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Pantomime

My second Regency Reader article was in the July issue.

"Make 'em laugh!" The song, from twentieth century Singing in the Rain, could have been the imperative from Regency pantomime as well. The players worked hard to do just that.

Pantomime in the Regency was a mixture of music, acrobatics, dancing, and stage effects large and small, with romance, satire, slapstick comedy, and nonstop action. It became popular during this time because of the gigantic talent of Joseph Grimaldi, whose life and career encompassed the whole of the Regency period.

The limitations on spoken drama in any but the "patent" theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden by the Licensing Act of 1737 created a variety of different forms of "burlettas" to fill the playbills of the minor theatres. The catchall term included pantomimes, farces, musical comedies, equestrian acts, and even aquatic performances at Sadler's Wells. And, ironically, these burlettas became a staple at the patent theatres also. An evening's entertainment, like a "double bill" at a modern movie house, had more than the standard single play. At Drury Lane or Covent Garden, a Shakespeare production would be followed by a pantomime or other comedic performance. Unlike today, a pantomime was not entirely silent. There were songs, recitations, and some dialogue, although some characters, notably Harlequin and Columbine, seldom or never spoke.

Pantomime had its beginnings in the Commedia dell' Arte of Italy, and evolved into a uniquely English form of entertainment by the Regency. The stock Commedia characters, Harlequin, Pantaloon, and Columbine, were joined by the English Clown. A typical pantomime opened with characters in contemporary dress, but often with huge masks, portraying a father figure, a suitor favored by the father, a young lady, and her favored suitor. The father refuses the young lady's choice, the lovers run away, pursued by the furious father and disappointed suitor. The characters transform into Pantaloon (father), Harlequin (young lover), Columbine, and Clown (Grimaldi's role), often through the magical offices of a fairy or other mythical being. Harlequin is given a magic bat (the original "slapstick") and required to perform a heroic task to win his Columbine, and Clown rushes through the scenes creating chaos wherever he goes. Scenery and props change into different ones--a tomb into a chaise, a windmill into a giant; a sedan chair into a watch house.

The pursuit continues until the "dark scene," the next-to-last of the pantomime. Harlequin completes his quest, and is about to win Columbine, but Pantaloon takes control and it appears all is lost. The magical being who has aided the young lovers steps in once more and all ends well, to the exhausted delight of the Regency audience.