Fallen from favour, and not particularly PC, for the past twenty odd years Robinson Crusoe has had very few productions- but it has held sway as a subject for amateur societies- now possibly seeing a modest revival, as noticed last year at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, due, in part to the Disney “Pirates Of The Caribbean” it has captured the imagination today as Daniel Defoe’s novel did two hundred and ninety years ago
ROBINSON CRUSOE- The Origins
The Pantomime takes its title and story from the novel by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719.
Daniel Defoe, in turn took some of the origins of his novel from the true life adventures of a sailor called Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk was stranded on the desert island of Mas-a-Tierra, (now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966) off Chile between 1704 and 1709, after quarrelling with his Captain. Upon returning home he became a celebrity, telling his story to anyone who would pay, including Defoe.
He may also have been influenced by the tale of Henry Pitman, a castaway surgeon to the Duke Of Monmouth who escaped from a Caribbean penal colony, and was subsequently shipwrecked. His story was published in London by J.Taylor of Paternoster Street. It was his son William who published Defoe’s seafaring novel .
Defoe is said to have named his hero Robinson Crusoe after spotting the name on a gravestone. The novel became very popular, and created a fashion for stories about shipwrecked sailors and desert islands.
Alexander Selkirk 1676-1721 was born in Scotland, and after returning from his deserted isle, joined the Royal Navy, and was buried at sea off the coast of Africa after he died of a fever.
Defoe was one of the founders of the English Novel. Born Daniel Foe in Cripplegare, London between 1659 and 1661, he added the aristocratic “De” to his name . Defoe lived through the Great Plague and The Great Fire of London as a child. He became a general merchant, and spent most of his life in debt.At one point his debts were believed to be around £17,000. He married Mary Tuffley, and they had eight children, of whom six survived.
He traded wine to Spain, and by 1695 he returned to England as Daniel Defoe, to work in tax collection at Tilbury, near to the shipyards, and lived in Chadwell St.Mary, Essex.
First publication in 1697 (a series of proposals for economic development) as well as several political treaties and pamphlets, one of which resulted in him being put upon the pillory for three days in 1703. He wrote a great many satires and political and religious essays until the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719.
It was published on April 25th 1719. Its full title was as long as those Victorian pantomime titles-
“The Life and strange surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years , all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque: Having been cast on shore by shipwreck, where-in all the men perished but himself. With an account of how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pyrates. Written by Himself.”
The novel was in today’s terms a “Best Seller”. By the end of the year it had run through four editions. Within years it had reached an audience as wide as any book ever written in English. It spawned a great many variations and adaptations, book versions, film versions, and of course pantomime versions.
“One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand”
Other novels by Defoe: “Captain Singleton” (1720), “Moll Flanders” (1722) and “Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress” (1724).
Daniel Defoe died on April 26th 1731 probably whilst hiding from his creditors. He was interred in Bunhill Fields, City Road, London, where a monument can be seen to this day.
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ROBINSON CRUSOE- The Book
Crusoe leaves England, setting sail from the Queens Dock in Hull on a sea voyage in September 1651, against the wishes of his parents, who want him to stay home and become a businessman. After a tumultuous journey that sees his ship wrecked by a vicious storm, his lust for the sea remains so strong that he sets out to sea again. This journey too ends in disaster as the ship is taken over by Salé pirates, and Crusoe becomes the slave of a Moor. He manages to escape with a boat and a boy named Xury; later, Robin is befriended by the Captain of a Portuguese ship off the western coast of Africa. The ship is enroute to Brazil. There, with the help of the captain, Crusoe becomes owner of a plantation.
Years later, he joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but is shipwrecked in a storm about forty miles out to sea on an island (which he calls the Island of Despair) near the mouth of the Orinoco river on September 30, 1659. His companions all die. Having overcome his despair, he fetches arms, tools, and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks. He proceeds to build a fenced-in habitation near a cave which he excavates himself. He keeps a calendar by making marks in a wooden cross built by himself, hunts, grows corn, learns to make pottery, raises goats, etc., using tools created from stone and wood which he harvests on the island, and adopts a small parrot. He reads the Bible and suddenly becomes religious, thanking God for his fate in which nothing is missing but society.
Years later, he discovers native cannibals who occasionally visit the island to kill and eat prisoners. At first he plans to kill them for committing an abomination, but later realizes that he has no right to do so as the cannibals have not attacked him and do not knowingly commit a crime. He dreams of obtaining one or two servants by freeing some prisoners; and indeed, when a prisoner manages to escape, Crusoe helps him, naming his new companion "Friday" after the day of the week he appeared. Crusoe then teaches him English and converts him to Christianity.
