The christmas pantomime of today is a peculiarly British institution. Whilst not by any means unknown in other areas of the World, it is only in those areas that once formed part of the British Empire that pantomime is truly popular and has become a christmas tradition - and only in Britain itself does it dominate the christmas theatrical scene quite so completely. Pantomime first established itself as a christmas tradition in the late part of the nineteenth century and acheived it's recognisably modern form shortly thereafter. Remarkably, in over one hundred years since then, little has changed.
Today, in Great Britain, whilst the major West End houses continue their normal fare over the christmas period, in the suburbs and provinces pantomime very much dominates the christmas scene. So much so that it would be possible to see a pantomime in almost every major provincial town or city over that period, when probably as many as two thirds of all provincial theatres turn themselves over to that type of production.
Compare that to the year 1900, and the situation has changed little. Although only two of the centrally located theatres (The Drury Lane and the Garrick) gave themselves up to pantomime in the year 1900, no less than thirty of the houses in the surrounding suburban districts did so. The pantomime at The Garrick was 'Puss In Boots' whilst the Drury Lane offering was an enormously expensive version of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' (which boasted lavish scenery, gorgeous costumes, flying fairies and a fifty foot giant, seen prostrate, out of whose pocket spilled scores of children dressed as soldiers).
Did you know: Traditionally, in panto, good should always enter from the right of the stage, and evil from the left?
Outside of London, in the other great cities of Great Britain in the year 1900, no fewer than eighty-eight christmas pantomimes were being produced - the most popular subjects being 'Cinderella', 'Dick Whittington', 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Babes in the Wood'. The enormous popularity of pantomime in the provinces can be no better illustrated than by the extensive list of such productions that had been offered in the city of Liverpool alone over the christmas period two years earlier. These were; two versions of 'Robinson Crusoe' (at The Royal Court and The Rotunda); two of 'Little Red Riding Hood' (at The Princes of Wales and Reynolds); and one each of 'The Yellow Dwarf' (at The Shakespeare), 'Babes in the Wood' (at The Star), 'Bluebeard' (at The Lyric), and 'The House that Jack Built' (at The New Empire). This latter appears to have been a particularly lavish production, boasting of two hundred and fifty performers including one hundred trained children.
History of Pantomime
Although pantomime has changed relatively little since Edwardian times, it's current formed is very different from it's original origins. The very word itself has several meanings. It's most distant origin is from the Greco-Roman pantomimus, in which it referred to a dramatic art form in which masked players would act out all the parts in a fable by gesture alone, often with a chorus narrating from the sidelines. The classical meaning of the term therefore is "to act without words, using gesture alone". In early English literature, however, the term had already developed another meaning - that of "player of every part". By the beginning of the twentieth century it had taken on yet another meaning, being that which is generally inferred today - "a farcical musical entertainment for children, usually based on nursery tales" - the element of dumb-show now having been lost completely.
Early English pantomime took its inspirations from a fusion of the Italian "Commedia dell' Arte", a popular form of improvised visual comedy involving dance, acrobatics and buffoonery, and the French "Harlequinade", itself a stylised derivative of Commedia dell' Art based upon sketches and comic dances involving the character 'Harlequin' which were popular at Paris fairs. Both these forms reached England around the beginning of the eighteenth century through travelling performers and were quickly adopted by the populace. The earliest recorded pantomime performed by grotesque characters in England was at Drury Lane Theatre in 1702. It was composed by a Mr. Weaver, a dancing master, and called "The Tavern Bilkers."
By 1715, this new form had become firmly established (largely due to a Royal ban imposed at the time on spoken drama), and English performers began replace the foreign imports. The format usually consisted of a "forepiece" wherein the Harlequin figure introduced the story in verse and song, followed by the main piece enacting the story - supplemented by all kinds of specialty acts; jugglers, magicians, tight rope artists and animal figures.
The rivalry between the different London theatres in producing these kinds of entertainments was keen. The famous eighteenth-century theatrical manager, John Rich, adopted entertainments in the Italian style as the staple of his new theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields (built 1714) in order to compete with the Drury Lane theatre (then under the management of Colley Cibber). Rich's pantomimes consisted of representations of fabulous stories with spectacular accompaniments of fine costumes, grand dances, and appropriate music. Interwoven between the acts would be a comic story consisting of the courtship of Harlequin (played by Rich himself) and his sweetheart Columbine.
