19th February 2009, Art Workers' Guild, London
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
John Ruskin (1819-1900), the sage of Brantwood, art critic, social critic, polemicist, is perhaps the last person you would associate with the theatre. But on the contrary, Ruskin was a lifelong theatregoer. You might not be surprised to learn that he went to see productions of Shakespeare and French plays in the original language. But you might be surprised to learn that he was a devotee of the pantomime. He went not occasionally and not to one only, but regularly and to several every year. In 1882 he jocularly listed among the pleasant things to do going to 'all manner of wicked plays and pantomimes'. He had first been taken to the theatre in 1830 by his father, John James, an enthusiastic theatregoer and former boy actor and in his 1885 autobiography Praeterita Ruskin recorded 'afterwards, it was a matter of intense rapture of a common sort, to be taken to a pantomime'. Why did he go to the theatre?
He was reported as saying in 1888: 'I have always held the stage quite among the best and most necessary means of education - moral and intellectual'. This was only the latest of a succession of pronouncements on the importance and value of the theatre. As early as 1838, while still a student, he moved a motion at the Oxford Union that 'Theatrical Representations are upon the whole highly beneficial to the character of a nation'. In his verdict on the play Claudian, a melodrama set in the Ancient Roman Empire, we can see what Ruskin wanted in plays. He said in interview: 'It is not only that it is the most beautifully mounted piece I ever saw, but it is that every feeling that is expressed in the play, and every law of morality that is taught in it, is entirely right' and in a letter to the play's star and producer Wilson Barrett, he wrote: 'With scene-painting like that the Princess's theatre might do more for art teaching than all the galleries and professors of Christendom'. So his definition of education was a moral one - teaching correct values - and an aesthetic one - teaching the principles of art education and art appreciation. It is these attractions that in part drew him to the pantomime.
The distinctive Victorian pantomime emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. Its predecessor, the Regency pantomime, was the clown-centred harlequinade, which reached its apogee during the pre-eminence of Joseph Grimaldi (1806-1837). He both performed in and staged pantomimes. The Regency pantomime had a short one or two scene 'opening' with a plot derived from fairy story, nursery rhyme, myth and legend and the much longer harlequinade in which the characters of the opening were transformed into the characters of the Comedia dell' arte - harlequin, columbine and pantaloon - engaged in a knockabout sequence of song, dance and acrobatics. The largely dialogue-less form of the Regency pantomime was dictated by the 1737 Licensing Act which gave a monopoly of the spoken word on stage to the patent theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Also the pantomime was performed to a largely adult audience not just at Christmas but four times a year: Lord Mayor's Day (9 November) and the period following; Boxing Day (26 December) and following days; Easter Monday or Whit Monday and the following period; and early July. (Mayer p.9)
However the passing of the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 signalled a major shift in the nature of the genre. This act abolished the patent theatres' monopoly of the spoken word and opened up the use of dialogue to all theatres. This had a direct effect on the 'opening' which now got longer and longer, revelling in the linguistic freedom allowed by rhyming couplets, the ability to pun and the chance to comment on current events. At the same time another popular form was grafted onto the pantomime. This was the extravaganza, which burlesqued popular legends and folk tales. Pantomime now became confined to the Christmas period and focused on a family audience.
The pantomime was one of the manifestations of a Victorian phenomenon: an explosion of interest in fairies and fairyland. In England the fairy tale was revived as part of the reaction against the regimentation, depersonalization and materialism associated with the Industrial Revolution and the Factory System. New fairy tales were written in the 1840s and particularly the 1850s in order to critique the failings of the urban and industrial world of the 19th century. Collections of fairy tales began to appear in English. In 1823 there was an English translation by Edgar Taylor of Grimms's fairy tales, German Popular Stories. The first translation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales appeared in 1846 and in 1840 there was a translation by Edwin Lane of tales from the Arabian Nights. In addition, new fairy stories were being written by English writers in England: among them Dickens, Carlyle, Thackeray and Ruskin.
In an essay in his journal Household Words (1 October 1853), Dickens wrote in a distinctly Ruskinian vein:
One is reminded here of the powerful contrast he drew in Hard Times between the sternly utilitarian schooling conducted by Mr Gradgrind and Sleary's circus, the epitome of fancy and escape from the grim reality of life in Coketown. The pantomime fulfilled a similar function in Dickens' world view.
