Victorian Pantomime

Lithograph poster for 'Cinderella', by John Hassall for David Allen & Sons, London, about 1890. Museum no. S.530-1996, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lithograph poster for 'Cinderella', by John Hassall for David Allen & Sons, London, about 1890. Museum no. S.530-1996, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


'A Christmas Transformation', illustration from 'The Publisher' magazine, 1881. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'A Christmas Transformation', illustration from 'The Publisher' magazine, 1881. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Newspaper illustration showing a 'star trap', late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Newspaper illustration showing a 'star trap', late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Victorian pantomime slowly evolved to look like the pantomime we know today. The Harlequinades eventually died out and pantomime stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella began to dominate. Writers H.J.Byron and J.R.Planché reworked these old stories to create new pantomimes. They specialised in puns and word plays, and the tradition of puns in pantomime comes from them.

By the middle of the 19th century, pantomime had become so popular that it extended over the whole evening's entertainment, sometimes lasting as long as five hours. Pantomimes also became more and more elaborate, with spectacular scene changes, beautiful costumes and huge casts. Sometimes 600 actors would perform in one pantomime in the same evening. The most elaborate Victorian pantomimes were at Drury Lane Theatre in London.

Principal Boys and Pantomime Dames evolved to become the new stock characters of pantomimes. Pantomime also began to be associated with children and Christmas. It became a tradition for the pantomime to open on Boxing Day, sometimes with two performances – afternoon and evening.

Augustus Harris at Drury Lane Theatre invited the stars of the music halls to perform in pantomimes, bringing with them their own acts. Two of the most famous music hall actors of the time who starred in Drury Lane pantomimes were Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno.

Child performers

A 'transformation scene' in a late 19th-century Christmas pantomime was a spectacular scene and costume change in which ordinary things magically transformed. The only remnant of a transformation scene in pantomime today is in Cinderella where the pumpkin becomes a coach, the mice become footmen and Cinderella's rags become a ball gown. Transformation scenes originated in the 18th century with the magical change of characters, rather than scenery, into the Commedia dell'arte figures of the Harlequinade. Here the transformation is from the girls' real life poverty to the temporary glamour of playing fairies.

Christmas pantomimes often included children, and larger theatres such as Drury Lane and Covent Garden might include two children's ballets. The children who appeared in pantomime were mostly from working class backgrounds. They were expected to work hard and to be extremely disciplined during rehearsals. When the show was running, they had a long evening's work - pantomimes starting at 7pm often didn't finish until midnight. It could be fun however, and more importantly it meant earning a regular wage for a few weeks.

Spectacle and illusion

Victorian pantomime incorporated all kinds of magical scenic effects and transformation scenes. In the early part of the 19th century, trick scenery and fast scene changes were created by systems of elaborately hinged flaps, pivots and slots in the stage. There were also flying systems: canvas cloths painted on both sides were turned over and flown in to reveal another setting. Other devices were hidden in secret panels, and under the stage there were trap doors for characters to appear and disappear.

A 'star trap' was a hidden trap door in the stage through which an actor, (in this case playing a fairy), could be shot up from below, at no inconsiderable risk, for a magical entrance. The performer stood on a platform below the trap door, and a counterweight was winched up and then released sending the platform flying upwards. The rectangular hole in the stage is just visible above the fairy's head, but usually this would be a circular gap, covered by triangular flaps of light wood, so that from the audience the hole was invisible. The flaps, connected to the stage by leather 'hinges' would be knocked open as the actor shot upward, and fall back in place to cover the hole. The platform would then be fixed in place so that the stage was solid enough to walk on and the fairy, demon or clown didn't plummet accidentally back through the hole.

Scenic changes and traps were coordinated by stage hands using a series of whistles to signal to each other. The reason it is bad luck to whistle backstage in a theatre is because if a whistle came at the wrong time it could cause an accident. The more elaborate transformations would require 50 or 60 stage hands. Spectacle and sets became so important that they were mentioned in the playbills to attract audiences.

Some theatres had enormous water tanks under the stage that enabled water effects such as rivers, fountains and waterfalls to be created on stage. In 1804 Sadler's Wells Theatre produced 'a Grand Spectacle with real men of war and floating batteries built and rigged by professional men from His Majesties Dock Yards and which float in a receptacle containing nearly 8,000 cubic feet of water'.

Stage lighting

Lighting was also used to create magical effects. Gaslight was introduced on the London stage in 1817. Before this the stage had been lit by candle-light. In 1881 electric light was first used at the Savoy Theatre, London. Electric lighting on glass was particularly popular. At the 1892 Drury Lane pantomime 'Little Bo Peep', a series of large mirrors reflected the procession of the 29 characters in the fairy tale. The first coloured lighting was achieved by lighting through coloured silks. This was used to colour the set and create atmosphere. Lights were shone on gauzes, to create fog or a ghostly feel.

Pantomimes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

Playbill for 'Harlequin and Robinson Crusoe', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1844.

Playbill for 'Harlequin and Robinson Crusoe', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1844. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Newspaper illustration showing preparation for the pantomime at Drury Lane Theatre, 'The Publisher' magazine, London, 1874. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Newspaper illustration showing preparation for the pantomime at Drury Lane Theatre, 'The Publisher' magazine, London, 1874. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The most elaborate scenery and set changes of the Victorian period were in the elaborate and spectacular pantomimes pantomimes presented by Augustus Harris at Drury Lane in the 1880s and 1890s. His productions cost vast sums of money, had hundreds of performers, and lasted for up to five hours. Many of the elements of today's pantomimes can be traced back to these Drury Lane pantomimes.