Rich's productions became the rage of the capital so that public approval led to the format being lengthened until the style had to be altered to allow rest time for the dancers. In 1720 he produced a lavish and highly successful production at Lincolns Inn Fields entitled "Harlequin Executed," and its subtitle was "A New Italian Comic Scene Between a Scaramouche, a Harlequin, a Country Farmer, His Wife and Others" which set new standards for pantomime in England. Early in 1723, the managers of Drury Lane, responded with a pantomime by one Thurmond, a dancing-master, entitled "Harlequin Doctor Faustus" which was constructed on an even more elaborate scale than any of those previously given. Consequently, opinion is divided as to which of these two pieces represents the first English pantomime.
About the middle of the eighteenth century the character of pantomime underwent another significant transition, due to the influence of the famous clown, (Joseph) Grimaldi. He was the son of a ballet-master and a dancer, and as a youth played dwarves and old hags in various pantomimes. When he later took over the chief comic role of the clown 'Dubois', Grimaldi transformed that character from a bumbling country bumpkin to a colourful Pierrot, and introduced a style of humour which was more richly developed and leisurely than the flash-bang style of previous comics. Grimaldi was the most popular comic singer of his day, as well as an accomplished dancer, actoer, mimist and acrobat - particularly noted for his mock swordfights.
Through the mid-nineteenth century, the opening gradually elaborated in cast and scenery until it resembled the form of the popular burlesques of the time - an extravaganza with fabulous costumes and all sorts of wonderful stage effects. It was also around this time that actresses began to replace actors in the heroes role, establishing the pantomime tradition of the 'Principal Boy' (the first known example being that of one Eliza Povey playing the title role in Jack and the Beanstalk in 1819). The tradition of the comic older woman, the Dame, being played by a man is much older. When pantomime first arrived in England women were not admitted to the stage so that all female roles had to be played by men. When that situation changed, male actors simply clung on to that plum role.
NB: In modern pantomime, the tradition of the female Principal Boy is dying with the role now generally being more often played by a young male, the tradition of the male Dame however, remains strong.
Up until this time, pantomimes were not specifically a Christmas entertainment, nor were they aimed at children, and the shows generally covered themes of medieval romance and classic legends. Up until this time also, dialogue was generally only used in the forepiece, with the remainder of the performance being done in dumb-show.
Victorian pantomimes of the late nineteenth saw yet another change, as pantomimes entered the first stage of their transition into their recognisably modern form. First the burlesque element of the opening scene was softened and scaled down, often taking the form of a one-act comedy. This allowed emphasis to be returned to the main story which now commonly centered on a dramatized fairy tale and was not always done in dumb-show.
These changes directed the pantomimes towards a younger audience and led to a great increase in the number of children being brought to the various theatres, which in itself fuelled the next big change. With a forepiece, main show and afterpiece, the pantomimes were very long, too long for the attention span of the young spectators they were now being aimed at. Consequently, the after-piece was cut and certain elements of it were combined with the main show. Lastly, with children being a key component of the audience, pantomime became a holiday entertainment staged mainly at Christmas and Easter.
By the beginning of the Edwardian era, a pantomime generally consisted of two parts. A fairy piece dramatising some well-known childrens fairy tale, and a Harlequinade. Traditionally, a pantomime would open on Boxing Day and, depending on it's success, run as long as early March or even April.
As the genre continued to move more towards being a childrens entertainment, the fairy story then began to usurp the Harlequinade as the main focus of the show. The success of J.M. Barrie's 'Peter Pan' had shown that a fairy story could be successful in it's own right, and consequently the Harlequinade lessened in importance with an inexorable shift in the pantomime format toward an extended and more detailed fairy story (absorbing some of its elements).
To win the hearts of a young audience there were always fairies, dwarves and animal characters (sometimes all three) for them to relate to. Whilst for the adults, there would be satirical references to topical issues and allusions to current events that meant that scripts could change at a moment's notice - thus making panto an ideal venue for the art of the 'Ad lib'.
Panto also became the last bastion of audience participation. In Elizabethan times it was not unusual for audiences to cheer the hero and boo and barrack the bad guy during the course of a performance. By Edwardian times, this had died out and audiences had become much more restrained, saving their emotions for the end. Only in panto was this behaviour not only accepted but institutionalised as part of the show.
The transition to a format which would be largely recogniseable to modern day audiences was completed in the years immediately following the end of the Great War. In the course of the journey, pantomime had largely divorced itself from its origins, indeed from the very meaning of the term, but in so doing had become a well-defined art form with its own style and traditions. Stories had become largely allegorical, invariably with a main theme of good triumphing over evil. The hero and heroine always got married in the end, and the baddies invariably got their come-uppance, whilst the Dame spun a thread of hilarity throughout the piece.