After another party of natives arrive to partake in a cannibal feast, Crusoe and Friday manage to kill most of the natives and save two of the prisoners. One is Friday's father and the other is a Spaniard, who informs Crusoe that there are other Spaniards shipwrecked on the mainland. A plan is devised wherein the Spaniard would return with Friday's father to the mainland and bring back the others, build a ship, and sail to a Spanish port.
Before the Spaniards return, an English ship appears; mutineers have taken control of the ship and intend to maroon their former captain on the island. Crusoe and the ship's captain strike a deal, in which he helps the captain and the loyalist sailors retake the ship from the mutineers, whereupon they intend to leave the worst of the mutineers on the island. Before they leave for England, Crusoe shows the former mutineers how he lived on the island, and states that there will be more men coming. Crusoe leaves the island December 19th, 1686, and arrives back in England June 11th, 1687. He learns that his family believed him dead and there was nothing in his father's will for him. However, his estate in Brazil granted him a large amount of wealth. In conclusion, he takes his wealth over land to England to avoid travelling at sea. Friday comes with him and along the way they endure one last adventure together as they fight off hundreds of famished wolves while crossing the Pyrenees.
THE TRADITIONAL PANTOMIME STORY :
The original pantomime plot took its basis from Defoe’s novel. The story in short is that Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on a desert island, has adventures involving the cannibals, meets up with Man Friday and is rescued.
Later authors added new characters to fit in with the genre. Mrs Crusoe, Polly Perkins, Will Atkins were added to the tale, as were pirates and even Davy Jones. Some versions have a love affair between Crusoe and a native Princess, and royalty in the form of King Neptune, Pirate Kings and Cannibal Kings and Queens have abounded in the tales transformation into pantomime. Animals have often featured too, with parrots, goats, apes and dogs making appearances over the years!
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The Panto Plot:
The traditional plot of “Crusoe” would generally involve some sort of quest that our hero would have to go on- to locate buried treasure for example, or to undertake a voyage of discovery.
In some versions he has already met and fallen in love with the Principal Girl (often named Polly Perkins) at the port. She might be the daughter of an inn keeper, or a merchant, or sometimes the daughter of a sea captain.
In some versions she is the Captain’s daughter and meets Crusoe on board her father’s ship when he sets sail for the tropical isles. In some pantomime plots the villainous Will Atkins (or Blackbeard, possibly Blackheart) wants Polly Perkins for his bride, and sets out to steal both the map and the girl from our hero.
Derek Salberg - Wolverhampton 1943
Whatever the reason, the one thing Crusoe can’t do is stick to the plot of Defoe’s book. It would make for a pretty dull pantomime if he spent most of it alone on his island before discovering Man Friday!
In the panto plot his Mother, Mrs Crusoe and his Brother Billy (as in “Silly Billy”) will join him, and most often Polly will too. Certainly if they are not on his ship, they will be on a following ship to allow them all to meet up on the Island.
During the voyage the villainy of Will Atkins, or the powers of the deep will result in the ship sinking to the bottom of the sea, and a speciality scene (often in U.V or “Black Light”) will take place, before Crusoe is washed ashore (seemingly alone) on the “deserted” Island.
He doesn’t spend much time alone in Act Two- very soon he will discover the footprints in the sand belonging to Man (or sometimes Girl) Friday, and he will be reunited with his Mother, Brother and Girlfriend.
During Act Two there will be a scene, often the camp of the war like tribe on the island, or a stockade, where Friday has been captured, and is about to be put to death. Robinson Crusoe to the rescue- and he and Friday will escape.
There will be a hunt for the buried treasure, and our hero will cross swords with villainous pirates, angry natives and encounter and thwart Will Atkins.
Crusoe, along with Friday and his family return to England with all the treasure, and the final scene will be the wedding of Crusoe & His bride back home.
Paul Elliott’s version, written in 1983 created a new character to Man Friday- when Crusoe discovers him on the shores of the island, Friday is already well read and well versed in all of Shakespeare’s plays, washed ashore from a passing vessel! The pantomime included all the traditional elements of a treasure map, an evil Pirate trying to steal the map and the treasure, a bumbling inept Captain, a comic Brother and Mother for Robinson, and the heroine, Polly Perkins.
Cliff Gwilliam - Theatre Royal Exeter 1949
Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates- Newcastle 2008-09
This, the most recent revival of the Robinson Crusoe Pantomime story by Michael Harrison was created for the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, and starred Clive Webb and Danny Adams (Real life Father and Son playing Father- Captain Crusoe, and Son- Robinson) and opened in December 2008.
Directed by Michael Harrison, the story is set in the local port of Whitley Bay, and involves a dastardly pirate, Blackheart, played by Phil Corbitt and a Magical mermaid, played by Kathryn Rooney.. The plot has Robinson Crusoe in possession of a treasure map that shows treasure located inside an ancient temple on a deserted island.
