Slapstick and spectacle: The British pantomime

Until I started researching the late Victorian theater for my recent book, Moriarty Brings Down the House, I had never heard of such a thing as a Christmas pantomime. Fellow Americans may be thinking, “Why should you have?” while British readers are thinking, “What?! How is that even possible?” It turned out to be a big topic, like pulling on an ordinary-looking sort of weed and discovering a vast and deep root system — with fairies.

Jeffrey Richards begins his definitive work on the subject thus: “The pantomime as we know it today developed in the 1840s from a merger of three distinct genres: the harlequinade, the largely dialogue-less comic knockabout of Clown, Harlequin and Pantaloon; the extravaganza, the elegant and witty satire of modern life in comic versions of classical myths and fairy tales; and the burlesque, the irreverent send-up of everything the Victorians customarily took seriously, such as English history, grand opera and Shakespeare.”

The world of topsy-turvy

Vesta Tilley as Principal Boy

The whole point of a pantomime is to create an alternate reality. The myths and fairy tales aren’t how you remember them (more on that next month) and the characters aren’t who you think they might be either.

Dan Leno as Mother Goose

The Principal Boy, for example, was traditionally played by a woman. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the 21st century. But the English theater has a long tradition of cross-dressing. In Shakespeare’s day, girls were played by boys, since women weren’t allowed on the stage. And old nurses and bawdy house keepers might be played by large, deep-voiced men, to add to the humor. Those roles evolved into the Dames of Victorian pantos — the mothers and other authoritative women — who were played by popular male comedians.


We must begin with the Licensing Act of 1737, which separated all theatrical entertainments in Great Britain into two parts. Spoken word performances were limited to the Theatres Royal — Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Drama could not be performed anywhere else. But there was an enormous appetite for entertainment. People have loved getting dressed up and going out to a public place to watch astounding, intriguing, and alluring things since ancient times, after all. Two theaters could not supply the needs of the whole city of London.

Actors from the Commedia dell’Arte on a Wagon in a Town Square, Jan Miel, 1640

So other forms sprang up: melodrama, burletta, and pantomime (traditional definition.) Also musical concerts and ballets, which found their way into Victorian pantos too, as time went by. Richards doesn’t talk much about melodramas, but I think they must have been like stage versions of old silent movies where the piano music thrillingly amplifies the predicaments being enacted. We’ll look at burlettas below.

The traditional pantomime is a direct descendant of commedia dell’arte, Mother of all forms of street theater. I’ve blogged about this before, I think. I saw a modern commedia dell’arte troop perform in Austin a few years ago. So much fun!!! Fart jokes truly are eternal.

The eighteenth-century English harlequinade wasn’t so vulgar, although it relied on the commedia dell’arte stock characters, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, Scaramouche, and Pierrot, as well as the standard plot of young lovers separated by greedy fathers and aided by clever servants.

Joseph Grimaldi

Here’s Richard’s description of how the form was transformed by John Rich, an actor-producer in the late 18th century: “Rich linked the action of the harlequinade to an opening story derived from classical mythology, imbued his characters with magical powers and combined music, dance, mime, acrobatics, spectacle, special effects and topical allusions into an appealing and exciting whole.” That sounds like fun to me! With a touch of something to think about. More like a modern musical than anything in between, perhaps.

The leading star of this stage of pantomime was Joseph Grimaldi, ‘The Garrick of Clowns.’ The Clown is the Master of Chaos, the causer of complications. He turns things upside down and inside out.

The transformation

Arlecchino und Colombina, Giovanni Domenico Ferretti, 18th century

Harlequin crucially transforms the opening scenario into Fairyland, by tapping the scenery flat with his bat. We leave the real world behind and enter a land of magic. Originally the same cast appeared in both parts; that changed over time. The transformations sometimes happened before the audience’s eyes, with moveable scenery and huge panoramic canvases that could be slowly rolled from one side of the stage to the other, carrying us from town to country or from seashore to mountain or wherever.

This reminds me of something Disney-esque. Can’t remember if it’s an ad or an old feature-length cartoon or what, but they have a starting point — a plain screen, as I remember it — which a fairy taps with her wand, making it dissolve into sparkles and then resolve into a new story world.

