THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT
OF THE ART OF MIME
The language of gestures was born with man and is reborn every day as part of his need to express himself. Before the human voice developed, gestures served not only to communicate but to aid in the development of vocal sounds. Later they were incorporated in the first forms of written language of, for example, the Egyptians, the Aztecs, and in the pictographic writings of the Hebrews. Gestures and expressive movement were also utilized in ancient religious dances and ceremonies. And from the ancient ceremonies in China, Japan, India, and Egypt emerged the actor, who was at once a dancer, singer, and mime.
In Greece, the first recorded pantomime actor is the legendary dancer Telestes, who in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes (467 B.C.) detached himself from the chorus to interpret, through rhythmic steps and gestures, the action that the chorus sang or recited. With the addition of text, protagonists, and stage sets, miming and dance remained intrinsic to both tragedy and comedy. As the Greek theatre developed movement became basic to the actor's art.
And, though the art of mime in Greece developed into several distinct categories, it rarely separated from dance and speaking theatre. Only among the Romans did it disengage from dance and speech to give birth to pantomime. Roman pantomime consisted of short, improvised, burlesque scenes and depicted current events and themes of love, adultery, and mocking of the gods. During the age of Julius Caesar it became more literary in the works of, for example, Laberius (106-43 B.C.). While tragic pantomime was developed by Pylades of Cicilia and his disciples, his rival Bathyllus of Alexandria and his followers performed comic pantomime.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, entertainers who inherited the Greco-Roman mime traditions sang, danced, imitated, and performed acrobatics at the courts and at private banquets throughout Europe. And despite the ups and downs of their fortune, strolling jongleurs and mimes never abandoned the ancient mime traditions. The mimes, who earlier had played a role in the Latin comedy's development and in the works of authors such as Plautus, later collaborated in the religious and comic theatre of the Middle Ages. And these same traditions and this mimic spirit would be revived when they fused with one of the richest theatre forms in Europe, the commedia dell'arte.
Like the Greco-Roman mime and Atellan farce, the commedia dell'arte contains stock character types, masks, farcical action, and scenes full of bastinadoes, acrobatics, and amusing stage business. The scenarios are short and simple and the action flexible enough to allow the actor freedom to improvise, mime, and clown. This improvisational element is reinforced by the use of inserted bits of comical stock business, similar to the tricae of Atellan farce, called lazzi. Along with perfected technique, the actor's art depends upon successfully linking these lazzi, often transmitted from generation to generation, to the main action. Each actor specializes in a stock character, which frequently has a counterpart in ancient mimodrama or Atellan farce. Arlecchino with his shaven head and flat feet, his multicolored coat and black mask, recalls the ancient Roman buffoon, who daubed himself with soot.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, allegorical and mythological, pageant-type ballet-pantomimes were performed at the courts and in the theatres of Europe. Among them were the Duchesse du Maine's ballet-pantomimes at Sceaux and John Weaver's staging of The Loves of Mars and Venus at Drury Lane in 1717. The traditional dumb show in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and English melodramas, as well as the Elizabethan dumb shows, were also called pantomimes. In France, after the Italian Comedy was prohibited from playing in the official theatres and spoken dialogues and monologues in French were also forbidden, pantomime with commedia-type characters appeared at the Théâtres de la Foire. When staged in the English music halls at Christmas, they were called harlequinades. By the end of the nineteenth century, English Christmas pantomimes such as Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk contained spectacular scenic effects and popular music hall interludes with dialogue, acrobatics, singing, and dancing in which Clown had replaced Harlequin and Pierrot. And even though these Christmas pantomimes had almost no mime or dumb show and contained mostly dialogue, singing, and dancing, they were still called pantomimes or dumb shows because they included some element, however remote, of miming's technique and art. In nineteenth-century England and America, pantomime was incorporated into circus acts, as in clown George Fox's (1825-77) Humpty Dumpty and in the performances of the Hanlon-Lees.
Meanwhile, in France, Gaspard Deburau had immortalized the silent Pierrot pantomimes, which we today call pantomime blanche because of the whiteface the artist wears. All Paris came to applaud Deburau at the Théâtre des Funambules. His Pierrot, though inspired by the lazy, mischievous valet Pedrolino of the commedia dell'arte, soon became an essentially French character. He changed Pierrot from a cynical, grotesque rogue into a poetic fellow and brought a personal expression to the fantasy, acrobatics, melodrama, and spectacular staging that characterized nineteenth-century pantomimes. Not only did he add extempore bits of business to a given action, but he also invented his own scenarios. Just as for several centuries the commedia dell'arte, which depended on the actor's improvisational skills, had influenced European theatre, nineteenth-century pantomime, with Deburau's inventive genius, reached great heights. Other nineteenth century French mimes such as Paul Legrand, Alexandre Guyon, Louis Rouffe, and Séverin continued the Pierrot tradition. But at the turn of the century, classical pantomime had become stereotyped. It was Georges Wague who revitalized it and prepared the ground for modern mime, discovering and training mimes such as the author Colette, who performed in his company.
