Germanic Pantomime: Pierrot in Vienna

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

Pierrot in Vienna

While Wagnerism failed to leave a significant imprint on French pantomime, in German-speaking lands of the early twentieth century French pantomime encouraged writers for the stage to see pantomime in relation to Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art, an opportunity for innovation. Vienna became a hub for modernist pantomime until the end of the Habsburg Empire. But even before modernist ambitions invaded pantomime culture, German-speaking lands had long accommodated—some might even prefer to say tolerated—a taste for pantomime built around the commedia format, although Germanic pantomimes throughout the nineteenth century focused overwhelmingly on Harlequin rather than on Pierrot, with the roguish figure of Harlequin often adopting the German name of Hanswurst, a grotesque carnival character who was perhaps even older than the Italian Arlecchino (cf. Jürs-Munby 2007; Rommel 1952). In German lands, as in Italy, the commedia characters did not always or even mostly appear without speech. Pantomime performances tended to occur in conjunction with marionette plays, Singspiele, or Zauberspiele, in which audiences delighted as much in “magical” scenic effects as in any display of acting. The idea never took hold of pantomime as a unique art that did not require “containment” within some larger structure of entertainment involving speech or singing. Actors who achieved fame playing Harlequin or Hanswurst, such Joseph Anton Straniztky (1676-1726) and Franz Schuch (1716-1763), were not pantomimes, and no pantomime performer in or from German lands ever achieved anything approaching the fame of the Deburaus, Legrand, Rouffe, or Séverin. In France, pantomime evolved out of the determination of state theaters to diminish competition from popular theaters by depriving the foire theaters of speech. In German-speaking lands, literary elites campaigned against the popular Hanswurst theater because they believed that popular theater corrupted public taste and prevented the emergence of a strong, public, state theater capable, by the end of the eighteenth century, of absorbing its prodigious enthusiasm and talent for drama, fuelled to a large extent by awareness of Shakespeare and ancient Greek tragedy among the university-educated class, which was indeed very small. The stage was crucial in establishing the unifying power of the German language and voice, as shaped especially by elevated literary imaginations keen to fashion themselves as aristocratic leaders of culture. In other words, class distinctions probably played a greater role in German lands than in France in the evolution of pantomime culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, theater audiences in German lands, as in England, largely regarded pantomime as an entertainment for childish, naïve spectators, a kind of clown show. But even dance culture lacked distinction in German lands prior to the arrival of Isadora Duncan in 1903. 

Hartmut Vollmer proposes that a “crisis of language” within Viennese literary society precipitated a preoccupation with pantomime, for the modernist pantomime in Vienna and elsewhere within the German-speaking world, was largely the work of literary personalities, whose most lauded achievements, however, were not pantomimes. This “crisis of language” was somewhat similar to the crisis of language already ascribed to the French decadents involved with the Cercle Funambulesque, except that the Viennese authors were less inclined to link their crisis of language with a crisis of male identity. Vollmer’s thesis is that by the 1890s, sectors of the Viennese literary culture had become deeply disillusioned with naturalism and the use of language to create increasingly precise and detailed descriptions of the sensory world. Language seemed unable to reveal “interior” states of being, “invisible” realms of reality that lay hidden within a psychic domain that the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) had begun to theorize through his concept of the unconscious. In the theater, an oppressive fetishization of words and speech prevented any clarifying relation between subject and object. Hugo von Hofmannsthal claimed in an 1895 essay that theater audiences had become weary of talk in the theater: “for as usual words do not build the power of the human but instead the human in the power of the words. Words do not give but instead spin away all life from the speakers” (Vollmer 2011: 26; Hofmannsthal 1979a: 479). 

