The Rise and Fall of the Pantomime Harlequinade

By W. Macqueen-Pope, illustrated by Illingworth. Christmas edition 1954

Daily Mail Annual For boys and girls December 1954

Once upon a time- all good fairy stories should commence that way and this is a story about a fairy story- a small company of comedians from Venice visited this country. It was in the reign of James I, and all boys and girls who have paid attention to their history lessons will know that he sat on the throne from 1603 until 1625.

The Venetian comedians were made welcome. The English people liked them and their show- and with that true English spirit of keeping what they like, proceeded to take possession of it, and make an English version of it. So that show which came from Venice and was known as the Commedia dell’Arte was transformed into a home-made affair and became part of our English tradition.

Many alterations were made, of course. For instance, the chief character in that Venetian bit of fun and frolic was really a clown, but the part was played by a man named Arlecchino. The English took his name and, finding it difficult to pronounce, called it Harlequin. And by degrees Harlequin became King of Pantomime- that truly British form of dramatic art which evolved in this country from that old Italian entertainment, but which flourishes nowhere other than the British Commonwealth of Nations.


Arlecchino, in the Venetian version, wore a distinctive dress and make up. He had a pale face, with dirty marks smeared on it, shabby clothes plentifully patched with various colours, baggy breeches, also patched, big splay feet with ill-fitting shoes and he carried a staff. He was, of course, the “comic”. But in the English version – Harlequin was never a “comic”: He was a figure of magical romance and King of magic, too. Yet his dress evolved from that of Arlecchino.

The dirty marks on his face became the black mask which every real Harlequin wears, and when that mask is turned up, he is visible to all, and when turned down he is invisible.

The baggy clothes got a bit smarter but still retained the coloured patches, which became the lozenges of silver, gold, black, blue and red which finally distinguished Harlequin, and made him so splendid. But the loose clothes kept on for a long time, right up to the year 1800, when a man called Byrne, at Drury Lane Theatre, first wore the skin tight lozenged clothes which from then on became the attire of Harlequin. His staff was turned into the lathen sword which was the magic wand, and which performed such wonders.

There were many characters in that old Venetian entertainment, but gradually some vanished and others altered unto the figures of our own Harlequinade. Pantaloon survived- to be the father of the clown, the old man of whom everyone made a fool, the Clown most of all, who tottered about making himself ridiculous, and also pursued the lovely figure of Columbine, the symbolism of feminine charm and grace. All the men in the Harlequinade loved Columbine and wooed her- even the Clown.


For many years the figure of Pierrot was there- not the cheery laughing pierrot still to be met with at the seaside, but a rather sad, forlorn figure, breaking his heart for the love of the gay, fickle and capricious Columbine. Of course, Harlequin won her in the end. Who could resist him? Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon – those were the traditional figures who seemed immortal in Pantomime. There were others in the background, shop-keepers, policemen, all sorts of folk, but they were only there to be fooled by the Clown, and bewildered by Harlequin.

At first, Harlequin was King. Every real pantomime was prefixed by his name. “Harlequin and the Fairies of the Wood or The Shipwrecked Sailor”: “Harlequin Jack-a-Lantern or The Witches of the Dripping Well”: “Harlequin and the Merry Devil of Edmonton, or The Great Bed of Ware”.

In those distant days pantomimes had original stories, but even when the then more popular and familiar Fairy Stories got into use, in the early 19th Century, it was still “Harlequin and Dick Whittington” and the like. The use of his name in that respect was constant until the middle of the 19th Century and even afterwards….

Harlequin could either speak or be silent- it depended largely on who played it. One of the most famous Harlequins of all time was an odd character named John Rich, who built Covent Garden Theatre, and was always seen with at least half a dozen cats trailing after him. This man had a bad speaking voice and very little knowledge of the King’s English, so he was a dumb Harlequin. And as Harlequin he had no need of speech. Such was his grace, such his mastery of what is known as “mime” (which has nothing to do with Pantomime as such) that every limb, every finger and every expression of his face spoke for him. His leaps, his bounds, his agility were things at which to wonder. When rebuffed by Columbine, he seemed to be breaking his heart: The audience wept. And when he scratched his right ear with his left leg, people roared with laughter.