The King of the Golden River, written in 1841 for his future wife Effie Gray, was Ruskin's contribution to the genre. It was not published until 1850, just in time for Christmas and was illustrated by Dicky Doyle, the noted illustrator, and was an instant hit. Four more editions were published in 1851 and eventually 130 different editions appeared in a wide variety of languages. It was a cross between Dickens and the Brothers Grimm, with echoes of earlier fairy tales, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and The Yellow Dwarf and with a characteristically Ruskinian celebration of the beauties of the Alps. It is, like Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Kingsley's The Water Babies, a celebration of Christian charity and compassion and a denunciation of exploitative and materialistic capitalism.
Ruskin not only wrote a significant fairy story himself but he persuaded the publisher J.C. Hotten to reissue in 1869 Edgar Taylor's edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales, German Popular Stories, originally published in two series in 1823 and 1826. Ruskin himself contributed an introductory essay. The volume was to be much reprinted. Ruskin declared himself dissatisfied with recent stories for children. Some of them were too satirical and aimed as much at adults as at children. He said:
There was a strong tradition of fairy painting in Victorian England, as seen in the work of Richard Dadd, Joseph Noel Paton, Dicky Doyle and J.A. Fitzgerald. Ruskin devotes one of the six 1883 lectures that made up The Art of England to 'Fairyland'. In it he claimed to have been brought up 'principally on fairy legends' and to entertain a predilection for them. He complains of the exclusion from exhibitions of the work of painters of fairyland like Helen Allingham and Kate Greenaway claiming that their work was 'now re-establishing throughout gentle Europe, the manners and customs of fairyland'. He says of Greenaway's fairy pictures: 'They are blissful, just in the degree that they are natural; and the fairy land she creates for you is not beyond the sky nor beneath the sea, but nigh you, even at your doors. She does but show you how to see it, and how to cherish. Long since I told you this great law of noble imagination. It does not create, it does not even adorn, it does but reveal, the treasures to be possessed by this spirit.' (p.348) He ends with a passionate peroration:
This is what he saw in the pantomime - the teaching of basic moral values. It is clear, then, that he associated fairies directly with childhood innocence and fairyland with a beautiful and spiritual pre-industrial landscape, an ideal and idealized pre-lapsarian world. Also we should set Ruskin's love of pantomime alongside his addressing during his adult life various people as Mama and Papa, his rather nauseating use of baby talk in his letters to his cousin Joan, and the love of children's books, fairy stories and nursery rhymes as part of a longing for a lost and irrecoverable childhood. But there is more to this than mere nostalgia. For Ruskin the particular power of pantomime resides specifically and directly in its association with childhood. He wants audiences while in the theatre to regain that childhood innocence and childlike perception of good and evil which leads him to note with approval that the 'youngest and wisest of the spectators of pantomime entirely applaud and approve' the right moral behaviour depicted in the show.
Despite the importance of fairy story books and the vogue for fairy paintings, the place where fairyland came alive for most Victorians was the theatre, notably in pantomime.
The intrinsic value of pantomime was confirmed by that most severe and austere of critics, William Archer, the translator and advocate of Ibsen and the theatre of ideas, who admitting in the journal The World in 1893 that 'the full glory of the mimic world did not burst upon me until I saw a Drury Lane pantomime - Beauty and the Beast,' declared the pantomime 'a national art form - or perhaps I had better say a national institution', going on to say:
Many notable and prominent Victorians were to be found in the audiences at the pantomime. Lewis Carroll, as Richard Foulkes has shown, was as devoted an attender at the pantomime as Ruskin and for much the same reasons: the visual splendours, the moral messages, the young girls as symbols of innocence. He went every year to E.L. Blanchard's Drury Lane pantomime, sometimes making return visits. Like Ruskin, he admired the Vokes family, the dancing stars of Drury Lane. He disliked the harlequinade and usually left before it began. Also like Ruskin, he was fond of and attended all-child pantomimes. He recorded his impressions in his diaries, for instance proclaiming Little King Pippin (1866-67) 'the most beautiful spectacle I ever saw'. Charles Dickens was a 'regular' at the pantomime. Matthew Arnold took his wife and children to a day performance of the Blanchard pantomime Goody Two Shoes at Drury Lane in 1863. The great statesman W.E. Gladstone also went to Goody Two Shoes, which he pronounced 'most laughable' by which he meant funny.
