Each year, Regency era British theaters prepared Christmas pantomimes (pantos) that would begin on Boxing Day and run as long as the audiences demanded them. These were not silent productions, but rather very verbal performances that included the audience as an extra character in plays bearing many similarities to modern burlesque.
The Pantomime Tradition
The tradition of pantomimes and the pantomime characters in England traces back to medieval theater. Broadbent (1901) notes:
A sketch of Harlequin’s original (medieval) part is worth recording. ‘He is a mixture of wit, simplicity, ignorance, and grace, he is a half made up man, a great child with gleams of reason and intelligence, and all his mistakes and blunders have something arch about them. The true mode of representing him is to give him suppleness, agility, the playfulness of a kitten with a certain coarseness of exterior, which renders his actions more absurd. His part is that of a faithful valet; greedy; always in love; always in trouble, either on his own or his master’s account; afflicted and consoled as easily as a child, and whose grief is as amusing as his joy.’ His costume consisted of a jacket fastened in front with loose ribbons, and pantaloons of wide dimensions, patched with various colored pieces of cloth sewn on in any fashion. His beard was worn straight, and of a black color; on his face he had a half black mask and in his belt of untanned leather he carried a wooden sword.
The first ‘modern’ Pantomime appeared on the English stage in 1702. Produced at Drury Lane, ‘Tavern Bilkers’ was written by John Weaver, a dance-master who would go on to write and produce a number of pantomimes. But it was John Rich, beginning in 1717, who brought Pantomime into its own, creating a new form of dramatic composition that fed the Georgian audiences’ hunger for new and novel entertainment.
It consisted of two parts, one serious, the other comic; by the help of gay scenes, fine habits, grand dances, appropriate music, and other decorations, he exhibited a story … Between the pauses of the acts he interwove a comic fable, consisting chiefly of the courtship of Harlequin and Columbine, with a variety of surprising adventures and tricks, which were produced by the magic wand of Harlequin; such as the sudden transformation of palaces and temples to huts and cottages; of men and women into wheelbarrows and joint stools; of trees turned to houses; colonnades to beds of tulips; and mechanics’ hops into serpents and ostriches. (Broadbent, 1901)
By the 1750’s, pantomimes became associated with Christmas entertainment. In the 19th century, the serious portion of the evening dwindled in importance and duration as the performance of the harlequinade portion and the role of Clown of the evening became increasingly popular. Part of pantomime’s popularity was the way it poked irreverent fun at more serious forms of entertainment.
Rich developed the major pantomime characters that became the standard characters found in nearly all future pantomimes: Harlequin, Clown, Columbine, and Pantaloon. Harlequin was the romantic male lead, though the role was distinctly more comedic than traditionally romantic. A mischievous magician, Rich’s Harlequin used his magic batte or “slapstick” to transform the scene from the opening pantomime setting into the fanciful harlequinade and to magically transform the settings during the chase scene. Through the 1800’s Harlequin became more romantic and mercurial than magical and comedic.
Clown began as a servant to Pantaloon, a comical idiot dressed in tattered servant’s garb. In the 1800’s, new costumes and new actors, like Grimaldi, transformed the role to the undisputed agent of chaos with jokes, catch phrases and songs that audiences would shout and sing along with. “Clown became central to the transformation scene, crying ‘Here we are again!’ and so opening the harlequinade. He then became the villain of the piece, playing elaborate, cartoonish practical jokes on policemen, soldiers, tradesmen and passers-by.” (Broadbent, 1901)
Columbine was Harlequin’s beautiful love interest, daughter of Pantaloon, a devious, greedy merchant, bent on keeping the lovers apart with the assistance of Pierrot, his servant, and Clown.
Most of the pantos merged children’s fairy tales or stories like Robinson Crusoe or Sinbad the Sailor, with the fantastical star-crossed lovers of the harlequinade story. Dual titles, like ‘Harlequin and Cinderella,’ paid homage to both elements of the production. Typically, the panto began in the fairy-story world with a cross, old, business-minded father trying to force his pretty daughter to marry a wealthy fop, despite her preference for another, worthy though poorer, suitor. At the initiation of Harlequin’s ‘slapstick’, the good fairy transformed the lovers into the harlequin characters in a spectacular scene of magic. As stage machinery and technology improved, the transformation scene became more and more remarkable. Once the transformation was complete, Clown (and the audience with him) cried, “Here We Are Again”.
The new setting usually contained multiple stage traps, trick doors and windows. Clown would jump through windows and reappear through trap doors as he enacted the most dramatic, and beloved, part of the production, the frenzied chase scene. He would steal sausages, chickens and other props, grease doorsteps to outwit pursuers, use his magic wand to turn a dog into sausages or a bed into a horse trough, to the surprise of the sleeping victim.
While one part of the performance was aimed at the children and the innocent, adults responded to the often risqué or politically charged verbal exchanges. Since the audience participated in the show, emotions could run high. So much so, a pantomime could, and occasionally did, incite a riot.
Broadbent, R. D. A History of Pantomime, by R.j. Broadbent. S.l.: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, 1901.
Read a scene of Darcy attending a panto here.
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