Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Henryk Tomaszewski

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

Henryk Tomaszewski

Unlike in East Germany, which distributed pantomime culture across numerous individuals, none of whom was able to claim “control” of the culture, in Poland, pantomime became identified almost entirely with a single person, Henryk Tomaszewski (1919-2001), whose approach to pantomime, dramatic and grandiose, departed significantly from the French model. Tomaszewski’s work attracted many actors, many admirers, many workshop students, many international invitations, and many who regarded him as a great “influence.” For over forty years, the international pantomime world regarded him as one of the greatest and most imaginative practitioners of the art, even if most of the vast number of people who knew of Marcel Marceau never heard of Tomaszewski. Yet very few, perhaps even none, of his many admirers modeled their own work after his, and he remained utterly unique in the history of Cold War pantomime in his ability to produce large-scale, dramatic pantomimes for so many years. Unlike so many pantomimes in both the East and the West, he enjoyed consistent access to extensive theatrical resources. But he obtained these resources because he persuasively articulated ambitious ideas for pantomime. Perhaps the postwar mime culture in other countries simply lacked persons with ambitions for pantomime as large as Tomaszewski’s, but clearly theater institutions elsewhere did not encourage such ambitions. When supporting speechless performance, they chose instead to support ballet or modern dance, as if it was necessary to choose between dance and pantomime or between pantomime and spoken drama, when in reality, the postwar theater culture simply produced (or closed off) hardly any awareness of the artistic potential for large-scale, dramatic pantomime. In Poland, the national ballet in Warsaw, resurrected in 1950, never attracted, for reasons that are by no means evident, the international attention that the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater provoked during the Cold War nor the international attention inspired by ballet in New York, London, Paris, Copenhagen, The Netherlands, Stockholm, and Russia or by Tanztheater in West Germany, to name the most obvious contrasts in Cold War priorities for speechless performance between Poland and other countries. Yet Poland had its national ballet (as well as ballet companies in Lodz, Wroclaw, Cracow), and it had its Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. 

Tomaszewski was himself, between 1945 and 1947, a student of ballet in Cracow under Feliks Parnell (1898-1980), an adventurous and innovative dancer and choreographer during the interwar years and even during the Nazi occupation. Parnell had danced and choreographed for Warsaw cabarets (1921-1934) and for opera ballets (1927-1930), before forming his own ballet company, Ballet Polonais (1934-1939), which traveled with much acclaim throughout Europe. His aesthetic blurred distinctions between ballet and modern dance, introducing acrobatic, folkloric, and dramatic effects that placed his work “on the border between ballet and circus” (Mościcki 2016: Paragraph 11). During the same years (1945-1947), Tomaszewski also studied acting in Cracow under the strongly modernist director and designer Iwo Gall (1890-1959), who “thought little of the dance and considered Tomaszewski’s attraction to the ballet almost as treason to the theater,” although Gall later agreed to collaborate with Tomaszewski on the formation of a movement theater (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p). Tomaszewski left Parnell’s company in 1949 to accept a position as a dancer in the Wroclaw opera ballet. With other dancers in the ballet company, he began experimenting with dramatic pieces involving pantomime. When in 1955 Warsaw hosted a World Festival of Student and Youth, officials discovered that Poland had no representative for a mime competition. They called on Tomaszewski to represent the country, and he won a medal for a solo piece, The Pianist (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). Inspired by the performances at the Youth Festival, he brought together a group of actors, dancers, students, and athletes to form a mime studio the following year. By the end of the year, the Pantomime Studio produced at the Wroclaw Drama Theater a program of four scenes: Sentenced to Live, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Overcoat, and The Tale of the Little Negro and the Golden Princess. Theater critic Andrzej Hausbrandt (1923-2004), author of the first (1974) monograph on Tomaszewski, contended that the larger Polish theater and cultural journalism communities, with their prejudice against ballet, initially displayed a hostile attitude toward Tomaszewski’s project. But Tomaszewski persisted. A second program of pantomimes occurred in December 1957; this contained The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Overcoat plus four new scenes: En PassantNativity Play, Fortune Telling, and Orpheus in Search of Euridice. In 1958, the state and the municipality of Wroclaw established the ensemble as a state-sponsored theater, presumably because Tomaszewski enlisted the support of the numerous actors, scenic artists, and technicians with whom he worked, an amazing accomplishment within such a short time. The Wroclaw Pantomime Theater continued with programs of short pieces, as many as eight, such as: Harlequin’s Masks (1959), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1960), The Cabinet of Curiosities (1961), and The Labyrinth (1963). The second phase of the Pantomime Theater’s evolution, according to Hausbrandt, was the introduction of long programs with fewer scenes: The Minatour (1964), and The Garden of Love (1968). No matter how serious the pieces within a program, the cultural commentators of the time evidently regarded the programs as a form of cabaret, which lacked the level of seriousness expected of mainstream drama. Thus, the third phase in the evolution of Tomaszewski’s aesthetic was the production of evening-length pantomimic dramas, and he (and the Theater) remained dedicated to this concept until the end of his life, although he remained busy as a stage director and choreographer for other theaters, an aspect of his career that still seems obscure (cf. Hera 1983).

Literary works were largely the inspiration for Tomaszewski’s evening-length productions, of which he created many over a period of thirty years, although only Janina Hera has described the narrative content of these works (up to 1978) in any detail, while Andrzej Hausbrandt provides more impressionistic descriptions for some works up to 1974 (cf. Hera 1983: 13-52; cf. Smużniak 1991: 18-80). The Dress (1966) derived from “traditional Japanese legends”; Gilgamesh (1968), from the 1200 BCE Sumerian epic poem; The Departure of Faust (1970), from Goethe; November Night’s Dream (1971), from a 1904 play by Stanislaw Wyspiański (1869-1907); The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa (1972), from Wedekind’s pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland (1897); Arriving Tomorrow (1974), from Euripides’ The Bacchae (406 BCE) and the film Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975); Fantastic Scenes and Legends of Pan Twardowski (1976), a variation on the Faust tale dating from the sixteenth century about a Cracow sorcerer that numerous Polish poets, novelists, dramatists, composers, and filmmakers have adapted; The Dispute (1978), from a 1744 play by Pierre Marivaux (1688-1763); Hamlet—Irony and Mourning (1979), from Shakespeare; Knights of King Arthur (1981), from the 1485 book by Thomas Malory (1415-1471); The Prodigal Son (1983), from The Bible; A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1986), from Shakespeare; Cardenio and Celina (1990), from a verbose 1649 tragic play by the German author Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664); Caprice (1995), from the 1900 play Schluck und Jau, by Gerhart Hauptmann; Tragic Games (1999), from two plays by Austrian dramatist Ferdinand Bruckner (1891-1958), Te Deum (1919) and Death of a Doll (1956), the latter evidently a rewrite of the former, which has disappeared. Clearly, Tomaszewski drew upon a wide range of literary works, but, except for Pasolini’s Teorema, he avoided texts produced during the time in which he worked. He did not “translate” the texts into a pantomimic vocabulary. Rather, he extracted from literary sources images and narrative tropes that he used to construct a symbolic-allegorical collage of pantomimic actions embodying his attitude toward the characters—a kind of morality pantomime. He was less of a pantomime storyteller than a pantomime architect; his relation to literary texts was similar to that of a stained glass window artist’s or a muralist’s relation to Biblical stories or historical events. The audience’s appreciation of the performance depended on actions that referred to ideas or images outside of the narrative frame; more precisely, the performance narrative or collage referred to a larger “text” or historical situation with which the Pantomime Theater assumed the spectator was already (incompletely) familiar. For example, the published program for Knights of King Arthur (1981) included a two-page synopsis of the scenes in the piece, a brief description of the characters, a philological discussion of Malory’s King Arthur by Polish literary historian Zygmunt Czerny (1888-1975), a commentary on the book by Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), an essay from a 1981 book on the The Grail by John Matthews (b. 1948), and another comment on the Grail theme from a 1913 book by the medievalist Jesse Weston (1850-1928) (Rycerze Króla Artura 1982). This sort of intellectual apparatus for the spectator, commonplace for ballet and opera, was new for pantomime and perhaps necessary to establish pantomime as an art as serious as ballet or opera. Tomaszewski wrote out his scenarios in very rough fashion, but the only one ever published, posthumously, was the 2000 screenplay for the stage filming of his last work, Tragiczne gry, the loose adaptation of the two Bruckner plays (1999) (cf. Smużniak 2006). Unlike the Austrian and German pantomime writers earlier in the century, Tomaszewski was not an innovator in using pantomimic action to construct narratives. Even if his pantomimes depended on respectable literary sources, he treated these sources as raw material for a larger project: to show that the stories, the structural relations between actions, were less important than the kinetic, corporeal images they inspired, which is why some critics complained that he was an “illustrator” of literary works. He wanted to show that the story or plot “lives” outside of the text and does not need all the words that compose the text. This approach was somewhat similar to the actor-centered Roman pantomime recycling of mythic material, but for the Romans, the pantomime “story” was not in the mythic material, but in the metamorphosis of the actor from one mythic identity to another—the narrative, the “plot,” was the sequencing of the actor’s metamorphosis. The imperial Romans did not encourage original stories, because they believed originality (of metamorphosis) lay with the actor, not with imaginary characters or dramatic situations. In the modernist era, however, originality of plot became a fundamental sign of modernity, especially if modernity entailed repudiating the ideology of metamorphosis. In this respect, Tomaszewski’s unwillingness to construct original plots through pantomimic action is perhaps the greatest limitation of his aesthetic. 

A recurrent theme of his pantomimes was corruption, the limitations of love in thwarting or redeeming corruption and history as the image of human struggle against corruption. He saw corruption as a succumbing to appetites and desires, libidinous or sensuous, that are excessive insofar as a class or society shares this indulgence and fails to see it as a manifestation of delusion, decadence, or oppression. Tomaszewski said that, in the theater, he liked dealing with “extreme situations […] without a distinct end” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). For him, theater functions as a purification of the spectator’s relation to history, and this moral-allegorical aspect of Tomaszewski’s productions cast a somewhat medieval aura. His sensibility was basically tragic or “dark,” if sometimes sardonic and “baroque,” and he developed a distinctive performance style to articulate his sensibility. He set his pantomimes in a distorted historical environment. He avoided complex scenery requiring spectacular effects, detailed décor, or interfaces with visual technologies such as film, video, or photography. Nor did he situate actions in a very specifically imagined milieu. One of his more complex sets, for the 1981 King Arthur production, consisted mostly of a rather crudely constructed wooden fence in the background. Mostly action occurred before a dark cyclorama or background that sometimes changed color, but his productions consistently gave the impression of taking place at night in an eerie, symbolic space where light seems to fall on the actors as if from street lamps. While he kept the scenic environment spare, Tomaszewski delighted in using furniture: tables, chairs, beds, couches, and steps. In King Arthur, the assembling of a giant round table is part of the choreographed action. A long banquet table appears in Kaprys (1995), at which the aristocratic guests watch two homeless men entertain them. In The Menagerie of Empress Philissa (1972), actors occasionally ascend a little stairway to a platform that functions as a bed, a throne, or a stage. In Gilgamesh (1968), priests on decorative stools bathe a young man poised within a shell-like bowl, and in another scene, a chariot, pulled by two men with horse/unicorn heads, carries a driver and an embracing couple. Tragic Games (1999) involves elaborate use of a woman in a wheelchair. Costuming assumed a more audacious role in Tomaszewski’s productions. He constantly worked with large casts; for example, the King Arthur production contained forty-five roles performed by forty actors. Much of the visual effect of his productions thus derived from the complex, dynamic tableaux that he created out of different groupings of bodies and the semiotic relations between movements, bodies, and costumes. Some costumes, flamboyant and luxurious, placed the performers who wore them in a particular historical period. In The Departure of Faust, Mephistopheles wears a late medieval waistcoat with red stockings and a huge red cape; in The Menagerie of Empress Philissa, several characters, male and female, wear costumes of the eighteenth and the late nineteenth century; in Hamlet, performers wear costumes that belong more to seventeenth century Eastern Europe than to the late Scandinavian Middle Ages of Shakespeare’s text; in King Arthur, some characters wear costumes associated with the Dark Ages, but one character (Sir Ither) wears a suit of armor belonging to a much later era, and another character (Mordred) wears a black latex outfit that resembles the fetish couture of a particular strand of twentieth century sadomasochistic sexuality. Even in his last production, Tragic Games, perhaps the most “modern” setting for any of his pantomimes, the costumes all seem to date from the 1930s. In a couple of productions (GilgameshArriving Tomorrow), some robe-like costumes signify “ancientness” without being historically specific, while in November Night’s Dream, the old soldier on nocturnal guard duty wears a military uniform from the early nineteenth century, but in his dream, the revolutionary warriors wear ancient Greek helmets and military caps from the early nineteenth century but not uniforms. Only occasionally did Tomaszewski employ masks, but he did so with impressive dramatic effect, as in the Death masks for Embrasure (1961) and The Departure of Faust, and the horse heads for Gilgamesh and Faust and the shrouded Inquisitional Figure in Philissa

Although he worked with different prominent designers, including Wladislaw Wigura (b. 1940), Kazimierz Wiśniak (b. 1931), and Zofia de Ines-Lewczuk (b. 1948), his productions maintained a remarkable stylistic, visual unity across the decades to produce the distinctive Tomaszewski performance image, regardless of the historical era or literary source. The anachronistic scenic historical details symbolized the embedding of different historical eras in the performance of an action. Tomaszewski did not invent this practice; it had precedent elsewhere in the vibrant, symbolist-oriented postwar Polish theater, perhaps even in the extravagant expressionist dramas of the 1920s by the artist-writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939). He was actually much more innovative in his minimal use of costume—that is, in his display of performer bodies. Characters in body stockings appear regardless of the historical era represented, and these appeared very early, with the abstract-symbolic male duo (dark versus light), The Grain and the Shell (1961). In The Labyrinth (1963), with costumes by Krzysztof Pankiewicz (1933-2001), the entire ensemble wears body stockings covered with vaguely reptilian or protozoac designs as part of an abstract ambition to show how human society, “like the calyx of an opening tulip,” forms a “labyrinth of obstacles, of barriers set up by man against people, by people against man” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). In subsequent productions, bodystockings became simpler; in November Night’s Dream, for example, the Athena/Minerva figure leading the revolutionaries wears a black body stocking and a Greek helmet while wielding a spear and shield. Philissa wears a corset and Helen of Troy appears in a bikini in Faust. More daring was his presentation of male bodies. In nearly all of his pantomimes from 1963 to 1990, men appear bare-chested or entirely nude except for tiny briefs, loincloths, or thongs. These semi-nude men, always handsome, with athletic physiques, are sometimes individuals or protagonists (such as Faust) or they form choral ensembles, like the dream soldiers in November Night’s Dream or the Sumerian worshippers in Gilgamesz. All this baring of male flesh signifies underlying libidinal energies within society, within history, but they also precipitate devouring, destructive appetites, acts of sacrifice. This display of male beauty exudes a homoerotic aura that, except for Kharitonov’s severely marginalized production of The Enchanted Island (1971), seems peculiarly permissive within East bloc theater culture, even if commentary at the time acknowledged it, if at all, as simply a metaphor for the excessive pleasures or voluptuous vulnerabilities that lead a society to decadence or, as in November Night’s Dream, failed revolution—whereas Kharitonov presented male nudity as an entirely positive element of performance, of a new idea of utopia. Yet it is doubtful that Tomaszewski could have built such a large pantomime ensemble with so many men in it without these opportunities for display of glamorously athletic male bodies (rather than glamorously athletic female bodies). In 2007, according to a newspaper article by Wojciech Szymański and Tomasz Wysocki, Polish radio in Wroclaw reported that Sebastian Ligarski (b. 1975), a researcher on the state security apparatus during the Communist era, discovered documents that revealed Tomaszewski had “confidential contact” with state security agents from 1960 until at least 1967: his job was to report on actors in the ensemble and their relations with “foreign contacts” when the company went on any of its many tours to countries in the West bloc. Ligarski contended that “the services knew about the artist’s homosexual inclinations,” and they may have blackmailed him into informing by threatening either to charge him with homosexual behavior or to forbid his company from touring abroad. He appears not to have provided the security services with any useful information (Wyborcza May 9, 2007). It’s not clear if the security services shifted their attention to other members of the company in their effort to establish, through homosexual contacts, counter intelligence operations in foreign countries. The homoerotic aura of male display continued in Tomaszewski’s pantomime productions until the end of the Communist state and disappears in his productions of the 1990s [Figures 105, 106]. 

Figure 105: Top: Scene from Gilgamesz (1968), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski, Wroclaw, Poland. Bottom: Urszula Hasiej in Hamlet ironia i zaloba (1979), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski. Photo: Joanna Drankowska, from encyclopediateatru.pl. 

Figure 106: Scenes from Krol Artur (King Arthur), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski, Wroclaw, Poland, 1981. Photos: Marek Grotowski, from encyclopediateatru.pl.

Tomaszewski also introduced innovative music soundtracks (always recorded) for his pantomimes insofar as he wanted a range of musical styles to accompany the action, even if these styles lacked historical authenticity. For example, King Arthur used music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), Gordon Giltrap (b. 1948), and Richard Wagner. The Departure of Faust had music by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and jazz and pop tunes. On the other hand, The Menagerie of Empress Philissa used only the pop-oriented music of Zbigniew Karnecki (b. 1947), as did Arriving Tomorrow, while only the modernist instrumental music of Juliusz Luciak (b. 1927) accompanied The Dress. Luciak’s music also accompanied November Night’s Dream, as did Frederic Chopin’s. Hamlet had music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), and Bogdan Dominik, a prolific composer of theater music. But Tragic Games used music by thirteen different artists ranging from Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) to The Alan Parsons Project (1975-1990), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Jean Francais (1912-1997), and jazz composer Boguslaw Klimsa (1945-2000). Unlike in ballet, music in Tomaszewski’s pantomimes provided a “modern” emotional texture to a scene or moment rather than to suffuse the moment with historical credibility or to shape the movements of the performers. It is soundtrack music that carries with it emotional values that are independent of the action on stage but which cause the historicized action to “intersect” with the presumed greater sonic emotional power achieved by invariably later eras. 

Tomaszewski choreographed the action in his pantomimes, and unlike most pantomime programs elsewhere in the East bloc, he did not function as a facilitator of a “collective” creative process; all production elements were subordinate to his distinctive “vision” for a production. His training in ballet predisposed him to think action in speechless theater achieved value to the extent that someone choreographed it, and printed programs of the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater listed him as “director and choreographer” of the productions. But his pieces were not ballets, because he did not build pieces around movements; he did not apply movements because they were beautiful in themselves; he did not introduce movements to show the skill or virtuosity of his performers; and he avoided acrobatic effects. He choreographed pantomimic action: each action advanced the narrative or revealed something about the character performing it. But the action was not “naturalistic” in the manner of verisimilar silent film pantomime or the naturalism of Hermann Bahr’s pantomimes. His approach to gesture was expressionistic, relying on exaggerated or distorted movements to construct a symbolic value for the gesture. His way of thinking about gestural exaggeration and distortion resembled Decroux’s insofar as he built physical actions around a set of movement concepts, which he called a “spherical theater,” from which he could attach various symbolic values, such as inward and outward “current,” including rotation (usually of the torso), “flexion” or the bending of limbs, “shifts” or “the principle of counterpoint,” wherein one part of the body moves in tension with another part, and “subjectivization,” whereby the actor mobilizes these concepts through physical movements to achieve an “identification,” not with “an object, but with a state, a time, an emotion…” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). Even if movements existed only to advance the narrative, they did not necessarily create narrative clarity, for Tomaszewski acknowledged that spectators appreciated explanations of what actions “meant.” The “spherical theater” idea was simply a way to prepare actors to make decisions about gestures embodying the actions constructing a particular narrative. Different actors might choose different movements or gestures to realize an action, unlike in ballet, where choreography means that a dancer performs the same movement as another dancer, even if the dancers perform these movements differently. In this respect, Tomaszewski’s pantomimes are closer to literary “interpretations” of action than ballet. For example, Hausbrandt describes the “Dionysia” scene in Arriving Tomorrow entirely as a series of intended actions or performance outcomes without describing how the actors performed these actions: 

The Great Dionysia in honour of the Factory. Emblems, tires, models, toasts, drinks, pageants, total stress. And just when everything is in full swing, in top gear—the fun dies down. The revelers grow listless, like pricked balloons, everything comes to a standstill and is covered with a skin of boredom […] Ordinary family dinner at home: Father, Mother, Daughter, Son and Maid. A mawkish, nauseating Come to Sorrento. Everything in perfect trim, fully predictable—no dreams, no hope […] A party—perhaps a continuation of the Grand Entertainment? Ladies, gentleman, His Eminence, hippies, second class “Dolce Vita.” Everybody is cool, indifferent, cynical, bored. And then the Maid ushers in the Guest [Dionysias] (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.).

 Like so many other commentators on Tomaszewski’s work, he never describes how the actors “interpret” these actions, presumably because such description is a matter of “technique” that is irrelevant to the meaning of the work, even though the “counterpoint” revealed by the actor (rather than the scenario) is the “struggle with the environment” that informs all human action. In his scenarios, however, Tomaszewski may have indicated more precisely the physicality of the actions, judging from his one transcribed (from handwritten) scenario, for the tele-film of Tragic Games, of which an excerpt:

Becoming a human means to Adrianna: subordinating (pushed to the dressing table) – before that she was detached from herself (doll) – suffering – fate – and humiliation – and Fear –

Adrianna – Solo in front of a mirror = lifted from a broken pose – upright and with a compressed body – she smiles no

you can see that inside she is completely broken – she stands and goes to the mirror – she adopts the pose where everyone is jealous of her – she goes – she stops, the face accepts a smile – just like you – you – you – shows finger on her reflection

– and suddenly she falls on her knees – a gesture as if blameworthy – so that this reflection will release her from herself – what stands in the mirror, it is not a human – it’s a Vision – an illusion of an ideal – but it’s not human, she is hitting her head in the mirror – her head is at the mirror, and the human is looking at the mirror, if she is still in the mirror – and there is no human there

– you hear the wedding music – away, (light) how the ghosts appear to the bridesmaid and friends – somewhere they set themselves up –

– Adrianna bends with the mirror – she’s kissing herself in the mirror – now she only has tears – now she polishes the pills – this scene ends, – at the dresser, now the dress-up brings dresses – Kreator is following her – Adrianna dresses behind the screen – when she comes out from behind the screen in a wedding gown – Kreator – takes her by the hand – (he teaches how to proceed during the ceremony with the gown – how to clink – before clapping[…] (Smużniak 2006: 120-121). 