A vital element in the success of the pantomimes were its troupes of child performers. It has been estimated that in 1887 a thousand children were hired as supernumeraries and dancers for the London pantomimes. They were a particular feature of the Drury Lane pantomimes where they performed both in the opening and the harlequinade, regularly receiving ecstatic applause. Taking as examples two of the Drury Lane pantomimes that we know Ruskin saw, the significance of such an aspect can be demonstrated.
Scene four of The Dragon of Wantley, which The Era thought would 'be talked of ere long in a thousand nurseries' and which Ruskin attended in 1871, was performed entirely by children and was a scene of a farmyard in the village of Wantley:
One of the episodes of the harlequinade was 300 children performing in the Highland Games at Balmoral.
In Jack in the Box (1874) the adult characters were turned into children and the girls playing Tom Tucker and Bo-Peep, Miss Amelia and Miss Violet Cameron, 'made quite a hit, and gained some of the loudest applause heard during the evening. Their love-making was charming; their singing elicited an overwhelming encore; and their dancing gained a similar compliment'. The play was punctuated by children's dances, notably one in which the children played buttercups and daisies. The Era called it 'one of the prettiest and freshest things we have seen for a long time... The real flowers hardly ever danced more gaily in the wind than did the little folk who filled the stage, and once more proved how cleverly they had been trained.' In panto after panto the dancing of the child performers regularly stopped the show, as they appeared as birds, squirrels, dolls, elves, cats and so forth in carefully choreographed and well drilled routines.
But it was not just that children appeared in adult pantomimes, there were pantomimes performed entirely by children, at least one of which 'The Faeries Garden Party in honour of Little Red Riding Hood', we know Ruskin attended at Hengler's Circus on January 5, 1878. The Times annual review of Christmas shows (27 December 1877) reveals what show he saw. It reports: 'Mr Hengler's Circus keeps up its well-earned reputation and the crowds which filled the building twice yesterday certainly did not go away disappointed. Horses and gymnastic feats are sure to please a British public and of these there were enough to satisfy anyone.' The chief attractions of the programme, however, was the 'juvenile pantomime', The Faeries' Garden Party in honour of Little Red Riding Hood. After the bareback horse-riding, the ring was transformed into 'an elegant garden', 'the scene of the labours of a very operatic group of gardeners, who sang with much effect "Beautiful Flowers". Little Red Riding Hood, summoned by the Good Fairy, received her guests, the legendary figures of nursery rhymes, Little Bo-Peep, Jack and Jill, Little Jack Horner etc, followed by "distinguished representatives of all nations" - Marshal MacMahon (the French President), Napoleon I, the German Emperor, John Bull, Rob Roy and Gainsborough's Duchess, 'all of them well made up, but particularly Bonaparte, who was the living image of Gilray's caricature'. Songs and dances followed and it ended with a lime-lighted tableau. The Times concluded: 'The pantomime...was a most decided success, being well-managed throughout. It was fortunate with its leading idea, the acting of all the parts by children, and we have never seen the grown-up actors perform with better spirit. Miss E. Hill, as Little Red Riding Hood, made a very graceful hostess to her menagerie of guests, and the dancing was extremely good, the children all entering into the fun with genuine childish gaiety'. Ruskin did not record his opinion but it sounds like the sort of show he would have loved.
The undisputed master of this theatrical form was Edward Leman Blanchard (1820-1889). A typically prolific mid-Victorian man of letters, he wrote dramas, songs, guide books and theatrical criticism. But he was best known for his pantomimes. For nearly 40 years (1852-1889) he wrote the annual Drury Lane pantomime, as well as providing pantomimes for many other theatres. In 1852 alone he had five pantomimes playing at different London theatres. The Illustrated London News (1 January 1876) called him 'the prince of modern pantomime inventors'. The Blanchard pantomime combined a book of inventive rhyming couplets, the imaginative retelling and sometimes interweaving of fairy tales, folk tales and nursery rhymes, beautiful scene painting and moral lessons and they were constantly praised for being free of the taint of vulgarity.
