Volume VI - 2001

Literary Pantomimes: Students' Dynamic Creations
by John Joseph Courtney

John Joseph Courtney teaches EFL in the Institute for English Language Education at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand and is the Managing Editor of The English Teacher: An International Journal. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and an MA in TESL from Saint Michael's College of Vermont. His address is: Institute for English Language Education; Assumption University; Huamark, Bangkapi; Bangkok 10240; Thailand. e-mail: elcjcn@au.ac.th

    Pantomime is showing itself to be a dynamic way for EFL students to interact with literary texts. Students actively seek to perform creative scenes from simplified, graded readers or authentic literature for their fellow classmates, who describe and reflect upon these presentations. When I first introduced "silent acting" with literature in an English class, I realized the accompanying benefits of heightening the students' interest and engaging their imaginations (Courtney, 1996b). Since that time, I have observed the value of the wholly student-created pantomimes in reinforcing or improving understanding in the text, and getting students to further take control of their learning processes.


A pantomime is understood to be acting without words or, as it has been introduced to students, "silent acting." It is the "expression of something by bodily or facial movements only" (Merriam Webster, 1994, p. 530). Literary pantomimes involve students basing their silent acting on literary texts. There are substantial benefits for learners:

o Motivation to interpret texts
o Representing literary texts creatively
o Relating texts to physical action and positioning
o Gaining insights into texts from observing their peers' pantomimes
o Independently organizing and preparing performances
o Visualizing physical relationships and settings
o Projecting and representing textual sequencing and movement
o Conceptualizing and recreating literary images
o Representing characters' feelings, circumstances and points of view

Literary pantomimes can be introduced in many different ways in language classrooms, depending on the resources available as well as the imaginations and abilities of teachers and learners alike. What follows are some guidelines and reflections on and illustrations of the pantomimes. My Thai EFL students were generally at an intermediate level.

A Blend of Simplicity and Complexity

Literary pantomimes reflect a process that is intriguing for its blend of simplicity and complexity. Students are put into groups of three or four, and normally take at least one hour to prepare their pantomime(s) for the class. I have found that in classes of fifteen, where students have become comfortable speaking in English, groups are content in preparing two and, in some cases, three pantomimes. The students work on their pantomimes one or more days before the actual performances. This separation in time is very important because it allows students to read the text closely and discuss the many decisions they must make regarding the final presentation.

Interpreting for and from the Presentation

In rehearsal, student actors interpret scenes, sequences, concepts and imagery from the text. In performance, they present themselves in order for the other students to recognize and interpret the same textual elements. However, the members of the audience will be going in reverse, trying to find an appropriate understanding of the text through each pantomime. Each group that is responsible for a pantomime is free to choose any part or parts of the text for presentation. Whether a representation is easy or difficult to understand, obvious or obscure in relation to the text, students become mentally engaged with literature and with one another in a variety of ways.

Freedom in Preparation

Each group has the freedom in deciding how to prepare their literary pantomimes. Some students scan and discuss a number of scenes or chapters in their book, sometimes even choosing a scene and soon after discarding it when it is not working for them. Some students spend a great deal of their time silently practicing the actions of their scenes, with brief verbal clarifications. Other students quietly confer as they review selected passages. In one class, a couple of members from a group spent a significant amount of their time cryptically and humorously expressing to me and questioning what they intended to show in their pantomime. As in any collective, student-centered environment, students frequently tend to trade off on the strengths and weaknesses of each other in coming to terms with the task at hand.

Length of Performance

There is no time-limit for the performance of a literary pantomime, and pantomimes have lasted from under a minute to many minutes. A shorter pantomime, however, does not mean that it is easier to interpret. The shortest that has taken place in my class happened to be one that was "frozen"-nobody moved. After the lights were turned off, two performers assumed postures in relation to each other: one stepping forward and bowing as he joined hands with the other man. The postures were held while the lights were switched on for two seconds and then switched off again.. The students requested the group to repeat the scene. The scene subtly captured the personalities of Count Dracula and Jonathan, with Dracula in a domineering position. (Dracula is the story of a vampire who transforms himself in countless ways, often as a vampire bat, in pursuit of his victims. He is an extremely cunning, dreadful, yet enticing creature, who works in the night.) When the lights were turned on, the atmosphere associated with the scene, as well as Dracula's power, was dissipated: the pantomime had ended. In general, the freezing of the action in a pantomime could indicate a change of a scene or event, or bring to a close the students' interpretative performance. Regardless of the length of a scene, students are challenged to describe the pantomime that they have just seen.

