The Pantomime Eclipse of the 1930s: Das goldene Pferd (1930) and the Impact of Sound Film on Pantomime

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

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Figure 146: Richard Beer-Hofmann about the time he published his pantomime scenario “Das goldene Pferd” (1930). Photographer unknown; source: Zeisl-Reichmann family album.

Das goldene Pferd (1930) and the Impact of Sound Film on Pantomime

Throughout the 1920s, serious pantomime in the theater functioned internationally as an experimental form of performance, and as experimentation, pantomime maintained an affiliation with modernism. But as an experimental form of performance, pantomime had an unreliable, unstable existence without any secure institutional “home,” even within the large network of immature ballet companies attached to the German opera houses. By 1930, however, pantomime and the use of the word “pantomime” and of synonymous words (“Tanzspiel,” “Tanzdrama”) to describe these performance experiments had disappeared almost entirely in Germany, and it is difficult indeed to find applications of the term to performances elsewhere. The desire to experiment with voiceless performance had come to an abrupt end, even though experimentation and modernism in the theater continued to thrive. But an account of pantomime in the 1920s does not seem complete without a glance at an ambitious pantomime scenario that never achieved performance or even publication during the decade but which shows the unprecedented scope of the pantomimic imagination stimulated by the postwar cultural environment: Das goldene Pferd, by Richard Beer-Hofmann. The composition of this piece occurred between 1921 and 1922, nearly thirty years after his previous pantomime scenario, Pierrot Hypnotiseur (1892). But Beer-Hofmann continued to work on it throughout the decade. He corresponded (1922) with Reinhardt and his brother about a possible production of the work, and with the Bulgarian composer Pantscho Wladigeroff (1899-1978) about composing the music; in 1926, he considered inviting Richard Strauss to compose the music (Vollmer 2011: 472-474). Ostensibly production of the piece did not happen because it was too costly, although a production of it does not seem like it would have cost more than the production of numerous modernist operas staged during the Weimar Republic. The action takes place in an archaic society apparently on the coast of the Black Sea, a sort of Scythian culture. The plot deals with a young man, Bahadur, who longs to travel the world in search of adventure. However, in the courtyard of the landowner Bilal, he agrees to marry Bilal’s daughter Halimah, which the couple confirm when Halimah gives Bahadur a necklace with a medallion bearing her image. As the engagement ceremony unfolds, a troop of warriors arrives, led by an Emir mounted on a horse covered in gold armor. The Emir invites Bahadur to join them, which excites the young man until he sees the sadness in Halimah’s face and rejects the offer. Night falls and Bahadur sleeps. The warriors return, with the Emir on the golden horse, accompanied by a giant and a dwarf. The Emir proposes that he and Bahadur trade places: Bahadur will receive the horse, all the splendid garments, the weapons, and the power of the Emir in exchange for the medallion necklace with Halimah’s image. Bahadur agrees. After a musical interlude, the action moves to the gate before the royal city. Bahadur/Emir returns from his adventures accompanied by the giant and the dwarf. The dancer-lute player Tarkah reveals her attraction to Bahadur, but she already has a lover, Ghajur. When Ghajur strikes Bahadur in a jealous rage, Bahadur stabs him to death. The giant and the dwarf extricate Bahadur from the angry crowd of Ghajur’s friends, and Bahadur rides the golden horse into the city followed by the giant and the