Harlequin’s Invasion, 1803

Broadside of Harlequin’s Invasion,1803

Contributor: David Taylor

Location: The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Description: At a glance, this looks like a standard early nineteenth-century playbill. But it’s not. In fact, it’s a nationalistic broadside published during the invasion scare of the summer of 1803 – when it was widely feared that Napoleon was readying a fleet to cross the English Channel – and it closely mimics the typographic format and language of the playbill to make its point. The work of arch-loyalist James Asperne – who ran a bookshop in Cornhill, London, with the strikingly unsubtle name of The Bible, Crown, and Constitution – this mock-playbill informs the public of a new pantomime “In rehearsal” at the “Theatre Royal of the United Kingdom” – that is, a drama to be staged in and by the nation itself. “Some dark foggy night about November next,” the playbill exclaims, “will be ATTEMPTED, by a Strolling Company of French Vagrants, an old Pantomimic Farce, called Harlequin’s Invasion or The Disappointed Banditti”.

In this period, British pantomimes showed the metamorphosis of a well-known, often folkloric character—Faustus or Defoe’s Friday, for instance—into the disruptive and effervescent figure of Harlequin. With Columbine (his lover) in tow, Harlequin is then pursued through a rapid-fire sequence of locations by blocking characters such as Pantaloon (the older man or father) and Clown (the rival suitor). He evades these adversaries through a combination of acrobatic tricks and comic conjurations: with a flick of his magic sword (a “slapstick”) he transforms people, objects, and spaces into something new.

Harlequin is a complex anti-hero: protean, restless, violent, conspicuously foreign (his customary black mask perhaps suggesting his racial difference). And for this imagined pantomime the role of “Harlequin Butcher” is, of course, to be played by Napoleon: “Mr. Buonaparte, from Corsica (Who Murdered that Character in Egypt, Italy, Swisserland, Holland, &c.).” The reference to Napoleon’s Corsican heritage here deepens the parallel to Harlequin, a character who emerged in the commedia del’arte of sixteenth-century Italy (Italian was the official language of Corsica until the 1850s). At the same time, the playbill’s description puns on what were then literal and figurative meanings of “murder”: to kill but also, in the artistic sense, to spoil through a lack of skill. An actor could “murder” his part. Napoleon, the public is being told, is guilty both of slaughter – in his military campaigns in Europe and Egypt – and also of failing to perform the role of protagonist adequately. He’s not even a good Harlequin.

The analogy between Napoleon and Harlequin would have been a familiar one to many viewers in 1803. A number of satirical poems and political cartoons of that year make the same joke. What’s remarkable about this broadside is how carefully it harnesses the structure of the playbill – and of the nightly theatrical programme – as a means of simultaneously imagining and neutralizing the threat of invasion. A night at the theatre in the early nineteenth century involved the performance not of a single play but of a series of entertainments that usually included a mainpiece, such as a five-act comedy or tragedy, as well as a shorter interlude and afterpiece, such as a pantomime (see http://www.euromanticism.org/a-christmas-entertainment-in-london-jan-11th-1826/).

This mock playbill thus offers the anxious British public a kind of threefold reassurance. First, they’re promised that the pantomime will show “Harlequin’s Flat-Bottomed Boats warmly engaged by the Wooden Walls of Old England” – that is, the Royal Navy. Second, this harlequinade will be followed by a mainpiece play, “the favourite Comic Tragic Uproar of The Repulse; Or Britons Triumphant”, which is to be performed “by Command of his Majesty, & at the particular request of all good Citizens”. This spectacle of victory will feature a large cast of naval commanders and volunteers and a soundtrack of popular patriotic anthems such as “Britons Strike Home”, “Rule Britannia”, and “God Save the King”. And, third, lest there be any lingering doubts about winners and losers, the broadside declares that the evening’s entertainment will conclude with “a Grand Illumination and a Transparency displaying Britannia receiving the Homage of Gallic Slaves”. The chronology of a night at the playhouse provides a sequential structure through which the future trajectory of the war can be safely plotted and British victory confidently forecast.

Asperne’s mock-playbill reminds us that the period’s theatres were in many ways the most significant and relentless engines of British nationalism. But it also suggests the power of translating bloody conflict into the comfortingly everyday registers of popular entertainment and advertising. The broadside works specifically with the peculiar tense of the playbill’s language, which gives to the future, to what has yet to happen, the clear and detailed certainty of an event that seems already to have taken place, an event that is already known. The playbill achieves this effect because of the inherently repetitive nature of theatrical performance itself. Importantly, “Harlequin’s Invasion” – in fact, the name of a pantomime written by actor, playwright, and theatre manager David Garrick in 1759 – is described here as “an old pantomimic farce,” though with “New Machinery, Music, Dresses and Decorations”. Like other stock repertory pieces, the drama of potential invasion is one that the British public has seen before. There’s nothing new here, the broadside seems to insist. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

In this way, the playbill makes for effective propaganda because it gives to the war both the particular structure of pantomime – of that most formulaic and predictable of all dramatic genres – and also the deeper sense of recurrence that comes with performance. Performance means “never for the first time”, the theorist Richard Schechner tells us. Asperne’s conceit ultimately casts the threat of invasion as a regular and even reassuringly familiar event in the cycle of British history.

Date: Summer 1803

Creator: James Asperne

Subject: Napoleon

Media rights: public domain

Object type: broadside

Format: printed ink on paper

Language: English

Related objects: A Christmas Entertainment

Publisher: The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Catalogue number: Henry E. Huntington Library, call. No. 297305 ANAL