Also, very memorably, the transformation from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz in the wonderful 1939 movie version of the Wizard of Oz. I’m not old enough to have seen that in a theater, but I am old enough to remember how scary those flying monkeys were when we gathered ’round the old TV. Hoo! Good thing my parents were right there, or we couldn’t have stood it.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent,1889

The extravaganza was introduced to the English stage by James Robinson Planché (1796 – 1880.) He was both a dramatist and an antiquarian who insisted on historical accuracy in costumes and set designs, soon copied by everyone who mattered. A very important figure in 19th century theater.

I can’t find a sensible, single definition of ‘extravaganza’ as it applies to theater other than OED’s bland summation: “A composition, literary, musical or dramatic, of an extravagant or fantastic character.” We’re meant to emphasize the fantastic element, I think. Planché himself tried out other terms, like “fantastical burletta,” settling on ‘extravaganza’ to describe his 1840 production of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, performed at Covent Garden. 

The Theatres Act of 1843 amended that annoying old Licensing Act, making it possible for words to be spoken on stage all over town. So the actors could speak, but that’s not what people came out for. They wanted spectacle and fantasy, but they also wanted it to look as real as possible. This is long before photography, remember; at least, color photography and film. Reality could only be captured in paint.

Gorgeous sets, gorgeous costumes, elaborate transformations. Did the story call for a fire? Then simulate one. Horses? No need to simulate that – get some real horses out there. Call in the elephants and the processions of hundreds of costumed children, passing before the dazzled eyes of the thousand-plus people packed into the theater.

American burlesque, 1900, but you get the idea. Real horses were not too much.

This next one is more typical. It’s from a poster for The Black Crook (1873.) In this scene, the Amazons defeat the forces of evil. Note the fabulous costumes, the towering set, and the sheer number of people on the stage. 



When we think of burlesque, we think of strippers — at least, I do. Gypsy Rose Lee. You can hear that music, can’t you? But that’s not the original meaning of the word nor the type of performance, although you wouldn’t know it if you googled “victorian burlesque” looking for images! Don’t do it; it’s just a bunch of young ladies in their underwear. You’ve seen that!

Macready as Macbeth

Our friend OED defines ‘burlesque’ as “That species of literary composition, or of dramatic representation, which aims at exciting laughter by caricature of the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects; a literary or dramatic work of this kind.” For the Victorians, burlesque meant caricature with plenty of extravaganza laid in for spectacle.

Originally, the burletta was a comic interlude in Italian opera. A little joke on the music, perhaps. Sounds sophisticated. Victorian burlesques were sophisticated in a way, perhaps. They loved to lampoon sophistication, at any rate. Shakespeare became a favorite target.

The lucky theater-goer had no need to choose between high art and low comedy. She could have both! The divine Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum, divinely depicted above, or William Charles Macready at Covent Garden (perhaps not in the same decade). Or she and her pals could jaunt across the metropolis to watch The Travestie of Macbeth, A Burlesque in Two Acts.

Here’s a sample of that last, to send you back to work with a chuckle.



Booth, Michael R. 1981. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Richards, Jeffrey. 2015. The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle, and Subversion in Victorian England. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wikipedia, “Pantomime.”

Bacon's essays: Of Ambition

Of Ambition was published in 1612, so Bacon probably wrote it before King James fell in love with his extremely ambitious favorite, George Villiers. George was 21 in 1614 when he caught the king’s eye. He rose and rose and rose some more, to become the 1st Duke of Buckingham.

King James must have had favorites between his accession to the English throne in 1603 and the appearance of the “most beautiful man in the world,” but I haven’t gotten around to reading a biography of James yet, so I don’t know who they might have been. Not Francis, alas; he was never anyone’s favorite, although both James and Elizabeth valued his advice and kept him close.

Elizabeth famously had her favorites too. I think Sir Walter Raleigh was twice as beautiful as George Villiers. Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, was no slouch either, apart from that straggly beard. Y’all judge for your own selves.

Sir Walter Raleigh
George Villiers
Earl of Essex


Becometh thou not adust

“Ambition is like choler; which is an humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous.”

“Adust” is technical jargon, from the obsolete science of humoral medicine. The OED gives us this for the primary meaning: “Med. Designating any of the humours of the body when considered to be abnormally concentrated and dark in colour, and associated with a pathological state of hotness and dryness of the body.”