Pantomime in America and Elsewhere
Pantomime, like many other forms of theatrical entertainment, made it's way across the Atlantic from England to America in the latter part of the eighteenth century - the earliest known productions being Garrick's "Harlequin's Invasion," and R. Pocock's "Robinson Crusoe" which played in New York in 1876. For a time it enjoyed tremendous popularity and developed it's own style, particularly under the auspices of the popular nineteenth century clown George L. Fox (reknowned as "the American Grimaldi"). But it ultimately proved less enduring than on these shores and by the end of the nineteenth century had largely faded from the American theatre scene. Although some pantomimes of the British style were subsequently re-introduced with great success, often with imported British companies, the form failed to recapture the American imagination and, indeed, came instead to be looked upon as a quaintly British eccentricity.
Only in the former British colonies has the British form of pantomime enjoyed any real longevity. But although panto itself may be quaintly British, the stories on which it is based are frequently drawn from foreign sources. "Bluebeard," "Cinderella" and "Tom Thumb" come from France; "Puss In Boots" from Italy; "Jack the Giant Killer" hails from Norway; "Jack and the Beanstalk" from Germany; "Sindbad the Sailor" comes from the east whilst "The Babes In the Wood" and "Little Red Riding Hood" are among the few stories of British.
Reproduced on this page are a selection of period press articles discussing the English panto scene.
(The Theatre [UK]: January 1887)
Three Famous Pantomimes.
BY W. J. LAWRENCE.
"Let us then review the acting manager of Drury Lane," writes that mild scoundrel, Theophilus Gibber, speaking of David Garrick, in his diffuse "Dissertations on the Theatres":
"In the year 1747 he opened that theatre with an excellent prologue; the conclusion of which gave the town to hope 'twould be their fault if, from that time, any farcical absurdity of pantomime or fooleries from France were again intruded on 'em... But has he kept his word during his successful reign? Has the stage been preserved in its proper purity, decency, and dignity? Have no good new plays been refused nor neglected? Have none but the most moral and elegant of the old ones been revived? Have we not had a great number of these unmeaning fopperies miscall'd Entertainments, than ever was known to disgrace the stage in so few years? Has not every year produced one of these patch-work pantomimes?"
Satan reproving sin! One would never imagine from the highly indignant tone of this outburst that the writer himself had ever concocted a pantomime or played Harlequin. As a matter of fact, he had done both. Garrick was surely not blamable for endeavouring to hoist his managerial rival Rich with his own petard; and it was childish on Cibber's part to think for a moment that the town could be entirely weaned from the lighter forms of entertainment. Little Davy took the common-sense view of the subject, openly expressing his opinions on that head in one of his inaugural prologues:
Sacred to Shakspeare was this spot designed,
To pierce the heart, and humanise the mind,
But if an empty house, the actor's curse,
Shows us our Lears and Hamlets lose their force;
Unwilling, we must change the noble scene,
And in our turn present you Harlequin.
Happily for poor cibber's peace of mind, he was sleeping quietly under the billows when Drury Lane bought out "Harlequin's Invasion" in 1761. This extraordinary pantomime (which probably held the stage longer than any antecedent or subsequent piece of the kind) was evolved by Garrick and the elder Colman, out of a slight burletta which the former had written for a favoured performer at Bartholomew Fair. The plot of the Drury Lane production is not remarkable for its originality, and, indeed, smacks somewhat of the rehearsed tragedy in "Pasquin," with this notable difference, that while in Fielding's memorable piece the triumph of Ignorance follows close upon the murder of Commonsense, the parti-coloured marauder and his satellites in "Harlequin's Invasion" are utterly routed and repulsed by the invincible Shakespeare. Just by way of novelty, Harlequin was for once endowed with the gift of speech; and Garrick, in referring to this retrogression in his epilogue, pays a graceful compliment to the departed Rich:
--- 'Tis wrong,
The wits will say, to give the fool a tongue,
When Lun appeared with matchless art and whim,
He gave the power of speech to every limb;
Tho' mask'd and mute convey'd his quick intent,
And told in frolic gestures what he meant.
But now the motley coat and sword of wood
Require a tongue to make them understood.