In 1888-1890, the Austrian author Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) visited Paris to report on political affairs but instead became captivated by the anti-naturalistic literary activities of the Decadents. He attended performances of the Cercle Funambulesque, including L’enfant prodigue, and in 1890 he published in the journal Deutschland a tendentious article on “Pantomime,” in which he asserted that pantomime alone of all theatrical forms escaped the accusation of provoking boredom because it avoided any expectation of accommodating a familiar “sense of reality.” Pantomime, he wrote, was “not about humans but about Pierrot [… and] its only home, which it never abandons for a moment, is the fantastic.” He saw pantomime as a transitional form of theater between the “unbearable” theater of “the old” and a new theater that has “yet to discover itself” (Bahr 1890: 748-749). Bahr then wrote his own Pierrot pantomime, Die Pantomime vom braven Mann (1892), which featured several of the standard commedia characters but applied them to a “decadent” narrative: Pierrot performs good actions on behalf of his friends Scaramouche, Pantalon, Arlequin, and Colombine, but they all betray him, and each of his good deeds winds up punishing him (Vollmer 2012a: 17-22). After Bahr published it in 1893, the piece appears to have had only one performance, in Dessau, in 1905, with music by one Fritz Ritter. Bahr in 1901 confided to his friend Arthur Schnitzler that he thought the piece was “very, very bad” (Vollmer 2011: 55), and the Austrian poet Richard Schaukal (1874-1942), reviewing, in Das litterarische Echo (1902: Vol. 4: 1006), a 1902 anthology containing the pantomime, agreed, sneering that Bahr had created “repulsive-soft non-art,” although he himself the same year had published a luxurious volume of verse exquisitely illustrated by Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942), Pierrot und Colombine, which depicted the two characters as glamorously decorative creatures inhabiting an elegant world of lush, refined pleasures. In the same year (1892) that Bahr wrote his pantomime, the Viennese author Richard Beer-Hofmann (1866-1945), wrote an exceptionally long, four-act pantomime, Pierrot Hypnotiseur; for reasons that are obscure, Hofmannsthal translated the piece into French, but the author never published any version of the piece, nor has it ever been performed. Yet Beer-Hofmann shared the manuscript with members of his literary circle, which also included Schnitzler and Bahr, and it is likely that Bahr’s ideas about pantomime influenced Beer-Hofmann, while Beer-Hofmann’s pantomime likely had greater influence over the literary circle (cf. Elstun 1968: 7-8; Vollmer 2011: 78; Wende-Hohenberger 1993: 156). Pierrot Hypnotiseur is a more ambitious work than Bahr’s insofar as it dramatizes the transformation of Pierrot and Colombine. Pierrot is a scientist who experiments with hypnosis; he loves his much younger maid Colombine, who loves Arlequino. Pantalon and his wife also work for Pierrot, along with Scaramouche and Smeraldina. To win Colombine’s affections, Pierrot hypnotizes her, which causes her to declare her love for him. But she also becomes a kind of robot or puppet: as Pantalon and his wife observe, where she was once lively and exuberant, now she is sedate and withdrawn. A demonic figure, Nochosch, persuades Pierrot to remove the hypnotic spell, which restores Colombine’s love for Arlequino, who impregnates her. Act III, scene iv is a remarkably detailed description of the actions the solitary and hopelessly wounded Pierrot performs within the rather complex architecture of his house before apparently committing suicide with the assistance of Nochosch. Pierrot bequeaths his estate to Colombine, who marries Arlequino, but Arlequino, drawn to drink and other women, soon abandons her, she sinks into poverty, and her child dies. Shadowed by the mysterious Nochosch, Pierrot reappears and invites Colombine to dance to street music. He pours her a glass of wine into which he also pours poison. She dies from the poison at the moment he stabs himself to death. The scene then fills with sunlight, the sound of bells, and the manifold blossoming of fruit trees, but Arlequino spoils the pretty scene by stumbling into it drunk (Vollmer 2012a: 23-57). Beer-Hofmann included brief, one-word or one-sentence speech utterances (“Bleib stehen!”, “Lass mich, lass mich”, “Was tun?” and so forth), and he introduced numerous imaginative musical and scenic effects. But most importantly, he wrote detailed descriptions of actions performed by the characters in relation to each other, to props, and to scenic elements, so that the reader/spectator experiences the narrative as a series of emotionally laden actions rather than as a sequence of emotions translated into gestures or as a story told through gestures: “Colombine hurries joyfully to the window and throws money to the street musicians […] She accepts their thanks and flinches with pleasure. Pierrot approaches her tenderly; Colombine laughs and runs, gathering up her broom, dustpan, and duster, in an arc across the stage and rushes up the spiral staircase. Pierrot wants to follow her, but Scaramouche announces the arrival of three men” (Vollmer 2012a: 28). It is as if the author has written a highly naturalistic but swift-moving play punctuated by blurts of speech, even with the blatantly symbolic figure of Nochosch (cf. Vollmer 2011: 66-77; Scherer 1993: 11-18). The scenario opens up the possibility of pantomime on a scale similar to what Cuvelier achieved. One can see why members of the Viennese literary circle studied the manuscript with enthusiasm, but it is also puzzling as to why the author never published it or did not return to pantomime until he wrote Das goldene Pferd (1922-1930), which he also never published, although this text reads more like a scenario for an epic silent film fairytale (Scherer 1993: 70). 

But shyness about embracing pantomime was common to the members of the Viennese literary group. In the same year as the Bahr and Beer-Hofmann Pierrot pantomimes, 1892, the Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) wrote the first version of his three-act Der Schleier der Pierette, which he did not publish until 1910, although he published another pantomime, Die Verwandlungen des Pierrotin 1908, by which time he was already famous as a dramatist. Schnitzler used material from the early version of Der Schleier der Pierrette in the construction of his grandiose five-act drama Der Schleier der Beatrice (1900), set in Bologna in the sixteenth century, with an enormous cast speaking mostly verse for two hundred pages. The play did not inspire an enthusiastic reception, which apparently prompted Schnitzler to reconsider his effectiveness in thinking theatrically (Sabler 2013: 55-58). Der Schleier der Pierrette, set in the Biedermeier period, has a larger cast than Beer-Hofmann’s pantomime, and uses music and scenery in a less innovative way. Pierrot, an artist, despairs because Pierrette will marry the wealthy Arlecchino. She visits him wearing her bridal dress and veil, and while enjoying a final meal together, they decide to kill themselves by drinking poison. Pierrot swallows, and, in his death convulsion, knocks Pierrette’s glass from her hand. The second act unfolds in a hall of Pierrette’s family home, where guests celebrate the impending wedding with waltzes and Arlecchino impatiently awaits the arrival of Pierrette. When she appears, she explains that she was in her room, but Arlecchino says she is lying. They start to dance, but Pierrette sees the dead Pierrot before her, holding the veil she left in his room. She rushes away and Arlecchino follows her to Pierrot’s room, where he discovers the dead Pierrot, whom he thinks is drunk. He wants Pierrot to watch as Arlecchino forces himself upon Pierrette, but she repulses him. He therefore abandons her, locks in her in the room, while she dances about frantically trying to escape. Then she sinks beside Pierrot and dies next to him, as the bridal celebration guests enter to discover the dead lovers (Vollmer 2012a: 58-73). Schnitzler uses spoken dialogue to clarify motives and emotions, but his spoken sentences are longer and more naturalistic than the expressionist cries in Beer-Hofmann’s pantomimes, presumably because only speech could convey the dramatic situation: Gigolo: “Mr. Arlecchino is without his partner, Miss Pierrette is not here. […] Mother: “Pierrette is not here? Oh, yes, I know for sure, she’s up in her room, getting dressed, preparing for the journey.” More interesting perhaps is Schnitzler’s way of inscribing pantomimic actions as if they are dialogic interactions:

