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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Michael Ridgway Jones
Department of Classics
University of Georgia

"Natural" Women: The Mima and the Construction of Gender

Increasing attention has been paid in the past few years to the dynamics and theatrical practices of the Roman pantomime, a site interesting in itself, but also worth investigation for its effects (still in need of further research) on other texts, as in certain narratives of Ovid. Of course, the performers of the pantomime were, as far as we know, men: in this, the pantomime was no different from comedy or tragedy. The shifting surfaces of pantomimic performance have been interpreted as an interrogation of the relationship between the identity of the actor and the gender embodied by his performance, its concomitants and its constituent elements: mask, costume, gesture, voice (Richlin 1992). This paper proposes, however, to shift the focus and to consider instead that most overtly "realistic" of ancient dramatic genres, the mime, performed barefoot (hence the name planipes) and without masks. In its naturalistic scenes of the street and the bedroom women, apparently, were women. Only in the mime, and in no other type of ancient dramatic performance, were female roles played by performers who were actually women. In other words, person and persona fit perfectly.

But it is precisely this at first glance unproblematic, transparent relationship that this paper questions. I argue that the women of the Roman mime are no less artificial than their cross-dressed counterparts in the other genres, only that the mode of their theatricality has different effects and, perhaps, different aims. Of course, to a great extent our efforts are hampered by the scattered and incomplete state of the ancient evidence: the widely varied remains of a material culture often difficult to interpret, pitifully few fragments of what is usually called the "literary mime" (e.g., Decimus Laberius and Publilius Syrus), and occasional references in texts dating from the first century B.C.E. until the end of the Empire and beyond. Nevertheless, some conventions of the mime can be identified with reasonable certainty. The distinctive costume of the mime, the ricinium, and its absence, when nudity was at least occasionally demanded (cf. Val. Max. 2.10.8), mark the curious theatrical identity of the mima. This is an identity in flux, an identity in a state of perpetual motion, continually made and unmade by the gendered gaze of the spectators. On the one hand, the mima was figured as meretrix, both by the nature and by the very fact of her performance. But hers was a theatrical prostitution, just as her body was a theatricalized body: costume-as-costume gives way to the body-as-costume (Klossowski 1986). In fact, the ricinium, always about to disappear, poses more effectively than the pallium, the cothurni, or perhaps even the mask itself the problem of the body as the object of desire. But this is only a part of the story. The mima was also quite often called upon to play the part of an adulterous matrona, trapped between the affections of a paramour and the demands of a husband (Reynolds 1946, McKeown 1979). As it turns out, this transformation of matrona into meretrix figures in at least two fragments from mime-scripts of the late Republic (Laberius fr. 33R, Publilius ad Petr. Sat. 55).

This artificiality of the mima and, more to the point, the crucial role of costume in marking this artificiality are reproduced, for example, in certain characteristic scenarios of elegy. I will examine one such scenario in this paper. In poem 2.23, Propertius reveals his decision to abandon his adulterous ways, at once too demanding and too dangerous, in favor of less strenuous liaisons with prostitutes. The woman whom Propertius indignantly rejects is familiar: she is his version, his rewriting of the adulterous matrona of the mime, while the woman he prefers is instead the mima-as-meretrix, ironically "free" (libera). Like the mima in her ricinium, the Propertian puella walks reiecto amictu (2.23.13) and wherever she pleases, unburdened by husband and — more or less — by clothes. The arduous and expensive challenge of the matrona's bed chamber has yielded to the all-too-evident attractions of a slave mistress. "Woman," the object of the poet's (frustrated) desire, is thus deftly split in two. The oscillation between person and persona detected in the performance of the mima is incorporated by Propertius into his text as two kinds of performed "woman." The matrona and the meretrix, re-membered in the performance of the mima, can be seen as further examples of Propertius' scriptae puellae (Wyke 1987).

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