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Imperial Pantomime and Satoshi Miyagi's Medea

William A. Johnson

Imperial pantomime was not, of course, the street performance that we think of today, but what seems to us a strange mix, with a notoriously effeminate silent masked male player (the "pantomime") at center stage, in some sense "acting" and "dancing" the part, while other male and female players, notionally off stage, spoke and sang the libretto, performed the music, and at times added an additional "actor." Exactly who did what, in what way, and where, remains controversial. The paper here does not attempt to solve those controversies, but does, as a foundational move, provide a succinct review of primary evidence, with suitable attention to the fact that such entertainments were not likely to have always fit within tight parameters, nor likely to have been static over time. (Hall/Wyles 2008, Garelli 2007, Lada-Richards 2007, Leppin 1992.)

The resulting image of pantomime, even if hazy or partly unstable, provides sufficient particulars to support the central paradox: what was it about the silent movement by one to the voice(s) and music of others that made the entertainment so attractive, especially given the availability of tragedy, comedy, and mime? The whole simply doesn't seem to add up to a sort of theater that could mesmerize Augustus and Trajan no less than Caligula and Nero, that led to repeated riots (but cf. Slater 1994), and that swept the eastern Mediterranean by storm when it was allowed to become part of traditional festivals.

In order to explore the question, we take as comparandum the evidence for certain types of Japanese dance-drama (cf. Smethurst 2013). For purposes of this 20-minute presentation, I will focus on an amazing contemporary play, Satoshi Miyagi's Medea (2011), which incorporates into Nō theater elements of Japanese Bunraku. Miyagi's piece is structured as a play within a play, in which the members of a 19th-century Japanese men's club receive a fresh translation of Euripides' Medea and decide to enact it by reading it aloud performatively (the "Speakers") and selecting female servants (the "Movers") to act out, through gesture and dance movements, the Euripidean drama; to the side (but notionally offstage) are other servants who add music, rhythm, chant, and aria-like song. Costuming for Speakers and musicians is dark, unobtrusive; for the Movers at center stage, exuberantly colorful, with exotic features (e.g., the Medea Mover is dressed as a foreigner from Korea). The Speakers (including Medea) are all males; the Movers (including Jason) are all females forced to act the part, roused to movement by the male voices but powerfully embodying the semiotics of the dance themselves. The subject matter is the traditional Euripidean material, emotional and dramatic but not a surprise to the audience: the play is written such that it assumes knowledge of the plot line to the story of Medea. The complex whole is curiously effective. As the audience will be able to glean even from the short video clips I provide, the mix of these elements is spectacular— moving, even thrilling.

At its core, there are several aspects to this play analogous to imperial pantomime —Speakers, Movers, role reversals along several planes (gender reversals, the fact that dancers "speak" through movement etc.), dramatic costume, masked expression, emotive music and rhythm, traditional mythological material — and I expect that many in the audience will have an "aha!" moment of understanding simply from the review of ancient evidence and viewing the performance clips. But the paper takes its final five minutes to explore the hypothesis that, both here and in ancient pantomime, an essential part of the effect derives from the strongly gendered nature of the entertainment. One need not invoke Lacanian desire or Aristotle's views on tragedy (Smethurst 2013) to see the fascination and wonder provoked by what I term an ecology of indirection and role reversal in combination with the powerful egoism of a central star performer.

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Performance and Space in Ancient Drama

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