THE WORKS OF LUCIAN OF SAMOSATA
Volume II 1
H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler
"Lucian (c 120-200 A.D.) was a Greek writer, lawyer, and instructor of rhetoric. He wrote many dialogues on contemporary life and customs."2 The chapter below, presented in the form of a dialogue, gives a contemporary account of the art of pantomime in ancient Greece and Rome.
|OF PANTOMIME [Footnote: 'Pantomime' has been chosen as the most natural translation of orchaesis, which in this dialogue has reference for the most part to the ballet-dancer (pantomimus) of imperial times. On the other hand, Lycinus, in order to establish the antiquity and the universality of an art that for all practical purposes dates only from the Augustan era, and (despite the Greek artists) is Roman in origin, avails himself of the wider meaning of orchaesis to give us the historic and prehistoric associations of dance in Greece and elsewhere; and in such passages it seemed advisable to sacrifice consistency, and to translate orchaesis dance.]
Ly. Here are heavy charges, Crato; I suppose you have been getting up this subject for some time. You are not content with attacking the whole pantomimic art, practical and theoretic; we too, the pleased spectators thereof, come in for our share: we have been lavishing our admiration, it seems, on effeminate triflers. And now let me show you how completely you have been mistaken; you will find that the art you have been maligning is the greatest boon of our existence. There is some excuse for your strictures: how should you know any better, confirmed ascetic that you are, believing that virtue consists in being uncomfortable?
Cr. Now, my dear sir, can any one who calls himself a man, and an educated man, and in some sort a student of philosophy,—can such a one leave those higher pursuits, leave communing with the sages of old, to sit still and listen to the sound of a flute, and watch the antics of an effeminate creature got up in soft raiment to sing lascivious songs and mimic the passions of prehistoric strumpets, of Rhodopes and Phaedras and Parthenopes, to the accompaniment of twanging string and shrilling pipe and clattering heel? It is too absurd: these are not amusements for a gentleman; not amusements for Lycinus. When I first heard of your spending your time in this way, I was divided betwixt shame and indignation, to think that you could so far forget Plato and Chrysippus and Aristotle, as to sit thus having your ears tickled with a feather. If you want amusements, are there not a thousand things worth seeing and hearing? Can you not hear classical music performed at the great festivals? Are there not lofty tragedy and brilliant comedy,—things that have been deemed worthy of state recognition? My friend, you have a long reckoning to settle with men of learning, if you would not be repudiated altogether, and expelled from the congregation of the wise. I think your best course will be a point-blank denial: declare flatly that you never did anything of the kind. Anyhow, you must watch your conduct for the future: we do not want to find that our Lycinus has changed his sex, and become a Bacchante or a Lydian damsel. That would be as much to our discredit as to yours: for ours should be Odysseus's part,—to tear you from the lotus, and bring you back to your accustomed pursuits; to save you from the clutches of these stage Sirens before it is too late. The Sirens, after all, did but plot against men's ears; it needed but a little wax, and a man might sail past them uninjured: but yours is a captivity of ear and eye, of body and soul.
Ly. Goodness gracious! All the Cynic in you is loose, and snarls at me. At the same time, I think your Lotus-and-Siren simile is rather off the point: you see, the people who ate the Lotus and listened to the Sirens paid for the gratification of ear and palate with their lives: whereas I not only have a great deal more enjoyment than they had, but am all the better for it. I have experienced no oblivion of my domestic affairs, nor blindness to my own interests; in fact—if I may venture to say so—you will find my penetration and practical wisdom considerably increased by my theatrical experiences. Homer has it exactly: the spectator
Returns a gladder and a wiser man.
Cr. Dear, dear! Yours is a sad case, Lycinus. You are not even ashamed; you seem quite pleased with yourself. That is the worst of it: there seems no hope of your recovery, while you can actually commend the mire in which you wallow.
Ly. Now, Crato,—you talk of pantomimes and theatres,—have you seen these performances yourself, that you are so hard on them? or do you decide that they are 'foul mire' without personal experience? If you have seen them, you are just as bad as I am; and if not, are you justified in censuring them? does it not savour of over-confidence, to condemn what you know nothing about?
Cr. Truly that would be the climax: that I should show my long beard and white hairs amid that throng of women and lunatics; and clap and yell in unseemly rapture over the vile contortions of an abandoned buffoon.
Ly. I can make allowance for you. But wait till I have prevailed on you to give it a fair trial, to accept the judgement of your own eyes: after that you will never be happy till you have secured the best seat in the theatre, where you may hear every syllable, mark every gesture.
Cr. While this beard is yet unplucked, these limbs unshaven, God forbid that I should ever find happiness in such things. As it is, my poor friend, I see that you are wholly possessed.
Ly. Now suppose you were to abstain from further abuse, and hear what I have to say of the merits of Pantomime; of the manner in which it combines profit with amusement; instructing, informing, perfecting the intelligence of the beholder; training his eyes to lovely sights, filling his ears with noble sounds, revealing a beauty in which body and soul alike have their share. For that music and dancing are employed to produce these results is no disparagement of the art; it is rather a recommendation.
