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Communicating Emotion in Tragic Pantomime

Helen Slaney

The gestural vocabulary of Graeco-Roman tragic pantomime did not develop in isolation, but tapped into a broader cultural field of body language operating across multiple art forms. While we have limited information concerning the choreographic elements of pantomime per se, it is the contention of this paper that individual components may be recovered by examining the representation of analogous content in cognate media. The gestural expression of emotions or pathē was essential to the well-attested affective capacity of pantomime. On the basis of a cross-media gestural vocabulary of emotion, I argue that spectatorial engagement in pantomime was predicated on responses to fleeting but deeply imprinted gestural triggers.

While a number of studies of Roman pantomime have appeared in the last decade (most prominently Garelli 2007, Lada-Richards 2007, Webb 2008 and Hall & Wyles 2008), a precise taxonomy of the art form remains elusive due to the paucity of source material. The symbiosis of pantomime and oratory has been established by Lada-Richards 2007 and Molloy 1996, and its affinity with the visual arts by Lada-Richards 2004. More recent studies have analysed the poetics of potential libretti such as Senecan tragedy (Slaney 2013, Zanobi 2014) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Lada-Richards 2013). This cross-media methodology, which maps information derived from related cultural discourses onto the dancer’s otherwise invisible practice, substantially informs my approach in this paper, but I apply it to the hitherto relatively unexplored area of emotional expression.

That emotions or pathē are both integral to pantomime and condensed into recognisable schemata or gestural formulae is attested by Lucian’s dialogue ‘On the dance’. Like rhetoric, Lucian claims, pantomime consists of ethē – the characters – and pathē, the affective states which move them. Several pathē are identified by name: grief (penthos, lupē), jealousy (zēlotupia), fear (phobos), anger (orgē) and psychosis (mania). In order to represent these states effectively in a non-verbal medium, the pantomime artist was able to draw on an existing palette of gestural imagery already available to his audience.

One powerful emotion with a highly developed cross-media iconography is grief. Mentioned explicitly by Lucian, it also plays a role in many of the mythological episodes enacted in pantomime. Verbal descriptions of grief in tragedy and epic – both genres established as resources for pantomime scenarios – yield a repertoire of associated gesture. Striking the head and the breast, tearing at flesh or clothing, covering the face, and falling to the ground are all indicative of grieving (e.g. Aeschylus Persae 1046-55, Choeph. 423-28; Euripides Troades 116-18; Seneca Troades 83-116; Ovid, Met. 2.344-47). These actions, moreover, are not restricted to fictional contexts but occur within funerary ritual. The Tomb of the Haterii, for example, depicts mourners who appear to be performing similar self-harming gestures. Drawing on this ready-made iconographic repertoire enabled pantomime artists to stimulate affective responses in spectators for whom these attitudes triggered a wealth of pre-existing associations.

Supplementary examples of this process may be observed for other affective states such as horror, psychosis, abasement, and shame. Body language in antiquity has been the subject of recent studies such as those collected in Cairns 2005 (and cf. Chaniotis 2012), but these findings have not been considered in light of their relationship to theatrical dance. By ascribing the affective effectiveness of pantomime to its embeddedness in a gestural system circulating across media, we can conclude that its movement vocabulary was less expressive than performative; that is, rather than moving his audience through spontaneous passion, the pantomime ‘uttered’ precise gestural units that released profound emotional force. This force was generated dynamically as he dancer’s movement fused with the spectator’s prior exposure to similar actions. In this way, codification was not incompatible with the passage of pathē as sensed in the (performing or spectating) body. Moreover, this mechanism of affective cultivation reinforced responses to embodied emotion experienced in daily life beyond the theatre. 

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Roman Dance Cultures in Context

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