Dumbshow, also dumb show or dumb-show, is a traditional term for pantomime in drama, actions presented by actors onstage without spoken dialogue. It is similar to the masque. The term is most often used in regard to medieval drama and English Renaissance theatre, though it can apply in other pertinent contexts as well, as with the dammari pantomime of Kabuki theater.
The most famous dumbshow in English literature occurs in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act III scene ii, in the play within a play staged by Prince Hamlet and the players at Elsinore Castle for King Claudius. Other instances of dumbshow are common throughout the dramatic literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A long list of English Renaissance plays include dumbshows: Gorboduc, Locrine, Antonio's Revenge, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Duchess of Malfi, The Prophetess, The Queen of Corinth, and many more — though by the Caroline era the technique of dumbshow had come to be regarded as outmoded.
Dumbshow generally passed out of fashion with the revival of English drama when the theatres re-opened in 1660 at the start of the Restoration period. Eventually, dumbshow became a risible subject: in Henry Fielding's The Author's Farce (1729), the protagonist Author intends to have his Epilogue acted in dumbshow...by a cat.
A rare modern instance of dumbshow, under highly unusual circumstances, occurred at the premiere of The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in January 1907. The tumultuous reaction of the audience forced the latter portions of the play to be performed in dumbshow. A few twentieth-century dramatists made more deliberate experiments with dumbshow. André Obey included a narrated dumbshow in his Le Viol de Lucrèce (1931). The most famous modern instance of dumbshow in theatre is to be found within Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953).
Dumbshow Theatre Company has taken its name from the idea of a fast-paced, playful piece of storytelling.
- Shipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of World Literary Terms: Criticism, Forms, Technique. London, Allen & Unwin, 1955.
- Scott, A. C. The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. London, Allen & Unwin, 1955.
- Tucker Brooke, C. F. The Tudor Drama: A History of English National Drama to the Retirement of Shakespeare. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
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