Heroes and Harlequins: Dance & Pantomime on the English Stage in the early 18th century
by Barbara Segal
(click photographs to enlarge)
Dance on the early 18th century English stage
What would you do in the early 18th century if you wanted to see dance on the stage? You’d go to a play! You might not take much notice of the play. With luck, after a short while, there would be some dancing, at which point you’d stop talking to your friends and attend to the stage. When the dancing was finished and the play resumed, you’d most likely carry on with your conversation.
An evening at the Playhouse was quite different from one today. You would go to the theatre between 5 and 6 o’clock, you might listen to the half hour of opening music. After a prologue, the first act of the play would commence – let’s say some grand tragedy – Hamlet. At the end of the first act, there might be a scene with Harlequin and Scaramouche doing a short comedy routine, in mime – it wouldn’t matter in the least that the mood of the comedy did not quite match that of the tragic play. And so the evening would proceed, with a great variety of entr’acte (or interlude) entertainments interspersed between the acts of the play – dances, songs, instrumental music, rope walking, acrobatics, juggling, comic interludes, even strange animals or humans. When the play, or Mainpiece, was finally over, there would usually be an Afterpiece, or maybe even two – a pantomime, a ballet, a farce, or perhaps an opera (for instance, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas). Afterpieces were about an hour long. The evening’s entertainments may well last until midnight. Of course you would not necessarily have stayed for the whole time – you might leave after the Mainpiece – or you might come in only for the Afterpiece, for which entry would be at half-price.
Nor were those going to the Playhouse chiefly to see dance necessarily in the minority, for dance at this time was the most popular thing on the English stage, often being used as a lure to get people in to the theatres to see a play. A dancer in Henry Fielding’s satirical comedy Pasquin (1736) nicely sums up the situation:
“Hang his play, and all Plays; the dancers are the only People that support the House; if it were not for us they might act their Shakespeare to empty Benches” 1.
To satisfy audience demand, the theatres employed many dancers. It has been estimated that in the middle of the century, 25 percent of the performer budget for both patent playhouses was spent on dancers. 2 And these were the two theatres licensed for drama; the unlicensed theatres may well have spent an even greater percentage on dancers.
David Garrick reported that when Marie Sallé, the French dancer famous for her expressive style, gave her benefit performance in London in 1734, the audience went wild with enthusiasm, and people had fought to gain admittance 3. That the popularity of dance continued through much of the century is shown by the fact that when Auguste Vestris gave his benefit performance in London in 1781, the whole of the English Parliament was closed down for the day so that the MPs could go to see him dance (the reading of an important bill had to be postponed). 4
To give you an idea of the somewhat hotchpotch nature of an evening at the Playhouse, I’ll read you an advertisement in the Daily Courant for Dorset Gardens Theatre in 1703:
“At the theatre in Dorset Gardens …will be presented a Farce call’d The Cheats of Scapin. And a comedy of two acts only call’d The Comical Rivals, or the School Boy. With several Italian sonatas by Signor Gasperini and others. And the Devonshire Girl, being now upon her return from the City of Exeter, will perform … several Dances, … and the Whip of Dunboyne by Mr. Claxton her Master, being the last time of their Performance till Winter. And at the desire of several persons of Quality (hearing that Mr. Pinkethman hath hired the two famous French Girls lately arriv’d from the Emperor’s Court) They will perform several dances upon the Rope upon the Stage being improv’d to that Degree far exceeding all others in that Art. And their Father presents you with the Newest Humours of Harlequin as perform’d by him before the Grand Signor at Constantinople. Also the famous Mr. Evans lately arrived from Vienna will show you wonders of another kind, Vaulting on the Manag’d Horse, being the greatest Master of that Kind in the World”. 5
As a result of their popularity, the interlude entertainments became ever more numerous. Emmett Avery quotes an advertisement from 1703 for Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre, listing many songs and dances for a performance of Rowe’s The Fair Penitent. The advertisement ends:”By reason of the Entertainments, the Play will be shorten’d”! 6
What were these stage dances that were so popular?
There were two broad types: serious and comic.
The serious dances
The serious style of dance performed on the English stage originated in France at the court of Louis XIV, although it quickly spread throughout Europe. This so-called belle danse (or noble) style was strongly influenced by Louis’ dancing master, Pierre Beauchamp, the first director of the Royal Academy of Dance in Paris, established in 1661. He was the first to systematise the 5 positions of the feet that still survive in ballet today, and most of his steps still exist – some in slightly altered form – pas de bourée, contretemps, sissone, pirouette, entrechat etc. The steps were accompanied by highly stylised arm movements, with the arm usually being raised in opposition to the first step. Curves were considered beautiful at this time – Hogarth’s ideal for the beautiful line was similar to an S figure7.