Arlecchino grips Pierrette’s hand, pulls her forward and remains standing in the center.

The others astonished.

Some try to move closer.

Arlecchino draws her forward.

Father and Mother try to get closer.

Arlecchino draws her forward.

Arlecchino and Pierrette in the middle of the hall.

The others at a measured distance. 

However, the piece does not overcome the problem that the Viennese critic Paul Goldmann (1865-1935) ascribed to Der Schleier der Beatrice: the suicides of Pierrot and Pierrette lack sufficient motivation to be tragic; they are merely pathetic (cf. Goldmann 1905: 112). Devoid of any satiric objective or even humor, the pantomime simply dramatizes the fatal hopelessness of love in a society fixated on the pursuit of wealth and trivial pleasures—waltzes and exquisite buffets, a theme already extensively explored by the naturalists and the decadents in Paris. Nevertheless, it was a theme that continued to appeal to theater audiences of the time. In 1903, Schnitzler began collaborating with the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1903) on music for the pantomime. By 1908, the Austrian director Max Reinhardt expressed interest in staging the pantomime in Berlin, with the idea of casting Gertrud Eysoldt and Grete Wiesenthal as Pierrot and Pierrette. But Reinhardt and Schnitzler quarreled over production of another Schnitzler play, and Der Schleier der Pierrete, with Dohnányi’s music, opened in Dresden in 1910, under the direction of the Dresden court ballet dancer August Berger (1861-1945), on a double bill with a one-act comic opera, Versiegelt, an adaptation by Leo Blech and Richard Batka of an 1829 farce by Ernst Raupach. Reviewers responded quite favorably to the story, the performers, and the music, but the composer-historian Hugo Daffner (1882-1936) recommended that pantomime performers avoid miming conversation if one could not hear the words they supposedly spoke, although this was already a convention in silent films. The Berger production of Der Schleier der Pierrette received invitations to perform in Vienna (1911), London, Copenhagen (1912), Berlin, and Budapest (1913), but performances there did not provoke entirely enthusiastic evaluations according to sources uncovered by Vollmer (2011: 80-86). 

Schnitzler’s plays already enjoyed considerable success in Russia by 1905 (Heresch 1977: 289-292). In St. Petersburg, Vsevolod Meyerhold directed a production of the pantomime in 1910 under his experimental “Dr. Dapertutto” persona. Meyerhold discarded the Biedermeier context and replaced it with a grotesque atmosphere reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann, in which the waltz party scene became a “bal macabre,” a “terrifying scene”: “The dances, now fast, now slow, turn into an awful nightmare, with strange Hoffmannesque characters whirling to the time of a huge-headed Kapellmeister, who sits on a high stool and conducts four weird musicians” (Sullivan 1995: 269; Braun 1995: 97-103). His student, Alexander Tairov (1885-1950), staged his own production of Der Scheleier der Pierrette at the Free Theater in Moscow in 1913. Tairov collaborated with the choreographer Mikhail Mordkin (1880-1944) on the pantomimic action, and he rejected Meyerhold’s grotesque expressionism, preferring instead to evoke a somber, tragic atmosphere, in which the actors were not bizarre caricatures of Meyerhold or the “nihilistic trivialities” of the “petty bourgeois” Schnitzler: they infused the scenario with their own “creative emotion” that elevated merely literary material to a place “where words cannot go.” “For in moments of maximal emotional strain, silence sets in. […] The pantomime is a production of such scope, such spiritual revelation that words die, and in their stead genuine scenic action is born […]” (Kennedy 2001: 94). Tairov disliked Schnitzler’s idea of dialogic gesturing, insisting that the performance of actions carried more emotional value than any gestural language or attempt to construct a dialogue out of gestures (Posner 2009; Vollmer 2011: 87). Alice Koonen (1889-1974), soon to be Tairov’s wife, played Pierrette, and was always strongest in tragic roles; so it is quite likely that Tairov shaped his “emotional” concept of the scenario and of pantomime out of his desire to amplify the rather smoldering, melancholic theatrical virtues of the woman he loved—that is, Koonen pushed his approach to pantomime in a new direction. Tairov’s production apparently enjoyed an enthusiastic reception, as did Meyerhold’s, and both directors staged the pantomime again in 1916, although Meyerhold’s revival was somewhat less happy, due either to the director’s decision to abandon the grotesque, Hoffmannesque style of the earlier version or to Sergei Sudeikin’s (1882-1946) semi-expressionistic set designs (Sullivan 1995: 271-272). At his own Kamerny Theater in Moscow, Tairov revived his production with costumes designed by Vera Mukhina (1889-1953), which Sullivan (1995: 271) claims were done in a “cubist” style; but a photograph of the production does not confirm this assertion (Posner 2016: 103). Dassia Posner presents evidence of a rather opulent production in a glamorous Biedermeier style, even though the Kamerny struggled to maintain its existence. But the most significant thing about the production was Tairov’s approach to pantomime wherein actors suffused movements with emotion by performing actions unique to the moment rather than according to a gestural code. As Tairov explained: “A gesture should have volume to it; it should be three-dimensional, like a sculpture,” but actor and director have to “discover” the movement rather than treat it as a translation of the scenario language. The movement has an “interdependent” rather than dependent relation to the scenario, just as the music has an interdependent rather than dependent relation to the movement, for neither the pantomime nor the music is an “illustration” of the scenario (Posner 2016: 97-98). Koonen described Tairov’s process of working with her on the final scene of the piece:

