Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Angna Enters

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

Angna Enters

Another woman, however, American Angna Enters (1897-1989), fashioned a pre-World War II pantomime aesthetic that did survive well into the postwar era. She was born and grew up in Milwaukee and New Berlin, Wisconsin. An only child, she spent much of her time reading history and art books, and she studied design at a Milwaukee Teachers College; she designed sets for the Wisconsin Players. In 1919, she moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League, where she was a student of John Sloan (1871-1951), who subsequently did several portraits of her and numerous sketches of her mime characters. An ardent student of art history, she believed that the greatest art was figurative, and she began to study dance because she thought that movement would give greater life to the figures she wished to draw and paint. She briefly (1921-1922) studied and performed with the Japanese dancer Michio Ito (1892-1961), who was friendly with the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), but Ito’s efforts to fuse elements of Japanese Noh drama with dance evocations of Yeats’ symbolic-mystical poetry were remote from her own ambitions, and she realized that Ito was not able to teach her pantomime (Enters 1944: 107-119). For a while she lived in poverty and had to pawn heirlooms to fund her first public performances of pantomime, in 1924, in a Greenwich Village revue including ballet pieces and comic scenes by other performers (158-160). Enters found work as a commercial illustrator, but she quit the job, when in 1926, she produced her own evening program of solo pantomimes. The success of the program led to an invitation to perform in London and then to tour the United States. Until the 1960s, she performed programs entirely of solo pantomimes, touring the United States fourteen times, visiting not only all major American cities, but many small and medium-sized towns, such as Albuquerque, Grand Rapids, and El Centro; colleges, women’s social clubs, and civic community centers invited her to perform. President Roosevelt invited her to perform at the White House in 1940. She performed in Paris in 1929, but although she spent much of the 1930s traveling throughout Europe after receiving Guggenheim grants, she did not perform again in Europe until 1950, when she appeared in London, and 1951, when the State Department sponsored her visits to Paris and West Berlin. She constantly created new scenes inspired by her relentless traveling, and over forty years, she constructed, she claimed, at least 250 pantomime characters. 

But her artistic energies extended well beyond pantomime. Her drawings and paintings also attracted a large audience. She had regular gallery exhibitions in New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Art Museum acquired works by her. But she was herself the subject of many artworks by others, including John Sloan, Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), photographer Francis Bruguière (1879-1945), photographer Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), and sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), the designer of the Mount Rushmore monument. Enters was also a prodigious writer: she published (1937, 1944, 1958) three volumes of autobiography drawn from her enormous diary-journal. Her memoir The Silly Girl (1944) was a bestseller, which the MGM movie studio planned to turn into a film, with Enters as one of the screenwriters. The film was never made, but she worked on the screenplays for two other films and supervised the commedia scene in the movie Scaramouche (1952). She published a monumental play, Love Possessed Juana (1939), about political intrigue in the early sixteenth century Royal Court of Spain, for which she wrote the music and designed the projections for its performance, in 1946, at the Houston Little Theater, which then staged her next play, The Unknown Lover (1947) (Enters 1958: 297-300; 321). In 1955, she published a long novel about an artistic girl growing up in a mid-western city, Among the Daughters. In the early days of television, she performed some of her mime pieces, but the single recording of any of her performances is a 1959 half-hour film, Drawn from Life, which presents her in only three humorous scenes and is in any case extremely difficult to access. When she began teaching at various colleges in the 1960s, she published her lectures On Mime (1965), an insightful book that further revealed her gift for pedagogic innovation. In addition to her fame as a stage performer, Enters knew a great many famous artists and people in the entertainment industry, which made her an appealing guest on radio talk shows, and her image appeared in popular magazines like Vogue and Life. Yet she was a solitary person. In her profuse autobiographical writings, she did not disclose any romantic attachments nor even a sense of close, intense friendship with anyone. In 1921, she met the arts journalist Louis Kalonyme (?-1961), but did not begin dating him until 1924. He wrote a favorable review of her first solo performance evening in The Arts magazine (Kalonyme 1926: 278-279), and around 1930 he gave up his own career to become her concert manager and publicist. They apparently married in Spain in 1936, but he did not want it known that they were married to make it easier for them to live largely separate lives (Cocuzza 1980: 94). After Kalonyme’s death, Enters became the live-in companion of the widowed and invalid film director and producer Albert Lewin (1894-1968), a longtime friend, who asked her to marry him, but she refused. After his death, she lived alone in New York City. 

