The Golden Age of Pantomime
Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England
London: I.B. Tauris, 2015
Hardback. xii + 438 pp. ISBN 978-1780762937. £25.00
Reviewed by Jacqueline Banerjee*
"What is the intent of the Christmas holydays?" asked the magazine John Bull on Christmas Day 1837. After the immensely popular stage productions of the Regency period, the question seemed almost rhetorical: "The merest child would give the correct answer — to eat plum-pudding, and see the pantomime" . But pantomimes at this time were different from those we might see now. They mainly focussed on the buffoonery of the harlequinade. This was the part in which the characters of the opening episodes were magically transformed into Harlequin, Columbine, Columbine's father Pantaloon, Clown, Pierrot and their associates. Clown had become the chief mischief-maker, getting all the laughs as he and Pantaloon put obstacles in the path of the young couple. Outrageous and acrobatic, Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) had been the Clown of Clowns. But he had died earlier in the same year, about three weeks before Queen Victoria acceded to the throne (not three months, as Richards has it), worn out in his fifties by the battering he had taken on stage, and alcoholism. How would this be transformed into the pantomime as we know it today?
Pantomime has deep roots, traceable to classical times, particularly to the Bacchanalian festivals, reaching Britain eventually via the Italian commedia dell'arte and its French adaptations. Sensibly, Richards takes as his starting point the merging of the harlequinade with extravaganza and burlesque in the nineteenth century itself. The biggest impetus for change, as he explains in his first chapter, aptly headed "Transformations", was the passing of the Theatre Regulations Act of 1843. This permitted dialogue outside the two patent theatres, Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Producers no longer needed to depend on the crude knock-about stage business and comic songs of the harlequinade. Fittingly, in this chapter too Richards deals with the issue of cross-dressing: the tradition of having an obviously female Principal Boy and an equally obviously male Dame. To defuse sexual tensions, as some suggest, or to emphasise the natural order of things by making its disruption ridiculous, as others believe? Richards himself inclines to the latter view, but perhaps it was something of both. One thing is certain. This tradition hung on, at least as regards the Pantomime Dame, while much else changed. As Richards shows in Chapters 2 and 3, the Victorians prefaced and gradually eclipsed the harlequinade with far more complicated plots, derived from legend, fairy-tale and so forth. In the hands of talented script-writers, actors, scenery-designers and producers, pantomimes became spectacular Christmas entertainments with universal appeal.
The topic is important: the Victorian age is far better known for its fiction and poetry than its drama, a fact that Richards blames on economic factors. Nor is the topic simply important in the history of the stage and popular culture. As Richards points out at the beginning, "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" . The auditorium was a place where all, including sage, visionary and politician, could let down their hair and enjoy (as his subtitle has it), "Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion". But they took something away from it, too. Particularly interesting in this early part of the book is the chapter on fairyland, in which Richards suggests that it was pantomimes that really brought this appealing other-world to life for the Victorians. Though not mentioned here, Thackeray's subtitle for his own fairy-tale, The Rose and the Ring : A fire-side Pantomime for great and small Children (1855), confirms both the association itself, and the kind of cross-fertilisation that occurred. More generally, pantomimes played to and encouraged the whole Victorian interest in childhood.
While the Theatre Regulation Act threatened to sink the harlequinade, it gave new opportunities to the wordsmiths. Principal among these at first was James Robinson Planché (1796-1880), a playwright of Huguenot descent, and the subject of Chapters 4 and 5. Planché enjoyed success well before the Theatre Regulation Act was passed: in February 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves had attended a Royal Command performance of his congratulatory masque, The Fortunate Isles, at the Theatre Royal. Taking place immediately after the royal couple's brief honeymoon at Windsor, this event had been one of the highlights of their wedding celebrations, and Thackeray wrote to Planché before coming, requesting a pass so that he and his wife could go behind the scenes. Planché could now provide his elegant scripts in rhyming couplets, praised in the press as "vivacious and witty effusions" , to several theatres, where they were accompanied by grand visual effects, especially at the transformation scene. He is widely known for establishing the extravaganza, and Richards shows in detail how he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the exuberant Victorian spectacular of this type, making pantomime popular even with the most discriminating.
As Chapter 4, on "Planché and the ‘Classical Extravaganza’ ", makes clear, Planché was a man of classical and antiquarian interests, and these interests fed into the new kind of pantomime — as well as leading to the adoption of historical accuracy in staging other kinds of plays. Nevertheless, as the occasion and nature of The Fortunate Isles suggest, his scripts were still closely tied to their own times. Neither the past nor fairyland was as distant as it might seem. In Chapter 5 on his fairy extravaganzas, for instance, Richards shows how packed these pantomimes were with "topical references — to products, personalities, shops, novelties, political developments, London landmarks and sensations of the day". Thus Planché's The Fair One with the Golden Locks at the Haymarket (1843) included references to the hansom cab, patented in 1834; Punch's annual Pocket Book; Allsop's Pale Ale; and a Regent's Street shop called Howell and James . When it was revived at Sadler's Wells in 1868, the Times noted that the original script had been "fitted with new verses referring to current events and songs adapted to all the most popular tunes" .