Small wonder that that admirable actor, "Sir Peter Teazle" King, made an inimitable pattering Harlequin; Boaden tells us that "his saucy valets have never been approached" high praise from such a critic! The comedian's reputation in this part became so great, that we find the "London Magazine" of February, 1775, stating that the authors "are more indebted to the Babylonish change of tongues in Tom King than to their wit, humour, or ingenuity: for in that scene harlequin assumes many dialects, but appears as ridiculous as we could wish him, when placed before the countenance of the immortal Shakspeare." A passage in King's letter to Garrick under date "Liverpool, '24th July, 1767," shows that other prominent actors had been associated with this famous pantomime at an early period:
"As to 'The Invasion,' I think it would be proper that I should keep my part, and Parsons be put into Snip. Should Yates think better of it, and take the covenant, you will undoubtedly choose to have him reinstated. Parsons has played the Harlequin one night for me; now, by this means, should sickness or any accident befall you or me you will be at a certainty; the entertainment need not be stopped, as he will then be ready."
Garrick's unpretentious production for many years escaped the fate usually meted out to such ephemera. It was revived at Drury Lane on Wednesday, January 2nd, 1777, and must also have been, performed at the same house during the season of 1781-82 if the gentle Elia is to be credited. In his immortal "First Play" he says:
"'Harlequin's Invasion' followed, in which I remember the transformation of the magistrates into reverend beldams seemed to me a piece of grave, historical justice, and the tailor carrying his own head to be as sober a verity as the legend of St. Denys."
The performance must have left a remarkable impression on the essayist's mind to be thus spoken of after a lapse of forty years. It is quite possible, however, that Charles Lamb may have refreshed his memory by means of the revival of Garrick's piece in somewhat altered form, 'tis true at its birthplace on April 10, 1820. Harley was harlequin on this occasion; and the other characters received excellent treatment at the hands of Madame Vestris, Mrs. Harlowe, Miss Povey, Oxberry, Munden, Kelly, Knight, and Gattie. Hazlitt, failing to foresee the precise complexion to which things pantomimic were to come at last, wrote of the production:
"It is called a speaking pantomime. We had rather it had said nothing. It is better to act folly than to talk it."
That stricture - indefensible as it may appear when viewed by modern lights - rang the death-knell of "Harlequin's Invasion."
But if Hazlitt failed to read the portent looming in the theatrical heavens, Geo. Colman the elder - the author of our second famous pantomime proved himself an apt astrologer. He it was who counselled pantomime writers in the forty-seventh number of "The Connoisseur" to abjure the heathen mythology, and take their plots from the fairy tales; and he directed their attention particularly to a couple of stories which have since found their way to the stage at Christmas time "The Babes in the Wood" and "Puss in Boots." On Saturday, Sept. 3, 1780, or some three years after he had acquired the Haymarket, Colman gave another valuable lesson to pantomime writers by the production of his "original, whimsical, operatical, pantomimical, farcical, electrical, naval, military, temporary Extravaganza" entitled "The Genius of Nonsense."
"The old fabulous history of Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon," says the "Hibernian Magazine" of the following month, "is the foundation on which this afterpiece is worked; and in the escapes, concealments, metamorphoses, and the denouement differs very little from its numerous predecessors; but the wit, humour, and temporary satire with which the author has enlivened the whole, places it in an eminent degree above every competitor." In the opening scene or prologue Harlequin is discovered sitting tailor fashion, and seriously contemplating suicide since it had become the ton. He determines upon stitching up his mouth, and is proceeding to put his purpose into execution, when his hand is stayed by the sudden appearance of the Genius of Nonsense (Mrs. Cargill), who remonstrates vigorously. Harlequin begs of her not to break the thread of his discourse, and explains that he is driven to desperation by the amount of nonsense put into his mouth at the winter theatres; subjoining the remark that if half the members of Parliament and a considerable number of other public men would only emulate his example, the world would be much the better for it. Then follows a lively conversation, in the course of which Harlequin gives it as his opinion that "formerly when his mummery was well contrived he had wit at his ringer's end, and satire in every tumble, but that dulness and dialogue came in together." The Genius of Nonsense then introduces herself in propria persona to her parti-coloured servitor, who ejaculates in astonishment that he had always considered Genius and Nonsense irreconcilable terms.
