THE FAIRY TALE?
Well actually the Origins of the story of “Dick Whittington” will not be found in any book of fairy tales. The pantomime is the only one based on a true subject. There actually was a Richard Whittington, and he did become (Lord) Mayor of London in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
“Dick Whittington” is also one of the few “home grown” pantomime subjects. Whereas many owe their origins and popularity to French, Italian and other European folk stories and fairy tales, the pantomime version is taken from Great Britain, along with Robinson Crusoe and Babes in The Wood. Arguably “Jack and The Beanstalk” is also British in origin, but this could be disputed.
THE STORY OF DICK WHITTINGTON
Richard Whittington was born somewhere around 1350, legend has it at Pauntley Court in Gloucestershire. He was not, however the penniless boy he is depicted in pantomime, but was in fact the son of an Alderman - Sir William Whittington of Pauntley. He arrived in London around 1379, and began to deal in costly textiles, and became an extremely wealthy merchant.
In fact, his wealth was such, that he made loans to both King Henry IV and Henry VI. He made large charitable donations, including the founding of the Whittington School in London, the rebuilding of Newgate Gaol, and an almshouse for the poor.
He married the daughter of an Alderman - Alice Fitzwarren, (or Fitzwaryn) and became an Alderman himself, before taking the honorary title of Sheriff in 1393.
It was under the patronage of King Richard II that he became Lord Mayor of London in 1397, and later again in 1406 and 1419. He became a member of parliament in 1416.
Sadly nearly all of Whittington’s good works were destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666). There is, however a window in the Guildhall serving as a memorial, and a small stone image in the crypt.
DICK WHITTINGTON'S CAT:
How a cat came to feature so heavily in the pantomime version is not clear. He may well have had a cat, but certainly it does not feature in any accounts of his life. Possibly the answer lies in his life as a merchant. Ships feature in the pantomime, and Whittington was a merchant. His fortune depended on the sailing vessels bringing goods from Africa and the Far East. More humble sailing vessels carrying coal were known as “Cats”, so that could be one reason the story became confused with the humble moggy. Another theory is that the French word “Achat”, which means “A Purchase” might have found itself intertwined in his legend.
Interestingly though, when Newgate prison was rebuilt (under the terms of Whittington’s will) a figure of a cat was carved over one of the gates. In 1572 a cat appeared carved on a chariot presented by Whittington to the guld of merchants. History has it that there was once a portrait of Richard Whittington that showed him holding a black cat in one hand, and a white cat in the other.
On Highgate Hill (the spot where legend has it he stood and decided to return to London) stands a statue of his cat, in front of the “Whittington Hospital”.
The pantomime version has the villain depicted as “King Rat”. It is Whittington’s cat who destroys all the rats in the Sultan’s Palace, and indeed in his Kingdom, and this act makes Dick Whittington his vast fortune- half the wealth of the Sultan in return.
More likely the very shadow and spectre of the rats, bringing plague to London frequently made them the ideal villains for legend. When Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary of 1668
“To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see”
The Great Plague had only recently abated in London three years previously. Londoners would have no problem associating the rodents with arch villainy.
The legend of Dick Whittington follows the classic basis of a Fairy Tale, and indeed a pantomime. The Poor boy makes good through some heroic or magical deed. By rewarding others he achieves a Kingdom, a Princess, Untold wealth, or, in the case of Whittington he becomes fabulously rich, and is made Lord Mayor of London three times.
The play version of “Dick Whittington” dates back to around 1605. There were several versions performed, and the stories had become popular in the publications of cheap affordable booklets’”chapbooks”- containing collections of stories. In 1731 the play was performed at Southwark Fair, but this time a man, named Harper played the role of Cook. This character had entered the Whittington legend.
The first recorded Pantomime was in 1814, with Joseph Grimaldi, the great pantomime clown playing the “Dame” role of Cecily Suet.
DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT - THE PANTOMIME
click to enlarge
To adapt the legend of “Dick Whittington” into the pantomime format, several characters- popular in pantomime had to be added. For “Myth and Magic” there had to be a Fairy- the Fairy of the Bells, and a Demon King character- King Rat. The Dame was added as cook to the Baron type character of Alderman Fitzwarren. There is often a “Buttons” type character- Idle Jack. Other comic characters created for the pantomime are The Captain and his sidekick, the Mate. The action of the pantomime takes place in London and, usually Morocco.
Dick Whittington is a poor boy who has travelled to London to seek his fame and fortune. He has been told that “The streets are paved with gold”. He arrives penniless, and without a friend in the world.
In the pantomime it is often the Fairy- Fairy Bowbells who introduces “Tommy” the cat to Master Whittington. He now has a true friend, but what he and Tommy want most is to earn an honest living.
Tommy and Dick run into Alice Fitzwarren. She is the daughter of Alderman Fitzwarren, a merchant. Alice offers Dick and Tommy work in their shop- “Fitzwarren’s Stores”. Alice and Dick fall in love, and all goes well for young Whittington. The Dame in the pantomime is Sarah the Cook. She works for Alderman Fitzwarren, and with her can usually be found Idle Jack-the comic. They both work in the shop. There is usually a comedy “Cooking Scene” between the Dame, Idle Jack and sometimes the Alderman.
Dick is given a trusted task by the Alderman. He is to guard the safe overnight in “Fitzwarren’s Stores”. It has the day’s takings in it. Dick and Tommy settle down in the shop to keep watch over the Alderman’s safe.
