The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: Pantomime and Postmodern Performance

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

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Pantomime and Postmodern Performance

Performer-driven productions of voiceless performance tend to build narratives out of the physical skills of the performers, so that narratives organize the sequential display of one skill after another. For example, the Ockham’s Razor Theatre Company, formed in 2004 and based in Bristol, England, is a recurring guest of the London Mime Festival. The company specializes in “aerial theater and circus,” in which performers construct a variety of complex, choreographed stunts using ropes, swings, floating platforms, rotating wheels, and mobile poles. The physical virtuosity of individual performers depends on collaboration with other performers, on the skillful display of teamwork: thus, a message of the shows is that the ability of humans to navigate and adapt to complicated environments on which one lacks secure footing requires trust in the ability of others to provide support, assistance, or “balance” when taking action. This type of show, made hugely popular by Cirque du Soleil, was always a part of circus performance, except that Ockham’s Razor subdues theatricality and eliminates any notion of conflict from the narrative. The performers wear drab costumes or “working clothes” rather than the glamorous costumes and masks that circus performers wore in earlier times to show that they were rare, “special,” even alien creatures. The narrative, devoid of conflict, avoids altogether any sense of dangerous, “death-defying” drama associated with the old circus trapeze and tightrope acts. The solo mime performances inspired by Marcel Marceau also featured narratives that displayed the gestural skills of the mime, usually through the evocation of imaginary objects, but these performances adopted the theatrical pretense of creating a character, a performance persona, a Pierrot or Bip, even if Decroux never approved of even this degree of theatricality in mime. Postmodern performance—or postdramatic theater, as Hans-Thies Lehmann (1944-2022) calls it—favors performances that “free” narrative from the pressure to engage the spectator through the enactment of conflicts that immerse audiences in the emotional intoxications provoked by imaginary lives. The postdramatic theater is “ceremonial” rather than dramatic:

Postdramatic theatre […] liberates the formal, ostentatious moment of ceremony from its sole function of enhancing attention and valorizes it for its own sake, as an aesthetic quality. […] The whole spectrum of movements and processes that have no referent but are presented with heightened precision; events of peculiarly formalized communality; musical-rhythmic or visual-architectonic constructs of development; para-ritual forms, as well as the […] ceremony of the body and of presence; the emphatically or monumentally accentuated ostentation of the presentation (Lehmann 2006: 69). 

By avoiding conflict and emphasizing “ceremonial” actions, post dramatic theater constructs “non-hierarchical” relations between performers, between performers and “text,” and between performers and spectators (86-87). The object of performance is to create an image of a non-hierarchical community that is “free” of conflict, which is invariably the source and result of struggles for power that cause social pathologies. “The actor of postdramatic theatre is often no longer the actor of a role but a performer offering his/her presence on stage for contemplation” (135). In other words, the narrative for postdramatic voiceless performance consists of “scenically dynamic formations” that reveal the reality (or “presence”) of the body through the performers’ skillful application of physical techniques, which create an image or microcosm of a non-hierarchical society. Postdramatic theater constructs a “state” of equilibrium, in which all performance components can claim an equality of value or significance, for the teamwork that creates the production is the ceremonial goal of production, not anything the production purports to “represent” or imagine outside of the moment of performance (68). But this ideological foundation for performance is really not much different from Decroux’s idea of mime as the transformation of bodies into abstract forms. As with Decroux’s mime cult, this postmodern vision of performance as the microcosm of a non-hierarchical community depends on a sequestering of the performers from the world: on the stage or in the studio, the performers feel sufficiently secure with each other to build the team, the non-hierachical community. They trust each other more than they trust in the “roles” or “characters” that inhabit the narratives devised by a world riddled with conflict, struggles for power and control over desires. This is an ideology that is deeply distrustful of theater, of masks, of the simulations, disguises, and deceptions entailed in the acquisition and circulation of power, of bodies that always contain “other identities” rather than a “real,” absolute, authentic self. But it is an ideology that appeals to people who want to perform, to display performance skills, without having to display acting skills. It is also an ideology that appeals to some postmodern audiences that want speechless bodies to signify an end to conflict, an end to the ancient struggle for control over the narrative of what the body “tells.” 

            It is therefore possible that pantomime is inherently incapable of postmodern performance; after all, in its original meaning and in nearly all applications of the word, it refers to performers who “imitate” others. Pantomime could build a firm, if neglected, place in modernism, but in Lehmann’s theoretical framework it was perhaps too enamored of modernism to be worthy of postmodernism. It is also possible, though, that performers lack the skill to contruct narratives involving “other identities” than those they regard as their “own.” Postmodernism then provides the aesthetic ideology that justifies performance designed to dissolve the apparently unhealthy distance between “real” and imaginary identities by eliminating imaginary identities altogether, for these are unnecessary or irrelevant in clarifying or amplifying the value of the presumed real identity of the performer, which is who you are when you are not in “somebody else’s” story, when you do not have to build actions around the motives, goals, or qualities of people other than yourself and the people you trust as part of your team. But even this argument seems limited in its ability to explain why so much of postmodern voiceless performance favors narratives of no greater ambition than the sequential display of physical skills in “difficult” environments. It is perhaps more plausible to argue that postmodernism provides access to performance by performers who lack skill in acting or in the construction of conflict-oriented narratives, and this expanded access is the basis for the non-hierachical society envisioned by the postmodern sensibility. The ancient Roman pantomime was also performer-driven: performers created pantomimic narratives out of the conflict between competing identities, mortal and divine, within what the Romans regarded as the “self.” Moreover, pantomimes and their claques created further drama out of the competition between each other. But this form of performance narrative, no matter how flexible and innovative, would have no place in the postmodern performance culture as Lehmann conceives it because it embodies an ideology of bodily “metamorphosis” that arises from a hierarchical, imperial society. The solo pantomimes of Ilka Schönbein and Veronika Karsai resemble the Roman pantomimic narrative structures, but they, too, would not fit into the postmodern performance culture, because their performances also dramatize the multiplicity of identities within the body of the performer, and this multiplicity of identities is synonymous with conflict between them. The struggle between identities within the self is the foundation of a hierarchical organization of identities within and external to the body. 