Tomaszewski saw the pantomimic action in fragments, phrases, incomplete sentences, as if each individual action disrupted another—that was how he physicalized a woman’s ambivalent relation to her image, her distrust of the mirror, her obsession with it, and her intense doubt about her ability to see herself in a “good” yet truthful way. The scenario seems even more remarkable when compared with Ferdinand Bruckner’s play, Der Tod einer Puppe (1956), which consists almost entirely of dialogue, in blank verse, with very few stage directions. The plot, which Tomaszewski follows in rudimentary fashion, revolves around an immensely wealthy widow, Adrienne, who is inhumanly beautiful because, as a result of her mother’s protectiveness, she has never endured the slightest suffering, has never once wept, for tears would destroy her beauty; she inspires love without feeling it. When she falls in love with Paul, an unambitious but charming dilettante, she fears her beauty is not enough to keep him, and she finally sheds tears for all the happiness she has lost. These tears bring about her death. The first part of the play (and the pantomime) occurs at a glamorous fashion show, where Paul and Adrienne discuss her inhuman obsession with beauty and clothes while the models (“mannequins”) confide their anxieties about modeling; the second part takes place in Adrienne’s salon with Adrienne interacting with Paul, the models, fashion executives, aristocratic ladies, Paul, and the ghosts of her mother and former husband. Unlike in ballet and indeed most theater, where people in an ensemble who are not the focus of a scene stand or sit still while the foreground action unfolds, here, as elsewhere in Tomaszewski’s work, characters in the background or at the edge of the stage are as busy as characters in the foreground, because in his mind a foreground action does not somehow cause a background action to cease its indifference to the foreground action or cause a background action to become transformed into rapt fixation on the foreground action. Bruckner’s mirror scene is complex insofar as he has Adrienne give a lengthy monologic commentary on what she sees in the mirror (“What is sorrow against the miracle/of a well-trained body?”) and then has the four models appear, striking poses while commenting satirically on their poses (Bruckner 1956: 98-102). But Tomaszewski’s version of the mirror scene is equally complex in that he expects the ideas Bruckner inscribes through speech to achieve equivalence entirely through gesture, with the result, however, of communicating something that is not in the play: that one’s response to one’s mirror image is viscerally fragmented, a kind of disintegration of language, as the language of the scenario suggests (amplified even further by the very messy handwritten autograph copy of the scenario), rather than a poetic distillation of language. It is an excellent, postwar example of pantomimic thinking, of thinking out a sequence of actions that narrate a character’s dynamic relation to an “environment,” not, as in dance, as a sequence of regulating steps and movements to prevent visceral fragmentation, and not, as in so much mime, as a sequence of gestures designed to display the performer’s skill at evoking what is not visible. 

            Henryk Tomaszewski was the most ambitious creator of pantomimes in the Cold War era. He produced pantomimes on a larger scale than any one else, he produced more large-scale pantomimes than anyone else, he produced them over a longer period, thirty years, than anyone else, and, in relation to the content of his pantomimes over the decades, he probably invested pantomime with a greater seriousness than anyone else. He established the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater, possibly the longest living professional pantomime ensemble, which continues to thrive well after his death. The ensemble regularly toured throughout Europe and occasionally in North America, so a considerable international audience witnessed the magnitude and seriousness of his achievement in pantomime (Smużniak 1985: 70-81). His work and teachings provoked intense admiration and inspiration, not only within the international pantomime world, but within the general European theater culture, for many prominent actors and stage directors were his students. Yet his achievement was utterly unique; no other country created such a large professional pantomime company with such a consistently serious agenda. It is true that Tomaszewski had access to theatrical resources that were unimaginable to pantomime artists anywhere else. But the Polish government chose to invest in his pantomime aesthetic as an art that could achieve superior expression in a socialist society, just as the government subsidized the famous “avant-garde” Theater Laboratory, also in Wroclaw, established by Jerzy Grotowski and the experimental Cricot 2 Theater formed by Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) in Cracow. Pantomime was a useful instrument in the government’s Cold War cultural program for demonstrating the power of artists under socialism. It was, indeed, a matter of supporting the artist rather than the art. In relation to speechless performance, the rest of the East bloc preferred to invest in ballet and folk dance ensembles, relegating pantomime to the circus. Similarly, in the West, cultural policy almost entirely favored investment in ballet and modern dance, with pantomime relegated to the marginalized, individualistic, therapeutic studios of the mime culture or, as in The Netherlands, transformed into a technocratic “movement theater.” Tomaszewski may have influenced late twentieth century ballet to become less rigid in its use of movement, and he certainly contributed to the greater physicalization of spoken drama performance, especially of “classic” plays, as did Grotowski. But his success was unable to create a strong institutional base for pantomime anywhere else, and it was not the Cold War that prevented pantomime from finding secure “homes” within national cultures. As an art, pantomime was too messy, too “undisciplined,” too unreliable to have a home capable of sustaining at least a mediocre level of entertainment worthy of a complex theater apparatus with an expensive payroll of performers and staff. Public investment in pantomime attached itself to powerful, charismatic “visionaries” like Tomaszewski. But in the Cold War he was alone in possessing a pantomimic imagination strong enough to mobilize a state to encourage and protect his grandiose ambitions.

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: French Pantomime in East Germany

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

French Pantomime in East Germany

In East Germany, pantomime entered the cultural scene through contact with the Marxist dramatist and theorist of “epic theater,” Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who, after many years of exile and after interrogation in 1947 by the United States House Un-American Activities Committees for his affiliations with Communists, had returned to East Berlin in 1949, where he formed the famous Berliner Ensemble dedicated to the principles of epic theater. While residing for a year (1948) in Switzerland, Brecht made the acquaintance of a French pantomime, Jean Soubeyran (1921-2000). Brecht invited Soubeyran to choreograph the carnival scene for a 1956 production of Brecht’s Das Leben des Galilei (1943) by the Berliner Ensemble. Although Soubeyran had already toured East Germany with his West German pantomime ensemble in 1955, the connection with Brecht gave him a privileged status within the Communist regime, and in 1957, he moved to East Berlin, where he, along with his wife Brigitte (1932-2015), introduced pantomime performances that he had developed in West Germany. Soubeyran had studied acting under Charles Dullin in 1944 and corporeal mime under Decroux in 1945 before presenting (1946) a small mimodrama at the Comédie-Française directed by Barrault. He then performed in the ensemble Marcel Marceau had formed, appearing in Marceau’s production of Gogol’s The Overcoat (1951). But after attempting a couple of solo pantomime programs of his own, Soubeyran realized that Paris did not have space for more pantomimes from the Decroux-Barrault pedigree. He put together a small ensemble, including Brigitte, whom he soon married, to perform outside of France, in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and West Germany, where it seemed as if the great pantomime experiments of the 1910s and 1920s had never happened and any idea of pantomime from France enjoyed the advantage of being an exotic import. By 1954, he had established his pantomime troupe first in Dortmund and then in Düsseldorf within the French Occupational Sector. Soubeyran was more of a Harlequin than a Pierrot; though he accented his lips, eyes, and eyebrows, he avoided whiteface. Brigitte was more a Pierrot than a Colombine, wearing whiteface, a black skullcap, and pants and blouse instead of a dress. They wanted to develop a gender-neutral comic aesthetic, a kind of androgymous pantomime slapstick, although this effect was due perhaps more to Brigitte than to Jean [Figure 101]. In addition to touring, Jean found work as an instructor at the Folkwang School in Essen when he received the invitation to work in East Berlin. There, after the Galilei production, opera director Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975), dedicated to making opera singers more physically expressive in their performances, invited Soubeyran to supervise the physical training at the Komische Oper. For the DEFA film studio, Soubeyran starred in the curious pantomime film with musical accompaniment Der junge Engländer (1958), directed by Gottfried Kolditz (1922-1982) and based on the 1825 short story of Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) about a mysterious stranger (Soubeyran) in a South German village who persuades the provincial citizens that a chimpanzee he has acquired from a circus is his wealthy nephew, a young Englishman. Soubeyran transmitted the Decroux-Marceau pantomime aesthetic to many East German students. However, when the government embarked on construction of the Berlin Wall, he returned to West Germany and continued his career there. Although born in Cologne, Brigitte ardently believed in the socialist ideals guiding the East German state, and she remained in East Berlin, claiming that theater there was superior to that in the West. She worked as an actress, a teacher of pantomime, and an assistant to directors until, in the early 1970s, she became one of the first women in Germany to direct plays, which she did for many years, including numerous productions at the Volksbühne in Berlin and occasional productions in cities elsewhere in East Germany. Thus, gender-neutral pantomime was a path to a gender-neutral perception of the stage director. 

Nadja Rothenburger and Selina Senti, pantomimes and body movement specialists in Berlin, have identified 25 persons who worked as pantomimes in East Germany, and they have listed the pantomime performances of these persons (Rothenburger 2010: 8-46). Unfortunately, Rothenburger and Senti provide only very minimal details about these performances, although the listings in themselves suggest that East Germany possessed one of the largest and busiest pantomime cultures in Europe. Nearly all the pantomime performances during the Cold War were the work of students, amateur ensembles, or professionals performing in their free time, and nearly all the pantomime performances were of a comic nature, modeled after the clown/Pierrot/commedia format. Rothenberger and Senti include a diagram showing how all the East German pantomimes represent a perpetuation of Decroux’s doctrines, because they either studied under Decroux, Marceau, Barrault, or the Soubeyrans or studied under Germans who had studied under the French masters. While some of the pantomimes interviewed identified other, foreign “influences” on their work, such as Tomaszewski, Fialka, or the Russian clown Slava Polunin (b. 1950), unlike elsewhere in the East bloc, none of the East German pantomimes identified Chaplin or any silent film figures as influences. 

Figure 101: Jean and Brigitte Soubeyran performing Im Zirkus, early 1950s. Photo: Inge Worrigen.

Curiously, Rothenberger and Senti include the Austrian expressionist dancer Hanna Berger (1910-1962) as one of the pantomime figures of the German Democratic Republic. Andrea Amort has published (2010) a detailed monograph about her, the chief source of information about her life and work. Coming from a troubled and humble background, Berger had joined the Communist Party at the age of seventeen. She struggled to learn dance from several teachers, including Vera Skoronel, while working as a masseuse, model, and assistant. In 1935, she studied under Mary Wigman and toured with Wigman’s company and then with the company of Swiss clown dancer Trudi Schoop (1904-1999). In Berlin, Berger gave her first solo dance concert in 1937, which contained her piece Der Krieger, wherein she appeared, with entirely percussive accompaniment, as a soldier marching toward a not glorious doom. She always considered dance as a political activity, although her dances were only occasionally overt in their political messaging. When she published an essay critical of a dance that was too “mystical” (pro-Nazi) in its representation of workers, she came under scrutiny by the Gestapo. She returned to Vienna, but soon left for Italy, where she choreographed theatrical productions while putting together performances of her solo dance programs. She returned to Berlin in 1940 to perform new dances depicting Renaissance women inspired by her time in Italy, and with this new program she toured several German cities while accepting appointment as a dancer and teacher at the theater in Posen. After discovering numerous Marxist publications in her possession, the Gestapo arrested her for “preparing treason” in 1942. Several prominent cultural figures came to her defense, and eventually the Gestapo released her. In Vienna again, she hoped to establish a children’s theater, but the Nazis forbade her to do so. After the war, she received support from the Communist mayor of the city, and for a few years, she was prodigiously active in the Viennese dance performance scene. But the Communists fared very poorly in municipal elections in 1949, and Berger, having lost her subsidy had to close the Vienna Childrens’ Theater in 1950, partly because, to receive generous subsidies from the Marshall Plan, the American occupiers insisted that the city not subsidize any Communist sympathizers. Nor to her disappointment did the Communist Party offer any funding, even though the majority of her students came from the proletariat. Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, she remained busy with dance concerts, choreography for theatrical and opera productions, teaching invitations, lectures, and dance journalism; she even choreographed dances in an Italian movie, Il sigillo rosso (1950). Her accompanist and musical arranger, Austrian composer Paul Kont (1920-2000), a modernist disciple of dodecaphony, had studied in Paris under Mihaud, Messaien, and Honegger, and the two of them produced a concert of her dances there in 1952, and in 1954, they formed the Wiener Kammertanzgruppe, although this ensemble lasted only about a year as Berger and Font instead became involved in the first televised dances in Austria. Walter Felsenstein invited her to help with his program of physical training and choreography for opera singers at the Komische Oper at the same time (1956) that he brought Soubeyran. Kont had an interest in pantomime as well as connections in Paris, and since 1929, Berger had maintained a close relationship with the Communist sculptor Fritz Cremer (1906-1993), a major representative of official art in the German Democratic Republic who spoke on her behalf without, however, challenging those in the Party who regarded her work as too “formalistic” and excessively “individualistic” to entrust her with an academic position. She took on so many assignments because she lacked the reliable source of income that she had hoped the Wiener Kindertheater would provide. When in 1959 she won culture prize money from the city of Vienna, she went, nearly fifty years old, to Paris to study mime with Marcel Marceau and became the first woman to receive a diploma from him. She believed that mime would open up further teaching opportunities for her and strengthen her efforts to improve the physical expression of actors and singers. In late 1959, she taught pantomime for a couple of weeks at the Hochschule for Musik und Theater in Leipzig, but otherwise she taught pantomime entirely in Vienna, at the Conservatory, for only three months. She worked with the East German DEFA film studio on a couple of dance films and supervised the choreography for a couple of operas (Brussels, Vienna), but she did not produce any pantomimes. But she had not much time left to follow a new path: a brain tumor began to paralyze her in September 1961 and finally killed her in January of 1962. 

Berger was important in the history of East German pantomime because she represented a potential direction for pantomime there that the socialist state failed to encourage. She was a dramatic dancer. While she spent much of her career choreographing theatrical productions and enjoyed producing ensemble pieces with students, she excelled at powerful, expressionistic solo dances, in which she could project different identities: The WarriorThe Rider (male and female horse cavaliers), The Woman in Mourning, Italian Renaissance women (Dogaressa, Primavera, Tyranna, Amica), The FaunThe GirlThe BelovedThe Abandoned MotherThe NymphThe Enslaved,The Girl from Montmartre, all of which she had created before 1945. She loved dancing in different costumes and in relation to a wide range of classical music. After the war, she created ensemble dances with much more overtly political and abstract themes: Song ofSolidarity (1933),Chaos, Sunday Song for Youth, Game in the Sun, Planning (all 1946), with music by Hanns Eisler, although one of her most distinctive political pieces, the solo Battlecry, without music, she premiered in 1944. She was an ardent and highly imaginative practioner of the expressionistic solo dance program, so close to the Roman model of pantomime, that was nearly extinct by the time she gave her first concert in 1937 and which neither the Third Reich nor the Communist Party regarded as a new or even valuable path in dance culture. A good example of her semi-pantomimic dramatic style was her solo L’Inconnue de la Seine (1942), inspired by her first, thrilling visit to Paris in 1934 and begun when she worked in Rome in 1938. The piece, with music by Debussy, depicts a young woman alone, isolated, and abandoned on a bank of the Seine River. Filled with anxiety and despair, her movements encompass yet other emotions, anger, defiance, shame, and above all enormous uncertainty and indecision about what to do with herself in relation to the life and the great city around her. The dark river seems to summon her, yet life, the radiance of the great city, also pulls at her. She then realizes that the radiance of life is only an illusion, at best a memory of what she has lost forever. She decides to face death, the cold water; she plunges into the river, and the piece concludes with her floating in the water, sinking deeper into it, until, at last, she releases a serene smile as her body finally ceases to move. Berger’s costume was a long, dark, violet dress with a green sash all made of silk to amplify the effect of the breeze and then the water rippling through it. Yet to create this drama almost entirely through gesture and movement was a gripping emotional experience for spectators during the war and after it (Amort 2010: 16-21). Berger displayed a rare gift for playing tragic scenes in pantomime, but her Communist idealism prevented her from becoming a predominantly tragic artist. She was just as skillful at playing haughty, aristocratic Renaissance ladies or a mischievious faun or a seductively androgynous cavalier. The main thing was that she brought an aura of seriousness to her enactments. She could bring gaiety, exuberance, even sometimes humour to her pieces, but she was never a clown, her performances did not evolve around a single, “essentially human,” charmingly vulnerable identity like Bip or Pierrot. That was why the East Germans had no space for her despite her eagerness to work there. Even Brecht rejected her proposal in 1953 to collaborate with him on a dance work because he didn’t think “ballet” in East Germany was sufficiently “developed” to claim his attention (111, 154): ballet was not sufficiently developed because it lacked seriousness, but it lacked seriousness because it did not allow a person with Berger’s serious imagination to develop it; maybe, despite her Communist credentials, her status as a foreigner made her proposal untenable. Yet her dramatic approach to pantomimic narrative represented a potentially powerful “development” of bodily performance that East German theater culture failed to encourage as much as the West failed to encourage it. What is peculiar, though, is that the East German theater maintained a reputation for heavy seriousness, encouraged in part by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. But it was a seriousness derived from a more intense trust in the authority of words, of the voice to control human action than perhaps prevailed in the West. Pantomime in East Germany, with its unanimous focus on clownery, seems to have represented a relief from this hyper-seriousness that was a byproduct of the self-important ideological Marxist discourse that invariably emanated from those assigned responsibility for controlling media. That pantomime functions as a relief from institutionalized seriousness is, of course, welcome, but that pantomime should function always, only, and exclusively as relief from institutionalized seriousness is in itself a form of oppressive institutionalization, a mode of “consensus” intended to exclude outsiders who are serious about things from which no relief seems compulsory. Amort observes that with the East German “boycott” of Berger’s many proposals and the Austrian anti-communist policy, Berger existed “between” the East and the West (130). It was as if, like the unknown woman on the bank of the Seine, she became fatally split, irreconcilably divided by her artistic individuality and her love for a socialist future, and she could not survive the conflict. 

After the building of the Berlin Wall (1961), pantomime, entirely in the clown paradigm, proliferated in East Germany during the 1960s through the work of amateurs and students. Harald Seime (b. 1936) formed in 1958 the most durable of the East German pantomime ensembles, the Pantomime-Studio an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena, which consisted of students at the university, where Seime was himself a student of physical education and music education. Marceau, whom he had seen on television, was his great inspiration, and he met with the Soubeyrans when they toured Leipzig in 1957. The same year, he presented a solo pantomime, Marsch nach Moscou, at a youth festival in Moscow, where he also met with Tomaszewski and Enrique Noisvander, the leader of the Chilean pantomime ensemble El Teatro de Mimos. The Pantomime Studio presented its first public performance in 1960, Die sieben Schwaben, an adaptation of a tiny 1857 Grimm tale made into a slapstick parody of Third Reich mentalities. Subsequent programs in the 1960s consisted of mime sketches developed by the student performers. The ensemble traveled to different festivals in the East bloc, and by 1964 Seime had received a prize from the state for “artistic folk creativity,” although in 1962, the State Secret Service (STASI) urged him, for reasons of his “personal safety,” not to board a ship for Helsinki, where he was the East German delegate to the World Festival in that city, and he did not (Berndt 1964). In 1967, Seime began to combine pantomime performances with jazz music by collaborating with the Jena-based Die Old-Time Memory Jazz Band, formed by university students in 1962 and specializing in Dixieland renditions of 1920s popular tunes. The ensemble continued to attend East bloc festivals in the 1970s, and in 1977, Seime, who by this time knew so many of the East bloc pantomime artists, obtained grants from the university, the education ministry, the city of Jena, and the Gera administrative district to produce the first of the International Pantomime Days festivals in Jena. In the 1980s, the Pantomime Studio began to perform comic pantomime adaptations of literary works, such as, in 1981, Leonce and Lena (1836), by Georg Büchner (1813-1837), in 1983, the Baron Münchhausen stories (1785), by Rudolf Raspe (1736-1794), in 1986, Mario and the Magician (1929), by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), in 1988, a comic play by Moliere, and in 1989, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The ensemble received a gold medal at a 1988 Worker’s Festival for its pantomimic adaptation of a section from the enormous novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-1981), by Peter Weiss (1916-1982). According to Andreas Ittner, who worked on the Weiss adaptation, by 1988, the ensemble had come to the realization that it was no longer doing pantomime, which he defined as solo comic sketches, and had moved into what he called “a new form of theater, movement theater” (Ebert 2007: 1104-1106). But Seime, who had started his own school in 1979, remained dedicated to the clown paradigm, which sustained his popularity in the Thuringia region and, despite the woes that befell Jena’s small theater community in the early 1990s, allowed Jena to retain a reputation as a “city of clowns.” His clown persona, an unusually pale or faded whiteface with red jacket and white pants, survived the turmoil of the reunification process, and for his eightieth birthday in 2016 he gave a performance of his pantomime sketches in the Jena Theaterhaus. 

Other East German pantomime ensembles did not last nearly so long as the Pantomime Studio. The first professional pantomime company was the Theater ohne Worte, attached to the Volkstheater in Rostock, established in 1969 by Dagmar Dark, Gerd Glanze, Jürgen Just (b. 1941), and Joachim Lemke (b. 1942), but this group lasted only a few years, because the members separated to follow work opportunities, only sometimes related to pantomime, in other cities. In Berlin, Eberhard Kube (b. 1936), along with four others, formed the Pantomime Ensemble vom Prenzlauer Berg in 1961, which eventually included as many as thirty members, and he guided the group until it disbanded in 1987. He began his career as a physical education teacher, until, in 1956, he saw the DEFA film about Marcel Marceau. He received pantomime instruction from Brigitte Soubeyran, and eventually he became friends with Marceau, Jacques Lecoq, and Henryk Tomaszewski. He performed his first solo program in 1962, and continued to perform solo programs in the ensuing decades; he won a state cultural prize in 1987 and toured with his solo programs as far as Pakistan, India, and Nepal (Rothenberg 2010: 33). A chronicler of the “underground” East Berlin cultural scene in the 1980s, Wilfried Bergholz (b. 1953), has described Kube’s charismatic skill in organizing midnight dance parties in nightclubs, where people danced “as never before seen. Pantomimes in ecstasy” (Bergholz 2015: 326). Yet here as elsewhere in the East German pantomime scene, information about Kube’s solos or the Ensemble’s productions remains frustratingly obscure beyond the assertion that they specialized in clown sketches and acrobatic gags. In 1987, the Pantomime Ensemble produced an adaptation of Brecht’s “school play” Die Horatier und Kuriatier (1934), for which Hanns Eisler was supposed to write the music until the collaboration became untenable. Brecht’s text is primarily a dialogue between two choruses, the Horatians and the Curiatians, with individuals occasionally speaking lines. It is not a comic piece, for it dramatizes, without even satiric irony, the battle between the Alban clan (the Curiatians) and the victorious Roman clan (the Horatians). Did the Ensemble adapt this speech-intense one-act as a pantomime, and if so, how did they do it? If not, why did the pantomime ensemble perform it as a drama? Answers to such questions might deepen the history of pantomime in East Germany. In 1974, ten actors formed the Pantomimen Ensemble des Deutschen Theaters in Berlin to produce comic ensemble pieces from scenarios devised by Volkmar Otte (1940-2011) and Burkhart Seidemann (1944-2016). 

