Pantomime and War: Perverse Pantomime Fantasies in Nazi Germany

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

Perverse Pantomime Fantasies in Nazi Germany

One might assume that during World War II, theater artists lacked the resources or opportunities to “experiment” with pantomime, assuming also that artistic experimentation is a “luxury” reserved for times of peaceful prosperity. It does seem that pantomime of any sort almost ceased to exist during the entire decade of the 1940s. Yet the war produced two of the greatest moments in pantomime history: Robert Helpmann’s pantomimic production of Hamlet in London in 1942 and Jean-Louis Barrault’s performance as Deburau in Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du paradis (1944). By 1940, Western societies had become fixated, perhaps to the point of addiction, on talk as the primary variable for representing experience through performance. Radio and talking films showed how voices, speech patterns, dialects, accents, inflections, intonations, and dialogic interplay revealed a vast inner realm of being that purely visual representations concealed. Authors had always tended to stuff their plays with more talk than most spectators could endure, in large part because, to be heard on stage, voices had to project an intensity that was tiring and “artificial.” But radio, talking films, and (in the late 1940s) television provided a huge range of “natural” voices that animated, soothed, seduced, or gripped the listener to such a degree that pantomime seemed an incomprehensible, severely crippled form of representation. It was apparently unrewarding to understand the world through the unnecessary “silence” of voiceless bodies. The talkiness of films from the 1940s seems astonishing: a naïve trust in speech to explain the world often props up an excessive and even lazy dependence on speech to tell a story, as if a story was worth telling only when filled with enough voices to prevent expectations placed on the revelatory value of the image itself from becoming too exorbitant. Within this cultural ideology, in which technology strengthened faith in the power of speech to reveal a kind of “inner world” occluded by the image, pantomime receded into a virtually dormant state. 

            Nevertheless, the pantomimic imagination was not altogether extinct. Neither the war nor media fixation on talk deterred the aristocratic Austrian writer and artist Fritz Herzmanowsky-Orlando (1877-1954) from composing two pantomime scenarios in 1941. A man of great inherited wealth and chronically poor health, he spent much of his life in an insulated world he was able to make for himself. He wrote prolifically in several genres: novels, short stories, dramas, ballet scenarios, and even a radio play. Yet the only thing he published in his lifetime was the comic fantasy novel Der Gaulschreck im Rosennetz (1928), which he actually wrote in 1917. Neither did he publish or exhibit any of the many bizarre color drawings he made throughout his life depicting grotesque encounters between weird humans and fantastic creatures. Only well after his death did the Austrian cultural world recognize him as a master of grotesque comic fantasy. By 1913, he belonged to a Munich circle of writers engaged in the promotion of mystical-occult theories of identity, body, and social organization, including Karl Wolfskehl (1869-1948), Ludwig Klages (1872-1956), Alfred Schuler (1865-1923), and the artist of macabre fantasy Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), with whom he corresponded for half a century. He was also a disciple of the reactionary Austrian apostle of the neo-pagan, racist, anti-modernist, and anti-feminist esoteric philosophy of “Theozoology,” Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (1874-1954), and in 1922, he became a priest in Liebenfels’ neo-pagan cult religious group, Neutempler-Orden, founded in 1900. In his writings, however, Herzmanowsky-Orlando veered toward the fantastically comic rather than toward the mystical. In the 1920s, he and his wife cultivated the companionship of “androgynous” young women, to whom Carmen became intensely attached. He claimed to have joined the Nazi Party in 1932, yet evidence for his activities on behalf of the Party is difficult to excavate. When the Nazis annexed Austria and launched the war in 1939, Herzmanowsky-Orlando did not inscribe his attitudes toward these events, even in his correspondence (Goldberg 1988; Holeschofsky 2012: 3-4). He seems to have regarded writing and art as ways to insulate himself from a larger world over which he was powerless to exert any influence; writing and drawing in his Austrian and Italian castles confirmed his aristocratic sense of being able to live according to fantasies that were immune to the perturbations of world events effecting everyone else. He felt no need to share these attitudes by publishing his writings, for the mere act of writing was sufficient to affirm the aristocratic authority of his imagination. His two pantomime scenarios from 1941 are examples of a pantomimic imagination unconstrained by any need to represent life as anything other than a bizarre fantasy–something imagined rather than lived.

