The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: Hartmut Vollmer’s Didactic Response to Postmodernism

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Two images from the photo series “Pantomime” (1965) by Daidō Moriyama (b. 1938).
Photo source: Daidō Moriyama, “Pantomime,” Tokyo: Akio Nagasawa Publishing, 2017.

Figure 191: Moriyama uses the term “pantomime” to describe a sequence of photos depicting preserved human embryos interacting with each other. He published the the sequence in the Japanese magazine 現代の眼 Gendai no me (Modern Eye) in 1965. In postmodern culture, pantomime assumes a revised definition to achieve “performance” in different media. Flemish author Hugo Claus (1929-2008) may have anticipated this postmodern appropriation of the term “pantomime” when in 1950 he collaborated with Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927) to produce a small book of poems, “Zonder form van process” (Brussels: Draak) a “pantomime-poem” to be performed with a solo voice, piano, flute, guitar, drums, and a collage (“bruitage”) of five apparently electronically distorted voices that are somehow integrated with Alechinsky’s abstract lithographs.

Hartmut Vollmer’s Didactic Response to Postmodernism

The reason performers do not or cannot think pantomimically probably entails the reason for their attraction to postmodern modes of performance: they distrust bodies that project “other identities” rather than a presumed “real” identity. The display of acrobatic skills is proof of a bodily reality or authenticity that does not require masks, the simulation of other identities. As this book has shown, various modernist performers have demonstrated considerable skill in thinking pantomimically. But in the postmodern performance culture, performers often assume that thinking about “other identities” belongs to those who create texts, writers, dramatists, people who find imaginary identities more alluring than real ones, than performers themselves. In relation to pantomime, however, performers are not unique in their postmodern attitudes. The writing of pantomime scenarios since Handke’s Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wußten (1992) is non-existent and practically so since the 1920s. Pantomime has simply disappeared from the literary imagination, despite the numerous fascinating scenarios composed by literary authors in the modernist era. Hartmut Vollmer (b. 1957), who has done so much to retrieve from obscurity the Austro-German literary pantomime, believes that the expressive and aesthetic power of pantomime expands or deepens through association with literary texts. He therefore has published a slender book, Pantomimisches Lernen im Deutschunterricht: Ein Beitrag zur Förderung des sinnlichen Verstehens (2012), in which he proposes that pantomime instruction in German public schools should use literary texts to inspire students and to develop their “sensual understanding” of the world, their “freedom of fantasy,” and the “playful” expression of their bodies (Vollmer 2012b: 26). He accepts the argument advanced with monumental zeal in a nearly 700-page dissertation, Pädagogik der Pantomime (1997), by Frank Nickel, who proposes that pantomime instruction is uniquely capable of developing communication skills and achieving an educational experience that “integrates body, mind, and soul” (Vollmer 2012b: 11). But Vollmer contends that the benefits of school pantomime instruction have deeper impact on youthful consciousness when the instruction involves a close relationship to literature. His explication of this relationship, however, rests upon a limited, old-fashioned idea of pantomime or, perhaps more accurately, an idea of pantomime that has circulated in Germany among teachers since the 1960s and supposedly descends from Decroux by way of Soubeyran but which actually does something different from what either man wanted pantomime to do (19). Vollmer treats pantomime as a gestural language; it is the translation of moods, ideas, and words into bodily gestures. To learn pantomime, he asserts, is to use gestures to invoke imaginary objects, people, or conditions (43). Like so many books that instruct the reader on how to perform pantomime, Vollmer includes exercises to assist the teacher in organizing a pantomime curriculum for children. For example, following the book Pantomime für Kinder (1975), by Pat Keysell (1926-2009), an English mime who produced BBC television shows for deaf children and taught at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, children can learn to mime the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. Fire: “The children lie scattered about like dry branches. Someone lets a burning match fall—sparks flare, and immediately the first branch begins to crackle. The fire spreads, grabs one finger after the other, the arms, the legs, until eventually the whole body burns. […] Flames are like passions, like anger. The movement must come from the center of the body, there must one find the power—not just in the movement of the arms” (Keysell 1985: 74; Vollmer 2012b: 45). Children can also perform the four seasons or different animals. Dog: watchful-observant; cat: creeping; duck: waddling; horse: pompous, galloping; frog: bouncing (45). And children can learn to signify pantomimically various emotions, such as happiness, anxiety, fury, aggression, understanding, surprise, and arrogance. They then may move on to signifying “roles,” “from earliest childhood to great age”: Mother, Father, Prince, Grandmother, Rich Person, Poor Person, and so forth, keeping in mind the importance of evoking “a social environment” (47). Perhaps wisely, Vollmer does not present examples of how one might signify these emotions or roles, for different children might differently “translate” into pantomime these emotions or roles, and pantomime would hardly embody a “freedom of fantasy” if students had to learn a “correct” way of signifying them, even though with fire and the animals a correct way seems implied. At the same time, though, he does not clarify how a teacher or spectator should evaluate a child’s performance of these roles. On what basis does the child improve her performance in relation to the “translation” of the emotion or role? Vollmer suggests that the child should not signify Father or Rich Person as a result of observations in real life; rather, the child should strive for a “generalized, stylized” image of fatherliness or wealth to achieve clarity of communication (47-48). But what is the nature and source of this abstracted gestural image of the Father or the Rich Person? The question only reinforces the sense that the performer translates something already codified into gesture rather than imitates something actually seen or even imagined. Although he refers to “competencies” in pantomimic signification, he does not explain how one measures these competencies, because competency really means skill at translating a socially coded idea of Father or Rich Person into “appropriate” gestures rather than pantomimic skill at narrating an experience of fatherliness or wealth through physical actions. In this respect, pantomime instruction serves to integrate the child into the society that has constructed the code. 