Figure 102: Scene from Zwischen Tür und Engel, directed by Volkmar Otte, Pantomime Ensemble of the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 1975. Photo: Abraham Pisarek, from Deutsche Fotothek.

The Ensemble produced one or two shows a year until 1990, when the company ceased to operate, and many of the shows caricatured well-known figures from literature: Don Quixote, Bluebeard, Turandot, Faust, Little Red Riding Hood, Hanswurst [Figure 102]. Neither Otte nor Seidemann published any pantomime scenarios, although Otte published several plays toward the end of the Communist era. Before joining the Ensemble, Otte had worked with Kurt Eisenblätter (1929-2017), the director of a theater for the deaf in East Berlin. Eisenblätter had become fascinated with deaf theater after seeing a deaf performance in Berlin in the 1930s that featured Pierrot and Falstaff scenes, and he diligently studied the history of German deaf theater since its introduction in 1881. After the war, he found work with the deaf theater in Dortmund from 1950 to 1959, when the theater folded. With the deaf theater in Dortmund, he had performed numerous serious roles in pantomime, including Othello, Hamlet, and Faust, although these performances involved the use of sign language to translate the texts into coded gestures. He returned to East Berlin to live with his parents and accept an offer to direct the Berlin theater for the deaf, which he did until 1973, when Otte assumed the directorship but could not save the theater from extinction when he tried for a more strictly pantomimic approach to reach a larger audience. Eisenblätter then worked with Otte at the newly formed Pantomime Ensemble at the Deutschen Theater (Meyendorf 2008: 1-5). A member of the original Ensemble, Christoph Posselt, explained the obsession with developing clown personas: working without texts freed the performers from the feeling of being observed by “organs of the state.” “We began to test subversive subjects, to ask questions, and to seek answers other than the official ones” (Posselt 2015: 105). He listed fifteen reasons why playing clowns conferred special powers on the performer, including, “[The clown] is an outsider. He is courageous. He needs courage […] He knows that our communication shatters because we pay too little attention to others and take ourselves too seriously […] He shows us our borders […] and knows that creativity exceeds borders […] He battles the world, he battles himself, he loses and yet keeps going […] He knows that whoever does not fight has already lost” (107). Yet another pantomime clown troupe was Salto Vitale, based in Dresden and founded, in 1983, by Rainer König (b. 1953), an electronics worker who had studied pantomime in the Dresden studio of Ralf Herzog (b. 1952), a theater machinery technician who had taken a pantomime course with the Berlin Pantomime Ensemble in 1975. The group contained Kristina Busch (b. 1964), Constance Debus (b. 1960), Alf Mahlo (b. 1960), and Matthias Krahnert; Debus and Busch had studied dance, and Mahlo had studied for a diploma in information technology. The group toured widely in Germany and several East bloc cities until 1990, when the members followed separate paths as actors and cabaret performers but remained devoted apparently entirely to comic performance and occasionally to teaching. Even in the small city of Gera, Gerrit Junghans (b. 1952) established a pantomime studio in 1982 while pursuing a solo career as a clown in the Marceau mold (“Clown Gerrit”), and, after the fall of the Communist regime, continuing to do so with evidently much greater success. Compared with other countries in the East bloc and in Western Europe, the German Democratic Republic nurtured an abundance of clowns largely modeled after Marceau. Moreover, the pantomime ensembles placed a heavy emphasis on the collective creation of programs, which prevented the emergence of a dominant artistic personality that infused any ensemble with a distinctive aesthetic “vision” or style. With the end of the Communist state, the ensembles disappeared, but the clowns continued, becoming integrated either into the international mime culture, with its schools, festivals, and street “circuses,” or into the reorganizing mainstream theater culture, with its musicals, cabarets, corporate entertainments, and televised variety shows. 

But the pantomime situation in West Germany was not much different during the Cold War, at least in its embrace of the French idea of mime. When Jean Soubeyran returned to West Germany in 1961, he became the leading advocate for pantomime in the country. He received invitations to choreograph or direct at theaters in Hannover, Hamburg, Bonn, and Berlin, while supervising his own pantomime troupe based in Essen, where he organized the third International Pantomime Festival (1966). He published his popular, slender mime textbook, Die wortlose Sprache (1963), with schematic illustrations by Angelika Morkel Lülsdorf (1934-2006) that depicted a faceless male figure demonstrating Decroux’s counterweight positions. By 1968, he was the choreographer for the Wuppertal Theaters, a position given in 1973 to Pina Bausch, the greatest creator of German Tanztheater, and by 1972 he was a professor of acting at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, where he taught numerous actors and directors in the West German theater scene. Yet the French mime aesthetic did not really gather much momentum in West Germany after the 1960s, nor did clowns seem to have quite as much appeal as they did elsewhere, perhaps because of a deeply ingrained identification of clownery with degradation, as embodied so well in the sordidly masochistic transformation of Professor Unrath into a grotesque, cuckolded, and humiliated nightclub clown in the film Der blaue Engel (1930). In contrast to East Germany, pantomime in West Germany appealed almost entirely to men. Ellen Dorn, Soubeyran’s second wife and translator of his book into German, was possibly (and only briefly) the only female pantomime in the country. The 1970s saw the rise of Tanztheater through the powerful, innovative, and revelatory productions of Pina Bausch (1940-2009), the director from 1973 of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, which soon after her appointment became the Wuppertal Tanztheater. Bausch developed a monumentally serious performance style by introducing ballet, modern dance, and social dance movement tropes derived from observing underlying social, psychological, and political tensions between men and women, between bodies of both sexes and their social environments, and between performers and audiences. Her Tanztheater became synonymous with an intense, sometimes witty, visually stirring, and often harrowing critique of repressive social structures and patriarchal assumptions about sexual difference. Unlike in most modern dance ensembles, Bausch was able to attract numerous men to perform in her projects, which above all critiqued the institutionalization of dance and dance movements. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Tanztheater completely dominated the West German audience for speechless theater, as Bausch’s success encouraged other important practioners of Tanztheater, such as Susanne Linke (b. 1944), Reinhild Hoffmann (b. 1943), Johann Kresnik (b. 1939), Rosamond Gilmore (b. 1955), Kristina Horvath (b. 1947), and Anna Vita (b. 1964) (cf. Schmidt 1992). But Tanztheater only occasionally introduced pantomimic actions, for the point of Tanztheater was to show in an innovative way how social environments, conventional structures of “beauty,” and emblems of power regulated the movements, the steps, and the positions by which persons of both sexes interacted within and toward a society. Pantomime, still clinging to French ideas from the 1950s, offered nothing nearly as compelling. Soubeyran apparently sensed the need for a more serious mood in pantomime. With his students at Hannover, he staged, in 1982, an adaptation of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, and after he retired (1986), he directed the mysterious pantomime Keltenvisionen, Ein Maskenspiel (1989) for the outdoor Scharniertheater in Hannover, a collaboration with the composer Willi Vogl (b. 1961) and the expressionist graphic artist Hans Ulrich Buchwald (1925-2009), who designed the large, rather menacing “Celtic” masks worn by the performers. Buchwald, who had worked as a theatrical scene designer in the 1950s, had initiated the Scharniertheater performances in 1969: he wanted to design large masks that were expressive on all sides of the head. Keltenvisionen, inspired by the enigmatic imagery on a silver bowl discovered in Denmark in 1892, enacted a primeval ritual invocation of supernatural spirits apparently both in a park space and on the stage of an indoor theater. An inscrutable image from the Danish bowl inspired each of the twelve scenes. Each scene depicted an aspect of the primeval Celtic world rather than built a story around a single protagonist or conflict: 1) Trinity of Gods; 2) Nature; 3) Woman; 4) Male Rivalry; 5) Dream; 6) Unity (of Man and Woman); 7) Anxiety; 8) Druids; 9) Sacrifice; 10) Technology; 11) War and Apocalypse; 12) New Beginning. A narrator, like the interpellator in ancient Roman pantomime, prefaced each scene with a brief description of its significance, for example, “Woman”: “Woman, with her knowledge of the secrets of nature, gathers roots, fruits, and seeds. She builds barns. Feminine patience tames wild animals into pets”; “Sacrifice”: “The people have pushed the gods away. Forces of nature create fears. The priests try to reconcile with the gods through blood sacrifice”; “Technology”: “The wheel is a gift to the intelligent human. The visionary machine era announces itself.” The performers, seven in all, pantomimed these statements wearing extraordinarily imaginative, large masks, some of which represented horses, bulls, fish, or the huge hands of gods, although the performers mostly wore white body stockings underneath the masks. Even the human masks were stunningly expressionistic in their evocation of the “alien” sense of identity with which primeval humans seemed to see each other. The narrator’s brief, intertitle statements contain the action words that motivate the pantomimic action, which adopts a style that appears both somewhat ritualistic and yet utterly alien to “our” world, as if the performance had contradictory purposes: to “explain” the Celtic “vision” carved onto the bowl and why the audience can never really “understand” it. Günther Kappler and Ahmed Ezzat (b. 1964) assisted Soubeyran with the choreography of two scenes, and the small book published about the production mentions many others persons involved in what was evidently an intense community experience, with, however, Soubeyran and Buchwald involved in much conflict over the development of the piece [Figures 103 and 104]. The book presents numerous testimonies from performers, spectators, and critics about the powerful emotional impact of Keltenvisionen, and the numerous photographs of the production convey some of the fascination provoked by this mysterious piece (Buchwald 1992). But Soubeyran worked only on this one production for the theater; Buchwald continued producing fantastic masks for annual summer performances in the park, and the three-person, 30-minute “walking theater” performances have continued since his death, with new, young artists involved in the creation of the huge, grotesque heads, although none of these subsequent productions has apparently approached Keltenvisionen in pantomimic audacity. It was an astonishingly innovative kind of pantomime devised by an artist who was completely outside of the mime culture, and thus Soubeyran concluded his career by working on a pantomime that owed almost nothing to a French idea of it. 

Figure 103: 1) “Der Besiegte und Hinde Ailbe” (“The Vanquished and the Dog Ailbe”), with giant god hand as a character, 2) “Das geflügelte Pferd bringt den Unterlegenen ins Totenreich” (“The Flying Horse Brings the Defeated into the Realm of Death”), 3) “Krieg” (“War”). Photos: Buchwald (1992: 20, 21, 45).

Figure 104: Keltenvisionen, Scharniertheater, Hannover, 1989, directed by Jean Soubeyran. 1) “Vereinigung” (“Union”). 2) “Der Weise übergibt dem Suchendem den Torques” (“The Sage Hands the Seeker the Torques”). Photos: Buchwald (1992: 27, 35).  

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Bulgaria

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

Bulgaria

The clown paradigm also prevailed in Cold War Bulgarian pantomime, but not nearly to the extent that it did in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Indeed, pantomime in Bulgaria was largely the work of two men who worked together for a while, Velyo Goranov (b. 1946) and Peter Mim (b. 1952). Goranov was a student of acting at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, as was Mim. They formed a Pantomime Studio in Sofia in 1973 with a performance ensemble called MIMANS. Goranov says that he first became interested in pantomime in 1967, but what precipitated his interest and how he manifested it before 1973 remains very obscure, although Marcel Marceau was evidently a great influence. Both Mim and Goranov constructed clown personas modeled after Chaplin’s Tramp and Marceau’s Bip, but neither has published any description of how they differentiated each other in performance. By 1978, Mim was working as an actor in provincial theaters, eventually becoming a director at the theater in Sliven. He attended workshops given by Tomaszewski and Fialka, and eventually he studied under Tadashi Endo (b. 1947), an especially somber proponent of the Japanese Butoh aesthetic based in Göttingen, Germany. Yet Mim remained committed to the clown paradigm. He developed a precise, vivid impersonation of Charlie Chaplin, even enacting scenes from Chaplin movies like The Gold Rush (1925) to make an entire program, but he cultivated another clown persona, somewhat similar to Marceau’s Bip, though perhaps more macabre. He wore either a white shirt and pants or a black shirt and pants, while the mask remained the same: whiteface with heavily mascared eyes, hugely exaggerated black eyebrows, a bright red mouth, and a bald head in conflict with unruly streams of hair flowing from the sides and back of his head. With the “Mim” character, he has built solo sketches mostly out of the movements of his hands and arms, so that humor is incidental to displaying skillful use of the hands to evoke playing a musical instrument, a bird in flight, picking flowers, or moving along a wall. Finding opportunities for pantomime limited in Bulgaria, Mim migrated to Germany in 1991, where Marceau and Jean Soubeyran had stimulated popular enthusiasm for mime, particularly in schools. In Hannover, he became involved with physical training, mime instruction, and non-verbal communication workshops as well as solo performances in a variety of corporate and public venues. With students, he began to produce ensemble pieces, such as Myths, Mysteries (1994), a sequence of “visual poems,” including “Swan of Tuonela,” “Valse Triste,” “Pygmalion,” and “poems” featuring “Mim,” none of which could be called humorous, even if they emphasized a mood of macabre playfulness. In 1999, he formed his own company, Fenix Theater, to present “dreamlike productions” using fantastically ornate costumes and masks with lights embedded in them, so that the “bizarre beings” exude a polychromatic translucence. Since 2005, he has run his own school, Mimart Studio, and most of his life has subsequently focused on organizing and leading a constant program of workshops, courses, and demonstrations. One of his more interesting “Mim” pantomimes shows him actually painting a picture following the outline of a female body in black tights pressed against the back of the canvas and visible to Mim and the audience. The body moves and Mim paints the contours of the body, creating the image of a body either in movement or transformed into a kind of expressionist deformity. Cello music accompanies the act of painting. Mim completes the painting and drops to his knees to make movements with his hands. The model comes from the painting to observe the result. She assumes poses similar to those painted expressionistically. The piece seems preoccupied with the relation between the physical action that creates the expressionistic brushstroke/image and the physical action that creates an expressionistic pantomime. But despite the genuine power of the painting he creates, Mim reveals a deep uncertainty about the relation he dramatizes rather than an insight into it. As a performance the piece is simply not as a strong as what may have inspired it, namely the action painting-performance art of the German expressionist artist Barbara Heinisch (b. 1944), who, since the 1970s, has treated the act of painting as a performance, wherein a nude female body behind the canvas is the model for the figure that Heinisch paints onto the canvas, accompanied by dark, often avant-garde music. When Heinisch decides that the painting is complete, she tears the canvas, and the model steps through the torn section, as if emerging out of a vagina in the image. The painting always has the tear in it, as if to signify a convulsive violence involved in the representation of the body. Although Heinisch has done this performance for decades, it still manages to retain a visceral intensity. Mim does not satirize Heinisch’s performance, nor does he use her performance as a basis for an alternative (or maybe non-feminist) understanding of the painter’s and the model’s contrasting relations to the image. It feels like he wants to imitate Heinisch while omitting the nudity and the “wound” to his own creation. But the resulting performance seems timid, with the painting completely eclipsing the actions that produced it. But this timidity, which perhaps results from a desire to assimilate (imitate) German expressionism instead of emerging out of it, is typical of so much mime culture that, through the harmless, friendly clown figure, strives simply to please audiences rather than move them to a dynamic relationship with representation. 

Meanwhile, Goranov, who characterizes himself as “a loner,” toured widely with the Pantomime Studio, but with his deep, resonant voice, he also acted in numerous Bulgarian films and TV shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Although he was friends with Marceau and hosted him in Bulgaria, Goranov did not want to emulate Marceau’s mime style. Yet he was unable to develop a pantomimic identity without a Pierrot-type clown persona. However, his clown persona was ironic, almost a tragic mask: a whiteface with black tears smearing his cheeks and a red mouth blotched as if it were bleeding. He performed traditional solo routines with this mask—the wall, the flower picking, the attempt to sit comfortably—which made them seem much less humorous or charming than pathetically poignant. He liked directing as much as acting, so he always wanted to work with an ensemble. Much of the ensemble work consisted of adaptations of well-known stories and literary works (Don Quixote, Don Giovanni), the most successful being, perhaps, his 1985 slapstick, pantomimic version of the long comic Czech novel The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-1923), by Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923). While touring in Mexico in 1986, members of his ensemble considered remaining in America, and to bring the group back to Bulgaria, the government offered to give Goranov his own theater. The group returned and Goranov got a theater, but that was only the beginning of “all sorts of violent battles to survive.” Members of the company deserted him, and it proved oppressively difficult to find money to keep the theater going. With the collapse of the Communist regime, the situation did not improve much. Goranov borrowed money at extortionate rates to sustain the theater, which, since 1988, operated under the name Movement Theater. The Culture Ministry appointed him the official director of the theater, but he had to raise money for own salary, so for a while he gathered funds by running a junk collection business. He describes the period 1987 to 1997 as like living “in a pirana tank. It was just hell,” according to an interview with him in the Bulgarian language Business Weekly (online June 9, 2001). With the Movement Theater, Goranov tried to synthesize pantomime, dance, acrobatics, and slapstick, and he even produced (1996?) a pantomime depicting the voluptuous extravagances of the Roman Empire (Teatur Dvijenie 2012). He clearly wanted to create a “serious” kind of pantomime, but Bulgarian society remained locked into a mime culture modeled by Marcel Marceau. For years, he acted in and directed plays, and although he finally received official awards for becoming the “greatest Bulgarian pantomime,” he decided to celebrate his seventieth birthday in 2016 by performing with much success one-man dramas: The Grand Inquisitor, from the poem in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Bulgarian pantomime remains almost entirely devoted to the Marceau/Pierrot charming clown paradigm, with Alexander Iliev (b. 1956), a student of Barrault and an instructor of mime and physical theater at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, perhaps the most prominent representative of the style, which he combines with instruction related to techniques of the commedia dell’arte. He published between 1993 and 1997 an enormous, four-volume treatise, Towards a Theory of Mime, some of which has been translated into English (2014), a very convoluted work, stuffed with the many exercises that are a central obsession of mime culture and suffused with much mystical Asian or New Age philosophy regarding the body’s relation to things like “matter,” “energy,” and “time.” But the book does contain a comprehensive bibliography of Russian language books on pantomime, which could be the basis for a major reappraisal of pantomime within Russia during the Soviet era. Even so, Bulgaria’s attachment to the Marceau/Pierrot pantomime paradigm was not due entirely to Russian or Communist tolerance of the paradigm as a symbol of “the people” or of some kind of harmless, popular image of “humanity.” The paradigm also held because it represented an idea of “the West,” of the solitary, independent performer, who needed no words, no speech, or no one else to construct an identity for him or herself, no matter how generic that identity might be and no matter that the paradigm (as opposed to Marceau himself) was never especially popular as a performing art, even in the West no more than in Bulgaria. The paradigm functioned to signify a Western “way of life,” an accessible, exercise-driven, therapeutic-hygienic “discipline” that enabled the performer to construct an appealing, likeable, yet strangely “human” identity unencumbered by the pressures of a text, a theater, a society, or even a market to become anyone other than this charming clown the performer has made her/himself. The paradigm was an image of freedom.

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Hungary

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

Figure 99: An intriguing image of a pantomime performance by the Olga Szentpál dance group in Budapest, ca. 1935. However, information about pantomime in Hungary during that time remains very obscure. Photo: Erzsébet Leichtner, from Földvári Books.

Hungary

Pantomime in Hungary during the Cold War evolved in a different fashion than elsewhere in the East bloc perhaps in large part because of the failed attempt in 1956 to overthrow the Communist regime. Before 1956, the Party forbade any form of pantomimic performance or any effort to recover the exciting modern dance culture that, guided almost entirely by women, thrived in Budapest during the 1920s and 1930s and which included one of the greatest pantomimes of the twentieth century, Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin (1924) (cf. Fuchs 2000: 82-85). During that time, Valéria Dienes (1879-1978), who, in addition to acquiring a doctorate in philosophy, studied dance in Paris with Isadora and Raymond Duncan, developed a mystical-mathematical system and school of bodily movement, Orchestics, which she applied to the production of numerous large-scale religious “movement dramas” in Budapest, including one involving a thousand performers, The Fate of a Child (1935). These productions may have included pantomimic action derived from her “orchestic” and “evological” theory of kinetic communication (Dienes 2001: 5-7). Alice Madzsar [Jászi] (1877-1935), a student of Delsarte and Mensendieck, and Olga Szentpál (1895-1968), a disciple of Dalcroze, established dance schools in Budapest that produced unusual movement pieces that apparently included pantomime (Dienes 2001: 10-18). But with the Communist takeover of Hungary in the 1940s, these ideas about bodily movement and knowledge of them virtually disappeared.           

