John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. — George P. Landow.]
arlequin [mute character invisible to clown and pantaloon], Columbine [female character], Pantaloon [character teased by clown], and Clown [jester]!" There is an agreeable magic in these words, although they carry us back to the most miserable period of our existence---early childhood. They stand out in our recollection vividly and distinctly, for they are associated with one of the very few real enjoyments permitted to us at that grim stage of our development. It is a poetic fashion to look back with sentimental regret upon the days of early childhood, and to contrast the advantages of immaturity with the disadvantages of complete mental and physical efflorescence; but like many other fashions---especially many poetic fashions---it lacks a common substratum of common sense. The happiness of infancy lies in its total irresponsibility, its incapacity to distinguish between right and wrong, its general helplessness, its inability to argue rationally, and its having nothing whatever upon its half-born little mind,---privileges which are equally the property of an idiot in a lunatic asylum. In point of fact, a new-born baby is an absolute idiot; and as it reaches maturity by successive stages, so, by successive stages does its intelligence increase, until (somewhere about forty or fifty years after birth) it shakes off the attributes of the idiot altogether. It is really much more poetical, as well as much more accurate, to believe that we advance in happiness as our intellectual powers expand. It is true that maturity brings with it troubles to which infancy is a stranger; but, on the other hand, infancy has pains of its own which are probably as hard to bear as the ordinary disappointments of responsible men.
"Harlequin, Columbine, Clown, and Pantaloon!" Yes, they awaken, in my mind at all events, the only recollection of unmixed pleasure associated with early childhood. Those night expeditions to a mystic building, where incomprehensible beings of all descriptions held astounding revels, under circumstances which I never endeavored to account for, were to my infant mind absolutely realizations of a fairy mythology which I had almost incorporated with my religious faith. I had no idea, at that early age, of a Harlequin who spent the day hours in a pair of trousers and a bad hat; I had not attempted to realize a Clown with an ordinary complexion, and walking inoffensively down Bow Street in a cheap suit. I had not tried to grasp the possibility of a Pantaloon being actually a mild but slangy youth of two-and twenty; nor had I a notion that a Columbine must pay her rent like an ordinary lodger, or take the matter-of-fact consequences of pecuniary unpunctuality. I believed in their existence, as I did in that of the Enchanter Humgruffin, Prince Poppet, King Hurly Burly, and Princess Prettitoes, and I looked upon the final metempsychosis [migration of souls at death into other bodies] of these individuals as a proper and legitimate reward for their several virtues and vices. To be a Harlequin or Columbine was the summit of earthly happiness to which a worthy man or woman could aspire; while the condition of Clown or Pantaloon was a fitting purgatory in which to expiate the guilty deeds of a life misspent. But as I grew older, I am afraid that I came to look upon the relative merits of these mystic personages in a different light. I came to regard the Clown as a good fellow, whom it would be an honour to claim as an intimate companion; while the Harlequin degenerated into a rather tiresome muff [bungler], who delayed the fun while he danced in a meaningless way with a plain, stoutish person of mature age. As Christmases rolled by, I came to know some Clowns personally, and it interfered with my belief in them to find that they were not the inaccessible personages I had formerly supposed them to be. I was disgusted to find that they were, as a body, a humble and deferential class of men, who called me "sir," and accepted eleemosynary [charitable] brandy and water with civil thanks: and when, at length, I was taken to a rehearsal of some "Comic Scenes," and found out how it was all done, my dim belief in the mystic nature of Pantomimists vanished altogether, and the recollection of what thay had once been to me was the only agreeable association that I retained in connection with their professional existence.
But although familiarity with the inner life of a pantomime may breed a certain contempt for the organized orgies of the "Comic Scenes," it cannot have the effect of rendering one indifferent to the curious people to whose combined exertion the institution owes its existence. They are, in many ways, a remarkable class of men and women, utterly distinct from the outside public in appearance, ways of thought, and habits of life. A fourth- or fifth-rate actor's conversation is perhaps more purely "shoppy" than that of any other professional man; his manner is more artificial, his dialogue more inflated, his metaphors more professional, and his appearance more eccentric. At the same time he is not necessarily more immoral or more improvident than his neighbours; and in acts of genuine, unaffected charity, he often sets an example that a bishop might imitate. There are good and bad people in every condition of life; and, if you are in a position to strike an average, you will probably find that the theatrical profession has its due share of both classes. Now for our Thumbnail Sketches.