The Illustrated London News (2 January 1875) recognised the importance of the moral message when it wrote:
Might we not find piety in a pantomime and as much "good" in a harlequinade as in "everything else". Every skilful concocter of a pantomime feels that he must provide a meaning for it, and that its idlest scene must have a significance. True it is the product of the wildest fancy: but then fancy is a sacred faculty. To it we are indebted for Spenser's "Fairie Queen" and Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream", works which symbolise spiritualism (he means spirituality) the most abstruse... We may suggest that there may be more in a pantomime than meets the ear or the eye... Of modern pantomime-writers who have thought thus worthily of pantomime-writing and carried their thoughts into act and scene, Mr E.L. Blanchard claims the highest rank. His openings are always carefully written, and his rhymed couplets emulate the elegance of Pope in "The Rape of the Lock" or "The Dunciad". True, the satire is of the mildest form, and ought to be: else, wherefore is the disguise of allegory assured.
As important as the moral message was the visual appeal and here the Blanchard pantomimes were able to draw on the talents of one of the greatest scene-painters of the 19th century, William Roxby Beverley (1814-1889).
His first London engagement was in 1839 painting the scenes for the pantomime Baron Munchausen. From 1847 to 1855 he worked at the Lyceum, providing the scenes for among other productions the extravaganzas of J.R. Planché. It was Beverley who perfected the transformation scene, the often spectacular sequence that linked the opening and the harlequinade which regularly evoked applause and calls for him to take a bow. In 1854 he began his association with Drury Lane and painted the scenery both for Shakespeare and the pantomime until 1884 when his eyesight failed and he had to retire. Season after season his scene-painting for the annual Blanchard pantomime was lauded.
In his autobiography, J.R. Planché, who regarded Beverley as combining the pictorial talent of the artist Clarkson Stanfield and the mechanical ingenuity of the machinist William Bradwell, expressed some exasperation that Beverley's scene-painting came to overshadow his texts. 'Year after year Mr Beverley's powers were tasked to outdo his former out-doings. The last scene became the first in the estimation of the management. The most complicated machinery, the most costly materials, were annually put into requisition... As to me I was positively painted out. Nothing was considered brilliant but the last scene.' Blanchard did not share Planché's sense of irritation. He dedicated the published script of his pantomime Riquet with the Tuft (1863) to 'Mr William Beverley whose artistic ability and exquisite taste in embellishment for so many years have enabled the Wonders of Fairyland to be realised on the English stage, which he has done so much to adorn by his pictorial skill and poetical fancy'.
But by the 1870s the nature of the pantomime was changing, with the role of the harlequinade increasingly curtailed and eventually abandoned, prose replacing the rhyming couplets and most significantly the interjection into the stories of music hall comedians and their acts. It was Sir Augustus Harris at Drury Lane - Augustus Druriolanus - who set the seal of this development when he took over in 1879. The Christmas pantomime now became a combination of music hall knockabout (with the much loved team of Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell packing the audiences in at Drury Lane) and costly and lavish spectacle, in particular processions of for instance the Kings and Queens of England, nursery rhyme characters or famous beauties of history. Traditionalists lamented the disappearance of the old elegant, charming and fanciful pantomimes of yesteryear. Typically the critic W. Davenport Adams wrote an article entitled 'The Decline of Pantomime' in The Theatre (1 February, 1882). He denounced the vulgarisation of the pantomime by the introduction of the music hall element, which led to 'impropriety of word, gesture and "business" which makes so much of our pantomimes unsuited to the youthful ear and eye... unpleasant to all people of whatever age, who possess great taste and feeling'. The music hall songs, gags and dances were all out of place and the spectacle of men dressed as women and scantily clad women posing as men was seen as gratuitous and inappropriate for children to witness. Blanchard's diaries record his increasing distress at the way in which his scripts were distorted and adulterated by Harris to accommodate the music hall favourites.
It was a Blanchard pantomime to which Ruskin proposed taking his fellow sage Thomas Carlyle and which he himself visited at least twice. On 18 January, 1871, he wrote to Mary Aitken, Carlyle's niece, inviting her and her uncle to share his private box at Drury Lane on Saturday next. He was going to have a look at it ahead of that visit. He wrote directly to Carlyle on 21 January, enclosing the programme of the pantomime and repeating the hope that Carlyle and Miss Aitken might come, saying they might regard it as 'wickedly foolish' but it was 'well done in its way in some parts'. He recorded in his diary on 19 January: 'At Pantomime last night - Dragon of Wantley. Splendid dancing.' The Dragon of Wantley starred the Vokes family, a family of star dancers whose performances Ruskin explicitly praised. Sadly Carlyle declined the invitation or we would have had the remarkable spectacle of the two most serious-minded intellectual titans of the 19th century laughing their socks off at a classic pantomime.