 A governing slogan of the Party proclaimed that, “socialist man speaks openly and does not display.” From the Party’s perspective, pantomimic avoidance of speech disclosed a profound distrust of words, and such distrust in itself undermined confidence in the language used by the state to justify its policies and in the language used by “the people” to build solidarity on behalf of the socialist program of salvation. Yet unlike in other East bloc countries, in Hungary numerous people became involved in efforts to create pantomimic art, with the result that pantomimic activity did not congeal around one or two dominant personalities, but became scattered across a variety of artists who never succeeded in consolidating an array of pantomimic enterprises into a sustained pantomime production platform. Orsolya Huszár Fürjesné wrote a thesis on pantomime in Cold War Hungary for Panonnia University, which the University published (without pagination) on the Internet in 2008. Her thesis remains the most comprehensive source for information about Hungarian pantomime for the period, and most of the facts regarding Hungarian pantomime here come from this work. She contends that the earliest efforts to create pantomime in Hungary took place in 1957, when the actress Itala Békés (b. 1927) and her brother-in-law, the opera director András Békés (1927-2015), invited Marcel Marceau to visit Hungary, and Marceau in turn invited them to Paris. Itala Békés had studied body movement under Olga Szentpál (1895-1968), who in the 1920s and 1930s was the director of a modern dance school that had produced experimental expressionist dance pantomimes [Figure 99]. Itala and András Békés hoped that the connection with Marceau would allow them to develop ambitious plans for a pantomime studio in Budapest, but nothing came of these hopes except invitations for more pantomime artists to visit Hungary. Another actor, Ferencz László (1923-1981), after studying briefly, in 1957, at Jean-Louis Barrault’s school in Paris, set up a pantomime studio in Budapest the following year to produce what he called “mimo-grotesques.” But the studio, which lasted only about a year, was primarily a place where actors could practice bodily expression, and it apparently produced only one “mimo-grotesque,” the twelve-scene Tales of Man, by the choreographer and ethnographer László-Bencsik Sándor Mesék (1925-1999). In 1958, a teacher, István Barlanghy (b. 1926), set up the Hungarian Pantomime Studio, which operated as a training facility in the University of Budapest. This studio lasted until 1965, but Barlanghy, who promoted the idea of pantomime as an independent mode of performance and published several theoretical articles about pantomime, including a small book of mime exercises, was unable to produce a single pantomime. Fialka’s Theater of the Balustrade from Prague visited, as did Tomaszewski’s Wroclaw Pantomime Company and Marcel Marceau (1967-1968), but these did not lead to pantomime production in Hungary, only to visits abroad for Hungarians to attend workshops, classes, and festivals. A dancer, Zoltán Kárpáthy (b. 1939), inspired by Decroux, decided to become a pantomime and studied under Jean Soubeyran and Jacques Lecoq. The government in 1963 granted him the first license to operate a pantomime theater (rather than studio), the Debiru Pantomim, which seated only twenty-four spectators but lasted from 1967-1973, although it remains unclear what the theater actually produced. Fürjesné explains how different theater journals and newspapers published essays on theoretical issues of pantomime, on whether audiences required education on pantomime before performing it, on whether pantomimes can be performed without performers educated in the art, on whether pantomime was a “people’s art,” on foreign pantomime performances and artists, on forums about pantomime, and on the popularity of pantomime studios. One newspaper reported that in 1973, 100 people in Hungary classified themselves as pantomime artists. In 1977, the government set up a pantomime commission at the request of the National Institute of Nursing, which believed that pantomime might provide therapeutic benefits. But apparently nothing came out of the commission, nor much out of all the media discourse on pantomime. The government would grant licenses to perform pantomime, but refused to provide any funding or any space for it. When the media reported on the “popularity” of pantomime, it referred to the proliferation of studios in which young people people performed exercises and experiments in pantomimic signification but not much in the way of pantomimes for public consumption. Fürjesné contends that the published discourse on pantomime in the 1960s was on a higher level than in subsequent decades, but the result was the formation of studios filled with students learning to be teachers of pantomime who would have their own studios in which students learned to be teachers of pantomime. The discourse failed to build an audience for pantomime.

It was evident, though, that pantomime performances were necessary to establish pantomime as an art rather than as a pedagogical activity. In 1967, Miklos Köllő (b. 1946), a biochemistry student, founded in Budapest the Domino Pantomime Studio after seeing a performance by Marcel Marceau, although he had no desire to emulate Marceau’s style of pantomime, and he studied briefly at Ladislav Fialka’s International School of Choreography in Prague. The Domino Studio operated out of the basement of his house, which meant that from the government’s perspective, the Studio was never eligible for support from public funds. Köllő’s productions involved students registered for his courses in pantomime, and by 1980 the Studio had nearly a hundred students enrolled in pantomime courses. He wanted to develop a dramatic style of pantomime through what he called a “dramaturgy of dreams.” In an article for the theater journal Színház (IV, 12, December 1971, 43-48), he explained that while people currently think of pantomime as clowns in whiteface, among ancient people, including the Romans, pantomime had two functions: 1) as a trance-like, shamanistic religious ritual, and 2) as a profane, erotic embodiment of an exclusive “symbolic sign system” that made the body move abstractly. The distinction between the two functions was not always clear, nor did the ancient cultures make a clear distinction between dance and miming. In addition to the Romans, Köllő referred to the dance pantomimes of African and East Asian cultures as examples of these neglected functions of pantomime, but he also discussed Decroux in relation to a “geometry of the body” that he considered unique to pantomime, “a new kind of motion rhythm,” the “condensed drama” of “dynamic immobility.” He apparently meant that pantomime created a compressed drama through abstract or symbolic tensions between parts of the body, which music intensified without determining. He asserted that pantomimic action had an “internal, psychic” origin derived from the performer’s unique relation to the person represented, unlike dance, which relied on “prefabricated forms” to design bodily movements. Köllő’s pantomime productions nevertheless used a good deal of abstract movement, geometrical, gymnastic contortions of the body, which sometimes resembled modern dance, but was closer to dynamic sculpture, because he had little interest in showing how the body consumes space. He suffused his productions with theatrical effects: masks, strange costumes, curtains, footlights. Literary works inspired many of his productions: Victor Hugo, Notre Dame Paris (1969), Albert Camus, The Artist’s Life (1969), Jean Genet, The Blacks (1970), Gyula Juhász, The Boy Changed into a Rabbit (1973), Thomas Mann, Transposed Heads (1974), Béla Balázs, Garments of Dreams (1974), Gogol Panoptic (1977), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1978), Miguel Asturias, “Oh … the Half-Breed Woman” (1980), Michel de Ghelderode, Night of Fools (1982), Edgar Allan Poe’s Supper (1983), Salome (1983). Köllő’s productions sometimes brought him trouble from the government, which banned some of his productions, even though he often did not advertise them. Undercover agents of the secret police infiltrated his audiences (Köllő 2016: 93-94). His audience was never large, but it was large enough to sustain the productions, filled as it was with well-educated people looking for adventurous artistic experiences, including foreign visitors and spectators employed by foreign embassies. These foreign spectators facilitated opportunities for him in other countries. His production of Notre Dame Paris at the International Theater Festival in Amsterdam launched his international reputation and gained him invitations to show his productions at other festivals over the years. He taught pantomime at the International Theatre Institute in London between 1976 and 1979, and from 1986 to 1988 he directed the International Theater Center in Athens. The Hungarian government suspected him of being a foreign agent while the Hungarian mainstream cultural media regarded him as estranged from any genuinely Hungarian artistic identity. Yet in 1983, he was able to set up a larger venue for his productions at the Centi Stage, and in 1984, he assumed the directorship of the Budavari Labyrinth, a vast underground network of caverns in the Buda Castle, previously long dormant, which enabled “panopticum” exhibits to incorporate unusual visual and acoustic effects. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he continually found work choreographing films, television shows, and theatrical productions. Yet he never found the Hungarian cultural environment congenial to his artistic ambitions—that is, he always looked beyond the borders of Hungary for the development and expansion of his artistic identity. The Domino Pantomime Theater staged its last performance in 1989, with Köllő’s production of Macbeth of East Central Europe, after which he resigned all his theater positions. He claimed that, even before the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990, commercial ambitions had corrupted the theater culture and municipal government. Soon, however, he formed a new production company, the Central European Dance Theater, which indicated his move away from pantomime and toward the German concept of “Tanztheater.” His productions subsequently derived more from history and biography than from literature: an adapatation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Satan’s Ball (1994), The Joyful Blessing of Franz Liszt (1995), Viper’s Nest (1995), inspired by the life of the Italian gay, Marxist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), Peasant Decameron (1996), Rasputin is Satan (1998). After 1996, the Central European Dance Theater, as a formal organization, ceased to exist, because Köllő could no longer afford the rent for the theater, which rose in part, he says, because officials of the National Theater believed that a “national theater” should not be hosting a company dedicated to sponsoring “central European” projects (Köllő 2016: 101-102). In 2003, he formed yet another company, Tarka Színpad, comprised of amateur performers, chiefly senior citizens and designed for senior audiences. The productions of the Tarka Stage (2003-2012) were mostly musical comedies built around old comic tales (Hans Sachs) or contemporary fables, although its last production (2012) was of the lesbian drama The Maids (1947), by Jean Genet (1910-1986). Köllő seems like an extraordinary figure in the East bloc theatrical scene, but a stronger evaluation of his significance in pantomime history depends on access to documentation of his productions rather than on further anecdotes about the peculiar circumstances under which he managed to produce so many ambitious dramatic pantomimes. 

The Domino Pantomime Company’s success in foreign countries motivated the government to encourage the development of an authentically “Hungarian” type of pantomime. The state had already approved the establishment of an experimental theater at the Budapest University of Technology, believing that the University was more likely to emphasize appropriate socialist messaging in the theater’s performances than in the private productions of Domino. In 1974, the government allowed the formation of a pantomime theater company within the University Stage and the University named Pál Regős (1926-2009) as the artistic director. Regős began his career as an ice dancer and had performed for several years (1948-1957) with the Hungarian ice dance company, Jégrevü, which traveled throughout the East bloc. As a child, he had seen circus clowns, and since then he had always wanted to become a clown, although it was “impossible to learn” how. But in 1957, he created a Charlie Chaplin figure for an ice dance show. From then on, his attention focused on acting and pantomime. The same year he saw at the Radnóti Theater several prominent actors perform “ancient pantomimes,” which created “a most impressive ethereal show” hosted by István Barlanghy. Regős became friends with Ferencz László, and then with Henryk Tomaszewski in Wroclaw, where he also met Marcel Marceau. Yet he was largely self-taught in pantomime, guided intensely by Jean Soubeyran’s 1963 textbook on pantomime performance, Die wortlose Sprache. He formed in 1962 his own pantomime company, Commedia XX, which rehearsed for free in the exercise room of the Ice Theater. But he never became a clown. His first pantomime production took place in 1964 and emulated the type of pantomime performance created by Tomaszewski, although Regős included musical interludes because the actors had to change the scenery for each scene. The primary scenario featured a “sleek” Black Pierrot in a black body suit with “huge white buttons.” Pierrot pursued a girl dressed entirely in white, but could not win her “because he was black.” A secondary scenario, “The Great Book,” inspired by a poem of Dezső Kosztolányi(1885-1936), was more abstract-allegorical and featured a conflict between the Heart, in a red body suit, and the Brain, in a blue body suit. Subsequent productions, entirely amateur, were sporadic and took place in “various cultural houses,” chiefly workers’ or community clubs. Regős worked as a window washer to pay for costumes, props, and space rentals. Then the Budapest University of Technology invited him to manage a pantomime unit of the University Stage, which compelled him “to think differently within the genre. The traditional language of pantomime no longer worked.” His first production for the University Stage was a 1975 pantomimic adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist, apocalyptic drama Endgame (1957), which, amazingly, Beckett authorized. But the most successful productions, from 1976, were of Bartok’s ballet The Wooden Prince (1917) and pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1924), which, however, Regős set in an Asian milieu rather than the European city Bartok originally imagined. Although the University Stage workshops were popular and enrolled numerous students, the pantomime productions of the Stage were on a small scale, involving only a handful of performers, because Regős had to cover much of the touring cost with his own money, whereas Köllő sometimes had as many as thirty students performing in his shows, which he only produced once a year. After traveling to various European cities with the Bartok program, Regős moved in what he regarded as a new direction with his 1982 production of a three-person pantomime based on the story The Metamorphosis (1915), by the German-Jewish writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924), which depicts the life of a man transformed into an enormous insect. Regős himself played the role of Gregor Samsa, but the piece failed to attract an audience, and though he was not sure why, Regős felt he could not let go of Kafka as a source for pantomime. He was born Jewish, but grew up Calvinist, because his parents had converted. The government nevertheless considered him Jewish. Kafka, he said, led him to a more “personal” way of moving the body. Meanwhile, he accepted an offer to teach “movement design” in Vienna, and there he remained until 1988. Pantomime almost completely disappeared from the University Stage, as it became a studio for the study of “motion theater” or Creative Motion Design. Regős returned to Kafka in 1985, with a solo piece, Requiem for Josef K, inspired by attending a performance in Vienna of the Requiem (1982) by German composer Aribert Reimann (b. 1936). But he was not happy with this performance, either, and later acknowledged that, “I wanted to show Kafka’s world too much. I was playing very cramped, and that’s not good.” That is, he was too diligent in translating the claustrophobic world of Kafka’s into highly constrained bodily movements. A new path opened up in 1990 when in Vienna he met the Japanese modern dancer Emi Hatano (b. 1939), and they transformed the Kafka piece into an abstract, expansive duo, perhaps closer to the Heart-Brain duo of his first production than to the human-insect duality of Kafka. Then (1994) he collaborated with Gabriella Salz (b. 1971), a German literature student and movement therapist, on another “movement duo,” inspired by the German book I Don’t Want to be Inside Me Anymore (1993) by Birger Sellin (b. 1973), purportedly the first book authored by a functionally non-verbal autistic person, although the Sellin text had resulted from the completely discredited method of “facilitated communication.” Regős developed another duo project, Heartwitch (1998), with the modern dancer Rita Bata (b. 1973), whose dance aesthetic strongly incorporated Asian influences, especially the expressionistic solemnities of Japanese Butoh. He kept revising and reviving (2001, 2004) his Kafka piece. While all these projects seem fascinating and strange, especially the duos involving the elderly Regős and a young woman, information about the productions remains largely inaccessible, and what is known mostly serves to support Regős’s assertion that, “You should never stop developing, you should not always do the same thing. The latter work must in some respects exceed the previous one” (Rókás 2009). With his female collaborators, it appears that he moved away from pantomime toward something that was neither mime nor dance but what he called “motion theater” or “motion design,” which apparently had some affinity with movement therapy and thus was not preoccupied with audiences. Regős exemplifies how pantomime awakens and accelerates a hunger for change, both personal and social. For Regős, pantomime in the 1960s represented a new path to a new sense of identity arising from the body rather than from words or prescribed ways of moving in a world in which, as Köllő observed, one could “no longer trust words,” because “words had lost their true content” (Köllő 2016: 91). Pantomime meant moving the body outside of one’s self, into another identity, another story. But Regős always had difficulty finding a story that moved the body in a new way. Unlike Köllő, he did not trust literary sources any more than he trusted the words of the government or the language of communal discourse. Not even Kafka could provide the “metamorphosis” he expected of pantomime. By the end of the 1980s, he realized his body had to move in a more “personal” way, outside of history, away from stories told by others, away from an identity inscribed and prescribed by history or approved by audiences. He thus turned to “movement theater” or “motion design,” a kind of therapeutic activity perhaps, but a logical result of perceiving that you cannot move in a new way if your body and identity have been lost in a history that has already made you someone other than you might have made yourself. 

Fürjesné seems to regard János Karsai (b. 1945) as the most popular of the Hungarian Cold War pantomime figures; nearly half of her thesis describes his career. He began as an actor with the alternative performance studio of the Pince Theater in Budapest, but turned his attention to pantomime in 1968, when he became a student at Zoltán Kárpáthy’s school, where the curriculum derived from the Germany-based Jean Soubeyran, a student of Decroux and Barrault. But because he was unable to see nearly any pantomime performances in the theaters, Karsai’s greatest inspiration came from silent films, particularly the comic styles of Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Stan Laurel (1890-1965). Kárpáthy included Karsai’s sketch in an hour long pantomime show for factory workers, which inspired Karsai to develop his own, hour-long, solo pantomime performance, Confession in White (1970), which enabled him to receive a license to perform pantomime. For a while he worked with the Thalia Theater, training actors in physical expression and performing Bartok’s The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin. Fürjesné notes that he spent much time discussing, promoting, and explaining pantomime in an effort to stimulate interest in the phenomenon in different audiences. He formed his own pantomime company, Mimickry Mim, in 1974, which included his wife Gizella (b. 1955), Vladimir Laczkó, a circus acrobat, and Pál Ferenc, apparently a clown who has otherwise remained completely obscure. The company gave its first performance at the University of Debrecen Medical School in 1975, a pantomime representing the cycle of life. But Karsai spent much of his time as a member of cultural delegations within the East bloc and attending workshops. In 1978, Mimicky Mim became the Karsai Pantomime Company, with many shows occurring in nightclubs. The following year, he started a small TV series of pantomime sketches, and throughout the 1980s he created more TV pantomimes, produced children’s shows, performed at construction camps, community centers, senior care facilities, the Planetarium in Budapest. Karsai was a tireless popularizer of pantomime, and he aggressively opposed the “aristocratic,” avant-garde pantomime developed, for example, by the Domino Pantomime Company or Tomaszewski in Poland. He regarded Charlie Chaplin as the summit of pantomimic art, which, for Karsai, meant that pantomimic gestures and actions should always be understandable to any audience, they should not drift into choreographed abstraction and metaphysical symbolism, and they should represent “everyday people dealing with everyday problems.” But this inclination to “cleanse” and simplify bodily signification led to an entirely comic performance aesthetic in which all action issued from or around a clownlike, Chaplinesque persona. His largely solo program, Life Is Complicated?! (1973), was an enormous success, yet it remains difficult to ascertain the nature of the performance, other than that he enacted the commonplace misadventures of his Everyman clown persona in ways that allowed him to perform on stages everywhere without much scenery, lighting effects, complex musical accompaniment or more than two or three supporting characters. Fürjesné lists the pieces in the program without any description of how Karsai performed them: “Opening Song; Pantomime; Street; Humanism; Lifetime Achievement; Trial; Marijuana; History; Ballade; They Are Two; How are you doing?; Door; Love Story; Hyenas; Wild West Pub; The Last Minute. In the second half there were nine songs, the first performed by Gizella Karsai, followed by the pantomime: Mr. Primitive’s Adventures; Education; Diploma; Advertising for Marriage; Bullfighter; Love; Rake; Problems.” His shows were not without occasional controversy. While touring in Dresden in 1981, government officials warned him not to show a scene in which his character breaks through a wall, but he performed the scene anyway, with the audience responding in amazed silence. In another show, he presented his character on a street urinating under a picture of Lenin. By the late 1980s, though, he concentrated on pantomime and pantomime instruction for television. In 1988, he appeared in six episodes of animated film writer Ágnes Bálint’s (1922-2008) TV series Szimat Szörény, a kind of puppet show in which human actors wearing animal masks performed in pantomime while the dialogue and songs were done in voiceover and told how the dog police inspector, Szimat Szörény, solved crimes in a ridiculously modern world of animal-humans (cf., Filmek Kedvenc 2015). After the collapse of the regime, however, Karsai devoted himself almost entirely to teaching. 

Karsai is probably more important as an educator and promoter of pantomime than as a performer. Fürjesné calls him the “shaman of pantomime.” He made pantomime seem like an accessible, happy way to make one’s body say things that people from different backgrounds would find enjoyable or amusing. The body becomes “understandable,” he contended, only though rigourous self-discipline, both ethical and physical. He taught hundreds of students, from children to university students to quite mature adults, for, like many mime instructors in the West, he regarded pantomime as a way of living more than a profession on the stage. As director of the Pantheon Studio of the KISZ Central Artists Ensemble (1978-1988), he was able to organize numerous international pantomime conferences and foreign visits, and he was prominent in the formation (1982) of a pantomime section in the Hungarian Academy of Theater Arts. When in 1977 the Hungarian Institute for Folk Education established a committee to supervise amateur organizations, he (along with Miklós Köllő, Zoltán Kárpáthy, and István Barlanghy) determined the conditions under which performers or ensembles could be licensed as pantomimes. Through his skill at publicity, he assured that Hungarian pantomime culture received enthusiastic appreciation from foreign countries and invitations to perform abroad. The end of the Communist regime diminished his influence, although his wife Gizella achieved a growing popularity as a singer of folk-rock tunes while continuing to teach pantomime, primarily to children. Two of the Karsais’ children, Veronika (b. 1975) and András (b. 1986), have become major figures in the pantomime culture of contemporary Hungary; the brother and sister formed their own company, New Generation Pantomime, in 2000, and then in 2009 a sibling company, Mimage Pantomime Theater. Because of András’s busy schedule performing as a dancer and actor in musicals and operettas, Veronika assumes much of the creative responsibility for work produced by the pantomime companies. However, while Veronika retains aspects of János’s principle that pantomimic gestures should be “understandable” to any audience, she has also explored an increasingly abstract, choreographed idea of speechless performance, which she describes as either pantomime or “movement theater.” But with this shift toward abstraction, she showed an inclination, not strongly developed in her father, toward dramatic rather than comic effects. She has tried to combine comic “understandability” with dramatic abstraction in such works as richard2nixon (2009) and her remarkably inventive 2012 pantomimic adaptation of the early absurdist play The Bald Soprano (1950) by Eugène Ionescu (1909-1994), which used a variety of imaginative musical accompaniments to the choreographed action. Perhaps her most effective synthesis of “understandable” pantomimic gesture and movement theater is her solo piece It Is Also Dance (2008), done in conjunction with an exhibition of ancient Hungarian artifacts in Cyprus. In this piece, she mimes a series of “women figures in heaven and earth” while wearing a black body stocking before nothing more than a green curtain. Karsai uses no props or mask while performing a woman cradling a baby, washing dishes, ironing and folding laundry, staring at herself in a mirror and applying makeup [Figure 100]. The piece, entirely dramatic, becomes more abstract as she embodies mythic women—Eos, creator of winds and stars, a woman in a mask, Daphne, who turned into a laurel tree rather than submit to Apollo, an angel playing a lyre. Her beautiful, though not always “understandable,” movements in constructing the different “earthly” and mythic female figures here achieves a Roman idea of pantomimic metamorphosis that was practically unthinkable during the Cold War in either the East or the West (Karsai 2009-2017). It is astonishing how vibrant the Roman idea, as she incarnates it, remains across so many centuries, and yet she has achieved it through the otherwise unlikely synthesis of her father’s aesthetic of “understandable” gesture and the “aristocratic” aesthetic of bodily abstraction. 

Figure 100: Veronika Karsai performing her pantomime Tanc az is(It Is Also Dance) (2008). Photos: from video excerpts of the performance on the Karsai Veronika YouTube channel.