The two poor old gentlemen who appear on the next page are "supers" [extras] of the legitimate school. They are not of the class of "butterfly-supers," who take to the business at pantomime time, as a species of remunerative relaxation; they are at it, and have been at it all the year round since their early boyhood. Their race is dying out now, for the degenerate taste of modern audiences insists on epicine [epicene = having but one form to indicate either sex] crowds, and armies with back-hair and ear-rings. There was a goodly show of fine old regulation "supers" at Astley's while "Mazeppa" was being played some time ago; and I confess that the sight of the curious old banner-bearers in that extraordinary drama had more interest for me than the developed charms of the "beauteous Menken." The deportment of a legitimate "super," under circumstances of thrilling excitement, is a rich, and, I am sorry to add, a rare study. Nothing moves him: his bosom is insensate alike to the dying throes of a miscreant and the agonized appeal of oppressed virtue; and he accepts the rather startling circumstances of a gentleman being bound for life to a maddened steed, as an ordinary incident of every-day occurrence---which, in point of fact, it is to him. He is a man of few---very few---words, and he gives unhesitating adherence to the most desperately perilous schemes with a simple "We will!"---taking upon himself to answer for his companions, probably in consequence of a long familiarity with their acquiescent disposition. He is, in his way, an artist; he knows that an actor, however insignificant, should be close-shaved, and he has a poor opinion of any leading professional who sports an impertinent moustache. Mr. Macready was for years the god of his idolatry; and now that he is gone, Mr. Phelps reigns in his stead.
These two young ladies are to embody the hero and heroine of the piece. The taller one is Prince Poppet; the shorter, Princess Prettitoes. The Prince will be redundant in back-hair, and exuberant in figure (for a prince)); but he will realize many important advantages on his transformation to Harlequin, and a modification in the matters of figure and back-hair may count among the most important. "Prince Poppet" is a bright intelligent girl, and is always sure of a decent income. She sings a little, and dances a great deal, and can give a pun with proper point. Her manner is perhaps just a trifle slangy, and her costume just a trifle showy, but her character is irreproachable. She is a good-humoured, hard-working, half educated, lively girl, who gives trouble to no one. She is always "perfect" in her words and "business," and being fond of her profession, she is not above "acting at rehearsal," a peculiarity which makes her an immense favourite with authors and stage-managers. The young lady, "Princess Prettitoes," who is talking to her, is simply a showy fool, intensely self-satisfied, extremely impertinent, and utterly incompetent. However, as a set-off to these drawbacks, she must be an admirable domestic economist, for she contrives to drive her brougham, and live en princesse, in a showy little cottage ornee, on three pounds a week. These young ladies are the curse of the stage. Their presence on it does not much matter, so long as they confine their theatrical talents to pantomime princesses; but they don't always stop there. They have a way of ingratiating themselves with managers and influential authors, and so it happens that they are not unfrequently to be found in prominent "business" at leading theatres. They are the people who bring the actress's profession into contempt; who are quoted by virtuous but unwary outsiders as fair specimens of the ladies who people the stage. If these virtuous, but unwary outsiders, knew the bitter feeling of contempt with which these flaunting butterflies are regarded by the quiet, respectable girls who are forced into association with them, they would learn how little these people had in common with the average run of London actresses.
These two poor dismal, shivering women are "extra ladies"---girls who are tagged on to the stock ballet of the theatre during the run of a "heavy" piece. It is their duty while on stage to keep themselves as much out of site as they conveniently can, and generally to attract as little notice as possible until the "transformation," when they will hang from the "flies" in wires, or rise from the "mazarin" through the stage, or be pushed on from the wings, in such a flood of lime-light that their physical deficiencies will pass unheeded in the general blaze. I believe it has never been satidfactorily determined how these poor girls earn their living during the nine months of non-pantomime. Some of them, of course, get engagements in the ballets of country theatres, but the large majority of them appear to have no connection with the stage except at pantomime time. An immense crowd of these poor women spring up about a month or six weeks before Christmas, and besiege the managers of pantomime theatres with engagements that will, at best, provide them with ten or twelve shillings a week for two or three months; and out of this slender pay thay have to find a variety of expensive stage necessaries. Many of them do needlework in the day-time, and during the "waits" at night; but they can follow no other regular occupations, for their days are often required for morning performances. They are, as a body, a heavy, dull, civil, dirty set of girls, with plenty of good feeling for each other, and an overwhelming respect for the ballet-master.
The smart, confident, but discontented-looking man on next page, with the air of a successful music-hall singer, is no less a personage than the Clown. His position is not altogether an enviable one, as pantomimes go, now-a-days. It is true that he has the "comic scenes" under his entire control; but comic scenes are no longer the important element in the evening's entertainment that they once were; and he is snubbed by the manager, ignored by the author, and inconsiderately pooh-poohed by the stage-manager. His scenes are pushed into a corner, and he and they are regarded as annoying and unremunerative impertinences, to be cut off altogether as soon as the "business" wanes. He undergoes the nightly annoyance of seeing the stalls rise and go out long before he has got through his first scene. The attraction of a pantomime ends with the "transformation," and the scenes that follow are merely apologies for those that go before. The modern Clown is a dull and uninventive person: his attempts at innovation and improvement are limited to the introduction of dancing dogs, or a musical solo on an unlikely instrument. As far as the business proper of a Clown is concerned, he treads feebly in the footsteps of his predecessors; and he fondly believes that the old, old tricks, and the old, old catchwords, have a perennial vitality of their own that can never fail. He is a dancer, a violinist, a stilt-walker, a posturist, a happy family exhibitor---anything but the rough-and-tumble Clown he ought to be. There are one or two exceptions to this rule---Mr. Boleno is one---but, as a rule, Clown is but a talking Harlequin.
