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( Originally Published 1909 )
Some people still living (but they must be very aged people by now) may be able to remember the pantomime which was one of the great features of the Christmas holidays in early nineteenth century England, and may be looked upon as the legitimate successor of the ancient "masque." The word pantomime comes from two Greek words meaning "all mimicry." It is a play in which the actors say never a word but perform their parts in dumb show, that is, by signs and gestures. Being almost unknown in America this word of explanation may be necessary.
England borrowed the pantomime from Italy, where it has survived from the the masked frolics of the Roman Saturnalia. Pantaloon, Harlequin and the Fairy Columbine were the principal actors in all the Italian pantomimes and all of them wore masks.
A famous player named Rich, who was known on the stage as Lun, was the first to introduce pantomime into England. In the year 1717 he produced a play of this sort called Harlequin Executed, in which he himself performed the part of Harlequin. It is said that he "could describe to the audience by his signs and gestures as intelligibly as others could express by words."
David Garrick, perhaps the greatest of all English actors, was a younger contemporary of Rich and after his friend's death he celebrated the silent but powerful language of Rich in these lines:
When Lun appeared, with matchless grace and ishm, He gave the power of speech to every limb, Though masked and mute, conveyed his quick intent, And told in frolic gestures all he meant; But now the motley coat and sword of wood Require a tongue to make them understood.
By the last lines Garrick evidently means to say that spoken words had in his time been introduced into the so-called pantomime, because no actor remained who was capable of conveying his meaning by nod or wink or gesture in the old-time manner.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, all and more of the original glories of pantomime were brought back to the English stage by Joseph Grimaldi, an Italian by birth, but an Englishman by adoption. He was the greatest clown known to the history of English drama.
After his retirement, in 1828, pantomime still flourished for a number of years as the chief dramatic feature of the Christmas season.
St. Stephen's Day (December 26, the day after Christmas) was the day specially set aside for the production of a pantomime, but in due time those performances were extended all over the Christmas season. They were the particular delight of the young folk, though older folk also liked to attend them and live their youth over again in the joy reflected from the faces of the boys and girls in the audience.
Leigh Hunt, a charming English writer who never lost his boy-heart tells us how much pleasure he found in watching the children at a pantomime.
"I am more delighted," he says, "in watching the vivacious workings of their ingenuous countenances at these Christmas shows than at the sights themselves. . . . Stretching half over the boxes at the theatre, adorned by maternal love, see their enraptured faces, now turned to the galleries, wondering at their height and at the number of regularplaced heads contained in them; now directed towards the green cloud which is so lingeringly kept between them and their promised bliss. The half-peeled orange laid aside when the play begins; their anxiety for that which they understand; their honest laughter which runs through the house like a merry peal of sweet bells; the fear of the little girl lest they should discover the person hid behind the screen; the exultation of the boy when the hero conquers. But, oh, the rapture when the pantomime commences! Ready to leap out of the box, they joy in the mischief of the clown, laugh at the thwacks he gets for his meddling, and feel no small portion of contempt for his ignorance in not knowing that hot water will scald and gunpowder explode; while, with head aside to give fresh energy to the strokes, they ring their little palms against each other in testimony of exuberant delight."
Pantomime in the England of today has dwindled into a mere side show for spectacular ballets, which are now all the fashion. Clown and Columbine are indeed, occasionally introduced into these ballets but the clown is no longer a leading character and Columbine and her companions are selected more for their skill in dancing than in the art of gesture.
Very rarely, indeed, is a comic mask introduced into a Christmas piece nowadays. Formerly, Harlequin and Columbine wore little black masks that just covered the upper part of the face, while the rest of the jolly crew of elves, ogres and buffoons were disguised in huge headpieces arranged over their shoulders.
And here comes in the point of the picture by Mr. Potter which I have reproduced from the Christmas number of an English weekly called The Sporting Times.
The young woman of this picture is a "high-kicker" who evidently has made a hit with the audience at a modern Christmas ballet. When she gets behind the scenes among "properties" left over from the ancient days, she gives a frisky vent to her feelings by flashing her heels in the faces of the grinning old masks.
In short, she represents pantomime in its most modern development, the ballet, as contrasted with the grotesque humors of the past.
You may find food for both humor and pathos, in the idea which Mr. Potter has worked out in this pretty and ingenious manner.