Automata and Bêtise: Contamination Anxieties in Late Nineteenth-Century French Mime

Laura Purcell-Gates


A complex relationship to gestural expression can be discerned through a close reading of the writings of late nineteenth-century Parisian mime artists and critics. The textual examination that I conduct in this article illuminates anxieties over the ideological construct of the “natural” body as it was positioned against the constructs of socialisation and civilisation in the late nineteenth century and identified with concepts of gross materiality (such as bodily fluids) and the organic (the living, breathing body set against the cold corpse). I argue that late nineteenth-century nostalgia for and simultaneous disgust with a “natural” Pierrot influenced the development of techniques of mime based on minimalist movement. Minimalist here refers to small and contained bodily movements that are discernible only at close proximity, a mechanised performance style marked by rapid, rigid movements associated with the automaton—set against the “natural” body as identified with the fluid and organic.

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