1902 Encyclopedia > Pantomine


PANTOMIME is a term which has been employed in different senses at different times in the history of the drama. Of the Boman pantomimm, a spectacular kind of play in which the functions of the actor were confined to gesticulation and dancing, while occasional music was sung by a chorus or behind the scenes, some account has been given elsewhere (vol. vii. p. 412). To speak of the Western drama only, there is no intrinsic difference between the Roman pantomimm and the modern " ballet of action," except that the latter is accompanied by instrumental music only, and that the personages appearing in it are not usually masked. The English " dumb-show," though fulfilling a special purpose of its own, was likewise in the true sense of the word pantomimic. On the other hand, the modern pantomime, as the word is still used, more especially in connexion with the English stage, signifies a dramatic entertainment in which the action is carried on with the help of spectacle, music, and dancing, and in which the performance is partly carried on by certain conventional characters, originally derived from Italian "masked comedy," itself an adaptation of the fabulx Atellanee of ancient Italy. Were it not for this addition, it would be difficult to define modern pantomime so as to distinguish it from the mask, and.the least rational of English dramatic species would have to be regarded as essentially identical with another to which in its later development our dramatic literature owes some of its choicest fruit (see DRAMA, vol. vii.).

As a matter of course, no fixed date can be assigned to the birth of modern pantomime. The contributory elements which it contains had very soon in varying proportions and manifold combinations introduced themselves into the modern drama as it had been called into life by the Renaissance. In Italy the transition was almost imper-ceptible from the pastoral drama to the opera; on the Spanish stage ballets with allegorical figures and military spectacles were known already towards the close of the 16th century; in France ballets were introduced in the days of Mary de' Medici, and the popularity of the opera was fully established in the earlier part of the reign of Louis XIV. Meanwhile, in the previous century the improvised Italian comedy (e.ommedia dell' arte) had crossed the Alps with its merry company of characters, partly borrowed from masked comedy, though also largely corresponding to the favourite types of regular comedy both ancient and modern, and including Pantalone, with Arlecchino, among other varieties of zanni. Readers of Moliere are aware of the influence of the Italian players upon the progress of French comedy, and upon the works of its incomparable master. In other coun-tries, where the favourite types of Italian popular comedy had been less generally seen or were unknown, popular comic figures such as the English fools and clowns, the German Hanswurst, or the Dutch Pickelhering, were ready to renew themselves in any and every fashion which preserved to them the gross salt favoured by their patrons. Indeed in Germany, where the term pantomime was not used, a rude form of dramatic buffoonery, corresponding tp the coarser sides of the modern English species so-called, long flourished, and threw back for centuries the progress of the regular drama. After being at last suppressed, it found a commendable substitute in the modern Zauberposse, the more genial Vienna counterpart of the Paris feerie.

In England, where the mask was only quite exceptionally revived after the Restoration, the love of spectacle and other frivolous allurements was at first mainly met by the various forms of dramatic entertainment which went by the name of " opera." In the preface to Albion and Albanius (1685), Dryden gives a definition of opera which would fairly apply to modern extravaganza, or to modern panto-mime with the harlequinade left out. Character-dancing was, however, at the same time largely introduced into regular comedy; and, as the theatres vied with one another in seeking quocunque modo to gain the favour of the public, the English stage was fully prepared for the innovation which awaited it. Curiously enough, the long-lived but cumbrous growth called pantomime in England owes its immediate origin to the beginnings of a dramatic species which has artistically furnished congenial delight to nearly two centuries of Frenchmen. Of the early history of vaudeville it must here suffice to say that the unprivileged actors at the fairs, who had borrowed some of the favourite character-types of Italian popular comedy, after eluding prohibitions against the use by them of dialogue and song, were at last allowed to set up a comic opera of their own. About the second quarter of the 18th century, before these performers were incorporated with the Italians, the light kind of dramatic entertainment combining pantomime proper with dialogue and song enjoyed high favour with the French and their visitors during this period of peace. The vaudeville was cultivated by Le Sage and other writers of mark, though it did not conquer an enduring place in dramatic literature tiil rather later, when it had, moreover, been completely nationalized by the extension of the Italian types.

