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Religious Mimicry

The act of ridiculing or making sport of a religious rite. This entry will limit itself to mimicry of the early Christian rites (see also Abbot of Unreason).

Much of the dramatic entertainment for people in the Hellenistic and imperial eras consisted of scenes parodied from daily life. Gestures and facial expressions played an important role in these productions. On rare occasions the strolling companies of mimes approached the level of drama by concentrating on a person's character instead of a plot. A single individual at times performed all the roles in a mime. Mimes frequently buffooned a character in a novel situation, such as a poor man with sudden riches. Simple plots, abrupt endings, and vile language added spice, since the only fixed prop was a movable curtain. Most of the mimes dealt with sordid themes; in imperial times a stock theme was adultery, often performed on stage. Spectators witnessed an actual execution when a condemned criminal took the actor's place at a critical point in the play. Most actors were not known for their high moral character or social station.

The mime's flexibility and adaptability to current tastes gave it perpetual vitality. Popular songs and dances were introduced as needed. But since it lacked the dramatic art of tragedy and comedy, the mime was a drama of escape rather than interpretation. It had deserted the religious basis of earlier classical forms.

The “Christian” had probably become a stock figure in the mime by the second century. The church's rites, especially baptism, were parodied as the baptismal candidate, accompanied by a number of clerics, was led on stage for the ceremony. Tradition has it that St. Genesius, the patron of actors, was converted while performing his parody of baptism in which an emotional “fit” preceded the rite. Updating earlier interests in execution, the mimes also ridiculed martyrdom.

Since the mimes were among the last popular strongholds of paganism, their continuing concern with the old gods and their mimicry of Christian rituals prompted vehement attacks from Christian spokesmen. Such attacks were leveled in the writings of Minucius Felix, Tatian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and others. Augustine distinguished between comedies or tragedies and the mimes with their filthy language.

Special works against the theater were composed by Tertullian, Cyprian, and Chrysostom. Tertullian asked how a Christian could pray “amen” and still praise the mime with the same lips. Cyprian judged it improper for a Christian to act or instruct others in the trade; the community should support such a person with its poor chest. According to Chrysostom, God spoke through monks while the mimes were the devil's spokesmen. Their songs, dances, and shows were his litany and sacrament, and their guiding principle, like his, was disguise and imitation. People who attended the shows were the devil's children. Seductive actresses with curled hair and painted cheeks, singing their “ballads of the brothel,” were nothing less than contemptuous. Chrysostom called the mime an incurable plague, a snare of death, a theater of concupiscence. These Christian writers apparently held that it was unlawful to witness what was unlawful to do.

The Council of Illiberis required that a pantomimist renounce his trade before baptism, while the Third Council of Carthage was more moderate. The Council of Trullo denounced both pantomimists and their theaters. The pagan Zosimos reproached the Christian emperor Constance for patronizing the mimes. A decree at Elvira forbidding Christians to be charioteers or pantomimists was reiterated at Arles (452), although no mention was there made of attending plays. Leo the Great contended that the theater attracted greater crowds than martyrs' festivals.

Christian attacks were largely unsuccessful, since a large body of nominal Christians viewed the mime as harmless. Interest in this entertainment never faltered in the Eastern Empire; some of Eastern hymnody bore witness to the power of the mimes' songs. As the church's power increased, it got the upper hand. All performers of mime were excommunicated in the fifth century, and in the sixth Justinian closed all theaters. The mime remained unacceptable to most churchmen even after it was forced to drop its mimicry of sacraments and rites, but it lived on as a form of popular entertainment.