dwarf. In the throne hall, the childless King and the Queen Mother expect the arrival of the King’s nephew, the Emir. During the ceremonial encounter, the dwarf presents Tarkah, who appears in a silver veil, which she briefly opens to reveal her nudity to the King. This action causes consternation in the court, including Bahadur and the Queen Mother, who inspects Tarkah and compels her to return with her to the “women’s house.” In a long ensuing scene, the giant and the dwarf bring Tarkah back to the King in the throne hall. She plays the lute and gives a kind of speech-song (“Sprechstimme”) explanation of herself and him that is seductive without being romantic, analytical and ominous, yet voluptuous: “Youth flown! – What hope is left? Feel, how your life drains from you! […] See—I want to be more! From evening until morning, you shall, my restless King, rest quietly on my breast […] Only death shall separate us!” While she intones this song, the King drinks from a poisoned chalice given to him by the dwarf. When the King realizes he has been poisoned, he tries to flee, but Tarkah casts her veil over him like a net and finishes him off by pressing her knee against his head. Bahadur, who has watched this scene from behind a curtain rushes to prevent Tarkah from continuing her violence, but the giant stops him. When the commotion summons the Queen Mother and her entourage, Bahadur defends Tarkah and claims authority as the new king. In the fourth scene, the action moves to the sumptuous royal garden by the sea. As Bahadur, Tarkah, the giant, and the dwarf luxuriate in the performance of female dancers, the Queen Mother and her entourage appear and the sky darkens. The Queen Mother questions the identity of Bahadur, which leads to a potentially violent confrontation. Halimah seizes the medallion from Bahadur. The Queen Mother then makes a signal, and the Emir’s ship appears, and then the Emir himself. The Emir commands deference from the court, but Bahadur challenges him, after Tarkah, the giant, and the dwarf have thrown themselves at the feet of the Queen Mother. The Emir points to a youth on the mast of the ship bearing a golden bow and golden arrows. Bahadur throws off his helmet and commands the Emir to kill him. The Emir gives the signal, but Halimah rushes in front of Bahadur and receives the arrow in her chest. But Bahadur manages to escape with Halimah when rioting Negroes break into the courtyard. In the castle courtyard, Bahadur removes the arrow from Halimah and tries to comfort her, but she dies, and he goes into shock. Six Negroes carry away Halimah’s body to a grave; Bahadur seeks to join her but the Negores hold him back. The giant and the dwarf appear, and they invite Bahadur to mount the golden horse that now appears at the gate. Bahadur rushes toward the horse, but the golden armor falls off and reveals instead the skeleton of the horse. The gate collapses, and on the wall stands Tarkah, in her silver net-cloak, “glistening in the light.” She plays the lute, and he follows her until she sings-chants “… As I swore to you—Bahadur, I’ve kept so: Loyal until your death!” She casts the net over him; he struggles to free himself; the stage grows dark and echoes with a “blaring cry from the deep.” The scene shifts to the courtyard of Bilal’s estate. Bahadur wakes up; all was a dream. The morning sun bathes the scene. Halimah enters and holds his head with both hands and kisses him on the mouth. In the Epilogue, the entire cast appears. Tarkah takes her place with Bahadur and Halimah. She plays the lute and, smiling, sings a song about dreams that concludes with her “wish from me: May the forms of your dreams not be uglier than us.” The stage goes dark, leaving only the Drunkard, who wishes the audience “Good dreams—good night.” The curtain falls, and from behind the curtain a choir repeats: “Good Night!” (Beer-Hofmann 1963: 467-519). 