Dramatic Techniques and Abstract Relations

In viewing the pantomimes, students are exposed to a number of dramatic techniques and abstract relations employed by their classmates. A dramatic technique is defined as a particular way that students attempt to aid their classmates in making connections to a certain piece of literature. Whether the performing students are aware of a noticeable dramatic technique is beside the point: many a famous actor or writer remains unaware of his or her creative processes. (Harold Pinter, the famous, contemporary British playwright, has claimed that he just does "the donkey work".) Dramatic techniques observed in the pantomimes have included sequencing, positioning, movement, gesticulating, stillness, sounds, an actor playing two parts, and the use of props or signs. Examples that will be elaborated on below have included sequences of Dracula taking control of his victims, two men angrily thrusting their arms toward one another in argument, the movement of a vampire's wings, and the sound of a gunman striking his adversary. An abstract relation is understood as an attempt to depict an idea, event or image that must be surmised or remembered by the students. Returning to the moment and image of Jonathan meeting Dracula, the literal event is a short ten lines, accompanied by an illustration, in a 118-page story. In understanding, realizing and feeling the deeper significance of the scene, the characters' relations and attributes would be reflected upon or described. Although Dracula is just meeting Jonathan, he is already planning to control and, ultimately, possess Jonathan. The abstract relation here is one man anticipating his dominance of another.

Performing Images

Dramatic techniques and abstract relations are sometimes combined with varying levels of complexity. (Of course, this depends on the level of proficiency and the age of the students involved. Of particular interest are students' efforts to recreate literary images, as in the above example of Dracula. The poor farmer from the Northeast of Thailand, desiring to avenge the murder of his family, reacts with fascination and apprehension as the heavy, invisible revolver is placed in his hands (from "A Hired Gunman", People of Esarn). In becoming a hired gunman, the man resorts to violence in a similar way to those officials who had his poor family killed. Tom Canty and Edward Tudor changing their clothes, and thus their appearances, in front of an imaginary, great mirror, a scene played from The Prince and the Pauper, was obvious for the students to see. The two boys who look like twins seek to experience each others completely different socioeconomic circumstances. Sometimes the blur between "dreaming" and reality has provided some challenging pantomimes for the students, especially as in Dracula where more than one character has dreamlike encounters. Some students interpreted one pantomime as Dracula coming to suck Lucy's blood as she slept, and then Mina came to wake her. Mina is Jonathan's fiancee and Lucy her friend. In fact, the performing group explained that "Lucy went out of the house at night, and Dracula came to see her in the churchyard. When Dracula saw Mina, he went away". Given the limitations of our small room, some important movements had not been seen by some students.

Movement, Positioning and Sequencing

One group's solution to the narrow confines of the room was to position one member outside the glass-door, flapping her arms as a vampire bat. It so happened that, as she was doing this in relation to the action inside, other students were changing classes and the situation became quite humorous. In some pantomimes there can be a tremendous amount of movement, sometimes through multiple scenes. One group showed John Canty trying to catch his son (in fact, Prince Edward). Later he angrily accosts Edward and Edward's friend, Miles Hendon, at London Bridge. Through quick and pointed gesticulating, the emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the characters were apparent. Furthermore, although the book does not actually show John chasing Edward before the confrontation at the Bridge, the story implies that he is continually in pursuit of his son (so what the students are beginning to do is to read between the lines). In a recent pantomime related to "A Hired Gunman" (People of Esarn), after relentlessly stalking and eying his intended victim in small circles that our room allowed, the silence was broken as the killer suddenly and forcefully grabbed the victim's shirt and jerked him forward. The action was so realistic that the two actors were momentarily startled, and the whole class burst into laughter.

From Silas Marner, some groups chose emotionally intense scenes for their pantomimes. One involved the attempted negotiation by Godfrey and Nancy with Silas to take his daughter, Eppie away from him. Later this pantomime moves to the scene of Eppie marrying Aaron (thus covering an entire chapter). Silas Marner is the story of a thrifty, hard-working, solitary man, who later finds love and happiness with a girl, Eppie whose life he saved. Another pantomime took the students from a sinister discussion to a light and funny moment, as two students played a rider and the horse, Wildfire, and then into the pivotal scene of Dunstan stealing Silas's gold. Dunstan is Godfrey's irresponsible, malicious, drunken brother. Through the pantomimes, the students' thinking is reflected by the range and depth of material covered, the actions and emotions displayed and the general atmosphere and momentum.

Double Roles, Props and Sounds

A student playing two roles in a pantomime can pose unique challenges to the discernment of the students. In a scene from Silas Marner mentioned above, an actor played the parts of both Nancy and Aaron, as five characters were needed. As the students are frequently exerting themselves to first recognize and then interpret and reflect upon the pantomime, a student switching parts might cause some confusion and disorientation. However such extra, mental exertion on the part of the audience might have them focus on a scene from different angles as well as question their own assumptions and understanding. In another scene, Sam, a beggar out for revenge, thrust a stolen purse into Prince Edward's hands and ran away. A few moments later the same student returned, this time as a policeman. Students humorously remarked on this afterwards.

