet, in which he performed the role of Hamlet; a German translation of the scenario appeared in 1817 after Henry led a performance of it at the Kärnthnerthortheater in Vienna, although the German translation describes the piece as a “five-act ballet,” not a three-act pantomime, and contains five scene changes, not three. Yet the translation is quite close to the original and the music, by Count Robert de Gallenberg (1783-1839), was the same, even if the actors, except for Henry, were different. In Paris, Henry used actors from the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin, including, in the role of Gertrude, Marie Quériau, who, “as a mime,” enjoyed a “European reputation” (d’Argé 1823: 502), but also a large corps of dancers. In Vienna, Henry employed Austrian and Neapolitan dancers, including his own wife, who performed the role of Gertrude, but apparently not as large a ballet corps as in Paris. Some ballet historians refer to the work as a ballet, although the term “ballet” at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin and in German-speaking lands did not mean quite the same thing as it did in the “official” ballet culture of the Paris Opera. Yet in neither Paris nor Vienna did anyone consider calling the work a ballet pantomime, still a popular genre throughout Europe. Henry produced dances for the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin and choreographed a prodigious number of ballets in Naples at the Teatro San Carlos, but because he clearly identified his works as pantomimes, ballets, or ballet pantomimes, the distinction between his Hamlet as a “pantomime tragique” in Paris and as a ballet in Vienna is puzzling, and may have more to do with audience expectations than with performance aesthetics, so that in Vienna “ballet” competed more effectively with official Parisian authority over the term (see also Sheidley 1993: 56-60). In both the French and German versions of the scenario, the action unfolds pantomimically. One action follows another in rapid succession, with each action adding to the construction of the narrative and introducing complexities of emotion, motive, and relations, sometimes deceptive, between characters. Act III, Scene 2 even contains dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude when Hamlet accuses his mother and Claudius of his father’s murder. But the pantomimic action from scene to scene is remarkably vivid, concise, and intense. Here, for example, is Act I, Scene 4:

Ophelia, daughter of the latter [Claudius], appears. Hamlet, in his approach, reveals a feeling so violent that Gertrude perceives that he is madly in love.

Considering his desire, she asks if the princess has captured his heart. Hamlet avows the passion he has conceived for Ophelia, who, despite the blush that covers her face, suggests that she returns the feelings of her lover. Gertrude, stirred by his wishes, proposes to Claudius to unite them. The latter, concealing his rage, pretends to consent (Henry 1816: 7).

To convey these actions swiftly yet convincingly, without clumsy exaggeration or danced repetitiveness, requires considerable performative and directorial sophistication. Much of the piece is a chamber drama involving only four characters (Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia), with Norceste (Laertes) appearing occasionally to receive and execute Hamlet’s “secret orders.” The large ballet corps performs in the two fêtes that celebrate the coronations of Claudius (Act I, Scene 6) and then Hamlet (Act II, Scene 9). The conclusion of the piece is significantly different from Shakespeare’s original telling. In a subterranean tribunal, Hamlet appears before the Senate, accused by Claudius of conspiracy against the state. To save her son, Gertrude confesses to the crimes committed by herself and Claudius, but Claudius persuades the Senate that she is merely acting out of motherly protectiveness. The Senate condemns Hamlet to death. Ophelia then appears to affirm Hamlet’s innocence. But when the Senate appears unmoved, she draws a dagger from her breast and stabs Claudius to death. A blast of lightning strikes the scene and the subterranean chamber becomes engulfed by a darkness out of which arises the apparition of Hamlet’s father, who signifies the real assassins and Hamlet’s innocence. Gertrude falls dead, as the apparition raises the crown to Hamlet. While few would propose that this ending offers the depth of tragedy with which Shakespeare concluded his Hamlet, Henry’s version does possess a weight or gravity of feeling, a gripping austerity or solemnity of mood, that Cuvelier, with his heavy reliance on grandiose spectacle, never achieves. The piece evokes as no other pantomime of the time the old, ominous dumb shows that Shakespeare himself knew and used in Hamlet.

