The Rise and Fall of Pierrot: Gilburnia (1856)

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

Gilburnia (1856)

Even stranger was the pantomime scenario Gilburnia, “completed among the flying fish of the Gulf of Bengal” in 1856 by an Italian, Raffaello Carboni (1817-1875), but not published in Rome until 1872. An Australian-Italian scholar, Tony Pagliaro, discovered the text in Rome and published (1993) a facsimile of it as well as a translation and detailed annotation of it. Born into modest circumstances in Urbino, Carboni studied philosophy at Urbino University without graduating. In the 1840s, he became embroiled in legal difficulties resulting from his involvement in a conspiracy against the papal government of Urbino and from a charge of sexual harrassment. He fled to London, where he worked as an interpreter for Italian exiles. News of gold discoveries in Australia motivated him to travel there in 1852 and seek his fortune as a gold prospector. Gold mining proved to be a hugely unhappy experience. He became involved in the 1854 Eureka Rebellion, in which miners revolted against the colonial government’s corrupt attempt to require miners to purchase licenses before they could prospect. After government troops massacred miners at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, Victoria, Carboni was among those arrested and put on trial. The jury acquitted him and all other “conspirators,” which led to numerous political reforms in Australia. In 1855, Carboni published in English in Ballarat his book The Eureka Stockade, which is the only eyewitness account of the rebellion and the work for which Carboni is best remembered. But Carboni decided a literary career suited him better than gold prospecting, and he returned to Italy, composing Gilburnia while making the long journey home. Unlike other miners, Carboni was curious about the Aborigines and evidently spent time interacting with them, possibly even living with them (Carboni [Pagliaro] 1993: vii, xviii-xxi). 

            In eight scenes, Gilburnia depicts conflict between an indigenous tribe, the Tarrang, and white miners. The action takes place in Tarrangower, a mining site about a hundred miles north of Melbourne. The opening scene presents the idyllic life of the Tarrang in a documentary manner and introduces Gilburnia, daughter of the tribal elder, a “distinguished creature in gleaming skin, without blouse, dress or sandals” (8). Members of the tribe hunt down a kangaroo with a pack of dogs. Gilburnia “trembles with joy as she waits” for the hunters to return with the kill that honors her. The hunter she loves, Rang, drops the kangaroo before her, but a rival, Boom, contests the assertion that Rang killed the animal. According to tribal convention, Rang and Boom must fight with boomerangs to determine who killed the kangaroo and who will marry Gilburnia. However, when Boom defeats Rang, Gilburnia spurns him and “already despises the law of the tribe.” Boom seizes Gilburnia and attempts to “tame” her by tying her to a gum tree. Led by Gruno, a gang of white gold miners bearing guns approaches. Their drunken gunfire scatters the Tarrang. Gruno seizes Gilburnia and takes her to his camp. There another miner contests Gruno’s claim to Gilburnia, which leads to a violent fight, which Gruno wins. He washes himself in preparation for raping Gilburnia. The scene changes to the Tarrang, who plot to attack the miners and free Gilburnia. Fleeing the miners, Boom disappears into the forest, but loses his footing on a cliff and falls to his death; the tribe performs a perfunctory funeral ceremony, then marches off to attack the miners, leaving the elder behind. Gilburnia appears and explains how she slipped away from Gruno’s tent during the fight. “Where is Rang?” she wonders, but her father warns that her lover has gone to fight the miners. The Tarrang burn down the miners’ camp at night and set the forest on fire. The warriors decide to rest in the moonlight beside a pool. But the enraged miners attack them and scatter them. Gruno discovers the elder and demands that he reveal where Gilburnia is hiding. When the elder refuses, Gruno prepares to lynch him. Rang appears and kills Gruno with his club, which, a flashback reveals, Gilburnia had put into his hand. A miner shoots Rang in the arm; troopers arrive and arrest him and all the other Tarrang fighters. The scene shifts to a courthouse in the morning, where the Protector of Natives presides over a tribunal of the accused Tarrang. The miners tell lies about Gruno “saving” the “black girl” from ritual sacrifice; the Tarrang had kidnapped her. The Tarrang want her to testify, but the miners claim she died in the forest. But she appears and testifies. The Protector, however, “only finds the fetters, not the victim.

Gilburnia, leaving him with the chains, transferred the scene to the bush. Permitting the tribe to kiss her breasts in homage she then intones the Moon goddess’s May song. She then sought out the sarsaparilla violets and bound with sage the garland her father placed upon her again. He proclaimed her queen of Tarrango. She took her seat beside the lagoon and clearly Rang is her destined bridegroom. […] He has no other wish if she beside him… And… therefore the pantomime finishes (32).

Except it doesn’t. The author remarks that it is his “duty to explain” how the Tarrang escaped the whites. In the court, the Protector ignores Gilburnia’s testimony, the all-white male jury unanimously votes guilty, and the Protector sentences all the Tarrang fighters to death. A “violent hurricane explodes” and “destroys the court.” “Everything disappears!” The scenario concludes with an Old Testament quotation: “So the evil will fly and be scattered, like leaves in thrall to the autumn wind” (Carboni 1993: 1-33). 