While this sort of thing made pantomime a sort of "cultural barometer" for the age [xiii], as Richards claims at the beginning, it also makes the individual plays almost inaccessible now. The accounts unearthed here, largely from contemporary reviews in newspaper and magazine archives, certainly help in this respect. Another particularly useful source for these early chapters was Planché's 1872 autobiography, Recollections and Reflections, and readers disappointed not to find any bibliography at the end will find further help in the first note for Chapter 4, where Richards lists "the best recent work" on Planché [416, n.1].
As extravaganzas became ever more dependent on sophisticated, elaborate and stunning visual effects, they promised to take over the show entirely. By the 1850s and 1860s, they were swamping not only the harlequinade but also the dialogue and the acting. Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867), better known now as a maritime artist, had painted scenery at Drury Lane from 1822-1834, and was credited with introducing diorama to the genre. But it was in the hands of William Roxby Beverley (c.1810-1889), the subject of Chapter 6, that spectacle reached its apogee, with a combination of the pictorial and the mechanical that earned him unprecedented curtain-calls — not just at the end but after the most spectacular of the scenes. A reviewer in the Era gives us an idea of his skills. "What, for instance, can be more refined and elegant in its conception than the 'Abode of the Arcadian Fairies?' " he enthuses, calling this part of Blanchard's Robin Hood (1858-59, at Drury Lane) "an ideal study of unsurpassable beauty", and describing how
the trees of Porcelain crested with golden branches, which constitute the foreground, opening in the centre and unfolding a vista through which a torrent of living water is seen sporting and tumbling over a precipitous incline of rockwork. The effect of this is most charming and when the stage is filled . . . with a myriad of shepherdesses, costumed after Watteau, the beauty of the picture, so happy in its composition, so dainty in its development, and so exquisitely glowing in its execution, completely ravishes the spectator and transports him into regions so conceived, and so peopled, only in his dreams! The transformation scene, the "Retreat of the Wood Nymphs", is one of those mechanical combinations of which Mr Beverley… is the sole creator. It realises itself through media that gradually became less and less dense, until a gigantic fern is discovered, which, in its turn, opens silently and imperceptibly, and reveals, as the scene grows, and the light becomes more effulgent, nymphs without number reposing upon the interlacing branches of a silver oak in the background, in attitudes the most graceful, and with the most perfect concealment of the means that are resorted to produce a denouement at once delicate, ethereal, and lustrously, bewilderingly, magniﬁcent. This vast scenic effort will, no doubt, be the talk of the metropolis for some time to come. 
Quoting from reviews is perhaps the only way of giving the reader a taste of those performances. Another way of bringing back the past is by focussing on the larger-than-life personalities involved, the dramatists, the actors, and the managers. As well as Planché and Beverley, Richards presents a number of these for our delectation. Among the most memorable is Madame Vestris (1797-1856), discussed mainly in Chapter 4, whose acquisition of the Olympic Theatre in 1830 made her the first woman to become a West End actor-manager. She was a singer as well. A fellow-thespian wrote of her in 1859: "Believe it reader, no actress can give you an idea of the attractions, the fascinations, the witcheries of Madame Vestris in the hey-day of her charm" . Another flamboyant character is introduced in Chapter 6, along with Beverley. This was the theatrical entrepreneur and impresario Edward Tyrrel Smith (1804-1877), who ran Drury Lane through most of the 1850s, and (to use the subtitle of Chapter 7) was one of the "Creators" of the pantomime there. But perhaps the most important of all was the writer Edward Litt Laman Blanchard (1820-1889), who, Richards tells us, "cut his dramatic teeth on extravaganzas and burlesques performed not at Christmas but in spring and autumn" , started writing Christmas pantomimes in the mid-1840s, and gradually picked up the baton from Planché. Blanchard wrote the Drury Lane pantomimes for nearly four decades, his last one being performed there over the 1888-89 season. He wrote for Sadlers' Wells and other theatres as well, but in the last part of the book, Chapters 8 to 10, the focus is firmly on the pantomime tradition at Drury Lane. Blanchard's work there under Smith and his successor, the fiery but big-hearted Frederick Balsir Chatterton (1834-1886), provides the main subject of Chapters 8 and 9.
Richards' meticulous research into Blanchard's life and finances, as well as his experiences in the theatrical world, is very welcome. Like Grimaldi and Planché, he had his struggles as well as his triumphs. His battle to win his beloved Carina, who at last accepted him as her third husband, is touching, and would be the basis for another of his last compositions, a light opera named after her and staged in 1888. An appendix shows how Blanchard's annual income, which was just over £700 at its peak in 1877, gradually declined to £200 at the end of his life. Then as now, a career in show business was no guarantee of long-term riches.