Youghiogheny, set in the Prater fairground of Vienna in a “timeless era,” entails an enormous cast of characters, fifty-eight altogether, although it consists only of a brief prelude and one long act. The prelude depicts preparations for the performance of a ballet in a coffeehouse garden, with the ballet master and the program director arranging dancers and escorting visitors (two old counts, Bobby and Buby), while workers arrange scenery, trees, a throne, and while the dancers move about to the accompaniment of a triangle and drum. With the sound of ovation, a ballerina escorts Bobby, who, raising his monocle, pinches her on the cheek as the curtain falls only to rise immediately. The point of the prelude apparently is to imply that persons for whom the narrative is intended to entertain and some figures on stage who are preparing to perform are also in the narrative, although the narrative that subsequently unfolds is not the ballet. The entire act consists of an incredible profusion of actions performed by a multitude of characters, many of whom remain on stage the entire time. Many of the actions occur simultaneously, and characters appear and depart with a sudden arbitrariness that suggests they exist simply to disrupt someone else’s performance. The act feels like sitting in a fantastic, expressionist coffeehouse where a strange variety of people come and go and it is difficult to make a coherent story out of the scene. It is like one of Herzmanowsky-Orlando’s bizarre drawings come to life: eccentric human forms interact with an exuberance that overrides any other motive for action or any further need to understand character. Here character is nothing more than the status assigned a body by a costume or racial attribute, although the coffeehouse society seems to lack any hierarchy of identity. Everyone in the piece exists only to contribute to an ecstatic chaos. Here is a half-page sample of the profusion of actions the author compiles in an act that contains twenty-two pages of a similar level of craziness:

The Photographer leaps from the table and, his upper body still covered with the black cloth, begins to crawl on hands and feet. He disappears to the right. The four [Persian] magicians and the Page-girls appease the audience. The Nymph throws them a hand kiss. Loud calls from the garden. The stage music intones the nymph hymn. The Flower Girls rush up against the new arrival [Youghiogheny, the little female dragon]. At the table, the fat Married Couple has placed the Trumpeter. The Oriental [Mauretainian] dancer gives the fat man a kick, because the Trumpeter had leaped up protestingly, and he falls. The Blonde [dancer] leaps over him, and [the Mauretainian and Blonde dancers] join the embracing Page-girls with the golden bow. The Pikkolo pulls the napkin from the desperately floundering Lady. The Pension Chaperon finally frees herself from the flypaper. It remains hanging on a branch. The Flute Player leaves her after a bow. She indicates to her [four] Pupils to curtsy before the nymph. The little Reporter is again rebuffed. The [coffeehouse] Manager wants to lead the Nymph, from whom the Moor takes off the fur coat, to the throne chair. The Reporter, notebook pulled out, stops the Moor and touches the fur. A bow-carrying Page-girl sticks him from behind with a gold arrow. Suddenly there appears, through the entrance to the coffeehouse, an old-fashioned tramcar, pulled by false horses. From it emerge not entirely satisfied coffee guests. Foremost, an old-fashioned Lord, who slouches toward the nymph in the throne. He immediately unfolds a newspaper. The last to appear [from the tram] is a Pifferari [an Italian shepherd, who here has a poodle as a companion] (Herzmanowsky-Orlando 1991: 130-131).

