The evolution of Pantomime in France
Levillain, Adele Dowling
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Pantomime is that form of dramatic expression in which the story is portrayed wholly through gesture and facial play without recourse to spoken dialogue. Although basically a universal expression, common to all peoples in the infancy of their evolution, it is to France that the credit is due for developing and perfecting it, creating the stylised dramatic genre which constitutes this art in its modem significance. The important periods of popularity for pantomime in France fall within the limits of the 19th century but like most phases of French culture, this art in its turn goes back to ancient Greece and Rome for its sources. Its introduction into France followed three separate avenues of approach, the earliest of them being through the crude and usually obscene buffoonery of strolling mountebanks and jongleurs who performed in the village squares and at the great fairs during the middle ages. In this latter connection the element of pantomime was of particular significance in that it was comprehensible to traders representing a diversity of languages and dialects. These early forain entertainers were the direct descendants of the popular mimes of ancient Rome. Another avenue of approach, and the first to establish itself in the professional theater in France, was through the Italian commedia dell' arte, which enjoyed so great a vogue in Paris during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. These comedies consisted of dialogue improvised on stock plots, elaborated by pantomime, dancing, acrobatics and popular songs. The pantomimic element was resorted to particularly for comic effects, often replacing the dialogue entirely. These pieces employed a set of conventional stock characters, which not only became the traditional types in both ballet and pantomime but also flooded the legitimate theater in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in the comedies of Molière, Lesage, Marivaux and their contemporaries. The banishment of the Italian players from the regularly licensed theaters of Paris opened up a new epoch in the development of pantomime. Seeking refuge with the forain entertainers outside the city limits, the Italian players became so popular that the Comedie Francaise, thinking to put an end to this irritating competition, retaliated by obtaining an injunction for the suppression of the spoken word in the forain theaters. The forain players circumvented the prohibition by resorting to pantomime and continued to perform with even greater success. Parallel with its development in the commedia dell' arte farces and forain comedies, pantomime also made notable progress in the ballet. Though the element of pantomime was more or less negligible in the ballet de cour popular during the reign of Louis XIV, it was greatly strengthened by Noverre, who made wide use of emotional situations and constructed plots of strong dramatic movement in his ballets during the last quarter of the 18th century. By the end of the 18th century the last of the great fairs had passed out of existence. These were replaced, so far as entertainment was concerned, by a number of popular little theaters which established themselves along the Boulevard du Temple, on the outskirts of the city. Their specialties were acrobatic and trained animal acts, ballets, pantomimes, comic operas and melodramas. It was at one of these theaters, the obscure little Théâtre des Funambules, that Deburau, founder of the classic French pantomime, made his début in 1817. At this time pantomime was featured at a number of theaters in this locality but with the acquisition of Deburau the Funambules gradually cams to take precedence over all of them. It was due to the inimitable genius of this great mime that Pierrot, the symbol of French pantomime, was born and that the art of pantomime took on a wholly new and characteristic significance. During the late thirties and early forties the Funambules came to be a theater à la mode for Parisians of all classes and a popular rendez-vous for such prominent littérateurs as Nodier, Jules Janin, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval and Champfleury, who publicized the little theater and its star in prolific and unrestrained articles and appreciations. If their exaggerated enthusiasm seems to us today grossly immoderate and overdrawn, it must be remembered that to these writers romanticism was irrevocably tied up with the foreign, the fantastic, the eccentric. This explains why the bizarre pantomimes of the Funambules appealed so strongly to them and were so avidly seized upon as a convenient means of letting off some of their romantic steam. Pantomime suffered a serious deterioration following the death of Deburau in 1846 but the Funambules continued to function until 1862, when this little theater was ordered torn down to make way for the cutting through of the new Boulevard du Prince Eugène, one of Baron Haussman's projects. For nearly three decades thereafter, pantomime was virtually forgotten in Paris. During this period, however, itinerant pantomime troupes, many of whose players were former members of the Funambules company, were actively touring the provinces and the art was also flourishing in the south of France in both Marseilles and Bordeaux. Here the classic traditions of Gaspard Deburau were passed on through Deburau's son, Charles, and through his pupil, Paul Legrand, to Louis Rouffe, the greatest mine of this period in the Midi. Rouffe, in his turn, handed down these traditions to his own pupil, Séverin, who was to reintroduce them to Paris during the last years of the century. A taste for pantomime reappeared in Paris during the latter eighties. It was first resorted to as a form of amateur "parlor" entertainment. In 1888 a group of young pantomime enthusiasts conceived the idea of founding a society which would devote its efforts to the revival of the classic pantomime and which would also serve as a proving ground for new experiments in the genre. This organization, known as the Cercle Funambulesque, was enthusiastically supported by leading writers, critics, musicians and actors of the day, as well as by a fair representation of Parisian society. Under the aegis of the Cercle Funambulesque, the art of pantomime underwent a complete metamorphosis rather than a mere restoration. Just as the Théâtre-Libre came to be irrevocably associated with naturalism in an exaggerated form so far as the spoken drama was concerned, so did the Cercle Funambulesque come to be regarded as the stronghold of a similar trend in the realm of pantomime. The naive buffoonery and fantasy of the earlier classic pantomime of Deburau's day gave way to mimodramas and comedies of manners, the greater number of which reflected the modern realism, the decadence, pessimism, scepticism and disillusionment of the epoch. One of the most important contributions of the Cercle Funambulesque to the development of pantomime was its renovation of the musical setting. In contrast to the heterogeneous collection of excerpts from operettas, ballets and classical selections, which was the method employed by the Funambules, the pantomimes produced by the Cercle Funambulesque had their accompaniments composed especially for them, the music constituting a running commentary on the dramatic interpretation, as in Wagner's music-dramas. The greatest single contribution of the organization was its production of l'Enfant prodigue, the chef-d'oeuvre of modern pantomime, which has appeared successfully in most of the capitals of the world and has been revived again and again. Séverin, "the last of the Pierrots", as Barrett H. Clark has called him, failed in an attempt to create a new Funambules theater in Paris in 1898 but succeeded in popularizing pantomime in the leading variety theaters of the French capital up to the eve of the war of 1914-18. His best-known vehicle, 'Chand d'habits, adapted by Catulle Mendès from an old Funambules production, is regarded as the chef-d'oeuvre of classic pantomime as l'Enfant prodigue represents its modern perfection. These two outstanding representatives of the pantomimic art, 'Chand d'habits and l'Enfant prodigue, have been revived on numerous occasions since 1919, the most recent of them being a production of l'Enfant prodigue in London in 1941, The success of each revival proves that although pantomime is no longer a popular form of entertainment, it still has its niche in the theater and never fails to find an appreciative, if limited, audience.
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