Cr. I have not much time for listening to a madman's discourse in praise of his own madness. However—if you must deluge me with nonsense—I am prepared to do you that friendly office. My ears are at your service: they need no wax to render them deaf to foolishness. Henceforth I will be silent: speak on;—no one is listening.
Ly. Thank you, Crato; just what I wanted. As to 'foolishness,' that remains to be seen. Now, to begin with, you seem to be quite ignorant of the antiquity of the pantomimic art. It is not a new thing; it does not date from to-day or yesterday; not, that is to say, from our grandfathers' times, nor from their grandfathers' times. The best antiquarians, let me tell you, trace dancing back to the creation of the universe; it is coeval with that Eros who was the beginning of all things. In the dance of the heavenly bodies, in the complex involutions whereby the planets are brought into harmonious intercourse with the fixed stars, you have an example of that art in its infancy, which, by gradual development, by continual improvements and additions, seems at length to have reached its climax in the subtle harmonious versatility of modern Pantomime.
The first step, we learn, was taken by Rhea, who was so pleased with the art that she introduced it among the Corybantes in Phrygia and the Curetes in Crete. She was richly rewarded: for by their dancing they saved her child Zeus, who owes it to them (nor can he with decency deny it) that he escaped the paternal teeth. The dancing was performed in full armour; sword clashed against shield, and inspired heels beat martial time upon the ground. The art was presently taken up by the leading men in Crete, who by dint of practice became admirable dancers; and this applies not only to private persons, but to men of the first eminence, and of royal blood. Thus Homer, when he calls Meriones a dancer, is not disparaging him, but paying him a compliment: his dancing fame, it seems, had spread not only throughout the Greek world, but even into the camp of his enemies, the Trojans, who would observe, no doubt, on the field of battle that agility and grace of movement which he had acquired as a dancer. The passage runs as follows:
Meriones, great dancer though thou be,
it did not, however, do so; his practice in that art enabling him, apparently, to evade without difficulty any spears that might be hurled at him.
I could mention a number of other heroes who went through a similar course of training, and made a serious study of dancing: but I will confine myself to the case of Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, and a most eminent dancer. He it was who invented that beautiful dance called after him the Pyrrhic; a circumstance which may be supposed to have afforded more gratification to his father than his comeliness, or his prowess in other respects. Thus Troy, impregnable till then, falls a victim to the dancer's skill, and is levelled with the dust.
The Lacedaemonians, who are reputed the bravest of the Greeks, ever since they learnt from Castor and Pollux the Caryatic (a form of dance which is taught in the Lacedaemonian town of Caryae), will do nothing without the accompaniment of the Muses: on the field of battle their feet keep time to the flute's measured notes, and those notes are the signal for their onset. Music and rhythm ever led them on to victory. To this day you may see their young men dividing their attention between dance and drill; when wrestling and boxing are over, their exercise concludes with the dance. A flute-player sits in their midst, beating time with his foot, while they file past and perform their various movements in rhythmic sequence, the military evolutions being followed by dances, such as Dionysus and Aphrodite love. Hence the song they sing is an invitation to Aphrodite and the Loves to join in their dance and revel; while the other (I should have said that they have two songs) contains instructions to the dancers: 'Forward, lads: foot it lightly: reel it bravely' (i.e. dance actively). It is the same with the chain dance, which is performed by men and girls together, dancing alternately, so as to suggest the alternating beads of a necklace. A youth leads off the dance: his active steps are such as will hereafter be of use to him on the field of battle: a maiden follows, with the modest movements that befit her sex; manly vigour, maidenly reserve,—these are the beads of the necklace. Similarly, their Gymnopaedia is but another form of dance.
You have read your Homer; so that I need say nothing of the Shield of Achilles, with its choral dance, modelled on that which Daedalus designed for Ariadne; nor of the two dancers ('tumblers,' he calls them) there represented as leading the dance; nor again of the 'whirling dance of youth,' so beautifully wrought thereon by Hephaestus. As to the Phaeacians, living as they did in the lap of luxury, nothing is more natural than that they should have rejoiced in the dance. Odysseus, we find, is particularly struck with this: he gazes with admiration on the 'twinkling of their feet.' In Thessaly, again, dancing was such a prominent feature, that their rulers and generals were called 'Dancers-in- chief,' as may be seen from the inscriptions on the statues of their great men: 'Elected Prime Dancer,' we read; and again: 'This statue was erected at the public expense to commemorate Ilation's well-danced victory.'
I need hardly observe that among the ancient mysteries not one is to be found that does not include dancing. Orpheus and Musaeus, the best dancers of their time, were the founders of these rites; and their ordinances show the value they attached to rhythm and dance as elements in religion. To illustrate this point would be to make the ceremonial known to the uninitiated: but so much is matter of common knowledge, that persons who divulge the mysteries are popularly spoken of as 'dancing them out.' In Delos, not even sacrifice could be offered without dance and musical accompaniment. Choirs of boys gathered and performed their dance to the sound of flute and lyre, and the best of them were chosen to act characters; the songs written for these occasions were known as chorales; and the ancient lyric poetry abounded in such compositions.
