The following document is an abstract of a paper accepted for presentation at the Visual Delights III — Magic and Illusion conference at the University of Sheffield, July 15-17th 2005.

Harlequin: I am the famous dancer Harlequin.
I've shown my postures and my grace sublime
In every epoch and in every clime.

For centuries all over Europe, roaming bands of performers have improvised stories around a group of stock characters deriving from the masked plays of ancient Greece and Rome and developing in the Commedia dell'Arte. A diaspora of travelling players ensured that the plays and characters spread throughout Europe. Sometime during the eighteenth century these Italian Nights entertainments settled in the regular theatres of London and the English pantomime was born.

The harlequinade became an astonishingly adaptable entertainment, which survived for many, many years before disappearing almost completely. From the beginning of the nineteenthth century the Harlequinade pantomime was an extremely popular form of entertainment and reached great heights of sophistication. It was drive by novelty, topicality and inventive performance. Elaborate set designs and stage trickery, fantastical tales and mythical creatures all set in exotic locations were principal attractions. By the end of the nineteenthth century spectacle began to feature more prominently in the pantomime just as a new medium, the film, arrived on the entertainment scene. This chaotic semi-improvised form of comedy survives in a few precious fragments of film in which we can see the last traces of the harlequinade.

Last modified 3 May 2005