by Catherine Haill, V & A
At Christmas time, the coldest, darkest time of the year, going to a pantomime was one of the highlights of any 19th century theatregoer's experience, and especially so for those in the East End. Pantomimes promised a treat for everybody, not just children, from the boys in the gallery to the factory girls and the shop owners, who were given free admission in return for displaying playbills. Life in the East End was hard; an evening at the theatre was an escape from reality, and a Christmas pantomime meant extra delights. With new theatre buildings in the East End, and advances in stage technology and lighting as the century progressed, armies of stage-hands and large casts were engaged for their pantomimes, which rivalled each other for the most magical, action-packed offerings, and rarely gave short measure. Despite the fact that pantomimes often lasted as long as four or five hours, one or two short plays often also featured on the evening's programme.
Unlike today when pantomimes are based on one of a dozen or so familiar stories, authors based pantomimes, especially in the early 19th century, on a variety of subjects. They incorporated satire on topical, national and local issues, with music, dance and acrobatics, and above all a succession of different scenes, beautiful costumes, and dramatic effects. The pantomime at the Whitechapel Theatre opening on 27 December 1852 was Uncle Tom and Lucy Neal, or, Harlequin, Liberty and Slavery!, based very loosely on Mrs. Beecher Stowe's popular novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Most early 19th century pantomime titles seem unusual today, such as Wood Demon, or, Harlequin One O'Clock! And ye Knyghte, ye Minstrelle, and ye Maydenne, the pantomime at the Queen's Theatre Poplar, 28 December 1867, but audiences then expected such convoluted titles, and knew and loved the basic structure of pantomimes. The opening section often featured supernatural characters, such as the Demon Slavery and the Fairies of Liberty in the Pavilion Theatre pantomime, and the witches, the Wood Demon and the fairies in the first two scenes of the Queen's Theatre pantomime. They were there to thwart or help the humans in the story that followed, generally involving love interest, which led to a transformation scene in which characters of the first part become their magical counterparts Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon and took part in `the Harlequinade', a fast-paced long and involved knockabout chase including music and dancing, slapstick comedy and acrobatics.
The pantomimes were new each year, expressly written to appeal to local audiences, with more rhyme than reason in the fantastic plots. They featured new music as well as familiar tunes and incorporated as many exciting scenes, effects and pageantry as possible, using flying equipment, trap doors, pyrotechnics and innovative gas and limelight effects. Since the scenery was such a lure of 19th century pantomime, it was often described on the playbills in a feast of varying typefaces, sometimes with images to help attract audiences. The woodcut image on the playbill for Harlequin Whittington and his Cat at the Standard Theatre, 27 December 1873 heralds a familiar story with Dick Whittington on his way to London, the Bow Bells which told him to `turn again', and his trusty cat clearing the plague of rats in Morocco. Its scenery is listed, along with The Grand Moving Panorama, and the appearance of the Covent Garden Harlequin and Pantaloon, Fred and Harry Payne, is proudly announced.
The type of pantomimes with which we are familiar today, with the cross-dressing Principal Boy and Dame, developed towards the end of the 19th century. The sight of a pair of female legs in tights had long been an attraction of pantomime however, and the annual pantomime opening on 27th December 1887 at the Britannia Theatre, King Trickee, or, Harlequin the Demon Beetle, The Sporting Duchess and the Golden Casket featured several, as well as Mr. Gardiner as Dame Roy. They are all depicted in the beautifully illustrated programme which also features the Britannia theatre's redoubtable manager Mrs Sara Lane as Lady St. Leger, and in the Harlequinade as the very patriotic and matriarchal Apotheosis of Britannia.
More images on this theme
Search TermsSubject Terms: Pantomimes,Harlequin (Fictitious character),Clowns,Pantomime (Christmas entertainment),Aladdin (Legendary character),Children in the wood (Ballad),
Name Terms: Lovell, Tom, d. 1909,Herring, Paul, d. 1878,Lupino,Whittington, Richard, d. 1423,Endersohn, Harry, d. 1877,Chappell, James, d. 1907,Safferini, Felix,Ricketts, John, d. 1873,
Keyword Terms: Book of words,
East London Theatre Archive