Little Red Riding Hood (starring the Vokes family), which Ruskin saw on 9 February 1884, he declared in his diary 'utterly disgusting'. He does not elaborate and this is something of a puzzle given his admiration for the Vokes family. Little Red Riding Hood was produced at Her Majesty's Theatre and it inspired The Times (27 December 1883) to raptures of delight. It had been produced, said The Times, 'with scrupulous regard to pantomime tradition in the treatment of the fable' and 'marvellous fertility of resource in the matter of episode and spectacular display'. It argued that the artistic level attained by Little Red Riding Hood and by Cinderella at Drury Lane would be 'satisfactory to those who have deplored the corruption of Boxing-day morals through the influence of the music hall. Here, and at Drury Lane, the youthful spectator is at once transported from a prosaic world into the realm of fancy and kept there while the librettist, the scene-painter, the stage carpenter and the stage manager combine to awe and dazzle him with alternate doses of the supernatural, the grotesque, the mysterious and the beautiful.' Later the critic declares 'A rare combination of artistic taste with fancy lifts this pantomime quite out of the category of ordinary Boxing-day performances and makes it a feast for the eye of the most fastidious.' It sounds as if it ought to have been perfect for Ruskin but evidently was not.
Perhaps the story of the pantomime had something to do with it. In Frank Green's narrative the Demon King had placed King Kantankeros on the throne rightfully belonging to Prince Pelerin in return for his promise to marry the Demon King's hideous daughter Venoma. After ten years when Kantankeros has failed to fulfil his promise, the Demon King offers to restore Prince Pelerin on the same terms and he agrees. A popular uprising overthrows the King. The Prince, restored to the throne, falls in love with Red riding Hood and refuses to marry Venoma. He is transformed into a wolf with a desire to eat Red Riding Hood. But after the traditional story is enacted, the spell is broken and the Prince marries Red Riding Hood. It may have been the legitimisation of revolt against the crown, which Ruskin, as a good monarchist, deplored. But it is more likely to have been the threat to an innocent young girl by a ravening wolf and the fact that two royal figures reneged on a promise to marry that Ruskin found unacceptable. 2 February was the anniversary of his proposal of marriage to the now deceased Rose La Touche, and he was particularly upset around that time. Ruskin's biographer Tim Hilton records that 'All through the earlier part of 1884 he alternated between irritability, over-excitement and depression' and Little Red Riding Hood seems to have found him in at least one of those states.
Battle over the nature of pantomime was well and truly joined in the 1870s and 1880s. In this battle Ruskin was on the side of the angels - or rather the fairies - and lined up squarely with the traditionalists. His most sustained writing on pantomime came in Fors Clavigera 39 (March 1874) in which he reveals that 'during the last 3 weeks, the greater part of my available leisure has been spent between Cinderella and Jack-in-the-Box'. He had been to Hengler's Theatre five times to see Cinderella and to Drury Lane for Jack-in-the Box. He records in his diary his visit to Drury Lane to see Jack-in-the-Box on 22 January, 1874, when he noted 'really enjoyed myself'. The pantomime caused him to reflect on escapism, beauty, the mechanisation of society, morality, even republicanism (you can't have pantomimes without princes) - and there is clear evidence here of that creative intellectual stimulus that he once claimed in a letter to actor-manager Squire Bancroft that the theatre provided. He writes that he has spent so much time in the theatre that he has begun to ask himself 'which is the reality and which the pantomime?' He concludes: 'Both are equally real and the only question is whether the cheerful states of things... must necessarily be interrupted always by the woeful interlude of the outside world'. In a clear autobiographical reference, he refers to the contrast between the pantomime and his own real 'world of sorrow' - the world of grieving for the ongoing illness and progressive decline of Rose La Touche, the girl he had hoped to marry, and who died on 25 May, 1875. He wrote:
In the pantomime Ruskin finds the beauty, grace and humanity he associated with the true fairy story and which he thinks lacking in the real world of modern industrial society.
