Pantomime in the 1920s: Futurist Pantomime

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

Futurist Pantomime

Scene from Cocktail, pantomime by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, as performed in the Futurist pantomime show in Paris, 1927. Photo: Iwata Nakayama.

In Italy, pantomime had largely disappeared after the death of Salvatore Viganò and his Napoleonic era spectacles. French pantomime derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte, but Italians saw no benefit to a commedia without voices or to an expansion of commedia beyond what it had been for centuries. The Italian theater world found no inspiration in the ancient Roman art of pantomime, if, indeed, theater people were even aware of it. Pantomime appeared here and there in whatever remained of ballet. By 1900, the theater culture was pervasively stagnant, ramshackle, and moribund, heavily dependent on itinerant ensembles that lacked incentive to depart from the conventions and expectations that attracted deeply conservative audiences. Opera was the most vibrant and dynamic aspect of the Italian theater. Italians seemed distrustful or at least dissatisfied with voiceless performance on stage. Yet with the invention of cinema, Italians were guiding innovators in pantomimic film performance and in developing the narrative possibilities of film. In relation to the theater, however, Futurism (ca. 1909-1939) provided Italy’s strongest contribution to the early phase of European modernism. The Futurists, inspired by their charismatic founder and default leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), pursued a radical transformation of theater, and they possessed a keen sense of how to transform all their activities into attention-grabbing performances. Futurism was a movement driven by manifestoes, grandiose pronouncements, and loud advertisements of its presence. While numerous members of the Futurist movement, including Marinetti, produced a huge number of theatrical tracts, dramatic works, scene designs, theater technology schemes, and innovative performance projects, pantomime held almost no interest for them, probably because they associated it with an archaic form of theater that deserved to be obsolete, along with so much else in theater. The Futurists composed many sintesi, as they called their often very short texts for theatrical performance, but these “syntheses” of modernist theatrical actions rigorously avoided voiceless bodies in performance. Sintesi became voiceless when the performance included no human beings but instead consisted of the actions of machines, technology, the movement of lights in the performance space, the mechanized movements of objects, the choreography of marionettes, “electric dolls,” automatons, and robots, the “ballets” performed by squadrons of airplanes, and the “music” of turbines, machine guns, railway cars, and the intonarumori (noisemaking devices) invented by Luigi Russolo (1885-1947). Voiceless human bodies on the stage did not help the Futurists promote their important concept of “words in freedom,” whereby freedom from an oppressive heritage and diseased cultural institutions depended on detaching language, in writing and in speech, from the syntactic laws, typographic rules, literary conventions, and clichés of linguistic communication that “imprisoned” the mind and obfuscated any liberating view of the future. The only Futurist to describe his work for the theater as pantomime was the visual artist Enrico Prampolini (1894-1956). 