"Quite the contrary," is the quick reply; "it requires a great deal of genius to give nonsense spirit." The Genius then gives Harlequin an exhaustive account of all those whom she had taken under her particular care, laughs at his suicidal intention, and imperiously bids him participate once more in the joys of active life. Then follows the pantomime proper with a very notable cast. Handsome Jack Bannister, still in his teens, made an excellent, "Vocal and Rhetorical Harlequin," his dumb gymnastic counterpart being capably rendered by Lamash the original Trip in "The School for Scandal." This was the time when that stupendous quack, Doctor Graham, was drawing all London to his "Temple of Health" in Pall Mall; and Colman with admirable forethought contrived to satirise this rare show in a scene painted in faithful verisimilitude by the facetious Ned Rooker, in the course of which Bannister fils took the house by storm with his Dixey-like imitation of the great dealer in rhodomontade.
Rooker's scenery, by the way, must have been particularly fine, as the author of the "Biog. Dram." tells us of the view of the Camp in St. James's Park which concluded the performance, that "it is perhaps as accurate and masterly a spectacle as ever appeared on the more extensive theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane." In proceeding to recite the following lines with a lavish interspersement of animal imitations, Harlequin made a clever point out of the omission, to another character, that his gifts were more rhetorical than vocal, and that, unlike his father, he had but an indifferent ear for music.
I'm Master of Forte-piano:
Notes suited to every case,
Like puppies I yelp in Soprano,
Or growl, like a bull-dog in base.
I can bark like a dog;
I can grunt like a hog,
Squeak like pigs; or like asses can bray;
Or turn'd to a fowl,
I can hoot like an owl.
Sure of all I'd be at,
Can crow sharp, and quack flat;
Or gobble, like turkeys, all day.
The humour of the introductory apology lay in the fact that Bannister père, the fine quality of whose vocal powers was beyond all dispute, was himself in the cast, and played the small part of Gammer Gurton. Gagging, tippling John Edwin, pre-eminent among low comedians, and the prince of burletta artists, likewise impersonated Dame Turton; so that, all things considered, "The Genius of Nonsense" merits its inclusion in this article. It was played as an afterpiece to crowded houses until the end of the season, and never afterwards revived.
Last on our list comes Richard Brinsley Sheridan's pantomime of "Robinson Crusoe," - notable as the first stage treatment of the narrative - which was produced at Drury Lane on Monday, January 29, 1781, and enjoyed a pleasant run of thirty-eight nights. Strangely enough this entertainment, possibly more or less according to custom, was performed in four acts - two opening and two harlequinade; and the scene shifters must have had a lively time of it, seeing that there were no fewer than eight changes in the first act alone! Some excellent scenery was provided by De Loutherbourg, the celebrated Flemish battle painter, to whom playgoers are under a last debt of gratitude for his many vital improvements in misc en scene. Sheridan was only directly responsible for the prelude, which opened with the scene in Crusoe's hut, and thenceforward adhered closely to the lines of De Foe's narrative. The harlequinade was arranged by Carlo Delpini, a famous Italian pantomimist who came to England about the year 1774, and who played Crusoe in the opening.
Guiseppe Grimaldi was Friday, and other important characters were represented by Wright, Dicky Suett, and Miss Collett. According to the Percy anecdotes, Sheridan on one occasion played the part of Harlequin Friday, through the unavoidable absence of Signor Grimaldi. By the way, it was in this particular production that Joey Grimaldi laboured under the impression throughout his life that he made his debut on the boards at the age of two; the industrious Charles Whitehead has, however, shown the fallacy of that assumption. The comic scenes were rendered very amusing by means of a magic cask and an appropriation of the bibulous Friars from "The Duenna"; and a clever trick change from the exterior of a convent to that of a windmill, with the clown fastened to the revolving sails, came in for a large share of the nightly applause.
Truly, "the Useful struggles vainly with Time, but the devourer of all things breaks his teeth on the Agreeable." Only the other day the Lauris were making great capital out of this revolving effect in their spectacle of "Jacko," at the Chatelet.
Sheridan's nightly disbursement did not amount to much over twenty pounds; rather a surprising contrast with the enormous amount now lavishly expended by Mr. Augustus Harris. Popular favour maintained the Drury Lane pantomime intermittently on the boards until Easter, 1816, when the great success at Covent Garden of Pocock's melodrama on the same subject consigned it to limbo. Sheridan's production had been revived for a few nights at the same theatre, "by permission of the proprietors of Drury Lane," in the middle of July, 1813, when Joe Grimaldi played Crusoe and Young Bologna Friday. Its final appearance on the metropolitan stage was made at Sadler's Wells in 1814 on the occasion of Grimaldi's benefit. The performance was otherwise notable for the debut of the immortal Joey's wayward son in the part of Friday. It will thus be seen that three generations of Grimaldis had entertained the public in this truly famous pantomime.