This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 15. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 78-81.

A pantomime at the Haymarket Theatre in the late eighteenth century, London Illustrata (1825)The old English pantomime was modeled with certain modifications upon the masque of the Elizabethan and the Stuart days, which by its gorgeous scenery and mechanical effects anticipated the spectacular displays of a later date. The story was usually founded upon a classical subject, was illustrated with music and grand scenic effects, and to this was later added a comic transformation after the Italian style. Harlequin was turned into a magician, who, by a touch of his bat, could transform a palace into a hut, men and women into wheelbarrows and chairs, and colonnades into beds of tulips or serpents, and all these mechanical tricks were worked as deftly then as they are today. Harlequin was the hero, for the clown was simply a rustic servant of Pantaloon's, and played a very unimportant part in the piece until the genius of Grimaldi developed him into a new dramatic creation. It may also be mentioned that the tight, spangled dress was not worn by harlequin until the present century. From the days of The Necromancer pantomimes continued to be the best trump card a manager could play at either of the patent houses. John Rich succeeded his father as owner of the old theatre in Lincoln's Inn in 1714. He had a taste for acting, and at first essayed tragedy; but, being a man entirely devoid of education, he made a dismal failure. Yet there was a strong dramatic genius in this coarse, illiterate man, though he was not under the inspiration of the tragic muse, and it burst forth when, in 1717, he appeared as Harlequin in a pantomime called Harlequin Executed. Borrowed from the Italian Arlecchino, harlequin had hitherto been a speaking part; it was Rich, or Lun as he chose to call himself in the bills, who, simply from his inability to speak upon the stage, originated the silent harlequin, and by mere dumb action could rival the power and pathos of the most accomplished tragedian.

Early in 1723 the managers of Drury Lane, in rivalry with Rich, produced a pantomime by one Thurmond, a dancing-master, entitled Harlequin Doctor Faustus, which, constructed on a much more elaborate scale than those hitherto given at Lincoln's Inn Fields, may be considered as the first English pantomime. Not to be outdone, in December of the same year, Rich brought out his famous Necromancer, or Harlequin Executed, which far surpassed in splendor all that had yet been seen. The prologue to this piece is very suggestive as to the relative positions of the two houses:

Yon rival theatre, by success made great,
Plotting destruction to our sinking State,
Turn'd our own arms upon us--and woe be to us--
They needs must raise the devil to undo us;
Straight our enchanter gave his spirit wing,
And conjur'd all the town within this ring.

A continuous rivalry was now carried on between the two theatres, and pantomime became the great attraction at both; for while at Drury Lane Booth, Wilks, Cibber and Mrs. Oldfield could draw but £500 a week to the treasury, the genius of nonsense would swell the receipts to £1000. The price in the boxes was raised from four to five shillings at pantomime time; but the following curious notice was placed upon the bill of the play: "The advance money to be returned to those who choose to go out before the overture of the entertainment." As late as 1747 we find a similar notice in Garrick's bills. When Garrick became one of the managers of Drury Lane he promised the audience, as will be remembered, that he would not attempt to gain their patronage by such "spurious" attractions as pantomimes, making an appeal to the public to support him in this resolve:

'Tis yours this night to bid the reign commence
Of rescu'd nature and reviving sense;
To chase the charms of sound, the pomp of show,
For useful mirth and salutory woe;
Bid scenic virtue form the rising age,
And truth diffuse her radiance from the stage.

Nevertheless, he was very soon compelled to rescind his promise and follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Jackson, in his History of the Scottish Stage, gives his impression of Rich as a mime, which is worth quoting: "I saw him enact the hatching of Harlequin by the heat of the sun. This certainly was a masterpiece in dumb show; from the first chipping of the egg, his receiving of motion, his feeling of the ground, his standing upright, to his quick Harlequin trip round the empty shell, through the whole progression, every limb had its tongue and every motion a voice, which spoke with most miraculous organ to the understanding and sensation of the observers." If we may believe Jackson and other authorities on the stage, it is doubtful whether, except in decoration and other equipment, modern pantomime shows any improvement over that which delighted the playgoers of two centuries ago.

Purchase Books on Pantomime

Search eBay! for theatre collectibles


  • John Rich - A biography of the English actor and "father of English pantomime."
  • Marcel Marceau Foundation - Organization established in 1996 for the purposes of "promoting, fostering and encouraging the art of mime and mime-drama in the United States and abroad and preserving and perpetuating the work of Marcel Marceau.

Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · Email · © 2002