But this overview of the plot hardly covers everything in the scenario. Beer-Hofmann provides an astonishing amount of detail regarding production of the piece for the stage. He includes interludes between scenes that involve a Blind Singer commenting on the actions that precede and will follow the interlude, a device somewhat similar to the interpellator in ancient Roman pantomime. But the Blind Singer, along with the Drunkard, appears in the action as an outside figure who represents a detached perspective on the characters. Many details refer to the music in the piece, which occurs on stage as well as in the pit. The orchestral music should never rise above mezzoforte and perhaps never below it. In Wagnerian fashion, the text specifies the use of a harp, a horn, an oboe, timpani, a tuba, gongs, and a violin for specific effects or motifs—for example, a harp arpeggio should accompany the firing of the arrow—and the author indicates tempo and rhythmic changes in the music. He also indicates various sound effects, such as the rumbling of the storm in the garden scene, the rumbling of the sea, “a dull tone, as if someone were striking iron in deep darkness.” Occasionally, in the midst of much pantomimic action, characters abruptly utter one or two-word phrases: “The lute player!”; “Yes!”; “I command it!” These phrases are unnecessary as clarifications of motives; these function as startling sound effects that disturb the pantomimic action—or rather, make words and voices seem like shards of humanity engulfed by pantomimic action. The visual detail is extravagant. Beer-Hofmann describes costumes in detail, with much gold and silver ornamentation, purple cloaks, the dwarf wears at the end a turban containing a skull, the King wears black silk, as does the Queen Mother, while the giant wears “poisonous green with thickly woven silver,” and the warriors in the tower wear silver in contrast to the Emir and his troop, who wear gold. The characters in Bilal’s courtyard wear “southern Slavic or Near Eastern peasant costumes, while the characters in the King’s court and city dress in an “oriental” manner, with turbans, silken garments. The cast includes many—well more than twenty, perhaps as many as forty—Negroes, many of whom are naked except for gold loincloths, and who are slaves, warriors, or eunuchs. No other pantomime explicitly requires so many black bodies for performance, although Beer-Hofmann does seem to regard them as an ominous decorative element in the overall visual design, the signification of a “dark,” alien civilization. The action also makes use of startling, technically complex visual effects with torches, the fiery electricity of Tarkah’s veil-net, the arrow shot into Halimah’s chest, the riding of the golden horse, and the entrance of the ship with the “golden” archer on the mast. The scenery is monumental for each scene, requiring multiple levels, terraces, steps, balconies, towers, pillars, walls, a grandiose throne “made of black basalt,” immense doors and gates, trellises, curtains, and niches, into the shadows of which the giant and dwarf retreat, and Beer-Hofmann makes sure action occurs in all these places. The pantomimic action is also immensely detailed. But the scenario describes pantomimic actions that do more than construct the narrative; these actions provide a meticulous, anthropologically precise image of physical interaction within an archaic, imaginary society, as if the purpose of pantomimic action is to reveal how the entire organization of a society, the hierarchical distribution of power, desire, and identity rests upon particular gestures, actions assigned to particular bodies. Tarkah’s gestures, dances, actions create havoc within the society because both the King and Bahadur fail to grasp that their desires bring death, they summon a fatal music, a deadly voice, a lethal body that prevents them from differentiating the true Emir from the false Emir, from separating dream from reality. In each scene, Beer-Hofmann devotes so many pages to detailed descriptions of pantomimic actions integrated with scenic effects that it seems as if a major goal of the pantomime is to show how the mysterious interplay between bodily movement, props, environment, lighting, music, and physiognomy is inevitably the revelation of doom, a movement toward death that enters a scary territory of beauty that speech always makes invisible:

