On this day in history: 22nd December 1716 – Britain’s first pantomime is staged at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre….

The Theatre Royal, Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields – Image copyright : Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There was at the time much rivalry between theatres and two days later a pantomime with a similar name opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London…. Pantomime, or ‘Panto’, dates back to the Middle Ages….although we think of it as a British institution its origins actually come from the Italian ‘Commedia dell’arte’…. Blend it with British music hall and we get the quirky, slapstick, flamboyant, fun entertainment that we know and love today….

Commedia dell’arte was a popular form of professional theatre during the 16th to 18th centuries….with many touring troupes across Europe – particularly Italy and France…. Very often performances would have been put on at markets and fairs – and told the story of Pantalone, his beautiful daughter Columbine, the clown Pierrot and the mischievous servant Artecchino…. It was in the late 1600s that these characters began to appear in English comedy plays – but with a slight British twist of course….

Commedia dell’arte scene in an Italian landscape by Peeter van Bredael – Public domain

It was John Rich, an important director and theatre manager of the 18th century, who first brought us Pantomime…. It was also he who opened the New Theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields – and later the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden…. Under his stage name of ‘Lun’ he played the part of Harlequin – his version of Artecchino, the servant in the Commedia dell’arte…. These performances became known as ‘Harlequinades’….

John Rich as Harlequin c.1720 – Public domain

The story of the Harlequinade involved five main characters:- Harlequin, who falls in love with the beautiful Columbine – but her father, the foolish and greedy Pantaloon, tries to keep them apart – with the help of the Clown and the servant Pierrot….

Harlequin had magical powers – and carried a wooden sword which could either be a magic wand – or weapon…. The sword was made with a special hinged flap, so when it was struck against something it made a loud ‘slapping’ sound…. This is where we get the term ‘slapstick’ from….

Example of Harlequin complete with slapstick sword – Maurice Sand – Public domain

By the Victorian era Panto had become a fixed part of the Christmas festivities…. It was at the height of music hall popularity that the Harlequinade format began to change…. Song and dance began to influence performances more….and other popular storylines were introduced…. Gradually the original story with Harlequin began to die out….the last performance was staged in London, at the Lyceum Theatre, in 1939….

Nowadays, the plot is usually based on a well-known children’s story:- Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Snow White, Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk, are a few we are all familiar with…. Most towns hold a Panto in some form or other….and venues range from village halls to top-end theatres….

The story usually involves a girl dressed as a boy in the principal male role – and ‘he’ always gets the girl…. There is nearly always a fairy Godmother….there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ – and sometimes performances involve animals, either real or of the Pantomime horse variety…. There is slapstick and comedy, song and dance and audience participation…. Oh!….and of course – the Pantomime dame….

Actor with Pantomime horse, circa 1869/70 – Weir Collection jpg – National Library of Scotland CCO

The most famous Harlequinade clown was Joseph Grimaldi – who made his first appearance in 1800…. So popular were his performances that people would flock to Drury Lane and Sadlers Wells to see him…. To this day clowns are often called ‘Joeys’, in his memory…. One of his characters was Queen Rondabellyana – where he dressed as a woman….and so, gave us the Pantomime dame….

Grimaldi as ‘Joey’ the Clown – George Cruikshank – Public domain

“He’s behind you!” ~ “Oh no he’s not”….”Oh yes he is”….

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