Pantomime developed from a type of traveling street theatre called Commedia dell'arte which came from Italy in the 16th century. Commedia is a very physical type of theatre that uses dance, music, tumbling, acrobatics and buffoonery.
Commedia dell'arte troupes had a repertoire of stories that they performed in fairgrounds and market places. Often the touring troupes were made up of family members who would inherit their characters, costumes, masks and stories from their parents or grandparents. Commedia spread across Europe from Italy to France and by the middle of the 17th century began to be popular in England.
'Tinsel prints' were engravings of pantomime stars which could be decorated with scraps of material at home. They were popular during the first half of the 19th century and were considered an adult, rather than a child's hobby. This was also true of toy theatres at this time. Later in the period, it became possible to buy the tinsel, leather and feather ornaments to go with the engraving.
Like pantomime, Commedia dell'arte had set types of character called stock characters. Each character had set movements and gestures that represented his or her personality. The characters included the old man (Pantalone), naughty servants including Arlecchino, a lover, his lady and her servant girl (Columbine) who was in love with Arlecchino. There was also a clown or Pierrot character.
The actors wore costumes that depicted their character. Originally they also wore leather half masks over their faces. Commedia actors did not have a script but would improvise within the outline of a story. Commedia stories were often satirical and would poke fun at contemporary issues or ideas.
This moulded leather mask (right) is from an Italian Commedia dell'arte troupe from about 1700 for the character of Pulcinella. Pulcinella was traditionally a stupid servant, recognisable from his big beaky nose, hunchback and the wart on his forehead. As the 17th century progressed, the role of Pulcinella became more interesting and more diverse. By the time this mask was made, he was not necessarily a servant, but might be a peasant, a dentist, a physician, a painter or a soldier. The mask also changed. Whereas earlier versions had a moustache and beard hiding most of the actor's face, this is a half-mask. While some of the old Commedia dell'arte characters were adopted in England into a type of early pantomime called a 'harlequinade', Pulcinella was not. However he has survived in the UK in the form of Mr Punch in Punch and Judy shows.
Harlequin in England
From the 1660s Commedia dell'arte characters began to appear in English plays. Such was the success of Commedia in England that an intense rivalry soon sprang up between the theatres producing it. Within two days of a new performance opening at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in 1716, a show with an almost identical title opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
This Harlequin sheet (right) was printed in the early 20th century by George Skelt (not his real name), who claimed to be a descendent of the 19th-century toy theatre publishers, the Skelt brothers. It is a reprint of an original printed by William West in 1824. West was one of the earliest printers to print sets of characters and scenes for toy theatre productions. Harlequin was the magical character who featured in the Harlequinade and who was always involved in very energetic and acrobatic chase scenes. The lower sketch shows 'Harlequin's Leap' - the type of acrobatics that Harlequins regularly performed. The mirror through which he appears to be leaping would have been a hole in the scenery. Stage hands stood on the other side holding some carpet taut, on which the actor could land. This was probably based on a sketch of Tom Ellar, the Harlequin famous for his leaps, who owned the original drawings. Ellar, who worked with the great clown Grimaldi once broke his wrist because a catcher was not there for him at the crucial moment.
John Rich, actor-manager of the Lincoln's Inn Theatre (opened 1714) and The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (opened 1732), has been called the father of pantomime because he was the first to realise the potential of the Commedia characters. Rich made Harlequin the star of the entertainments that he called pantomimes, and he developed the character into a mischievous magician. Rich also developed the drama of the chase scenes.
For over 150 years Harlequin remained the star of the pantomime, and pantomime was dominated by the Harlequinade, a comic chase scene telling the story of Harlequin and Columbine. The Harlequinade was in mime with music and lots of slapstick and tomfoolery. Every pantomime had a Harlequinade as part of the bill.
The story of the Harlequinade had the same basic format; a chase scene where the two lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, are kept apart by the girl's father, Pantaloon, whose servants play tricks on him. In the chase the two lovers are pursued by her father and his servant, Clown.
John Rich's Harlequin used a Slapstick or wooden bat which he would hit against the scenery to make the scenes change by knocking down a series of hinged flaps. The chase scene would take the characters to many different locations all controlled by Harlequin's magic bat. The locations of the chase were often places that people would recognise - named streets or areas of London for example. They also included mythical locations.
The pantomime traditions of slapstick (meaning a certain type of clownish physical comedy), chases, speed and transformations were developed from Rich's Harlequinades.
Transformation scenes started as a way of moving between the different sections of the pantomime. Rather than just stopping one section and starting another, actors found creative and imaginative ways to transform the story into the Harlequinade.
During the transformation scenes the actors would take off the giant head masks that they had worn for the story and remove their costumes to reveal themselves as the Commedia dell'arte characters. As pantomime developed and stage technology became more advanced the transformations became events in themselves. It was designer William Beverley who first used the transformation scenes to alter stage sets. Scenery was flown in from above on wires or changed by a series of hinged flaps. Trick objects turned around to become another object. Beverley introduced a 'fan effect' where the scenery collapsed sideways and inwards, like a folding fan, to reveal a view from behind.
Marketing and merchandise
This broadside playbill is for Harlequin and the Three Bears, or, Little Silverhair and the Fairies, the first pantomime ever produced at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in December 1853. It was loosely based on the nursery story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but like all contemporary pantomimes, was an excuse for a glorious theatrical Christmas romp with Harlequin, Clown, Fairies, and a Dame and Principal Boy.
The fashion for detailed scenic description on playbills in the 1850s was led by the actor-manager Charles Kean. Kean's productions at the Princess's Theatre excelled in the constant scenic changes that audiences loved. In this pantomime playbill the printer clearly relished executing the woodcut lettering of acrobatic bears, and the flamboyant style of the embellished font for 'Fairies'.
West End London plays generated various types of merchandise. Toy theatres, known as 'juvenile theatre' were hugely popular and many printed sheets of cut- out characters survive from the 19th Century. These 'turn-up' picture books are another souvenir from specific London shows and are extremely rare. This one is from a play first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1800 called Harlequin's Tour or the Dominion of Fancy. The script was by Thomas Dibdin who wrote an enormous number of comic plays, not all published. While we do not have the script, the playbill from Covent Garden gives the cast, and this 'turn-up' an idea of the plot.