As for the pantomime plots themselves, these are convoluted as well as hopelessly dated now, and fewer examples would have sufficed. After a while, the recurrent phrase, "The pantomime opens with...." becomes less than inviting. Nevertheless, there is much of interest here for scholars of popular drama, and of the age in general. Topical references show the impact of new developments such as the introduction of gaslight, and of current events like the Great Stink of 1858, when the pollution of the Thames featured in two different productions. Not unexpectedly, a new moralising vein appeared: Blanchard's 1857-58 pantomime for Drury Lane, Little Jack Horner or Harlequin ABC, for instance, was a plea for "literacy, knowledge, intelligence and imagination" , featuring authors of improving works and grammarians, and celebrating the ambition, only slowly being realised, to link the empire with transatlantic cables. Intelligence sends Proverb to help Jack Horner with his studies, Jack fights off Ignorance with the Sword of Perseverance, is eventually sent to a "Fairy Aquarium" with a coral palace to see what can be achieved by Imagination in support of Intelligence, and so forth. The reviewers were divided. "People do not expect to be edified and instructed at a pantomime", wrote the Times reviewer stiffly, while the Illustrated London News was all for it – the other way round to what one might expect.
However, what increasingly characterised pantomimes, at this point, were stunning visual effects. Whatever the critics felt about Blanchard's moralising in Little Jack Horner or Harlequin ABC, for example, Beverley's scenery for the "Fairy Aquarium" episode was universally praised:
As its wonders gradually revealed themselves, and the circumambient air, no less than terra firma, became peopled with floating nymphs and soaring fairies, the applause was vociferous and continuous, and a summons first for Mr E.T. Smith, the manager, and next for Mr Beverley, the artist presented the climax of excitement". [qtd. from the Times, 225]
This could not help but hurt the playwright himself, who feared that the script hardly mattered any more.
The last chapter, Chapter 10, is about Chatterton's successor at Drury Lane, the terrifically energetic Augustus Harris (1852-1896). As far as Blanchard was concerned, the situation at Drury Lane only worsened now. This was because, in addition to presenting grand spectaculars, Harris brought in music-hall turns. Blanchard wrote in his diary of 10 December 1885:
[A]fterwards to Drury Lane to see Aladdin. The panto, not at all following the text I have written. Augustus Harris seems to have placed it very brilliantly on the stage, but it is more dazzling than funny, and I get very weary of the gagging of the music-hall people, and with eyes dazzled with the gas and glitter, cannot stay till mid-night, when the harlequinade only commences, and which few now seem to care about. Oh, the change from one's boyhood! left to be rattled through as rapidly as possible, and without I fear any adequate rehearsal.(1)
Blanchard's day was already past, and when both he and Beverley died in the same year (1889), it seemed like the end of an era — "the era of classic mid-Victorian pantomime", as Richards puts it . The brilliance of the genre was already changing to something altogether gaudier. Stars whose names are still remembered today, like the diminutive and frenetic Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd pulled in the crowds: Leno performed in the Drury Lane pantomimes from 1888-1903. But were these still pantomimes in the old sense? Just as Planché's elegant couplets had superseded the ribald harlequinade of Grimaldi's day, so Blanchard's fine prose had gone too. But there was still a feast for the eyes, a parade of talent, and opportunities for laughter and audience participation, often based on the same handful of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It would be wrong to say that the pyrotechnics had all ended in a damp squib. Indeed, they had not ended at all. Richards concludes his study with a brief epilogue to bring us up to date, an appendix showing Blanchard's annual income, the notes to each chapter, an index of all the pantomimes discussed, and a general index, but, alas, as mentioned above, no bibliography.
With so much more on offer now, pantomime is no longer guaranteed to feature in everyone's Christmas wish-list. Yet, like Christmas pudding, it is still a traditional ingredient of a British Christmas, and, for all its "transformations", is instantly recognisable and still popular, both in London and the provinces, and perhaps especially among local drama groups. Puss in Boots was the hit of the 1837 Christmas season, much as it might be at the London Hippodrome or a village playhouse today. The genre, always a hybrid, has proved as lasting as it is elastic. In this latest academic offering on the subject, Jeffrey Richards has stirred in nearly all the proper ingredients of scholarship to reveal how this much-loved entertainment has developed over the years, capturing and commenting on the spirit of the age, and coming down to us in the twenty-first century with the same potential to excite and delight. The result is a "must-have" for specialists in the history of popular theatre — and anyone interested in the Victorian age will learn much from it too.
(1) Scott, Clement & Howard, Cecil. The Life and Reminiscences of E.L. Blanchard, Vol. 2 of two volumes (London: Hutchinson, 1891) : 578-579.
* Parts of this review first appeared under the title of "Send in the Clowns" in the Times Literary Supplement (19-26 December 2014) : 26-27, together with a review of Linda Simon, The Greatest Shows on Earth : A History of the Circus. The TLS features the double review online under the different title, "Behind you....".
Cercles © 2015
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.