« PreviousContinue »
not hold that the ancient classical entertainment is the one which should be adopted as a model among the moderns. There are two kinds of pantomime-the Pagan and the Christian. The original pantomimist came from Greece, and settled in Rome about the time of Augustus. His business was to dance, not in a grotesque, but in an airy and graceful manner, telling meanwhile, by an infinity of gestures, the eternal story of Love. Nods and becks and wreathed smiles were not permitted to assist his byplay, since he was bound to wear a mask; not, however, an offensively-ludicrous one, but a mere disguise. His dress, in every case light and splendid, was designed to display to the fullest possible extent the beauty of his form, and the handsomer corporeally was the pantomimist the greater was his popularity on the Roman stage. You may see his effigy, in his habit as he lived, that is to say, in fleshings and spangles very much resembling those of a modern acrobat, with a tambourine slung to one wrist and a light staff over one shoulder, in a fresco at Pompeii. He is floating in mid-air, or rather in midwall panel, and audaciously hugs a young person of the opposite sex, as lightly clad as he, and who is manifestly a Saltatrix, or member of the Pompeian corps de ballet. This couple were clearly the originals of Harlequin and Columbine; and observe this, that in the lusty, amorous, impudent, perfidious pantomimist there is always a dim suggestiveness of the False Shepherd of Mount Ida. You may figure his bygone pastoral crook in that staff, which in later times will become his magic wand, and his mask may be but his Phrygian bonnet pulled down over his brow. Indeed, from head to heel he is Paris this handsome impudent scamp of a Harlequin; and Columbine, that pretty, light-loving, flighty young woman, always pirouetting away from her domestic duties, and occasionally gallivanting in the most shameful manner with elderly gentlemen-who should this frolicsome hussey be but the mimic phantom of Helen of Troy? This is a hint worthy of the attention of Mr. Gladstone; and my Homeric hypothesis is better able to hold water, I contend, than the ex-Premier's nebulous theory about Latona. Not but what Mr. Gladstone is, like Mr. Eccles in Caste, a very clever man.'
By and by the exigent Roman public grew tired of the interminable prancing and love-making of Paris and Helen-I mean of the Pantomimos and the Saltatrix-I mean of Harlequin and Columbine. The Romans cared little for the abstract poetry of motion; they were as coarse and practical as we English are in dramatic taste, and they wanted strong and exciting dramatic action. Thus to the twin pantomimists the Sicinnium, performed by the Sicinnistæ, who were habited as fauns, satyrs, and dryads, and who came bodily out of the interludes or between the acts,' ballets of the comedies of Aristophanes. Compare Shakespeare's 'Dance of Clowns' in the Midsummer Night's Dream (the dance
took place in Theseus' palace, mind), and you have a complete idea of the Sicinnium. And yet there have been found critics venturesome enough to assert that the all (humanly) discerning Shakespeare was no classical scholar!
Remark that this band of buffoons must have been accompanied by a congenial spirit, a goatish, drunken, pot-bellied, shameful old reprobate; Silenus, in a word. Of the master satyr Pan I speak with reverence. He is a Mystery symbolising the eternity of productive Nature; but Silenus, Bacchus's pot-companion and Pan's frightful example' of intemperance and other disreputable vices, is clearly the prototype of Pantaloon. Here, then, we have the pantomimic trio; but to secure that dramatic action demanded by the Romans, a quintet of performers was required: first, the audacious lover, Harlequin-Paris; next, the giddy flirt, ColumbineHelen; thirdly, a lewd old man, of whose naughtiness and imbecility fun could be made; fourthly, an old father, uncle, or guardian, idiotic or tyrannical, who could serve the purpose of the dramatic intrigue by thwarting, so far as he was able, the loves of Harlequin and Columbine; and, finally, a servant, consistently comic and incorrigibly roguish, who should aid the course of the story by alternately serving and betraying the remainder of the characters; while practically he might make the audience break out in fresh places of merriment when they were wearied of the servile mummeries of Silenus-Pantaloon, and by tumbling and grimacing in the intervals of the jigs of the Pantomimos and the Saltatrix. The old parent or guardian was easily borrowed from the comedies of Terence or Plautus; and herein, too, was found the type of the comic servant in the Slave, perpetually cheating and girding at his master, and now quaking, now grinning, at the flogging administered to him by the lorarius. This slave was supplemented by the Sannio, who had flourished on the Roman stage long prior to the arrival from Attica of the graceful Pantomimos; yet who was himself a pantomimist whose business it had been merely to minister to the coarse taste of the populace by contorting his body and making the most hideous grimaces. For the Sannio (our zany) was not always masked. He, combined with the slave of Terence or Plautus, made up that astonishing compound of fraud, fun, impudence, cowardice, cruelty, cynicism, gluttony, and rascality, so infinitely fascinating to our children at Christmas-time, and who is called Mr. Punch. Emancipated from servitude, and married to Columbine (grown old and ugly, and deserted by Harlequin), Mr. Clown becomes Mr. Punch.
