Pantomime, as a direct institutionalized descendent of the marketplace carnivalesque, is very much celebrated and applauded in the pages of the P.I.P., from the beginnings of the Penny Illustrated Paper, towards the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century. This ritual of folklore laughter, a very much controlled chaos gathers children and parents in a merry, hilarious even, utopian parallel universe, thus forgetting about their everyday troubles:
THE Clown has just picked the pocket of a policeman, or unhappy Pantaloon has just sat down upon a hot stove, or Harlequin has just been fired out of a mortar, and left his glittering limbs stuck all over the front of that canvas house; and one mighty roar of united laughter from boxes, pit, and gallery greets the event – laughter as unanimous and as hearty as though the very quintessence of drollery were to be squeezed out of accident and offences. (issue 13, 4 Jan. 1862, p. 8-9)The Christmas pantomimes and burlesques have accustomed the viewers with “glittering glades of glamour,” which one time after another “dazzle the eyes of the theatre-going public” with puns and “fascinating fairy forms,” while Clown and his troupe’s “rollicking recklessness” (issue 274, 29 Dec. 1866, p. 409) feed the collective need for good humour. The Penny Illustrated Paper sure knows how to use alliterations to give pantomime even more vivacity on such a limited space as paper.
Interestingly enough theatres did not always produce lavish and memorable pantomimes, at least not all of them. The public’s choice was quite limited from this point of view: as the offer was finite and not always rising to acceptable levels so Londoners had virtually little choice. In any case, spare-shows were kept for nights when large crowds are not expected, a habit that seems to have changed towards the mid-1870s:
Thus the higher dramatist was constantly precluded from the opportunity of effectively advancing his claims, and the popular mind deprived of that edification which high acting and high drama are so well calculated to impart. We welcome the change in this respect, and doubt not the example will in due course be followed. (issue 12, 28 Dec. 1861, p. 194)
As usual, “hilarious holiday-makers” (issue 431, 1 Jan. 1870, p. 10) can be seen everywhere. Towards the 1870s pantomimes are fewer in the West-End, and – seemingly – dangerous as well. Great crowds can produce great tragedies when chaos and lack of room push the people to insane acts – like the tragic Paris “rush.” Because such events are to be avoided, and crowds educated to enter theatres “like rational beings, rather than a pack of savage wolves” (issue 431, 1 Jan. 1870, p. 10).
As previously stated, the audience are as much part of the performance as the actors, dancers, or singers and it is “in its way, every bit as well worth seeing as a pantomime itself” (issue 12, 28 Dec. 1861, p. 194). Therefore, the public should be granted their importance, as the P.I.P. intends to “just take the liberty of turning our back upon the stage, and sweeping lorgnette round the house” while the “half-dozen tricks (which we have an intuitive instinct that we know by heart)” proceed in these “palaces of glittering lights and mirthful faces,” such is the public of a pantomime (issue 12, 28 Dec. 1861, p. 194).
The prettiest sight if the back is turned to the stage is the “rustle of delight trills around that brilliant weep of boxes” (The Boxes, The First Night Of The Pantomimes, issue 13, 4 Jan. 1862, p. 8-9). As expected the children, with “their little round, fat, shiny faces, almost blue with mirth, garnishing, as it were, the crimson velvet ledge” (The Boxes, The First Night Of The Pantomimes, issue 13, 4 Jan. 1862, p. 8-9), while their parents are in the back, and as expected, “in a more dignified state of enjoyment in the rear” (The Boxes, The First Night Of The Pantomimes, issue 13, 4 Jan. 1862, p. 8-9). The adults are only there for their children, not because they would be so childish and silly to attend the panto just for the show. Obviously, no sensible Victorian adult would indulge in such delights just pour l’amour de l’art:
Of course they have come there only for the dear children’s sake – they always make it a rule to let them see the pantomime. It’s very ridiculous, but this is Christmas tie, and they suppose they must be all fools – old ones and young ones – once a year. Come, come, Sir and Madame, do you think that we are to be taken in by such shallow protestations? (The Boxes, The First Night Of The Pantomimes, issue 13, 4 Jan. 1862, p. 8-9).The theatres themselves are not exactly the most comfortable places to be, especially for the public. For the most part of the second half of the nineteenth century the environment was not given too much attention, while the producers and pantomimists directed their most important resources towards the performance, leaving the playhouse in a rather deplorable state:
