Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Irene Mawer

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

Irene Mawer

Ever since the eighteenth century, women in Western civilization were far less likely than men to pursue artistic ambitions through pantomime, even though the silent film era and the early modern solo dance programs showed all the same that pantomime was no less “female” than it was “male.” Nevertheless, assumptions about fundamental differences between the sexes synonymous with childish superstitions pervaded Western consciousness and encouraged a kind of gendering of the arts whereby, in the realm of voiceless performance, women overwhelmingly preferred to dance while men, if they must be “silent” in performance, perceived that they encountered much less risk of becoming “feminized” if they ventured instead into pantomime. Pierrot and the teachings of Decroux reinforced rather than challenged these peculiar assumptions in the twentieth century. As is evident by now, women rarely controlled the production and content of pantomime, in contrast to the situation in modern dance, where women largely shaped the history of the art. Annette Lust (1924-2013), herself a mime, devoted a chapter to “Women’s Voices [sic!] in Mime” in her book From Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond (2000), but mostly she only identified women she knew who were in the mime business. The chapter gives the impression that women, too, can be clowns in the Pierrot/Marcel Marceau tradition, and Lust does not situate women in any larger context for pantomime than the small scale, usually solo, comic-clown sketches promoted by the postwar mime culture descended from Marceau (Lust 2000: 237-259). However, the history of pantomime includes a few women with ambitions for the art that have gone beyond finding a place within the clown paradigm. 

In 1932, an English poet-actor, Irene Mawer (?-1963) published The Art of Mime, a book written primarily for teachers responsible for high school theatricals. Mawer had performed professionally in vaudeville pantomimes from the early 1910s. She appeared in a commedia pantomime, Et puis bonsoir, written by Ruby Ginner (1886-1978), which had an all-female cast, with Ginner playing Pierrot and Mawer as Harlequin. Ginner’s great passion was reviving what she understood, on the basis of archeological and literary evidence, as ancient Greek dance, and she published a book on this subject in 1933, The Revived Greek Dance, which had the same publisher as Mawer’s book a year earlier. In 1915, the two women formed a school, The Ginner-Mawer School of Drama and Dance, the purpose of which was to affirm “that a system of normal, sanely-balanced movement is necessary, as a counter-influence to the neurotic tendencies of the present age” (Ginner 1933: 14). Ginner and Mawer had studied elocution under the prominent voice specialist Elsie Fogerty (1865-1945) and had appeared in the chorus for Fogerty’s productions of ancient Greek tragedies in 1902 and 1904. Through Fogerty, Ginner and Mawer became (1918) involved in the Stratford Summer Season run by the actor-manager Frank Benson (1858-1939), and, in 1919, Mawer choreographed the chorus for Benson’s production of Euripides The Trojan Women, in which she and Ginner also performed; the production later moved to the West End (Macintosh 2010a: 200-203; Macintosh 2011: 50). Ginner’s pedagogy focused primarily on choral movement in the Greek style. The aim of Greek choric movement was to produce an idealized image of the female body that would protect women, mentally, emotionally, and physically, from the manifold “harms” of twentieth century life, although Ginner’s rhetoric resembled that of the “Grecian dance” advocate Genevieve Stebbins back in the 1890s. But Mawer declared in 1960 that, “I was not then, and never have been, a dancer” (Purkis 2011: 78). Her focus was pantomime; she and Ginner performed the three-act L’Enfant prodigue (1890) repeatedly (1922, 1929, 1934), with Ginner playing Father Pierrot and Mawer constructing a very androgynous-looking Pierrot (Mawer 1932: 152, 162). In 1925, she published a book of poems on ancient Greek themes, The Dance of Words, which also contained numerous photographs of ancient Greco-Roman monuments and artworks and of young women in palli performing movements inspired by the poems or the artworks. The book asserted that the unique “word-rhythms” of the poems, when spoken aloud, would urge the pantomimic performers to move in unique ways, and she provided notes that indicated how specific poems implied particular movements of the body (Mawer 1925: 87-101). But Mawer did not mean that the performer “translated” the words of the poem into an “equivalent” movement; rather, unique word-rhythms awakened in the body movement rhythms that were otherwise inaccessible. The idea was to tap an archaic, buried source of poetic rhythm that informed both the writing of poetry and the movement of the body. As Charlotte Purkis explains: “Combining dance and words seemed to be for her part of that Dionysian state of perpetual becoming which she thought was the essence of an artist. The meaning and purpose of poetry for Mawer was not merely utilitarian. Poetry is not just to be danced to or a reflection of the dance in words. Rather, poetry becomes a form of inscription: writing ‘on’, and ‘as’, dance” (2011: 80). 