The door won’t give. That’s right. You raise your head. Glance at Pierrot. Horror. You freeze. Hold four beats. You hear the change in the rhythm? Rush to the window. Climb onto the windowsill. This is your last hope. A crescendo in the music. You hear it? That is your internal cry. Feel it. Behind your back is the dead Pierrot. Hold on to the frame. With despairingmovements. Try to pull it toward you. Your hands as tense as strings. That’s right.Good (Posner 2016: 99). 

Commentators on the production remarked on its unusual emotional power, even if not all elements of Tairov’s aesthetic worked satisfactorily, and the piece became extraordinarily popular (Posner 2016: 103-105). Tairov revived it again in 1919, and in 1923, the Kamerny Theater visited Berlin with a low-budget version, which also visited Vienna in 1925, where Schniztler saw it and met with Tairov and Koonen, whose “miming and dancing were quite beautiful” (Schnitzler 1995: 257). The Kamerny performed the piece for the last time in Baku in 1930. In 1922, the obscure Russian émigré company, Kikimora, based in Paris, brought a production of Der Schleier der Pierrette to Berlin, where it met with a mixed reception, the chief problem being the performance of the ballerina Sofia Federova (1879-1963) as Pierrette, which, in Elizabeth Anderson’s choreography, unfolded too much like a clumsy ballet rather than a pantomime. But reviewers nevertheless noted numerous virtues in the production, especially in regard to Natalia Goncharova’s (1881-1962) set and costume designs and to the movements of the performers: “The actors altogether have a grandiose realness, pureness of mime; their movements in walking full of tragedy, in dancing full of smoothness […] the smoothness of movement found in animals” (Sullivan 1995: 274). The director, Anatoly Chabrov, “an ingenious actor and mime,” who played Arlecchino, had also played the role in Tairov’s production, and it seems he brought many of Tairov’s ideas about emotion-driven pantomime to Paris, and thus for one Berlin spectator “nothing ever impressed itself upon my memory like ‘Veil’” (Böhmig 1990: 141-142). However, for Tairov, Der Schleier der Pierrette was the starting point for the realization of a larger aesthetic project, the “synthetic theater,” which would combine, in an “orchestral rhythm,” scenography, lighting, costume, music, dance, opera, operetta, tragedy, harlequinade, gestural poetics, and even circus around a new, heroic concept of the actor as the true “author” of the theatrical experience rather than any literary text (Torda 1980: 490). Within the “synthetic theater,” pantomime was only a component. Or rather: “emotional” pantomime was the basis for an expressionistic movement aesthetic that granted the actor greater creative control over speech on the stage, so that speech on the stage came from within the theater rather than from an external literary imagination. In subsequent Tairov productions, actors displayed an intensely rhythmic, “flowing,” contrapuntal, and almost gymnastic use of their bodies in the performance of dialogue and the release of their voices. The “capriccio” production of Princess Brambilla (1920), an adaptation of Hoffmann’s 1820 story, featured a fifteen-minute commedia pantomime in the second act, but a great deal of this spectacular “theatrical phantasmagoria” consisted of speech extrapolated or reconfigured from L. Krasovsky’s 1915 translation of the German story (Torda 1980: 491; Posner 2016: 113-118). In his adaptation of Racine’s Phaedra (1922), Tairov set the tragic action within an abstractly geometrical constructivist set design by Alexander Vesnin (1883-1959), supplemented with costume details inspired by Japanese culture, which, on the inclined stage, made swift, darting movements, as appeared in Princess Brambilla, difficult to execute: the action followed a rhythmic “alteration of moves and static poses,” in this respect somewhat resembling the ancient Roman pantomime. Tairov and his translator Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) basically rewrote Racine’s text to allow the actors to speak a theatrically “archaic” language that, according to one commentator of the time, created the impression of “passing Racine, passing the Sorbonnes and all tombs, you suddenly come face to face with mythos” (Trubotchkin 2002). But Tairov never again directed a production that relied so entirely on pantomimic action as Der Schleier der Pierrette, which was, after all, itself littered with fragments of spoken dialogue. Even in the rarely discussed and under-documented Rosita (1928), an adaptation of a 1923 Ernst Lubitsch-Mary Pickford silent film historical melodrama, Tairov worked with the writer Andrei Globa (1888-1964) to include spoken dialogue, presumably extrapolated from the film’s intertitles; the film itself, about the conflict between a poor street singer and the King of Spain, was an adaptation of an 1872 Massenet opera, but Lubitsch was quite successful in transforming a voice-based story into a visually exciting tale driven by sophisticated pantomimic action. Tairov had launched the project because, as he explained to his company, “melodrama is a revolutionary form of dramaturgy” and a “spectacle […] accessible to large masses of spectators” (Tairov 1974: 18), but the project apparently misfired as the Soviet regime, inaugurating a “massive censorship regime” in 1928, adopted an increasingly skeptical attitude toward melodrama as a revolutionary expression of the proletariat (cf. Senelick 2014: 292ff.). The regime became fixated on a text-controlled theater. Tairov’s idea of a synthetic theater depended on language, speech, voice that came out of the production process, not from a text conceived outside of the theater. The synthetic theater reassigned power over language to directors and actors, a reassignment that compelled the use of speech on the stage. Tairov could not achieve this goal by pursuing a more complex or “complete” aesthetic of pantomime than he did. He could not abandon speech on the stage, not because he didn’t trust the body to be sufficient in itself as a source of action, but because he saw theater as the transformation, the re-writing or re-voicing, of a remotely inscribed language. His approach to theater brought him many difficulties with the Soviet regime after 1928, but it is highly doubtful that a greater focus on pantomime would have blunted accusations against him of “formalism” and excessive “individualism.” For Tairov, pantomime was a foreign mode of performance that Russian theater could transform into a uniquely modern Russian art. But despite the popularity of his productions, by 1928, the transformation, through pantomime, of foreign bodies into Russian bodies, so to speak, was not congruent with the Communist Party ideology of an entirely internal revolutionary transformation of a society that contained within it bodily movements and significations unique to its peculiar historical moment and political destiny. 

