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December 2011

Posted on 01/12/2011

"It's Behind You!": Pantomimes of the past

RW-4-1-60-2 RW/4/1/60/2


As we reach the pantomime season and are bombarded by adverts for productions featuring Craig Revel Horwood and Ann Widdecombe, or a soap actor in need of a profile boost, I thought it would be fitting to look back at the early days of the British pantomime.

Amongst the playbills in the Roy Waters Theatre Collection are a significant number advertising spectacular productions of pantomimes. Originally brief interludes between opera pieces and then a low form of opera, pantomime began developing into a different form from the eighteenth century. It was John Rich (1692–1761) who made a name for himself by bringing the character of the harlequin to English pantomime and introducing elaborate scenery and extravagant costumes into his productions. He explored the rich comic potential the Italian commedia dell'arte and laid the foundations of pantomime as we know it today. Commedia had a fixed list of stock characters, such as a clown and a harlequin, and was a very physical form of theatrical entertainment that used dance, music, tumbling, acrobatics and buffoonery. Joseph Grimaldi was perhaps the best known clown performer.

This playbill from the Royal Circus and Surrey Theatre, issued on Boxing Day 1817, lists three new plays, each with a fantastical description of its genre before the title, namely a ‘Grand Melo-Dramatic Burletta Spectacle, a ‘Comic Pantomime Ballet’ and finally ‘ a Comic, Whimsical, Rhetorical Extravaganza…founded on the popular Speaking Pantomime’. So, the night begins with a drama with a suitably festive title featuring fairies and sorcerers, following by two differing forms of pantomime, which, as we have come to expect from the genre, make no direct reference to Christmas. These productions might not yet be examples that modern audiences would recognize as pantomime, of the type filled with dames, principal boys and ‘oh no he didn’t’ calls, but we can still enjoy the images conjured up by the curious and evocative scene summaries:


"View near Vauxhall – Butcher’s Shop- Enchanted Carcases, Magic Beer-Barrel, and Tavern.

FAIRY FOREST. To conclude with the –



Adele Allen, Special Collections Archivist (Roy Waters Theatre Collection).

If you would like more information about this image, or to use it in your own work, or about any of our other collections, please email 


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