            Vollmer moves on to suggest seventeen scenic situations that children can perform in the classroom in an improvised manner, such as: “A child visits a shoe store with his parents. He tries on various shoes, shows his pleasures and distastes. What else can happen? What encounters or experiences in the shoe store are thinkable?” Or: “A family travels by car on a vacation trip. On the highway they run into a traffic jam. How do the family members respond? In a larger time frame of play, the children can stage the arrival at a hotel or camping site.” Or: “In the morning, a married couple wakes up in their bedroom. Stretching their bodies, they try to shake off their sleepiness. Then they drift into the bathroom to make themselves fresh. Subsequently they have breakfast. Strange, comic things transpire. What?” (52-53). Such scenic situations allow for different interpretations by the children, and Vollmer suggests that child spectators assist the performers in constructing the scenes, which might begin with the use of spoken dialogue and then proceed with the incremental elimination of words. But the situations remain hypothetical “exercises” insofar as Vollmer does not describe any actual application of them, any account of how real children responded to the suggested situations. The situations, however, apparently function as preparation for the main goal of school pantomime instruction—the interpretation of literary texts. To create space for pantomime instruction in the public school curriculum, Vollmer finds justification in the official guidelines for the appreciation of literary texts, which are important in activating the imagination, in building awareness of “unfamiliar” lives, places, sensations, and times, for reading is not only a cognitive activity, but a sensual, emotional experience (60). Pantomime from this perspective is a “sensualization of language.” Vollmer then discusses dramatic, prose, poetic, and non-fiction texts that children can interpret pantomimically. These include, among others, the shaving scene from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837), the children’s novel Das war der Hirbel (1973) by Peter Härtling (1933-2017), Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1912), small poems by Ursula Wölfel (1922-2014), Bertolt Brecht, Christa Reinig (1926-2008), and Henriette Hardenberg (1894-1993), and a small newspaper article about insects resisting pesticides (66-106). By translating these texts into physical gestures, Vollmer contends, children gain a deeper appreciation of the power of words to affect them viscerally while enhancing their analytical skills, although, again, he does not provide empirical evidence for this assertion nor does he give examples of how children might or actually pantomimically interpret any of these texts. He only describes, persuasively, why the texts offer good opportunities for pantomimic interpretation. Thus, the primary goal of pantomime instruction is not to improve skill at pantomimic communication, but to deepen appreciation for literature. It is a mode of translation that becomes entangled with the interpretation of words. Pantomimic thinking then becomes synonymous with translating, with correlating words and “appropriate” gestures, whereas pantomimic thinking, in the realm of theater and film history, largely means constructing narratives through physical actions. While some of the texts, especially by the poets, contain intimations of pantomimic thinking in their descriptions of physical actions, Vollmer does not examine the process by which one puts together a series of physical actions; he only explains how pantomime might make the performer appreciative of a meaning he ascribes to the text. Toward the end of his book, he discusses two pantomime scenarios by literary authors—Hermann Bahr’s Die Pantomime vom braven Manne (1892) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Das fremde Mädchen (1911)—but mostly as examples of how pantomime has achieved an underestimated significance in Austro-German literary history. He thinks children are capable of performing these scenarios as the culmination of their instruction in the earlier stages of pantomimic activity or at least capable of discussing them in class in relation to pedagogic questions such as: Why did Hofmannsthal choose to present his subject matter through pantomime? How does the piece gain expressive power through pantomime rather than through spoken dialogue? He includes still photos from the 1911 theatrical production and the vanished 1913 film production of Das fremde Mädchen, but advises teachers not to show the pictures to students for fear that the images would influence how the students perform the work (126-127), rendering the point of publishing the pictures obscure and reinforcing the implication throughout the book that one does not learn pantomime by observing it. Vollmer could have made reference to any number of excellent examples of silent film pantomime, but invariably those examples were not the work of esteemed literary authors. School pantomime instruction thus remains subordinate to instruction in literature and to bolstering the authority of literary authors in guiding bodily performance. 