Kathryn Rooney as the Magical Mermaid
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The Mermaid, it turns out is a mermaid because she is under a spell cast by the jealous Blackheart. She will not become mortal unless she finds true loves kiss. The pantomime has this magical creature as the love interest in place of the Polly Perkins character.
The characters gather in the Town Square- Captain Crusoe, his wife, Mrs Rita Crusoe (played by Theatre Royal favourite, Chris Hayward) to set sail for the far off Island in search of wealth and adventure. Blackheart joins the ship, along with his pirate cronies, and fools everyone into thinking he is their friend.
Robinson, fearing Pirates may attack (and oblivious to the hoards on his ship) sets about to create a weapon that will help in the fight against the murderous hoards. With each entrance he assembles pieces of his mysterious weapon, which turns out to be Titan, The Mighty Robot!
Titan also made an appearance that year in Robin Hood at Birmingham Hippodrome- In that production he was the magical creation of the Witch Cassandra, and turned on the wicked Sheriff in the final scenes.
One of the specialty scenes performed by Clive, Danny and Chris involves the Captain’s Cabin- a rocking and rolling set that has furniture tilting and listing as the boat rocks, and gallons of water soaking the cast in a self contained slosh routine.
The Ship sinks during this pantomime, and like most ships in Robinson Crusoe Pantomime sinks to the bottom of the sea. In this spectacular production this is the scene where the Interactive 3D Seahorse appears, and leads the audience into a film sequence of adventure.
The company are washed ashore on the mysterious Skull Island, where in a departure from Defoe’s story, Robinson discovers not man, but GIRL Friday! The part of Girl Friday was played by Natalie Winsor. This exchange of gender has been done in previous productions- one involving the Olympic athlete Tessa Sanderson CBE and Pauline Hannah springs to mind.
Skull Island forms a lavish backdrop for a carnival scene, and the journey to find the temple, led by Girl Friday. The key to the temple is provided by a member of the audience, the treasure is unearthed, the love interest is strengthened when Robinson locates the Magical Mermaid in her lagoon, and upon kissing her, she is transformed into a mortal once more, and has the legs to prove it!
Titan fights the villainous Blackheart, and Captain and Hero perform their magic routine in place of the songsheet. The Crusoe Family are rich beyond their dreams, Girl Friday returns to Newcastle with them, and Robinson Crusoe marries his mortal Mermaid in a spectacular Finale.
A production of Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates will be seen at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh this pantomime season 2009-10.
Dorothy Ward as Robinson Crusoe
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The Pantomime Characters:
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The Principal Boy-Robinson Crusoe:
The name created by Daniel Defoe for his novel, the main character is Principal Boy of the panto. Although played by a male the very first time, it was traditionally played by an actress until recent times.
The Principal Girl-Polly Perkins: Traditionally Polly Perkins has been the name of Crusoe’s love interest, but some older versions prefer Polly Hopkins, sometimes the daughter of a tavern-keeper. (an 1895 version has Polly’s Father as Dan’ll Hopkins, inn keeper).In 1915 she was Polly Primrose. Early in the 1880’s she was Jenny Pigtail.
Man Friday: The name of Daniel Defoe’s character who was discovered on the Island by Crusoe on a Friday. In one pantomime of 1913 he was part of a comedy double act- he had a Brother called..Saturday! (Played by real life brothers, Frank and Bert Haytor).
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The Dame-Mrs Crusoe: The pantomime dame, and Robinson Crusoe’s mother. She has had various first names- Matilda, and Martha (or “Big Hearted Martha” when played by Arthur Askey at the Palladium Letitia and Rita at Newcastle 2008
Joe Gibbons as Billy Crusoe - Windsor 1960
The Comic-Billy Crusoe: Robinson’s brother, and in latter years the comic. This character has not always been in the pantomime- often a Captain and Mate comedy duo have acted as chief comic, along with the Dame. Billy is the name most productions have chosen to stick with, but he has also been Tommy Crusoe, (1913)
Frank Thornton as Will Atkins - Windsor 1960
The Villain- Will Atkins: From the 1880’s Atkins is cast as the pantomime villain- a henchman, a pirate, a smuggler, one who will betray Crusoe and Friday at any given moment.
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Officers and Pirates- The story has crewmen and officers that have included Captain Spanker, Lieut Swanker, Lieut Bowline, Captain Cutlass, Cpt Forrester, Cpt Maintrop and Captain Trueman. Crewman and Pirates have included Blackbeard, Blackheart, Blackpatch, Long John, Bill The Bosun, Roger Rum, Pickles The Steward, Mac The Mate, Whistle the Bosun and Flute the Mate, and Larboard & Starboard the crewmen. Additions have been Captain Cockle, and, not surprisingly, Captain Birdseye!