They seldom repair to a playhouse; but they would count it – good people! – a dereliction of duty to miss the Clown’s broad grin at Christmas time or the glories of he Easter spectacles. The pit is a great place, too, for steady going maids, under the stanch escort of steady-going butlers. People from the country too, get there almost instinctively; and semi-serious families from Clapton or Hackney – if such folks are ever guilty of such follies – may occasionally be detected there, huddling together […].(The Boxes, The First Night Of The Pantomimes, issue 13, 4 Jan. 1862, p. 8-9).In any case, some theatres, like the Crystal Palace, which, in 1862 showed “the proper tendency of increasing their respectability,” thus allowing “the popular element to expand in the course of their practical working” (Recreations, issue 13, 4 Jan 1862, p. 8-9). Even though their obvious attention was devoted to “higher objects than the ordinary exhibition halls” (Recreations, issue 13, 4 Jan 1862, p. 8-9), educating the public towards a much higher appreciation of art. The architect of this new image is M. Blondin, providing the audiences with more than just mere burlesque. The building was adapted to this new purpose:
The interior of the Palace has undergone much alteration in order to its being accommodated to the novel purpose. An elegantly-constructed stage for the dramatic performance was erected in the centre transept, opposite the Handel orchestra. (Recreations, issue 13, 4 Jan 1862, p. 8-9)All London theatres went at great lengths to provide the best pantomime ever seen on Earth . Every year, Drury Lane, Convent Garden or even the Polytechnic provided the public with great entertainment, which was, for the most part, the famous Christmas pantomime. Each year the P.I.P. offered its readers a complete schedule of pantomimes played at the most important venues in London, and sometimes outside the capital as well, stating their expectations as well. Of course after the openings, towards the beginning of the next year, perhaps even right after the performances, the anonymous, but opinionated writers from The Penny Illustrated Paper, would review all the previously presented pantomimes. Obviously, the majority of these opinions were more than flattering.
Of course, due to space-time limitations, passing through all the theatres, pantomimes, technical details and crews would be rather troublesome. Therefore, in order to better present the attitude the P.I.P. had towards the Christmas pantomimes, I will take one theatre and its corollaries as an example. For this, I will chose Drury Lane, as one of the most (if not really the most) important pantomime hosts, or as it is described in the Penny Illustrated Paper itself as “one of the most popular in London” (issue 226, 27 Jan. 1866 p. 58)
Drury Lane is one of the P.I.P. favourites; it is almost always amongst the first theatres to be mentioned in theatrical schedules. “Mr Planché’s amusing farce”(issue 10, 14 Dec. 1861, p. 154) entitled Follies of a night, along with a comedy, The Governor’s Wife inaugurated the Penny Illustrated Paper’s long reviewing of Drury Lane on the Penny Illustrated Paper’s first Christmas in 1861. Apparently, from the sixties onwards, their favourite writer was E. L. Blanchard. Drury Lane has employed him successfully for many occasions.
Drury Lane further “maintained its celebrity for this kind of amusement,” with E. L. Blanchard’s The House that Jack Built, a “grotesque burlesque pantomime” and the classic Old Mother Hubbard and her Wonderful Dog adapted by Blackstone as Little Miss Muffett and Little Boy Bine; or, Harlequin and Old Daddy Longlegs in the same year, while Beverly’s scenery “is pronounced capital” (issue 11, 21 Dec. 1861, p. 171). The year 1862 arrives with a “brilliantly decorated” Drury Lane and “judiciously employed Mr. E. L. Blanchard” (issue 62, 13 Dec. 1862, p. 384) preparing Little Goody Twoshoes; or, Harlequin Cock Robin,” with scenery provided by the very celebrated Mr. Grieve.
Then, Sinbad sailed to the stage, bringing another box-office triumph called Sinbad the Sailor; or, the Great Roo of the Diamond Valley and the Seven Wonders of the World. Again, Blanchard and William Beverly “realise the magical changes and wondrous enchantments associated with the mighty marvels” (Amusements, issue 117, 26 Dec. 1863, p. 422) of the original Thousand and One Nights story.