But I need not confine myself to the Greeks. The Indians, when they rise to offer their morning salutation to the Sun, do not consider it enough to kiss their hands after the Greek fashion; turning to the East, they silently greet the God with movements that are designed to represent his own course through the heavens; and with this substitute for our prayers and sacrifices and choral celebrations they seek his favour at the beginning of every day and at its close. The Ethiopians go further, and dance even while they fight; the shaft an Ethiopian draws from that arrow-crown that serves him in place of a quiver will never be discharged before he has intimidated his enemy with the threatening gestures of the war-dance.
Having dealt with India and Ethiopia, let us now consider the neighbouring country of Egypt. If I am not mistaken, the Egyptian Proteus of ancient legend is no other than a dancer, whose mimetic skill enables him to adapt himself to every character: in the activity of his movements, he is liquid as water, rapid as fire; he is the raging lion, the savage panther, the trembling bough; he is what he will. The legend takes these data, and gives them a supernatural turn,—for mimicry substituting metamorphosis. Our modern pantomimes have the same gift, and Proteus himself sometimes appears as the subject of their rapid transformations. And it may be conjectured that in that versatile lady Empusa we have but another artist of the same kind, mythologically treated.
Our attention is next claimed by the Roman dance of the Salii, a priesthood drawn from the noblest families; the dance is performed in honour of Mars, the most warlike of the Gods, and is of a particularly solemn and sacred character. According to a Bithynian legend, which agrees well with this Italian institution, Priapus, a war-like divinity (probably one of the Titans, or of the Idaean Dactyls, whose profession it was to teach the use of arms), was entrusted by Hera with the care of her son Ares, who even in childhood was remarkable for his courage and ferocity. Priapus would not put weapons into his hands till he had turned him out a perfect dancer; and he was rewarded by Hera with a tenth part of all Ares's spoils. As to the rites of Dionysus, you know, without my telling you, that they consisted in dancing from beginning to end. Of the three main types of dance, the cordax, the sicinnis, and the emmelia, each was the invention and bore the name of one of the Satyrs, his followers. Assisted by this art, and accompanied by these revellers, he conquered Tyrrhenians, Indians, Lydians, dancing those warlike tribes into submission.
Then beware, my enlightened friend, of the guilt of sacrilege. Will you attack the holy mystic art in which so many Gods delight; by which their worshippers do them honour; which affords so much pleasure, so much useful instruction? To return once more to the poets: when I think of your affection for Homer and Hesiod, I am amazed to find you disputing the preeminence they assign to the dance. Homer, in enumerating all that is sweetest and best, mentions sleep, love, song, and dance; but of these dance alone is 'faultless.' He testifies, moreover, to the 'sweetness' of song: now our art includes 'sweet song' as well as the 'faultless dance' which you take upon you to censure. Again, in another passage we read:
To one the God hath given warlike deeds:
And lovely indeed is the song that accompanies the dance; it is the Gods' best gift. Homer seems to divide all things under the two heads of war and peace; and among the things of peace he singles out these two as the best counterpart to the things of war. Hesiod, not speaking from hearsay, but coming fresh from the sight of the Muses' morning dance, has this high tribute to them in the beginning of his poem:
Their dainty feet round the dark waters dance,
about the altar of Zeus.—My dear sir, your onslaught upon the dance is little short of blasphemy.
Socrates—that wisest of men, if we may accept the judgement of the Pythian oracle—not only approved of dancing, but made a careful study of it; and, in his zeal for grace and elegance, for harmonious movement and carriage of the body, thought it no shame, reverend sage that he was, to rank this among the most important branches of learning. And well might he have an enthusiasm for dancing, who scrupled not to study the humblest arts; who frequented the schools of the flute-girls, and could stoop to learn wisdom from the mouth of an Aspasia. Yet in his days the art was in its infancy, its beauties undeveloped. Had Socrates seen the artists who have made modern Pantomime what it is, he would assuredly have given it his exclusive attention, and assigned it the first place in the education of youth.
I think you forget, when you advocate the claims of tragedy and comedy, that each of them has its own peculiar form of dance; tragedy its emmelia, comedy its cordax, supplemented occasionally by the sicinnis. You began by asserting the superiority of tragedy, of comedy, and of the periodic performances on flute and lyre, which you pronounce to be respectable, because they are included in public competitions. Let us take each of these and compare its merits with those of dancing. The flute and the lyre, to be sure, we might leave out of the discussion, as these have their part to play in the dance.
In forming our estimate of tragedy, let us first consider its externals— the hideous, appalling spectacle that the actor presents. His high boots raise him up out of all proportion; his head is hidden under an enormous mask; his huge mouth gapes upon the audience as if he would swallow them; to say nothing of the chest-pads and stomach-pads with which he contrives to give himself an artificial corpulence, lest his deficiency in this respect should emphasize his disproportionate height. And in the middle of it all is the actor, shouting away, now high, now low,—chanting his iambics as often as not; could anything be more revolting than this sing- song recitation of tragic woes? The actor is a mouthpiece: that is his sole responsibility;—the poet has seen to the rest, ages since. From an Andromache or a Hecuba, one can endure recitative: but when Heracles himself comes upon the stage, and so far forgets himself, and the respect due to the lion-skin and club that he carries, as to deliver a solo, no reasonable person can deny that such a performance is in execrable taste. Then again, your objection to dancing—that men act women's parts—is equally applicable to tragedy and comedy, in which indeed there are more women than men.
