Definition of PANTOMIME as given by Microsoft Encarta®

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Pantomime, art of dramatic representation using facial expressions and body movements rather than words. In the open-air theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, where the audience could see more easily than it could hear, mime was an important element of acting. Pantomime was essential to commedia dell'arte, an improvised comedy that began in 16th-century Italy. Pantomime continued in the 17th- and 18th-century harlequinade, an offshoot of the commedia dell'arte, which depicted the adventures of Harlequin; his sweetheart, Columbine; and her father, Pantaleone. The pantomime eventually emerged as an elaborately staged spectacle with dialogue, song, dance, acrobatics, and other elements from the English music hall.

In the 20th century two French actors, Étienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau, were outstanding mimes. Actors in early 20th-century silent motion pictures, including Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, relied entirely on mime to convey the story. A group of actors, including Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Bill Berky, became known as new vaudevillians and helped revitalize mime performance during the 1980s and early 1990s.


Commedia Dell'arte, form of professional theater, one of the earliest and most influential in Europe, originating in northern Italy in the 1550s and flourishing for 200 years. In their improvised comedies, Commedia troupes relied on stereotypical characters, masks, broad physical gestures, and clowning to play to large, diverse crowds.

The stock character types of the Commedia were instantly recognizable. Lecherous Arlecchino wore a black, snub-nosed mask, was extremely acrobatic, and possessed the cunning of an amoral child. Pantalone, a cheap and gullible merchant, attempted to disguise his old age and attract women by wearing tight-fitting Turkish clothes. The Doctor used meaningless Latin phrases and prescribed dangerous remedies. Endlessly boasting of his victories in war and love, the Captain always proved to be a coward and an inane lover. A pot-bellied rascal, Pulcinella concocted outrageous schemes to satisfy his desires. Columbine, a servant or wife of one of the Old Men, demonstrated intelligence and charm in a world of stupidity and misunderstanding. Although the governments of Spain and France attempted to censor and regulate this popular theater form, the physical humor and character types of the Commedia were eventually incorporated in conventional theater.

Marceau, Marcel (1923-2007), French mime, considered to have almost single-handedly revived the ancient art of pantomime. He was born in Strasbourg. In 1946 he enrolled at the School of Dramatic Arts in Paris, where he studied with Étienne Decroux. In 1947 he created his famous mime character, Bip. Marceau's one-man show was probably the outstanding success of the 1955-1956 theatrical season in New York City, and he toured the United States many times. Marcel died in 2007 at the age of 84. More info.