A year later, Drury Lane, aside of its theatrical performance, became the stage of a “curious scene:” apparently, one of P.I.P.’s artists assisted to it sometime in early December 1864. This scene (fig. ) was an uniformly imported swarm of witches for Macbeth. This event, the writer argues, is a social picture of the Londoners’ hardships, especially in finding employment (difficult especially in the case of lower class women) in an ever-increasing society:
We trust that the management has made a judicious selection from the throng, and that many who were deserving have benefited by the occasion. The opportunity may even be favourable for the eliciting of talent that might otherwise never reveal itself. Such occasions at any rate, exhibit intimations of the great amount of the surplus population, and give evidence that greater numbers are willing to work than can get work to do. In this way theatrical establishments are often very useful, and supply resources to the unemployed that could not be otherwise obtained. Our Artist’s Illustration, if interpreted after this fashion, it will be seen, has much statistical value. (issue 170, 31 Dec. 1864, p. 428)The P.I.P. particularly likes Drury Lane’s managers – Falconer and Chatterton – for their willing to give everything they have got in creating the best pantomimes possible. This is very fortunate for the British and their artistic landscapes. In any case, apparently the P.I.P. could also be distributed to foreign lands (the writer particularly addresses the non-British while explaining the importance of pantomime in the Albion). As always, it employs the best artists, from W. Beverly, “the acknowledged chief of fairy illustration, the genius to whom the ‘transformation scene’ in the present sense of the word may be said to owe its existence” (issue 170, 31 Dec. 1864, p. 430). The pantomime is again authored by Blanchard and it is now called Hopo’ My Thumb and His Eleven Brothers; or, Harlequin and the Ogre of the Seven-League Boots. Its harlequinade is “fuller than usual of ludicrous illustrations of the popular topics of the time, and employs a double company of pantomimists” (issue 170, 31 Dec. 1864, p. 430).
1865 arrived with a “grand revival” namely King John, attracting “not only the playgoers, but all the sightseers of London, till the arrival f that festive epoch when the lustre of Shakespeare pales before the spangles of Harlequin” (issue 215, 11 Nov. 1865, p. 215). W. Beverly is applauded once more for his spectacular work, Mr. Phelps, Miss Atkinson or Mr Anderson are also shown the P.I.P.’s appreciation for their outstanding performances. Then, at Christmas, Drury Lane offering enriched with another Blanchard creation, Little King Pippin; or, Harlequin Fortunatus and the Magic Purse and Wishing-Cap, an “allegory between the Real and Ideal, the wealth derived from money being contrasted with the riches of Fancy” (issue 222, 30 Dec. 1865, p. 469).
One year later, Number Nip; or, Harlequin and the Gnome King of the Giant Mountain is another Blanchard successful pantomime. P.I.P. already speculates it has become a “Blanchard ‘annual’” (issue 274, 29 Dec. 1866, p. 409). William Beverly is again in charge of the visual aspect, while Master Percy Roselle and Miss Lydia Thompson play the leading roles. The story is – like always – based on an “allegorical induction, in which some good-tempered banter between Romance and Burlesque affords a running commentary on the popular tastes and popular topics of the time” (issue 274, 29 Dec. 1866, p. 409), as suggested in the related illustration (fig. ). Of course, all the cast is applauded – again, like always – for their outstanding performance.
Towards the end of the 1860s it seems pantomimes have lost their popularity, but Drury Lane is the place that has “the honour of reviving the glories of pantomime” (issue 379, 2 Jan. 1869, p. 9), solidifying its nickname as “the pantomime house” par excellence. The P.I.P. writers affectionately call it “Old Drury,” a special place for Christmastime entertainment. In any case, the decade ends with Grimalkia the Great; or, Harlequin Puss in Boots and the Miller’s Son, another beautiful work of the very Drury Lane panto writer, E. L. Blanchard. The main characteristic of all Drury Lane pantomimes is the double company: each character has its twin. Grimalkia is no exception. Obviously the package comes with moral messages included, this time related to modern times and changes that could affect people (so our main concerns nowadays are not as new as they would seem, are they now?).