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakian Pantomime

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

Czechoslovakian Pantomime

A few countries in the Eastern bloc favored the clown paradigm of pantomime. In Czechoslovakia, Cold War pantomime culture emerged around the figure of Ladislav Fialka (1931-1991), who developed clown personas modeled after Marcel Marceau, Pierrot, and a kind of Chaplinesque whiteface figure wearing a bow tie and straw hat. He studied dance at the Prague Conservatory of Dance, and in 1953-1954, he staged pantomimic dances based on Pierrot stories enacted by Jean-Gaspard Deburau. After meeting Marceau in Paris in 1956, he resolved to found in 1958 his own pantomime company with students from the Conservatory. The following year, the company moved into the renovated Theater of the Balustrade, built in 1832, and began producing revue/cabaret pantomime shows in which the action revolved around his clown characters. He seems to have wanted to revive the sort of comic cabaret entertainment that the clown duo of George Voskovec (1905-1981) and Jan Werich (1905-1980) perfected so successfully in Prague in the 1930s. Voscovec and Werich offered leftwing political satire, but they were not pantomimes, and their revue acts consisted mostly of witty banter and jesting songs augmented with dance numbers. Fialka avoided political commentary and instead introduced absurdist elements; he was fond of dramatic works by Samuel Beckett and performed in them on stage and on television. In the 1970s, his shows became more poetic without becoming any less comic, such as the six-scene “collage” Caprichos (1971), inspired by Goya’s satiric-grotesque drawings that caricatured the corruption of the Catholic Church, and Funambules (1977), scenes based around the life of Jean-Gaspard Deburau. But audiences declined and the company entered a period of “greatly decreasing invention.” By the 1980s, the company developed clown acts inspired by the writings of Gogol, the films of Fellini, and the dream imagery of artists like the puppeteer-animator Jiri Trnka (1912-1969) and the symbolist painter Jan Preisler (1872-1918), by which time the company catered primarily to tourist audiences (Gillar 1971; Holeňová 2001: 72-74). Fialka did not confine himself to pantomime performance, but collaborated with puppet and animated filmmakers, acted in films, developed children’s television shows, wrote a book on pantomime, and eventually became a professor of pantomime. In 1964, he choreographed the pantomimic actions in Jan Grossman’s disruptive, clown-oriented production of Alfred Jarry’s maniacal 1896 play King Ubu, which attempted to move pantomime away from the influence of Marceau and toward the ideas of Artaud, although it was still a kind of insane clown show (Plicková 2012; Miholová 2007: 103-107). An energetic promoter of pantomime in schools, in the media, and at mime festivals, he was a beloved figure in Prague and within the European theatrical community, but one feels that he was always waiting for a time when pantomime might become something more serious than he was able to make it, and then his time came to an end. Boris Hybner (1941-2016) worked with Fialka on the King Ubu production and then joined Fialka’s company until he formed his own Alfred Jarry Pantomime Company in 1966. However, Hybner had a less stable personality than Fialka, which made it difficult for him to form serious, successful alternatives to the Theater of the Balustrade, even after Fialka’s death (1991) and the end of that pantomime company in 1993. He did not develop a signature clown persona; rather, he made clown performances out of his impersonations of different, otherwise commonplace characters, such as a pianist in a nightclub orchestra, a sailor demonstrating life jackets, or an academic trying to read a book in a bar. What most inspired him were silent film comedians like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, which led to the formation of the Czech Gagman TV series in 1987 and his Gagman company performance of his show A Garden Named Hollywood (1987), in which he played various characters involved in the production and consumption of Hollywood slapstick comedy films in the early 1920s. Though shot in color, the TV series, which contained no speech, emulated the physical movements of people seen in films made during the period represented on the screen. Many people worked with Fialka and Hybner, but none seemed to make any headway in pantomime on their own. Even after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990, Czech pantomime, when it fitfully appeared, remained steadfast in its devotion to the clown paradigm, as if, in spite of the grotesque example provided by the King Ubu production, any other kind of pantomime had never been imaginable anyway. Yet since the fall of the Communist regime, pantomime has become the subject of fairly abundant Czech scholarly-theoretical discourse (cf., Nagy 2016: 7-15). 

The Slovakian pantomime Milan Sládek (b. 1938) did not develop a strong connection to the Decroux-Marceau style of pantomime. He first studied art at the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava, but as a result of performing amateur theatricals, he studied (1958-1960) acting at the Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts, where his teacher was the modernist theater director and writer Emil František Burian (1904-1959). With Eduard Zlábek (1930-1988), a dancer at the Burian Theater, he formed a pantomime ensemble in 1960. He created a Pierrot-like persona, Kefka, a white-faced clown who wore a variety of bizarre costumes. By 1962, his Kefka ensemble was a unit within the Slovak National Theater, where he began performing pantomimic versions of well-known dramas, Biblical tales, and operas. In 1968, Sládek planned to open a theater that featured pantomime, cabaret, and plays, but the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia put an end to the venture. He escaped to Sweden before migrating in 1970 to Cologne, Germany, where he established the Kefka Pantomime Theater. There he embarked on a successful series of pantomimic adapations of well-know literary works: Das Geschenck (1971), Don Juan (1978), Carmen (1983), König Ubu (1984), and Apocalyptica (1989), among others (Sládek 1985). His productions attracted enthusiastic international audiences from the nearby diplomatic community in Bonn, the Goethe Institute sponsored tours to numerous countries, and The Folkwang School in Essen recruited him to teach pantomime. In 1989, he returned to Slovakia with the idea of residing there permanently: “The reason I returned [to Czechoslovakia] was not only to show that I care for the country I come from, but also because I firmly hoped I could continue doing the art at home that I had developed abroad” (Habšudová 2002: Paragraph 5). He continued with ensemble pantomimes derived from “classic” literary or venerated sources, such as The Marriage of Figaro (1991), The Coronation of Poppea (1993), Grand Pierrot (1994), and The Threepenny Opera (2001). The government appointed him (1994) director of a newly formed Institute for Motion Theater and provided funding for the reconstruction of the Arena Theater, which would provide a home for his pantomime productions. In 2002, however, he decided to return to Germany “for good,” after denouncing the Slovakian Culture Ministry for its failure to support the Arena: because “there was no mime tradition in this country, our work was considered ‘experimental,’ and we were never able to make enough money to support the theatre on our own. After seeing that I wouldn’t get adequate [state financial] support here, I made my decision,” although the Culture Ministry asserted that the subsidies it offered were perhaps too generous in relation to the small audiences that Sládek’s productions attracted (Habšudová 2002). Back in Cologne, he pursued his “classics” approach to pantomime with help from the city and the Goethe Institute: Magic Night (2003) and Pantalon und Colombine (2006). In 2007, he performed three solo pieces on the mosaic floor of the Römisch-Germanischen Museum in Cologne, including Leda and the SwanSamson and Delilah, and Party, in all of which which he metamorphosed into different persons, male and female. Kreuzweg (2007), was another solo pantomime, an eighty-minute church performance, in which he enacted Jesus and the fourteen stations of the cross accompanied by Le Chemin de la croix (1931), an enormous organ work by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971). In 2015, he staged a pantomime,  Antigone, with a small, all-male cast, and at the age of 80, he continued to perform pieces he had created decades earlier. Except for Kreuzweg, Sládek devoted himself to a comic style of pantomime that evoked the artificiality of eighteenth century commedia performance and the physicality of silent film comedians in the years 1913-1918. His Kefka persona was present in all of his pieces. In Marriage of Figaro, his actors interacted with puppets; in Antigone, his actors used grotesque masks, prostheses, and luxuriously colored costumes. In ensemble pieces, he liked bodies to move with dancelike exaggeration of gesture. Scenic context for the action was minimal, if not altogether absent. His pieces conjured up an “old” mode of clown performance that somewhat recalled the Prague cabaret scene of the 1930s, if not the frolicking atmosphere of the eighteen century foires. He never really saw pantomime as a medium for embodying a modern idea of reality. Indeed, pantomime was an escape from political realities that could never achieve accurate or satisfying representation in comic form (Sládek Archive). 

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Pantomime in Soviet Russia

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

Pantomime in Soviet Russia

During the Cold War, mime culture in the West generally distanced itself from the term “pantomime,” which many mime practitioners and schools, including Decroux, regarded as old-fashioned, a word associated with a non-modern form of speechless performance that lacked a sufficiently abstract vision of bodily signification or evoked a reactionary nostalgia for naïve storytelling or failed to reveal actors (rather than characters or scenarios) as the engines of performance. In the East bloc countries, however, the word “pantomime” acquired different connotations and speechless performers self-consciously used the word to describe their work. But pantomime in the East appears to have begun in response to performances of Western mime in Eastern cities, specifically Marcel Marceau’s tour in 1955, although Marceau had already performed in Berlin for a couple of months in 1951. Following “the thaw” in Communist Party control over culture in October 1956, Henryk Tomaszewski established his Pantomime Studio in Wroclaw, Poland and Robert Liger founded the Riga Pantomime Company in Latvia the same year, perhaps the earliest manifestations of pantomime in the Soviet bloc, although Kathleen Cioffi mentions several Polish student groups in Gdansk in the period 1954-1956 that specialized in visual theater without attempting pantomime (2013: 72). Neither Tomaszewski nor Liger regarded Marceau as an aesthetic model, but Marceau’s performances in the East may have signaled that the culture ministers of the Communist Party might allow public performance of pantomime. Previous to 1956, the Party regarded pantomime as an old category of dance put under the exclusive control and regulation of state ballet companies. Further pantomime activities appeared in the German Democratic Republic (1957), Czechoslovakia (1958), Hungary (1958), Estonia (1963), Lithuania (1967), and Bulgaria (1973). Apparently pantomime did not appear in Romania until 1990, after the fall of the Communist regime, when the stage and film actor Mihai Mălaimare (b. 1950), a student of Jacques Lecoq, founded the Masca Theater in Bucharest. Much information about pantomime in the Soviet era remains buried in national and personal archives, awaiting discovery and wider dissemination. Yet the history of pantomime requires acknowledgement, even if merely tentative and suffused with uncertainties, of the unique contributions of the Soviet era to that history. 

The attitude toward pantomime by Party leaders in Moscow cast a deep shadow across the Eastern bloc. In the Soviet Union itself, even after 1956, pantomime was a suspicious genre of performance, managed by ballet academies or, after 1960, handled as a category of clown performance by the State School of Circus Art. Soviet films often included skillful pantomimic moments in a realistic vein, but such moments had their pedagogic framework in performance labs dedicated to cinematic acting. Russians often use the word “pantomime” to refer, not to voiceless theatrical performances, but to “plastic expression,” to the study of how actors use their bodies for dramatic effect, a meaning similar to the term “movement for the stage” in the West. Alexander Rumnev (1899-1965), who had worked with Tairov at the Moscow Chamber Theater in the 1920s, done choreography for musicals in the 1930s, and acted in films, supervised a pantomime laboratory and course at the State Institute of Cinematography from 1944 to 1965 (cf. Ruggiero 1996; Ruggiero 1999). In 1962, with film actors, he formed an Experimental Theater-Studio of Pantomime, called EXTEMIM, which produced a half dozen works mostly inspired by old literary sources. When the theater began to find audiences in Moscow and elsewhere, the government shut it down, though perhaps not because the group’s pantomime performances violated ideological doctrines. Rumnev also published a couple of books on pantomime in 1962, 1964 and 1966, in which, among many other things, he asserted that pantomime was not a bourgeois art, but an art expressive of working class struggles and aspirations. His focus was largely on cinematic pantomime, but he acknowledged the great influence of Delsarte, Charles Dullin, the Dalcrozian advocate Sergei Volkonsky (1860-1937), and Stanislavsky, who emphasized the importance of the silence between words (Rumnev 1962: 5-7). In pantomime, however, unlike in dance, “the best gesture is that which is perhaps unnoticed” (8). While he devised exercises to help students learn to “to divide energy, weight, speed and range of movements,” it is clear that Rumnev saw pantomimic performance emerging most successfully out of the performer’s relation to accompanying music. He also believed that pantomime was most powerful when it had a literary source: pedestrian and mundane actions must achieve a quality that is both poetic and realistic, as demonstrated in the writings of authors like Puskin and Gogol (8-13). With the allegorical pantomime Africa, staged by EXTEMIM in 1962, Rumnev intended a socialist example of his art. The piece showed how black people in Africa (performed by white men and women wearing black body stockings and white belts) danced happily until the arrival of the white colonizer (a single male in a white uniform and white pith helmet), whom the blacks greet affably. But the white colonizer soon draws a gun on them and forces them into slavery and exhaustion. The blacks gather in secret, they conspire, they drive away the white colonizer, and they signify their freedom (Rumnev 1964: 234; cf. Kayiatos 2012: 72-74). With complacent disregard for historical reality, Rumnev also claimed that pantomime had its origin “in the people among the crowd on the street” and that “from the people’s theater came the pantomime plays of the Italian comedians” (Rumnev 1964: 13; Kayiatos 2012: 63). Party leaders seemed to believe that pantomime, as a separate performance genre, was an inadequate instrument for transmitting or articulating class-consciousness, Marxist-Leninist ideology, or Party political goals. Yet the idea that pantomime represented a “dissident,” subversive, or resistant cultural activity should not be assumed. Because pantomime producers avoided the censorship imposed on dramatic texts does not mean that they sought to imbue their productions with a dissident attitude or that they, like some dramatic theater productions, sought to encode their performances with an ambiguous signification constituting a veiled critique of the regime that somehow escaped the scrutiny of the regime’s guardians. People who wanted to do pantomime in the East probably had motives for doing it similar to those of pantomime people in the West. But people in the East worked in societies that were pervasively suspicious of any cultural activity that was not explicitly in accord with the Party’s prescriptions for affirming and promoting its political goals. For this reason, people who ventured into pantomime in the East assumed risks that people in the West were much less likely to face. In the Soviet Union itself, pantomime outside of its use in traditional ballet, functioned primarily in clown circus performances featuring sometimes amazing juggling acts, acrobatic stunts, and slapstick gags. However, the Armenian-Russian clown, Leonid Yengibarov (1935-1972), a 1959 graduate of the State School for Circus Art, after much difficulty in relation to initially unreceptive audiences, developed a pantomimic component to his stunt-packed clown act, which involved projecting a kind of Chaplinesque poetic persona. By the mid-1960s, this poetic clown persona had become immensely popular throughout the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc because Yengibarov introduced elements of pathos and resisted the assumption that clowns must always be funny. In his clown costume, which included a striped T-shirt and slim dark trousers but often no whiteface, he explored a sort of expressionist gymnastics wherein he dramatized the melancholy, solitary process of testing his body to achieve unusual balance or pliancy. He became “the clown with autumn in his heart.” In 1971, he left circus performance to form a pantomime theater with his friend and teacher Yuri Belov, whom the government forbade to join any foreign tours. The pantomime theater would present solo autobiographical pantomimes related to the theme “the Quirks of a Clown.” These pantomimes were both “happy and sad,” capable of revealing the pain inflicted on the body and spirit of the clown as a result of endless practicing and an incredible, exhausting touring schedule, which only exacerbated his problems with alcohol. But the Culture Ministry refused to permit Yengibarov to use the term “theater” to describe his “troupe.” Nevertheless, he toured relentlessly while also appearing in films and publishing numerous stories before dying of a heart attack at the age of 37. The pantomime troupe made only one production of solo pantomimes, Starry Rain, and after Yengibarov’s death, pantomime in Russia remained almost implacably embedded in circus clown performance, which, however, cast its influence over the development of pantomime in some satellite countries of the Eastern bloc (Yengibarov Archive; cf. Beumers 2005: 186-192 on Russian circus choreography). Rumnev asserted that the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957 produced the first international pantomime competition, which led to the “renaissance of pantomime as a self-sufficient art” in the Soviet Union; pantomime groups from China and North Korea, he observed, contributed significantly to awareness of pantomime as an art (1964: 13). But he didn’t explain the relation of the “renaissance” to subsequent international pantomime competitions, assuming the existence of a “first” one. Anatasia Kayiatos further proposes that Culture Minister Ekaterina Furtseva (1910-1974) “was so smitten with Marcel Marceau” that she encouraged the development of a Soviet idea of pantomime. Kayiatos provides a “brief” listing of eight “post-Stalin pantomime troupes in Moscow and Leningrad” (2012: 36). But aside from the pantomimes produced by Rumnev’s EKTEMIM studio, the evidence is lacking to show that these groups functioned as anything more than academic studios for the supposedly “scientific” study of bodily expression for actors or worked outside of the clown paradigm of pantomime performance. Cultural policy favored the cultivation of the clown paradigm, the wily, resilient Chaplinesque comic persona, as the symbol of “the people,” as the representative of the “voiceless” genius of determined, industrious, good-humored workers, although this situation was not much different in its effects than in the West, where mime, rather than pantomime, had become almost entirely identified with comic/clown performance by the 1970s, especially in the United States.     

 Perhaps the most adventurous pantomime performance in the Soviet Union came from the poet, theater director, and teacher of acting and pantomime at the State Film Institute, Evgenii Kharitonov (1941-1981), who was indeed a dissident, especially in his defense of homosexuality. He also worked part time at Moscow State University studying speech defects. He was a student of Rumnev, whose own career faltered due to suspicions of homosexuality after the enactment of the 1933 anti-sodomy law (Misler 1999: 99; Kayiatos 2012: 178, 181-182). Rumnev was a dancer of great elegance and “aristocratic” physiognomy in the 1920s, alluringly photographed, and in those years he glorified nude male dancing. For him, “Pantomime was really about the beauty of the male and not the female body” (Kayiatos 2012: 178; cf., Misler 2017: 197, 201, 214, 221-223). According to Kayiatos, Rumnev introduced “a new conception of plastic beauty with his pantomimic dance, which Kharitonov took up, altered, and expanded in his own right,” for “Kharitonov venerated Rumnev as something of a living relic” from a more “ecstatic” time in Russian history (180-181). In 1972, Kharitonov completed a dissertation for the State Cinematography School On Pantomime in the Instruction of the Film Actor. In this work, he avoided treating pantomime as the cultural-anthropological phenomenon described by other Soviet commentators on the subject, including Rumnev; instead, he adopted a semiotic approach inspired by the scholarship of the famous Estonian-Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman (1922-1993). Kharitonov argued that pantomime follows a principle of “dynamic opposition,” whereby the body achieves expressive power through a “natural” or “non-normative” tension between one body part and another. Pantomime creates signs or bodily tensions that have meaning only in relation to other signs that are unique to the specific context and occasion of performance; each pantomime “composition” creates its own distinct emotional values that produce a distinctive set of corporeal dynamic oppositions. “The ‘canon of dynamic opposition’ introduced by Kharitonov does not have a prescriptive character, but is created by the investigator every time for his own purposes.” Pantomimic action is therefore never normative even in relation to the performance of different pantomimes. Ballet is “unnatural,” because it always results from imposing on the body an external semiotic system, which in effect produces a normative mode of signification, for the norm is the goal of the system. Similarly, the movement of the body in daily life, which cinematic pantomime attempts to simulate, especially under the concept of “socialist realism,” is unnatural yet normative, because it is the result of a social system for controlling and constraining dynamic tensions within the body, so that bodies within an entire society act according to a norm that prevents them from signifying “natural” and potentially “alienating” emotions (Larionov 2017: 187-189; cf., Kayiatos 2012: 142-151). On one level, the dissertation explained the logic by which the Party discouraged any serious idea of pantomime. But then Kharitonov applied the theory in a manner that undermined the goals of the Party in following the logic. 

Kharitonov was a director at the Moscow Theater of Mimicry and Gesture, founded in 1962 by the Russian Society of the Deaf, which managed the company. Mostly the company staged classical plays in which deaf actors communicated the texts in a sign language and mouthed the words, as they had learned from lip-reading instruction, while voices off stage spoke the dialogue in the texts, with the result that the performances were not pantomimes but more closely resembled ventriloquist acts or puppet shows. Both deaf and hearing audiences had difficulty understanding the action, and by the early 1970s the company received criticism for the staleness of its productions (Kayiatos 2010: 13-14). The Society decided to experiment with pantomime as a form of performance that might more fully engage audiences and the talents of deaf actors. Kharitonov’s academic background in pantomime and in speech defects made him an appropriate choice to produce a pantomime. With this opportunity, he was able to apply his theory of pantomime to the production of a pantomime, The Enchanted Island, which received 66 performances between 1972 and 1980. The scenario consisted of three acts, “in which a jealous Prosperian sorcerer magically shape-shifts a pair of shipwrecked lovers into all manners of being; all the while the lovers remain resolute in their insatiable search for one another’s touch. Some of the fantastic aspects assumed by the actors include a touching trio of palm trees; an invisible man and a married couple; a military commander, his cross-dressed maid, and a lovelorn cavalryman, a cave-dwelling Cyclops, his companion monkey, and their marooned human captive” (Kayiatos 2012: 105). Kharitonov never published his scenario, so knowledge of the production comes largely from interviews with some of the performers conducted by Anastasia Kayiatos in 2009. The piece was neither tragic nor comic, but instead created an atmosphere of “enchantment,” in which pantomime unfolds in a theatrical environment where human bodies are free to metamorphose, to discover the limits of their abilities to change their identities or assume new identities. “Supernatural beings become human; humans try on contradictory identities, crossing lines of gender, age, social class, and so on. In and out of turn, they morph into inanimate objects, plants, then animals and back again” (113). As Kharitonov explained, the guiding motive was the sorcerer’s “curiosity to see beings created differently than he” (113). Many transformations of identities take place, such as a trio of palm trees turns into human dancers, while a woman desired by an invisible man turns into an airplane and flies off. The invisible man, seeking to escape the blows inflicted on him by a street crowd that does not see him, enters the apartment of a married couple, where he tries to emulate them by looking into a mirror. But he doesn’t see anything until he paints himself, and what he sees fills him with “great happiness” (114). Despite their various transformations, the shipwrecked heterosexual lovers do not end up with each other. Especially interesting was the display of the performer’s bodies. Some performers, male and female, wore netted body stockings that made them seem vaguely reptilian while simultaneously revealing much of their human nakedness. Other male performers were nearly nude, except for very small briefs. In the guest commentary book provided by the theater, some spectators complained about the nudity and others said they did not understand what they had seen. Yet every year for ten years, the company performed the piece several times, and the public apparently regarded the work as representative of an advanced, experimental path of theatrical art. Unfortunately, Kayiatos does not describe well how the principle of dynamic opposition works in the piece. Presumably the principle entailed bodily tensions, for example, in the simultaneous impersonation of a palm tree and a dancer or a human and a flying airplane. But how the body achieved these “oppositions” remains unclear. Kayiatos stresses at length the importance of the production as a dissident example of marginalized queer performance in a highly repressive society (2012: 152-172). But equally important was the idea of the “enchanted island” as a place where non-normative configurations of signs occur, where the signification of a palm tree is relative to the signification of a dancer or airplane or the invisibility of a body that anyone in the audience can see, even if the audience, conditioned to expect normative bodily significations to give “meaning” to performance, does not understand that the body signifies these identities. Kharitonov’s insight was that only non-normative pantomimic configurations of bodily gestures allow the body to signify its metamorphosis from one identity to another. Embedded within this concept of metamorphosis is the implication that sexual identity and sexual orientation are fluid, which is one of the uniquely liberating “enchantments” of pantomime. This linking of non-normative bodily signification to metamorphosis is very close to the ancient Roman imperial idea of pantomime as a sign system unique and relative to the performer’s repertoire of scenes rather than to a semiotic system “shared” by all who claimed the status of pantomime. In imperial Roman society, the government never regarded the representation of metamorphosis through a non-normative set of pantomimic significations as fundamentally dangerous to social order, and indeed, one might even argue, though probably not persuasively, that the imperial government used the non-normative significations of pantomime as a normative mode of theater to suppress normative significations of public speech that would threaten social order. In the totalitarian society of the Soviet Union, the non-normative significations of pantomime as Kharitonov applied them could exist only in relation to the very small, non-normative (“defective”) social sector of deaf people; otherwise, such “dynamic oppositions” fail as an “art of the people,” because their ambiguity threatens the stable, normative categories of identity that define “the people.” Kharitonov contemplated other pantomime productions, but these never materialized, presumably because, like nearly all of his literary writing, they linked pantomime with homosexual or non-normative sexual desires. He became a target of KGB surveillance, harassment, and interrogation, which then filled his life with suffocating terror. He died of a heart attack on the street while carrying some of his manuscripts, which he could not even publish in the underground samizdat press, due to the hostility toward homosexuality (further complicated by Kharitonov’s virulent anti-Semitism) within the dissident subculture. Even after his death, the KGB hunted down as many of his manuscripts as it could locate and confiscated them. The state made clear: Kharitonov exemplified the conditions under which pantomime became a dangerous, self-destructive activity. 