            The Shakespearean pantomimes may have brought the genre to a new level of seriousness, but this new level of seriousness did not secure a sturdy future for the large-scale dramatic pantomime that had evolved over the seventy years since Angiolini and Audinot had introduced it. By 1821, Viganò was dead, Cuvelier focused on melodrama until his death in 1824, and Henry had decided that his future lay in ballet, chiefly in Naples. Continually frustrated in his dealings wth the boulevard theaters, Hapdé had by then largely retreated from moving to a “higher level” of production or from producing any new theater works, his last resonant writing being a moving account of the military hospitals he supervised under Napoleon, Les Sépulcres de la Grande Armée (1814). Perhaps his most interesting pantomime was the four-act L’Enlèvement d’Hélène et le fameux cheval de Troyes (1811), an almost unimaginably vast spectacle requiring a gigantic cast–Helen, Paris Menelaus, Ulysses, Philoctetes, Pyrrhus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Laokoon, Priam, Hector, Penthesilea, Andromaque, many gods, Amazons, Trojans, Greeks, to mention but a few—and one monumental scene after the next to support the story of a woman rescued from her “abduction” at an enormous cost. In 1814, Hapdé published a pamphlet, De l’Anarchie théâtrale, in which he argued that Parisian theater culture had sunk into a self-destructive chaos because theatrical genres had become so confused and disordered, with theaters producing too many shows that included too many incongruous performance elements in a doomed effort to be serious and excessively indulgent toward audiences at the same time. To curtail this aesthetic and economic “anarchy,” Hapdé proposed that the government set up a system or an administrative unit that defined all theatrical genres, established rules for their production, and advanced laws regulating theaters according to the genres assigned to them. A sympathetic reviewer for the Journal de Paris blamed the anarchy on the melodrama, a creation of the Revolution, which destroyed all genres by absorbing them. But he recommended an “active surveillance” of the theaters, because the melodrama was more the creation of its audience than of persons possessing any refinement of taste. Hapdé’s proposal was actually too tame, but the reviewer’s was sarcastic: a count or baron should be present in each theater, accompanied by soldiers with bayonets. At gunpoint, audiences would receive orders to whistle at protected, powerful men and untalented actresses, “as was done before” [the Revolution]. “And it would also be nice to restore those wise provisions” in which a young girl, seduced by gold or the “vilest ministers of pleasure” was “exempt from the holiest authority” as soon as the pensionaires of the Académie Royale de Musique were enrolled (Journal de Paris 30 September 1815: 3-4). But this convoluted jesting nevertheless constructs a useful insight: the reviewer implies that theater audiences had become deeply, rigidly, perhaps even inescapably fixated on the melodramatic narrative in which an heroic figure (usually male) rescues an innocent victim (usually female) from a predatory but (usually) not alluring character. Only by force, “at gunpoint,” would audiences endure any modification or abandonment of this narrative structure. This assertion may seem exaggerated, but consider variations of the “dramatic situation” that seriously alter the emotional texture of the narrative structure: a heroic figure fails to save an innocent person from a predatory character (the classic tragic structure). Or: a heroic figure saves a person who is really not innocent or changes from innocent to evil (predatory). Or: the person who saves an innocent character is not innocent or not consistently heroic. Or: a predatory figure becomes more alluring to the innocent person than the heroic figure and perhaps only God can “save” the innocent person, as in the late medieval Dutch miracle play Marike van Nijmegen (ca. 1499) (Coigneau 2002: 148-149). Or: the heroic figure must save a predatory figure from an innocent person who has become predatory. Or: as the reviewer for the Journal of Paris suggested, the narrative contains no innocent person; a young girl has to overcome repressive moral scruples and “good” people to save herself from a dismal existence. These alternative narrative structures were not more difficult to construct than the dominant model of the heroic rescue of innocence. Rather, they were more difficult to imagine, because any alternative to the dominant model would bring about the collapse or at least a deep uncertainty of the morality projected through the model. Indeed, the dominant or default narrative model of the heroic rescue of innocence was so powerful that it functioned almost like a religion engulfing theater audiences, who by no means consisted merely of dull, pious illiterates. 

