You may have been to a pantomime over the festive season and had your nerves shattered by the children’s shouting (Oh yes it is…oh no it isn’t…etc.). Then again, perhaps you got into the spirit of the occasion and shouted louder than the infants yourself. But such noisy audience participation is nothing compared to what was common at a Nineteenth-Century pantomime, which would have featured the now long-defunct “Harlequinade”.
“Warne Pantomime, 1890” (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
The diarist William Hardman had his literary friend George Meredith, and Meredith’s son Arthur, to stay with him over the Christmas of 1862. They were to attend a Harlequinade at Drury Lane Theatre, and the little boy Arthur was “ardent for jolly Clown; a Pantaloon of the most aged, the most hapless [kind]; a brilliant Columbine; and a Harlequin with a wand on everyone’s bottom.” (Don’t ask me what the wand was all about!).
These were the four stock characters of the Harlequinade, often joined in chase scenes by an extra player in the form of a Policeman. Such plot-line as existed consisted of Harlequin romantically pursuing the fair Columbine, while her miserable old Dad, Pantaloon, tries to sabotage his efforts with the help of the unscrupulous Clown. The performance Hardman and his friends attended was on “Boxing Night”, 1862, when Drury Lane re-opened after a break under the new management of Edmund Falconer, who had reputedly spent a fortune on renovations to the theatre.
The boy Arthur was “in raptures” over the show, but Hardman was not. He writes, “…such a pandemonium I have rarely witnessed.” “The fights in pit and gallery were frequent. The shower of orange peel from the gods into the pit was quite astounding. The occupants of the latter place made feeble efforts to throw it back again, but, of course, never got it any further than the first tier of boxes. I was glad to see the thing once, but you won’t catch me there again.”
Victorian times were not as polite and decorous as some imagine, in fact public occasions could be coarse, violent and disorderly in ways that would be quite unacceptable today. I wish everyone a calm and peaceful New Year, without dispiriting showers of orange peel descending upon their heads.