A Selection of Pirate Sketches from the 1930's
In 1928 (?) at London’s Lyceum Theatre Daniel Defoe was portrayed in the pantomime as himself.
1928 Lyceum Theatre (this maybe 1922)
The Fairy: Often there is a Fairy or Spirit in Robinson Crusoe. Names change from panto to panto, with no traditional basis. The names range from Oceana, Queen of the Ocean, The Spirit of Adventure, The Spirit of The Sea, Aquamarine, A Sea Spirit, Aphrodite, Fairy Amemonie, Fairy Sunray, Fairy Ondine, and Fairy Fortune. Sometimes a Witch has appeared- Witch Atalanta being one name. John Morley created Demon Oylslick in the 1970’s.
Other immortals include Demons- one being Demon Kerosive (1915 Manchester ) Davy Jones and King Neptune, or Father Neptune. Scenes take place below the waves in the Court of King Neptune, or the Realms of Oceania, or in Davy Jones’s Locker.
The Island Court:
Over the many years that Robinson Crusoe has been stranded on his various islands, there have always been a population of natives and assorted cannibal Kings and Witch Doctors to keep him company. Their character names have included-King Rummymug, King Of Kalibaloo Isle, King Kalibombastic (1913), King Lobelia, Yuma The High Priestess, Abu The Magician (played by the late great Tommy Cooper at the Palladium), Rumbaba The Cannibal Chief, and in the 1890’s a comedic court that included Hullabaloo, King Of The Caubers, Chut-Nee, his Cook, Talkee-Talkee, his Chancellor, EM-Cee his Chamberlain, and Hanga-Mup, his Home Secretary. In 1868 at Covent Garden the King Of The Natives was the quaintly named King Hokypokywankyfum in “Robinson Crusoe: or Friday And The Fairies”. His Chamberlain was Quashibungo.
Native Royalty has included Prince Atlantis, Princess Iris, Princess Pretti-Pretti and Princess Lulu. . John Morley in the 1970’s named his Native Queen Wotta Woppa”!
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Crusoe’s menagerie : In pantomime the hero has looked after many animals. In 1890 his Goat, Dog, Parrot and Cat were all played by juvenile actors at the Lyceum Theatre. In 1915 his animals also included an ape called Monkeynut and a creature called a Wallamooloo- whatever THAT was! In some pantomimes the Goats and parrots were real, in others they were played by juveniles In 1915 Fred Conquest played Crusoe’s Parrot “Pretty Poll”, and in 1913 at the Princes Bristol one animal impersonator, Harry Rignold specialised in portraying Robinson Crusoe’s Bulldog!
Swansea Grand - 1969/70
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The action of the pantomime has taken place on board ships variously named The Buccaneer, The Intrepid, The Bonaventure, The Venturer, The Saucy Polly, The Saucy Sally, The Saucy Seaweed and the Saucy Susie. The ship has wrecked beneath the sea, in Davy Jones’ Locker,In The Wonders Of The Deep, The Realms of Oceana, On The Shores Of A Lagoon, at Blackbeard’s Cave, and Curries Waltzing Waters speciality have graced several Grottos of King Neptune. Generally the Island where Crusoe lands is named The Island Of Juan Fernandez, and his home port is Hull- although many pantomimes have set the departure port near to their own locale.
The ship has set sail from London, From Newcastle and from Hull, and among the scenes it returned home to was “The Frost Fair Of 17th Century London”
Robinson Crusoe : The Lion King!
Panto Dame Freddie Lees recalled a production of “Robinson Crusoe” at Wolverhampton involving a pride of Lions! The production was presented by Humphrey Stanbury, who later went on to found “Hi Fly” The Arial Company.
Freddie played Mrs Crusoe to Gabrielle Drake’s Robinson and Bobby Bennett’s Billy Crusoe. It featured the group “The Rocking Berries” and Elroy Joseph as Man Friday.
What it also featured was a collection of lions (possibly Gerry Cottle’s Lions) that featured in the scene where Man Friday is caged, and about to be fed to the lions when he is saved by the arrival of the Principal Boy.
Freddie recalled that the appearance of the lions on stage was originally going to be a surprise to the audience. The cloth would rise, the cast were told, revealing the lions to the audience who would not believe their eyes-they would be dumbstruck! In fact, according to Freddie they were certainly struck dumb. On opening night there was no reaction at all. Silence. Then a lady in the second row announced to her friend in loud brummie tones :
“I thought there was a funny smell when we came in…”
The cast were wary of the close proximity to the lions in the wings, but were assured by a gentleman from the circus that “There is no way that the lions can get out. No way. However, should they get out, whatever you do, don’t run!”
There were four lions- three ladies and one gentleman. The Lions were kept apart right up until their scene, when they were all released into the big cage constructed on stage. That became the only opportunity for the gentleman lion to, how can one put this…? To exercise his conjugals, much to the mirth of the audience!