The actors and the intrigue of the Roman pantomime, as I conceive it to have been gradually welded together from the materials enumerated, have come down to us almost intact. The Italian pantomime, with its Arlecchino, its Gerontio (the old man), its
ber merits to be named in the same breath with the incomparably droll and graceful Flexmore-now, alas, deceased. So conscious are managers of the stupidity of the comic business,' and the difficulty of finding changes of scene more exciting than the conversion of a day-school for young ladies into a pickled-salmon and shellfish warehouse, that at the larger theatres it has become a common practice to interpolate in the harlequinade a spectacle, procession, or ballet on the largest scale, but in which the performers are exclusively little children. Many hundreds of juveniles find employment during the three months of the pantomimic season at the metropolitan playhouses. Sometimes they join in the parades of the interpolated ballets (of which Mr. Cormack at Drury Lane has long been the admirable Coryphæus), sometimes their services are required to fill the parts of elves and sprites, and sometimes of monkeys, tom-cats, and animated carrots and turnips in the opening.' At any rate, these tiny labourers can earn a few shillings weekly, which shillings very satisfactorily supplement the earnings of their poverty - stricken parents. The employment of children in pantomimes has been very virulently deprecated of late; first, on the ground that 'stage fairies' are trained to their vocation by the unsparing administration of the ballet-master's cane; and next, on the plea that their theatrical labours keep them out late at night and bring them into bad company. Finally, the London School Board is said to object that pantomimic children, being bound to attend rehearsal every day for several weeks preceding Christmas, are unable to attend school with the regularity insisted upon by that new Educational Act upon which so many millions sterling will probably be spent, and which probably twenty years hence will leave the common people as ignorant, to any useful intents or purposes, as it has found them now. To these objections it may be briefly replied, that the ballet-master has no cane, and that pantomimic children are invariably treated with the greatest kindness and forbearance; next, that the little things themselves like the work, which is literally as good as a play, and a great deal better to them, since they are paid for playing; furthermore, that they can be sent to school, if need be, before or after rehearsal; and finally, that they are often accompanied to the theatre by their mothers, who may be, and often are, employed in some capacity about the house, and that, taking the worst view of the matter, they are in better company in their dressing-rooms or upon the stage than they would be sprawling on the doorstep or in the kennel up their native court, or locked up in the garret while mother is gone to the fried-fish shop, and incurring the ordinary juvenile risks of tumbling out of window or setting fire to their pinafores.