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The Postwar Mime Culture: From Mime to Movement Theater

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

From Mime to Movement Theater

Even though some American teachers who were students of Decroux, such as Jewel Walker (b. 1929) and Daniel Stein (b. 1952), have retained the term “mime” to describe their work, the perceived damage done to or by the word “mime” as a result of its appropriation by street performers or clown acts urged some artists elsewhere seeking a more serious approach to speechless performance to develop the concept of “movement theater.” But this concept should remain separate from other terms, like “movement for the stage,” “movement for actors,” “movement training,” and “physical theater,” improvisational, exercise-intense pedagogical regimes that have proliferated in theater education since the 1980s and may include acrobatics, fencing and stage combat, somatic training, dance, gymnastics, or commedia buffoonery, and often entail the total exclusion of anything resembling pantomime (cf. Potter 2011). Movement theater originated in The Netherlands with the founding in 1965 of the performance group Bewegingstheater (Movement theater) or BEWTH by Frits Vogels (b. 1933), a student of Decroux. But this group emerged out of tensions within the Dutch Decroux cult. In 1952, Jan Bronk (1928-1985), a student of Marceau, established the Dutch Pantomime Institute, which performed mime scenes similar to those of Marceau. Vogels, Rob van Reijn (1929-2015), a nightclub performer who modeled himself after the Dutch clown Johan Buziau (1877-1958), and Will Spoor (1927-2012), a student of Decroux for six years, joined the Institute in 1954. The Dutch Decroux disciples embraced more ardently than other disciples Decroux’s concept of the “Zero” or “neutral” state, a theoretical “nakedness,” in which the body no longer signified an individual or personality but became a symbol of humanity, as Decroux explained: “When I see the body rise up, I feel as if it’s humanity that’s rising up” (Langen 2017: 47-48). The Zero concept emphasized the torso as the dominant source of semantic value in the body while demoting the value of the hands, arms, and face, which too easily promise, conceal, and lie (53). This distinction supposedly separated mime from pantomime and enhanced the value of stillness, wherein it was possible to make visible the “movement of thought” or “mime thinking” (mime denken). In 1956, the Dutch Pantomime Institute produced a piece designed by Jan Bronk, Rood zien, in which performers used their bodies, without using their hands much, to create a larger abstract image. Baart (1982: 18) claims that this event marked the abandonment of pantomime by the Pantomime Institute and the inauguration of a Dutch mime aesthetic opposed to pantomime. Rob van Reijn soon left the Institute to pursue numerous opportunities in the entertainment industry (revue, film) primarily as a pantomime clown, and in 1967 formed the Pantomime Theater Carrousel, in which he developed the recurring comic character Mannetje Maccus. “I do not care for abstract mime,” he declared (Jeanne-Marie Jobse, “Een bijzonder mens moet het zijn geweest,” De Verdieping Trouw, 12 March 2001, Paragraph 11). Eventually he published a monumental novel, Voetlicht en vetpotten (2000), about the early Amsterdam pantomime Jan van Well (1773-1818), who devised and performed commedia ballet pantomime scenarios (as Pierrot or as Arlequin) for the Schouwburg Theater (cf., De Toneelkijker 1818: 88, 165, 213, 334). Meanwhile, Will Spoor, who came from a musical-theatrical family and was himself a violist, moved away from Decroux’s idea of the body as a symbol and toward the body as an instrument that makes “music for the eyes,” which, however, meant developing an absurdist image of the body. His attachment to absurdism derived not only from his appreciation for the work of French absurdist playwright Jean Tardieu (1903-1995), but from his own rather messy career. In the 1950s, he worked in Parisian cabaret with the French marionette producer Yves Joly (1908-2013) before performing comic cabaret pantomime duets with Bronk; he had a part in a 1961 cabaret act by the famous Toon Hermans (1916-2000). He tried to establish his own company and school in 1962-1963, but these failed, and he moved on to playing for a season the bumbling crook Snuitje in the clown duo of Snuf and Snuitje on the popular Dutch children’s TV show Pipo the Clown (1963). He found small parts as an actor or dancer in mainstream drama productions, then ventured into street theater for a while, before starting a new, four-person company in 1967. In Italy, he and his performance partner got arrested (1968) for performing a mime using artificial penises. The group moved to London to work in the avant-garde Arts Lab newly established by the American counter-culture impresario Jim Haynes (b. 1933). There he experimented with multimedia and with minute bodily movements and connecting movements of animals, plants, and insects to the human body, and these performances, The Art of the Fugue, became the subject of the film Moving Statics (1969), by the Australian experimental filmmakers Arthur (b. 1938) and Corrine (b. 1928) Cantrill. Unlike Deroux, he was not comfortable with solitary mime and continually sought to create ensemble mimes. In 1971, Spoor formed the Waste of Time mime group, which removed him from the ensemble in 1974, presumably because of his acute abstractionism: “I hate the actors theatre,” he said, “I try to make a science out of mime, instead of an expression of my most inner feelings. For nobody has anything to do with what I think” (Langen 2017: 84). He formed new companies, Stichting Inccoprodinc (1977-1992) and Onktheater Overal (1981-1984), while appearing occasionally in experimental, speechless films like Harpya (1975). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared in or supervised numerous productions through these companies; his daughter Pepijn sometimes performed with him in mimes, but also for a while (1987-1989) operated her own highly abstract street theater, Witte Wiven, as seen in Maartje Seyferth’s (b.1945) experimental film Movimenti cantabile (1989), deposited in the Amsterdam Eye film archive, “in which a young homeless woman, a saxophonist, and a businesswoman stage a silent choreography amid a labyrinth of illuminated tiles” (Eye web page). Yet all this mime activity remains bereft of documentation or commentary that describes what it was. Marijn de Langen’s treatise on the Dutch “mime thinking” cult, which provides the most extensive commentary on Spoor, focuses entirely on his work in the 1960s (Langen 2017: 67-86). 

            Yet Spoor’s influence was probably greater than seems evident from the feeble historical record. Mime groups proliferated in The Netherlands (Mimetheater Kruimels, Mimegroep Oceaan, Mimetheater Mekaniek, Nieuw West, Suver Nuver, De Daders, Bewegingsgroep Bart Stuyf, Toneelgroep Carver, to mention a few), and these showed a similar disinterest in documentation. Some of these groups did not work exclusively in mime, but they did treat the body as an abstract form that did not require a story or a character to invest the body with meaning. In The Netherlands, mime nearly became synonymous with a hyper-modern use of the body to construct an abstraction of life rather than a representation of it, in contrast to postmodern dance, which concentrated on movement, rather than on the body, as an abstraction of life, for dance saw movement as something detachable from the body that performed it. The Dutch mime culture saw the mimed abstraction of life as a phenomenon that happened only in the moment of its performance and had no “life” outside of its performance: documentation was irrelevant, a contamination, and in this respect, mime continued to follow Decroux (86). This attitude toward mime created a great deal of mime activity, especially in schools, without building a large audience for mime. Spoor’s mimes showed the body “thinking” through movement. He liked to take a single movement, such as the pendulum motion in Pink Metronome (1968) for three persons, and show variations and reversals in speed, rhythm, rigidity, bodily position, and spatial relations. The act of initiating a movement from a “neutral” position of stillness preoccupied him and was a basis for the four-part Art of the Fugue (1968). The point of mime was to show the strangeness of any human movement, a point he amplified by miming minute insect movements in Bug Counterpoint (1968) (78). Unlike Decroux, he liked to explore the relation of the body to objects, as in Cardboard Column Canon (1968), in which three performers inside three large cardboard roles open hatches, release different objects, such as a banana peel, smoke, bubbles, and wrenches, and then gradually “break free of their packaging.” With this aesthetic, mime revealed the “universal” absurdity of humanity—humorous, perhaps, but never mistaken for a clown act (85). Spoor’s ideas about “mime thinking” produced widespread awareness of the body as an “instrument,” but as usual with those under the spell of Decroux, the ideas, the theoretical framework of mime, far exceeded in influence the evidence of performance itself. 

            The Dutch concept of “movement theater” (Bewegingstheater BEWTH) emerged as a response to the absurdist appropriation of mime as Spoor theorized it. Spoor was indifferent to the context of mime performance, which could happen anywhere—the studio, a theater, the street—without disturbing the “zero” foundation of universal “mimed thinking.” Like Spoor, Frits Vogels embraced Decroux’s concept of the body as a “zero” state of being, but unlike Decroux, he never thought of the body as a symbol of something other than itself: the zero state was a body free of all personality and any motive for acting, for making a movement (Langen 2017: 120, 126-127). Every movement or action is the process of the body returning to a zero condition of stillness (“stilstand”), a notion similar to the Roman pantomime idea of moving from one pose to another. This attitude toward bodily movement allows mime to draw insight from bodily representations in painting or sculpture. It was not a matter of mime copying visual images; rather, visual images clarified relations between movement/stillness and context: movement is a response to a particular context, a particular space, a particular physical environment, which of course may include other bodies. Whereas Spoor saw mimed movement as a thought issued internally from the body to make a corporeal “music,” Vogels saw movement as a thought stimulated externally by a particular location: mime was a physical response to a unique physical space and clarified the body’s relation to the space. With the sculptor and muralist Arnold Hamelberg (1931-2010), Vogels formed the Bewegingstheater BEWTH in 1965 in Amsterdam as a mime school, with, among others, Spoor and Luc Boyer (b. 1935), another student of Decroux, as teachers, but Vogels (like Spoor) became less interested in perfecting movement or in discovering the ideality of a movement than in revealing movements imaginable only in relation to a particular moment in a specific space. Unlike many mime teachers, including Decroux, Vogels (and Spoor) did not place great emphasis on exercises and the application of a rigorous technique; Vogels followed a more “open” and intellectual process of incorporating influences from the other arts (134-135). Indeed, the term “movement theater” arose because Vogels was not altogether sure he was doing mime as conventionally understood, and while he never repudiated the term, he needed another term to differentiate his idea of mime from an overdetermined public and pedagogic image of mime. He and his students began (1965) experimenting with “bizarre” movement in the school’s tiny Micro Theater (seating for thirty) and in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, where bodies formed aesthetic relations to abstract sculptures. In 1968, BEWTH captured widespread attention for its production of Bossche Bollen in an Amsterdam church that was now a youth nightclub, the Paradiso. The piece mimed actions depicted in the monumental painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1495-1505), by the late medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). As seen in the 1968 film made of the performance by Marcus van Hoorn (b. 1947), the piece involved eleven performers, seven men and four women, dressed in white knit body stockings, surrounded by the audience on a bare stage (dance floor); low-hung cross-lighting allowed the performers to cast long shadows. All the performers interact with each other and no one leaves the performance space, but different combinations of performers interact in different parts of the space simultaneously, making it difficult for the camera, which functions as if it is in the performance, to see all the action occurring at the same moment. The performers continually form new configurations: duos, trios, quartets, and occasionally even larger groups; they dart and dash impulsively across the stage to form new bonds that last briefly before abruptly breaking up to form new relations. They crawl and slither toward each other; they pounce on each other. They jab, prod, kiss, fondle, carry, and wrestle each other. They form rings; they prance around; they build rolling sculptures out of their bodies; they pile up on each other; they simulate sexual acts, including male and female homosexual intimacies. One man seems to sprout an erect fur penis that goes through his male partner and comes out of his partner’s anus. Some members of the group briefly break away to do things alone, such as assume the pose of a crucified man or walk as if on a tightrope. A female performer seizes a man in a suit from the audience, pulls him to the ground, and aggressively overwhelms him with her sexual embace until she suddenly leaps off him to rejoin a group. The performers handle objects: a woman kneels holding a domed, wire cage over her body; a group lifts a platform on which lies a woman; men battle for control of a stick; three women play with a large toy fish. Especially notable is a moment in which ensemble members roll dozens of balls to each other and roll the balls over each other. Later, dozens of small balls fall from the ceiling, and yet the performers continue to perform their physical interactions as if a stage littered with many tiny balls made no difference. In the latter portion of the piece, the performers move from exuberance to a more sinister mood, presumably the “Hell” panel of Bosch’s triptych: some restrain, twist, toss, or stretch the bodies of others; some hobble about as if crippled; some convulse as if in pain; they all lie on the floor, holding hands, as balls bounce over them. The piece ends with a man leading another man. They kiss. Suddenly the leading man grabs his partner and shoves his head into a bucket of water. The man with his head in the bucket rolls over and lies still, as if dead; the other man stands over him, as if frozen in triumph: “Stilstand.” The music in the film accompanying these actions is eclectic: guitar, somber organ tones, avant-garde electronic sounds, rock and roll, folk tunes. But the final death scene is silent. Obviously a huge number of actions occur in about twenty-five minutes to create the mimed image of a community in which all members appear to have uninhibited access to each other’s bodies, and this access is simultaneously exhilarating and dangerous and more than one can see in the finite space. The performance fractures the spectator’s ability to “contain” space or bodies through vision, much like Bosch’s effort to create a fantastic scene of bodies that the viewer is unable to absorb all at once. None of the action is choreographed. Instead, performers follow a different logic: “I am doing A with f, but now it is time to do B with h, which includes e, who may do C, which may be unkown to me, until E.” The performance arises out of a collective trust in the bodies of the community, unlike, for example, dance, which arises from a collective trust in the steps, the choreography, the system of regulating bodies. An improvisational quality pervades the performance, as bodies move from one action to another, one “access” to another, impulsively, without being “told” to do so by any one member or a text or some invisible guiding force like a director or choreographer. The space creates the communal logic and infuses the performers’ bodies with the idea of access to other bodies as the governing motive for action. 

            With Bossche Bollen, BEWTH embarked on a lengthy period of developing performances—126 productions altogether—in manifold large spaces originally designed for other purposes: numerous churches, metal and machinery factories, a water pumping station, a shipbuilding works, museums, city halls, medieval castles, a horse riding school, abandoned warehouses, city plazas, government buildings, university lobbies, the roof of the Rijksmuseum. The company did not bring performances to the spaces; it built performances out of the unique properties of the spaces. Performances became increasingly complex with the incorporation of elaborate lighting designs, avant-garde music soundtracks, architecturally interesting props, and stylized costumes. The placement of audiences was often the most challenging question. Over the years, many people worked with the company, which changed “leaders” fairly often; Vogels never sought to maintain control over the company or any production, and for many years persons involved with the productions remained anonymous, never identifying their functions (Leidse Courant 11 May 1976: 5). As Vogels explained: “The theatre doesn’t want us? They aren’t interested in a new kind of mime, not even if we call it ‘movement theatre’? Our answer: The theatre has to escape from the theatre. No money for scenery? Then look for some place – monumental, if possible – and perform a piece in it, or about it” (Bakker 2004: 8). Audiences for any performance were never large, because of limits imposed by the architecture of even the largest spaces and because the audience was also mobile in relation to the performance. The Dutch government and various municipalities subsidized most of the costs of production, enabling the company to provide performances without charging admission. The Dutch government ceased its subsidies in 2005, which brought the end of the company. Unlike other groups in the Dutch mime culture, BEWTH was relatively diligent about compiling documentation of its production, partly because their performances made alluring photographic images [Figure 98] (cf., Schade 2005). Vogels started another mime company, Griftheater (1975-2003), which worked in more conventionally theatrical spaces, but constructed performances out of architecturally unusual sets and props. Often the company developed pieces in a manner similar to the Bosch production by miming bodily relations depicted in artworks by such modernists as Man Ray (1890-1976) and Max Ernst (1891-1976), which allowed bodies to interact within surrealistic spaces, although in the gloomy Op de rand van een vrouw (1993), with “mimography” by Vogels, one sees bodily “access” tropes and interactive patterns similar to those in Bossche Bollen, indicating the presence of a style of performance imposed over the ostensibly collective creation of the piece. In the latter part of its life, Griftheater began exploring the possibilities of “landscape theater,” whereby the group built performances in response to specific geographic or “architectural” features provided by nature. 

Image of BEWTH performance at Pieterskerk, Leiden (1976), from Schade (2005: 89)

Although its work was not well known outside The Netherlands, BEWTH nevertheless exerted great influence in mutating perception of “mime.” For one thing, BEWTH showed implications and consequences of Decroux’s pedagogy that actually carried mime performance far from the doctrines of the master. Even more significantly, BEWTH showed how mime performance undermined borders between theater and other arts and allowed mime/theater to appropriate manifold spaces. “Movement theater” became a highly interdisciplinary activity that fostered an ambiguous intersection of theater with other arts to produce hybrid modes of aesthetic corporeal messaging requiring new terms, like “movement theater.” 

Figure 98: Images of BEWTH performances. Pieterskerk, Leiden (1976), Raadhuis, Hilversum (1996), Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (1989), Pieterskirk, Leiden (1976), Ministerie van Social Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, The Hague (1994). Photos: Schade (2005: 89, 90, 151, 201). 

BEWTH emerged in a time of profound dissatisfaction with conventional, institutionalized organizations of performance and was concurrent with other experiments elsewhere in bodily performance, such as Fluxus events, Viennese Actionism, performance art, installations, happenings, and the “kinetic theater” of the visual artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019). But the company was unique in seeing mime as the foundation for a major reorganization of institutional resources for the performing arts in a national society (cf., Haan 2003). BEWTH established “location theater” as an activity worthy of taxpayer subsidy. Many new theater groups arose as “alternatives” to the established, pre-1968 theater, and the established theater soon became far more “physical” in the performance of texts. Theater came to mean a radical reimagining of how to use bodies in performance. Perhaps the most extravagant and popular of the speechless “location theater” groups was Dogtroep (1975-2008), founded in Amsterdam by Warner van Wely and Paul de Leeuw, along with other artists and musicians with no training in mime. Dogtroep began as a kind of carnivalesque street theater to “infiltrate” the public sphere and showcase bodily performance skills, stunts, and processions that required more space and freedom than conventional theater could provide. But in the early 1980s, the company focused on location theater, and its productions, involving a large staff, became enormous spectacles performed in vast, open air spaces, often empty fields that allowed the group to integrate the operation of heavy machinery and huge props into the performance; Noordwesterwal (1994) made spectacular use of a monumental canal and dyke complex. In a large Amsterdam studio, the group devised productions collectively, which included the ideas of the technicians and craftsmen who contrived the multitude of machines, video projections, bizarre costumes, and architectural structures that defined the Dogtroep aesthetic. The company was very imaginative in designing unusual towers, scaffolds, robotic platforms, giant wheels, pyrotechnic effects, costumes containing all kinds of surprising contraptions within them, collapsible sets, water tanks, mysterious lighting effects, eccentric projectiles, and strange vehicles, including the use of cranes to move objects and performers across the performance space. The obsession with props and contraptions spawned an athletic performance aesthetic built around a rapid succession of comic or grotesque stunts. The company attracted immense audiences, not only in The Netherlands, but in many European cities. The performers had to display considerable physical agility in dealing with the elaborate, even dangerous machinery of production, yet they remained subordinate to the idea of the body as simply a component of a larger, “absurd” mechanical apparatus. Dogtroep presented a hallucinatory, Boschian circus, the “infiltration” into contemporary society of a medieval image of humanity somehow transplanted and entangled in the machinery of modernity. In the 1990s, the company, while maintaining an enthusiasm for location theater, began to adjust its flamboyant productions to more conventional theatrical spaces, but in the twenty-first century this type of theater became difficult to sustain. It cost too much to maintain such an industrial-sized workshop, while suitable or available “locations” became scarce. Without the body as the fundamental sign of modernity, which Decroux struggled to articulate, theater was bound to run out of spaces big enough to accommodate Boschian visions of bodies as “instruments” of a communal belief in the inescapable (though carnivalesque) doom constituting, one might say, the cosmic “machinery of life” (cf. Boer 2008; Findlay 2016).