The four temperaments, Charles Le Brun-Grande Commande, 1674. That’s Choleric on the left, ready to go out and get adusty. Melancholy is reading a book all by his lonesome, Sanguine is playing the flute (la la la la la) and Phlegmatic is just standing there looking like, “Meh.”

Bacon’s using a secondary meaning: “Originally: affected with, or having a temperament determined by, adust humours (see sense 1a). In later use: having a melancholy character or appearance; gloomy; sallow.”

One of the supporting quotes is from my old pal Anthony Munday: “1605   A. Munday tr. G. Affinati Dumbe Diuine Speaker 228   Whereon it happeneth, that cholericke men (being adust and fierie by nature) when they are in heate, they cannot pronounce perfectly.”

I’m evidently feeling digressive. The meaning of the top quote there is clear enough: Ambition is great if the ambition person can keep moving forward. It motivates them. But if they’re thwarted, they turn sour, even dangerous. Bacon advises princes (which term always included queens in his day) not to take up ambitious men unless necessary; but sometimes it’s necessary.

“Good commanders in the wars must be taken, be they never so ambitious; for the use of their service, dispenseth with the rest; and to take a soldier without ambition, is to pull off his spurs.”

I would not attempt to pull off a good soldier’s spurs, not without my rose-trimming gloves on!

Screens to princes

“There is also great use of ambitious men, in being screens to princes in matters of danger and envy; for no man will take that part, except he be like a seeled dove, that mounts and mounts, because he cannot see about him.”


A seeled dove has had its eyes sewn shut as part of its training. They used to do that with falcons, when teaching them to hunt and return with their prey. Sounds horrible to us, but it was just the way things were for Bacon. The point here is that your ambitious man is so focused on rising that he doesn’t see the danger he’s in, but draws it away from the prince. At least I think that’s what this means. 

“There is use also of ambitious men, in pulling down the greatness of any subject that over-tops; as Tiberius used Marco, in the pulling down of Sejanus.” Roman politics is too complicated to explain concisely. You can read about Tiberius and Sejanus at Wikipedia if you’re into it.

The real problem is how to control the ambitious persons you bring in to protect yourself from the other ambitious persons on the next level down. “There is less danger of them, if they be of mean birth, than if they be noble; and if they be rather harsh of nature, than gracious and popular: and if they be rather new raised, than grown cunning, and fortified, in their greatness.” Sounds like Sir Walter Ralegh.

In all those cases, they’re dependent on the prince for favor, they can’t win it on their own from the people or even their peers.

Favorites have their uses

“It is counted by some, a weakness in princes, to have favorites; but it is, of all others, the best remedy against ambitious great-ones. For when the way of pleasuring, and displeasuring, lieth by the favorite, it is impossible any other should be overgreat.”

Rolling ship

They deflect petitioners from the prince. James I used Buckingham in this way. You had to get George’s approval before the king would even listen.

“Another means to curb them, is to balance them by others, as proud as they. But then there must be some middle counsellors, to keep things steady; for without that ballast, the ship will roll too much.”

Elizabeth used this method, balancing Raleigh and Essex with the steady Cecils (father, Lord Burghley; son, Robert Cecil.) Bacon tried to stay in the middle, but was effectively pushed toward Essex by the frosty, unhelpful Cecils.

“As for the having of them obnoxious to ruin; if they be of fearful natures, it may do well; but if they be stout and daring, it may precipitate their designs, and prove dangerous.” By ‘obnoxious,’ he means ‘liable to.’ Bacon had terrible personal experience of a favorite who was stout and daring: the Earl of Essex, who responded to Elizabeth’s attempts to curb him by revolting, thereby getting his curly, earl-ly head cut off.

Three aims of ambition

“He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men, hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public. But he, that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers, is the decay of a whole age.”

This is an interesting observation that applies to more than courtiers. If you have lots of internet service providers, for example, they compete with one another to excel, thus raising the quality of service for everyone. But if you only have one or two divvying up the field so that each owns its own exclusive territory, they can do what they want: raise rates arbitrarily, refuse to extend service into unprofitable communities, etc. (Unless they were publicly owned, of course, in which case they would serve their citizen-owners.)

“Honor hath three things in it: the vantage ground to do good; the approach to kings and principal persons; and the raising of a man’s own fortunes. He that hath the best of these intentions, when he aspireth, is an honest man; and that prince, that can discern of these intentions in another that aspireth, is a wise prince.”

Diogenes in search of an honest man

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