Mime also returned to the fore in 1923, when Jacques Copeau founded his acting school at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, where miming with a mask and doing exercises resembling those of the Noh drama helped the actor find greater corporeal expressivity. Convinced that the human body alone suffices to dress a bare stage, Copeau's student, Etienne Decroux, would endlessly research and perfect these exercises, developing them into his codified corporeal mime. His movement style was a far cry from the commedia figure from which Pierrot took his model. Unlike classical pantomime, corporeal mime was also no longer an anecdotal art that used conventional gestures to create illusions of objects or persons. The impetus Decroux's findings gave to twentieth-century mime had repercussions throughout the world, opening dimensions in technique and expression unheard of since ancient Greek mime and Roman pantomime.
By the mid-twentieth century, Paris was the place for mimes to be. It was here that several great masters gave new life to the mime art, as well as merged it with other forms. Etienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau, and Jacques Lecoq developed schools of mime that no longer represented traditional, nineteenth-century pantomime. Their schools and styles differed from one another, as much as they differed from Eastern European pantomime. It was in Paris, too, that, after studying and performing with Decroux and creating his own mimodramas, Jean-Louis Barrault brought Pierrot back to the stage in a 1946 Baptiste pantomime at the Marigny Theatre and in the role of Deburau in the film Children of Paradise. It was also in Paris that Barrault integrated expressive movement with speaking theatre. Meanwhile, Decroux's student, Marcel Marceau, would convert corporeal mime into an art that could be readily communicated. Through his Bip and style pantomimes he made this art known to the world. And while Decroux trained corporeal mimes in Paris and New York, Jacques Lecoq taught mime not as a separate art but as a research tool to further dramatic creativity as well as one which could be combined with other arts. Lecoq's global training method fused the art of the clown and the buffoon, juggling, acrobatics, spoken text, dance, plastic arts, and all of life with body movement. His movement expression, based on the observation of natural movement, opened up new directions for physical theatre. Meanwhile, in 1978, Marceau opened his school in Paris and taught workshops in America. Decroux, Barrault, and Lecoq inspired many mimes and theatre artists to discover multiple styles of twentieth-century movement theatre that, in turn, enriched other stage arts.
Through the contributions of Decroux, Marceau, and Lecoq three main schools of mime developed in Europe that had worldwide repercussions. The more commonly whitefaced, illusion pantomime portrayed concrete emotions and situations by means of conventional gestures, creating the illusion of something there which in reality is not. Corporeal mimes rejected this form to express abstract and universal ideas and emotions through codified movements of the entire body. Those in Lecoq movement theatre combined acting, dance, and clowning with movement. However, in the 1980s, even the whiteface, illusion pantomimists and Decroux's corporeal mimes began expanding in many new directions. Instead of limiting themselves to silent expression and classical pantomime or codified mime technique, they experimented freely with texts and the use of voice. Some mimes wrote their own texts, as did the Greek mime-authors, integrating the mime-actor's art with the author's. They also included props, costumes, masks, lighting effects, and music. Mime in the postmodern era thus incorporated so many new elements that it was no longer referred to exclusively as mime. It was called mime-dance, mime-clowning, mime-puppetry, New Vaudeville, etc. And if it contained movement expression along with other elements, it was loosely alluded to as physical or movement theatre.
While the actor's total expressivity developed through the theories of theatre animators, stage directors, and master teachers such as Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba, who broadened the actor's physicality by means of new training methods, barriers also began to break down to incorporate other art forms into previously hermetic movement styles. Just as modern mime had revolted against existing artistic forms, so postmodern mime and movement theatre continued the anti-traditional wave against a modernism grown too limited. In Europe, as well as in America, postmodern movement artists abandoned the pure forms of modern mime and classical pantomime to search for broader expressions.
Twentieth century verbal theatre also explored the use of physical
expression (mime in a broader sense) to create a more complete or total
form of theatre. This not only allowed the actor to challenge his own
creative resources but drew the spectator into a fuller sensory experience,
reestablishing the theatre as spectacle (from the Latin spectare meaning to
see) and giving free vent to the development of a fertile, richer, and more
If you would like to read more about the history of mime, read Annette Lust's book From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond: Mimes, Actors, Pierrots and Clowns: A Chronicle of the Many Visages of Mime in the Theatre, or visit The World of Mime Theatre's Bookstore page for other titles available on the subject.
Annette Bercut Lust is Professor Emerita at Dominican University (San
Rafael, California, USA) where she has taught courses in Beginning Mime, Theatre
Production, and Dramatic Literature. For her teaching and publications on the
French School of Mime she received the Palmes Académiques from the
French government in 1973, an award which is attributed to individuals who
contribute to French artistic and intellectual expansion. She is an
internationally published theatre critic, has been a member of the jury for the
Mimos Critics Award at the annual Festival International du Mime in Périgueux,
France for the past eight years, and has been invited into the San Francisco Bay
Area Theatre Critics Circle, which presents awards to local and touring
companies and artists. In 2001, she was nominated for the George Friedly Award.
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This page last updated 01 January 2003