This bewildering level of action is continuous throughout the act, with three times as many other characters participating. Amazing things happen: doves flutter in and out of the scene; flowers fall from above; gold coins pour from the table; cannon shots explode; a man lights a cigarette from a torch, and each time he inhales he expands to great size and when he exhales he shrinks to a small size. Different characters perform dances: a Hungarian czardas, a “macabre Fandango-caricature,” a belly dance, Youghiogheny’s dance to the accompaniment of a glockenspiel, and Ravel’s Bolero (1927) accompanies much of the second half of the act, although other music, such as an ocarina-playing child, sometimes occurs at the same time. But the most fantastic figure is Youghiogheny, the little female dragon, who accompanies the Nymph and bears a “grim but somehow piquant mask,” whose eyes are shifting colored lights. The dragon uses a lorgnette to observe people and waves a fan. She appears about a third of the way into the act, and for a while she participates, “radiating fire as the demonic-graceful central figure,” in dances with Fan-girls and dervishes before performing her solo glockenspiel dance, without, however, diminishing the multitudinous actions performed by many other characters, including Bobby and Buby and the Director. The Lord reads his newspaper throughout all this madness. But when a “friendly, big-headed Chinese family” arrives from the tram, the chaos escalates, with the Nymph dancing “seductively” with four Page-girls and the dervishes, into a “kind of bacchanal of the coffeehouse guests.” Thunder resounds. The Page-girls decorate Youghiogheny in bridal veil and myrtyl. The Chinese lead Buby to the table, which is a fountain of gold coins. In the midst of many other actions, it becomes clear, from the gestures of the Nymph, now named the Fairy, that Buby should marry the dragon, but he refuses the money to do so. The now golden-haired Moor and the Pikkolo kneel before the Fairy and offer themselves as the groom, but the Fairy waves them away. The dragon, now possessing a “graceful girl’s body,” snuggles up to Buby, and the Fairy urges him to kiss her, but he refuses. Youghiogheny removes her mask to reveal a “delightful girl’s face” that enchants Buby, and he kisses her. However, the Flower-girls and the Page-girls surround Youghiogheny and “shoot their gold arrows to the sky,” roses fall from the sky, Bobby and Buby lead the Fairy to Youghiogheny, and the Fairy throws her arms around Youghiogheny’s neck. The piece ends with bon-bons thrown to the audience. The guests compel the Lord, sitting on the throne reading, to bow before the Fairy and Youghiogheny before he is thrown out of the final tableau (Herzmanowsky-Orlando 1991: 121-164). 

            The scenario presents the coffeehouse as a bizarre, manic society in which people, regardless of their eccentricies or otherness, may behave in a friendly, exuberant, and libidinous manner without risking any punishment. Speech is completely unnecessary in this environment where one physical action ignities another and another. The Lord, the stereotypical Vienna coffeehouse newspaper reader, gets thrown out at the end because he really doesn’t belong there: he’s too normal—he buries himself in his newspaper without paying attention to the peculiar life around him. In this wild society, even the concept of marriage becomes subverted. The Nymph suddenly decides that Buby should marry her partner, the dragon, by placing his hand in Youghiogheny’s, and the dragon, who has put on gloves for this action, makes encouraging gestures. Only when the dragon entirely reveals herself as a girl is he willing to kiss her. But this revelation compels Buby and Bobby to see the Nymph-Fairy as the proper partner for Youghiogheny, so that it seems the audience witnesses the celebration of a homosexual marriage. Homosexuality also seems hinted at in the pairing of Buby and Bobby, the Mauretainian and the Blonde dancers, and the Moor and the Pikkolo, and in the quartet of Persian magicians. It doesn’t matter to the Nymph that her partner is a “demonic-graceful,” fire-spewing, sexually aggressive female dragon and a charming, delightful girl. Thus, in addition to its extravagant density of physical action, the scenario shows a pantomimic imagination cheerfully glorifying a “friendly” reorganization of sexual desire. Obviously such a scenario would not find a place on any stage in the Third Reich or even in print; most likely it would not have found a place on a stage anywhere else in the world. But for Herzmanowsky-Orlando, the mere writing of the scenario was sufficient to show that a happy, friendly society is also a wild, fantastic society best represented through an ecstatic excess of pantomimic action. 