The performance is again stunning, dance, story, thunderous special effects, all are ingredients for a memorable night out, which is not – by any chance – dull or obsolete. In any case, with all the technical innovations, some begin to lose their importance – Harlequin becomes less and less highlighted and his Harlequinade fades to give way to the modern techniques such as the “sensational” railway effect. The resulting representation could very well be described as trippy and a century later youngsters would have similar visions acquired, however, with different means:
[…]nowadays, the nominal chiefs of pantomime have less to do than in the olden times, and the attractions of the harlequinade at Drury Lane consist chiefly of exhibitions I which Harlequin has no part. Among them, is a ballet by the “girls of the period,” typified after a fashion made known by Messrs Stagg and Mantle; a troupe of performing dogs; a breakdown by an expert “nigger;” a dance by a very minute dancer; and a small horse, trained by a smaller Rarey. But most effective of all is the representation of the deck of a man-of-war, manned by 300 children. They go through a series of evolutions, terminating with the semblance of an engagement, and a wave of the union Jack as a signal of Victory. This scene is admirably managed, as is one of the best things in the entire pantomime. (issue 379, 2 Jan. 1869, p. 9)1871 ended with Tom Thumb; or, Harlequin King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table, another Blanchard creation. Filled with “witty rhymes” this pantomime, “hits at the follies of 1871” and will most likely “equal the most successful of its predecessors” (issue 534-5, 23 Dec. 1871, p. 388). The performance is already inserted “music-hall ditties” like If Ever I Cease to Love or After the Opera’s Over. These elements “will come trippingly from the band may be imagined when we add that Mr. W. C. Levey retains the baton as musical conductor” (issue 534-5, 23 Dec. 1871, p. 388). The cast, aside from such famous actors of the time as Fred and Fawdon Vokes or H. Collard, include “siffleurs and imitators of birds,” cats, pony and monkey performers, dancers and, of course, the latest technological innovations.
Tom Thumb is actually the twenty-first consecutive collaboration between Drury Lane and E. L. Blanchard, and apparently King Arthur’s legend was pretty fashionable in that particular year:
The legends of the Arthurian Period, collected by Sir Thomas Mallory, and printed so long ago as the time of Caxton, the father of the printing-press, have gained new life in our own time through the poetical interpretation so recently given by Lort Lytton and the Poet Laureate. With Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” were obviously connected subjects too solemn to have been lightly touched upon; but the old tradition, so charmingly expounded by Lytton – that King Arthur giving himself up to pleasure, was likely to lose his kingdom, and that he must go forth and seek a lovely child, who was to be his guide to higher objects – has been here taken manifestly as the chosen link for unifying the fortunes of that famous British monarch who lived in the fifth century with the wondrous adventures of Thomas Thumb, who seems to belong to the mythology of all countries. (issue 536, 30 Dec. 1871, p. 419)Anyway, all adults know that the grand transformation scene is nothing but a mechanical artifice, a “harmless trickery” (issue 531, 2 Dec. 1871, p. 341) that should be very obvious to any educated eye. The “cheapness and commonness of most of these elements of theatrical magnificence” (issue 531, 2 Dec. 1871, p. 341) should be clear without assisting to backstage activities:
The human figure, in appearance most super-human – which put on the bright attire of a poetical Paradise, with or without the wings of sylphs and cherubs, to enhance the attractions of a Bower of Bliss, and will be equally ready, in the next act, to wear the sooty or flame-coloured complexion of a troop of devils or to prowl and howl, with horns, claws, tusks, and tails, in the hairy and furry skins no farther removed, in truth and in fact, from the trivialities of common life. (issue 531, 2 Dec. 1871, p. 341)Moreover, the many “supers” employed in pantomimes are actually poor children (both sexes, although girls are – “of course” in majority), from humble worker families . According to whoever this P.I.P. article’s author is, these children could live “in the squalid alleys and courts between Drury-lane and Lincoln’s-inn-fields, or in those adjoining Holborn-hill, or even in the Far East” (issue 531, 2 Dec. 1871, p. 341), while their parents “could be costermongers and charwomen, and as honest people as any in this great city, but compelled by poverty to let their children be hired” (issue 531, 2 Dec. 1871, p. 341). This fact is not necessarily shameful nor is it sinful, as these children help in creating a performance in which “the genius of gorgeous spectacle holds possession of the stage” (issue 531, 2 Dec. 1871, p. 341).