At the same moment, as the cupbearer enters the woman’s house, the dwarf becomes visible. He waves in the hallway—and past him file the group of black porters hauling the gifts. Behind him the dwarf with Tarkah’s lute. Bahadur, without turban or weapons, enters the hallway—Tarkah from the women’s house. She glances at him, and rushes joyfully from the background and throws herself on his breast. He embraces her for a moment, then pushing her away, shows a dark glance; with a sharp tilt of his head to the [the dead] King: “And he?” Tarkah wildly shakes her head decisively: “Never!” And again throws herself on Bahadur’s breast; she pulls him so deeply into the dark passageway that the embracing couple are no longer visible. The blacks have loaded up the gifts. Darkly coiled, scampering soundlessly on naked soles, the group presses forward in feverish haste. Weightless shine the silver instruments. The distant sleepy song growls now in the manner of a muted echo that escorts the blacks upward into the night (491).

This kind of intensity of description of physical action can overwhelm the reader page after page, but in performance this constant energy of pantomimic action integrated with scenic and musical elements can be exhilarating, as gripping as a powerful drug. The scenario is an engine of continuously inventive pantomimic action, some of which is quite complex:

The King takes his seat again. Bowing deeply, everyone else pulls back. While his court leaves through the right door at the back of the hall, the Queen Mother strides through the left pillar door of the women’s house. Near the pillar, next to which the captain of the bodyguard is at his post, stands Tarkah in her veil. The Queen Mother notices her. With a commanding gesture, she lifts Tarkah’s veil with the point of her walking stick. Tarkah throws the veil back, the captain recognizes her and flinches. The two princesses and the Queen Mother notice this. With a wave from the Queen Mother, the female slaves lead Tarkah into the women’s house. The princesses draw close to the captain. With scarcely moving lips, he divulges information. The princesses urgently convey the information to the Queen Mother. She frowns and strides with her entourage into the women’s house. Two slaves have placed wine vessels and a platter on the table […] (489).

Beer-Hofmann introduces simultaneous and overlapping pantomimic actions to show the intricate interlinking of physical actions that create what one might call the movement of a society. Freksa and Reinhardt attempted this kind of complicated action in Sumurun, but they saw simultaneous pantomimic actions arising from the assumption that each individual on stage has a unique character that causes him or her to move uniquely—an actor-centered approach. Beer-Hofmann prescribes the actions, the gestures, the qualities of movement more precisely because he sees physical action defining character—the character comes out of the action: the action comes out of the society’s structural positioning of the body within it—an author/spectator-centered approach. This approach seems more dramatic, because it establishes a structural (power/class) relationship between physical actions and bodies rather than a unique relationship between physical actions and characters. For example: the dwarf “waves,” the giant “waves,” Tarkah “waves,” and the Queen Mother “waves”: regardless of their unique physiognomies and regardless of their unique characters, the “waves” bestow on all these bodies an authority to initiate obedient actions performed by others, even though the “wave” does not specify what action the others should perform. Each actor might come up with an individual “wave” for the character he or she plays, but the scenario treats the “wave” as a sign of status rather than as an attribute of character. Tarkah, the giant, and the dwarf all behave deferentially toward the King and the Queen Mother, but their “waves” indicate to the spectator that they possess a power over everyone in the story, not because of their physiognomies, but because a larger force than social hierarchy, Death, invests their bodies with that power. Perhaps the most complex pantomimic action occurs in the garden scene. Here physical actions unfold on multiple levels. While Bahadur, Tarkah, the giant, and the dwarf sit at a large table, with a cupbearer standing behind them, an orchestra of female musicians performs, and a group of ten female slaves, with golden baskets filled with grapes on their heads, moves from left to intersect with a line of ten Negroes moving in march formation, with the movement of both groups “colored” by dancelike rhythms. On the terrace, another group of slaves and their supervisors operate a wine press, with all this work integrated with the tempo of the music, which begins slowly but becomes faster. Through the tree-covered path the Queen Mother, veiled in black, enters with her entourage of women, a doctor, and the bodyguard captain. Bahadur starts to rise to greet the Queen Mother, but Tarkah presses him down and rises instead to signal the musicians to continue playing. The dwarf and the giant “wave” the grape slaves to work stronger, faster. Tarkah “waves” yet another group of Negroes to come forth from the tree-covered path, and each female slave now has a Negro on the left and the right of her and has her arms around the neck of each Negro. All of these actions occur “rapidly.” At the same time, the sky slowly shifts from a perfect blue to an intrusion of clouds that gradually develops into a great storm. Much pantomimic action develops the interactions between the Queen Mother and those sitting at the table, while the slaves and Negroes continue with their actions. Eventually the Emir’s ship glides into view and the storm explodes, leading to the arrow shooting and the riot. Beer-Hofmann evidently understood that a long, almost two-hour pantomime narrative required increasingly complex pantomimic action to sustain the attention of the spectator. Pantomime narratives of more than a half hour in duration demand an innovative approach to physical action. By 1920, a film pantomime could extend well over two hours, as long as the spectator saw rapidly changes views of the action, without which no one would watch a film at all. In the theater, a scene could change, as it does in Das goldene Pferd, but as the time of narration increases beyond a half hour, a larger range of actions performed by more bodies is necessary to preserve the attention of the spectator. As with Prampolini’s Paris program of pantomime, spectators can enjoy nearly three hours of pantomime as long as they are watching a series of different narratives. A two-hour pantomime narrative requires a unique style of pantomimic imagination, a way of thinking about physical action, as complex as any style of writing necessary to write spoken drama. Beer-Hofmann displays this style with, among numerous other devices, his interesting use of the “wave” gesture. Although many other pantomime creators obviously displayed imaginative use of pantomimic action, Beer-Hofmann, by the immense scale of his scenario, suggests that the longer the narrative, the more detailed and varied the pantomimic action must become, unlike dance, which depends on repetition of movement to signify its detachment from the narrative. Dance frequently finds a place in pantomime, as it does in Das goldene Pferd, but it is always in the background, an incidental element, which only serves to foreground the pantomimic action, those physical actions that add to the narrative, that allow bodies to tell a story that cannot be told better, if at all, any other way (cf. Scherer 1993: 67-75; Elstun 1969: 181-191; Vollmer 2011: 472-483). 

