Masks, Mimes and Miracles: Studies in the Popular Theatre

By Allardyce Nicoll | Go to book overview

bear in our minds is this: Did the mimic drama, after the triumph of barbarianism and Christianity, slowly die a natural death, leaving some of the intermediate centuries truly dark in so far as the theatre was concerned, or can we trace, if even ever so slightly, the footsteps of the barefooted and bald-headed mimes as they tread the weary road which, unlike the roads of ancient times, leads far from Rome?1


(v) THE PANTOMIME

Before any answer to this question can be attempted it will be necessary to cast a brief glance at another type of Roman' drama,' the pantomimus, or pantomime, which, itself (as its name implies) a child of the mime, came to rival its parent in popularity. Since, however, the pantomime, as a form of theatrical art, affects our argument only in certain respects, it will not be necessary here to attempt anything in the nature of a broad and detailed survey. Only the characteristic features of the type require to be discussed.2

The pantomime, of course, is the art of interpretative dancing. The Greeks commonly used the word ὀρύησήç(orchestes, 'dancer') to designate the actor in this kind of drama, and ὀρύησήç continues to be employed through many centuries, particularly by the inheritors of the Greek tradition in Byzantium. In Rome, however, the performers were more commonly styled pantomimi from the rarer Greek παντóμΉμοç, or, even more frequently, they were called simply saltatores ('dancers '). Thus a certain P. Rusticellius is designated in an inscription simply as saltator,3 while the phrase saltare tragœdiam (' to dance a tragedy ') was a synonym for 'to act a pantomime.' This dancing naturally was accompanied by music, and it seems highly probable that the dancing figure or figures had as assistants either a singer or a chorus, who outlined in chanted form the development of the pantomimic plot. In any case, the word canticum, or song, is frequently met with, and we are distinctly told by Macrobius that Hylas, a famous pantomimic actor, "danced a song" (quum canticum saltaret Hylas).4 A picture of such a performance is drawn by Cassiodorus when he mentions the applause greeting the appearance of the chief of the pantomimes; "well- trained and harmonious choruses, accompanied by diverse instruments, assist him in his art" (assistant consoni chori diversis organis eruditi).5Cantare tragaediam ('to sing a tragedy'), therefore, comes to mean the same as saltare tragœdiam.

Concerning the true nature of the pantomime no ancient authority has left any certain statement. When Cassiodorus6 says that "the name pantomimus is derived from the manifold imitation" indulged in by this art he fails to make any clear distinction between the pantomime and the mime, and a similar failure is to be found in the relevant section of Diomedes' work on Latin grammar.7 It seems highly probable, however, that normally (although not necessarily always) the pantomime was distinguished from other forms of theatrical art by the fact that one individual actor took a variety of rôles in a single play. Masks certainly were worn by the performers, and apparently these masks were often changed, in order to mark off different characters. These pantomimic masks were distinguished from the ordinary theatrical masks by having no mouth openings. "With closed mouth," says Cassiodorus,8 "the pantomimic actor speaks with his

____________________
1
We are, of course, concerned here neither with attempts made to discover mimic influence on non-dramatic classical literature, such as those of Reich ( i, 296-416) regarding Plato, and K. Preston ( Some Sources of Comic Effect in Petronius, in Classical Philology, x ( 1915), 3) regarding Petronius, nor with those made to discern similar influence on medieval fabliaux. In this discussion I have kept strictly to theatrical forms.
2
The best study of the Roman pantomime is that by C. J. Grysar, Über die Pantomimen der Römer ( Rheinisches Museum, ii ( 1834), 30-80). Many of the works on the mime deal also with this subject. Cf. C. Magnin, pp. 468-516.
3
I. C. Orelli, No. 2641 ( i, 461).
4
Macrobius, Sat., II, vii, 13.
5
Cassiodorus, iv, 51 ( Opera, ed. J. Garetii, Venice, 1729, i, 73).
6
iv, 51 (ed. cit., i, 73).
7
Artis grammaticæ libri III (in H. Keil, ed. cit., i, 492).
8
Cassiodorus, i, 20 (ed. cit., i, II).

-131-

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