Meanwhile, Schnitzler’s dramas Liebelei (1895) and The Affairs of Anatol (1893) had been turned into silent films by Danish and American film companies in 1914 and 1921 respectively. Although his attitudes toward these film adaptations and toward film itself were always ambivalent, from 1911 he nurtured a desire to write film scenarios, composing his first screenplay in 1913 and another in 1920, neither of which got made into films (Wolf 2006: 116-120). In 1919, an actor and a director from the Vienna Volkstheater approached him about making a movie of Der Schleier der Pierrette, but the project remained dormant until 1921, when the Viennese Alliance film company proposed to make a film of the pantomime. Schnitzler wrote—or rather, dictated—the screenplay, but the film was never made (Wolf 2006: 123-125). In the screenplay, Pierrot, Pierrette, and Arlecchino go by the names Hans, Marie, and Melingo, and the story concludes with Marie consciously swallowing the poison from the glass, which Hans does not knock from her hand, creating a suicide rather than a fatal seizure of madness. Schnitzler worked on three more silent film scenarios, one at the invitation of an American film company and another (“Traumnovelle”) in collaboration with the Austrian director G.W. Pabst, but none of these got filmed either, although others succeeded in bringing to the screen several of his literary works. It is evident that Schnitzler in his scenarios attempted to think out these narratives cinematically, but he was perhaps more successful at incorporating cinematic thinking into his literary writing, as in Traumnovelle (1926) and in Schleier, wherein he could probe psychological states that somehow exposed a “crisis” of language: dreams, fantasies, memories. Schnitzler saw pantomime and film as especially suited for representing dream imagery in which people speak but the dreamer does not hear the words or the words are indecipherable. But he also saw dream imagery as a cryptic form of dialogue, which is why he wrote his pantomimes in the form of gestural dialogues and why, too, it was necessary that the pantomime contain some spoken dialogue (or intertitles) to make the dream comprehensible as a story to those who were merely observing the dream and not in it. The technique of gestural dialogue infused with fragments of spoken dialogue was perhaps even more congenial in Schnitzler’s only other pantomime, Die Verwandlungen des Pierrot (1908). In this piece, entailing a prologue and six scenes, Pierrot constantly appears before a woman, Katharina, who is engaged to another man, Eduard, and she consistently expresses displeasure with his appearances. Pierrot quits his job as a nightclub entertainer, although the daughter of his employer, Anna, is in love with him. Wherever Katharina goes, always in the company of Eduard, her mother, and father, she sees Pierrot, disguised as someone else, as Pierrot in a clown act, as a gentleman in a fairground, as a photographer hired to take Katharina’s picture, as a fortuneteller, as a drummer in the Prater amusement park. Katharina becomes so disturbed by these appearances that she attempts to drown herself, but Pierrot shows up and prevents this from happening. Anna and her father enter the scene, and Pierrot attaches himself to her, while Katharina, “smiling bitterly,” extends her hand to Eduard. The two pairs move away from each other, but Katharina and Pierrot turn to look at each other. They see each other “at once still full of memory, in tenderness and bitterness—then in a strange, eternal farewell” (Vollmer 2012a: 167-181). Katherine Arens has observed that the pantomime creates great uncertainty about whether Pierrot pursues Katharina or Katharina imagines Pierrot as someone who can take her beyond “her fixed life, and her assumptions.” “Do we have a stalker or an obsessed woman?” (Arens 2015: 218-219; cf. Vollmer 2011: 100-110). Die Verwandlungen des Pierrotis a sophisticated, subtle, and witty exploration of how desire confuses the distinction between reality and fantasy, and for this reason the text has provoked abundant commentary from literary scholars. The spoken dialogue may seem superfluous and the gestural dialogue overly obligated to a “word drama” concept of action (Vollmer 2011: 106), but Schnitzler does display a gift for elevating pantomimic narration into complex psychological zones. Yet this pantomime lacks a retrievable production history; it is very difficult to locate any evidence of its existence on stage. With its eerie blurring of distinction between reality and fantasy, the scenario perhaps makes too uncertain if the work is tragic or comic for theater artists to feel confident about staging it. Whatever the reason, and in spite of the theatrical success of Der Schleier der Pierrette, Schnitzler wrote no more pantomimes, and with his abandonment of the genre, Pierrot basically disappeared as a figure in Germanic pantomime. 

