Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Here We Are Again!

That greeting rang from the stages of British theatres on Boxing Day evenings from the late Georgian to the early Elizabethan eras, with echoes being heard even in some places today.  And with that cry, and the cheer that went up from the audience, the high jinks, acrobatics and tricks of the Harlequinade and Panto season began.

An excited audience awaits the beginning of
the Panto on December 26, 1826.  This satirical
print is by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, brother of
the better known illustrator George Cruikshank.
British Museum Collection
It was first given by Joseph Grimaldi at Drury Lane in 1799 as he established himself as the most popular Clown in London.  In those days the Harlequinade was the heart of what we call today Christmas Pantomime.  The story leading up to it could be from a fairy tale, a popular novel, a Shakespearean play or just some fanciful tale - I have a wonderful 1829 playbill from Drury Lane that advertises The Queen Bee or Harlequin & the Fairy Hive:  now that's a story I've always wondered about. The point was to have the Good Fairy (Fairy Faithful, Fairy Bluebell etc.) defeat the Demon (of Discord, Discontent et al) wave her wand and give the Lover the magic bat that would transform them all into Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, the Dandy and Clown and set them off chasing, tumbling and racing across the stage.  To thwart Pantaloon and assist the lovers Clown would dress up as an old lady, steal sausages, mock the gentry, elude policemen and create general havoc.  And Grimaldi introduced singalongs encouraging his audience to give him tag lines and then showing horror when their responses were less than polite.

Chances are that if he wandered into the New Theatre in Wimbledon to see Cinderella this Christmastide Grimaldi would have difficulty recognizing it as the entertainment he knew.  Over the years Panto changed and developed - sometimes for the better, often for the worse.  Gradually the fairy tale element took over and Panto became an excuse for extravaganzas with ballets, chorus girls, parades and music hall comedy.  The Dame, the Principal Boy, the Double Act, the Ghost scene, the sing-along and the Grand Transformation all had their roots in Georgian pantomime but Harlequin and Clown faded not just into the background but eventually from the stage.

Joseph Grimaldi owned and sign this copy of Tegg's
Prime Song Book with vignettes by Thomas Rowlandson.
Princeton University Library
Sadly the Harlequinade didn't go out with an appropriate bang of a slapstick but whimpered along until as late as 1953 when Harlequin and Columbine appeared, rather apologetically, in the annual Panto at the Palladium.  Their only task was to dance a twee pas de deux in the Transformation scene.  It was a long way from that excited cry of "Here we are again!"

Fortunately the Harlequinade tradition was captured by the pens of many writers and illustrators.  In 1838 Charles Dickens took a rather weighty manuscript left by Grimaldi and edited it under the pseudonym "Boz".  The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi was published later that year as a two volume set with illustrations by George Cruickshank.  Dickens, in words, and Cruickshank, in drawings, recorded scenes that became the foundations of a treasured British Christmas tradition.

But they were not alone - at Panto time the illustrated periodicals of the time were filled with items and drawings hinting at what was to be expected at Drury Lane, Sadler's Wells, Covent Garden, the Haymarket and a myriad of places of entertainment for Christmastide.  When the pen was being held by "Alfred Crowquill" the illustrations were often of a satirical nature as he poked fun at the old traditions.   The pseudonym is somewhat odd as it was used jointly by two brothers:  Alfred Henry Forrester (1804-72) and his older brother Charles Robert Forrester (1803-50).  Alfred specialized in witty sketches for Comic Arithmetic, Punch and The Illustrated London News.  By the end of 1843, he had apparently ceased to publish caricatures under this pseudonym, leaving it for the exclusive use of his older brother.   His pantomime sketches with humorous verses beneath (as seen in The Illustrated London News during the Christmas season of that year and later published in book form in 1826) must have been among his last graphic works placed before the public under that nom de plume.

Plagued by ill health, exhaustion, drink and old injuries Grimaldi retired from the stage the same year that Crowquill penned his tongue-in-cheek series.  In 1847, ten year's after Grimaldi's death,  the great pantomime author J. R. Planché decried, in rhyme, the decline of Clown and his antics:
Poor Arlechino took a prance
To merry England via France;
Came just in Christmas-pudding time,
And welcomed was by Pantomime.
But Pantomime's best days are fled:
Grimaldi, Barnes, Bologna* - dead!
* Along with Grimaldi's Clown, James Barnes as Pantaloon and Jack Bologna as Harlequin were the stars of Georgian Pantomime.

December 30 - 1919: Lincoln's Inn in London, England, UK admits its first female bar student


David said...

What a shame you couldn't join us for the Wimbledon panto this year. A little less outlandish than the Dick Whittington you saw with Dame Edna, but fabulously faithful to tradition, with a genuinely funny clean comic (Tim Vine). What will lure you here again, I wonder? Happy New Year.

Willym said...

Would have loved to be with you shouting "It's behind you!" There is so much to lure me there - including the chance to see you both again - however economies of time and the exchequer are limiting travel for the next few months. Big hugs and the happiest of New Year's to you both.

Anonymous said...

Jack Balogna (real name Jon Peter Bologna) was my 5th great grandfather. He was not only a great friend of Grimaldi's but also his brother in law as they married the Bristow sisters. His son William Bologna carried on the tradition appearing on stage in pantomime in 1849. Unfortunately Jack came to the same end and died in relative poverty in Glasgow. Phil Robinson