            The fifth scene of the scenario seems to undermine the darkness of the narrative by making all the action that preceded it merely the content of a dream, although the Epilogue, in which Tarkah, the figure of Death, wishes the spectator good dreams and good night, seems ironic enough to undermine the supposedly happy ending wherein Bahadur wakes up to a long, unadventurous country life with Halimah. But Das goldene Pferd is a doppelgänger story that shows how “another life” inhabits the body of the protagonist, and this dream life is a presentiment of death, an image of a desire for freedom that is self-destructive. Beer-Hofmann saw pantomime as an optimum representation of a dream state, and from his perspective as a literary author, the dream state was where language was powerless, silent, against the beautiful actions of Death: Pantomime makes death visible, a point emphasized by the Blind Singer, who sings the “reality” of the protagonist’s situation but cannot see the action unfolding before him. The astonishing visual complexity of Das goldene Pferd shows the impact of film on pantomimic imagination insofar as Beer-Hofmann sought to create in the theater a visual experience that was impossible to achieve on film. Pantomime in the theater, not on film, created the most accurate connection between dreaming and death, because pantomime on the stage was the most transparent revelation of “another life” within the body. This view of pantomime is close to the ancient Roman idea of pantomime as a story of the body’s “metamorphosis.” Yet Das goldene Pferd has never reached the stage. The economic resources, the technology, the rehearsal time, and the pantomimic talent required to realize the scenario belong to film, not to theater. The scenario takes pantomime into a theater that has existed, if at all, only briefly under Viganò. In spite of its archaic subject matter, its Wagnerian soundtrack, and its ostensibly conservative resolution of a tragic “fate” by merely waking up, the scenario represents the modernist pantomimic imagination at its most ambitious level of inscription.