By comedy, the absurdity of the masks—of a Davus, for instance, or a Tibius, or a cook—is actually claimed as one of its attractions. On the other hand, I need not tell you how decent, how seemly, is the dancer's attire; any one who is not blind can see that for himself. His very mask is elegant, and well adapted to his part; there is no gaping here; the lips are closed, for the dancer has plenty of other voices at his service. In old days, dancer and singer were one: but the violent exercise caused shortness of breath; the song suffered for it, and it was found advisable to have the singing done independently.
As to the subjects treated, they are the same for both, Pantomime differing from tragedy only in the infinite variety of its plots, and in the superior ingenuity and learning displayed in them. Dancing may not be included in our public competitions; but the reason is that the stewards regard it as a matter too high and solemn to be subjected to criticism. I forbear to add that in one Italian city—the greatest of the Chalcidian name—a special lustre has been added to the public games by the introduction of a dancing competition.
And now, before I proceed further, I wish to offer an explanation of themany omissions I have made, which might otherwise be attributed to ignorance. I am well aware that the subject has already been dealt with by a number of writers, who have chiefly occupied themselves with a description of the various forms of dance, and a catalogue of their names, their characters, and their inventors; and this they regard as a proof of erudition. Such work I leave to the ambition of dullards and pedants, as foreign to my own purpose. I would have you observe, and bear in mind, that I do not propose to make a complete history of the art of dancing; nor is it my object to enumerate the names of dances, except so far as I have already done, in handling a few of the principal types: on the contrary, I am chiefly concerned with pointing out the profit and pleasure to be derived from modern Pantomime, which did not begin to take its present admirable form in ancient days, but only in the time of Augustus, or thereabouts. In those earlier times we have but the beginnings of the art; the tree is taking root; the flower and the fruit have reached their perfection only in our own day, and it is with these that I have to do. The tongs-dance, the crane-dance, and others I pass over because they are alien to my subject; similarly, if I have said nothing of the Phrygian dance,—that riotous convivial fling, which was performed by energetic yokels to the piping of a flute-girl, and which still prevails in country districts,—I have omitted it not from ignorance, but because it has no connexion with the Pantomime of to-day. I have the authority of Plato, in his Laws, for approving some forms of dance and rejecting others; he there examines the dance from the two points of view of pleasure and utility, banishes those forms that are unseemly, and selects others for his recommendation.
Of dancing then, in the strict sense of the word, I have said enough. To enlarge further upon its history would be pedantic. And now I come to the pantomime. What must be his qualifications? what his previous training? what his studies? what his subsidiary accomplishments? You will find that his is no easy profession, nor lightly to be undertaken; requiring as it does the highest standard of culture in all its branches, and involving a knowledge not of music only, but of rhythm and metre, and above all of your beloved philosophy, both natural and moral, the subtleties of dialectic alone being rejected as serving no useful purpose. Rhetoric, too, in so far as that art is concerned with the exposition of human character and human passions, claims a share of its attention. Nor can it dispense with the painter's and the sculptor's arts; in its close observance of the harmonious proportions that these teach, it is the equal of an Apelles or a Phidias. But above all Mnemosyne, and her daughter Polyhymnia, must be propitiated by an art that would remember all things. Like Calchas in Homer, the pantomime must know all 'that is, that was, that shall be'; nothing must escape his ever ready memory. Faithfully to represent his subject, adequately to express his own conceptions, to make plain all that might be obscure;—these are the first essentials for the pantomime, to whom no higher compliment could be paid than Thucydides's tribute to Pericles, who, he says, 'could not only conceive a wise policy, but render it intelligible to his hearers'; the intelligibility, in the present case, depending on clearness of gesticulation.
For his materials, he must draw continually, as I have said, upon his unfailing memory of ancient story; and memory must be backed by taste and judgement. He must know the history of the world, from the time when it first emerged from Chaos down to the days of Egyptian Cleopatra. These limitations we will concede to the pantomime's wide field of knowledge; but within them he must be familiar with every detail:—the mutilation of Uranus, the origin of Aphrodite, the battle of Titans, the birth of Zeus, Rhea's deception, her substitution of a stone for her child, the binding of Cronus, the partition of the world between the three brothers. Again, the revolt of the Giants, Prometheus's theft of fire, his creation of mankind, and the punishment that followed; the might of Eros and of Anteros, the wanderings of the island Delos, the travail of Leto, the Python's destruction, the evil design of Tityus, the flight of eagles, whereby the earth's centre was discovered. He must know of Deucalion, in whose days the whole world suffered shipwreck, of that single chest wherein were preserved the remnants of the human race, of the new generation born of stones; of the rending of Iacchus, the guile of Hera, the fiery death of Semele, the double birth of Dionysus; of Athene and Hephaestus and Erichthonius, of the strife for the possession of Athens, of Halirrhothius and that first trial on the Areopagus, and all the legendary lore of Attica. Above all, the wanderings of Demeter, the finding of Persephone, the hospitality of Celeus; Triptolemus's plough, Icarius's vineyard, and the sad end of Erigone; the tale of Boreas and Orithyia, of Theseus, and of Aegeus; of Medea in Greece, and of her flight thereafter into Persia, and of Erechtheus's daughters and Pandion's, and all that they did and suffered in Thrace. Acamas, and Phyllis, and that first rape of Helen, and the expedition of Castor and Pollux against Athens, and the fate of Hippolytus, and the return of the Heraclids,—all these may fairly be included in the Athenian mythology, from the vast bulk of which I select only these few examples.