            As a pantomime, Gilburnia is remarkable for more than its unusual subject matter. For one thing, Carboni wrote the scenario in rhymed verse, to create the effect (for the reader at least) of an epic poetic tale. He also included an “Antarctic vocabulary” of terms used in the text that are unique to the Australian milieu. Carboni wanted pantomime to create a sort of anthropological documentary on the environment and culture of the Tarrang that was far more innovative than earlier docu-pantomimes like Arnould’s Captain Cook project or Cuvelier’s Le mort de Kleber. In the opening scene, the stage must evoke through scenic effects the dynamics and challenges of the landscape: “On the plain there are no navigable rivers, but dry creek beds most the year. [ . . . ] Oh, God, what a hardship! Are the gates of heaven broken then, if the current is so terrible in the channel that devours it? [ . . . ] The ants are furious when touched and the tongue of the horse fly burns. [ . . . ] Since the forest is the realm of parrots of every language, colour, form and beak, May is a ceaseless Babel. […] The pasture is empty, immense, idle. It has no fruit, vegetable or single plant to satisfy the wanderer’s hunger” (6-7). The pantomime must show general cultural attributes of the Tarrang across different times of the year: “When the full moon in the month has come, the savages from all about gather near the pool for their festivities. […] The entire tribe will pay homage to the goddess, singing and dancing their May song together. [ . . . ] In the dog days of February, absorbed in sweet idleness, the black remains in his shelter under trees. [ . . . ] Setting out for the mountain the savage already is scaling the bark of the gum trees and strangling the possum in its lair” (7-8). The ethnographic montage of scenes from the life of the tribe as a whole concludes with the igniting of a fire behind which stands Gilburnia: “In the light she re-adorns herself. A sarsaparilla necklace of double bells meets with her approval.” But Carboni also includes an ethno-montage of the miner culture: “He who does not gaze into the depths of dark eyes oppressed by gold fever can have no idea of how it intoxicates. [ . . . ] One man sweating pours water on the earth that he has dug out and carried to the waterhole to wash. Elsewhere ‘another’ squanders his gold. [ . . . ] A fourth coughs up blood in his attempts. He’s out of luck, just like Aesop’s dog. Trying to cross the river with meat in his mouth. The bread he has eaten has cost its weight in gold. [ . . . ] In the springtime of his fortune, a fifth, working on the vein of gold, considers himself a king as he thinks of the journey back to his homeland. Suddenly the shaft collapses with a roar! Alive at two hundred feet or so, he remains in the depths, his greed at an end. The hut of a sixth has caught fire. He was asleep from exhaustion and perhaps in his drunkenness didn’t notice what had happened. Oh, addiction to liquor! The plague of the gold-fields” (15-17). Carboni envisioned a pantomime capable of cinematic displacements of time and space, including flashbacks, as well as a newsreel type documentation of remote, contesting cultures. But while he introduced audacious, challenging effects, nothing in his scenario was beyond the capacity of imaginative directors, designers, or actors to perform. Pagliaro contends that the pantomime narrative restores the Tarrang characters to the idyllic status quo that began the piece; the violent storm is the “divine justice” that supersedes the corrupt justice of the white miners (xvi). But the bizarre ending in a flashback suggests that the harmonious return to nature and marriage did not really satisfy Carboni, and he wanted to leave his reader or spectator with a violent image of destruction. Gilburnia finds the laws of her own people as oppressive as those of the whites. Men within each culture fight each other for control over a woman, and then the cultures fight each other for control over her. Her desire is not for the man who wins the fight. But her desire does not bring justice; an annihilating hurricane must intervene. Both cultures must “disappear” if her desire is to prevail. 

            Carboni’s motive in writing the pantomime is obscure. Although he published (1859, 1872) a couple of ballet scenarios for insertion into dramatic works, he never wrote another pantomime, and he did not publish Gilburnia until seventeen years after he wrote it. Yet in the published texts for his “grand opera ballet” La Campana della Gancia (1861) and for his “Roman drama” La Santola (1861), the publishers list the “latest version” (1859) of Gilburnia as “available.” He published several dramas in different genres throughout the 1860s and compiled them into a two-volume anthology (1872-1873) (71). Gilburnia has never received a performance, but neither have any of his other dramatic works. The literary and theatrical success he longed for eluded him, despite his friendships with prominent authors, politicians, and aristocrats. He traveled restlessly around Italy and participated in Garibaldi’s Risorgimento movement, but his friends seemed not to take him seriously (xxiii; cf. Lorch 1969). His health deteriorated, and he died in Rome in a charity hospital. Pagliaro claims that Carboni’s literary influences were once popular but now forgotten writers and journalists, and he speculates that Carboni’s interest in pantomime derived from experience of the ballo pantomimo. But Carboni concludes several scenes with explicit reference to pantomime: “The BEAUTY of the pantomime commences”; “Now comes the GOOD of the pantomime”: “And the BEST of the pantomime follows,” and so forth (15, 20, 24). The scenario makes no reference to music or dance, except for the early ethnographic scene of the tribe dancing to the accompaniment of tapping sticks, “just like violinists,” “the forte and the piano, beating the singer’s tune, until he’s out of breath and accompaniment is vain” (7). But the 1861 publication announcements list Gilburnia as a “pantomime for ballet dancers with a symphony.” Still, it is indeed difficult to see how a choreographer could treat the scenario as either a ballet or a ballet pantomime, simply because Carboni sees the action unfolding without any reference to correlate musical effects but includes various sound effects, such as parrots squawking in the forest. Carboni chose pantomime as the medium for Gilburnia because he wanted to tell a story of sexual conflict, female desire, and male authority that only the speechless actions of “foreign” bodies could perform. The achievement of justice depended on seeing bodies without prejudice, without staking a “claim” to them, and without speaking of them. But to achieve this goal, he had to invent an utterly new kind of pantomime, one that no one had seen nor would. He exhibited a strange, endearing faith in his project, for it is impossible to imagine any theater or any actors of the time willing to represent the Tarrang or even the miners. It is difficult to imagine it even for our own time. 

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