Theatre managers spent large amounts on casting extras and hiring the many crew members needed to put such pretentious performances as pantomimes surely still are. In any case, their “maintaining a universal empire at this season,” (issue 12, 28 Dec. 1861, p. 194) is at least questionable, but everybody has the right to participate with whatever little resources and energy in these productions. Furthermore, in the 1880s, several voices will rise against child employment, especially questioning the way children are treated in such theatrical performances. One of the Penny Illustrated Paper anonymous reporters actually assisted at a rehearsal of The Spanish Armada in 1889 and therefore can present the situation as objectively as possible:
Mr. Harris, in order to make the great fight off Calais as realistic as possible, had a mimic man-of-war constructed, which came down the centre of the stage, swung round, and, having presented a broad-side to the Spaniards, the English sailors then boarded the enemy. The heroes of the Armada were represented by about fifty boys and it was most amusing to see the eagerness with which these urchins climbed on deck and swarmed about the rigging. The only difficulty Mr. Harris had was to subdue their youthful enthusiasm; but I could not help admiring his patience and kindness and the absence of “the big, big D-“ which, I regret to say, is sometimes heard on the lips of managers – of course, only under great provocation. […] Not a word was uttered, not a thing was done that could have harmed any child engaged. (Children in Theatres, issue 1467, 13 Jul. 1889, p. 105)
What is even more interesting is the fact that – originating from marketplace festivals, where the people (mostly poor), in large masses laughed out their sorrows – the pantomime, and especially the Harlequinade are especially relevant considering the great number of financially disadvantaged Londoners. These are shows directed to such populations, while the rich and the aristocrats not only have other (better) things to do, but they simply do not need such triviality, unless they participate in charitable activities:
Admitted, that London is the most liberal and charitable City in the world! Yet, though incalculable wealth has been lavished this Yuletide to relieve and cheer the sorrowful and distressed, it is too sadly certain that numberless of our humblest toilers, poor shirtmakers such as Thomas Hood sang about in “The Song of the Shirt,” bent makers of match-boxes, and the myriad busy bees that starve in garrets, have this Christmas waged a painful struggle for sheer existence. These are the independent poor who make no parade of their miseries; who seek no dole; but who nobly work on from year’s end to year’s end for the most beggarly pittance opulent merchants condescend to toss them. Bearing this contrast in mind, ‘don’t ye think this opening elide would tall well in the Harlequinade? (29 Dec. 1893)In 1872, already a smaller number of Boxing-Day pantomimes in the West end are noticed even in the Penny Illustrated Paper. In other London areas, on the other hand, pantos are perhaps even more popular than they were in the 1860s. The P.I.P. will therefore briefly describe “the Christmas novelties, which we will commence, however, with the attractive annuals of the largest theatres in town” (The Christmas Pantomimes and Burlesques, issue 589, 28 Dec. 1872, p. 425). Blanchard is again employed at Drury Lane, this time with The Children in the Wood; or; Harlequin Queen Mab and the World of Dreams. This time Blanchard strictly follows the old ballad dating as far back as James I letter by letter. The whole performance is rivalled by moments of sheer wonder:
A brilliant climax is reached when Queen Mab’s car takes the whole audience once more into the realms of fancy, and the good little Fairy introduces us to Messrs. F. Evans and Harvey as clowns, Messrs. Paul Herring and Morris as pantaloons, Messrs. Fawdon Vokes and W. Harvey as harlequins, and Miss Rosina Vokes, Miss Jessie Vokes, and Miss I. Grosvenor as columbines and harlequina. The new scenery and effects by R. William Beverly, the choreographic devices and the general action of the children’s scenes by Mr. Cormack, and the new music by Mr. W. C. Levey, show at once the excellence of the several departments of the theatre, and the care and judgement of the lessee, Mr. F. B. Chatterton, in catering for the amusement of children of all ages. (The Christmas Pantomimes and Burlesques, issue 589, 28 Dec. 1872, p. 425)
Old Drury also produced allegorical Christmas masques, like the one shown in 1874, “embodying hits against the follies and rogueries, and charities of the city of London” (issue 693-4, 19 Dec. 1874, p. 402). With obvious moral implications, Father Christmas is saved and celebrated in “the old English style” under the magic wand of John Gilbert. This is – naturally – not a pantomime, but, nevertheless, lavish, educational, an authentically British, but nevertheless unique and breath-taking Boxing-Day extravaganza.