On the stage he called himself Lun and he was a marvel. Harlequin was the star part. David Garrick himself, perhaps the greatest actor who ever lived, made his first great success in the role and Edmund Kean, the world’s greatest tragic actor, was also a magnificent Harlequin.

Harlequin made his first appearance, as such, in a Masque performed before King Charles 1st at Whitehall in 1637. It had not taken him long to become thoroughly English. He was accompanied by a character described as a “Zany” who would be the Clown, and who was of little importance. For many years, pantomime went on altering. The first time it happened in anything like the way we know it now was in 1702, when a mad, merry, topsy-turvy mix up was produced at Drury Lane Theatre- and pantomime was born. Drury Lane is its traditional home. Pantomime must be topsy-turvy or it is not pantomime.

In the early pantomimes, which were already Harlequinades, there was a little farce or Operetta played first – and then at the end, up through a trap-door would shoot Harlequin, his mask down – invisible. He would trip round the stage, beat his magic sword thrice on the ground, wave it in the air and – low and behold – all the characters in the little play were transformed into the characters of the Harlequinade – Clown, Pantaloon, Columbine –all of them. That first little piece was called “The Opening” and the Harlequinade was the main entertainment. But as the years went on the “Opening” grew longer and longer, and pushed the Harlequinade more and more towards the end – until now, like so many other good English things, it has vanished forever. The word English rather than British is used here because it was in England that the Harlequinade and the Pantomime evolved.

The Clown was always there, of course – was not Arlecchino himself a clown? And the time was to come – late in the eighteenth century – when the Clown was to push Harlequin off his throne and himself become King of Pantomime. This was achieved by a man who was the greatest Clown of all time – and whose name was Joseph Grimaldi.

He was born of theatrical parents, almost in the walls of the old theatre at Sadler’s Wells. He went on stage almost as soon as he could walk. His father was a clown and he made little Joey perform with him as a baby clown.


Once disaster happened. Grimaldi the father attached his tiny son to the end of a chain or rope and swung him round in the air, to the delight of all beholders. But the fastening broke and poor little Joey shot through the air over the footlights right into the audience. And right into the tummy of a fat old man sitting near the front, who was bellowing with laughter. The Old man was the more hurt of the two, and little Joey was soon back on the stage again, performing his antics.

He was a great clown, a wonderful comedian and a superb dancer and acrobat. He made the Clown King – but he also preserved tradition. The costume he wore was the direct descendant of that worn by Arlecchino. For Grimaldi always had a white face – and the dirty marks were replaced by crescents and circles of blue and red. He had a kind of jerkin which was also white, but had patches of blue and red all over it. He had quite baggy “trunks” (they were almost breeches in his case) with a succession of little frills, one below the other, and had capacious pockets in which he stowed the goods he pilfered – you could see the string of sausages hanging out – which were the direct descendants of the baggy pants of Arlecchino.

He adapted the splay-footed walk when he needed it, and although he used no staff – he had his red hot poker instead, with which to “touch up” the policeman in later years, the watchman in HIS day – and anyone else who gave him trouble, to say nothing of poor old Pantaloon. So there was the tradition of the clown of Arlecchino still enshrined by Grimaldi, the supreme Clown.

And take the case of the greatest clown of our day, if not indeed of all time – Charlie Chaplin. There is the pale face, with its touch of sadness, there are the ill fitting baggy clothes with their patches – there are the big splay feet and the uncouth footwear – and there, instead of the staff, is the little cane. Even the black marks on the face have their counterpart in that characteristic little Chaplin moustache. So does the traditional costume of the Clown endure – even when the clown is a thing of the past.

Grimaldi revolutionised pantomime stories. He introduced the fairy tales and nursery rhymes. He produced a version of Mother Goose at Covent Garden. The management said they would be ruined. Grimaldi knew better. It was an immense success and ran for 82 nights – a wonderful run in those days. And he gave his name to future clowns, who ever since his day have been called “Joey”. Poor Grimaldi, he did not live long. He wore himself out by overwork. He would appear at Sadler’s Wells, then he would run from there all the way to Drury Lane Theatre and appear there. Then he would run to Covent Garden and play a scene – and then run back to Sadler’s Wells again to finish the evening.