In 1916, the Munich novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958) published a “pantomime in five scenes,” Pierrots Herrentraum, set in medieval Spain with a much smaller cast than Schnitzler required for either of his pantomimes. His friend, the composer Adolf Hartmann-Trepka (1884-?), wrote music to accompany the performance of the scenario, which seems to have enjoyed only one production, in Munich in 1917. But the piece is only partially a pantomime; much of it consists of spoken monologues, spoken dialogues, and songs interrupted by pantomimic sequences, reinforcing the impression that Feuchtwanger lacked confidence in pantomimic action to drive the narrative (Vollmer 2012a: 245-262). The Munich production failed to impress reviewers, who generally concluded that instead of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, Feuchtwanger had made something that was confused about what it should be, neither pantomime nor drama nor music theater (Vollmer 2011: 165-167). About the same time, Feuchtwanger completed his three-act drama Jud Süß,which also saw a Munich production in 1917. The play, a monumentally talky piece, full of aria-like speeches for almost all of the many characters, then received productions in several German cities and in Vienna. But in 1919, he withdrew the play from further performances because he felt dramatic form did not allow him to develop sufficient psychological depth in the characters, and transformed the story into a thick and immensely popular novel in 1922, which convinced him not to write any more for the theater, although he did mentor the young Bertolt Brecht and then collaborated with him, rather quarrelsomely, on a couple of theatrical projects—Edward II (1924) and Hastings (1927): he lacked compatibility with the modernist (expressionist) use of theatrical speech as a violent, shattered overcoming of a silence controlling what could or should be spoken. 

