Contributor: Nicola J. Watson
Location: Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Description: Nearly two hundred years ago today, you might have attended this post-Christmas entertainment at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London. The programme characteristically offered a straight piece (here, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna) but it also included a ‘new, grand & comick’ pantomime staged by the famous composer, arranger and producer of such shows, Charles Farley (1771-1859). As nowadays, pantomime in the Regency was one of the more idiosyncratically and resolutely British forms of national popular theatre and an integral part of Christmas festivities. But, as this playbill suggests, British pantomime also drew heavily upon European literary tradition and theatrical practice, even as it staged Britain’s relation to the rest of the world in topical, patriotic and even imperialist mode.
In the Regency, as now, pantomime was notably formulaic, characterised by rhyming doggerel verse, orchestral music, song, dance, slapstick comedy, and spectacular scenic illusions and transformations. By the 1820s, a hundred years after a forebear of what we would now call pantomime had come to London in the wake of the suppression of the commedia dell’arte in Paris, pantomime had become a drama of two unequal halves. A show would begin with an ‘opening’ in one or two scenes based variably on myth, folk, popular or nursery tales, during which some apparently insuperable barrier was interposed between lovers. This section would conclude with a ‘transformation scene’ in which the cast would transform into the characters of the ‘Harlequinade’ and thereafter the lovers, now in the forms of Harlequin and Columbine and the unwelcome old suitor Pantaloon, would pursue each other through a succession of as many as twenty scenes and predicaments, from each of which Harlequin would escape by using his magic ‘bat’ (a slapstick) which shifted the scene. This sequence would culminate in a so-called ‘dark scene’ when Harlequin, owing to inattention, would lose his magic power; the situation would be saved by the intervention of some good fairy or other, and the whole climax with a grand scene of reconciliation centred upon a wedding of the central pair of lovers now metamorphosed back into their original identities.
This playbill shows, first of all, that the demand for novelty in pantomime led to Farley’s adoption of the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Although versions of the tale of the young girl married to an animal lover existed across Europe, this variant is derived from the French ‘La Belle et la Bête’ published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and influentially simplified and abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756. If we are to believe the ‘books’ of similar pantomimes (which as you can see from this playbill were sold in the theatre and by associated booksellers as a form of souvenir programme), such foreign fairy tales were not in fact especially well-known or ‘popular’ in the 1820s. The book of Harlequin and the Ogress: or, The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood staged at Covent Garden December 1822 advertises its novelty as much as its fame:
The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood has interested the lovers of Romance as much as any of the fairy tales of good Mother Bunch, and has been the subject of spectacle in England, France, Italy, and Russia; but never when the Hero and Heroine were found in our annual favourites at Christmas.
The ‘Advertisement’ ends by deriving the text from ‘the first folio copy, in the possession of that learned Black-letter Collector, Mistress Margery Bunch’. The joking allusion is probably to the publication of Mother Bunch’s Fairy-tales: for the Amusement of all little Masters and Misses in 1802, but more generally to the romantic antiquarian fashion sweeping Europe for collecting and appreciating folk-tales, both in oral form and in old ‘black-letter’ books, from Walter Scott’s efforts to those of the Brothers Grimm. It is not coincidental that the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen were first published first in English translation in 1820, the same year that an important collection of tales, including some by Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy, were published as The Court of Oberon; or, The Temple of Fairie.
If the stories on which the pantomime ‘opening’ was based increasingly included the European fairy-tale, the ensuing ‘Tricks, Changes, and Escapes’ of the Harlequinade also came of European parentage, the commedia dell’arte. The joke was most often the insertion of the anarchic Harlequin into the fairs, shops and pubs of London, often highly specified, as here to ‘Covent Garden Market at Night’ and ‘Bartholomew Fair’. By the 1820s, Harlequin’s pre-eminence had been overtaken by the success of the Italian Joseph Grimaldi (1806-1837) who elevated the figure of the Servant/Clown to the major trickster, in this production playing ‘Chichicoo’, Pantaloon’s servant.
Finally, as this playbill also suggests, London pantomime sited London at the centre of a world successively exotic-cum-fabular (the opening is set in ‘An Indian Temple in Ruins’ and a ‘Persian Temple’) and then panoramically European. The Harlequinade treats us to a tour of Constantinople, St Petersburg and Amsterdam before alighting on the British coast and hurrying into the very centre of London low-life, before catastrophe strikes in ‘the dark forest’ and all is saved in the grand final scene of ‘The Palace of Roses’.
Theatre historians of the period, such as David Mayer, Jane Moody and David Worrall, typically speak of Regency rather than ‘Romantic’ pantomime, and highlight its satiric and consumerist national topicality. In this, they follow Leigh Hunt’s observation in essays for the London Journal in the 1830s, reprinted as The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events (1848), that, while pantomime is ‘the triumph of animal spirits at Christmas, for the little children,’ ‘for the men there is occasionally some excellent satire on the times’ and that ‘Grimaldi, in his broad and fugitive sketches, often showed himself a shrewd… observer.’ Reading Charles Lamb’s nostalgic account of his first experiences of visiting the theatre aged six in his essay ‘My First Play’ (which included seeing David Garrick’s pantomime Harlequin’s Invasion) one might wonder whether such popular theatre can only be considered truly ‘Romantic’ when refracted through individual sensibility and memory: ‘All feeling was absorbed in vision. Gorgeous vests, gardens, palaces, princesses, passed before me. I knew not players. …It was all enchantment and a dream. No such pleasure has since visited me but in dreams.’ Nevertheless, this playbill suggests that British pantomime might equally usefully be re-contextualised in relation to the Europe-wide revival of interest in the fairy-tale characteristic of Romanticisms from 1800 onwards.
Date: January 11, 1826
Creator: Reynolds, W. printer
Subject: Harlequin and the Magick Rose: or, Beauty and the Beast pantomime, Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden
Media rights: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum
Object type: playbill
Format: ink-printed paper
Related objects: not applicable
Publisher: Victoria and Albert Museum, Theatre Collection
Digital collection record: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1351081/beauty-the-beast-playbill-reynolds-w/
Catalogue number : . 642-2016