Yet in The Art of Mime, Mawer described pantomime largely as a matter of translating words into movements. She devotes the first half of the book mostly to an overview of pantomime history, which she integrates with the histories of various Asian theaters, commedia dell’arte, lithurgical drama, and clowns. In the second half, she discusses various techniques and numerous exercises by which a teacher of pantomime can guide students to achieve expressive control over their bodies. The use of the hands is of primary importance, for the “mime must use […] gesture, not as some strange language, learnt with difficutly and delivered with care, but as if he knew no other way to speak the urgent message of his mind and heart” (Mawer 1932: 132-133). Yet Mawer does treat pantomime as mostly a “language” that one must learn by practicing repeatedly the many exercises that fill the second half of the book. She includes numerous examples of “phrases” that the mime must perfect in developing a gestural vocabularly: “I beseech you”; “I refuse you”; “I love you”; “Will you marry me?”; “You and I”; You go over there”; “You come here” (145). Mawer moves on to discuss the vocabularization of other body parts and the exercises appropriate to achieving mastery in the use of the parts. But she saw pantomime as the performance of actions, not the performance of specific movements. Each student had to develop her own “vocabulary” of gestures, her own way of signifying with her hands, “I beseech you.” Mawer provided sensible exercises for getting the student to think about how to use a part of the body to signify an emotion, an idea, or a character trait. The hands, for example, should reveal the social class, occupation, moral quality, and age of the character. Even so, the exercises served to place pantomimic action within an implicit anti-modernist cultural code that Mawer never questioned and with which she assumed pantomime was complicit. Like most teachers of mime, she avoided theorizing relations between action and narrative: she regarded actions as discrete “phrases” one learned by heart so that they could be inserted into a narrative conceived by someone other than the teacher or student. But her notions about pantomimic vocabulary applied to ideas about pantomimic narrative that she had inherited at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, in 1933, when she published her anthology of Twelve Mime Plays, all of the scenarios dated from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Into the 1930s Ginner and Mawer presented productions of revived Greek dancing and pantomimes in London’s Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Royal Albert Hall (1936) as part of their public campaign to present an ideal of young womanhood that resisted the corrupting influence of modernism. In 1936, Mawer designed costumes for a program of comic pantomimes on mythological themes, performed by an all-female cast, at the Vaudeville Theater, and she wrote one of the four pieces, The Flood, in which she played Noah (Wearing 2014: 536). But these were pantomimes that might have appeared in a Parisian salon of the 1890s. Although Ginner and Mawer were radical feminists at the time of World War I, Fiona Macintosh (2010b: 25) has observed that “Ginner’s idealized, physically perfect dancing Greek, who lived in harmony with nature, was dangerously close to the Aryan ideal of Nazi ideology,” and something similar could be said about Mawer’s claims regarding the racial-ethnic origins of pantomime and pantomime semiotics. Her pantomime aesthetic, old-fashioned long before the 1930s, could not survive in the postwar cultural scene, and in the 1950s she could not find a publisher for her book on the relation between poetry and dance, for her understanding of the poetic never outgrew her youthful infatuation with an art nouveau idealization of the decorative. For her, pantomime was the sign of a reverence for a mythic past, for the ancient world as glamorized by the refined milieu she inhabited as a girl. 

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