One of the most pretentious and expensive productions was in 1883, when Gus Harris’ Procession of Fairy Tales is said to have cost at least £5000 per scene. The P.I.P. writer can only wish the profit would be higher than the cost. The production seems to have been worthy for its name, and audiences were thrilled by its grandeur. The whole production culminated with Beverly’s model Transformation scene, in which “the brilliant colours of the well-grouped nymphs” harmoniously join in this display of “golden radiance:”
Led off by a fair Robinson Crusoe, whose white, fleecy garb recalls the witching Robinson Crusoe of Lydia Thompson, this superb and entertaining procession comprises performers of Beauty and the Beast, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, a very droll Frog who would a-Wooing go, Old Mother Hubbard, the Babes in the Wood, with attendant wicked uncle, robbers, and Robin Redbreasts, Dick Whittington and his Cat, Jack and the Beanstalk, Humpty Dumpty, Jack the Giant-Killer, Blue Beard, and the Seven Champions of Christendom, Cinderella crowning the whole in her fairy carriage, fairy ponies, and pages. (29 Dec 1883, p. 424)Of course, the Oscar Barrett’s libretto and choice of soundtrack was as well vigorously applauded. The actors included Harry Parker (the Baron), M. A. Victor (the Baroness), Fred Story (the “elastic-limbed ‘Gineral’”) (29 Dec 1883, p. 424) or Minnie (Prince) and Dot (Pousette) Mario. The whole cast and crew received a standing ovation not only in the theatre, but within the covers of the Penny Illustrated Paper as well:
[…] above all, Miss Kate Vaughan for her inimitably graceful dancing and charming acting as the heroine of the glass slipper, contributed all they could to the success of “Cinderella”; while their due need of commendations should also be given to the veteran Beverly and M.M. Telbin, Perkins, Grieve, and Emden; to Katti Lanner and Madame Auguste and Miss Nellie Harris for the exquisite taste shown in the costumes. Everybody will be going to see “Cinderella,” which should run till the time is ripe for the reappearance of the Carl Rose Company in English Opera at Drury Lane. (29 Dec 1883, p. 424)
The age of pantomime slowly ended, and by the 1890s the attention given to these Christmastime shows – at least in the Penny Illustrated Paper, dramatically diminished. The columns dedicated to pantomimes become smaller and smaller, and the information reduced to the basics. References to sports and more “modern” activities (such as ladies’ hockey games, ping pong tables in clubs, etc.) receive much more attention than they did before. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the face of England changes.
In 1891, the reference Drury Lane pantomime is only an addition to a list of possibilities for outdoor and indoor entertainment possibilities around Christmastime for ladies, this time “elaborated with so much care and cost by Sir August Harris” (The World of Women, issue 1595, 26 Dec. 1891, p. 409). In 1897, as the theatre’s administration changes, the new manager, Mr. Arthur Collins is determined to produce yet even better pantomimes than in the past for children and adults alike. This time the baddie is more medical than moral, but story eventually ends in a “classical” Babes in the Wood-like fashion. All in all, a feast to the eye, years and a great occasion to witness what the pantomimists came up with after decades of constant competition amongst theatres, writers and performers:
It is to open with a “Children’s Nursery,” where a grim spectre appears, blown through the window on snowflakes. It is the “Spirit of Indigestion,” who avenges himself by making the youngsters uncomfortable after enjoying too much Christmas fare. Medicine bottles are seen dancing on the floor. The Spirit of Youth, however, conquers the Indigestion Monster by transporting the little folks to the Drury Lane pantomime. The next scene shows us the Wicked Uncle as a Sporting Tipster. […]The procession of guests here will introduce a gorgeous display of costumes. First rate pantomime performers are engaged, and Mr. Arthur Collins promises a feast of drollery and lustrous beauty such as has never been equalled. (issue 1906, 4 Dec. 1897, p. 353)