The Origin of Popular Pantomime Stories

Frontispiece for 'Jack and the Beanstalk', published by JL Marks, London, 1850s. Museum no. MB.JACB.MA, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Frontispiece for 'Jack and the Beanstalk', published by JL Marks, London, 1850s. Museum no. MB.JACB.MA, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Pantomime text for 'Jack and the Beanstalk' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1899. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pantomime text for 'jack and the Beanstalk' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1899. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 19th century topical subjects began to be included in pantomime stories. 'The Birth of the Steam Engine or Harlequin Locomotive and Joe Miller and his Men' was a pantomime that appeared shortly after the first railway engine made its journey from Stockton to Darlington.

By the 1840s the subject matter of Harlequinades had become more and more nonsensical. Pantomimes such as 'Harlequin and the Tyrant of Gobblemupandshrunkemdowno', and 'The Doomed Princess of the Fairy Hall with Forty Blood-red Pillars', told imaginative stories dominated by tomfoolery and slapstick.

By the 1870s the fashion for Harlequinades was dying out and most pantomimes were drawing on fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as 'Aladdin', 'Cinderella', and 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'.

Pantomime writers

In 1843 a Parliamentary Act stipulated that any theatre could now produce a play containing spoken dialogue. Before this date only some theatres were granted such a licence. Harlequin chase scenes were mimed, so theatres had been able to produce pantomime without the appropriate theatre licences. After this law was passed new writers began to script pantomimes.

Two writers predominated in London pantomimes, Henry James Byron and James Robinson Planché. H.J. Byron had introduced burlesques into the theatre, and was a theatre manager and a playwright. Both writers specialised in puns or word play, a tradition that continues into pantomime today. Planche's stories, originally written in the 18th century included 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Bluebeard' and 'Puss in Boots'.

Pantomime stories

Stories derived from English folk tales or ballads include: 'Dick Whittington and his Cat', 'Robinson Crusoe', 'Babes in the Wood', 'Robin Hood', 'St George and the Dragon', and 'Little Goody Two Shoes'. The stories derived from Madam d'Aulnoy's 1721 tales published in France include 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears', and a version of 'Cinderella'. Several pantomime stories come from the book The Arabian Nights, which was first published in the UK between 1704 and 1714: 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves', 'Aladdin', and 'Sinbad the Sailor'. 'Mother Goose' comes from French poet and essayist Charles Perrault who wrote a book of the same name dedicated to the King of France's niece. 'Cinderella' is one of the tales in this book.

Cinderella

Lillian Stanley as Cinderella, published in The Sketch Magazine, 20th January, 1897. Museum no. 131655, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lillian Stanley as Cinderella, published in The Sketch Magazine, 20th January, 1897. Museum no. 131655, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Newspaper illustration of a scene from 'Cinderella' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, from 'The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News', 1875. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Newspaper illustration of a scene from Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, from 'The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News', 1875. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Finale of 'Cinderella' at the Birmingham Hippodrome, 1995-6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Finale of Cinderella at the Birmingham Hippodrome, 1995-6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The story of Cinderella appears in many countries from Romania to Scandinavia. One version of it can be traced back to Madame d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales published in 1721. The story was originally called 'The Story of Finetta, the Cinder Girl'. The first stage appearance of the story in England was at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1804 as part of the 'New Grand Allegorical Pantomime Spectacle'. This was written anonymously but based on a story by another French writer, Perrault, in Mother Goose's Rhymes.

By 1820 the story of Cinderella had become a comic opera: Rossini's 'La Cenerentola'. This was the first version in which Cinderella's father was a Baron. It also featured Dandini, the prince's faithful servant. Just 12 weeks later the King's Opera in Covent Garden opened an Easter pantomime entitled 'Harlequin and Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper'. This featured Baron Pomposini, and his wife was played by Grimaldi, the clown. It would be hard to imagine Grimaldi playing a serious role and this was probably an early example of a pantomime dame.