The Drury Lane pantomime of 1844 was 'Harlequin and Robinson Crusoe'. Whereas nowadays, top billing goes to the lead actor or the director, here the designers are the most prominent names on the playbill. The Grieve family was hugely famous and for three generations members of it created scenery for pantomimes, operas and ballets at Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres. John Henderson Grieve first worked at Drury Lane in 1794 and in 1820 he was joined by his two sons Thomas and William. Thomas was in turn succeeded by his son, Tom Walford. One of the Grieve family's spectacular designs involved a Grecian galley sailing into Cyprus: a canal was cut in the stage and the sea was represented by about 30 boys tumbling under a sheet of painted canvas. They were paid a shilling each.

The designer William Beverley produced the sets for Drury Lane from 1849 for 30 years, and raised audience expectations as to their extravagance. As part of the build-up to the new Christmas pantomime, this newspaper illustration describes the preparations being made. The workshop is an Aladdin's cave of discarded cardboard castles left over from previous years along with papier maché animals, disembodied figures, and richly decorated costumes being taken apart and reassembled into something new. In the centre of the bottom picture stands the small scale model of the set – still an essential tool for modern designers. Above, are pots of 'size' being boiled. This was a thick, gluey substance made from animal skin or bones which could be mixed with a colour and painted onto papier maché props or canvas scenery giving a tough surface.

Pantomime became increasingly focussed on elaborate set designs and special effects and Drury Lane led the field. Hydraulic stage machinery was installed in 1896 to enable more spectacular scene changes and special effects. The 1900 production of 'Sleeping Beauty and the Beast' was one of the most lavish and successful pantomimes produced at Drury Lane. The story of Beauty and the Beast was added on to the story of Sleeping Beauty in order to extend the number of scenes, and the range of locations to be staged. Settings included the Haunted Vaults of the palace, the Fairy Parliament, and the Enchanted Crystal Garden. The grand finale was the 'transformation scene' created by the set designer Bruce 'Sensation' Smith. Eight different scenes represented Beauty's wedding gifts, and each scene involved a vastly elaborate set change involving a staircase and even fountains onstage.

'The Forty Thieves'

Programme from 'The Forty Thieves', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Programme from 'The Forty Thieves', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Newspaper illustration of the cave scene from 'The Forty Thieves', from the 'Illustrated London News', 1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Newspaper illustration of the cave scene from 'The Forty Thieves', from the 'Illustrated London News', 1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Nicholls and Campbell as the Babes in the Wood, sepia photograph, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nicholls and Campbell as the Babes in the Wood, sepia photograph, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Harris' production of 'The Forty Thieves', which opened on 27th December 1886, began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am There were 500 people on stage and two enormous processions. In Scene Five each of the Forty Thieves had his own band of followers. It took over 40 minutes for them all to march out from a cave at the back of the stage.

The 1886 pantomime used his regular team of E.L. Blanchard as writer and William Beverley as designer. The pièce de resistance in this production was a grand processional scene, in this case symbolising the British Empire with richly dressed performers representing the different countries. Canada, for example, was 'clad in a robe of pale sky-blue plush, embroidered with silver lions and fleur-de-lys, wearing a rich mantle of white and silver brocade, deeply bordered with snow-white fur, and clasped with frosted-silver ornaments and each country also came with a huge retinue. One reviewer claims that there were five hundred people on the stage at a time.

Harris encouraged the famous Music Hall stars of the day such as Dan Leno and George Robey to appear in pantomime, and 'The Forty Thieves' featured the popular comedians Harry Nicholls and Herbert Campbell. Variations on Music Hall songs were also popular (just as pop songs feature in modern pantos), and Ali sang a version of 'Two Lovely Black Eyes'. The cave scene was the point in the story where Ali's brother Cassim finds himself trapped in the cave because he forgets the password 'open sesame'. The thieves return and find Cassim, which in Harris' version, provided the opportunity for a grand procession of fantastic costumes. Each thief had a large retinue of his own, or rather her own, as the thieves were almost all played by women.

The cost of Harris's productions was vast; he regularly spent eight to ten thousand pounds on a show. The Forty Thieves cost £65,000 to stage (the equivalent of £3½ million in 2002). His pantomimes were always a sell-out and the theatre made huge profits.

Music Hall stars in pantomime

Harris was the first manager to bring in the star performers from the Music Halls to play the Principal Boy and Dame roles. Some declared that Music all was a vulgar influence on the theatre and objected. In 1885 the pantomime writer, Edward Blanchard declared:

'My smooth and pointed lines are turned into ragged prose and arrant nonsense. Hardly anything done as I intended or spoken as I had written, the music hall element is crushing the rest and the good old fairy tales never to be again illustrated as they should be.'

Indeed Music Hall artists would stop the action of the show to perform their specialist turn: playing a saxophone, dancing the Can-Can or singing their particular well-known song. However the popularity of the Music Hall stars outweighed the complaints of the moral minority and Harris's pantomimes were extremely successful.

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