Then in Megara we have Nisus, his daughter Scylla, and his purple lock; the invasion of Minos, and his ingratitude towards his benefactress. Then we come to Cithaeron, and the story of the Thebans, and of the race of Labdacus; the settlement of Cadmus on the spot where the cow rested, the dragon's teeth from which the Thebans sprang up, the transformation of Cadmus into a serpent, the building of the walls of Thebes to the sound of Amphion's lyre, the subsequent madness of the builder, the boast of Niobe his wife, her silent grief; Pentheus, Actaeon, Oedipus, Heracles; his labours and slaughter of his children.
Corinth, again, abounds in legends: of Glauce and of Creon; in earlier days, of Bellerophon and Stheneboea, and of the strife between Posidon and the Sun; and, later, of the frenzy of Athamas, of Nephele's children and their flight through the air on the ram's back, and of the deification of Ino and Melicertes. Next comes the story of Pelops's line, of all that befell in Mycenae, and before Mycenae was; of Inachus and Io and Argus her guardian; of Atreus and Thyestes and Aerope, of the golden ram and the marriage of Pelopeia, the murder of Agamemnon and the punishment of Clytemnestra; and before their days, the expedition of the Seven against Thebes, the reception of the fugitives Tydeus and Polynices by their father-in-law Adrastus; the oracle that foretold their fate, the unburied slain, the death of Antigone, and that of Menoeceus.
Nor is any story more essential to the pantomime's purpose than that of Hypsipyle and Archemorus in Nemea; and, in older days, the imprisonment of Danae, the begetting of Perseus, his enterprise against the Gorgons; and connected therewith is the Ethiopian narrative of Cassiopea, and Cepheus, and Andromeda, all of whom the belief of later generations has placed among the stars. To these must be added the ancient legend of Aegyptus and Danaus, and of that guilty wedding-night.
Lacedaemon, too, supplies him with many similar subjects: Hyacinth, and his rival lovers, Zephyr and Apollo, and the quoit that slew him, the flower that sprang up from his blood, and the inscription of woe thereon; the raising of Tyndareus from the dead, and the consequent wrath of Zeusagainst Asclepius; again, the reception of Paris by Menelaus, and the rape of Helen, the sequel to his award of the golden apple. For the Spartan mythology must be held to include that of Troy, in all its abundance and variety. Of all who fell at Troy, not one but supplies a subject for the stage; and all—from the rape of Helen to the return of the Greeks—must ever be borne in mind: the wanderings of Aeneas, the love of Dido; and side by side with this the story of Orestes, and his daring deeds in Scythia. And there are earlier episodes which will not be out of place; they are all connected with the tale of Troy: such are the seclusion of Achilles in Scyrus, the madness of Odysseus, the solitude of Philoctetes, with the whole story of Odysseus's wanderings, of Circe and Telegonus, of Aeolus, controller of the winds, down to the vengeance wreaked upon the suitors of Penelope; and, earlier, Odysseus's plot against Palamedes, the resentment of Nauplius, the frenzy of the one Ajax, the destruction of the other on the rocks.
Elis, too, affords many subjects for the intending pantomime: Oenomaus, Myrtilus, Cronus, Zeus, and that first Olympian contest. Arcadia, no less rich in legendary lore, gives him the flight of Daphne, the transformation of Callisto into a bear, the drunken riot of the Centaurs, the birth of Pan, the love of Alpheus, and his submarine wanderings.
Extending our view, we find that Crete, too, may be laid under contribution: Europa's bull, Pasiphae's, the Labyrinth, Ariadne, Phaedra, Androgeos; Daedalus and Icarus; Glaucus, and the prophecy of Polyides; and Talos, the island's brazen sentinel.
It is the same with Aetolia: there you will find Althaea, Meleager, Atalanta, and the fatal brand; the strife of Achelous with Heracles, the birth of the Sirens, the origin of the Echinades, those islands on which Alcmaeon dwelt after his frenzy was past; and, following these, the story of Nessus, and of Deianira's jealousy, which brought Heracles to the pyre upon Oeta. Thrace, too, has much that is indispensable to the pantomime: of the head of murdered Orpheus, that sang while it floated down the stream upon his lyre; of Haemus and of Rhodope; and of the chastisement of Lycurgus.
Thessalian story, richer still, tells of Pelias and Jason; of Alcestis; and of the Argo with her talking keel and her crew of fifty youths; of what befell them in Lemnos; of Aeetes, Medea's dream, the rending of Absyrtus, the eventful flight from Colchis; and, in later days, of Protesilaus and Laodamia.
