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The Pantomimical Characters
by [?]

Hence it is that no scholars in Europe but the most learned Italians, smit by the national genius, could have devoted their vigils to narrate the revolutions of pantomime, to compile the annals of Harlequin, to unrol the genealogy of Punch, and to discover even the most secret anecdotes of the obscurer branches of that grotesque family, amidst their changeful fortunes, during a period of two thousand years! Nor is this all; princes have ranked them among the Rosciuses; and Harlequins and Scaramouches have been ennobled. Even Harlequins themselves have written elaborate treatises on the almost insurmountable difficulties of their art. I despair to convey the sympathy they have inspired me with to my reader; but every Tramontane genius must be informed, that of what he has never seen he must rest content to be told.

Of the ancient Italian troop we have retained three or four of the characters, while their origin has nearly escaped our recollection; but of the burlesque comedy, the extempore dialogue, the humorous fable, and its peculiar species of comic acting, all has vanished.

Many of the popular pastimes of the Romans unquestionably survived their dominion, for the people will amuse themselves, though their masters may be conquered; and tradition has never proved more faithful than in preserving popular sports. Many of the games of our children were played by Roman boys; the mountebanks, with the dancers and tumblers on their moveable stages, still in our fairs, are Roman; the disorders of the Bacchanalia, Italy appears to imitate in her carnivals. Among these Roman diversions certain comic characters have been transmitted to us, along with some of their characteristics, and their dresses. The speaking pantomimes and extemporal comedies which have delighted the Italians for many centuries, are from this ancient source.[3]

Of the Mimi and the Pantomimi of the Romans the following notices enter into our present researches:

The Mimi were an impudent race of buffoons, who exulted in mimicry, and, like our domestic fools, were admitted into convivial parties to entertain the guests; from them we derive the term mimetic art. Their powers enabled them to perform a more extraordinary office, for they appear to have been introduced into funerals, to mimic the person, and even the language of the deceased. Suetonius describes an Archimimus accompanying the funeral of Vespasian. This Arch-mime performed his part admirably, not only representing the person, but imitating, according to custom, ut est mos, the manners and language of the living emperor. He contrived a happy stroke at the prevailing foible of Vespasian, when he inquired the cost of all this funeral pomp–“Ten millions of sesterces!” On this he observed, that if they would give him but a hundred thousand they might throw his body into the Tiber.

The Pantomimi were quite of a different class. They were tragic actors, usually mute; they combined with the arts of gesture music and dances of the most impressive character. Their silent language often drew tears by the pathetic emotions which they excited: “Their very nod speaks, their hands talk, and their fingers have a voice,” says one of their admirers. Seneca, the father, grave as was his profession, confessed his taste for pantomimes had become a passion;[4] and by the decree of the Senate, that “the Roman knights should not attend the pantomimic players in the streets,” it is evident that the performers were greatly honoured. Lucian has composed a curious treatise on pantomimes. We may have some notion of their deep conception of character, and their invention, by an anecdote recorded by Macrobius of two rival pantomimes. When Hylas, dancing a hymn, which closed with the words “The great Agamemnon,” to express that idea he took it in its literal meaning, and stood erect, as if measuring his size–Pylades, his rival, exclaimed, “You make him tall, but not great!” The audience obliged Pylades to dance the same hymn; when he came to the words he collected himself in a posture of deep meditation. This silent pantomimic language we ourselves have witnessed carried to singular perfection; when the actor Palmer, after building a theatre, was prohibited the use of his voice by the magistrates. It was then he powerfully affected the audience by the eloquence of his action in the tragic pantomime of Don Juan![5]