History / Jeffrey Richards

Harlequinade and the Golden Age of Pantomime

Before becoming Christmas family entertainment, pantomime in the early 19th was droll, triumphant, mocking and deriding, centred around the comic mayhem perpetrated by the Clown.

Harlequinade and the Golden Age of Pantomime

Of all the theatrical genres most prized by the Victorians, the pantomime is perhaps the most recognizable in the twenty-first century. It remains true that it constitutes the first theatrical experience of most children and now, just as in the nineteenth century, a successful pantomime season is the key to a profitable year’s work in most theatres. [1] What explains the enduring success of this strange hybrid combination of slapstick and spectacle, comedy and art?

Firstly, pantomime had a universal appeal. Everyone went to the pantomime in Victorian England. From the Queen and the royal family to the humblest of her subjects. It appealed to West End and East End audiences, to London and the provinces, to both sexes and all ages. The first play Queen Victoria saw after her coronation was the Drury Lane pantomime, Harlequin and Jack Frost, which she visited on 10 January 1839. In December 1860, to entertain the royal children, there was a command performance of Babes in the Wood at Windsor Castle. The royal children even performed their own pantomime-type play Red Riding Hood for their parents, an event captured in a charming canvas by E.H. Corbould, which Prince Albert commissioned and presented to his wife on her thirty-sixth birthday, 24 May 1855. [2] Many of the luminaries of the Victorian Age, among them John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold and W.E. Gladstone, were devotees of the pantomime. But ordinary people also queued for hours to get into the pantomime all over the country. Illustrated magazines regularly published pictures of the queues and the packed galleries.

The magical escapist appeal of pantomime was put into words by theatre-mad Charles Dickens in his account of David Copperfield’s visit to Covent Garden to see the pantomime:

The mingled reality and mystery of the whole show, the influence upon me of the poetry, the lights, the music, the company, the smooth stupendous changes of glittering and brilliant scenery, were so dazzling and opened up such illimitable regions of delight, that when I came out into the rainy street, at twelve oclock at night, I felt as if I had come from the clouds, where I had been leading a romantic life for ages, to a bawling, splashing, link-lighted, umbrella-struggling, hackney-coach-jostling, patten-clinking, muddy, miserable world. [3]

The Rise of Harlequinade

The classic Victorian pantomime was a fusion of the harlequinade and the extravaganza, the former essentially physical and the latter predominantly verbal in nature. The form owed its emergence to the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 which ended the monopoly of the spoken word previously enjoyed by the Theatres Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Pre 1843 this restriction led all the other theatres, the so-called minors, to seek ways round the regulation and in response new forms, melodrama, burletta and pantomime, were developed. Not primarily dependent on the spoken word, they deployed music, action and spectacle to tell their stories.

Pre-eminent among these forms was the pantomime or harlequinade. The English pantomime developed from the Italian commedia dellarte, as refined and transformed into the harlequinade in the French theatre. This dramatic form, with its regular cast of characters, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, Pierrot and Scaramouche, and its standard plot (young lovers, aided by ingenious servants, thwarting the plans of father or guardian to marry the heroine to a wealthy older man) carried out in dumb-show, reached England in the late seventeenth century. It was in the eighteenth century that John Rich, first at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and later at the newly built Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, transformed the continental model into a distinctively English form. Producing and devising the show as well as playing Harlequin, Rich linked the action of the harlequinade to an opening story derived from classical mythology, imbued his characters with magical powers and combined music, dance, mime, acrobatics, spectacle, special effects and topical allusions into an appealing and exciting whole. [4]

The harlequinade reached its apogee in the period 1806–28, the heyday of Joseph Grimaldi, the man John Bull (31 December 1820) called ‘The Garrick of Clowns’. Grimaldi made the ingenious, outrageous Clown the central figure of the show and, according to David Mayer in his definitive account of this era, ‘pantomime structure was cast in a more fixed form than previously and assumed conventions of characterisation, performance, and methods of production which made it unique at a time when innovation and novelty… were endemic to the theatre.’ [5]

With its form fixed but far from static, the pantomime was breathlessly topical, indiscriminately featuring the events, fads and sensations of the day. The pantomime parodied and burlesqued other popular theatrical forms: Gothic melodrama, aquatic spectacle, burletta and animal dramas. It satirized extravagant male fashions. It celebrated new technology and transport developments (steamboats, balloons, railways, tunnels and bridges). As David Worrall has shown, pantomime also became a vehicle for the representation of varieties of race and ethnicity and the transmission of early imperial ideology. [6] Mayer says that the pantomime ‘by the very nature of its wide scope and satiric tone, was an unofficial and informal chronicle of the age’ recording ‘in often comically satiric terms… events and attitudes, technical achievements and artistic movements, major political and social crises, and everyday trivia’. [7] It also took advantage of all the latest devices, tricks and mechanical developments to create eye-catching special effects. [8]