            Despite the problems with Vollmer’s thinking about pantomime and school education, his proposals for school pantomime instruction deserve implementation, even if evidence is lacking to support the claim that pantomime instruction enhances the learning of literature or social integration or cognitive skills, for learning is always more or other than what one teaches. Learning to appreciate literature is a good thing, and if pantomime instruction helps to appreciate literature, then it, too, is a good thing. But a more serious problem is the failure of the literary imagination to produce much at all in the way of pantomime scenarios since the 1920s, and Vollmer does not even acknowledge the problem in his zeal to connect pantomime instruction to literary texts. He sees that literature helps performers to construct “other identities,” but he seems unable to explain why writers have failed to create these other identities for theatrical pantomime since the 1920s, except indirectly through poems and stories meant mostly to be read, and have left it to performers to produce pantomimes. It may be that pantomimic thinking cannot be taught, for it involves a mysterious learning process derived from observing pantomime performances and observing the performance of physical actions by persons in life itself. Pantomimic thinking entails a cognitive capacity to identify a significance for physical actions without further knowledge, through language, of the motives for the actions. Angna Enters discovered her own pantomimic imagination largely through looking at pictures and inventing in her mind actions performed before or after the moment captured by a picture. The ambiguities of signification, the corporeal “hieroglyphics,” as Mallarmé called them, so often associated with pantomimic action are always a problem for educational institutions, which generally exist to provide a unified basis for “understanding” the world. Since the reign of Tiberius in the Roman Empire, pantomime has resisted codification of its bodily significations, has operated most powerfully outside of academic systems for standardizing or regulating the “meaning” of physical actions. Dance academies expect pantomime to conform to “rules” established by dance—or just exclude pantomime altogether. Established or mainstream theater in the Christian world has sanctified speech, the authority of the Word, as a way to control the ambiguity of bodily actions. For a long time, it has simply never occurred to people who write for the theater to write pantomimes anymore than it occurred to anyone in the Roman Empire, other than Seneca, to write plays with spoken dialogue, and nobody in the Roman Empire considered Seneca a man of the theater. The Austro-German writers of pantomime scenarios that Vollmer has retrieved from neglect never studied pantomime nor did they even see much pantomime performance beyond early specimens of silent film. These authors imply that a deep distrust of speech and language is not essential to the formation of a pantomimic imagination. Rather, what is essential is a unique capacity to see that speech or language is not necessary to “understand” a physical action, to become emotionally invested in a physical action seen in relation to an actor’s performance of actions, to music, to silence, and to scenic elements. The process of composing a pantomimic narrative, of building a sequence of physical actions that emotionally engage the spectator with some degree of seriousness, is extremely difficult. Even those literary authors who wrote pantomime scenarios in the early modernist era were unable to write more than two or three. Film pantomime is somewhat easier to do because filmmakers can rely on numerous cinematic devices to engage the spectator with the image. Theater culture has not marginalized pantomime because audiences do not care for it—audiences generally find pantomime fascinating when it reveals the strangeness of human actions. The talent and passion for producing emotionally dramatic pantomimic narratives is far too rare for mainstream theater culture to rely on it. It is rare because of large-scale social-historical constraints on the capacity of people to accommodate the ambiguity of human actions. In the Roman Empire, pantomime prevailed to the exclusion of any other theater because a pervasive ideology of metamorphosis encouraged a mode of performance that detached the body from words (laws), which functioned largely to determine where people belonged within a complex social hierarchy. Pantomime thus presented an image of freedom embedded in the multiplicity of identities projected by the unspeaking body. Christianity has encouraged a pervasive ideology of a unified self, of unity between word and action, between voice and body, to contain or diminish the ambiguities of meaning or identity associated with the performance of physical actions. In its serious manifestations, pantomime exists to estrange its audience from any unified idea, illusion, or understanding of its society or itself. It exists to amplify the subjectivity of the spectator; its ambiguities expand the spectator’s responsibility for the meaning of action. Serious pantomime simultaneously deepens the spectator’s sense of being alone, distinct, and free.            

Pantomime is not now in a culminating or decisive moment in its long, volatile history. The art does not face any crisis confronting its existence, nor is it enjoying a time of peculiar prosperity, especially when compared to the pantomime mania of the eighteenth century or to the half dozen centuries in which pantomime totally dominated the concept of theater in the Roman Empire. But since the beginning of the twentieth century, the varieties of pantomimic performance and imagination have far exceeded the scope of pantomime in the nineteenth century, when, after the Napoleonic era, almost no one seemed able to imagine pantomime without Pierrot. For many decades, Pierrot and Pierrot-like emulators were, in popular consciousness, synonymous with pantomime, even though Pierrot also signified a profound and seemingly interminable decadence of French pantomimic imagination. Pierrot caused many to avoid the word “pantomime” to describe their voiceless performances, including even the descendents of the Pierrot archetype responsible for the postwar “mime culture.” The fluidity of postmodern aesthetic categories has allowed the pantomimic imagination to diversify and operate under terms such as “movement theater,” “visual theater,” and “intermedial performance,” which may include pantomimic action without being completely defined by it. Pantomime has adapted well to a postmodern performance environment that encourages the dissolution of aesthetic, linguistic, political, and cultural boundaries to reach a “global” or international audience, which responds enthusiastically to what bodies “tell” instead of what texts prescribe or voices conceal.

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