Enter King Rat. King Rat detests both Whittington and his wretched cat Tommy. He must have them disgraced and thrown out of the town. His plan is to steal the money from the safe, but very cleverly, he will then place the money in Dick’s pocket or “purse”. He does this, usually by distracting everyone with either hypnosis, or by a magic spell.
When it is discovered that the money has gone missing, the Alderman demands that his staff be searched.. Dick is found to have the money on him. He has apparently robbed the safe and betrayed the Alderman’s trust in him. His former friends shun him, and he is dismissed. In disgrace he is forced to leave the shop, to leave London and never to see Alice again.
The action of the pantomime moves to Highgate Hill. Dick and Tommy the Cat turn to take one last look at London before he makes the long journey home. It is then that the Fairy intervenes. Often in the pantomime story she creates a spell that makes Dick Whittington dream of the future. In this dream he sees himself made Lord Mayor of London, with Alice by his side.
On Highgate Hill the bells of London can be heard. They seem to say “Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.” If he turns back and faces his troubles, he is told he can become Lord Mayor not once, but “thrice”- three times. At the end of Act One Dick Whittington is turning back to London.
Act Two usually opens on the docks. The Alderman has a ship, the “Saucy Sally”, and The Captain and Mate are sailing with the tide. Usually Sarah The Cook is on board as the ship’s cook, along with Idle Jack. In some more recent versions sometimes the Alderman joins the ship, and on occasion, Alice as well.
Dick Whittington and Tommy the Cat steal on board the ship as stowaways, to seek their fame and hopefully their fortune.
In many versions King Rat and his fellow rats also steal aboard the ship. During the voyage there is often a comedy routine on board the ship- often called “The Mop Routine” or “The Drill Routine”.
A great storm brews up. The ship is in danger. Some versions of the pantomime have this storm created by the magic of King Rat, in others it is a storm that will soon sink the Saucy Sally and take her to the bottom of the sea.
“Under The Sea” is where the action of the pantomime often goes. “To Davy Jones’s Locker” or “The Kingdom of King Neptune”. Often there is an underwater scene with dancers, undersea costumes and sometimes Black-Light or “U.V” Puppets.
'Under The Sea Scene' - Kenneth More Theatre 2005/6
The next scene is “On The Shores of Morocco”. The characters are washed ashore-bedraggled, wet and lost. The Dame, Idle Jack, the Captain and the Mate, and finally Dick and Tommy arrive safe and sound. This is often the scene for a version of “The Ghost Gag” with a Gorilla.
The Next scene is inside the Palace of the Sultan or King of Morocco. In Morocco they have never set eyes on a cat before. However, King Rat and his cronies are causing chaos in his Kingdom. The place is over run with rats!
The Sultan makes a pledge- “Whosoever rids me of this plague of rats will receive half my kingdom”- often he offers half his treasure and the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage.
When Tommy the Cat arrives at the Palace there is great excitement and fear. No-one in the Kingdom has ever seen a cat. Dick persuades the Sultan that Tommy will kill all his rats. Usually there is a fight with Tommy and the Rats- often he takes on King Rat, and in some versions Dick steps in and despatches King Rat himself.
The Sultan is overjoyed. He gives Dick Whittington half his treasure, but Dick declines the hand of his daughter the Princess in marriage. Alice Fitzwarren is the only girl for him.
Arriving back in London Dick has returned a wealthy hero. The Alderman is delighted to welcome him back, and gives his consent for Dick and Alice to marry.
The final scene sees Dick’s dream has come true- he is Lord Mayor of London, and is married to his true love, Alice. The Evil of King Rat has been defeated, and all ends happily ever after!
The characters in “Dick Whittington” generally have traditional names, some of them, like the Alderman and his daughter, and Dick Whittington himself are historical.
Since it is an historical name, the hero will always remain “Dick Whittington”.
Traditionally, and historically, the Alderman is called “Fitzwarren”
Again, historically the Principal Girl remains “Alice Fitzwarren”
The traditional name for Dick Whittington’s faithful cat- always a male cat, is “Tommy”. This name presumably came from the name for a male cat- Tom Cat- Tommy the Cat.
The Dame in Dick Whittington is the Cook- traditionally “Sarah The Cook” and previously “Cecily Suet”- over the course of time she has been” Daphne Dumpling” (for Julian Wylie & the Palladium), Martha the Cook (1920’s,1930’s & for Tom Arnold) and Eliza The Cook at Drury Lane 1895 played by Herbert Campbell.
Traditionally, and almost always, he is called “Idle Jack”.
In recent times she has been known as “Fairy BowBells”, after the East London bells that called Dick back from Highgate Hill. (he must have had very good hearing!). She has been known as “The voice of the bells”, “Spirit of the Bells”, “Fairy Sunbeam “ (1932) “Fairy Happiness” (for Julian Wylie) and” Titania” (for Emile Littler).
CAPTAIN & MATE:
These characters have generally been referred to as “The Captain & The Mate”, and have no traditional names. They change from pantomime to pantomime, and give authors some fun thinking up “Nautical names”. For example: “Captain Barnacle”, “Captain Scupper and Mr Bilge, the mate” (Tom Arnold 1949) “Captain Bounce & Baggabones, the mate”, And my personal favourite “Captain Nelson, and Half Nelson his mate” (Emile Littler).
Traditionally and for ever- King Rat”. However, in recent times the character has sometimes become “Queen Rat”.
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This page was last updated 6th March 2010