The Times (27 December, 1873) declared Jack-in-the-Box 'perhaps the most effective' of all the pantomimes produced by F.B. Chatterton and written by E.L. Blanchard. 'Its comic force is not remarkable, but the splendour of its choreographic displays could not be surpassed.' It called the transformation scene 'one of the most felicitous products of Mr Beverley's fancy, being not only beautiful but original'.
The pantomime opens in the village of Gotham where the 'three wise men' are constructing a bowl in which to go to sea. Prince Felix of the Fortunate isles arrives, disguised as Tom Tucker, a travelling artisan. He sings a song replete with Ruskinian sentiment:
If in lives of honest labour
All men do their best, I'm sure
Every man must do good to his neighbour
Till all are better off than before.
Cockalorum, King of Cockaigne, arrives on a royal progress and declares that he will give the hand of his daughter, Princess Poppet, in marriage to whoever will give her wealth and lands and common sense. Prince Felix, who already loves her, determines to seek fairy help. He discovers that every 100 years a Fairy Fair is held on Midsummer Eve on Gotham Common. He comes to the aid of an old woman who turns into Elfina, Queen of the Fairies. Mushrooms spring up and turn into stalls, presided over by fairies. Prince Felix receives a Jack in the Box from one and out of it pops an elf who will do his bidding. He turns up at court and offers the Jack in the Box as a present. Princess Poppet accepts it but is too proud to marry a mere artisan. Jack in the Box promises to cure her of her conceit. Jack reduces the King, Princess, Tom and the royal court to child-sized nursery rhyme characters - all played by children - and removes them all to Buttercup Green on Nursery Island. There Princess Poppet learns her lesson - patience, economy, industriousness, humility - leading Tom Tucker to say:
Why, thus endowed, you'd lead a useful life,
And I would marry had I such a wife.
There follows the Reformation, Restoration, Reconciliation and Transformation as Jack in the Box returns them to their normal size and identities and they return to the Golden Land of Plenty and the Harvest Home of the Fairies. Prince and Princess are united. Three of King Cockalorum's ministers were made up to look like the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone, leader of the opposition Mr Disraeli and the albino Home Secretary, Robert Lowe - their appearance evoked applause.
Interestingly, Ruskin compares the Church and the pantomime 'these two theatrical entertainments - where the imaginative congregations still retain some true notions of the value of human and beautiful things,' and 'also they retain some just notion of the truth, in moral things'.
He was much less taken with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves as he explained in a letter dated 25 February, 1867, and published in The Pall Mall Gazette. It was headed 'The Corruption of Modern Pleasure'. He wrote:
Seeing the pantomime caused him to reflect that the working classes deserve more than just a wage large enough to provide lodgings, food and clothes. They deserve entertainment. But there is good entertainment and bad entertainment and Ali Baba was bad entertainment. Why was Ali Baba bad?
Mingled incongruously with these seraphic, and, as far as my boyish experience extends, novel, elements of pantomime, there were yet some of its old and fast-expiring elements. There were, in speciality, two thoroughly good pantomime actors - Mr W.H. Payne and Mr Frederick Payne. All that these two did, was done admirably. There were two subordinate actors, who played, subordinately well, the fore and hind legs of a donkey. And there was a little actress of whom I have chiefly to speak, who played exquisitely the part she had to play. The scene in which she appeared was the only one in the whole pantomime in which there was any dramatic effort, or, with a few rare exceptions, any dramatic possibility;... and the little lady I spoke to, eight or nine years old, - dances a pas-de-deux with the donkey.
She did it beautifully and simply, as a child ought to dance. She was not an infant prodigy; there was no evidence, in the finish or strength of her motion, that she had been put to continual torture through half her eight or nine years. She did nothing more than any child, well taught, but painlessly, might easily do. She caricatured no older person, - attempted no curious or fantastic skill. She was dressed decently, - she moved decently, - she looked and behaved innocently, and she danced her joyful dance with perfect grace, spirit sweetness, and self-forgetfulness. And through all the vast theatre, full of English fathers and mothers and children, there was no one hand lifted to give her sign of praise but mine.
It conjures up the wonderful image of Ruskin alone in a vast packed theatre applauding alone.
