David Garrick didn't much like pantomime — but as manager of Drury Lane's Theatre Royal the celebrated actor and champion of Shakespeare had to be pragmatic. By the mid-18th century, panto's popularity had grown to such an extent that Garrick was forced to wearily concede, "If you won't come for Lear or Hamlet, then I must give you Harlequin."
Back then, pantomime combined a traditional tale as an opening prelude to a new form known as the Harlequinade. This was something that had evolved from Commedia dell'arte, a highly physical mix of acrobatics, music and dance (with a dose of satire and slapstick) that had arrived from Italy and France to flourish in post-Restoration London. Exciting chase scenes featured the magical figure of Harlequin as a wily lover attempting to elope with his lady Columbine, while eluding her irate father Pantaloon and his servant Clown.
To some, the high energy plotting full of sneaky chicanery was a continental contagion eroding high art. But in a clever piece of PR, Garrick himself ensured the Harlequinade was staged over the Christmas period so that the frivolity became associated with the season rather than the Theatre Royal. Though it was in the next century that pantomime and Christmas became firmly entwined, the tradition is at least partly due to Garrick — a man who would have rather spent the season anywhere but at a panto.
Garrick's panto problems were not just intellectual snobbery though — he also had staff trouble. After a long running pay dispute, one of his comedic performers soured relations by having a face painted on his buttocks and mooning his disapproval in Garrick's direction. But we should be careful not to count this as a heroically cheeky exit — the performer in question was something of an arse himself. Uncommonly cruel to those around him, Giuseppe Grimaldi had only one redeeming quality — he schooled his son in the theatrical traditions — and that boy, Joseph Grimaldi, was to become history's greatest ever clown (still feted today at an annual church service in Dalston).
Jumping forward to 1806, the Theatre Royal was now under the management of Thomas Harris, who was more predisposed towards pantomime and encouraged writer Thomas Dibdin to pen Mother Goose. Though it differed from the story we’re familiar with today, the golden eggs were present and this Harlequinade became one of the biggest stage hits of all time. The stand out performance in acting, agility, on-stage trickery and satire was the clown Joe Grimaldi, who established himself as a household name.
It is at least in some part Grimaldi who we can thank for today’s conventions: the volume of audience participation, catchphrases, slapstick, song and topical satire. And even when the characters he played were not his original creation, his performances took panto's tropes to another level. When Grimaldi was on stage, vegetables could come to life (a famous skit that may have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and his performance as a rake obsessed with sensuous pleasures wowed the dignitaries even though it featured behaviour that would have been sorely punished off-stage. Such was Grimaldi's success that the clown began to replace the Harlequin character and after him the gap seemed to be only half-successfully filled by casting celebrities who already had allure for the audience.
The arrival of the dame
Gradually, the whole Harlequinade show became redundant. In 1843, a new law was passed lifting the odd restrictions on stage dialogue for acts such as pantomime and so the visual emphasis became less necessary. By the 1870s writers were drawing more heavily on fairy stories and taking them beyond the Harlequinade's set-up and using them as the main plot. It was another Theatre Royal manager, Augustus Harris, late in the 19th century, who spent handsome amounts creating the spectacular family shows we'd recognise today. He was an advocate of celebrity casting, particularly in the role he promoted: the Pantomime Dame. Harris' greatest coup though was casting none other than London's music hall legend Dan Leno.
Hackney Empire's current creative director Susie McKenna has been mindful of the history as she revives her Olivier-winning Mother Goose this year. She tells Londonist: "A version of Mother Goose was written in 1902 as a vehicle to cast Dan Leno; our pantomime comes from this and the traditions of Music Hall. Mother Goose is one of my favourite stories and our version is about flaws and redemption."
Set in Hackneytopia, McKenna's play blends traditional elements of panto such as slapstick, song and up-to-date satirical side-swipes: "Yes, we have a poke at Boris' airport, London's housing crisis and the bedroom tax," she says, "but we never lose sight that we're taking the children on a two-hour journey of story. And the audience not only comes to the show, but is also part of the show."
It’s almost a definition of pantomime and certainly rings true of the earliest audiences demanding the plays over other theatrical forms. It also highlights the shared experience performers such as Grimaldi and Leno brought. And then there’s Garrick, his small legacy to panto may not be something he wanted, but he would surely be pleased to see so many people, old and young, enjoying it and being introduced to theatre.
Mother Goose is on at the Hackney Empire, Mare Street, E8 until 4 January.
For further reading try The Pantomime Life Of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott (which includes a well-rounded account of Guiseppe Grimaldi's bottom), and Oh Yes It Is by Gerald Frow.