The Mandarin’s Miraculous Body: ‘Expressly for Our Vexation’?
The Miraculous Mandarin not only features the most peculiar of the grotesque bodies Bartók dramatised, its very genre, pantomime, uses bodily movement and expression to convey its meanings rather than words. The most controversial of Bartók’s works – it was closed down and banned after scandalous early performances – The Miraculous Mandarin is also his most semantically polyvalent. In Menyhért Lengyel’s detailed scenario the Mandarin is not only ethnically Other; he embodies attributes of statue, machine, body-electric, ‘pregnant death’, several animals, and spiritual sign in the form of a Buddha. Though the question as to whether Bartók’s setting of the pantomime ultimately sends out a hopeful or a negative message is much disputed, interpretations have been surprisingly uniform on many key interpretative points, this despite the typically grotesque proliferation of meanings stacked into the image and movements of the Mandarin’s strange and alienating body, and generated by the music itself. In this chapter I would like to recover some of the genuine puzzlement created by the Mandarin’s body, and in doing so, place the spotlight on an aspect of grotesque representation that this work seems to me, contrary to many recent readings, thoroughly to manifest: its ability to create ambiguity.