Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Pantomime of Life

English Pantomime, which draws upon the tradition of commedia dell'arte, has had a lasting impact on British drama. Charles Dickens was a fan of the art form, and discussed it in an essay entitled "The Pantomime of Life."

The essay originally appeared in Bentley's Miscellany under the heading "Stray Chapters" and was published concurrently with Dickens's novel Oliver Twist. The author confessed "to a gentle sympathy with clowns and pantaloons--to an unqualified admiration of harlequins and columbines..."

Around the same time he wrote that, Dickens was editing the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, the most famous clown in the history of Pantomime. Pantaloon, by the way, was a British descendant of the Italian stock character Pantalone, and harlequins and columbines likewise developed from the Arlecchino and Colombina characters in commedia.

In the essay, Dickens posits that our delight in pantomime comes from the fact that they form "a mirror of life." Just as an audience laughs at a self-satisfied pantaloon falling down on the stage, the public in general enjoys watching the descent of any self-satisfied man of the world, and according to Dickens, "the more suddenly, and the nearer the zenith of his pride and riches, the better."

Even more common in life, the essay claims, is the clown, who takes lodgings he has no intention of paying for and obtains goods under false pretenses. "The best of the joke, too, is, that the very coal-merchant who is loudest in his complaints against the person who defrauded him," Dickens writes, "is the identical man who sat in the centre of the very first row of the pit last night and laughed the most boisterously at this very same thing."

The essay continues to compare the opening of a session of parliament to the raising of a theatrical curtain on a pantomime that is "particularly strong in clowns." Dickens's satire is always sharp, but it helps to have a good knowledge of the theatre to understand all of it.