He attempted to conjugate frequently during the scene, and had to be replaced by a lady lion called Ruby. The production also included a live parrot that began with impeccable manners, and then startled the audience by shrieking obscenities during musical numbers. It too was replaced!
Freddie recalls that the smell from the lions performing twice daily meant that the element of surprise would have been impossible, even from outside! He got very big laughs appearing after the lions had departed with a giant can of air freshener. The old girls in the stalls would shout out “Over here love! Over here!”
ROBINSON CRUSOE : THE PANTOMIME
1781-82 First presented as a pantomime: “Robinson Crusoe: or, Harlequin Friday” at Drury Lane, presented by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It enjoyed a long run of 38 nights, and featured Guiseppe Grimaldi (Father of Joseph) as Harlequin Friday.
The First Performer to play Crusoe (1781) was, surprisingly not an actress playing “Boy” but a male actor-Italian born Carlo Delpini.
It was the first time that the opening and the Harlequinade were separated into two distinct halves . For the first time the opening of the pantomime told the story, dealing with the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, while the last part became the adventures of Harlequin and his comedic band.
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The Harlequinade characters were also interwoven into the story, as when Harlequin and Pierrot were rescued from cannibals by Crusoe and Friday. The Harlequinade section ended with a dance in a spectacular scene- The Temple Of Venus.
The formula was set for a short first part- the pantomime story, and the much longer and more popular knockabout Harlequinade in the second half. It would not be long before these reversed. The Pantomime was to become the main attraction, and Harlequinades grew shorter and then disappeared altogether.
Pantomimes are not what they used to be…1781
As early as this, the Eighteenth Century people were complaining Pantomime was not being “traditional”. This, the first ever production of Robinson Crusoe brought the critic Horace Walpole to complain –
“How unlike the pantomimes of Rich” (referring to John Rich),” which were full of wit, and coherent, and carried a story….It is a heap of contradictions and violations of the costume. Friday is turned into Harlequin, and falls down at an old man’s feet that I took to be Pantaloon, but they told me it was Friday’s Father! I said then it must be Thursday, yet STILL it seemed to be Pantaloon!”
The First Pantomime to be seen in the USA
1786 The John Street Theatre, New York. ”Robinson Crusoe” was Presented by the famous actor manager, David Garrick. The pantomime subject proved to be popular. A version in Newcastle lasted ten and a half weeks in 1878.
County Theatre, Reading - 1930's. See our Jack Cannot Article for more info
Nothing New Under The Sun: The 1780’s.
When Frank Bruno played the Genie Of The Lamp at the Hippodrome Birmingham a few years back, the press were amazed at this new departure for pantomime. To have an international boxer playing a role meant for an actor caused much discussion. Frank wasn’t the first however, and certainly not in Birmingham During the 1780’s and 1790’s the famous pugilist Daniel Mendoza appeared at the Theatre Royal Birmingham in “Robinson Crusoe”, and his “speciality” was to engage in a sparring match with Man Friday at each performance! The Pantomime was entitled “Robinson Crusoe: or, Friday turned Boxer”.
There were regular productions in London- the most admired being the Drury Lane 1881 production at Drury Lane Written by the author E.L.Blanchard, it was considered to be a triumph. It was certainly spectacular! Another first- it was the first time the lengthy additional titles were dropped, and the pantomime was billed simply as “Robinson Crusoe”.
Drury Lane: Robinson Crusoe 1881-82
Augustus Harris presented a lavish pantomime. It boasted not simply one panoramic scene, but a double panorama. There was a scene constructed so that when a boat sailed up the River Thames, both river banks could be seen. The pantomime featured a spectacular procession wherin every single trade of the City of London was demonstrated “either comically, or prettily” represented. It was reported that the properties master, M. Labhart worked for six months on this scene alone.
Robinson Crusoe: Theatre Royal Birmingham 1885-86
It is easy to forget today the astonishing effect that scenery and scenic effects had on the Victorian theatre-goers. Just as they would attend art galleries to see the world (a world they would often never see for themselves) so the sight of enormous scenic canvasses on stage would be their version of cinema to us today. They would see tropical islands and ship wrecks as well as views of towns and cities that were in the most part simply to far to visit. Scenery had a deep effect on the audience, far more than we can imagine today. We have but to turn on the television to see the world in HD and colour. The Victorians had the theatre.
The title role was played by Vesta Tilley, one of the highest paid stars of Music Hall. Tilley, the famous “Male Impersonator”, later to become Lady De Freece, was one of the most accomplished female Crusoes.