Cross once more to Asia, and Samos awaits you, with the fall of
In Italy, we have the Eridanus, Phaethon, and his poplar-sisters, who wept tears of amber for his loss.
The pantomime must be familiar, too, with the story of the Hesperides, and the dragon that guarded the golden fruit; with burdened Atlas, and Geryon, and the driving of the oxen from Erythea; and every tale of metamorphosis, of women turned into trees or birds or beasts, or (like Caeneus and Tiresias) into men. From Phoenicia he must learn of Myrrha and Adonis, who divides Assyria betwixt grief and joy; and in more modern times of all that Antipater [Footnote: Not Antipater, but Antiochus, is meant.] and Seleucus suffered for the love of Stratonice.
The Egyptian mythology is another matter: it cannot be omitted, but on account of its mysterious character it calls for a more symbolical exposition;—the legend of Epaphus, for instance, and that of Osiris, and the conversion of the Gods into animals; and, in particular, their love adventures, including those of Zeus himself, with his various transformations.
Hades still remains to be added, with all its tragic tale of guilt and the punishment of guilt, and the loyal friendship that brought Theseus thither with Pirithous. In a word, all that Homer and Hesiod and our best poets, especially the tragedians, have sung,—all must be known to the pantomime. From the vast, nay infinite, mass of mythology, I have made this trifling selection of the more prominent legends; leaving the rest for poets to celebrate, for pantomimes to exhibit, and for your imagination to supply from the hints already given; and all this the artist must have stored up in his memory, ready to be produced when occasion demands.
Since it is his profession to imitate, and to show forth his subject by means of gesticulation, he, like the orators, must acquire lucidity; every scene must be intelligible without the aid of an interpreter; to borrow the expression of the Pythian oracle,
Dumb though he be, and speechless, he is heard
by the spectator. According to the story, this was precisely the experience of the Cynic Demetrius. He had inveighed against Pantomime in just your own terms. The pantomime, he said, was a mere appendage to flute and pipe and beating feet; he added nothing to the action; his gesticulations were aimless nonsense; there was no meaning in them; people were hoodwinked by the silken robes and handsome mask, by the fluting and piping and the fine voices, which served to set off what in itself was nothing. The leading pantomime of the day—this was in Nero's reign—was apparently a man of no mean intelligence; unsurpassed, in fact, in wideness of range and in grace of execution. Nothing, I think, could be more reasonable than the request he made of Demetrius, which was, to reserve his decision till he had witnessed his performance, which he undertook to go through without the assistance of flute or song. He was as good as his word. The time-beaters, the flutes, even the chorus, were ordered to preserve a strict silence; and the pantomime, left to his own resources, represented the loves of Ares and Aphrodite, the tell-tale Sun, the craft of Hephaestus, his capture of the two lovers in the net, the surrounding Gods, each in his turn, the blushes of Aphrodite, the embarrassment of Ares, his entreaties,—in fact the whole story. Demetrius was ravished at the spectacle; nor could there be higher praise than that with which he rewarded the performer. 'Man,' he shrieked at the top of his voice, 'this is not seeing, but hearing and seeing, both:'tis as if your hands were tongues!'
And before we leave Nero's times, I must tell you of the high tribute paid to the art by a foreigner of the royal family of Pontus, who was visiting the Emperor on business, and had been among the spectators of this same pantomime. So convincing were the artist's gestures, as to render the subject intelligible even to one who (being half a Greek) could not follow the vocal accompaniment. When he was about to return to his country, Nero, in taking leave of him, bade him choose what present he would have, assuring him that his request should not be refused. 'Give me,' said the Pontian, 'your great pantomime; no gift could delight me more.' 'And of what use can he be to you in Pontus?' asked the Emperor. 'I have foreign neighbours, who do not speak our language; and it is not easy to procure interpreters. Your pantomime could discharge that office perfectly, as often as required, by means of his gesticulations.' So profoundly had he been impressed with the extraordinary clearness of pantomimic representation.
The pantomime is above all things an actor: that is his first aim, in the pursuit of which (as I have observed) he resembles the orator, and especially the composer of 'declamations,' whose success, as the pantomime knows, depends like his own upon verisimilitude, upon the adaptation of language to character: prince or tyrannicide, pauper or farmer, each must be shown with the peculiarities that belong to him. I must give you the comment of another foreigner on this subject. Seeing five masks laid ready—that being the number of parts in the piece—and only one pantomime, he asked who were going to play the other parts. He was informed that the whole piece would be performed by a single actor. 'Your humble servant, sir,' cries our foreigner to the artist; 'I observe that you have but one body: it had escaped me, that you possessed several souls.'
The term 'pantomime,' which was introduced by the Italian Greeks, is an apt one, and scarcely exaggerates the artist's versatility. 'Oh boy,' cries the poet, in a beautiful passage,
As that sea-beast, whose hue
Most necessary advice, this, for the pantomime, whose task it is to identify himself with his subject, and make himself part and parcel of the scene that he enacts. It is his profession to show forth human character and passion in all their variety; to depict love and anger, frenzy and grief, each in its due measure. Wondrous art!—on the same day, he is mad Athamas and shrinking Ino; he is Atreus, and again he is Thyestes, and next Aegisthus or Aerope; all one man's work.