But at the heart of the show – and the source of its enduring appeal – was the comic mayhem perpetrated by the Clown. Grimaldi transformed Clown from a bumbling, addlepated country bumpkin in a smock into a versatile, dandified, brightly garbed madcap (the English equivalent of Scaramouche). Andrew McConnell Stott sums up his impact in his recent biography of Grimaldi:

Grimaldis clown was a Londoner in hyperbole: channelling its voracious consumerism and infusing his clowning with its manic energy, flamboyant theatricality and love of show… Grimaldis clown was cunning, covetous and childlike in his wants, an uncensored mass of appetites and an embodied accumulation of unconscious desires. Everything tempted him, calling him forward and enticing him to touch, tinker and meddle, with an impetus that overrode all considerations, especially the law … Londoners revelled in Grimaldis lawlessness, watching him commit a litany of crimes that outside the theatre would have been rewarded with transportation or death. Robbery became a science in his hands, wrote one commentator, recalling with relish the way he would pilfer a leg of mutton and, with bewitching eagerness, extract handkerchiefs and pocket watches with such a devotion to the taskthat he seemed imbued with the spirit of peculation. [9]

There was, however, a limit to the irreverence. The censors forbade disrespectful depictions of monarchy, national politics and religion, although the London police force, incompetent and corrupt before Sir Robert Peel’s creation in 1829 of the Metropolitan Police, came in for regular rough treatment in the harlequinade, to the delight of audiences. But along with the irreverence there went a belligerent and chauvinistic patriotism, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, which saw the regular performing of patriotic songs and celebrations of British naval successes and Wellington’s military victories.

The popularity of Clown raises the age-old question of the nature of comedy. Is it fundamentally subversive or conformist? Is it highlighting and satirizing social, political or even personal ills, with the aim of reforming or eliminating them or is it acting as a safety valve, providing a cathartic outlet for the audience’s more disreputable urges and anti-social impulses, and in purging them, allowing society to proceed undisturbed on its appointed way? Or is it simply funny? Assuming that any given audience is a collection of individuals, each person may react differently – some finding the show subversive and others finding it cathartic. [11]

Grimaldian Pantomime

The Grimaldian pantomime was a direct product of a Regency England which was characterized by binge drinking, sexual profligacy, political corruption, cruel animal sports, bare-knuckle prize fighting, public executions and reckless gambling. Grimaldi’s Clown, dubbed by Jane Moody ‘the Urban Anarchist’, epitomizes the spirit of the age. [12] He was described by one pantomime arranger as ‘a half-idiotic, crafty, shameless, incorrigible, emblem of gross sensuality’, ready to defy authority, law and convention to fulfil his desire for immediate gratification. [13] Interestingly in 1801, Charles Lamb described London itself as ‘a pantomime and a masquerade’, evoking the bustle, variety and liveliness of the capital and eliding the boundary between the stage and reality. [14] At the same time as Grimaldi was flouting the law and public decorum for a popular audience, satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank (see image above), witty, ingenious, vicious, subversive, gross, bawdy and scatological, were holding authority up to ridicule. As Vic Gatrell points out in his definitive study of the phenomenon, although consumed only by the middle and upper classes, these prints were ‘invaluable cultural barometers’ of the age. [15]

Gatrell points out too that there were limits to the apparent subversion of the prints. ‘To constitution and hierarchy the print shops were steadfastly loyal.’ They mocked the Prince of Wales but not the institution of monarchy, greedy lawyers but not gallows justice, gluttonous clergymen and canting dissenters but not the Christian faith itself. ‘If they joked about London living, to its inequalities they turned blind eyes. No print overtly challenged privilege or . . . conceded that the established order was threatened seriously.’ [16]

Similarly, there were limits to the subversive possibilities of the theatre as the stage was subject to the constraints imposed by censorship. From 1737 to 1968 the stage functioned under the oversight of the Lord Chamberlain’s office and had to conform to a strict set of regulations designed to preserve moral standards and the political, religious and social status quo. Plays could not be performed without the Lord Chamberlain’s official imprimatur. This effectively meant the exclusion from the stage of explicit discussions of politics, religion and sex. The rules applied to pantomime scripts as much as to the legitimate drama and in many cases the only copies of pantomime scripts from the nineteenth century to survive are those in the Lord Chamberlain’s collection. Dialogue was, however, not the only way of conveying a message to the audience. Gesture, costume and makeup could be used to make a point wordlessly, and to circumvent the letter of the regulations. [17]