The critic Austin Brereton remarked “There is no sign of the Music-Hall about her”, and was entranced by the scenery and effects:
“To particularize all the scenery would occupy more space than is at my disposal, but I cannot refrain from alluding to the effective nature of the ship scene, the beauty of the Fairy Queen’s bower, and the brilliancy of the tropical island, with its ballet of squaws, its procession of tribes, and the final arrival of a British war ship.
A ballet of fire fiends is wonderfully well done, and by way of contrast to this nothing could be better than the school scene with its seventy scholars decked out in Kate Greenaway costumes”
(“Oh Yes It Is- A History Of Pantomime “ by Gerald Frow)
Lyceum Theatre Sheffield - 1967
Drury Lane Loses Money:
The 1893 pantomime at Drury Lane was, in fact, the only pantomime that lost producer Augustus Harris money . It was the most star-studded of all Drury Lane pantomimes, with the major performers from Music Hall appearing. These included Marie Lloyd as Polly Perkins, Ada Blanche as Crusoe, Dan Leno as Mrs. Crusoe, Herbert Campbell as Will Atkins, and Little Tich as Man Friday.
Male Crusoes have included the singer Engelbert Humperdink, at the London Palladium in the 1960’s, and David Essex in one of the last pantomime versions seen before the subject disappeared .Most recently Danny Adams has played the role at the Theatre Royal Newcastle (2008-09) in Michael Harrison’s new production “Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates”.
The Plot Developed gradually:
After the book gripped the imagination of the public, the first staged versions began to appear sixty years later.The first in 1781. The early versions were Harlequinades with the story of Crusoe and Friday woven into them.
In “Slapstick and Sausages” Norman Robbins notes that this early version and the ones that followed had no Will Atkins, no Polly Perkins and as yet the Pantomime Dame had not been created. These would appear in the Nineteenth Century.
In 1867 Offenbach (famed now for his Operetta “Orpheus In The Underworld”) created an Operetta version based on the early burlesque-pantomimes.
Later on the other characters were added- Will Atkins the villain does not appear until 1860 for example. He appears as a creation of the Pantomime author H.J.Byron in his burlesque-pantomime at the Princess’s Theatre in London.
In this 1860’s version, the pantomime opens in Hull. Atkins is the love rival for the pretty Jenny Pigtail- daughter of a tobacconist. Atkins has Crusoe Press Ganged to rid himself of his rival. Crusoe is shipwrecked with a goat, a dog and a parrot- he rescues Friday from cannibals, and meets up with Atkins and Jenny who have arrived by boat and been captured. In this version the villain is defeated by Crusoe’s three animals, and Fairy Liberty transforms the pantomime characters into the Harlequin characters of Columbine, Pantaloon and Harlequin.
In one version of 1870 Robinson Crusoe was married to a Widow before his adventures began, but by the 1880’s the story begins to resemble the current plot. Blanchard’s production at Drury Lane has Crusoe in love with Polly Perkins, and he has a mother who runs the Primrose Farm in London. His brother is named Timothy- the plot is beginning to resemble the one we now know.
1881 saw the lavish Drury Lane production running for 122 performances. The pantomime starred Arthur Roberts (Dame), James Fawn (Timothy), Fanny Leslie (Robinson Crusoe) and Harry Nichols as Will Atkins.
The Pirates were all played by ladies, as men, and amongst the spectacular scenes of storm, shipwreck and the panoramic Thames, was the procession of trades involving 100 adults, 200 children and the huge cast!
In 1893 Marie Lloyd starred at Drury Lane with Ada Blanche as Principal Boy and Little Tich as Friday.
Friday: “Protect me! I’ll be your humble slave!”
Crusoe: “I know you will, for you look true and brave!”
Royal Lyceum Theatre - 1895
By 1910 the subject had fallen out of favour, and there was only one major production that year (at the Gaiety Dublin) and a few small touring versions. A few years later in 1912 the Alexandra Theatre Birmingham and the Hammersmith Lyric both had “Robinson Crusoe”, with a touring version playing Dewsbury, Manchester Metropole and Preston Hippodrome.
The Princes’ Bradford presented a large scale “Crusoe” in 1913, in the cast was Lauri Wylie, brother of Julian Wylie the panto producer, and creator of “Dinner For One”, a sketch so hugely popular in Germany that it is shown every year on television on New Years Eve!
Alhambra Theatre, Openshaw, Manchester - 1913/14 - May Lilian Levey as Crusoe
The Princes’ Bristol had Robinson Crusoe that year, with a cast that included Harry Dent, Dorothy Craske (as Crusoe) and Harry Rignold as Crusoe’s pet Bulldog! 1913 also saw productions at London’s Broadway Theatre (New Cross), Chelsea Palace and Nottingham Grand Theatre. A small touring version played Ashton, Liverpool (The Rotunda) and the Alhambra Manchester.