            Herzmanowsky-Orlando’s second pantomime scenario from 1941, Der Raub der Europa, is somewhat less difficult to describe than Youghiogheny, although it contains an even larger cast of characters. The piece contains three acts, yet it is shorter than Youghiogheny. The basis for the scenario narrative is the ancient Greek myth of the god Zeus, who abducted the Phoenician princess Europa by appearing to her as a white bull. But Herzmanowsky-Orlando only uses a few elements from the mythic material—or rather, he transforms the myth into a bizarre fantasy of an ethnically diverse society pursuing eccentric forms of sexual happiness. Though the action takes place during the “age of the bull” (“Tauruszeitalter”), anachronisms crop up, such as a large photographic group portrait of the heroes of Troy under the skull of an ox in the breakfast room of King Agenor, the use of matches, the reading of a newspaper, the swinging of golf clubs, and female harlequins on the deck of Zeus’s ship. The long first act unfolds in the breakfast room of King Agenor’s palace in Phoenicia and depicts the hectic environment in which the King enjoys his breakfast. It is similar to Youghiogheny in its extravagant profusion of pantomimic actions. Servants bring in food and drink, the Ceremony Director ushers in various guests and envoys, a morning concert plays, Kadmos, the son of Agenor, appears with seven of his athletic friends, Europa, the King’s daughter, appears with her own entourage of seven friends to ask her mother, Agraule, who has a mustache, permission to go to the beach, half-naked black African female dancers—“an improvised Laokoon group”—perform a “wild, acrobatic and—unfortunately—not entirely morally unobjectionable act.” While these things happen among others, a pair of dwarves play different musical instruments, eunuchs attempt to police the unruly visitors, a large “dog’s head” rises over the breakfast table to snatch food, the chief eunuch sings a song by Schubert, Agraule signals to prevent people from irritating her husband the King, but she herself sometimes irritates him, Europa plays the lyre, Moorish servants (one with a gold wig) hand things to others, the androgynous youth Gygax brings a bouquet for Agraule, the Ceremony Director performs a “passionate” dance while Kadmos’s friends engage in athletic contests, Gygax hurls a spear, but it goes awry and bounces off Agenor’s head, and an ape in a cage—presumably a chimpanzee—performs various actions throughout that comment on the actions of the humans: “One of the black maids dusts the bricks […] so that the other [maid] stealthily [performs] a bit of a little belly dance according to Radaukles’ rhythm. Agraule, who does not see this with pleasure, wipes a tear of emotion from her eyes and gives the ape a piece of sugar. The ape whistles loudly with two fingers toward the door, which the two dwarves, who had hidden under the table, have opened.” The act eventually ends with several of the characters, including the ape, bowing before the audience and throwing kisses. The curtain falls, but the dog’s head pokes underneath it to sniff a soufflé pot. In the second act, Europa and her entourage are at the beach. “Grandiose music” performed by Tritons resounds. A ship approaches, its crew consisting of “half-naked maritime Girls” and female harlequins. With circus-like ceremony, a young steer emerges from the ship, greets Europa courteously, kisses her hand, and summons his crew to toss flowers and confections to the girls. Europa responds by offering her hand for the steer to kiss. A group of fish heads, bobbing in the waves and holding notebooks, sing tunes conducted by a “chief fish head.” The steer (Zeus) sinks to all fours, Europa climbs on his back, and the entourage places a rose necklace around his neck. From a great laurel tree, the crew tosses flowers, then scampers onto the ship. Europa and the steer board the gold shining ship with the purple tent. The tent closes as Europa and the steer enter it; the harlequins perform acrobatics on the golden nets as the ship sails away, leaving the entourage behind. The third act takes place in a palace on the island of Crete. Zeus lies in bed with Europa, as Moorish dancers perform for them. Europa kisses her beloved. Then Zeus removes his steer mask: Europa is “delighted to see a beautiful young man before her.” He summons his assistant Hymenäos and his Negro bureaucrats to bring the scepter by which the god will officially designate Europa queen of Crete. But Mercury appears with a message: Agenor and Agraule have arrived to take back their abducted daughter. The King and his wife are in an angry, impatient mood, to which Zeus responds inscrutably, while the dancing girls offer the royal couple sweets. Thunder rumbles, Agenor pulls out an umbrella, Europa sobs, and a three-headed hellhound, Cerebus, rises up growling from the floor in red light, but Agenor scares him away with his umbrella. Agraule sees that Europa loves the young man, and she submits to the urge to kiss him, but he waves her off, “darkly and majestically.” Finally, lightning strikes: the scene reveals that the youth has transformed into a stone monument of Zeus. Ganymede appears in a pink cloud, painting his lips and spraying perfume all over Europa, who sobs on her mother’s breast. Agraule and Agenor perform several actions (whispers) of negotiation, until Agraule realizes she has a “quite passable plaster for her daughter’s wounded heart”: “ Who dances prettily and with victorious confidence […] a chirping, masked little figure—is it a boy, a girl, or in the end a eunuch?” It is the androgynous Gygax, Agraule’s favorite. She presents Gygax to Europa, who does not seem keen on him. But Agenor and his ministers find the idea appealing. Europa and Gygax kneel before him, he blesses them, and Mercury brings a crown to place on Gygax’s head. Cerebus growls again. The parents embrace and kiss their children. A “gold-klanging” ballet, directed by Mercury, concludes the pantomime (Herzmanowsky-Orlando 1991: 165-183). 