He never spared himself – he always gave his best. He made his last appearance at a benefit at Drury Lane and he had to be carried on to the stage in a chair – he could not walk – and thus he spoke his last lines. When it was over, he was put into a carriage and driven to his home in Pentonville with crowds running beside him cheering all the way. He had never earned much money. He had £4 a week at Drury Lane and £6 a week at Covent Garden. His salary at Sadler’s Wells was small. And he probably never earned more than £10 a week at the height of his busy career. But that benefit got him £580 and the Drury Lane pension fund granted him £100 a year – so he died without a debt or worry…


There have been many great clowns and many great harlequins. And although the costume of the clown varied in some small  personal degrees, all the main features of the first costume were there. Even the wig became traditional. It had two bushy sides which stuck up in the air like big ears, and there was a pigtail which did not hang down, as proper pigtails should, but which curled up over the head in a most impudent manner. It was perhaps  not the comedy of the clown which appealed to the small people who went to pantomimes when pantomimes really WERE pantomimes and had Harlequinades- it was his love of  mischief and his lawlessness. He was the universal outlaw, doing all the things boys would have adored to do but never dared. He cheeked his elders and betters, he defied all the powers that be, he broke windows, he flouted policemen – it was all glorious lawlessness. But nevertheless, the glory of the Harlequin and Columbine also enchanted them. The Harlequin could leap through traps, he would work magic, and Columbine, either in a skirt of traditional ballet length, or a very short one which stood out from the waist, with her hair coiled and surmounted with its wreath of flowers- was just as lovely as she pirouetted and danced like thistledown.

The Harlequin had much tradition to remember – he had certain postures called “animations” which all good Harlequins knew – representing certain emotions, which are lost today. And the Harlequinade itself was great fun. It had three scenes – a street scene where the Clown worked havoc and stole everything upon which he could lay his hands. When pursued he just jumped through a window. He shared with his easily fooled Father in the ratio of one for Father and three for himself. But he never fooled Harlequin. Then there would be a highly specialised scene, perhaps in a Turkish Bath, where the fat policeman was reduced to a living skeleton in the hot room- and then “Quiet Lodgings”.


In answer to an advertisement the Clown and Pantaloon took what had been described as “Quiet Lodgings” to find a blacksmith’s forge in full use on the ground floor, a first floor given over to a brass band which was always rehearsing, and the second floor to a firework manufacturers who had constant explosions. Their efforts at revenge led to a wonderful chase – a “trap” act in which everyone jumped through everything in sight, solid or not – ending up in a soul-satisfying smash in a greenhouse, and totally wrecking it. That was the stuff to give them!

But by degrees the Harlequinade went in for advertising and lost its hold. A world which disbelieved in Fairies no longer wanted the transformation scene, with its spangles, its tinsels, its constantly changing scenery – sometimes as many as thirty-five changes until at last the whole of the Kingdom of Fairies was revealed and then – a blaze of red and blue fire, a shrilling of trumpets and banging of drums and on ran the spirit of pantomime- Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon with a shout of “Here We Are Again!” – and joining hands rushed around in a mad, gay ring-a-ring-of-roses until they entered into the Harlequinade.


That has gone. The spirit of pantomime is changing, as it has always changed. It is very old, probably pre-historic as the mid-winter festival to cheer things up when the days were short and nights were long. But it keeps certain traditions still. It still links with the old Roman feast of Saturnalia – when everything went Topsy-Turvy, men dressed as women and women as men – from whence come the Principal Boy, always a woman, and the Dame, always a man – or nearly always.


And Demon Kings, when there are any, and Fairy Queens keep to the left and right of the stage respectively because those were the sides of good and evil in the medieval mystery and morality plays. Today pantomime is streamlined and very modern. But maybe one day the youngsters, whose Kingdom it really is, will demand the old magic back again, and once more we will see those true figures of Topsy-Turvy-dom take the stage and say, with every truth “Here We Are Again”. And when it happens may it be true for many years to come……

This page was last updated 17th July 2003

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