Enters performed only programs of solo pantomimes that displayed the diversity of her characterizations. For her first set of pantomimes in 1924, she had wanted to collaborate with the black bass singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976), much against the advice of her friends, but Robeson himself bowed out because of throat irritation (Enters 1944: 219-220). Subsequently, she did not interact with anyone else in the performance of her pantomimes. A program usually consisted of eleven to thirteen pantomimes lasting an hour to an hour and a half, with each “episode” lasting four to seven minutes. Even by 1930, she had so many pieces in her repertoire that she could perform different programs in different places or even in the same place without difficulty, and audiences were always aware that she had “characters” that they had not seen. She described many of her “compositions” in some detail in First Person Plural (1937) and An Artist’s Life (1958). Distinctive and often elaborate costumes were essential to her characterizations, and she designed them all herself. Because she could not afford a fulltime “maid,” she hired assistants at each hotel in which she stayed to assist her with the numerous quick costume changes she had to make with each performance. She employed different kinds of props and furniture pieces like small tables, chairs, a couch, or a stepladder, but otherwise the scenic context consisted mostly of a spotlight focused on her. Music was always piano accompaniment, which she modified to accommodate her actions or movements; she did not move to the music, which brought criticism from dancers that she was not a dancer (Enters 1944: 233-234). She used a wide range of music, including popular music, which was very rare in dance concerts of the 1920s and 1930s, and was utterly unique in using in performance by a white woman music by a black composer, Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943). Her piece Dance of Death (1924), however, had no musical accompaniment at all. But while the musical accompaniment was a major component of the performance and required extensive collaboration and rehearsal, Enters avoided discussing her accompanists in any detail. Early in her career, Madeleine Marshall (1900-1993), who started teaching at Juilliard in 1935, was Enters’ accompanist beginning in 1926, but her own ambitions as an accompanist compelled Enters to rely on other accompanists for her prodigious tours, and Marshall’s “loyal association” to Enters “endured to this day rather as a collaboration of friendship than of performers” (Enters 1958: 22). Yet Enters never described this collaboration or friendship beyond these words. All but a few of her characterizations were of women. One of her most popular characters was The Boy Cardinal (1924), a “fantasy,” a “commentary on the politics, casuistries, manners, and oppressions of such a cardinal-premier as Richelieu.” The music was a song from the historical era, “and this was the only time in my theatre career that I worked with a second person on the stage, a singer who stood off toward the wings” (the scene that she wanted Robeson to perform with her). “As the words were sung, the figure of my composition enacted the gruesome story with hands, shoulders, and eyes” (30-31). But in subsequent performances, Enters used a piano arrangement of paso doble [Figure 113]. In Le Petit Berger (1924), with music by Debussy, she played a shepherd boy aroused from drowsing by something speeding by him. “The flow of pose into movement was a ‘natural’ abstraction of expression and gesture into a rhythmic pattern, without dance steps” (24). David Dances before the Ark (1934), a “vision of David in his grave dance of exultation” and a project that “persisted” with her, was difficult to realize because she couldn’t find the right musical accompaniment, a combination of Byzantine and Hebraic chants. In Mr. Mozart Has Breakfast (1938), she impersonated Mozart, in nightgown and nightcap, composing music “between bites of roll and sips of coffee,” accompanied by his own music, but she did not keep the piece in the repertoire because concert houses provided her only with an anachronistic modern grand piano for Mozart to play (183). The Grand Inquisitor (1939) showed her as a sixteenth century Spanish official tormenting a figure bound to a stake, but this piece, too, did not remain long in her repertoire because it required that she hire a union stage worker to assist her (183). She also did a composition called The Effeminate Young Man (1934), depicting a seventeenth century French courtier, “feminine in dress and behavior,” one of “the most dangerous rivals the ladies had for masculine affections.” The costume was elaborate: “gray velvet trimmed with silver and loops of variegated velvet ribbons in rose, mauve, several shades of blue, and green. The full lace-trimmed blouse is white and the sleeves are tied with cerise and golden bows. The white frilled trousers over pink calves—and the slippers almond green” (109). A Modern Totalitarian Hero (1937) “is a gas-masked, strutting and preening figure in a fantastically over-decorated uniform.” She used a “rose as a symbol of the arts and the decencies of human existence. It is against the rose that [the] totalitarian, somehow effeminate, hero wreaks his vengeance, after pricking himself during an oversentimental orgy of appreciation in the best Wagnerian yo-ho-to-ho ecstatics in celebration of the flower’s beauty” (156-157). Otherwise, her vast repertoire of characterizations was female.