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The Postwar Mime Culture: The Spread of the Mime Culture

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

The Spread of the Mime Culture

A major alternative to Decroux’s heritage of mime education came from the Parisian-born Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999), who never was a mime and never studied mime. His background was in physical education, and his thinking about physical movement derived in large part from his extensive study of gymnastics and training for various sports, especially swimming. The poetic qualities of athletic movement encouraged him toward theater, as did the actor Jean Dasté (1904-1994), Copeau’s son-in-law, who arranged for him to act briefly (1945-1946) with a company in Grenoble. Dasté introduced Lecoq to the mysteries of masks in performance, an experience that shaped his philosophy of movement education and compelled him, in 1948, to spend the next eight years in Italy working with the mask maker Amleto Sartori (1915-1962). With Sartori, Lecoq discovered much about the original commedia tradition that French theatrical practice had obscured. In Milan, he established in 1952 a school attached to the Piccolo Teatro established by the director Giorgio Strehler (1921-1997) and the impresario Paolo Grassi (1919-1981). He directed or choreographed numerous productions in various Italian cities until he returned to Paris in 1956, when he established his École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, which subsequently became famous for teaching so many people who became major actors and directors in theater and film (cf. Leabhart 1989: 88-101; Wright 2013: 72). But it was not a mime school; it was a school of movement education for students who wanted to be actors in the theater, not mimes. Mime was for Lecoq simply a pedagogical device to make actors more conscious of their bodies and consequently more expressive. Unlike Decroux, Lecoq was open to exploring relations between physical action and the other arts, including architecture. His pedagogic method relied heavily on improvised exercises or games in which students, individually and in groups, created through movement a scene given by the teacher. As is evident from videos documenting his classes, Lecoq displayed powerful imagination in coming up with practical situations that allowed students to respond with consistently effective theatrical solutions. The use of masks was an important part of the two-year course of study, although only 30% (thirty students) received admission to the second year. Students began with the “neutral mask” to free themselves from all identities that imposed constraints on their ability to move in relation to the given situation rather than in relation to a “natural” inclination. Students then moved on to masks derived from the commedia tradition, which had the effect of exaggerating movement for comic effect. Lecoq urged students to clown, to delight in the freedom of the clown, to accept clowning as fundamental to discovering the poetry of theatrical movement. But a significant consequence of this veneration of the clown, which has pervasively influenced theatrical productions since the 1970s, is that “theatricality” of movement has become largely synonymous with comic effects, with caricature, with the exaggeration of a character attribute, so that the actor (or director) adopts an exaggerated movement to signify a defining attribute of the character’s status, motives, or values and thus, as Brecht might put it, to construct in the audience a critical, humorous, or distanced attitude toward the character: it’s difficult for the spectator to take the character seriously. In any case, Lecoq kept mime within the commedia paradigm and Leabhart regards Lecoq’s teaching as “responsible in large measure for the renaissance of interest in commedia dell’arte” in the 1970s (1989: 100). Here as in other schools of mime, the actor-centered approach to performing evolves out of improvised exercises, games, situations, or sketches of few minutes duration, distinct from each other, and revealing, as Decroux would say, one thing at a time, one incident at a time. Mime schools, including Lecoq’s, do not study the sequencing of physical actions to construct large pantomimic narratives that reveal a dramatic reality otherwise obscured by speech or choreographed efforts to regulate the body; they study the sequencing of physical movements to show how the actor theatricalizes the body. To pursue a larger idea of pantomime, one needs a deep appreciation of the “verisimilar,” rather than “histrionic,” performance of physical actions, to use Pearson’s terminology regarding silent film acting, which means an acute awareness of how non-exaggerated or “natural” physical actions in sequence build the emotional involvement of the spectator with patterns of physical signification unique to the narrative rather than to the actor, unique to something observed outside the theater rather than to theatricality. 

            Perhaps the most successful mime enterprise to come out of the Lecoq School has been the Swiss group Mummenschanz, founded in 1972 by Bernie Schürch (b. 1944), Andres Bossard (1944-1992), and Floriana Frassetto (b. 1950). Schürch and Bossard met while studying at Lecoq’s school in 1967-1969. In 1970, they collaborated on cabaret entertainments performing as a clown duo, Before and After. While performing their cabaret act in Rome, they met Floriana Frassetto, an Italian-American, who had studied acting at the theater academy in Rome founded (1957) by Alessandro Fersen (1911-2001), a Polish-Italian film actor, socialist functionary, journalist, dramatist, director of numerous plays in a rather expressionist vein, and practitioner of what he called “mnemodramma,” a process by which actors “abandon techniques” to reach a state of trance wherein “there are no more dams, psychological streams, which somehow curb and control their expression” (Fersen 1973: Paragraphs 6, 8). Mummenschanz began repeated tours of Europe and the United States in 1973, and in 1977, their show began an epic run on Broadway that lasted until 1980 and required the group to hire new performers to replace them, so that they could meet obligations elsewhere in Europe, South America, and Asia. A new show, launched in Zug, Switzerland in 1984, also toured the world with great success. As Mummenschanz absorbed new members, it developed new productions in 1989, 1993, 2003, and 2016, and made a movie in 1997, although in recent years the group has ceased to be the show business powerhouse it was in the 1970s and 1980s (cf., Bührer 1986; Garduño 1997). The company has built its performances around ingeniously designed masks made out of a large variety of materials: Styrofoam, dough, Velcro, toilet paper rolls, violins, a suitcase, plastic containers, plastic membranes, and various kinds of fabric. In the 1984 show, Mummenschanz greatly expanded the number of masks that covered the entire body to produce, for example, a sort of giant slinky worm that manipulates a large red ball, a giant clam that opens and swallows things, a pas de deux involving two huge humanoid figures made out of inflated air bags, huge blob-like creatures that move slowly and gelatinously over platforms and ramps, enormous cloth hands. Although the company has its headquarters in Altstätten, Switzerland, it has spent much time in former industrial spaces in Zürich, Lugano, and St. Gallen that provided sufficient room to experiment with so many different materials, which required long periods of testing, rehearsal, and collaboration with materials manufacturers. Mummenschanz subordinates all movement to the mask, for the point of performance is to show how the body transforms the mask and makes the mask a dynamic, unstable sign of identity. A typical program involves a series of discrete scenes, usually three or four minutes in length, in which one, two, or three performers display their skills at manipulating their own or each other’s masks to describe their relations to each other, invariably for comic effect. In more recent productions, four performers appear on stage, which seldom contains more than a box platform and a ramp. Very rarely do music or sound effects accompany the action. Two bodies with giant electric plugs for heads meet and kiss by plugging their heads into each other; two bodies with violins for heads conduct a rather quarrelsome dialogue by plucking the strings of their faces until a giant metronome appears and gets the violin heads to pluck a tune together. In one of Mummenschanz’s funniest scenes, dating from 1974 at the latest, two performers sit on a platform with the goal of applying dough to their masks to make the masks more expressive and decorative. The figure on the right applies the dough with ceremonial precision and artistry to create a beautiful commedia mask. The figure on the left tries to emulate his partner, copying all of his gestures and applications, but succeeds only in making hideous but very funny messes of his mask. The exasperated artist “fixes” his partner’s mask by making it look like a woeful dog’s head. Left then sabotages Right’s mask by pushing his head into the dough plate. Right responds by transforming his mask into a menacing, predatory creature, while Left does likewise; they attack each other’s masks until they smash into each other’s faces and become one blobby mask. Yet even though no one disputes the ingenuity with which it constructs its masked mime performances, Mummenschanz has provoked criticism, even from Lecoq, that the group too readily seeks to please audiences with feats of cleverness that do not bring with them any larger understanding of relations between body and mask (cf. Bührer 1986: 40; Leabhart 1989: 105-106). The silent miming of the body conveys extraordinary plasticity on the mask, but this dynamism never creates any larger implication than that it is “fun,” a delightful revelation of the desire to transform mundane materials into something living, something human.

            In the United States, the commercial viability of mime performance reached its most impressive manifestation in the 1970s through the duo of Robert Shields (b. 1951) and Lorene Yarnell (1944-2010). Without having any formal training in mime, Shields began performing on the street in Hollywood in 1969. Marcel Marceau saw him perform and offered him a scholarship to attend the Marceau school in Paris, but Shields left the school after less than a year because he did not want to become “a little Marceau.” He moved to San Francisco and began performing on the street. While appearing briefly in a 1972 Sunday morning children’s TV special produced by the puppeteering team of Sid (b. 1929) and Marty Kroft (b. 1937), Shields met TV dancer Lorene Yarnell, and she followed him back to San Francisco, where they married the same year. Shields was a gifted acrobat and dancer—and extremely handsome. On the street, he performed in white face and wore a kind of parade uniform while interacting with bystanders in San Francisco’s Union Square. Police arrested him several times for public disturbance, though bystanders found amusing his interactions and imitations of them, and thus his street performances brought him to the attention of news media and television producers. With Yarnell, he perfected a “robotic” style of mime, although it is more accurate to describe their characters as automatons. They presented their bodies as imperfect, sometimes malfunctioning machines that moved in a jerky, spasmodic manner, like marionettes with broken strings or toys whose springs or gears are out of synch. They applied their robotic style to the enactment of numerous characters and situations, such as a robot couple grocery shopping, a robot couple eating breakfast, a robot couple going to bed, automatons imitating Sonny and Cher, robots trying to kiss, or a human dancing a tango with an automaton. Their robotic style of mime was especially effective on variety television shows, where they did not have to present a whole program of mime sketches, and they appeared on many nationally broadcast TV shows. In 1977, CBS gave them their own variety TV show, which featured skits involving the robot suburban couple, The Clinkers, but the show lasted only one season. They continued in Las Vegas and as guests on numerous TV shows; comedian Bob Hope (1903-2003) included them on a tour of China in 1979. But in the 1980s, Shields and Yarnell began to develop separate paths as entertainers, divorcing in 1986, with Yarnell acting occasionally in films and on stage before moving to Norway with a new husband and Shields eventually pursuing ambitions as an artist and jewelry maker in Sedona, Arizona. Shields complained that bad miming had killed off mime altogether in 1980s, by which he implied that too many less talented performers had tried to imitate him or Marcel Marceau to the point that the broad public no longer believed that mime was capable of anything more than what Shields and Yarnell or Marceau had done with it (Shields and Yarnell “The Lost Tape” 2010). Indeed, in the 1980s, hostility toward mimes, especially street mimes, became a trope of popular culture and a persistent attitude within large sectors of the public. It wasn’t television that “killed mime,” but the idea of mime as a sort of “democratic” entertainment that invaded public spaces because apparently anyone could do it in the street as it was done on television. Mime in this mode became an emblem of craving for popular success that many people found pleasure in despising. 

            However, the stigma attached to mime in much of popular consciousness, especially in the United States, did not deter the spread of mime schools or depress the desire of many young people to study or perform mime. But the stigma did spur efforts within the mime culture to broaden, redefine, or repudiate the term “mime.” The American Mime Theatre, established in 1952 in New York City by Paul Curtis (1927-2012) and Leslie Barrett (1919-2010), still remains the oldest mime company in the United States, although it has always been much more of a mime school than a production company. Curtis, who studied with Decroux in 1950, claimed to teach “American mime,” which meant performing without whiteface and in black body suits. The company has retained the word “mime” to refer to speechless characterizations mostly of a humorous nature vaguely reminiscent of vaudeville. But for a company that has existed so long, its work and aesthetic remain remarkably obscure, perhaps more deeply attached to the hermetic philosophy of Decroux than the word “American” might indicate. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959 by Ronald Guy Davis (b. 1929), another student of Decroux, used the term “mime” in the ancient Roman sense, as a form of comic political street theater that used speech and was never pantomime. The United Mime Workers (1971-1986), based in Urbana, Illinois, also included spoken dialogue in most of its comic satires on suburban middle class life, but occasionally it did construct pantomime scenes in which middle class types performed various actions, such as shopping, hanging clothes, eating lunch, cleaning house, working in an office, without talking to each other (United Mime Workers 2014). One of the company’s co-founders, Bob Feldman, living for many years in Singapore, went on to pursue an unusual application of mime skills to the training of corporate personnel in delivering more effective presentations at corporate and public events. Some American companies, beginning in the 1970s, rebranded speechless performance as “new vaudeville” or new forms of “circus” to include juggling, trapeze acts, magic tricks, acrobatics, and above all clown acts, which are not a theme of this book but which, nevertheless, reinforced public perception that mimes were thin, nimble clowns. In America, however, due perhaps to the tendency of mime performers (though not mime schools) to consider themselves heirs of silent film comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, mime became synonymous with comic speechless performance, and the idea of mime in a serious, emotionally turbulent mood was practically taboo (cf. Leabhart 1989: 123-127). To receive grants from public arts agencies or civic-minded donors, other mime companies or companies that once did mime (like the Milwaukee Public Theater) moved beyond the street or parks to perform in schools, healthcare facilities, prisons, or churches, which meant performances designed to accommodate “positive” (good-humored) civic or therapeutic messages (cf. Milwaukee Public Theatre 2017). The Montreal company Omnibus le corps du théâtre, founded in 1977 by Jean Asselin (b. 1948), a student of Decroux in the 1970s, as an adjunct to the mime school, has presented student productions that imaginatively use mime to reveal the bodily signification of sexual misunderstanding, romantic expectation, sexual harassment, female anxiety over body image, and deconstructed “sexy” poses, as in Rêves, chimères et mascarade (2009) and Misère et splendeur d’une courtisane (2013) (Omnibus Archive). But Asselin has moved far from Decroux: the school still offers courses in corporeal mime and productions of “pure mime” on contemporary themes, but since at least 1982 company productions often contain a great deal of speech that relies on texts by or adaptations of famous authors (Shakespeare, Racine, Proust, Faulkner, Lewis Carroll, Henry James) or on original texts by Asselin and co-director Sylvie Moreau (b. 1964). Within Omnibus, mime functions as movement for the stage, in a manner similar to Lecoq’s school, to develop an actor-driven kind of hyper-physical theater closer to Artaud than to Decroux. 

Two members of the original Omnibus Company, Kari Margolis and Tony Brown, both students of Decroux, founded their own company, MB Adaptors, in Brooklyn in 1984 and immediately attracted international attention with a piece called Autobahn (1984), a twelve-scene mostly pantomimic satire of American infatuation with pop culture images involving eleven performers: 

Three TV monitors glare out at the audience and remain ever-present through the evening, as much a constant as they are in American lives. At one spot on the crowded stage, a couple grills franks on an outdoor barbecue; at another, three men in astronaut outfits wrestle with a huge coil of metal tubing. Elsewhere nearby, a woman tending flower pots seems about to strangle herself in a garden hose; a sunbather lolls on a chaise, and other characters busy themselves with pets and infants. The sound track mingles Bach, birds and bees, and racetrack bugles. […] Among the most memorable images are those of the quartet of women with ironing boards, turning themselves almost literally into living dolls; the spectacle of a man at first terrorized by a microphone, and then, conquering his fear, using it to deliver a diabolical tirade in a mock-language that sounds like a fusion of Japanese and Swedish; a woman pitching erotic woo to a hair dryer, as four of her friends bounce their rumps on the floor; a platoon of red-eyed toy robots whirring and clanking across the stage as a woman croons “Let’s Bring Back WWI”; and a scene called “Executive Suite” paying homage to Kurt Jooss’ ballet, “The Green Table,” with corporate types tearing each other to bits over vested interests (Alan Kriegsman, Washington Post, February 19, 1988).

The company moved to Minneapolis in 1993 and then to rural Highland Lake in New York State in 2004, where the company offers summer workshops and improvisational exercise programs for training “actor warriors.” Brown and Margolis have presented their productions as “non-linear dreamscapes,” pantomimic satires of American obsessions with popular culture icons and of media-constructed models of consumerist behavior, such as American Safari (2001), in which a suburban everyman, having won a trip to Disneyland, travels across America in a toy Chevy convertible (MB Adaptors Archive). More adventurous perhaps was Vidpires! (1994-1998), a twenty-scene, twelve-person “comic, multimedia movement piece whose central characters are two vampires stuck in the boredom of today’s media culture which both fuels and mocks their sentence of immortality” (Basting 1998: 147-148). These two vampires, Desmodus and Diphylla, appear to “feed on film images to perpetuate their own immortality both on and off screen” (149). The production integrates film and television imagery with live performers who imitate this imagery, and their imitations then become film imagery, dramatizing the “inseparability of bodies and [image] technology” (156). Some of the imagery comes from silent films like The Son of the Sheik (1926), in which Brown and Margolis, as Desmodus and Diphylla, enact on film their sadomasochistic relation to immortality in the 1926 style of film pantomime with intertitles. In other scenes, performers manipulate screens that project clips from movies and TV shows: a man pulling an “almost medieval” cart filled with TV screens showing Mickey Mouse cartoons; Desmodus holding on his arm a TV set depicting the playing of a violin, so that it appears as if he is playing the instrument. “In the seventh scene, ‘The Body of Love Video,’ a male and female dancer stood to the right of the stage with their backs to the audience, their naked bodies washed in the hot light of hand-held video projections […] The video was another rapid succession of looted classic film images, this time of kisses rather than death scenes. As the performers moved slowly in unison, the film images contorted to the shapes of their bodies” (157). The guiding idea of the piece is that a culture built around a vampiric consumption of film images nourishes a sort of life-sustaining or, as Basting puts it, age-denying uncertainty concerning the distinction between “real” (mortal) and mediated (immortal) bodies. But despite its emphasis on voiceless performance, MB Adaptors has for a long time ceased to identify itself with either mime or pantomime, claiming that it is a “performance ensemble” which constructs its “dreamscapes” out of a collaborative process, as if mime and pantomime had lost all allure in describing a postmodern performance sensibility.

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The Postwar Mime Culture: Marcel Marceau

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

Marcel Marceau

Yet the international spreading of mime school culture probably could not have happened without the enormously popular, commercial performances of Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), the most famous of all Decroux’s students. Marceau’s performances, many of which occurred on television, made the world aware of mime as a distinct genre of performance that justified motives for studying mime. Many of those who came to Paris to study mime in the 1960s and 1970s were residents of other countries; Leabhart says that most students in Decroux’s classes were foreigners (2003: 432). Marceau was born in Strasbourg. His parents were Jewish; he joined the Resistance in 1944, after the Nazis had murdered his father in Auschwitz. Though he spoke several languages, he developed an intense attachment to pantomimic performance while working for the Resistance, where he mimed the role of a scout leader while smuggling Jewish children to safety in Spain. He always regarded the silent films of Charlie Chaplin as the greatest influence in his life. In 1945, he enrolled in Dullin’s dramatic arts school, where he studied under Decroux. The following year, he appeared as Arlequin in Barrault’s production of Baptiste. This experience inspired him to produce his own “mimodrama” the same year, Praxitele et le poisson d’or, in which he introduced a prototype of the Bip character that became his lifelong performance persona. Marceau then appeared in 1947, at the tiny Théâtre de Poche, in a performance of several Bip sketches. The performance prompted Decroux to expel Marceau from the school, for Decroux felt that Marceau’s desire to entertain corrupted the goal of corporeal mime. However, Marceau’s goal was to produce more mimodramas in which Bip only occasionally appeared merely as one of several ensemble characters played by other actors. After presenting Bip in a rather somber mimodrama, Mort avant l’aube (1948), he formed (1949) a company to produce more mimodramas: Le Manteau (1951), an adaptation of the 1842 overcoat story by Gogol; Pierrot de Montmartre (1952), “inspired by the black Pierrot of Alphonse Willett”; Les Trois Perruques (1953), another comedy set in 1840s; Loup de Tsu Ku Mi (1956), an archaic, Kabuki-like drama in an abstract Japanese setting; Paris qui rit, Paris qui pleure (1958), in which Marceau played a Parisian street newspaper vendor in what appear to be bygone days; Don Juan (1964), an adaptation of the 1630 play by Tirso de Molina (1579-1648). In all these works and others, Marceau collaborated with the actor Pierre Verry (1913-2009), also a former student of Decroux; and Etienne Bertrand Weil (1919-2001), who had photographed some of Decroux’s demonstrations, photographed Marceau’s productions, and later became notable for using multiple and time-lapse exposures to capture the movement of stage performers. While the narrative organization of action in Marceau’s mimodramas remains incomplete (he never published any scenarios), the photos of them show an investment in simple scenery and fairly complex period costumes, with the stage containing up to ten characters (Les Trois Perruques) [Figure 97]. Joseph Kosma was one of the composers who wrote music for the productions. All the productions, even Paris qui rit, Paris qui pleure, evoke a nineteenth century atmosphere. He also made a short film, Au Jardin (1954), shot in a studio with a rather elaborate set and accompanied by impressionistic orchestral music, in which he appeared as nine characters, only one of which vaguely resembled Bip, who visit or work in a city park. But after the Don Juan production, he stopped producing mimodramas, although when he opened his school in 1978, he called it the Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris Marcel Marceau. He said the reason he stopped producing mimodramas was because, despite his international success as a solo mime, he could not secure government subsidies for his company (Fifield 1968: 156). In 1955-1956, he toured Canada and the United States, performing his solo act featuring Bip. Audiences in cities across America responded euphorically, adoringly, and this incredible triumph propelled him to worldwide acclamation. From then on, he toured prodigiously throughout the world almost until he died. He performed everywhere on television and people everywhere who otherwise knew nothing about mime or pantomime knew of Marcel Marceau. Over the decades, his solo programs consisted of a series of “sketches,” each usually about three to five minutes long, in which Bip mimed his relationship to invisible objects against an empty background, as if he inhabited a space without any context. Bip changed only slightly from when Marceau invented him in 1946: in addition to the white face and Pierrotesque makeup, he wore white sailor pants, a white or dark half-jacket, a striped T-shirt, and often, though not always, a shabby opera hat with a large red carnation. The sketches presented Bip in a variety of activities: catching a butterfly, with his fluttering left hand simulating the insect, a lion tamer frustrated by the failure of his lion to leap through a hoop, a waiter serving a dish to a dissatisfied customer, Bip trying on different masks that distort his face, Bip dancing a comic tango, Bip playing a matador. Bip was not always in a comic mood and occasionally slipped into moments of pathos, as in a sketch in which he mimed the stages of life from birth, to childhood, to youth, to maturity, to old age, and to death; “The Cage” showed Bip attempting to break through invisible walls that surround him and finally sinking into apparently fatal resignation. Nearly all of the sketches dated from the 1950s, and even sketches produced after then remained faithful to what Bip was in the early 1950s. Bip’s immense popularity seemed to derive from his power to signify the unchanging, eternal solitude of “humanity” without speech, the charming and even absurd “innocence” of humanity when speech did not corrupt it. Yet Marceau was well aware that Bip entirely controlled his pantomimic imagination and prevented him from achieving much success outside of Bip, such as the mimodramas: “But I am a prisoner of my art. People do not want to see me as a character other than Bip” (Andriotakis 1979: Paragraph 7).

Figure 97: Scenes from Marcel Marceau’s production of Le manteau (The Overcoat), Paris, 1951. Photos: Etienne Bertrand Weil; Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France. 

No one in the mime culture ever achieved the popularity of Marcel Marceau; it was as if the world needed no more popular or even equally popular mime artist than Marceau or needed any larger idea of mime or pantomime than that represented by Bip/Marceau. Bip projected a harmless, charming, friendly, congenially “segmented” image of solitary human innocence unencumbered by words or contaminated by any despoiling context. He was amusing, without being particularly funny, for to be funny, Bip would have to traffic in nasty caricatures, display some satiric bitterness, disclose people or situations worth ridiculing, reveal a disillusioned attitude toward life. The postwar theater and literary worlds assumed that audiences had no interest in seeing pantomime explore the sometimes demonic, sometimes grandiose, but always adventurous paths opened up earlier by the Austro-German pantomime culture, the silent film, or even the Cercle Funambulesque. Postwar ballet and modern dance could move into shadowy, disillusioning, or at least not “innocent” zones of human experience without losing their audiences, as seen, for example, in the work of Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Peter Darrell, or Dore Hoyer. It seems incredible that theater people everywhere could not imagine pantomime as anything more than the French idea of it as a very small scale, nostalgic, repetitive remodeling of Pierrot and Chaplin’s “Tramp” figure; otherwise, it was an activity left for schools to do as “preparation” for something more ambitious than pantomime itself. Marceau conveniently embodied the limits or summit of pantomime, which implicitly were the limits of the unregulated, speechless body in performance. The English novelist Mave Fellowes (b. 1980), the author of a novel, Chaplin & Company (2013), about a young woman who desires to become a mime like Marcel Marceau, has insightfully remarked that “after Marceau, there was nowhere left to go. I think he took his particular style—he was the best at it there could ever be. There was no room for further evolution, and no one has yet come up with another version of mime which is as appealing” (Hartnett 2014: Paragraphs 6-7). 