In 1860 H.J.Byron added the Ugly Sisters and Buttons to the tale. His Ugly Sisters were originally called Clorinda and Thisbe and both were played by men. It was not until after the First World War that the principal boy in Cinderella became known as Prince Charming. Many versions of the Cinderella story exist, some of which are fairly gruesome. In an old Swedish variation of the story, the Ugly Sisters cut off their toes in an attempt to force their feet into the glass slipper.

The print on the right shows a version of Cinderella in 1875 had the full title of 'Cinderella and the Butterflies' Ball and Grasshoppers' Feast'. It was not unusual for a pantomime story to incorporate two tales into one in order to include a larger number of extraordinary locations for the action. A review of this production points out that 'much sacrifice is... made to spectacle, and the original stories are scarcely recognisable'. But although the core stories were traditional fairy or folk tales, pantomimes also reflected social aspects of their day. The Victorians are well known for their stern morality and disapproval of self-indulgence. In this scene, we see 'Honeydew' (the Queen Bee, Spirit of Industry), fighting the evil 'Papillona' (her rival, Queen of the Butterflies and Spirit of Pleasure). As well as a whole range of giant insects, the pantomime featured an entire stud of miniature ponies.

The image of the finale on the right is from the 1995/6 season Cinderella at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Apart from having Prince Charming played by a man (the ice skater Robin Cousins) rather than a female ‘principal boy’, it was in many respects a very traditional Pantomime. Real Shetland ponies pulled Cinderella’s coach. woodland animals were played by children from Birmingham Dance School, and it ended with a spectacular 'walk-down' with everyone in their wedding finery. A magical feature was the frosty woodland scene when Prince Charming skated on a pond, its surface a large sheet of a type of plastic developed for artifical joints (and chopping boards!), which allowed his ice skates to edge and glide. Cinderella’s father was played by Rolf Harris, and the parts of the ‘two brokers men’ were played by Bob Carolgees and his hand puppet ‘Spit the Dog’.


Pollock's Toy Theatre: Dick Whittington, United Kingdom, about 1840. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pollock's Toy Theatre: Dick Whittington, United Kingdom, about 1840. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dick Whittington

The first performance of Dick Whittington was at Covent Garden in 1814. Dick Whittington was based on a real character who lived in the 15th century and was Lord Mayor of London three times. In 1419 he was said to have married an employer's daughter, Alice Fitzwarren, and this is where the name of the female character comes from. The cat may have originated as a pun on 'achat', the French word for 'purchase'. However other countries also have their own version of the story which derives from Persia (now Iran), and which tells the tale of an old woman's son who embarked for India with a cat.

In H.J Byron's version Dick escapes to Algiers but is chased by a villain in a hot air balloon. He is also pursued by Alice's father and mother. Ballooning was topical in the year that the pantomime was produced (1862) when two English balloonists reached a height of 11km in a hot air balloon. In the early versions of the pantomime the balloon scene was the Harlequin chase scene and the characters of Dick and Alice would transform into Harlequin and Columbine hotly pursued by Pantaloon.

In 1891, Lottie Collins performed her 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay' song and dance in Dick Whittington at Drury Lane. She was a huge success.

Costume designs by  Attilio Comelli for the 1908 Drury Lane pantomime Dick Whittington
Programme for 'Aladdin', at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1885. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Programme for 'Aladdin', at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1885. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Programme for 'Aladdin' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Programme for 'Aladdin' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aladdin

The story of Aladdin comes from the book The Arabian Nights, first published in England between 1704 and 1714. This reflected a popular interest at the time in the Oriental. The story was first seen on stage in Covent Garden in 1788 in a version by John O'Keefe entitled 'Aladdin'. In 1813 Grimaldi played the dumb slave, a character that has now disappeared, but was obviously a comic role.

Widow Twankey was first known as Ching Mustapha, in 'Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp', at Covent Garden in 1813. She had a variety of other names including Wee-Ping, Chow-Chow and Tan-kin before the name Widow Twankay appeared in 1861 when H.J Byron introduced it. Twankay was the name of a popular green tea from China.

The first Widow Twankey was played by James Rogers at the Strand Theatre on 1st April 1861, in an extravaganza entitled 'Aladdin or The Wonderful Scamp'.