While studying painting in Rome, Prampolini became involved with Futurism in 1913 as a result of reviewing and publicizing Futurist art exhibitions. Futurism opened up for him an interdisciplinary approach to artistic production, and, like other Futurists, he initiated his affiliation with the movement by publishing theoretical essays and manifestoes, beginning with a statement, Chromophony (1913), on the relations between sounds and colors. Sculptor Umberto Boccioni’s (1882-1916) ideas about architecture as an extension of painting and sculpture urged Prampolini to explore scene design for the theater, and in 1915, he published an essay on “Futurist Scenography,” in which he introduced his ideas for a “dynamic” theater architecture wherein performance arose out of the kinetic interplay of architecture elements—colors, lights, shadows, planes, beams, panes, and “chromatic emanations from a luminous source” (Kirby 1986: 203-210). But Prampolini ran into difficulties with Marinetti and other Futurists because of his intense, impolitic competitiveness, and he suffered ostracism and a failure to gather any support from the movement for the realization of his ideas. He worked for a while in the commercial theater, where he gained considerable knowledge of European advances in scenic technology. For his friend, the Futurist photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1890-1960), he designed sets for the films Thais (1916) and Perfido incanto (1917). When the Ballet Russes visited Rome in 1916, Diaghilev sought a partnership with the Futurists, who suddenly found dance a promising subject for the application of Futurist performance theories. But Marinetti would not allow Prampolini to participate in the Futurist negotiations with the impresario. As it turned out, the financial difficulties of the Ballet Russes prevented any realization of the partnership. Prampolini then developed an alliance with the French avant-garde poet, dramatist, and editor Pierre Albert-Birot (1876-1976) to design the scenery and costumes for a production of the poet’s marionette play Matoum et Tevibar (1918) at the Teatro dei Piccolo (Teatro Odescalchi) in Rome in 1919 (Berghaus 1998: 264-290). Prampolini’s innovative colored lighting, combined with his startlingly abstract set design and robotizing costumes for the marionettes, overwhelmed discussion of the production: Marinetti invited him back into the Futurist club, and he received numerous opportunities to exhibit his work internationally with the Futurists and commissions to design productions of Futurist sintesi, “mechanical ballets,” and theater experiments, including a couple of works by Marinetti. In 1925, Prampolini exhibited in Paris his designs and model for a “magnetic theater” in which an entire theater, not just the stage, would be kinetic, with multiple platforms and planes capable of moving, rotating, ascending, and receding in relation to chromatic distributions of light. The designs won him the Grand Prix d’Art Théâtrale at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs. Dissatisfied with the theatrical resources available to him in Italy, Prampolini would move to Paris in the same year. There, at the Théâtre de la Madeleine, he established his Théâtre de la Pantomime Futuriste, whose aim, he explained, was to “demonstrate 1) the machine as a symbolic guardian of universal dynamism […] 2) the aesthetic virtues of the machine and the metaphysical meaning of its movements […] 3) the plastic exaltation of the machine and of mechanical elements […] 4) the stylistic expressions of mechanical art which spring from the machine as an intermediary between the spiritual concept of the object and the plastic evaluation of the subject.” “In this new type of spectacle, which is the expression of unreal life in movement, all the scenic elements converge in a dynamic exaltation of rhythm, in an orchestration and interpenetration of visions in freedom” (Berghaus 1998: 450-451). 