            As long as pantomime in the theater remained an experimental form of performance, its appeal rested upon innovation, upon extending the possibilities of performance into “modern” understandings of bodily signification, and upon creating instability rather than stability within theater culture. Innovation occurred through imaginative use of stage technology, stage design, musical accompaniment, pantomimic action, and narrative. On the narrative level, the most significant innovation was the abandonment of Pierrot and the commedia format as the primary basis for pantomimic action. As a result, pantomime became a much more serious art that inspired a complex technological and musical support, and, in Germany especially, a far larger number of people and theaters than was ever conceivable in the excessively stable, hermetic realm of Pierrot connoisseurship. Pantomime moved speechless performance well beyond the boundaries imposed upon it by dance, especially ballet, with its conviction that only beautiful movements performed by beautiful bodies can justify performance devoid of the power of speech to tell a story and “explain” why people on stage are there. The creators of pantomimes, focused on actions rather than movements, tended to find interesting the actions of a much wider range of bodies than the creators of dances in the theater. Modernist pantomimes therefore included dwarves, freaks, older bodies, self-consciously mechanized bodies (Futurist robots), monsters, nude bodies, black bodies, or roles taken by people who also performed in plays or cabaret or dance or appeared in silent films. But the pressure to innovate takes a steep toll on the pantomimic imagination. To construct a narrative out of pantomimic action is intensely challenging if the spectator has very limited or most likely no ability to change views of the action, as happens in a film. The narrative must come out of the pantomimic action, out of the body, not the image. It is a very stressful activity to construct a logical sequence of physical actions that tell a story or communicate ideas better than speaking or writing, because human society, in its constant need to regulate the body, does not encourage, so to speak, thinking with the body—that is, seeing what the body “says” when language cannot help one see. Playwrights can crank out one play after another; choreographers can produce one dance after another, composers can churn out composition after composition, because they all rely on some sort of language that subordinates the body to it and causes us to see something other or “more” than the body in performance. But creators of modernist pantomime were unable to sustain themselves in the genre. Innovative pantomime exhausted them; it was remarkable if they wrote or produced more than one pantomime. Beer-Hofmann attempted his second pantomime scenario thirty years after the first, and after the monumental Das goldene Pferd, any further venture into pantomime seemed utterly inconceivable. 

            But after 1930, pantomime itself seemed unimaginable, at least in relation to anything resembling the magnitude of experimentation and productivity of the previous four decades. In 1932, Reinhardt briefly revived Das Mirakel and a theater in Munich revived the 1924 Vienna version of Wedekind’s Die Kaiserin von Neufundland. But these productions now seemed like curiosities from a vanished era. The urge to experiment with new pantomimes had disappeared. The most likely reason is that silent films had also disappeared. Silent films signified a vast public appetite for pantomimic performance, and creators of modernist pantomime sought to accommodate this appetite with pantomime narratives and productions that filmmakers failed to make or that film was incapable of making. With the advent of talking films, the appetite for film pantomime was suddenly no longer large enough, at least according to the film industry, to justify the cost of producing silent films. Sound film technology encouraged some filmmakers to produce films that combined imaginative use of sound and strong musical soundtracks with naturalistic pantomimic action while containing hardly any speech, for example: Earth (1930), directed by Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956); Vampyr (1931), directed by Carl Dreyer (1889-1968); City Lights (1931), directed by Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977);  Emil und die Detektive (1931), directed by Gerhard Lamprecht; Das blaue Licht (1932), directed by Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003);  Päikese lapsed (Children of the Sun) (1932), directed by Theodor Luts (1896-1980); Ecstasy (1933), directed by Gustav Machatý (1901-1963); Amok (1934), directed by Fedor Ozep (1895-1949); and Modern Times (1936), also directed by Chaplin. Despite the success of such films, filmmakers overwhelmingly saw sound technology as the foundation for speech-driven storytelling. The unity of voice and image amplified public faith in technology to create more realistic representations of life and thus bring humanity closer to reconciling or somehow even diminishing the great distance between reality and the imaginary. Perhaps, too, audiences felt that talking films, as opposed to sound films, prevented the bodies of performers from signifying that which is stranger than anything they speak. This cinematic power of the voice to restrain, to control the body further implied that technology strengthened faith in language to sustain social unity or at least to assure that the body performed within the limits of language rather than outside of it. At any rate, pantomime in any modernist idiom disappeared because of a technological innovation rather than because of, say, the world economic crisis of the 1930s or the tempestuous political crises afflicting the Western democracies even in the 1920s. The theatrical pantomimic imagination simply could not respond to cinematic innovation with any greater innovation than it had already achieved in response to silent film. 

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