- Harlequin's Stage:Recent Titles on Popular British Drama in the Eighteenth Century
The dominant form of theatrical entertainment in Britain during the eighteenth century was pantomime, a confection of music, spectacle, and dance, which outgrew its origins in the medley of "afterpieces" attached to regular drama to become the theater's most viable commercial form. Despite fierce resistance from the Augustan literary establishment, pantomime's freedom from traditional critical "rules" made it the vehicle of choice for many of the most important theatrical innovators of the period. Central to its success was the figure of Harlequin, a lord of misrule derived from the continental commedia dell'arte tradition, whose talismanic magic sword and priapic desire for his mistress Columbine provided a flexible template for a variety of different kinds of dramatic narrative from tragedy to farce to oriental tale. Appropriately for such an irrepressible character, Harlequin has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years and now finds himself lending his name to the titles of two recent books dealing with eighteenth-century popular British drama. John O'Brien's Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690–1760 explores the origins of pantomime in the "entertainment" culture of the first half of the eighteenth century, taking a fine comb to its shifting cultural meanings and its gradual emergence from early controversy into a legitimate form patronized by the polite and tolerated by the literary. If O'Brien's focus is necessarily limited to the squabbles of a London elite coming to terms with the "mass culture" that the later Enlightenment took for granted, David Worrall's Harlequin Empire: Race, Ethnicity and the Drama of the Popular Enlightenment plots the wider results of this struggle for authority as its effects ripple out via the Anglophone world's "theatrical network" into provincial market towns and the former colonies in America. Resisting recent accounts that have emphasized the ideological content of Romantic-period drama, Worrall describes a transatlantic stage that is often wrong-headed and contradictory in its engagement with the wider world, but that also articulates surprisingly diverse and unpredictable attitudes to racial and national difference.
O'Brien's central problem is epistemological: how to describe performances about which so little information survives? He confronts this issue head-on in his opening chapter, a careful reconstruction of John Rich's Perseus and Andromeda (1730), for which, uniquely in this period, printed material survives recording both its "comic" harlequinade and the "serious" operatic part written by Lewis Theobald. With this groundwork laid, O'Brien devotes his next two chapters to the different cultural contexts surrounding pantomime's conceptualization in the first two decades of the century; he argues in chapter 2, for instance, that although pantomime eventually came to be seen as a monstrous offspring of modern barbarism, its initial performers and proponents hoped that it would reform the English stage, corrupted by the moral licentiousness of the Restoration and the alienating [End Page 117] forces of urbanization and commerce, and restore it to its ancient position embedded in the ritual of the state.
O'Brien addresses the two most famous pantomimes of the period in his pivotal fourth chapter. Opening within a few weeks of each other toward the end of 1723, Harlequin Doctor Faustus at Drury Lane and The Necromancer; or, Harlequin Doctor Faustus at Lincoln's Inn Fields were immediate sensations. The Necromancer in particular went on to be one of the most successful and popular performances of any kind in the eighteenth century, with Rich's performance as Harlequin becoming, like David Garrick's Hamlet, an iconic London spectacle. In O'Brien's ingenious reading of these two pantomimes, the exemplary modernity of their hi-tech stagecraft is interpreted through the popular misconception connecting the mythical conjuror Doctor Faustus to the goldsmith Johann Fust, one of the financiers of Gutenberg's press. O'Brien argues that the "magic transformations" performed by Harlequin in the pantomimes...