- The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England by Jeffrey Richards
The signature feature in the Victorian pantomime was the spectacular transformation scene, in which the mortal characters, having had their quarrels and romantic dilemmas happily resolved, would be magically transformed into the archetypal figures of the harlequinade and turned loose on a career of comic lawlessness. Jeffrey Richards, in The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England, argues the pantomime genre itself, over the course of the nineteenth century, underwent a series of transformations no less complete than the making-over of Clown and Columbine. Through radical changes in structure, subject matter, production technology, and ideology, the pantomime remained among the most lucrative and in-demand genres of the British stage throughout the century, despite shifts in social and political climate, legal regulations, and audience tastes. Richards makes a compelling case for pantomime, not only as a constantly evolving theatrical genre, but also as a genre that matters, because it offers unique insights into the tastes and preoccupations of the Victorians. Part history, part critical assessment, part catalogue or encyclopedia, his book will quickly become a go-to text for popular culture and theater history scholars.
It is an oft-repeated doctrine among theater historians that a play is an event, not merely a script, and that studies of theater history must, therefore, be multi-dimensional, comprising close reading of the dramatic text and examination of the performers, audience, performance space, and production technologies. Few scholars could practice what their field preaches more thoroughly than does Richards; his argument is supported by synopses, performance reviews, financial records, letters and memoirs, and nostalgic reminiscences by theater-goers from Charles Dickens to A. E. Wilson. His research is both deep and broad. He traces a sweeping developmental arc from the bawdy, chaotic slapstick of Regency harlequinade to the more genteel productions of the mid-Victorian era to the late-century pantomimes, in which music hall variety acts became a staple. He fleshes out this overarching narrative with generously detailed accounts of individual pantomimes and their critical receptions, as well as biographical sketches of numerous key personalities.
Richards singles out four of these creators as the focal points of his study—men who, he argues, are chiefly responsible for the transformations. First, there is James Robinson Planché (1796–1880), whose fairy extravaganzas became models for the pantomime openings—the dramatized narratives that regularly preceded the harlequinade. In imitating Planché, pantomime authors gradually introduced an unprecedented quantity of spoken dialogue and plot into the pantomime, giving more stage time to the plot of the opening and truncating the anarchic concluding harlequinade. This increase in dialogue (made possible by the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843) steered the pantomime’s emphasis away from violent and often risqué physical comedy and toward more tasteful word-play, nonsense verse, and other verbal humor. Edward Leman Blanchard (1820–89), over the course of his prolific forty-five year pantomime-writing career, built on Planché’s work to develop what would become known as the classic pantomime formula: “inventive rhymed couplets, the imaginative [End Page 510] telling and sometimes interweaving of fairy tales, folk tales and nursery rhymes, lengthy and elaborate ballet sequences, beautiful scene-painting and moral lessons” (6). Through these elements, Blanchard and other pantomime writers who followed his lead courted respectable middle-class audiences, especially families with children, who might have looked askance at knockabout Regency entertainment. Richards likewise devotes a chapter to William Roxby Beverley (1810–89), whose scene painting made the pantomime’s visual spectacle an increasingly prominent attraction, appealing to a culture of ubiquitous photography, prints, and other visuals. The copious praises of critics and theater-goers demonstrate that audiences came to see Beverley’s gorgeous palaces, gardens, and forest glades as much as anything the performers might do against these backdrops. The last of Richards’s chief protagonists, Sir Augustus Harris (1852–96), is credited with spearheading the so-called...