Robinson Crusoe - Eva Skerrett- 'Iwa The Beautiful' 1913
In 1913 the production of Robinson Crusoe presented by Harry Day and Edward Lauri at The Broadway Theatre, New Cross, London featured “Princess Iwa” of Bluff New Zealand.
“Mr Edward Lauri has engaged the young Maori singer, Mari Iwa for the Christmas pantomime of “Robinson Crusoe” to be performed at the Princess Theatre, Broadway, New Cross” (27-10-1913).
The young singer who performed a traditional act of singing Maori Waiata (songs) and performing Maori cultural items ( Maori Poi Dances and Haka) as well as performing popular European Songs was engaged to play the role of Princess in “Robinson Crusoe”.
The Theatre- known as the Broadway Theatre in New Cross London presented Esta Stella as Robinson Crusoe, Fred Emney and Horace Jones, and opened on December 26th 1913.
The Era newspaper reported “Mlle Iwa Maori lady is gifted with a fine voice and figure, and her impersonation of the Princess is very successful”
A relative of Princess Iwa’s, Angela Skerrett Tainui is currently researching the life of this Maori star for a forthcoming radio documentary.
A Local newspaper reported “Miss Eva Skerrett, better known to London Theatre-goers as Iwa The Beautiful who has been appearing in the Robinson Crusoe pantomime with great success is to be married shortly, and will come out to New Zealand towards the end of the year. After spending a lengthy holiday with her parents at Bluff, the popular singer intends returning to London.”
The article was dated 1914, and with the announcement of the outbreak of World War, Iwa did not return to New Zealand as planned.
IBY is grateful for information and photograph supplied by Angela Tainui of Kereti Productions Ltd.
By 1915 the number of productions was on the up. This was the year George Robey played Will Atkins, at the Theatre Royal, Manchester. with Jack Pleasance as Billy, Joe Nightingale as Dame and Fred Conquest as “Pretty Poll”, Crusoe’s parrot. much later, in 1938, at Birmingham for Derek Salberg, the older Robey fell from the stage early on in the run, hampered by new direction and a Greta Garbo face-mask, and was not able to rejoin the show until the end of its seventeen week run. His Role as Dame was taken over by Chic Elliott, a comedienne in the show.
The letter addressed to George Robey, and programme I have in my possession were amongst items left by (Sir) George after his death, and allude to him playing the part of Atkins once it has been “beefed” up to suit him. I don’t believe he ever played the intended role. The letter was used to bookmark the script sent to him.
click on image to enlarge and see letter
Mona Vivian played Crusoe that year at Leeds Theatre Royal, with Reg Bolton, and there were other productions at London’s Lyceum Theatre, Bristol Theatre Royal and Wigan, Court Theatre. The Lawrence Tiller company toured a version that year as well.
By the 1920’s the story is removed to Hull, and the brother of Robinson is nearly always called Billy. Will Atkins still becomes a Pirate called Blackbeard in many versions, and at times the pantomimes seem to take on some of the plot of “Treasure Island” at times.
A Review from The New Theatre, Crewe 1938
4 December 1938 Crewe Chronicle
The pantomime season opens on Christmas even when Frank H Fortescue presents "ROBINSON CRUSOE". For many years Mr Fortescue has been producing pantomimes, and his name at the head of affairs is the guarantee of a good show. He has gathered together a company of established pantomime artists and exorcised great care in the selection of costumes and scenery. Jimmy Malborn leads the comedy in the part of "Billy Crusoe", and no better exponent of this role could be wished for:
Geraldine Hurley cuts a fine figure as the principle boy "Robinson Crusoe" and will win admiration of all who follow his adventures. Kitty Iris makes charming principal girl, who will sing and dance her way into all hearts.
Many opportunities for comedy come to Nell Durham, who takes the part of Mrs Crusoe, and her interludes with her son Billy are vary diverting. Wally Thomas, a fine character, actor and vocalist, plays the duel roles of Old man of the Sea, and the Cannibal King in fine style, and the minor roles are all in capable hands. Specialities are by the Dancing Durhams, Madam Hopwoods Little Sparklets, Zimemova and Gandey's comedy Circus Beautiful Ponies, dogs, monkeys and a Kicking mule will make a special appeal to the juveniles.
Derek Salberg kept Robinson Crusoe afloat in his productions at the Birmingham Alexandra with productions in 1941, and in 1948, in which he took a chance on an “up and Coming”” young man, and Norman Wisdom played Billy Crusoe. He was contracted for three more years after the opening night.
In the 1951-52 King’s Hammersmith Pantomime Max Wall played Billy Crusoe, with Fred Kitchen and Elizabeth French as “Crusoe”. The 1950’s saw a popular Ice Pantomime take on “Robinson Crusoe” at Wembley Arena.
