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The Hanlon Brothers

From Daredevil Acrobatics to Spectacle Pantomime, 1833-1931

Mark Cosdon

Publication Year: 2009

The Hanlon Brothers is the first complete and accurate account of one of the most beloved families in nineteenth-century American theater. The Hanlons evolved a unique theatrical style that combined breath-taking acrobatics with trick scenery, novel illusions, and wild, often violent, knockabout comedy.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

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Note on the Chronology of the Hanlon Brothers

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pp. xi-xii

During the preparation of this book, I repeatedly encountered undated play-bills and newspaper clippings in archives. While these provided tantalizing peeks into the history of the Hanlons, at times it was difficult to trace changes in the company’s personnel, the origins of certain routines, and the routes of their annual tours. In addition, some published histories of the stage displayed blatant inaccuracies when it came to the historical record, most notably T. Allston Brown’s ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

I’ve always been interested in clowning, physical comedy, and acrobatics. As a child, I went to the circus—often! And next to the jugglers, my favorite performers were always the clowns. There was something about their mischief making—coupled with the glee and anarchy they represented—that I found immensely appealing. Years later when I landed in the Ph.D. drama program at Tufts University, I found these interests nurtured and encouraged....

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pp. 1-4

The six Hanlon Brothers—Thomas, George, William, Alfred, Edward, and Frederick—were a protean family of nineteenth-century performers, renowned for an array of aerial, gymnastic, and theatrical specialties. Hailing from northern England, the brothers spent their early career crisscrossing the globe performing a dizzying series of daredevil routines and introducing audiences to the pleasures of trapeze performance. Following a tragic mishap, in the late 1860s ...

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1. Prepping for Pantomime: The Hanlon Brothers’ Fame and Tragedy, 1833–1870

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pp. 5-34

The Hanlon Brothers’ early years are enormously important in trying to understand their later career. The lessons they learned during this formative period until roughly 1870 would have a clear impact on their later pantomime work and career as producers. First, the early part of the Hanlon Brothers’ career was characterized by their daredevil aerial feats. Although oldest brother Thomas Hanlon was a victim of these stunts, they brought the brothers worldwide fame ...

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First Interlude: Jean-Gaspard Deburau

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pp. 35-38

In the late 1860s, the Hanlon Brothers first began to experiment with a character named Pierrot. Prodded by Henri Agoust, they performed a series of underdeveloped pantomimes. Seemingly staged as an afterthought, these pantomimes prominently featured the beloved French character Pierrot. However, this character was hardly their own creation. And the pantomimes the Hanlons staged were not composed by the family. Rather, most were popularized by the ...

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2. The Macabre Pantomimes of a Fermented Unconscious: 1870–1879

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pp. 39-49

When the Hanlons left the United States in 1870, every indication seems to have been that they intended to be away from America for just a few months. A potentially lucrative engagement at London’s Alhambra Palace was the initial draw, perhaps compounded by the fact that the brothers had not been home to their native Manchester in nearly two years. But clearly the Hanlons intended to settle in America. In Orange, New Jersey, a short carriage ride from ...

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3. Le Voyage en Suisse in Europe, 1879–1881

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pp. 50-76

For nearly a year, the Hanlon Brothers had been in Paris, thrilling audiences with their macabre version of pantomime. Their unofficial home was the Folies-Bergère, under the much-storied management of Léon Sari. Through 1879, the Hanlons unveiled a series of pantomimes that captivated the French public with their physical prowess, nightmare-like visions, and daringly gruesome comedy. The brothers enjoyed access to the French capital’s finest stage carpenters, ...

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Second Interlude: The Ravels

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pp. 77-80

It was a strange case of happenstance, really. In January 1860, a decades-old theatrical phenomenon preceded James M. Nixon’s presentation of the Hanlon Brothers with Cooke’s Royal Amphitheatre at Niblo’s Garden. That theatrical phenomenon was “the Wonderful Ravels.” This French family of pantomimists and acrobats was a regular fixture on the famed stage of Niblo’s Garden. Making their first New York appearance in 1836, for the next three decades the Ravels ...

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4. The American Premiere of Le Voyage en Suisse

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pp. 81-90

An unusual production opened at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre on 28 February 1881. Titled Pour Prendre Congé; or, Seeing Switzerland, the piece was allegedly authored by William A. Mestayer and managed by John P. Smith. Previously, Smith had operated an Uncle Tom’s Cabin company that played primarily on the Eastern seaboard, so his new production was a radical departure from his earlier theatrical offerings. Pour Prendre Congé had the spars- ...

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Third Interlude: George L. Fox and Humpty Dumpty

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pp. 91-94

In trying to characterize the Hanlons’ Le Voyage en Suisse, more than a few writers referred to the beloved pantomime clown George L. Fox. As one reviewer put it, “Two of them, William and Frederick, recall in their expressive pantomime and the startling mobility of their features the lamented Fox.”1 As the two scheming servants ...

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5. The First American Tours of Le Voyage en Suisse

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pp. 95-111

The chase scene was one American film’s quintessential comic elements. In its typical form, a mustachioed, heavyset police officer vainly pursues a smaller, more nimble man. Of course, the smaller man is never irredeemably guilty, nor has he committed a heinous crime of some sort. Rather, the protagonist is simply misunderstood, perhaps blinded by ...

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6. The Changing Taste in American Theatricals: Fantasma and Superba

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pp. 112-132

In February 1882, the English drama critic W. Davenport Adams lamented the state of his beloved pantomime. Distressed by the “monotony of the subjects treated,” the writer criticized managers who constantly returned to such familiar nursery stories as “The House that Jack Built,” “Mother Goose,” “Red Riding Hood,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” for their plotlines. Adams argued that new subjects were needed; new fairylands had to be explored. The critic went ...

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7. Legacy

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pp. 133-140

In 1915, a year after the fire at Edison’s Film Factory, the Hanlons closed their Scenic Studio in Cohasset. Shortly thereafter, George, William, and Edward relocated from their beloved seaside homes in Cohasset and Cos Cob for more In their uneasy retirement, the three surviving Hanlons were rarely together. Rather, they continued to trade on their valued surname and the idea of family bonds, a tradition continued by their children. However, in February 1921, ...


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pp. 141-162


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pp. 163-168


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pp. 169-177

Author Bio

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Series statement

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Other Books in the Theater in the Americas Series

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Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809386581
E-ISBN-10: 0809386585
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809329250
Print-ISBN-10: 0809329255

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 5 b/w halftones, 15 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009