One of the surprising benefits of researching the past to write novels set in the Regency is becoming acquainted with some fascinating people and facts. Recently I overcame a years-long nonfiction phobia and wrote a few articles to share some of that information.

The first articles were around the subject of Pantomime, which I researched for The Lady Is Mine.

* The following article was in the May issue of The Quizzing Glass, the Beau Monde RWA chapter newsletter.


Regency Pantomime

Regency theatergoers loved to laugh.

Of course, that statement is true in any era. Regency audiences, however, had the unique genius of Joseph Grimaldi to kindle their laughter. Seldom has a person's physique and physiognomy combined with a sure instinct for what his spectators wanted, to create a character that they both laughed at and with, for the more than twenty years he reigned on the stage.

Here's a website with an illustration of Grimaldi:

As Clown, his large, dark expressive eyes rolled, winked, sparkled; his agile body leaped and capered, tumbled and fell with boneless grace; he was the innocent yet sly thief. He seduced servant girls and barmaids; attacked innkeepers and watchmen; stole food and consumed it in enormous amounts; got drunk; became ensnared in stage props which metamorphosed into something else.

Pantomime during the Regency period was different than its form during the years prior to or later than the "extended" Regency, up to the reign of Victoria. According to David Mayer III (Harlequin in His Element: The English Pantomime, 1806-1836): "Joseph Grimaldi was chiefly responsible for the acclaim and financial success of the pantomime from 1806 to 1823, just as he is the chief personality in the long history of this genre.... At Covent Garden Grimaldi collaborated first with Thomas J. Dibdin and later Charles Farley to articulate a style of pantomime which for decades influenced the entire tone and method of pantomime production."

In fact, the form of pantomime was altered during the years of Grimaldi's reign to showcase his unique talents, and even in theaters in which he was not a player he influenced the tales and techniques.

Pantomime before Grimaldi

Pantomime is derived from the Commedia dell' Arte which dates to medieval times in Italy, eventually traveling to France. The Commedia dell' Arte was an improvisational form using stock characters, identified by their masks and costumes, to represent the range of human emotions and personalities.

There were a number of characters besides those of Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon which, along with the English invention of Clown, became the staples of English pantomime.

Arriving in England, the Commedia underwent changes, morphing into pantomime (the word first appeared on playbills in 1717, according to Thelma Niklaus in Harlequin: or The Rise and Fall of a Bergamask Rogue). The Licensing Act of 1737, giving a monopoly on spoken drama to the Patent houses, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, assisted in the rise of the pantomime. And then, ironically, the popularity of the pantomime forced the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden to offer their own productions.

Often dismissed as frivolous entertainment, pantomime was the only form of drama during the Regency to comment upon, and frequently satirize, current events, technological advances, the political and social scene, and fashions. In the years following the Regency period, it came to be considered as solely Christmas entertainment for children, but during Grimaldi's reign, pantomime productions were offered the year around to adult audiences.

Joseph Grimaldi

The character of Clown evolved by the end of the eighteenth century. He didn't become the central figure, however, until the unique talents of Grimaldi combined with the role to delight English audiences.

Regency pantomime was not the silent entertainment we think of today. Mayer says: "[A]lthough the pantomime was a felicitous mixture of song, dialogue, accompanied recitative, dancing, farcical stage business, and elaborate scenic spectacle, little in it was unexplainable by action." During the period, it was one act, one to two hours long, and divided into a number of scenes, usually eighteen, sometimes as few as twelve or as many as twenty-two. There were two unequal parts: the opening, usually based upon a nursery or fairy tale, myth, a literary classic, or sometimes an original tale. The second and longer part was the Harlequinade.

The play starts with a father or guardian figure arranging a marriage for his daughter with a friend, often an older man. The daughter has other ideas, a young lover. The lovers flee, pursued by the father and the unwanted suitor, and aided by a fairy or other magical being. A transformation occurs--father into Pantaloon, rejected suitor into Clown. The daughter becomes Columbine and the young lover, Harlequin. Harlequin is given a quest to prove his worthiness, and a magic sword or bat to achieve his quest.

Pantaloon and Clown pursue the lovers, undergoing many comic misadventures. In any pantomime in which Grimaldi played, the character of Clown dominated the Harlequinade portion. He suffers encounters with stage props that come alive at a wave of Harlequin's bat; is distracted by displays of food which he steals and eats; or has violent or amorous encounters; and sings at least one comic song.

The era of Grimaldi opened with Harlequin and Mother Goose: or the Golden Egg, by Thomas Dibdin in late December 1806, Grimaldi's first season at Covent Garden. Harlequin and Mother Goose set the tone for Regency pantomime, with a record 111 performances between Boxing Day of 1806 and the following Christmas. It was revived frequently throughout the Regency.

According to Richard Findlater, in the biography Grimaldi, King of Clowns, "But although the sympathy of the audience is officially with the runaways, and although a happy ending for Harlequin and Columbine is inevitable, the hero of the game is really the rascally Clown.... He dodges a recruiting party, looking for men to fight Napoleon; he picks a fight with an innkeeper; he tries to steal some fruit from the basket of a St Giles street-girl, and performs a comic pas de deux with her in the street, until he discovers that the girl is Harlequin in disguise."

That's just a taste of the mayhem Clown leaves in his wake, or the rapid-fire sight jokes and slapstick. As Findlater remarks about the finale of the production, "And Grimaldi, dripping with sweat, triumphant in his motley ...," sings one last chorus.

In a world that frequently offered little to laugh about, Grimaldi could be counted on to give the gift of laughter. His presence and talent created an art form that lived and died with him.

* Judith Laik has a crush on Joseph Grimaldi, inevitable since a sense of humor is her first prerequisite in a man. Unfortunately, the romance is going nowhere, with miscechronation being an insurmountable conflict. Judith's May release, The Lady Is Mine, has a pantomime, but no Joey Grimaldi.