Of course, grand intentions always produce an unforeseen reality. Prampolino gathered together an unusual assortment of prominent talents to produce his program of performances. Günter Berghaus (1998: 451-458) gives a comprehensive description of the program of ten pieces that premiered on May 12, 1927. Many of the pieces embodied aesthetic qualities that contradicted the aesthetic principles that Prampolini claimed to define the identity of the Théâtre de la Pantomime Futuriste, and reviewers of the production did not fail to point out that much of the program evoked the past rather than intimated the future (e.g., Le Ménestrel May 20, 1927). La Naissance d’Hermaphrodite, with music by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) from a scenario by Vittorio Orazi, was a neo-classical pantomime on a mythological theme, featuring an androgynous figure encountering her/his lover in a luxurious dream world. L’Agonie de la rose, by composer Vincenzo Davico (1889-1969), was apparently an “elegant” miming of the death of a flower accompanied by Davico’s impressionist music reminiscent of Debussy. Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972) conducted the orchestra. Les Trois Moments, with scenario by poet Luciano Folgore (1888-1966) and composer Franco Casovola (1891-1955), who would soon renounce Futurism, employed film décor on behalf of a three-part narrative: in a forest, a satyr seduces a nymph with his syrinx and takes her to the big city; in a hotel lobby, a ventilator and a gramophone make love while being watched by a voyeuristic elevator with red and green lights for “eyes”; in a hotel room, noises behind a door assail the satyr and nymph, in Japanese dress, and eventually compel them to go through the door and leave behind their clothes, which dance as marionettes (Lista 1976: 112). This piece used Russolo’s intonarumori, and Prampolini designed an abstract forest that, along with “polychromatic lights,” dissolved distinctions between nature and mechanized urbanity. Popolaresca, by Prampolini and composer Francesco Pratella (1880-1955), used photographic projections, combined with “folkloric tunes” to narrate an Italian woman’s fantasy of being kidnapped by a Japanese officer. Le Dame de la solitude, by Folgore and Guido Sommi-Picenardi (1892-1949), was an expressionist piece featuring dancer-mime Maria Ricotti (1886-1974), formerly a student and partner of Georges Wague, playing a queen wandering in a gloomy, nocturnal castle dominated by immense caryatids; when she embraces one of the caryatids, it strangles her. The mood changed abruptly with Arlequin et le travesties, by Francesco Scardaoni, who actually remained attached to the Symbolist idea of theater as a “temple of beauty” (cf. Goldberg 1920: 150). Arlequin visits a department store, where he mistakes two mannequins for Rosanna and Colombine. When he learns they are mannequins, he switches his affections to living models. But when he discovers how much their clothes cost, he flees. Le Marchand de coeurs, with scenario by Prampolini, music by Casavola, and choreography by Valclav Veltchek (1896-1967), involved three scenes in which a merchant pursues the ideal woman as embodied by three female archetypes, a country/nature woman, an erotic, lascivious woman, and an emotional, romantic woman. In the third scene, the merchant “encounters their spiritual doubles, performed by marionettes.” The women reject him, so he chases away both the “real and simulated forms” of womanhood and “returns to his cave of eternal dreams” (Berghaus 1998: 454). Veltchek performed the role of the merchant, described by Prampolini as a “type d’ephebe astral.” Prampolini designed an abstract set of screens of different colored surfaces that could move and project silhouettes and photo imagery (by Brunius and Greville). The female costumes were allegorical (peasant, sexy bikini, Roman chiton), while the merchant wore an expressionist black body suit with a kind of red target sewn onto the chest. The acting, according to one reviewer, entailed the “marionettization and mechanization of the person represented” (456). With Interpretations mimique, Maria Ricotti returned to the stage to perform three slow, moody dances to music by Schmitt, Albeniz, and Grieg. Then Toshi Komoro (1887-1951), a Japanese modern dancer who had worked with Charles Griffes in New York during the war, performed Urashima, his adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale concerning a fisherman who discovers that the turtle he has saved is a princess. He follows her underground, but when he returns to his life above ground, he discovers that he is three hundred years old. Armande de Polignac (1876-1962) wrote the music in the dark, postromantic style she had adopted by the end of the war, if not before. The final piece on the program was a performance of Cocktail, a pantomime scenario by Marinetti. The scenario, like nearly all Futurist pantomime scenarios, was less than a half-page long (Lista 1976: 113). Silvio Mix (1900-1927) wrote the accompanying jazz score. The action takes place in a cocktail bar, where ten human bodies impersonate bottles of liquor, placed on two shelves, next to which is a giant siphon operated by a black barman, played by Veltchek. A black spectator, played by the Swiss Laban student Gilbert Baur (1903-1988), ascends to the stage from the audience and orders a cocktail. The order animates the bottles, which swirl around trying to mix the cocktail, while the swiveling siphon releases colored lights. The barman and the customer attempt to catch the bottles, but it all ends as “chaos and inebriety triumph” in a manner similar to Grosz’s Baby in der Bar (1928). The piece was “a joyous panegyric of mechanized life, where the primitive and sophisticated merge, humans become objects, and machines turn into intelligent beings” (Berghaus 1998: 457-458; cf. Martinez 2008: 216-227). 