The reasons for the rather abrupt end of the Empire style pantomime in the early 1820s are peculiar because they arose out of a peculiar set of conditions. The spectacle pantomimes did not disappear because audiences had grown tired of them or because audiences sought a “higher level” of pantomime than producers supplied or because other entertainments had somehow rendered pantomime obsolete or uncompetitive. On the contrary: well before 1820, the Cirque Olympique was the only venue in Paris supplying spectacle pantomimes, though not only these, and this huge theater, operating between April and October, continuously attracted larger audiences per performance than probably any other theater in the city. Pantomime did not benefit greatly from attentive theater criticism, although the heavy censorship of the era severely limited the capacity of the press to introduce moral, aesthetic, or political ideas that did not receive approval from the government. A royalist and then a Bonapartist, Jean Louis Geoffroy (1743-1814), was a pioneer of the feuilleton for the Journal des débats and a kind of public spokesman for imperial France (Bara 2008: 166-167). He was a conservative who believed that the greatness of French theater manifested itself through the use of the French language, especially as Racine and Corneille had revealed its expressive power. He nevertheless acknowledged that pantomime is “often more eloquent than speech,” even if “we are not really as passionate about pantomime as it had once become for the Greeks and Romans” (Geoffroy, Cours V 1820: 127). He wrote long, enthusiastic reviews of the ballet pantomimes produced by Gardel, for the Opera ballet company, and by Gardel’s chief rival, Jean-Louis Aumer (1774-1833) for the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, especially the latter’s hugely ambitious and luxurious Cléopâtre, reine d’Égypte (1808), whose impressive and tragic third act, “it is best to remember is not a ballet but a pantomime; for the ancient Romans, far from forbidding the tragic in pantomime, made all the Greek tragedies into pantomimes” (Geoffroy, Cours V 1820: 139). Geoffroy, like Marmontel, was always doubtful that ballet or pantomime could represent ideas or philosophical perspectives. Yet in his long review of Cléopâtre, his own description of what he saw shows that the piece was quite effective in representing through physical action a fairly complex relationship between political and sexual power even as he claims that pantomime is incapable of doing it: 

The world divided between two masters, one a bad warrior, but a good politician; another a good captain, but a slave to his passions; fortune and victory siding with reason and caution, leaving valor lost to debauchery, the complete toy of a coquette: these are objects that pantomime cannot attain; but as the artifices of a new Armide seduce a warrior, the whole arsenal of the coquetry becomes more attractive, the loves, the games, the smiles, the zephyrs, the nymphs, the orgies of Bacchus, the intoxication joy, love and wine, none of this gets better in the character of an opera (Geoffroy, Cours V 1820: 135).

Aumer even complicated the narrative by introducing the character of Octavia, the sister of Octavian and the wife of Anthony, to put Anthony not only between Cleopatra and Octavian, but between Cleopatra and Octavia, while putting Octavia between Anthony and Octavian, as well as between Anthony and Cleopatra. Anthony “turns to his wife with tender looks; but his eye is inflamed at the sight of his mistress: pity pleads for Octavia, love decides for Cleopatra” (Geoffroy, Cours V 1820: 136). Geoffroy displayed, however, an even more ambivalent attitude toward pure pantomime, although most of what he reviewed as “pantomime” were ballet pantomimes produced at Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin. He was generous in his praise of the astonishing skill of pantomime performers at incarnating complex characters entirely through movement, especially female actors, such as Madame Quériâu, a “vulgar” dancer, but a brilliant actress, who (in 1806), while “very distinguished in comic pantomime,” had (in Jenny, ou le marriage secret) “come to surpass herself in tragic pantomime: it is difficult to carry theatrical expression any further or to paint with greater energy the passions of the soul through the movements of the body and the face” (425). He saw pantomime as an art of performers and even gave advice on pantomime performance: “if [a pantomime] would be truly moving, he will be sober in his performance; he will not fatigue so much with convulsive movements. Nothing announces a cold actor better than the exaggeration of play [jeu]” (428). But Geoffroy was never insightful about the narratives he described in detail, nor did he have much at all to say about the significance of pantomime for his time other than occasionally to contrast it with the Romans. His reviews of shows at the Cirque Olympique were much shorter than his reviews of the ballet pantomimes of Gardel and Aumer; these focused on the use of picturesque effects and trained wild animals, although he surmised that the Romans probably surpassed contemporary Paris in the production of such entertainments. Still, “the elephant at the Cirque is remarkable for his docility; at least he is a curiosity of nature, brought in to attract the attention of reasonable people as much as any curiosity of art” (439). Even so, Geoffroy was almost the only critic writing about this rich period of pantomime history, in great contrast to all the pre-Revolutionary philosophical discourse on pantomime. When he died in 1814, press commentary on pantomime became very scarce, at best not much more than occasional announcements of pantomime performances. While the absence of an external published discourse on pantomime did not seem to harm attendance at pantomime performances, it failed to exert any pressure on pantomime culture to move beyond the borders of audience expectations. Such pressure had to issue from within pantomime culture. But unlike in the Roman pantomime culture, this pressure within the Parisian pantomime culture was not the result of competition between pantomimes or pantomime companies, for the political environment under Bonaparte and then under the Bourbons was hostile to competition as a strategy for revising and raising audience expectations. The distinction between pantomime and ballet pantomime, though at times muddled in practice, served, like the scheduling of performances, to inhibit competition between companies for audiences of the same category of entertainment. 