Enters created her characters by reading history books and magazine articles, by looking at paintings, by observing people as she saw them on the street, in cafes, or in various abodes, and by fantasizing about herself. Unlike many mimes, she did not depend on literary works, musical compositions, or theatrical performances to feed her imagination. Her pantomime programs combined serious and comic compositions. Many characterizations were imaginary historical figures, not figures who actually lived or whose portraits artists had painted, but she herself as she might have lived in an earlier time. One of her most famous and enduring works in this vein was Moyen Age (1924), with music by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), in which “the problem I set for myself was to tell of the Crucifixion, Adoration and Annunciation in a stylized union of movement, costume, lighting, and music—an attempt to convey the spirit of the life celebrated by Giotto, Fra Angelico and other primitives […]” (Enters 1958: 24). The costume changed over the years from a stone-chiseled, gray-white look to a more pliant vermillion wool gown with a gilt crown. Enters constructed several other religious characters: Queen of Heaven (1926), depicting “a woman of the time of Thomas Aquinas, in whose worship of Mary would be mirrored the worship of the age.” “She sat—her knees wide apart—as though holding the world in her lap.” The music was a piano arrangement of a song by Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236); Flemish Saint (1931), with hymn music from the fifteenth century, presented the saint as “she passes delicately and almost impersonally on her way to martyrdom.” “Her gown is of Vermeer green and navy blue velvet,” along with a white veil (84); Auto-da-fé (1931), “a composition of the pursuit and persecution until her death at the stake of one whose heresy is that she is Jewish.” Costume: a dark gray gown, with a red circle on her breast, “the symbol of Jewishness.” Music: a Spanish tune with an intensifying drumbeat that ceases when she falls from the stake (84); Flesh-Possessed Saint—Red Malaga (1936), accompanied by the Malaguena tune, depicted a lust-tormented nun at the time of the Spanish Civil War; Ikon Byzantine (1932) with music by Mussorgsky, showed the movement of a female figure in a costume of dark red, fresco blue, and gold, “carefully spaced as though in self-explanatory symbols” (86); Inquisition Virgin (1929), with Mozarabic chant, was “a constant reminder that the Queens of Spain ‘have no legs’.” Her scepter was a symbol of judgment rather than compassion” (64). But many historical scenes were secular: Pavana (1929), a medieval fresco with drumbeat requiring a complex costume—black velvet, gold embroidery, wine-colored shoes with aquamarine jewels, black gloves, jeweled and “studded with nailheads to resemble armor”; Heptameron (1927) depicted a femme galante from the sixteenth century and the “freedom of the women of the court [of Francis I], their participation in dueling, the hunt, and the excessive dances […] deplored by the less worldly” (38); Mme. Pompadour—Solitaire 1900 (1936) was “a kind of reverse strip-tease,” showing a “woman of the gas-lit early 1900s, discovered just after she has stepped from a tub preparatory to a long toilette.” “It is characteristic of the woman of this composition that, at last, ready, but with nothing to do, she should play solitaire—and cheat herself” (142). Some compositions evoked ancient Greece: Sapphic (1926) “revealed a Greek woman occupied in the sunlight with the movement suggested to her by a Sapphic strophe. […] She walked in counterpoint to [the] strophe” (33-34); Cassandra (1935) presented the doomed prophetess; Pagan Greece (1933), an “experimental cycle” of nine scenes, depicted various female figures from Greek mythology, comic and tragic, and culminating with the glorification of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom (99-101). Some compositions explored exoticism: Ishtar (1936), who, luxuriously dressed, “fans away flies with the horsetail”; Isis-Mary (1936), an “Egypto-Greco-Roman fantasy,” in which “Isis merges into Mary” (130); Odalisque (1926), one of her “most frequently requested compositions,” “disclosed an odalisque […] awakening from sleep with languorous animal stretchings and amorous rehearsals of a few half-awakened moments. She then relaxes into a drowsy state of a hot Oriental afternoon. The general motif was one of remembered pleasure.” Enters performed the entire scene on a bed (Enters 1958: 36; Enters 1965: 76-78). Second Empire. Entr’acte 1860—Rendezvous (1927) was “a dance of the eyes,” showing how a woman greeted different persons on the street and culminating with her “picking her way through the dark side streets of Paris, her face concealed, on the way to an intimate meeting. Her walk epitomized the furtiveness ladies had to show” (Enters 1958: 34). Enters regarded Harlot’s Progress (1943) as one of her best compositions but was unable to perform it more than once because of the high cost of scene changes. The piece, another cycle, dramatized “the evolution of a young ‘Lorette’—or street girl—of the 1830s through successive stages as courtesan to haute monde marriage and social position” (245). 