Perhaps Austro-German pantomime could not prosper as long as it tried to produce Pierrots that were more “serious” than the decadent Pierrots constructed by the Parisian Parnassians and Symbolists of the 1890s, even if no one could confuse Germanic Pierrots with French. The Austrian journalist Rudolf Holzer (1875-1965) wrote only one small pantomime, Marionettentreue (1899), but, with music by Rudolf Bauer (1869-1925), it managed to enjoy nine performances at the Vienna Opera in 1906-1907. In this decorative, hothouse piece, set in a preposterously elegant Paris and requiring at least twelve performers, Pierrot vacillates between two women, the snobbish, fashion-mad Pierrette and the “rococo shepherdess” Silvette, until he decides he is better off with Silvette. Aside from Holzer’s skill at building an amusing or charming, if not really funny, narrative around purely pantomimic action, the piece is peculiar for its odd references to modernity, such as the setting of one scene in a rail station and the presence of an automobile, in a story that feels as if it has been retrieved from the eighteenth century. But Marionettentreue did not take Pierrot any further than he had already been with the Parisian Decadents. Pierrot found another Austrian sponsor in Karl von Levetzow (1871-1945), whose entirely speechless Die beiden Pierrots (1900) first appeared in 1901 on a program of the newly launched Berlin cabaret Überbrettl, owned by another Austrian, Ernst von Wolzogen (1855-1934). In addition to a fairly large cast, Die beiden Pierrots features an amazingly detailed, naturalistic set representing Pierrot’s opulent bourgeois studio overlooking the harbor of an Italian city “somewhat like Genoa”; complex lighting instructions assist in dramatizing action that unfolds from mid-afternoon to around midnight, and it is startling to suppose that a cabaret theater would have the resources to produce this forty-minute piece within a variety program consisting of several other pieces. But Levetzow was the new program director, replacing Hanns Heinz Ewers, so he probably made things happen for the production that his authorship alone could not. Pierrot labors alone at his desk on a musical composition, oblivious to his family locked outside. When he starts playing on the piano the music he has composed, his son, “little Pierrot,” sneaks behind a door to listen enrapt. He punishes his son harshly for disrupting his reverie, and little Pierrot retreats into the shadows. The rest of the family then invades the studio, three boys dressed as Pierrots and three girls dressed as Pierrettes. Pierrot orders them to get their instruments and form an orchestra, but when he discovers that little Pierrot is missing, he demands that the boy play his violin, but he says he can’t. Pierrot’s wife brings into the scene her friend, “a blue Mephisto,” and Pierrot quickly succeeds in winning an enormous amount of money from the man in a card game, although Mephisto and Pierrot’s wife have initiated an amorous relation. When the ecstatic Pierrot leaves to deliver his music manuscript, the family transforms into a demonic tribe, the boys become blue Mephistos and the girls harlequinettes, while the wife becomes a blue-white Colombinette. They grab “fantastic music instruments” from the wall and create a cacophonous music—“a true pandemonium.” The wife and children decide they want to leave with Mephisto on a ship for America to start a new life. But they must steal the great treasure that Pierrot has stored in a chest, where little Pierrot has hidden.  But little Pierrot will not leave. The family leaves with all the gold. When Pierrot returns, he ignores little Pierrot’s attempts to explain what has happened. Then he becomes aware of the destruction caused by the pandemonium—the family has torn up his musical masterpiece. He realizes that his wife and children have taken all his money and departed for America. Deeply depressed, he contemplates suicide with a revolver. But then he hears the beautiful violin music performed by his son on the terrace. The music releases Pierrot from his despair. Little Pierrot hands his father a hand harp, “like the minnesingers” used, and the two of them, “in a march-like yet lyrical, melancholic manner the two of them step out” into the moonlit city (Vollmer 2012a: 140-149). The piece dramatizes a fundamental incompatibility between artistic creativity and family happiness; Laurence Senelick (1990: 1296) apparently even sees in it a veiled allusion to homosexuality as the artist’s alternative to distracting conventional domesticity. Filled with complicated ensemble pantomime and imaginative use of props, Die beiden Pierrots requires quite sophisticated actors, musicians, and scenic technicians. Though the “pandemonium” scene is demonic, the piece is not funny or even amusing: an intense, sinister melancholy suffuses every moment and amplifies the sense of a fateful passage into darkness. That the piece should find its audience in a cabaret is therefore a bit surprising. Wolzogen’s ambition was to create and control a Berlin cabaret industry that would compete with the cabarets formed in Paris in the 1880s. Berlin audiences, he believed, wanted variety and economical compression of ideas in their entertainments rather than ponderous, expansive dramas that smothered the spectator in elaborate, tiresome talk. At the same time, he claimed he could provide performances that discerning audiences would take seriously as art (Jelavich 1993: 45-46). Hermann Bahr published an encouraging review of Levetzow’s pantomime, claiming that Levetzow made a “serious art” of pantomime, an art that was new to the Germans. In Die beiden Pierrots, Levetzow bestowed a “Dionysian” element on pantomime, “a shudder of ancient tragedy,” which distinguished German pantomime from French models of the art (Bahr 1903: 161-162). But Richard Wendgraf, in Das litterarische Echo (1902 Vol. 4: 206), complained that he could not follow the action of the piece and only the final scene had any clarity or emotional weight. Pantomime, he asserted, was the art of “romantic people,” the French and the Italians, for whom gestural communication was so pervasive in daily life that they could create from it intelligible physical action. The “German races,” however, refrain from gesturing except to signify the “strongest emotions,” and thus a German pantomime “must limit itself to the most extreme affects.” “Die beiden Pierrots brings the death sentence to the project of creating a German pantomime.” But the death sentence fell elsewhere. The Überbrettl closed after only a year of operation. Treating investors and performers unscrupulously, Wolzogen attempted to establish a cabaret syndicate in Berlin, but a multitude of competitors out-maneuvered him, and he retired from the business in 1904. Many commentators complained that Wolzogen’s shows had not improved Berlin theater culture but had debased it. “The police report of February 9 [1901] noted that the well-educated and culture-hungry clientele which Wolzogen had predicted for his enterprise had failed to materialize […] ‘one does not see members of the upper educated classes and literary circles attending the performances in great numbers’” (Jelavich 1993: 47-48). No one could claim that Levetzow’s pantomime wasn’t serious or lacking in artistic ambition. But it seems to have demonstrated that pantomime, serious or otherwise, had no place in the Berlin or even German cabaret, for after Die beiden Pierrots, pantomime completely disappeared from cabaret and found much more hospitable opportunities in the theater and film. 