Prampolini faced manifold technical and interpersonal difficulties in producing the program, but it proved quite successful, even if reviewers observed that the program contained pieces that were antithetical to the Futurist aesthetic agenda and represented performance styles that Paris had already seen years ago (cf. Zanotti 2015: 10). Prampolini planned another production in Paris, as well as a tour of European cities. But none of that happened. Instead, he toured three Italian cities, Turin, Bergamo, and Milan in 1928 with a ten-piece program that included only four pieces from the Paris program: Tre momentiPopolarescaIl mercante di cuori, and Cocktail; these he supplemented with pieces he deemed much more Futurist than what he had replaced. These new pieces emphasized the mechanization of humans and the interaction of humans with machines (Teatro Torino 2017): L’ora del fantoccio, pantomime by Luciano Fologre, with music by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), who was a modernist without being a Futurist; Volutta geometrica, by Folgore and Guido Sommi-Picenardi; Ritmi spaziali, a “phono-dance” involving records on a gramophone, Prefazione, “grotesque pantomime” by Prampolini, with intonarumori soundscape by Luigi Russolo; another “grotesque pantomime,” Il pesce meccanico, by the same pair; and La salamandra (1924), a “dream pantomime,” by Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), with music by the poet-composer Massimo Bontempelli (1878-1960). Pirandello’s two-page scenario in “five tempos” takes place in the atrium of a country villa and involves eight performers, including a dog (Pan) and a salamander. Pan guards a nymph against a large salamander by chasing it away with fire, but the salamander leaps out of its hiding place under a mill and attacks Pan, who manages to kill the salamander by playing the saxophone. Pan and the nymph bury the salamander and the saxophone, but flames arise from the grave. So they and the other shepherds start drinking and cooking over the fire (Pirandello 1924). But this piece seems quite out of place with the rest of the program, and in Milan, it was not even on the program, replaced by the Prampolini-Russolo mechanical pantomime Santa velocita, described by one reviewer as “without action, without characters, without scenery, and without music” (L’Impero, March 9, 1928: 3). Magito, Veltchek, Komori, and Wisiakova participated in the Italian tour, while Casavola conducted the orchestra. But the Italian tour was not a success. Reviewers insinuated either that Futurism was not respectful of Italian audiences or that Italian theaters lacked the resources to achieve the Futurist glorification of technology (Il Teatro Torino 2017; Berghaus 1998: 458-459). Prampolini’s Paris program may not have represented accurately the Futurist principles he ascribed to the Théâtre de la Pantomime Futuriste, but the program nevertheless offered an innovative, emotionally diverse, and even wild type of variety show that was actually much more complex structurally than any program with a more unified Futurist aesthetic. The Paris program revealed Prampolini’s gift for seeing the future of theater as something greater than technological or mechanical effects: the future was also a matter of a new type of structuring of the theatrical experience involving complex collaborations across a variety of works that shifted abruptly from one mood to the next and established the point, perhaps inadvertently, that the beauties of technology do not unify bodies, scenarios, actions, themes, images, or sounds across time and space; they create a much more fragmented or disunified image of the world than the manifestoes acknowledged or the Italian theater culture cared to embrace. Prampolini never again attempted a project with the magnitude of the Paris program. To gain access to greater theatrical resources, Marinetti and many other Futurists, including Prampolini, attempted to build an alliance with the Fascists, but Mussolini saw the future of Italian theater, not in relation to a belief in the transformation of Italian society through technology, but in relation to the glorification of a kind of populist humanism, a monumental neoclassicism, provincial comedies, the celebration of operatic traditions, and state-Fascist centralization of theater culture. Fascism seriously marginalized Futurism even before 1930, and after 1930, speechless performance was nearly extinct except for the “aerodanze” (her famous propeller dance) and “physical culture” solo dances performed by Giannina Censi (1913-1995) in 1930-1933 (cf., Vaccarino 1998; Bonfanti 1995). Prampolini shifted to a rather conventional career as a scene designer (Berghaus 1998: 462-463). Yet he was a major figure in pantomime history, because, more than anyone else, he saw that pantomime was, more than any other art, the most capable of revealing the future as the technologization not only of performance and narrative, but of human identity itself.

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