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The Postwar Mime Culture: Decroux

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

Decroux

On June 27, 1945, with the success of Les enfants du paradis well affirmed, Barrault and Decroux, with two students, Éliane Guyon (1918-1967) and Jean Dorcy (1898-1978), presented a program of “corporeal mime” performances at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris, which was and remains a large lecture hall primarily used for scientific conferences. Leabhart (1989: 48) contends that more than a thousand persons attended the presentation, although the Maison de la Chimie website designates the hall as containing only 851 seats. The guest of honor was the English theater theorist and apostle of an abstract-symbolic theater, Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), who had lived in France since 1931, having since then retired from any active involvement with theater. A purpose in inviting Craig was “to show up the doctrinal links from Craig to Copeau, from Copeau to Decroux, from Decroux to Barrault” (Leabhart 1989: 49). Craig had become famous in the early years of the century for promoting the idea of the stage director as the defining figure of theatrical performance, determining all production elements to create an emotionally powerful visual experience in which actors became scenic details, “marionettes,” within the director’s omniscient vision. It may seem odd that the actor-centered Copeau-Dullin school of theater would link itself to Craig, but Decroux’s ambition was to transfer the absolute authority over the actor from the director in the theater to the teacher in the studio classroom. The 1945 program contained eight pieces followed by Decroux’s lecture on the theory of corporeal mime. Several of these pieces, which Decroux devised in the 1930s, he and his students performed in sometimes slightly revised versions for decades to follow. Barrault performed his horse wrangling scene from Autour d’une mere; Decroux, Barrault, and Guyon performed a choral piece, “a panoramic evocation of famine, mass movements of population, revolution and finally peace”; the final performance piece was the Combat antique, performed by Decroux and Barrault, which the two had developed for a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra at the Comédie-Française earlier the same year, although Barrault and Decroux had worked on it since 1933 (Leabhart 1989: 50-51; Kurkinen 2000: 110). For Decroux, this single performance was more a demonstration of his mime technique, a “work in progress,” than anything one might call a theatrical production. Yet it is doubtful that, if Leabhart is correct about the attendance, Decroux ever again had such a large audience for anything he performed as corporeal mime. The event generated much publicity for Decroux’s pedagogic approach to mime, but this approach soon separated him from his greatest students. In 1946, Barrault produced, under the title Baptiste, a stage version of Cot d’Ordan’s Marchand d’habits pantomime from Les enfants du paradis, with music by Joseph Kosma (1905-1969); with the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault, he revived the production in 1948, again at the Marigny Theatre. The production involved elaborate costumes and stage décor that emulated those in the film [Figure 95]. Decroux regarded Barrault’s use of pantomime as retrograde and trivial, while Barrault believed Decroux had become single-mindedly obsessesed with achieving an absolute purity of bodily signification that was antithetical to the pleasures of theatricality (cf. Dobbels 1980: 54). But after Baptiste, Barrault abandoned pantomime altogether and devoted himself to building a grand career as an actor and director in spoken drama and films. In 1948, Decroux forbade another of his famous students, Marcel Marceau, from entering his school, because Marceau had cultivated an interest in pantomimic characterizations, particularly his Pierrot-like “Bip” character, which he had introduced with great success to Paris at the Théâtre de Poche in 1947 (Benhaim 2003: 266). Meanwhile, Éliane Guyon “perfected the creations of Decroux, L’usine, L’esprit malin, La statue,” but in 1949, while touring with Decroux in Switzerland, she met her future husband, the painter and scene designer Jean Monod (1922-1986), and quit Decroux’s ensemble. She and Monod went to Rome with an actor, Marcel Imhoff (1922-1979), to do movement research at the Alessandro Fersen Theater Academy. There, she, Monod, and Imhoff began constructing cabaret performances that involved an interaction between pantomime and puppetry: Guyon was especially gifted at creating characters with her bare hands. In 1952, she returned to Paris and worked for a month with Decroux and his son Maximilien (1930-2012) demonstrating some of Decroux’s pieces. But her focus was on her own production at a small theater of her “mimodrama,” Le Tribunal, which involved pantomime and marionettes constructed by her husband. Decroux disapproved of her use of masks, costumes, dramatic narrative, and characterization. Guyon therefore “distanced” herself from Decroux and went on to stage further marionette dramas, and in 1954, in Lausanne, she appeared as the Soldier in her production of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat (1918), which used giant puppets (Chercher 2005: 774-775; Poletti 2011: 32-33). Her work deserves greater scrutiny, if it can be excavated, because of its strange combining of pantomime, puppets, and marionettes, but also because it exposes a unique tension between a female student and Decroux, whose hallowed legacy rests heavily upon an overwhelmingly male sector of his student corps. 

Figure 95: “Marchand d’habits” scene from Jean-Louis Barrault’s production of Baptiste, Paris, 1946. Photo; Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Decroux established a small school in Paris in 1947 that enabled him to receive invitations to give demonstrations and workshops, which sometimes lasted months, on corporeal mime in Amsterdam (1949), Lausanne (1949), Israel (1950), the Sorbonne (1951), the Netherlands (1952), England (1952), Milan (1953), Stockholm (1954), Zurich (1954), Oslo (1955), and Stockholm again in 1956. After Marceau discussed mime with American interviewers, the Actors Studio in New York City in 1957 invited Decroux to teach for eight weeks, apparently as part of an effort to prepare actors to handle assignments associated with the “theater of the absurd.” He gave further demonstrations at the Dramatic Workshop and at Baylor University in Texas. In 1959, he returned to New York, opened a school, lectured at ten universities, and taught a course at New York University. Much of the film documentation of Decroux’s demonstrations and “evocations” took place in the United States. He did not return to Paris until 1962, when he opened another small school, but many of his students opened their own small schools in Sweden, Italy, Israel, Canada, and the United States. An International Festival of Mime in Berlin sought to honor him as a “great pioneer of modern mime,” but he refused the invitation (Benhaim 2003: 266-267). In 1963, he published his only book, Paroles sur le mime, which was mostly a manifesto for a radical redefinition of theater. By the mid-1960s, Decroux had achieved an international fame that circulated primarily through mime schools established by his students and through educational institutions seeking to incorporate corporal mime into their curricula, with the mime school culture producing work for “public” audiences mostly at international mime festivals attended mostly by mime students and educators. 

            Decroux developed a severe, ascetic pedagogy that complemented his intense aversion to any public performances of corporeal mime. He separated mime from pantomime, for he regarded mime, as he defined it, as a completely modern phenomenon, while pantomime was an archaic, “ridiculous, and indecent” form of theatrical performance that attempted to tell stories through gestures and was therefore a corrupt form of writing (“thought corrupts movement”) rather than a new vision of the body’s expressive power (Decroux 2003: 61, 202). Mime, however, has no existence of its own: “for mimes to exist, there have to be schools of mime” (92). To be a mime or to perform mime requires the appropriate education in a mime school to achieve the goal of mime, which is to perform “research” on bodily expression rather than to perform for people who have no experience of the research mission. Decroux demands total, exclusive focus on the body as the goal of study. The student learns what the body can “evoke” absolutely and free of attachments to things or even other bodies. A profound distrust and distaste for theater pervades the learning environment. Like Copeau, Decroux practiced a sequestering of the student from the world outside of the studio classroom. The bare studio is the ideal space for mime performance or, preferably, “demonstration.” This space contains no scenery, no costumes, no masks, and no props; the lighting is always flat and even; music is unnecessary and obtrusive; texts have no place here. The research goal of the actor is to “evoke” a relation to the world, to things, to others entirely through the body. If a mime wants to show that he climbs a ladder to retrieve a tool with which he builds a chair on which he will sit, he should “demonstrate” these actions entirely with his body, although for Decroux, the “purest” aim of mime is simply to evoke the act or concept of building without representing it. “Evocations” in Decroux’s pedagogy were free of drama, avoided showing conflict, and did not tell stories or represent characters. In performing demonstrations, students should wear loincloths or neutral body stockings, although in early demonstrations, Decroux wrapped a thin veil around his head. In the film documentations of his own demonstrations done around 1960-1961 in Texas and New York, Decroux appears alone in a loincloth or white body suit against a dark or white background. His demonstrations evoke numerous abstract actions through stylized movements that emphasize a balancing of weighted and counter-weighted pressures (pushing and pulling movements) within the body, usually within about twenty seconds: “The Weight Lifter,” “The Rope Puller,” “The Boxer,” “The Bell Ringer,” “The Offering,” “Melancholy,” “The Effect Becomes the Cause,” “Transporting a Glass of Water,” “Placing Plates between the Guests,” “Inclining with Respect and Shaking Hands.” In one of the longest (one and a half minutes) demonstrations, “Greeting the Collectivity,” Decroux makes expansive gestures with his arms while shifting his weight from right foot to left and pivoting, as if surrounded by persons he must acknowledge in an elaborately formal manner. Decroux hardly ever moves more than three or four steps away from the initial standing pose of equilibrium. Indeed, the goal of the demonstrations is to display a ceremonial formality in the performance of basic actions like greetings and lifting or setting down imaginary objects. Kathryn Wylie and Maarjana Kurkinen suggest an influence on Decroux of the elaborate stylization of bodily movement in Japanese Noh theater dating from Copeau’s 1924 experiment in Noh aesthetics, Kantan, which Decroux himself acknowledged as significant (Wylie 1993: 111-112; Kurkinen 2000: 111-113; De Marinis, 2003, 272-274; Decroux 1963: 18). But the demonstrations also remind one of the elaborate ceremonial gesturing introduced at the court of Louis XIV and his successors, a ritual dignification of humble bodily effort, and Sklar (1985: 73) notes a student who observed that studio sessions with Decroux resembled a ritual designed exclusively for initiates.

            While Decroux focused largely on the education of the solitary body, he did construct some evocations involving two or more bodies. These date mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, but students afterward performed them for decades. With these evocations, he supplied musical accompaniments. In La Statue, about three and a half minutes long, Decroux appears as a sculptor in black while the female statue wears a white leotard. The piece develops a Pygmalion theme: the sculptor rises inspired from a slumber with his lumpen material (the female partner), makes commanding gestures to which the female figure responds with dancelike movements, then applies hammering and chiseling gestures that bring the statue to life. Impressed with his creation, he picks up the statue and carries it exultantly, until it embraces him. He slips out of the embrace and sinks exhausted to the floor as the statue stands smiling. L’Usine, about five minutes long, used three performers of indeterminate sex wearing hooded black body suits contoured with a white stripe. Here the performers wore silver masks and performed movements evoking the operations of machines: stamping, pendulum, hacking, sawing, flipping movements synchronized with mechanical sound effects devised by Decroux. The piece had no dramatic structure, no concept of struggle between or within machines or between the body and the machine; rather, it straightforwardly demonstrated the ability of human bodies to emulate the geometric movement patterns of automated factory machines, which was hardly innovative even in the 1930s. Le Matin, with harp accompaniment, and Le Duo Amoureux, accompanied by the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (1901), were more lyrical demonstrations, four and six minutes long respectively, in each of which a male-female couple in white body stockings slowly exchanged or shared ardent, picturesque poses of devotion, as if they were statues moving in a kind slow motion trance, always remaining within a couple of feet of the places in which the pieces began. One of his most interesting demonstrations, Les Arbres, dating from 1946, lasts about nine minutes and features his largest documented ensemble—four persons wearing white body stockings and veils covering their heads, the face never having any importance in his aesthetic. The piece does not imitate the movement of trees; rather, it evokes, so to speak, the lives of trees and of groves through continually shifting configurations of flowering, blooming, branching, bending, reaching, fluttering, swaying, arching, canopying, bobbing, and lilting motions, sometimes in unison, sometimes individually, mostly with the arms and hands [Figure 96]. The performers do not move more than two steps beyond their intial and concluding “grove” position. In one film document, the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (1801) accompanies the action, but in another film document, Decroux uses unidentified postromantic orchestral music, which suggests he did not conceive the piece in relation to any specific musical source. In Combat antique, one of the earliest demonstrations, from about 1933, about four minutes long, two men, bare-chested, enact a physical combat brandishing imaginary swords and spears and making lunging, feigning, darting, stabbing, shielding, dodging, tangling, leaping, and taunting motions until one of them, almost inadvertently, stabs the other, who falls. The victor prods the body to make sure it is dead, then walks away. Though somewhat less abstract than other Decroux demonstrations, the Combat antique has remained a popular exercise in mime schools dedicated to Decroux’s philosophy, in part because it emphasizes his enthusiasm for “masculine,” sport-inspired movement themes, which has proved effective in making corporeal mime more attractive to male students than dance. But as Decroux’s ideas about mime became more abstract, he responded to the question of what differentiated mime not only from pantomime but from modern dance in a quite long-winded, abstruse manner, deciding eventually that “the need to dance is not the need to narrate” and that “dance is an evasion, mime is an invasion” (Decroux 2003: 110-116, 194). In practice, dance movement consumes much more space than mime movement as he taught it. He believed that the torso anchored the body, whereas in dance, the torso functioned like a motor to animate the arms and legs into movements that pretended it had no weight. Sculpture provided a huge inspiration for Decroux, and he regarded mime as a kind of “mobile statuary” (Lecoq 2006: 44). “I think often of Rodin, never of Deburau,” he claimed, and according to Petra Kolařova, who has written an enormous dissertation on Decroux’s relation to Rodin, “the work of Rodin appeared to [Decroux] as the antithesis of classical dance” (Kolařova 2015: 127, 132-133). Yet his evocations never disclosed a serious “need to narrate.” They show instead a need to sculpt the body with movement.             

While Decroux described his work with students in his studios as “research,” he had no interest in sharing the results of his research with the public, through performance or publication. His little book Paroles sur le mime consists entirely of essays written in the 1930s and 1940s. The film documentation exists because universities wanted it. He relied on his students to “publish” his work through interviews with him and their own memoirs of working with him. A cult atmosphere emerged that, as Kurkinen has remarked, encouraged “the zealousness of the students of Decroux” to produce a discourse on him in which “one is let to understand that writing or doing research on Decroux’s art without having first-hand experience on his mime disqualifies the scholar altogether” (2000: 14). Yet he deserves credit for initating the international expansion of mime culture from the 1950s to the 1980s, even if much of this global expansion was due to the performance success of a few students who had departed from the master’s teachings. The mime culture spread primarily through schools established by students of Decroux and through universities that sought to incorporate corporeal mime into their performing arts curricula: schools provided a more reliable source of income than the production of performances for which audiences were willing to pay enough to see. Mime education, with its minimalist aesthetic of the bare studio, was less expensive than traditional theater arts, with their costly scenic technologies, costuming requirements, complex collaborations, theater facilities, royalty payments, marketing obligations, and intricacies of casting. Perhaps, too, many students found mime less intimidating than conventional theater or dance studies, which often encourage demoralizing competitiveness, although numerous actors and dancers have studied mime as a way of enhancing their competitiveness. Decroux’s socialism was attractive. Mime, he contended, was something one could only learn and learn only through the application of the appropriate technique; it was not a “talent” given by genetic predisposition or biological determinism. The learning of the technique came from the teacher and the pedagogical regime, not from an intuition or “instinct” or even from mere exposure to art or performance. Ostensibly, an egalitarian spirit pervaded the studio, for the purpose of mime was not to produce art consumed by public audiences, but to create a way of living with the uniqueness of one’s body, regardless of whatever “talent” the body may possess. Most students studied mime to become teachers of mime and to reproduce the studio classroom environment that defined the life of the mime. One learned technique above all through exercises, and exercises often resulted from a process of improvisation that resisted any “complete” idea of an action. The chief product of mime study was therefore not performance nor was it the analysis of performance, but exercises, the discovery, development, and compiling of exercises, the deployment of exercises that showed a student how to “use” a part of the body as a sign. But using a body part as a sign is hardly the same thing as using the body to signify, to narrate, or to build a representation of the world. It is somewhat like learning a vocabulary without learning to compose an essay or a story. Decroux himself, however, never published any compilation of studio exercises. In interviews, Decroux discusses mime in broad, philosophical terms, sometimes referring to great authors, like Hugo, or great artists, like Rodin, and often in an aphoristic style: “The mime must not detest technique […] The technique is the proof of personality. It is an obligation, a language, and it tells us: ‘You have to do it like this and not like that.’ […] Monsieur Paul Bellugue [1892-1955] was professor at the Academy of Fine Arts […] One day he said to me: ‘Technique is the obedience of the hand to the spirit.’ I was struck by the clarity of this reflection […]” (Decroux 2003: 119). But he never described his technique or particular relations between body parts, “counter-weights,” rhythms, and signs. He introduced theoretical terms like “body lines,” “segmentation,” and “immobility,” without showing their applicability to particular bodies in relation to particular “evocations.” Leabhart mentions an exercise in which “students manifested the five qualities that [Decroux] associated most with corporeal mime: pause, weight, resistance, hesitation, and surprise” (Leabhart 2003: 437). But he doesn’t describe this exercise or any others, which apparently he derived from his old demonstrations and evocations. Instead, his students compile his many aphoristic statements: “The feet are the proletariat of the body” (Decroux 2003: 202); “Immobility is indissociable from the law that says ‘one thing at a time’” (347); “The mime is no longer a mime if he uses music” (136). One of his most prominent students, Thomas Leabhart (b. 1944), a professor at Pomona College, has described the classroom atmosphere when he studied under Decroux from 1968 to 1972. But the discussion of the classroom atmosphere does not include examination of the pedagogic system or technique applied by Decroux; it focuses instead on identifying the teacher’s personal qualities, his way of interacting with students, his style of communicating: Because he “insisted first on technique and that improvisation and inspiration came only afterwards, he tended to show us how what he humorously called dry and boring technique worked in an improvisation. He did this by first giving us a philosophical context for work (the conference), and then allowed us to realize how this technique could enslave the imagination and work ‘from within to outside’”; “Decroux responded differently to our efforts to transcend ourselves: mockeries, warm praise, tender compassion […] Often a long cold silence followed our efforts [… then] commentaries such as: ‘You must sing with your muscles’ or ‘You have not found the rhythm of the thought’ […]” (Leabhart 2003: 437). In other words, exercises were “proof of a personality” insofar as they revealed the mysterious or “elusive” charisma of a teacher in sculpting the minds and bodies of students (cf. Soum 2003: 405ff.). Mime physicalized the mysterious, unwritten relationship between teacher and student, which was the thing the student could best reproduce rather than any relationship to something outside the studio.

Figure 96: Etienne Decroux’s Les arbres (1947), as filmed in his New York studio in 1960. Photo: screen capture from projectomimicas YouTube channel, posted on December 19, 2012.

Even though “mime cannot be learned from books,” according to Samuel Avital, because “it is passed down from teacher to student,” nevertheless, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s saw a prodigious publication of books on mime (Avital 1977: 101). Nearly all of these books explain how to do mime and how to be a mime; they emphasize mime as a technique learned by performing exercises or “routines” recommended or described by the author. They avoid analyzing or evaluating mime performances or the history of pantomime. They also tend to focus on mime as a solitary activity, somewhat like a hobby that opens the path to a more creative life. One of the most imaginative of these publications is Mime Work Book (1977), by Samuel Avital (b. 1932), a Moroccan-born Jew, who migrated to Israel before moving in 1958 to France to study with Decroux, Barrault, Marcel Marceau, and Maximilien Decroux, who had established his own school and company in Paris in 1955. In 1964, he moved to the United States, where in 1971 he founded his mime school, Le Centre du Silence, in Boulder, Colorado. Mime Work Book is a montage of texts and photographs including autobiographical statements, interviews with Avital, interviews with other mimes, brief reflections on the history of mime as it derives from the commedia tradition, Pierrot/Deburau, Decroux, Barrault, and Marceau, quotations from mime students, polemical essays on mime (“Not every white face in a town square gesticulating hopelessly is a mime”), and remarks on the mystical relation of mime to Kabbalah (“In our Jewish culture in Morocco we have days that we don’t speak. We fast from speech.”) (Avital 1977: 20, 137). But much of the book consists of advice on how to do mime, including numerous exercises and philosophical aphorisms in the manner of Decroux grouped under thirteen headings, such as “Staccato and Slow Motion,” “Snail Movement,” “Bases and Fixations,” “Trips,” “Gravity”: “Work the traject in staccato rhythm. Break down the everyday movement into pieces of movement like a camera lens opening and closing. Walking in staccato send a telegram to one part of the body and move it. Be careful the movement is not tense. Breathe the movement” (33). Some advice relates to habits of living as a mime: “Fast from words once a week, choose a day and keep it steady” (86). “The Singing Plastique Cycle” consists of eleven exercises that the mime should perform daily; No. 7: “Pelvis: first lift each hip straight up, alternating; then Belly Dancing, i.e., swirling hips in a circle, 26 times” a day (87). Avital also provides a “Language of the Thinking Body” that lists words under four categories of “communication” between teacher and student, such as “Exercises: spiral, withdrawal, interwinding […] caress the space, steal the space […]” (90) and “Expressions” that the mime should keep in mind as motives for making a sign with the body: “the body as a brush,” “shower on fire,” “don’t be too nice with yourself,” “embrace the opposites,” “heels kissing,” “rewind the film,” “be your own mirror,” “vigorously, not violently” (92-94). Then, “Samuel Says” offers several pages of teacherly aphorisms: “The slower the breathing, the more relaxed,” “A teacher is one who takes what is given and gives what cannot be taken,” “Orgasm is freezing,” “When you think you can do it, your progress stops,” (110-111, 116-117). Avital is more open to theatricality and public performance than Decroux, and his book includes numerous photographs of himself, in circus-like costumes, and his students, in white face, performing in public spaces. But the book avoids analysis of mime performance itself or the aesthetics of mime performance. The focus is always on how to improve one’s life through the practice of “mime work.” In all these ways, the book is typical of the many books on mime that appeared from the 1960s onward and established mime as an individualistic enterprise in self-development, an actor-centered life that only incidentally intersected with theatrical performance. 

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