            Der Raub der Europa presents a society animated by “peculiar” sexual desires: Agenor is married to a woman with a moustache, and she is fond of the androgynous Gagyx; Europa becomes enamored of a steer, and the god Zeus pursues a sexual relationship with a human but can only consummate the relationship by transforming into a beast; Kadmos and his gang of sporty friends exude an aura of homoerotic camaraderie that Gagyx tries to join; the two Moorish servant girls form an erotic pair, as do perhaps the pair of dwarves; the girl crew on the ship showers Europa’s girl entourage with affection and gifts; Ganymede’s blatant homosexuality annoys Zeus, though not Agenor and Agraule, who dislike the hyper-masculinity embodied by Zeus as a steer (“Roastbeef Lohengrin”), as an unmasked playboy, and as a stone monument, and they show no fear of him; they agree that Gagyx is a superior partner for Europa. Crowding the stage with so many characters, many more than mentioned here, serves, as in Youghiogheny, to create the impression of a busy, glamorous society suffused with a warm erotic narcissism, in which characters whimsically interrupt the actions of others or perform actions simultaneously but separately, like the dog heads that pop up seemingly inconsequentially. Pantomime here constructs an image of society that is otherwise invisible to the spectator when language, speech, is superimposed over the actions representing social relations. The abundance of pantomimic action signifies a current of erotic feeling motivating the “work” or responsibilities of all the many figures belonging to the mythic society, including even the caged ape, who “trembles with lust” at the approach of an “old Austrian woman” wearing pants. But obviously this is not a pantomime that seeks to recover an archaic, primeval mythic experience of communal rapture buried by modernity. Rather, the pantomime sabotages the archaic myth by infusing it with a modernist (and anachronistic) idea of sexuality that is almost pornographic: the old myth is merely the inspiration for a utopian sexual fantasy, for an image of an “unspeakable” need for a new, happier society. In a sense, though, Herzmanowsky-Orlando is close to the ancient Roman pantomime in his transformation of mythic material, in his modernist treatment of pantomime as a bodily “metamorphosis” of a society (myth) rather than as a myth’s metamorphosis of a body. His two scenarios represent a pantomimic imagination far in advance and far more uninhibited than people in the theater anywhere are likely to regard as feasible for production, even though his scenarios do not require material resources any greater than those for a large-scale ballet. But to stage such an abundance of unique pantomimic actions does require an equal abundance of acting and directorial talent that probably even the richest theaters cannot assemble. This is not because Herzmanowsky-Orlando has written purely literary “closet pantomimes” that take no account of the realities of theatrical production; it is because people in the theater are unable to think, to narrate, pantomimically—it is not “natural” to them. But, as a terrible war unfolded, for Herzmanowsky-Orlando, the unnaturalness of pantomime was perfect for imagining an unnatural but happier and much more productive, action-flooded society than those invoking “reality” ever allow.

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