Ancient Pantomime and its Reception

Alessandra Zanobi (Durham)

Ancient pantomime, one of the greatest attractions on the ancient stage from the end of the first century BC until the end of the sixth century AD, was a lavish and highly skilled performance in which gestures, bodily movements, words, songs, and music contributed to stir the emotions of the audience. Worshipped and despised at the same time, pantomimic dancers ignited the imagination of their contemporaries and threatened the rigid system of established cultural and social roles. Ancient authors report that this theatrical medium was introduced at Rome during the reign of Augustus by Pylades of Cilicia and Bathyllus of Alexandria. Given the complex and sophisticated nature of ancient pantomime, it seems likely that the two alleged founders of the genre did not invent a completely new theatrical art form, but substantially transformed one already in existence.

In its most traditional and widespread form, ancient pantomime consisted of a solo mute dance performance based on a tragic libretto called fabula saltica usually sung by a chorus or a soloist.  The dancer neither spoke nor sang but interpreted by his dancing a story usually based on a mythological theme. The performance was accompanied by a large orchestra made of wind and stringed instruments and the rhythm was maintained by the scabellum, which was operated by one of the musicians, usually the flute-player, and attached to the foot. Ancient authors report that a single performer danced all the roles in succession relying on gesture and hand language (cheironomy) to describe the story sung by the chorus. The pantomimic thematic repertoire featured adaptations from the works of the best epic authors, dramatists, and poets such as Virgil, whose story of Dido's tragic love was one of the most popular on the pantomimic stage.

The typical pantomimic costume consisted of a long silk tunic purposefully designed to follow and emphasise the movements of the dancer’s body. A short mantle (pallium) usually complemented the pantomimic outfit and could be used as an expressive and versatile prop to represent different objects according to the roles. The dancer wore also a mask with a closed mouth, elaborate hair, and large holes for the eyes as attested by archeological findings. The large eye-holes suggest that the expression of the dancer’s eyes needed to be visible through the mask attesting to the eloquent role attached to the dancer's gaze in an otherwise mute performance.

The main extant source on ancient pantomime is the dialogue On the Dance written in Greek by the Syrian rhetorician Lucian of Samosata around the middle of the second century AD. Libanius’ oration On Behalf of the Dancers, written probably around 361 AD, is also valuable for our knowledge of this ancient theatrical genre. Additional information about ancient pantomime is found in the ancient writers at large and in several inscriptions and epigrams contained in the Anthologia Palatina and Latina.

The cultural and historical importance of ancient pantomime is not confined to the ancient world, since this theatrical medium had a pivotal role in the rise of ballet as an autonomous art form in the age of Enlightenment. Dance reforms developed in the eighteenth century took ancient Greco-Roman pantomime as the model to set against the contemporary practice of dance as an ornamental divertissement devoid of any meaning and emotional content and consisting of a sheer display of technical virtuosity. The revival of interest in this ancient genre started through popularisation of Lucian's dialogue On the Dance, in works such as Claude Ménestrier's Des Ballets Anciens et Moderns (1682). It was most probably the English ballet-master John Weaver (1673-1760) who first attempted to revive ancient pantomime with his staging of The Love of Mars and Venus in 1717 at Drury Lane and Orpheus and Eurydice the following year. Later in the century, the two most important eighteenth-century dance reformists, Gasparo Angiolini (1731-1803) and Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), repeatedly expressed in their writings the intentions to follow in the steps of ancient pantomime and their adoption of Lucian's auctoritas as the guiding principle in their productions. The new art form, the ballet d'action, thus found in Greco-Roman pantomime an ancient and authoritative antecedent, which granted intellectual and aesthetic propriety to the new dance form; even more importantly, ancient pantomime provided firm evidence that dance had once been an independent and dignified art able to narrate complex stories as well as express a wide range of human emotions.