Figure 113: Left: Angna Enters as The Boy Cardinal (1924). Right: Angna Enters wearing one of her Renaissance costumes as photographed by Edward Steichen in 1927. Photos: Enters (1937).

Enters presented some scenes drawn from contemporary life: Société Anonyme (1932) satirized the intellectual cult that formed around Man Ray, Katherine Dreier, and Marcel Duchamp in New York during the 1920s with their celebration of “the neoclassical fads of the moment in interior decoration, ‘health’ movements, sun worship, and the ‘Pure Dance,’ then still modernistic-machine-abstract,” embodied by a “kind of Artemis clad in white pajamas” riding on a merry-go-round hobby horse. The accompaniment consisted of “movie ‘Indian’ music,” Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923), and carousel tunes played on a phonograph (85). Hollywood Horror Story (1942) “presented a study of what could happen to a girl, susceptible to glib encouragement [from “I’ll make you a star” scoundrels in the movie industry], in the space of morning, noon, and night” (244). Her liberal, intensely anti-fascist political views, violently stirred by her dismay at the damage done by the Spanish Civil War to a country she obviously loved, led her to infuse some of her 1930s compositions with political attitudes that went beyond the anti-clericalism of her religious pieces. A Modern Totalitarian Hero has already been mentioned, but it was the first of a three-part cycle that included Japan—“Defends”—Itself! (which showed a defenseless Chinese peasant hiding from bombs dropped on a field) and London Bridge Is Falling Down (1937), which showed Britannia, “in peerage robes,” placating “warring factions” that parade before her. In Wiener Blut (1939), accompanied by a Strauss waltz, “a German student, summoned by an ominous knocking at the door, which she knows is the Gestapo come to take her to a Concentration Camp, burns the thesis on which she has been working” (196-197). Crackpot Americana (1940) satirized the “cults of Ku Klux Klan in all forms, [and the] oversentimentalization of ‘back home on the farm,’ Mom, etc.” (197), while Deutschland Ueber Alles (1936) satirized the “ardor with which masses of women regard Der Fuehrer,” which “is in itself an extraordinary display of physical release” (143). 