            Conflict-oriented ensemble pantomime narratives by performer-driven groups may display fine teamwork, but they would not qualify as postmodern according to Lehmann because they remain attached to hierarchical representations of identity, which invariably include imaginary identities, for consolidations of power and the formation of hierarchies depend inevitably on the construction of imaginary or possible identities. Familie Flöz is a pantomime company based, since 2001, in Berlin. Hajo Schüler (b. 1971) and Markus Michalkowski (b. 1971) formed the company in 1994 while they were acting students at the Folkwang Schule in Essen. In the late 1990s, Michael Vogel (b. 1962), a theater director, joined the company and has collaborated with Schüler on the direction of the shows since 1998. The company abandoned speech altogether in its productions when it staged Ristorante Immortale (1998), and all of its productions since then have been pantomimes. Familie Flöz specializes in comic scenes based on themes from mundane contemporary reality. A distinctive feature of the company’s productions is that all the actors wear bizarre, slightly grotesque, vaguely porcine, flesh-colored masks that makes the characters seem like members of a mutant subspecies or tribe of humanity, even though they inhabit a very familiar bourgeois world (cf., Vogel 2001). Much of the action performed by the ensemble, which usually involves four actors who each play multiple roles, consists of slapstick gags and intricate relations between actions and sound or musical effects, such as the use of different dog barks by unseen dogs. In Ristorante Immortale, all the action depicts interactions between the incompetent staff members of a decrepit Italian restaurant that has no customers; in Teatro Delusio (2004), the action occurs backstage during the performance of an opera; in Hotel Paradiso(2008) the action unfolds in the lobby of a modest hotel, whose modesty serves in various comic ways to conceal the criminality, perversity, fraudulence, or pathos of the staff and guests. The company began using video imagery in its productions with Garage d’Or (2010), which depicted three middle-aged men, bored with their wives and domestic life, who escape, through a strange door, into a fantasy of traveling into outer space and “into the darkest depths of their own selves.” In Haydi! (2014), the company tackled the theme of refugee immigration with a scenario about a young, idealistic border agency official who finds his political, humanitarian aspirations compromised or undermined by bureaucratic careerism, “paragraph pedants, office zombies,” and the mercantile self-interest of his superiors. While Familie Flöz makes abundant and inventive use of slapstick gags, the company is peculiarly effective at suddenly inserting moments of pathos, emotionally dark perturbations. Infinita (2006), for example, consists of discrete scenes describing the beginning and the end of life. In one scene, a pair of toddlers tries to steal the doll of a third toddler in a crib. The efforts of the pair to enter the crib and the clumsy resistance of the third are simultaneously funny and touching, because the scene also shows how struggles for power and possession shape human relations at the very beginning of life. A fourth child enters, a little girl, who helps the third toddler escape the crib with his doll, leaving the bully pair in the cage. But as he leaves with the little girl, the third toddler swats one of the other toddlers with the doll [Figure 190]. In another scene, the little girl perches on the edge of an expressionistically oversize table and lifts her skirt to the three toddlers on the floor below her, and they gaze at her in awe, as if receiving a sign from a goddess. In yet another scene, three old men in white suits sit on a bench along with a fourth in a wheelchair. The men perform a musical piece by tapping their canes and feet while at the same time competing with each other by sneaking swats at each other and then performing little dances with their canes, as if relentless competitiveness is the thing keeping them alive. A particularly memorable example of the company’s work is a scene in which a man sits on a bench apparently preparing a dish while his wife sits beside him bird-watching with the help of a guide book. A duck flying overhead fills her with rapture, and she shows her husband the identity of the bird in the book. A hunter then struts in and takes a commanding, intimidating pose on the bench. When another duck flies overhead, he shoots it down with arrogant satisfaction. The woman kneels before the corpse, tries to revive it, cradles it, and tries to shame the oblivious hunter, who has seized the corpse and carries it like a trophy. The husband intervenes and casts a scolding stare at the hunter, who accepts that he has also deeply wounded the woman. He gives the husband the doll-corpse and his stick rifle. He picks up a rose and offers it to the woman. She seems touched; he offers her his arm, and they wander off together, leaving the husband holding the corpse and the rifle. Stunned, he wanders away in the opposite direction, but first picks up his wife’s bird watching book. The scene seems simple in its dramatization of how physical actions radically change people’s attitudes toward each other. Yet such scenes are quite rare in voiceless performance, even if they carry a vague reminiscence of old commedia schema, because it is so difficult to construct pantomimic narratives, to think pantomimically. Familie Flöz may not be postmodern performance, but it operates in a postmodern or postdramatic culture that uses the word “mime,” as in London Mime Festival, to present self-identified, performer-driven postmodern performances. More precisely, postmodernism functions to destabilize terms like “mime” (or make the word more “inclusive”) rather than to define any particular type of performance that does not rely on a prescriptive text or a “linear” idea of narrative or a desire to represent imagined lives.

Figure 190: Scenes from the Familie Flöz production of “Infinita,” Berlin, 2006. Photos: Andrea Zani. 

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