This eccentric person on the chair is the Harlequin and ballet-master. He is superintending the developing powers of his ballet, addressing them individually, as they go wrong, with a curious combination of flowers of speech, collecting terms of endearment and expressions of abuse into an oratorical bouquet, which is quite unique in its kind. He has the short, stubby moustache which seems to be almost peculiar to harlequins, and his cheeks have the hollowness of unhealthy exertion. He wears a practising dress, in order that he may be in a position to illustrate his instructions with greater precision, and also because he has been rehearsing the "trips," leaps, and tricks which he has to execute in the comic scenes. His life is not a easy one, for all the carpenters in the establishment are united in a conspiracy to let him break his neck in his leaps if he does not fee them liberally. He earns his living during the off-season by arranging ballets, teaching stage dancing, and, perhaps, by taking a music-hall engagement.
We now introduce the Manager, who probably looks upon the pantomime he is about to produce as the only source of important profit that the year will bring him. Its duty is to recoup him for the losses attendant upon two or three trashy sensation plays, a feeble comedy, and a heavy Shakespearian revival; and if he only spends money enough upon its production, and particularly upon advertising it, he will probably find it will do all this, and leave him with a comfortable balance in hand on its withdrawal. He is a stern critic in his way, and his criticisms are based upon a strictly practical foundation---the question whether or not an actor or actress draws. He has a belief that champagne is the only wine that a gentleman may drink, and he drinks it all day long. He smokes very excellent cigars, wears heavy jewellery, drives a phaeton and pair, and is extremely popular with all the ladies on his establishment. He generally "goes through the court" once a year, and the approach of this event is generally shadowed forth by an increased indulgence on his part in more than usually expensive brands of his favorite wine. He has no difficulty in getting credit; and he is surrounded by a troop of affable swells whom he generally addresses as dear old boys.
The preceding sketch represents the "property man"---an ingenious person whose duty it is to imitate everything in nature with a roll of canvas, a bundle of osiers, and half a dozen paint-pots. It is a peculiarity of most property men that they themselves look more like ingenious "properties" than actual human beings; they are a silent, contemplative, pasty race, with so artificial an air about them that you would be hardly surprised to find that they admitted of being readily decapitated or bisected without suffering any material injury. A property man whose soul is in his business looks upon everything he comes across from his professional point of view; his only idea is---how it can best be imitated. He is an artist in his way; and if he has any genuine imitative talent about him he has plenty of opportunities of making it known.
Now comes the Author. I have kept him until last, as he is by far the most unimportant of all his collaborateurs. He writes simply to order, and his dialogue is framed upon the principle of telling as much as possible in the very fewest words. He is ready to bring in a "front scene" wherever it may be wanted, and to find an excuse at the last moment for the introduction of any novelty in the shape of an "effect" which any ingenious person may think fit to submit to the notice of the manager. From a literary point of view his work is hardly worth criticism, but he ought, nevertheless, to possess many important qualifications if it is to be properly done. It is not at all necessary that he should be familiar with the guiding rules of prosody or rhyme; nor is it required of him that he shall be a punster, or even a neat hand at parody; but he must be quick at weaving a tale that shall involve a great many "breeches parts." He must be intimately acquainted with the details of stage mechanism, and of the general resources of the theatre for which he is writing. He must know all the catchy songs of the day, and he must exercise a judicious discrimination in selecting them. He must set aside anything in the shape of parental pride in his work, and he must be prepared to see it cut up and hacked about by the stage-manager without caring to expostulate. He must "write up" this part and cut down that part at a moment's notice; and if one song won't do, he must be able to extemporize another at the prompter's table; in short, he must be prepared to give himself up, body and soul, for the time being, to manager, orchestra leader, ballet-master, stage-manager, scenic artist, machinist, costumier, and property-manager---to do everything that he is told to do by all or by any of these functionaries, and, finally, to be prepared to find his story characterized in the leading journals as of the usual incomprehensible description, and his dialogue as even inferior to the ordinary run of such productions.
- Contemporary illustrations of Victorian Pantomime
- The Development of Pantomime, 1692-1761
- Nineteenth-Century British Pantomime
Last modified 24 November 2012