Ruskin loathed smoking and this was clearly a total desecration of womanhood epitomised for Ruskin by the grace and innocence of the eight-year-old dancer. E.L. Blanchard shared Ruskin's distaste for The Forty Thieves, writing in his diary of his visit to the Covent Garden pantomime: 'coarsely treated - all legs and limelight - but splendidly got up'.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, written by Gilbert A'Beckett, subordinated the fairy tale elements of the story to contemporary references. His dialogue was spattered with allusions to such modern phenomena as the Derby, cabs, water rates and cod liver oil. The show opened in the office of a crooked solicitor who was trying to profit from encouraging his clients into fruitless speculation. The thieves' cave was an up-to-date London club room complete with billiard tables and a prominent role in the action was taken by the Baghdad police force. It is not surprising to see why both Ruskin and Blanchard should detest it. Nor is it surprising to learn that it was produced by Augustus Harris Sr., father of Sir Augustus Harris and the man attributed with first introducing music hall performances into pantomime.
The feminist American scholar Sharon Aronofsky Weltman in an essay on Ruskin and the pantomime argues that 'the intense reaction' of Ruskin to the pantomime 'suggests a special concern for the effect of performance on identity' and that 'Victorian performances threaten Ruskin's already unstable pretense that genders are immutable'. Theatre in particular, she argues, destabilizes gender norms. She writes:
She argues that the Victorians in general and Ruskin in particular worked hard to maintain gender distinctions and that Ruskin was repeatedly fascinated with and repelled by examples of metamorphosis and hybridity. Ruskin gave classic definitions of male and female soul roles in Of Queen's Gardens; man the active doer, adventurer and provider; woman, the maintainer of the home and hearth. However, she notes that, despite Ruskin's frequent attendance at the theatre, his published Works contain only a few sustained responses to theatrical performance in general or to gender performance in particular. This is revealing - perhaps it was not as significant to Ruskin as she argues.
His ferocity about the cigar-smoking girls is partly, she concedes, that he hated smoking. It is partly that young girls should not smoke publicly - it was immodest. It is partly because the audiences applauded this and not the artistic dance. It is only partly that the girls are engaging in masculine behaviour. They are smoking cigars. 'The phallic symbolism of the cigar needs no Freud to declare itself', she says - but sometimes, I suggest, a cigar is just a cigar. Victorians accepted the shapely principal boy but got upset when women became too aggressively masculine, as with the cigar routine. Rather than cross-dressing and male impersonation destabilising Victorian social norms, it could just as well be argued that they provided a safety valve which actually reinforced the existing norms by temporarily overturning them.
Ruskin was far from being alone in lamenting the vulgarisation and debasement of what had been seen as a beautiful and delicate entertainment. Voice after voice was raised in defence of the old pantomime. In his book The Pantomimes and All About Them (1881), rather incongruously dedicated to Augustus Harris, whom many held responsible for the deterioration of the much-loved form, Leopold Wagner began by complaining:
He went on to say that only one London theatre - the Britannia Hoxton - still produced a 'pantomime of the old sort' complete with full harlequinade, 'quite different from anything to be witnessed at the other houses'.
Augustus Harris robustly defended the deployment of spectacle in the theatre in an article in The Magazine of Art. He rejected the calls for the revival of the old harlequinade, dismissing it as visually wretched and recalling:
So for Harris the key to theatrical change was the increased level of education of the audience. He argued that it was not sufficient just to spend money.
So Harris is defending his lavish pantomimes in terms of art and education, almost a Ruskinian position paradoxically for someone who traditionalists accused of vulgarizing and undermining the form.
Jimmy Glover, musical director at Drury Lane, writing in 1911, put it in perspective: 'It is ridiculous for people to state that pantomime has declined. It has not declined; it has, however, changed, and increased its public... Whatever the criticisms may be, the intent of the present pantomime provider has always been good. We live in an age of splendour, luxury and comfort. Therefore the best in spectacular display, in talent, in music, and interpretation is provided.' It is clear too that audiences loved them, and whatever the laments of traditionalists, the box office had the final say. The Augustus Harris formula was followed all over the country and entered a new phase which combined spectacle, pantomime and music hall as the fairy world of Ruskinian Theatre was permanently and decisively defeated.
John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre, by Jeffrey Richards and Kate Newey, will be published in 2009 by Palgrave.
Related STR Pages
Current Lecture Programme
Prof. Jan McDonald on Sir Henry Irving, a Victorian Actor and His World
(Bookprize report extract)
30th March 2009