From the earliest history of mankind we can see a form of performance was evident within communities throughout the world. People developed their own IDEAS about how the world and the stars worked, and because of their lack of scientific knowledge, came up with their own myths and theories, which gave Gods and Goddesses a central feature in society. Death, birth, harvest and drought were honoured and personified, as these fundamental yet mysterious events in life were not fully understood. So priests became the wise men of each community of people, and here we find the first performances – one man standing in front of a group of people, using symbolic gesture and words to give a ritual form to celebrated and fearful occurrences in the cycle of life. At these times, there was only sacred spaces for priests to give a ‘performance’ in, and it wasn’t until 3000 bc that history gives us proof that places outside of temples and people other than priests seemed to have used dramatic gesture and speech to give drama to special occasions.
Earliest theatre seems to lie with the ancient greeks who used a chorus and a protagonist to speak the stories that the Greek culture had created to explain the world around and inside of them. It took a long time for this theatre to develop from its original primitive origins of a religious choral singing.
We can see the primitive form of mime in the earliest native cultures – some of which still exist today. The Aborigines and the Native American Indians are but two cultures that used dance and gesture to ritualise their observations and traditions in the world around them. Faces were painted using local plant extracts and skins were worn to mimic animals and their symbolic characteristics. This was the earliest form of stage makeup and mask.
The use of makeup and mask was the exaggeration of features that were observed in the person / god or animal the performer was interpreting. This caricature is used commonly in mime as we know it today to exemplify different types of character.
The dances and movement performances of these people would incorporate actions to suggest the story telling of fishing or hunting for example, and these actions are indeed what we know as mime. Over a period of time these stories developed and moved away from the ritualistic and religious performance genre and into a defined theatre experience, where actors, dancers and storytellers used their body to create form to their own tales.
Performance in its physical nature (rather than a purely spoken one) is referenced in the ancient culture of the Chinese. It could be seen that mime first came about through the mimicry of ancestors in a performance of religious intention. This was skilfully and highly developed by the Chinese who told their stories with precision of movement to give definition to the sets and scenes on stage. An example of this would be of an actor, carefully miming the opening of a door into another room to show the audience that he was moving away from the action on centre stage.
Movements were controlled and precise, the motion of the eyeballs, fingertips and facial muscles were used to convey a stylised character and gesture to give meaning to the story that was being told.
It was in the Chinese theatre that the early forms of the Italian Commedia dell Arte may originally be seen. The Chinese performers used hand carved wooden masks that were often painted to create stock characters that had distinctive personality traits. Colour and objects were used to symbolise other things such as water, horses and states of mind. These props needed to be used correctly so their interpretation did not have to be guessed by the audience.
Japanese culture also used dance and mimetic gesture to tell the stories of their everyday life. We can see the use of mime, dance, speech, music and poetry in today’s Noh and Kagura theatre forms.
Early Chinese, Japanese and Indian theatre all upheld the precision of movement from the performer as chief to the stage performance. It was so integral to them that each action and character was understood and specific, that the actors would use their eyeballs, fingertips and facial muscles to stylise actions so they could be understood as they were meant to be intended.
Each culture used mimetic gesture, music and dance to create beautiful, highly detailed performances. It was crucial that their audience understood the symbolic use of a prop, such as a bamboo pole to represent a boat, so the actors gestures, postures and reaction to the set and props was finely tuned for easy understanding. This was an art form that was not for metaphorical purposes, where the audience needed to second guess or intellectualise what they had seen, these performances were works of beauty in their controlled simplicity.
Indian dramatic art has been written thoroughly about in classical works of literature. Hence we know that they looked at the composites of movement and labelled each single gesture (in a similar way that Etienne Decroux did with his codifying of mimical movements within Corporeal mime - this he did to separate dance and mime as performance genres).
Indian culture relates the use of theatre very directly to the spiritual nature of the performer and life itself. One had to be careful which single gesture was used, because it could be easily misinterpreted and send out wrong signals into the Godly realms. The expression of art was seen as a line to the Gods when done with conscientiousness and an open heart.