Other entertainments of eye or ear are but manifestations of a single art: 'tis flute or lyre or song; 'tis moving tragedy or laughable comedy. The pantomime is all-embracing in the variety of his equipment: flute and pipe, beating foot and clashing cymbal, melodious recitative, choral harmony. Other arts call out only one half of a man's powers—the bodily or the mental: the pantomime combines the two. His performance is as much an intellectual as a physical exercise: there is meaning in his movements; every gesture has its significance; and therein lies his chief excellence. The enlightened Lesbonax of Mytilene called pantomimes 'manual philosophers,' and used to frequent the theatre, in the conviction that he came out of it a better man than he went in. And Timocrates, his teacher, after accidentally witnessing a pantomimic performance, exclaimed: 'How much have I lost by my scrupulous devotion to philosophy!' I know not what truth there may be in Plato's analysis of the soul into the three elements of spirit, appetite, and reason: but each of the three is admirably illustrated by the pantomime; he shows us the angry man, he shows us the lover, and he shows us every passion under the control of reason; this last—like touch among the senses—is all- pervading. Again, in his care for beauty and grace of movement, have we not an illustration of the Aristotelian principle, which makes beauty a third part of Good? Nay, I once heard some one hazard a remark, to the effect that the philosophy of Pantomime went still further, and that in the silence of the characters a Pythagorean doctrine was shadowed forth.
All professions hold out some object, either of utility or of pleasure: Pantomime is the only one that secures both these objects; now the utility that is combined with pleasure is doubled in value. Who would choose to look on at a couple of young fellows spilling their blood in a boxing-match, or wrestling in the dust, when he may see the same subject represented by the pantomime, with the additional advantages of safety and elegance, and with far greater pleasure to the spectator? The vigorous movements of the pantomime—turn and twist, bend and spring— afford at once a gratifying spectacle to the beholder and a wholesome training to the performer; I maintain that no gymnastic exercise is its equal for beauty and for the uniform development of the physical powers, —of agility, suppleness, and elasticity, as of solid strength.
Consider then the universality of this art: it sharpens the wits, it exercises the body, it delights the spectator, it instructs him in the history of bygone days, while eye and ear are held beneath the spell of flute and cymbal and of graceful dance. Would you revel in sweet song? Nowhere can you procure that enjoyment in greater variety and perfection. Would you listen to the clear melody of flute and pipe? Again the pantomime supplies you. I say nothing of the excellent moral influence of public opinion, as exercised in the theatre, where you will find the evil-doer greeted with execration, and his victim with sympathetic tears. The pantomime's most admirable quality I have yet to mention,—his combination of strength and suppleness of limb; it is as if brawny Heracles and soft Aphrodite were presented to us in one and the same person.
I now propose to sketch out the mental and physical qualifications necessary for a first-rate pantomime. Most of the former, indeed, I have already mentioned: he must have memory, sensibility, shrewdness, rapidity of conception, tact, and judgement; further, he must be a critic of poetry and song, capable of discerning good music and rejecting bad. For his body, I think I may take the Canon of Polyclitus as my model. He must be perfectly proportioned: neither immoderately tall nor dwarfishly short; not too fleshy (a most unpromising quality in one of his profession) nor cadaverously thin. Let me quote you certain comments of the people of Antioch, who have a happy knack in expressing their views on such subjects. They are a most intelligent people, and devoted to Pantomime; each individual is all eyes and ears for the performance; not a word, not a gesture escapes them. Well, when a small man came on in the character of Hector, they cried out with one voice: 'Here is Astyanax; and where is Hector?' On another occasion, an exceedingly tall man was taking the part of Capaneus scaling the walls of Thebes; 'Step over' suggested the audience; 'you need no ladder.' The well-meant activity of a fat and heavy dancer was met with earnest entreaties to 'spare the platform'; while a thin performer was recommended to 'take care of his health.' I mention these criticisms, not on account of their humorous character, but as an illustration of the profound interest that whole cities have sometimes taken in Pantomime, and of their ability to discern its merits and demerits.
Another essential for the pantomime is ease of movement. His frame must be at once supple and well-knit, to meet the opposite requirements of agility and firmness. That he is no stranger to the science of the boxing—and the wrestling-ring, that he has his share of the athletic accomplishments of Hermes and Pollux and Heracles, you may convince yourself by observing his renderings of those subjects. The eyes, according to Herodotus, are more credible witnesses than the ears; though the pantomime, by the way, appeals to both kinds of evidence.
Such is the potency of his art, that the amorous spectator is cured of his infirmity by perceiving the evil effects of passion, and he who enters the theatre under a load of sorrow departs from it with a serene countenance, as though he had drunk of that draught of forgetfulness
That lulls all pain and wrath.
How natural is his treatment of his subjects, how intelligible to every one of his audience, may be judged from the emotion of the house whenever anything is represented that calls for sorrow or compassion. The Bacchic form of Pantomime, which is particularly popular in Ionia and Pontus, in spite of its being confined to satyric subjects has taken such possession of those peoples, that, when the Pantomime season comes round in each city, they leave all else and sit for whole days watching Titans and Corybantes, Satyrs and neat-herds. Men of the highest rank and position are not ashamed to take part in these performances: indeed, they pride themselves more on their pantomimic skill than on birth and ancestry and public services.
