Harlequinade is a British comic theatrical genre. Developed in England between the 17th and mid-19th centuries, it was originally a slapstick adaptation or variant of the commedia dell’arte, which originated in Italy and reached its apogee there in the 16th and 17th centuries. The story of the harlequinade revolves around a comic incident in the lives of its five main characters: Harlequin, who loves Columbine; Columbine’s greedy and foolish father Pantaloon, who tries to separate the lovers in league with the mischievous Clown; and the servant, Pierrot, usually involving chaotic chase scenes with a bumbling policeman.
Originally a mime act with music and stylised dance, the harlequinade later introduced some dialogue, but remained primarily a visual spectacle. Early in its development it achieved great popularity as the comic closing part of a longer evening of entertainment, following a more serious presentation with operatic and balletic elements. An often elaborate magical transformation scene, presided over by a fairy, connected the unrelated stories, changing the first part of the pantomime, and its characters, into the harlequinade. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the harlequinade became the larger part of the entertainment, and the transformation scene was presented with increasingly spectacular stage effects. The harlequinade became less popular towards the end of the 19th century, and disappeared altogether in the 1930s; Christmas pantomimes continue to be presented in Britain, but without the harlequinade.
Commedia dell’arte spread from Italy throughout Europe during the 16th century, and by the 17th century adaptations of its characters were familiar in English plays. In English versions, harlequinades differed in two important respects from the commedia original: instead of being a rogue, Harlequin became the central figure and romantic lead; the characters did not speak, initially because of the large number of French performers who decamped to London following the suppression of unlicensed theatres in Paris. Although this constraint was only temporary, English harlequinades nevertheless remained primarily visual; some audiences were reportedly “astonished” by the actor-manager David Garrick’s introduction of a speaking Harlequin at the Drury Lane Theatre.
By the early years of the 18th century, “Italian night scenes” presented versions of commedia traditions in familiar London settings. From these, the standard English harlequinade developed, depicting the eloping lovers Harlequin and Columbine, pursued by the girl’s foolish father, Pantaloon, and his comic servants. The basic plot remained essentially the same for more than 150 years. In the first two decades of the century, two rival London theatres, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, presented productions that began seriously with classical stories with elements of opera and ballet and ended with a comic “night scene”. In 1716 John Weaver, the dancing master at Drury Lane, presented “The Loves of Mars and Venus – a new Entertainment in Dancing after the manner of the Antient Pantomimes”. At Lincoln’s Inn, John Rich presented and performed as Harlequin in similar productions. The theatre historian David Mayer explains the use of the “batte” or slapstick and the “transformation scene”:
Rich gave his Harlequin the power to create stage magic in league with offstage craftsmen who operated trick scenery. Armed with a magic sword or bat (actually a slapstick), Rich’s Harlequin treated his weapon as a wand, striking the scenery to sustain the illusion of changing the setting from one locale to another. Objects, too, were transformed by Harlequin’s magic bat.
Rich’s productions set the style for the form of pantomimes for the next 50 years, and this pattern persisted in London theatres. When producers ran short of plots from Greek or Roman mythology they turned to British folk stories, popular literature and, by 1800, nursery tales. But whatever the story shown in the first part of the entertainment, the harlequinade remained essentially the same. At the end of the first part, stage illusions were employed in a spectacular transformation scene, initiated by a fairy, turning the pantomime characters into Harlequin, Columbine and their fellows.
19th century and later
In the early 19th century, the popular comic performer Joseph Grimaldi turned the role of Clown from “a rustic booby into the star of metropolitan pantomime”. Two developments in 1800, both involving Grimaldi, greatly changed the pantomime characters: For the pantomime Peter Wilkins: or Harlequin in the Flying World, new costume designs were introduced; Clown traded in his tatty servant’s costume for a flamboyant, colourful one. In Harlequin Amulet; or, The Magick of Mona, later the same year, Harlequin became an increasingly stylised romantic character, leaving the mischief and chaos to Grimaldi’s Clown.
Clown now appeared in a range of roles, from the rival suitor to household cook or nurse. Grimaldi’s popularity changed the balance of the evening’s entertainment, with the first, relatively serious, section soon dwindling to what Mayer calls “little more than a pretext for determining the characters who were to be transformed into those of the harlequinade.” In the 19th century theatrical presentations typically ran for four hours or more, with the pantomime and harlequinade concluding the evening after a long drama. The pantomimes often had double titles, describing the two unconnected stories such as Little Miss Muffet and Little Boy Blue, or Harlequin and Old Daddy Long-Legs.