The pantomime conformed to Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of the carnivalesque, a manifestation of folk culture, which assumes three forms, closely linked and interwoven: ritualized spectacle, comic verbal compositions, such as parodies, and various genres of billingsgate, such as curses and oaths. The harlequinade consisted of ritualized mayhem, endlessly repeated; the verbal humour of the mature pantomime depended heavily on puns and parodies; and curses and spells were regularly placed on the good characters in pantomime by the forces of darkness. [18]

Pantomime laughter similarly conformed to Bakhtin’s definition of carnival laughter. It is festive, not an individual reaction to some isolated comic event. ‘Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people.’ It is universal in scope, directed at everyone. ‘The entire world is seen in its droll aspect.’ Finally, it is ambivalent, being at the same time gay and triumphant and mocking and deriding. [19]

The Fall of Harlequinade

Grimaldi’s breakthrough show had been Harlequin and Mother Goose or The Golden Egg (1806) which ran for ninety-two performances and was – unusually for pantomimes – set in England with scenes in a rural village, Vauxhall Gardens, St. Dunstan’s Church and Golden Square. The opening had four scenes and the harlequinade fifteen. This set the pattern for future shows. But after Grimaldi’s retirement the openings began to get longer and the producers particularly in the 1830s increased the amount of spectacle. This led to the beginning of what was to be a regular complaint for the rest of the century: ‘The pantomime is not what it was.’ Veteran pantomime producer Derek Salberg devoted an entire chapter of his affectionate history of the genre, Once Upon a Pantomime (1981) to a litany of complaints from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries about the decline of pantomime.

In 1863 Andrew Halliday attributed the change towards spectacle directly to the absence of a true successor to Grimaldi:

Playgoers of the old school would describe the period upon which we are now entering as marking the decline and fall of pantomime. In Grimaldis days the pantomime depended for its success upon the pantomimic powers of those who performed in it. It was the exquisite fooling of clown, pantaloon, harlequin, and columbine that drew crowded audiences and brought down the applause. But in the period that succeeded, when there were no worthy successors of Grimaldi and Bologna [the harlequin], it was found necessary to call in the aid of gorgeous dresses, magnificent scenery, and the most elaborate mechanical effects.We have seen that Joe Grimaldi could get on without these aids, and that his grimacing and filching, and kicking and slapping, were so comical in themselves that the public desired nothing else. True pantomime may therefore be said to have declined when there were no longer representatives of the various characters who could hold the attention of the public by their own unaided talents. [20]

This is not in fact true. There was only one Grimaldi but he did indeed have admired successors, Tom Matthews, Richard Flexmore, Robert Bradbury, Redigé Paulo, George Wieland and Harry Boleno among them, who kept the Grimaldian tradition going well into the Victorian Age. Pantomime as an institution not only survived, it evolved and went from strength to strength. The Era (19 January 1884) reported that for the 1883–4 season, there were pantomimes at 104 theatres in seventy-two British towns and cities: eleven in London, five in Liverpool, four in Glasgow, three in Manchester and Birmingham, two in Edinburgh, Yarmouth, Leeds, Newcastle, Oldham, Sheffield, Bristol and South Shields and one in each of sixty-two other towns.

If we discount, as we should, the absence of talented clowns, what explains the decline of the harlequinade? The obvious theatrical answer is the passing in 1843 of the Act which ended the patent theatres’ monopoly of the spoken word. This led to the major structural change by which the opening expanded and the harlequinade shrank. The extended opening demanded performers who could sing, dance and act and increasingly the situation developed in which, unlike the position in Grimaldi’s day, the pantomime essentially became two shows in one, with the spectacular transformation scene marking the division. The two shows now had two separate casts, with the pantomimists who specialized in acrobatics and knockabout confined to the harlequinade. As the spectacle became more and more important in spectator appeal, so the slapstick of the harlequinade began to lose its appeal. With the length of pantomimes growing to three and four hours, the newspapers began to report people leaving before the harlequinade, which often did not begin before midnight.

