- Mercier’s Revolutionary Theater: Reimagining Pantomime, the Aesthetic of the Unfinished, and the Politics of the Stage
Few eighteenth-century men were as well versed in the scenic arts as Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a frequent theatergoer, a leading critic of classical drama, and the author of some sixty plays. Yet this familiarity with the stage did little to prepare him for the most powerful dramatic experience of his life, while in Mannheim in 1787: A performance of Schiller’s The Robbers in German, a language he did not know. After reflecting on his experience, Mercier concluded that the emotions he had felt that day were the result of his transmutation from a receptive stance to a creative one: “Il y a du plaisir à deviner une action, à interpréter le geste, le regard, tous les mouvements et les accessoires de la scène; on compose alors la pièce avec l’auteur, et, je l’ai remarqué, la sensation que l’on se crée est plus vive que celle que l’on reçoit.”1 Forced to rely on his imagination to compose the dialogue that he could not understand, Mercier had experienced at once the pleasure of the creator and that of the spectator. Scholars of the eighteenth century will undoubtedly recognize the influence of two crucial aesthetic movements on Mercier’s explanation—the popularity of pantomime and the fascination with unfinished works of art. Yet Mercier’s account, while clearly drawing from these artistic movements, actually differs from them in significant ways. In fact, his experience in Mannheim would inspire him to [End Page 185] publish articles a decade later promoting a unique form of theater, strikingly different from the didactic drames bourgeois he remains best known for. In what follows, I will highlight the originality of this new conception of the dramatic arts, paying particular attention to the ways in which it challenged the revolutions in artistic and political thought of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
As Mercier notes in the quotation above, his inability to understand the meaning of the actors’ speech inspired him to focus his attention on their gestures, movements and props. Thus, the performance became for him a pantomime—a polysemic term that, in the eighteenth century, could be applied not only to silent plays, but also to any fragment of a performance in which gestures are foregrounded and speech is interrupted or unintelligible. Sophia Rosenfeld is not the first scholar to note the eighteenth century’s “widespread fascination with gestures and pantomime as means of communication and expression,” but in A Revolution in Language, she provides perhaps the most thorough examination of this fixation’s philosophical foundations.2 Her work draws particular attention to the belief among defenders of pantomime that gestures constituted a primeval means of communication, which preceded the development of spoken language and, as a result, retained a closer link to nature and truth. In fact, it was precisely because gestures were not mediated through language that they were deemed to be so much more poignant than words. More instinctive and instantaneous than speech, gestures could affect the spectators without requiring any intellectual involvement from them. The eighteenth-century critic Jean-François Marmontel opposed silent plays for that very reason: when watching a pantomime, he lamented, “on peut s’épargner presque la peine de penser.”3 But for proponents of pantomimes, the greater poignancy of silent gestures revealed the failure of language to convey accurately the sensations of the characters on stage. Accordingly, many theorists in the second half of the eighteenth century argued that scenes of heightened emotional intensity should depict a collapse of language, with gestures and unarticulated cries taking the place of speech.
For most eighteenth-century thinkers, however, pantomime was not just a way of indicating an emotional breaking down of spoken language; it was a language in its own right. In other words, gestures and screams did not simply allude to the existence of ideas and emotions beyond communication; they [End Page 186] were themselves a mode of communication. Diderot, for instance, praises the scene in which Lady Macbeth compulsively washes the hands she had...