In an elaborate scene initiated by Harlequin’s “slapstick”, a Fairy Queen or Fairy Godmother transformed the pantomime characters into the characters of the harlequinade, who then performed the harlequinade. Grimaldi’s success transformed the harlequinade, and established a national style for the pantomime; Harlequin receives his magic bat from a benevolent agent or good fairy, it is stolen from him either by the Clown or Pantaloon, and returned to him by the benevolent agent at the conclusion of the performance.
The harlequinade was becoming less popular by the 1880s, when music hall, Victorian burlesque, comic opera and other comic entertainments dominated the British comedy stage. In pantomime, the love scenes between Harlequin and Columbine were reduced to brief displays of dancing and acrobatics, the fairy-tale opening was restored to its original pre-eminence, and by the end of the 19th century the harlequinade had become merely a brief epilogue to the pantomime. It lingered on for a few decades, but finally disappeared by the middle of the 20th century.
The harlequinade characters consisted of the following five kinds of clowns, in addition to more minor characters such as a policeman:
Harlequin is the comedian and romantic male lead, Columbine’s love interest. He is an inveterate trickster, whose costume by the second half of the 17th century had been developed into a patchwork of blue, red, and green triangles, later replaced by diamond-shaped lozenges.
John Rich brought the British pantomime and harlequinade to great popularity in the early 18th century and became the most famous early Harlequin in England. He developed the character into a mischievous magician who was easily able to evade Pantaloon and his servants to woo Columbine. Harlequin used his magic batte or “slapstick” to transform the scene from the pantomime into the harlequinade and to magically change the settings to various locations during the chase scene.
In 1800, at Drury Lane, in Harlequin Amulet; or, The Magick of Mona, Harlequin became “romantic and mercurial, instead of mischievous”. During the 19th century Harlequin became an increasingly stylised character, who performed certain dance poses. Later in the century Fred Payne and Harry Payne, known as the Payne Brothers, were respectively the most famous Harlequin and Clown of their day.
Columbine is a lovely woman who has caught the eye of Harlequin, and with whom he eventually elopes. In the original commedia dell’arte she was portrayed as one of Pantaloon’s maidservants, but in the English harlequinade she is always his daughter or ward.
Originally a foil for Harlequin’s slyness and adroit nature, Clown was a buffoon or bumpkin fool who resembled less a jester than a comical idiot. He was a lower-class character, the servant of Pantaloon, dressed in tattered servant’s garb. Despite his acrobatic antics, Clown invariably slowed Pantaloon in his pursuit of the lovers. But two developments in 1800, both involving Joseph Grimaldi, greatly changed the pantomime characters. Grimaldi starred as Clown in Charles Dibdin’s 1800 pantomime Peter Wilkins: or Harlequin in the Flying World at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. For this elaborate production, Dibdin introduced new costume designs. Clown’s costume was “garishly colourful … patterned with large diamonds and circles, and fringed with tassels and ruffs”, instead of the tatty servant’s outfit that had been used for a century. The production was a hit, and the new costume design was copied by others in London. Later the same year, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in Harlequin Amulet; or, The Magick of Mona, Harlequin was modified, becoming “romantic and mercurial, instead of mischievous”, which left Grimaldi’s Clown as the “undisputed agent” of chaos. Clown became more important, embodying anarchic fun, no longer Pantaloon’s servant; Grimaldi built the character up into the central figure of the harlequinade. He developed jokes, catch-phrases and songs that were used by subsequent Clowns for decades after his retirement in 1828, and Clowns were generically called “Joey” for four generations after him.
Clown became central to the transformation scene, crying “Here we are again!” and so opening the harlequinade. He then became the villain of the piece, playing elaborate, cartoonish practical jokes on policemen, soldiers, tradesmen and passers-by, tripping people with butter slides and crushing babies, with the assistance of his elderly accomplice, Pantaloon.
Pantaloon is Columbine’s father or guardian, intent on preventing her marriage to Harlequin. He was usually portrayed as a foolish old man wearing spectacles, pantaloons, and slippers. The character was familiar enough to London audiences for Shakespeare to refer to him at the turn of the 17th century as the exemplar of an elderly man, “the lean and slippered Pantaloon” in act 2, scene 2 of As You Like It.
Pierrot was a comic servant character, often Pantaloon’s servant. His face was whitened with flour. During the 17th century the character was increasingly portrayed as stupid and awkward, a country bumpkin with oversized clothes. During the 19th century, the Pierrot character became less comic, and more sentimental and romantic, as his hopeless adoration for Columbine was emphasized.