There is also a wider societal explanation. Leigh Hunt hinted at it when he suggested that pantomimes had become ‘partakers of the serious spirit of the age’. Significantly Grimaldi, who embodied the spirit of the Regency pantomime, died three months before the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria, whose reign became indelibly associated with the values of respectable society. The family and family life, epitomized by the royal family, came to stand at the heart of respectable society. Christmas became the family festival par excellence and the exclusive association of the pantomime with the Christmas season became part of the elaboration of that festival. The Victorians did not, as some have claimed, invent Christmas, but they did elaborate it. Christmas cards, Christmas trees and Christmas shopping were all Victorian developments. There was a dramatic revival in the writing of Christmas carols. Charles Dickens in his eagerly awaited annual Christmas stories, most memorably A Christmas Carol (1843), enshrined Christmas in the culture as a time of happy family gatherings and goodwill to all men. Before the Victorian Age the pantomime had not been restricted to Christmas and had been seen as an entertainment for adults rather than children, even though children went. Pantomimes in the Regency period were performed four times a year, on December 26 and the weeks following, Easter Monday and Whit Monday and the weeks following, early July and the summer months and Lord Mayor’s Day, 9 November, and the weeks following. But after 1843, the pantomime became essentially a Christmas family event, particularly aimed at children. [21]

Interestingly D.J. Anderson, writing in The Theatre in 1879, denounced the harlequinade in terms which suggested that it no longer conformed to the spirit of the age. The harlequinade, he said, was atrophied, the comic business, stagnant (‘for a long time past he [harlequin] has not ventured any new business’) and the traditional situations, no longer funny. Partly tongue in cheek but also reflecting changed sensibilities, he says that when the clown sits on the baby, he can only think of the anguish of the infant’s mother; when the leg of mutton is purloined, his sympathies are with the respectable family left dinnerless and when the old gentleman tumbles on the buttered slide, he feels for the old gentleman, and he dislikes seeing the police pelted with stale vegetables. The problem, as he sees it, is that ‘all Clown’s jokes are based on cruelty. He is a demon in baggy breeches, and laughs at the discomfiture of unoffending mankind’, and is the product of an age ‘when parsons got drunk, nobles gambled away their estates, and most of our national sports were dashed with cruelty.’ [22] In other words, the harlequinade was an unwanted relic of the Regency, out of kilter with the more civilized, restrained and respectable society of Victorian England. ■

The Golden Age of PantomimeJeffrey Richards is Professor of Cultural History, Lancaster University and the author of the new book The Golden Age of Pantomime, from which the above article is an edited extract. His many publications on theatre history include Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World and John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre. He is General Editor of I.B.Tauris’ Cinema and Society series.
1. The fact that a successful pantomime was the key to economic success in the theatre has been confirmed by the research into nineteenth-century theatre finances by Tracy C. Davis in her comprehensive study, The Economics of the British Stage 18001914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 342–5.
2. Richard Schoch, Queen Victoria and the Theatre of her Age, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004, pp. 19, 47–8, 117.
3. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, London: Odham’s Press, n.d., p. 258.
4. On the eighteenth-century evolution of the harlequinade, see M.Willson Disher, Clowns and Pantomimes, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1925; Thelma Nicklaus, Harlequin or the Rise and Fall of a Bergamask Rogue, New York: George Braziller, 1956; Allardyce Nicoll, TheWorld of Harlequin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963; John O’Brien, Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment 16901760, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
5. David Mayer III, Harlequin in His Element: The English Pantomime, 18061836, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 2.
6. David Worrall, Harlequin Empire: Race, Ethnicity and the Drama of the Popular Enlightenment, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007.
7. Mayer, Harlequin in His Element, p. 7.
8. On Victorian stage effects, see Percy Fitzgerald, The World Behind the Scenes, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881; Richard Southern, Changeable Scenery, London: Faber and Faber, 1952.
9. Andrew McConnell Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2009, pp. xxv–xxvi.
10. On Victorian varieties of humour, see Donald Gray, ‘The Uses of Victorian Laughter’, Victorian Studies 10 (December 1966), pp. 145–76; Ronald Pearsall, Collapse of Stout Party: Victorian Wit and Humour, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.
11. Jane Moody, Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770–1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 214.
12. Andrew McConnell Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2009, p. xxv.
13. Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, London: Atlantic Books 2007, p. 33.
14. Gatrell, City of Laughter, p. 7.
15. Gatrell, City of Laughter, pp. 143–4.
16. John Russell Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama 18241901, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
17. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, translated by Helen Iswolsky, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 5.
18. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, pp. 11–12.
19. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, p. 19.
20. Andrew Halliday, Comical Fellows, London: J.H. Thomson, 1863, p. 46.
21. On the Victorian Christmas, see J.A.R. Pimlott, The Englishmans Christmas, Hassocks: The Harvester Press, 1978; J.M. Golby and A.W. Purdue, The Making of the Modern Christmas, London: B.T. Batsford, 1986; Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History, London: I.B.Tauris, 1999; Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010; Tara Moore, Victorian Christmas in Print, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
22. D.J. Anderson, ‘Harlequin in Extremis’, The Theatre (1 March 1879), pp. 103–6.
Image shows Grimaldi as ‘Joey’ the Clown, George Cruikshank (via Wikimedia).

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