One student used a stuffed animal, a cat, to show that, as Refield-another victim of Count Dracula-flies were no longer enough to satisfy his hunger. This followed his soft chewing sounds. The cat was just meant to be symbolic though, as Renfield was not permitted to have one. The abstraction was picked up by a student when she described Renfield's "hobby of feeding flies to spiders and giving the spiders for sparrows." The performing group added the point that he was a "life-eating lunatic"'. One group wrote three words in a box on the board: KING NOW DEAD. As there were more than one fight-scene with somebody getting thrown out of the room in The Prince and the Pauper, the group perhaps wanted the class to be thinking about the right one. Other intentional, if momentary, distractions in pantomimes have included an "ouch", a "boom" and the sound of galloping; however, the performances and the moments immediately afterward are fundamentally silent.

A Mental Puzzle

The quietness continues after the completion of a pantomime, as students attempt to write a description of what they just watched. Some students are uncertain how to approach the writing at first, but it soon becomes a natural part of the process. This is the time that the audience can reflect on what was shown. What did the scene represent? What did they understand, conceptualize and imagine? Even when students are certain in their recognition of the scene, they will still be thinking about associated detail, sequencing, deeper meaning and, perhaps, even why the group chose that particular scene to depict (for example, the ill-fated handshake in Dracula). From the start of a pantomime, the process may be seen as students trying to fit in pieces of a mental puzzle.


Earlier mention was made of the dualistic nature of the pantomimes. After students spend a little time writing their descriptions of a pantomime, the group that had performed calls on individuals to share their accounts. Then that group offers its own explanation. There is often agreement on the basic, literary content of the pantomime, but the level of detail does vary. Although the performing group usually gives a full description, other students sometimes have picked up other details. For example, in Dracula, the presence of garlic flowers in Lucy's room was referred to, while the performing group explained, "While Lucy has long sharp teeth and looked pale, Dr. Van Helsing tried to take care of her....Lucy became crazy, as a bat was outside." Lucy was becoming a vampire also. As you can see, the descriptions become quite detailed. Certainly mistakes are made, and some of the pantomimes I was unable to identify on the spot, while my students were able to provide accurate and descriptive accounts. The students share their views, and then it is time to be silent again for the next pantomime.

Actually there are many dualities connected to the pantomimes: the text and the preparation; the preparation and the performance, the pantomime and the viewing, the written description, the resolution of what the performing group had thought, and the various mental functions that play off each other for the students in the preparation, playing and viewing-functions such as interpretation, reflection, imagination, pinpointing and conceptualization. Some students even, independently, check information in their text after a performance. On a day of pantomime, the classroom is extremely busy with students interacting with each other in a variety of ways.

Dialectical Processes

There are a number of dialectical processes occurring with the pantomimes that can be widely expanded to the teaching of EFL and ESL and the development of materials. The processes involve students forming understanding in relation to literary texts, encountering differing points of view and interpretations from other learners and through their own reconsideration, and synthesizing their ideas. In the pantomimes, the students are taking different starting points in order to perform and discover the truth of the text. (This might work differently in western countries. Pennycook (1996, pp. 221-222) explains how Chinese culture has been associated with viewing reality in the literary text, rather than the text representing reality.) The students help each other develop understanding, and they choose, control and adapt the content from the text and how they will perform it. As each pantomime is not only different but unpredictable, students try anew, many times, to seek understanding and reconcile their ideas with the text and each other.

Pantomimes, Initiative and Freedom

Harmer (1998, 1996) highlights the importance of engagement in his ESA model of language-learning: Engage-Study-Activate. Basically, there has to be some part of the lesson that really gets the students interested and involved. Then they can become activated, producing or thinking in real language. In the pantomimes, we see a process where students engage each other (yet another dialectic). Hollett (1996) describes how, in letting students be free to provide the content of their lessons, "the traditional presentation, practice, production procedure can be put into reverse" (p. 2). The pantomimes are one way to show that this is highly possible, with the students greatly taking charge of the functions of practice and presentation too. This is in line with a process of language education that develops students' understanding and ability to become cooperative, self-directed and autonomous in their learning (for example, Brown, 1994, Kohonen, 1992, Nunan, 1995). Tudor (1996) describes a development from learner involvement to learner empowerment. Pantomimes can be introduced in the simpler form of charades. Diaz (1996) has developed an "information gap format" of pantomimes. With the pantomimes, we have an opportunity to give students...control to develop their own meaningful experiences" (Courtney, 1996a, p. 59). Mundy (1996) quotes Liesenborghs, "The real objective is to get the student motivated, interested, and confident enough to explore the language on his or her own."


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