It was this popular species of entertainment which, under the name of pantomime, was transplanted to England before in France it had attained to any fixed form, or could claim for its productions any place in dramatic literature. Colley Cibber mentions as the first example, followed by " that Succession of monstrous Medlies," a piece on the story of Mars and Venus, which was still in dumb-show; for he describes it as " form'd into a connected Presentation of Dances in Character, wherein the Passions were so happily expressed, and the whole Story so intelligibly told, by a mute Narration of Gesture only, that even thinking Spec-tators allow'd it both a pleasing and a rational Entertain-ment." There is nothing to show that Harlequin and his companions figured in this piece. Geneste, who has no record of it, dates the period when such entertainments first came into vogue in England about 1723. In that year the pantomime of Harlequin Dr Faustus had been produced at Drury Lane,—its author being John Thurmond, a dancing master, who afterwards (in 1727) published a grotesque entertainment called The Miser, or Wagner and Abericock (a copy of this is in the Dyce Library). Hereupon, in December 1723, John Rich (1692-1761), then lessee of the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, produced there as a rival pantomime The Necro-mancer, or History of Dr Faustus, no doubt, says Geneste, "gotten up with superior splendour." He had as early as 1717 been connected with the production of a piece called Harlequin Executed, and there seem traces of similar enter-tainments as far back as the year 1700. But it was the inspiriting influence of French example, and the keen rivalry between the London houses, which in 1723 really established pantomime on the English stage. Bich was at the time fighting a difficult battle against Drury Lane, and his pantomimes at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and after-wards at Covent Garden, were extraordinarily successful. He was himself an inimitable harlequin, and from Garrick's lines in his honour it appears that his acting consisted of " frolic gestures" without words. The favourite Drury Lane harlequin was Pinkethman (Pope's " poor Pinky "); readers of The Tatler (No. 188) will remember the ironical nicety with which his merits are weighed against those of his competitor Bullock at the other house. Colley Gibber, when described by Pope as " mounting the wind on grinning dragons," briskly denied having in his own person or otherwise encouraged such fooleries; in his Apology, however, he enters into an elaborate defence of himself for having allowed himself to be forced into countenancing the "gin-shops of the stage," pleading that he was justified by necessity, as Henry IV. was in changing his religion. Another butt of Pope's, Lewis Theobald, was himself the author of more than one pantomime ; their titles already run in the familiar fashion, e.g., A Dramatic.k Entertainment, call'd Harlequin a Sorcerer, with the loves of Pluto and Proserpine (1725; the "book of the words," as it may be called, is in the Dyce Library). In another early pantomime (also in the Dyce Library) called Perseus and Andromeda, with the Pape of Colombine, or The Flying Lovers,. there are five " inter-ludes, three serious and two comic." This is precisely in the manner of Fielding's dramatic squib against panto-mimes, Tumble-down Dick, or Phaeton in the Suds, first acted in 1744, and ironically dedicated to "Mr John Lun," the name that Rich chose to assume as harlequin. It is a capital bit of burlesque, which seems to have been directly suggested by Pritchard's Fall of Phaeton, produced in 1736.
There seems no need to pursue further the history of English pantomime. " Things of this nature are above criticism," as Mr Machine the " composer " of Phaeton says in Fielding's piece. The attempt was made more than once to free the stage from the incubus of entertainments to which the public persisted in flocking; in vain Colley Cibber at first laid down the rule of never giving a pantomime together with a good play; in vain his son Theophilus after him advised the return of part of the entrance money to those who would leave the house before the pantomime began. " It may be questioned," says the chronicler, " if there was a demand for the return of £20 in ten years." Pantomime carried everything before it when there were several theatres in London, and a dearth of high dramatic talent prevailed in all; and, allowing for occasional counter-attractions of a not very dissimilar nature, pantomime continued to flourish after the Licensing Act of 1737 had restricted the number of London play-houses, and after Garrick's star had risen on the theatrical horizon. He was himself obliged to satisfy the public appetite, and to disoblige the admirers of his art, in defer-ence to the drama's most imperious patrons—the public at large.

It should be noted that in France an attempt was made by NOVERRE (q.v.) to restore pantomime proper to the stage as an independent species, by treating mythological subjects seriously in artificial ballets. This attempt, which of course could not prove permanently successful, met in England also with great applause. In an anonymous tract of the year 1789 in the Dyce Library, attributed by Dyce to Archdeacon Nares (the author of the Glossary), Noverre's pantomime or ballet Cupid and Psyche is commended as of very extraordinary merit in the choice and execution of the subject. It seems to have been without words. The writer of the tract states that " very lately the serious pantomime has made a new advance in this country, and has gained establishment in an English theatre;" but he leaves it an open question whether the grand ballet of Medea and Jason (apparently produced a few years earlier, for a burlesque on the subject came out in 1781) was the first complete performance of the kind produced in England. He also notes The Death of Captain Cook, adapted from the Parisian stage, as possessing considerable dramatic merit, and exhibiting " a pleasing picture of savage customs and manners." To conclude, the chief difference between the earlier and later forms of English pantomime seems to lie in the fact that in the earlier Harlequin pervaded the action, appearing in the comic scenes which alternated throughout the piece with the serious which formed the backbone of the story. Columbine (originally in Italian comedy Harlequin's daughter) was generally a village maiden courted by her adventurous lover, whom village constables pursued, thus performing the laborious part of the policeman of the modern harlequinade. The brilliant scenic effects were of course accumulated, instead of upon the transformation scene, upon the last scene of all, which in modern pantomime follows upon the shadowy chase of the characters called the rally. The commanding influence of the clown, to whom pantaloon is attached as friend, flatterer, and foil, seems to be of comparatively modern growth; the most famous of his craft was un-doubtedly Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837), of whom Charles Dickens in his youth edited a biography. His memory is above all connected with the famous pantomime of Mother Goose, produced at Covent Garden in 1806. It boots not to enumerate favourites of later days; the type of Christmas pantomime cherished by a generation now passing away has been preserved from oblivion in Thackeray's Sketches and Travels in London. The species still maintains its hold over sections of the grown-up public, and, though now only cultivated in a few of the leading London theatres, appears at Christmas 1883-84, according to professional statistics, to have multiplied itself in the capital alone by thirteen examples.

See Geneste, Account of the English Stage, especially vol. iii.; Dibdin, Complete History of the Stage, especially vols, ii., iv., and v.; Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber; Fitzgerald, Life of Garrick; Prblss, Dramaturgie (A. W. W.)


Whether the traditional costume of the ancient Roman mimi— the centunculus or variegated harlequin's jacket, the shaven head, the sooty face, and the unshod feet—had before this been known among the provincials, may be left undecided-

The above article was written by: A. W. Ward, M.A., Professor of English Literature, Owens College, Manchester.

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