Sunday, 8 December 2013

Reframing the Victorians: Pantomime and Marionette Theatre

Despite the Victorians often being thought of as “stuffy” or “uptight”, they did have different forms of entertainment, some of which have become less popular as time has passed. I have chosen to look at different forms of theatre and performance in the Victorian period, focusing mainly on the three that I feel are not as big in today’s society as they were in the 19th century, these being Pantomime and Marionette theatre.

When doing research for this task I made a trip to The Victoria and Albert Museum, where they have a section dedicated specifically to theatre and performance. I also found a lot of the information online, though using journals and different websites.

Pantomime, or also often referred to as “panto” in simpler terms, was invented in the early 18th century by John Rich, and it was first presented at Covent Garden. The performances were based on figures and stock plots of the Italian commedia dell’ arte, the most important element being the harlequinade, in which the character of Harlequin would assume different identities as the show parodied different contemporary plays at the time. In the start of the Victorian period however, the traditional stories were often swapped with adaptations of classic English literature, European fairy tales and nursery rhymes were also used to create new shows. Pantomimes became immensely popular especially around Christmas time, here is an example:

Harlequin Nobody, or the Babes in the Wood. Probably based on Drury Lane's Harlequin and Robin Cooke; or the Babes in the Wood (1827), in turn based on the Haymarket's October 1793 musical adaption of the old ballad (1595), which appeared in Thomas Percy's Reliques (1765).¨

Harlequin Nobody! what shall we say
At the notion of Nobody having his way,
And, on being complained of by some queer so-so-body,
Replying, with triumph, "That's nothing to nobody!"
Again, when he lit on the "Babes in the Wood,"
Where Nobody saw them, 'cause Nobody could,
And plaintively hoped in our bosom we'd put 'em,--

As Nobody 'd thank us, we didn't--we cut 'em! (link)

Star trapdoors:  Often used so different characters 
could make surprise enterences. They were 
banned in the mid-20th century because they
were very dangerous.
Throughout the 19th century pantomime slowly developed into becoming what we today know as pantomime. The Harlequinades that were so important in the beginning started dying out and the use of fairy tales such as Snow White and Cinderella became most common. Pantomimes grew in popularity and by the middle of the 19th century they were a whole night’s entertainment, sometimes one performance lasted up to five hours, featuring casts as large as 600 people in one performance. It is when the performances grew to this extent that it began to be associated with Christmas, and also with children, the Pantomimes would open on Boxing Day and typically put on two performances per day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

Illusion was a big part of the Pantomime; the stages were equipped with flaps, pivots and slots in the stage to make scene changes quick and efficient. There was also use of all sorts of scenic effects to give a magical feel to the performance. A contraption that was used quite often what the star trapdoor, to make surprise entrances possible. The trapdoor would typically be used when playing a fairy for example, so the actor could appear out of nowhere.

A Marionette stage on display in
the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Another popular form of entertainment at the time was Marionette theatre. This form of theatre is something we would typically associate with children of quite a young age in today’s society, but during the 19th century this type of theatre was popular with both adults and children alike. There is quite a big difference between Marionette theatre and Pantomime, Pantomime was often very big and extravagant, while Marionette performances were often put on by traveling marionette troupes. These troupes would travel the country and set up a stage and seating for up to 700 people at fairs or on open ground, they would also play in music halls and theatres. The troupes were often run by families; they would carve, dress and sting the dolls themselves. The families would also operate them during the performance, and the performances were often based on famous pantomimes or melodramas of the time. During the performance there would also be a band playing to accompany it.

As for the stages that were used in the Marionette plays, the way they indicated the setting of an act was with the use of a backcloth where the scenery was painted. The scenery backcloths could often be used in a lot of different plays because of how general these would often be, for example a picture of a street with houses, or something of that sort. The backcloths were used because technology was not advanced enough for scenery to be projected onto the back of the stage. When traveling around to do shows the troupes would take use of any venue they could get, often setting up in barns, assembly rooms or available halls. Of course, there were some that had portable theatres, but the majority set up wherever they could. In larger towns where the troupes would set up in halls you would find marionette theatres that were semi-permanent, for a season, and sometimes for years. 

These two forms of theatre have faded away after the Victorian period ended, they still exist, but on a much smaller scale. The audiences have also changed, especially regarding Marionette theatre; there is no real adult audience to speak of anymore, Marionettes are in modern society regarded as something suitable for children. As for Pantomime, it is not an art form that you hear very much about these days, it still exists, but it is not as extravagant as it used to be. These types of theatre have been overshadowed by other forms of entertainment that have been invented in later times, like the cinema for example. Pantomime is no longer a big Christmas event, as it was in Victorian times.

Works Cited:
  1. McCormick, J. The Victorian Marionette Theatre, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.
  2. V&A – Victorian Pantomime: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/victorian-pantomime/
  3. V&A – Marionettes: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/m/marionettes/
  4. V&A – Puppetry in England: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/history-of-puppetry-in-britain/
  5. Pantomime and its origin: http://www.victorianweb.org/mt/panto/intro.html
  6. Limericks of London Pantomimes, 1842: http://www.victorianweb.org/mt/panto/crowquill.html
  7. 19th Century Pantomime: http://www.victorianweb.org/mt/panto/intro2.html


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