A few closing remarks are needed as to that portion of the pantomime termed the opening,' which was formerly a mere farce, brief, simple, and funny, but which has now swollen into a lengthy
burlesque extravaganza, crammed with bad songs, wretched jokes, and boisterous and vulgar breakdowns,' the whole, however, enlivened by well-grouped ballets, and scenery, costumes, and appointments of extraordinary magnificence. Abstractedly, the opening' of a pantomime, be it founded on a fairy tale from the Arabian Nights or from the Countess d'Alnois, or upon the briefest of nursery rhymes -such as 'Jack Horner,' or 'Tom Tucker,' or the 'Old Woman who lived in a Shoe'-should be a thoroughly moral and even religious entertainment. The idea of the English opening' is clearly founded on the old mystery and miracle plays-ideas which do not to the extent of one iota enter into the scheme of the ancient pagan or modern Franco-Italian pantomimes. Ours, on the contrary, typifies one continuous conflict between the beneficent and the maleficent powers, and harlequin, columbine, and the rest are human beings alternately swayed by supernal influences of a blameless or of a baleful character. Virtue is represented by the good fairy; Evil is symbolised by the wicked magician; all the virtues and all the vices may find their types in the smiling ballet-girls, on the one hand, and the hideous gnomes, on the other. For a time vice is triumphant; the nice young prince is in distress, the beautiful princess is persecuted, the brutal baron or the depraved giant is in the ascendant; then comes a first transformation, and the faits et gestes of fairy or legendary existence are paraphrased in common life by the five pantomimists, who are themselves endowed with magic power, in order to perform transformations; thus curiously symbolising the doctrine of free will, and of our rewards and punishments being mundanely in our own hands. Finally, the follies and vices of the pantomimists bring them once more into the direst of difficulties; the dark scene' comes; harlequin loses his bat; the forlorn crew grope about in gloom, uncertainty, and despair; the wicked magician is about to ingulf them all, when, hey presto! Transformation the Second takes place, and Cimmerian darkness melts into the dazzling splendour of the Realms of Joy-that is to say, of Forgiveness. This is the real idea and meaning of a pantomimic opening.' The idea and the meaning have been in recent days utterly ignored both by pantomime writers, managers, and spectators, and it is fully time that pantomimes should cease by their idiocy and impertinence to annoy and mislead the world.
Colombina (Columbine), its Scapino (Clown), and its Leandro (Pantaloon), are the old, old dramatis personæ, originally formed by the Pantomimos and the Saltatrix, the Sannio, the Terentian father, and the Silenian reprobate. Pantaloon is, however, sometimes omitted; and in some instances Harlequin and Clown are, to some extent, convertible personages, as when Clown is an elegant posture-master (Gracioso), and Harlequin, his fine spangled patchwork garb all flying about him in tatters, appears as a beggarly serving-man making love to Columbine. The inexhaustible mummeries, moreover, of the Carnivals of Rome, Venice, and Milan brought about, in the Middle Ages, the adjuncture of a great many extraneous characters to the original pantomimic quintet. Coxcombical or vapouring Frenchmen, bragging Spanish capitans (shadows of whom may be found in the Elizabethan dramatists), burlesque bravi, parasites, panders, and similar cattle, are introduced to the hitherto select circle; and sometimes an old woman is brought in that she may be mocked, cozened, and buffeted. The pure Italian pantomime, however, cleared from all its excrescences, continues to flourish as a plant of home growth in Italy, and as a hardy exotic in France; and wonderfully strong is the hold it has retained on the playgoing mind in both countries. Molière's comedies have all more or less of the pantomimic element (expanded by means of dialogue) in them. Scapin is Clown, Sganarelle is Clown; half the great master's heroes are Harlequins, and half his heroines Columbines. Gorgibus, Argan, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, are all essentially pantomimic characters; and to come much nearer our own time, it is infinitely curious to observe how the subtlety of the Italian librettist has paraphrased Beaumarchais's scathing satire of the Barber of Seville into one of the merriest of musical pantomimes. The intrigue is wholly and exclusively pantomimic. Almaviva is Harlequin, the old guardian the Terentian father (that is to say, Géronte), Figaro is Clown, Rosina Columbine, and Don Basilio Pantaloon. But perhaps it was from a pantomime that Caron de Beaumarchais originally took his plot, and in the Italian libretto poor tomfoolery only came to its own again.
Many Italian pantomimists (Joseph Grimaldi was the son of one) have been immensely popular in England; but the simple Italian pantomime, for reasons to which I shall presently allude, has never taken root as an entertainment among us. We understand (nationally) very little about love (as love is understood among the Latin races), and, to our great good luck, we know nothing about treachery. On amorous intrigue and domestic perfidy the Italian pantomime is almost entirely built. But, while we have repudiated the plot, we have gladly adopted all the characters, their humours and their horseplay, which form that which is known as the comic business' or harlequinade. For aught we know or care Columbine may be