King's Theatre, Hammersmith - 1951-2
1955 saw Birmingham Alex have its first Male Principal Boy in “Crusoe”. The Star that year was Tessie O’Shea. In 1965 The Barron Knights starred alongside Denny Willis at The Alex Birmingham, along with Eddie & Eileen- The Falcons and The Cox And Miles Twins.
The Palladium Robinson Crusoe's
click on image to enlarge
Robinson Crusoe as a panto is capable of taking on a great deal of artistes “business” and incorporating it into its, admittedly, thin plot. Recently Titan The Mighty Robot was woven into the story at Newcastle, and many an animal act and speciality act has been seen under the sea, or on the deserted isle!
Theatre Royal, Brighton 1991 - Jack Douglas
In 1968 Ken Dodd played Billy Crusoe at The Palace Manchester. Looking out to sea from his lonely Island Ken spotted a ship…
“It’s a ship all right- getting nearer- I’ll make out the name in a minute. What? Good gracious! Not the “Knotty Ash?”, with a cargo of Jam Butties for Japan? Now I can see the crew- it can’t be- It is! It’s…The Diddy Men!”
John Crocker’s version of the 1970’s and Paul Elliott’s versions in the1980’s saw the pantomime subject continue. In 1971 a Delfont production starred Jimmy Clitheroe and Nat Jackley at Bristol Hippodrome.
Les Dawson, new to Pantomime played in “Robinson Crusoe for Derek Salberg in 1971 alongside the experienced Jack Tripp as Mrs. Crusoe.
Other Delfont versions included (Sir) Norman Wisdom in 1972 at Liverpool Empire, Ken Dodd in 1973 at Nottingham, and the 1974 version starring Charlie Williams, Roy Hudd and Yvonne Marsh at Birmingham.
1973- Cardiff saw Brian Rix (now Lord Rix) as Billy Crusoe at the New Theatre, with a script written by Michael Pertwee. Leo Franklyn played the ship’s doctor, and Ronne Coyles was Mrs Crusoe. Stan Stennett and later Ryan Davies played in the subject at Swansea Grand Theatre,
Crackerjack Pantomime - Robinson Crusoe (1975) Broadcast on BBC1 - 24th December 1975.
Pictured:- Jan Hunt, Peter Glaze and Don McLean
also starring Windsor Davies, Don Estelle, Alan
Curtis, John Laurie, John Inman and Hilary Hutchins
That same year Roy Hudd was Billy Crusoe at Birmingham Hippodrome, with Stanley Platts as the villainous Will Atkins. In 1979 Norman Wisdom once again appeared in “Robinson Crusoe” at the Palace Theatre, Plymouth. Crusoe was played by Alvin Stardust, and joining them on the desert island were the “It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum” team of Michael Knowles and Donald Hewlett.
Grand Theatre Leeds - 1965
click on image to enlarge
By the late 1980’s the subject of “Robinson Crusoe had declined- there were very few productions. Paul Elliott’s was among the few.
Colin Baker, Jan Leeming, Dennis Waterman, Rula Lenska, Sam Kelly and Tudor Davies - Wimbledon 1987
In 1987 Rula Lenska and Dennis Waterman teamed up as brothers, along with Colin Baker as Bluebeard, Tudor Davies as Mrs Crusoe, and newsreader Jan Leeming as Fairy at Wimbledon Theatre.
Among the name dames who played Mrs Crusoe were George Robey, Roy Barraclough (he played Oldham Coliseum in a version he wrote himself) Freddie Lees, Jack Tripp, Jack Douglas, Barry Howard and Ronne Coyles among others.
Swansea Grand Theatre saw Joe Pasquale and Rod Hull & Emu appearing in “Robinson Crusoe” in 1992, alongside Cheryl Baker, Dave Benson Phillips, Mark Greenstreet and Owen Money. Jordan (aka Katie Price) played the exotic Princess Atlanta in 1997.
Katie Price (Jordan) - Worthing 1997
By the Early 1990’s “Robinson Crusoe” had all but vanished. Political correctness and fears of racial bias meant that, as a pantomime subject it was hardly ever to be seen again- until now.
The subject was never top of the popularity polls-but the story has been kept alive in recent years by the occasional amateur production. It has been revived possibly by the popularity of the Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and the box office appeal of anything Piratical. Qdos currently have a production of Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates sailing round theatres during the panto season - you can see examples of the set here.
Qdos Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates Set
“Robinson Crusoe” has once again appeared on the pantomime lists- it may yet resurface anew! In the meantime, as a result of the appeal of Defoe’s story- it has been the subject of many films and television series and “spin-off’s”- for example “Space Family Robinson” and “Swiss Family Robinson”,- a brand new mini series premiered in December 2008 on American Television, bringing the story to a new generation.
This page was last updated 26th August 2012