Levetzow cultivated large ambitions for pantomime, at least at the beginning of the century. In 1902, he published Pierrots Leben, Leiden und Himmelfahrt, a huge pantomime in seven big scenes or acts, which he had written in 1899-1900. This work depicted seven facets or episodes of Pierrot’s varied life: he desires but loses Colombine to a soldier, who deserts her; he obtains advice from the Woman in the Moon; he becomes involved with an adulterous king (Colombine is his mistress) and queen; he is a farm worker; he is the apprentice and rival of an artist; he shovels snow at the castle and attempts to stir his fellow workers against the king; finally, he decides to accept execution from the king, but the king and his entourage merely mock him and tie him to a sled: he freezes to death, and when Colombine and the king come upon his body, they coldly retreat to the palace. The Woman in the Moon appears, her dance awakens him, they embrace, and she leads him to a new life on the moon. Pierrot fails to fulfill any of his desires or ambitions. He loves without ever being loved, his talent as an artist is totally rejected, every action he takes is profoundly misunderstood, and he always ends up alone, redeemed only by a creature of his fantasy, the Woman in the Moon. In performance, this pathetic tale requires spectacular scenic resources. In the farm scene, for example, the text indicates that the spectator see on stage pigs, ducks, chickens, a cow (“with full udder”), “dung heaps,” and a stork nest with storks. But perhaps the most curious aspect of the piece is the use of rhymed verse to accompany the action. The verse acts as a kind of voiceover to describe emotions, passage of time, and narrative circumstances. In this respect, the poetic language is quite similar to the interpellator in ancient Roman pantomime and to Wague’s idea of the “cantomime.” But with some stanzas, the author indicates line by line the gestures or actions that should accompany the speaking of the line: 

The Queen has already been conquered internally; She has fled into the corner and awaits Pierrot; but not anymore Queen, only a woman, she seems to be self-contradictory (1, 2), and as Pierrot now goes after her (2), the Queen grips the curtain (3) to slowly slide down (4, 5); Pierrot rushes at her and throws her without understanding the game (6, 7), so that the Queen tears down the curtain. Moonlight falls brightly (8), Pierrot returns with horrified arms. The queen is, with veiled eyes, partly covered by the fallen curtain, sunken expectantly onto the bed.

1 There, but resisting

2 To submit with dignity,

3 She clasps onto the curtain,

4 In order to keep fighting,

5 And then goes down slowly. 

6 But Pierrot wants to force her,

7 And he throws himself strongly into serious struggle.

8 – Then the tent collapses,

9 Through the window of which bright moonlight falls. (Levetzow 1902: 68-69)

But despite the ambition, innovation, and dramatic power of the piece, it seems never to have received a performance either whole or in part. A favorable reviewer in Das Kunstheater (1902: 121) lamented the lack of German theaters with the technical resources and acting talent to stage the work. The piece, however, anticipates silent film in its scenic and narrative organization, and it reads like a scenario for a pantomime requiring another, larger medium than one that the public has assigned to it. So the piece is important in showing how pantomimic imagination could reach a tragic dimension only by inventing another medium for it. In effect, Pierrots Leben implies either that pantomime needs redefinition or that pantomime of a serious, ambition kind will redefine theater. 

Levetzow elaborated at length on this point in a three-part essay, “Zur Renaissance der Pantomime,” published in the new cultural journal Die Schaubühne in 1905. There he observed that Germans, indoctrinated to believe that pantomime is a form of burlesque, clown show or acrobatic act, had no awareness of pantomime as a powerful, “Dionysian” art invented by the Greeks to create an idealized image of humanity, although he accused the Romans of debasing the art with commercial aims and “Priapism” (Levetzow 1905: 126-128). He proposed that a “Dionysian” Renaissance of pantomime entailed the convergence of three modes of gesture: bodily, scenic, and musical. Bodily gesture was unique to the performer; it was specific to the moment of its performance and in relation to the scenic environment and the music. It was not a translation of words into physical movements according to a gestural code that cultures such as Italy and France have developed and which has resulted in the debased, artistically worthless commedia pantomimes (129, 195). But pantomime, he contended, must avoid contemporary settings and references, for it must exist in a symbolic world outside of historical markers, as an “epic” of an abstract level of human experience. The point of pantomime was to reveal ideas located in the body rather than in language, because words were instruments of deception, the material of lies—an intimation of the “movement never lies” statement that Martha Graham ascribed to her father. Movement was “understandable,” not as a translation, but as an action or as the expression of “a peculiar inner condition” that does not require speech for its disclosure or which speech discloses inadequately or which speech conceals and instead constructs as a veil of lies (Levetzow 1905: 159-161). Nevertheless, pantomimic narrative has its “origin” in a “lyrical” imagination, creates “dramatic” authority through the movements of the actor, and achieves the Dionysian fusion of the three gestural modes through the synthesizing figure of the director (129, 196-197). Although Levetzow develops all these points in much detail, the essay conveys the impression that the author has not so much clarified how “Dionysian” pantomime would work as he has articulated a deep disillusionment with an inundation of speech on the stage that has failed to deliver a mysterious, liberating theatrical experience. Levetzow, however, seemed unable to implement the pantomimic Renaissance. In the Viennese journal Der Merker (Heft 8, 25 January 1910: 329-339), he published a condensed version of his 1905 essay and a one-act “mimic tragedy,” Die Sphinx, set in a late medieval Prague, about a fanatically possessive alchemist who hypnotizes his scholarly apprentice (Pierrot); the scholar and the alchemist’s wife, Miranda, are in love, but under the spell of “the sphinx,” the scholar stabs Miranda to death, and when the scholar realizes what the alchemist has done, he sets fire to the alchemist’s laboratory. The piece resembles the kind of proto-expressionistic horror film that Hanns Heinz Ewers might concoct a few years later, but it never achieved performance. Subsequently, Levetzow abandoned pantomime and devoted himself to the writing of plays and libretti. 

Previous Section

Next Section

References

Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s