The Oriental was all the rage in London at Christmas 1885. The comic opera 'The Mikado' was still running at the Savoy Theatre, and a Japanese village was a tourist attraction in Hyde Park. It was hardly surprising that Augustus Harris chose Aladdin for his seventh annual pantomime at Drury Lane. The programme designer created a suitably oriental style for this cover, while the eleven different scenes and numerous costumes in the pantomime were by some of the best designers of the day, including Henry Emden, William Beverley, and Wilhelm who also designed costumes for 'The Mikado'. As usual for a Drury Lane pantomime staged by Augustus Harris, this was a lavish affair which featured ballets and the popular grand procession scene, in this case 'A Dream of Fair Women'.

The programme in the shape of a Chinese lantern is from the 1909 Drury Lane production of 'Aladdin'. Having a shaped programme made production costs more expensive, but added an imaginative touch which appealed to the children in the audience. In this production, as is often the case in pantomime, the Dame character stole the show, in this case Widow Twankey played by Wilkie Bard. Poor Miss Marie George who played Aladdin didn't even get a mention in 'The Times' review. As is traditional in pantomime, topical references were thrown in, referring to current events or fashions. On hearing a great noise offstage, one character called out "They are only feeding a suffragette". 1909 was the year in which Marion Dunlop, an imprisoned suffragette, refused to eat as a protest against her treatment. She was released but several other women followed her example.

 


Playbill for 'Robinson Crusoe' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1781. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Playbill for 'Robinson Crusoe' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1781. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Robert Hale as Robinson Crusoe at Royal Alhambra Theatre, Published by The Sketch Magazine, London, England, 6th January 1915. Museum no. 131655, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robert Hale as Robinson Crusoe at Royal Alhambra Theatre, Published by The Sketch Magazine, London, England, 6th January 1915. Museum no. 131655, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robinson Crusoe

The pantomime Robinson Crusoe is based on the book, The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, which was published in 1719. The book is based on the true adventures of Alexander Selkirk, who survived on a desert island for four years before being rescued.

Selkirk was born in Fife, Scotland in 1676. He ran away to sea and worked his way up to become a captain. On one journey in the Chilean Sea off the Pacific, he requested to be left on a deserted island. He took with him some clothes, bedding, a kettle, a hatchet, a rifle and some books. Selkirk was eventually rescued and returned home to live in Scotland. However, he found it hard to readjust to his life and took to living in a cave. He returned to sea where he died from drinking infected water.

The first production of Robinson Crusoe was at Drury Lane in 1781. The pantomime was called 'Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday' and Giuseppe Grimaldi, father of the famous clown Joey Grimaldi, played Harlequin Friday. The pantomime was an instant hit, and this production ran for 38 nights, an extremely long run for the time, especially for a pantomime. The first part of the entertainment entailed the story of Robinson Crusoe, and then a transformation scene introduced the second part which featured the Harlequinade: a comedy played by the Commedia dell'arte characters of Pantaloon, Harlequin and company. The characters from the main plot however, reappeared in the Harlequinade. Pantaloon and Pierrot were kidnapped by cannibals and had to be rescued by Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday.

Robinson Crusoe was the first pantomime to be produced in America. It opened at the St John's Theatre in New York in 1786.

One of the most famous performances of Robinson Crusoe, brought together three of the biggest stars of the Music Hall. Produced by Augustus Harris at Drury Lane in 1893 it starred Marie Lloyd as Polly Perkins, Dan Leno as Mrs Crusoe and Little Tich as Man Friday.

The conventional casting of a man to play the Dame role, and a young woman to play Principal Boy was given a further spin by the actor Robert Hale at the Alhambra theatre in 1914. Hale wrote and starred in a sketch, with a title that parodied a Victorian pantomime title: 'Robinson Crusoe, or, The diabolical Davy Jones, whose dastardly deeds are frustrated by the Fearless Fairy, who waves her witching wand and rescues Peter Pan Robinson from his perilous predicament'. The sketch itself was a parody of a burlesque, with the principal boy being played by a man, playing a girl, playing a boy. There was a vogue for the buxom principal boy at the time, and Robert Hale had his legs padded to create the illusion of femininity.

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