decorated initial 'P' antomime — or simply "panto" to generations of appreciative audiences — is a traditional form of burlesque drama suitable for all ages that John Rich, theatrical entrepreneur and manager, developed in the early eighteenth century at Convent Garden. Based on the figures and traditional, stock plots of Italian commedia dell' arte, pantomime was first introduced to the London stage by John Weaver (1673-1760) at Drury Lane as "Italian Night Scenes," in which the narrative was conducted in mime and without any dialogue.

The most important element in pantomime, the harlequinade, fused the dumb show of the Italian commedia and Paris fairground theatre, in which Harlequin would assume various identities as the scenario parodied contemporary, legitimate plays. The "Italian Night Scenes" on the London stage were enacted by acrobats and mimes. By the late eighteenth century, in the opening scenes of Regency pantomime, Harlequin would take the part of the persecuted lover favoured by the good fairy, who bestows upon him a magic wand as she changes him and his beloved into Harlequin and Columbine. These lovers are aided by the Clown as they spend the rest of the drama attempting to escape from Pantaloon, the girl's father, and his bumbling servant, Pierrot. The Clown played by Joey Grimaldi was Dickens's favourite character and in the early nineteenth century Harlequinade significantly changed by making the clown the principal character and the only speaking part. Dickens was an enthusiastic supporter and critic of pantomime and elements of pantomime influenced his fiction.

Gradually, as extravaganza and burlesque took over, the parts of the Principal Boy (played by a young, attractive, slender, agile actress) and the Dame (played by a male comedian) became more important than either the Harlequin or Clown. The subjects of pantomime during the eighteenth century tended to be such fairy-tales as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty", folktales such as "Dick Whittington and His Cat", "The Babes in the Wood", and appropriate literary texts such as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. The pantomime thus became a confusing melange of romance, comic songs, topical jokes, male and female impersonation, acrobatics, spectacle and even ballet. Although it made about as much sense as vaudeville in terms of coherent narrative, audiences young and old loved it.

Related Materials


Phyllis Hartnoll, ed. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford & New York: Oxford U.P., 1972.

Paul Schlicke, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford and New York: Oxford U.P., 1999.

Last modified 6 December 2002