Her comic compositions often satirized the vanity and carelessness of young artistic women. In her “piano music” scenes, she sat at the piano and performed pieces that revealed “all those little human things which illuminate her as imprisoned in her restlessness […] overdramatizing herself into a foreordained climax” (33). In Pursuit of Art (1926) depicted a woman trying to find “self-expression” by playing avant-garde music but ends up sinking into “self-pity” by playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. Tristan (1928) presented a woman, a music student, attending a Wagner opera with a man, another music student. The man is seen entirely through the woman, “her arrival with the music score, her excitement in being with him, and in her doing the wrong things in an effort to please him,” and her realization at the end that “she is not the ideal Isolde” (46). Narcissism (1930) showed a female city worker “returning from her daily work” and playing a phonograph record of “Dream Lover” (1929), sung by Rudy Vallee (1901-1986). “Through his singing she takes on a new beauty in her own eyes, which carries the composition to a macabre end,” for “only by the slight exaggeration of an impulse, human character will swerve from normal to abnormal” (72). Enters disliked modernist abstract painting, and she made fun of it in several compositions, such as Dilly Dally—Ah Sweet Mystery of Life!(1942), in which a painter, dressed in a ballet tutu, paints her canvas as if it were a violin resting on her arm and the brush in her other hand is like a violin bow. The artist, “inspired by her face in the mirror,” paints her own portrait, which, “when unveiled to the audience is that ultimate of abstraction—nothing.” Yet Enters became disconcerted when audience members asked to purchase the paintings she made during the performance. Figures in Moonlight—Danse Macabre No. 2 (1935) displayed Enters’ taste for the grotesque. Harlequin, on top of a stepladder, strums a guitar to his beloved Colombine, represented by a dressmaker’s dummy, who remains utterly indifferent to him. “He stabs her, and from her dress-form heart come ribbons of blood, with which he strangles himself” (130). Darker still, though popular at women’s colleges, was Aphrodisiac—Green Hour (1929), inspired by Enters’ observations of women on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, which “dealt with the moments of a prostitute [in black velvet dress and black, ostrich feather hat with “poisonous” green gloves] at a café, during business hours, and was designed to communicate that death which is contrived in life”—thus, “a composition based on the movement, the expressionless expressions, the sentimentality, the dance in the life of […] unsuccessful women” (45-46). 

Enters produced many other compositions as well as humorous dances, but after 1943, she ceased to create any new compositions. Her popular programs from the 1940s to the early 1960s contained mostly pieces she had first performed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She was the most distinctive pantomimist in the United States until the vogue for French mime culture took hold in the 1970s. She herself believed that the commedia format had stunted the development of French pantomime and created characters that existed only in the theater (53), whereas she created her characters by looking outside the theater, by finding herself in history, by enacting the behavior of people as she witnessed it. Her pedagogy, as inscribed in On Mime, emphasized to students this need to observe and to imagine movements rather than to encode them through relentless exercise. She stressed the importance of narrating through action rather than identifying movements that displayed the student’s control over her body: action was subordinate to characterization, whereas in dance characterization was subordinate to movement, a distinction that caused dancers to regard her as something like a freak, although she herself did not always make a clear distinction between dance and pantomime. She was the modern incarnation of an ancient Roman pantomime, a solo performer metamorphosing into the multitude of historic and contemporary identities inhabiting her body. “Mime is a lonely art,” she wrote, “for the mime works in a solitary world inhabited by phantoms which take only transient physical form through him” (Enters: 1965: 125). The mime “is a lonely figure in whom neither the audience nor the figures of their imagination have any interest. […] To me, the realization of this loneliness is an asset, for it provides a sense of that isolation in which one is free to abandon oneself to the expression of those images with which one is obsessed” (129). But neither her performances nor her itinerant teachings produced any significant efforts to compete with her. She remains alone in the history of American pantomime, because she was not afraid to be alone. In the postwar era, mimes were afraid to be alone. They needed to belong to a community built out of a shared image of pantomime; they needed to belong to a school, to a system, to a shared set of practices and disciplined training, to the mime culture, to the French idea of mime as the discovery within oneself of a fundamental, existential, or “absolute” Pierrot, who is the antithesis of the metamorphosing body. 

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