Now that we know what are the qualities that a good pantomime ought to possess, let us next consider the faults to which he is liable. Deficiencies of person I have already handled; and the following I think is a fair statement of their mental imperfections. Pantomimes cannot all be artists; there are plenty of ignorant performers, who bungle their work terribly. Some cannot adapt themselves to their music; they are literally 'out of tune'; rhythm says one thing, their feet another. Others are free from this fault, but jumble up their chronology. I remember the case of a man who was giving the birth of Zeus, and Cronus eating his own children: seduced by the similarity of subject, he ran off into the tale of Atreus and Thyestes. In another case, Semele was just being struck by the lightning, when she was transformed into Creusa, who was not even born at that time. Still, it seems to me that we have no right to visit the sins of the artist upon the art: let us recognize him for the blunderer that he is, and do justice to the accuracy and skill of competent performers.
The fact is, the pantomime must be completely armed at every point. His work must be one harmonious whole, perfect in balance and proportion, self-consistent, proof against the most minute criticism; there must be no flaws, everything must be of the best; brilliant conception, profound learning, above all human sympathy. When every one of the spectators identifies himself with the scene enacted, when each sees in the pantomime as in a mirror the reflection of his own conduct and feelings, then, and not till then, is his success complete. But let him reach that point, and the enthusiasm of the spectators becomes uncontrollable, every man pouring out his whole soul in admiration of the portraiture that reveals him to himself. Such a spectacle is no less than a fulfilment of the oracular injunction KNOW THYSELF; men depart from it with increased knowledge; they have learnt something that is to be sought after, something that should be eschewed.
But in Pantomime, as in rhetoric, there can be (to use a popular phrase) too much of a good thing; a man may exceed the proper bounds of imitation; what should be great may become monstrous, softness may be exaggerated into effeminacy, and the courage of a man into the ferocity of a beast. I remember seeing this exemplified in the case of an actor of repute. In most respects a capable, nay, an admirable performer, some strange fatality ran him a-ground upon this reef of over-enthusiasm. He was acting the madness of Ajax, just after he has been worsted by Odysseus; and so lost control of himself, that one might have been excused for thinking his madness was something more than feigned. He tore the clothes from the back of one of the iron-shod time-beaters, snatched a flute from the player's hands, and brought it down in such trenchant sort upon the head of Odysseus, who was standing by enjoying his triumph, that, had not his cap held good, and borne the weight of the blow, poor Odysseus must have fallen a victim to histrionic frenzy. The whole house ran mad for company, leaping, yelling, tearing their clothes. For the illiterate riffraff, who knew not good from bad, and had no idea of decency, regarded it as a supreme piece of acting; and the more intelligent part of the audience, realizing how things stood, concealed their disgust, and instead of reproaching the actor's folly by silence, smothered it under their plaudits; they saw only too clearly that it was not Ajax but the pantomime who was mad. Nor was our spirited friend content till he had distinguished himself yet further: descending from the stage, he seated himself in the senatorial benches between two consulars, who trembled lest he should take one of them for a ram and apply the lash. The spectators were divided between wonder and amusement; and some there were who suspected that his ultra-realism had culminated in reality. However, it seems that when he came to his senses again he bitterly repented of this exploit, and was quite ill from grief, regarding his conduct as that of a veritable madman, as is clear from his own words. For when his partisans begged him to repeat the performance, he recommended another actor for the part of Ajax, saying that 'it was enough for him to have been mad once.' His mortification was increased by the success of his rival, who, though a similar part had been written for him, played it with admirable judgement and discretion, and was complimented on his observance of decorum, and of the proper bounds of his art.
I hope, my dear Crato, that this cursory description of the Pantomime may mitigate your wrath against its devoted admirer. If you can bring yourself to bear me company to the theatre, you will be captivated; you will run Pantomime-mad. I shall have no occasion to exclaim, with Circe,
Strange, that my drugs have wrought no change in thee!
The change will come; but will not involve an ass's head, nor a pig's heart, but only an improved understanding. In your delight at the potion, you will drain it off, and leave not a drop for any one else. Homer says, of the golden wand of Hermes, that with it he
charms the eyes of men,
So it is with Pantomime. It charms the eyes-to wakefulness; and quickens the mental faculties at every turn.
Cr. Enough, Lycinus: behold your convert! My eyes and ears are opened. When next you go to the theatre, remember to take a seat for me next your own. I too would issue from those doors a wiser man.
1 This work was reprinted from a source identifying it as a work in the public domain in the United States and that could be freely copied and redistributed from that source. The World of Mime Theatre, as did the original source, presents the work "as is," with no assurances that it is completely free of errors of completeness and accuracy of transcription. Before quoting the work, as it is presented here, for academic purposes, the reader may wish to compare other sources of this same work, some of which are available online.
2 Rolfe, Bari. Mimes on Miming: Writings on the Art of Mime. Los Angeles: Panjandrum/Aris Books, 1979. 14
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