            The Empire style spectacle pantomime came to an abrupt end because those who created it no longer had anything to offer in the genre. Despite Geoffroy’s focus on pantomime performers, the spectacle pantomime was the medium of scenarists and directors, not performers. The huge casts for spectacle pantomimes show that many actors possessed skill in pantomimic performance. Except for Henri Franconi, however, none of this prodigious pantomimic talent manifested any ability to construct pantomimic narratives. Only a few persons could actually think out pantomimic action as a “serious” narrative that could attract audiences. Of these few, Cuvelier dominated so powerfully that the others found it extremely difficult to imagine narratives outside of the narrative paradigm or model that he established. To imagine three serious, coherent acts of pantomimic action involving numerous characters and seductive scenic effects is a very rare talent, even if it never achieves the visionary artistic grandeur of Viganò. It was so much easier to tell a melodramatic story with dialogue and monologues. It was also less costly: large-scale pantomimic action required much more preparation and rehearsal time. Melodramas may not have attracted larger audiences than pantomimes, but they probably produced greater profits. To justify the costs, creative as well as financial, of producing spectacle pantomimes, scenarists had to move the “serious” pantomime to a “higher level.” But it was clear that a higher level did not require an enhancement of pantomimic performance skill or of scenic splendor. From the perspective of Cuvelier, who was the controlling spirit of the spectacle pantomime, a higher level meant innovation in the narrative organization of pantomimic action. The turn to Shakespeare was an effort to invest the spectacle pantomime with a deeper level of seriousness, but Cuvelier’s unwillingness to abandon the heroic rescue of innocence model of narrative structure showed that he had reached the limit of his imagination in constructing a narrative that he believed would attract audiences large enough to pay for its performance. To work on a smaller scale, as Henry had with his Hamlet, was apparently not a sustainable option. Though Henry’s production for the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin appears to have enjoyed considerable success even outside of Paris, he seems to have decided that he could achieve just as much success with less creative toil by producing ballets and ballet pantomimes. In any case, at the Cirque Olympique, which by 1820 was the sole producer of spectacle pantomimes, the huge performance space was not conducive to small-scale productions; without grandeur and grandiosity of production, the theater had no audience. In the 1820s, the Franconis realized that audiences no longer required melodramatic stories and morality to justify their pleasure in spectacle. A new narrative model was more profitable: a program of circus acts that built tension and excitement through the astute juxtaposition of discrete acrobatic and scenic stunts rather than through a unified narrative that had to accommodate the constraints imposed upon “stories” by the tediously narrow morality of the era. But viewed from the twenty-first century, the Empire style pantomime appears as an incredible accomplishment, unimaginable in our own time, not because our own time lacks the resources but because our own time lacks confidence in unregulated bodily signification to sustain audience attention on such a large narrative scale. Cuvelier’s era could not move pantomime beyond the narrative paradigm he perfected, but our own era suffers great difficulty even in building large narratives entirely out of bodily movements that are not dances, not a bunch of steps, positions, and movement tropes imposed upon the body to prevent narrative from urging the body to override systems designed to regulate it and keep it from attempting stories that are “too difficult” to tell. 

[1]Cuvelier was a founder of the Sophisian order in Paris, a branch of the Freemasons that performed in secret supposedly ancient Egyptian rituals retrieved from oblivion by Napoleon’s archeological projects in Egypt. Cuvelier recruited numerous theater people to the order (Spieth 2007: 118, 143).

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