[There followed a demonstration of the curved movements of the fingers, wrists, arms tracks etc. of the noble style of dance.]
These dances were set to the rhythms of the passacaille, chacone, sarabande, gigue, gavotte, etc. An elaborate notational system for recording these dances was devised by Beauchamp at Louis’ court. We have over 350 of these dances still surviving today; many of them carry titles and annotations indicating that they were intended for the stage (as opposed to the ballroom). _____________________________________________________________________
performed on the stage, we cannot take them as representative of all
dancing on the stage, since it is thought that many, if not most stage
dancers composed their own dances. 8
Dancers from the early 18th century.
[There followed 2 video clips showing notated theatrical solos for a woman and then a man.]
From the surviving notations for stage dances, we can see that some of them, especially the male solos, were technically very difficult; they remain so today, even for well-trained professional ballet dancers.
The comic dances
Comic dances included almost any form of dance that was not in the noble style – they included what nowadays we would call ‘character’ dances – dances for sailors, farmers, Turks, Dutchmen, shepherds and shepherdesses etc. Character dances would have used the belle danse repertoire of steps, but performed with greater elevation for jumps, more capers and entrechats, higher extensions of the arms and legs, and with much more expressive characterisation.
There would also be dances for the Commedia characters, especially Harlequin and Scaramouche. These dances would have been much more athletic, performed in the so-called grotesque style. A few notated dances for a Harlequin still survive from the early 18th century. We find many movements in these dances that indicate the grotesque style.[There followed a demonstration of the characteristics that represent the grotesque in these Harlequin dances, including false positions, straight arms, exaggerated movements and poses, repetition of steps etc.]
Scaramouche is another grotesque dancer. Hogarth describes his huge strides as
“overstretch’d tedious movements of unnatural lengths of lines” 9.
Punchinello is described by Hogarth: “Punchinello is droll by being the reverse of all
elegance, both as to movement, and figure, the beauty of variety is totally, and
comically excluded from this character in every respect; his limbs are raised and
let fall almost altogether at one time, in parallel directions, as if his seeming fewer
joints than ordinary, were no better than the hinges of a door”. 9
____________________________________________________________________[There followed 2 video clips of Punchinello and Scaramouche dancing.]
We know from contemporary accounts that these grotesque dancers performed amazing feats. John Rich, the most famous English Harlequin and dancer, was said to be able to scratch his ear with his foot. 10
An important source of information for stage dancing is a book from 1716 by a Venetian dancing master, Gregorio Lambranzi; it is called ‘New and Curious School of Theatrical Dancing’. 11Each page has music at the top, with a picture below showing performers enacting a scene, and below this is a brief description of the action, sometimes including the particular dance steps to be used. For instance, one page depicts two people who come on stage doing the balloné step. The man kisses both his fingers, places the kisses in the palm of his hand and blows them to his wife, who tries to catch them in her apron.
The following 13 pictures are from the Lambranzi book of stage dances.
with doing capers (with one leg!)
noses; he wants to kiss her, she slaps him, then they dance together merrily
scenario is given for these two
eventually she drags him off by his beard
_____________________________________________________________________[There followed a video of a Turkish character dance]
Interludes of dancing, singing and commedia were so popular, they were developed into longer pieces and placed at the end of the Mainpiece (usually a play). Called Afterpieces, they would run for about an hour. These Afterpieces were in addition to all the entr’acte entertainments, which showed no signs of diminution. From about 1720 on, plays were usually followed by an Afterpiece.
There were various kinds of afterpieces:
1 Pantomimes – the most popular
4 Musical entertainments – Purcell’s opera Dido & Aeneas was presented as an Afterpiece, although for its first performance it was chopped into acts, each one being inserted between the acts of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure – and don’t forget that about half of this particular opera was dance, much of which has been lost. I’ll just talk about the ballet and pantomime Afterpieces, since these were the ones that contained most of the dancing.
The most common form of ballet at this time was simply a mixture of individual dances and songs – the dances might be character dances, for sailors, peasants, Spaniards etc. There was no strong narrative linking thread, but a simple amalgamation of the songs and dances from the interlude entertainments.
John Weaver, however, dancer, teacher and choreographer, had grander ideas for ballet. He wanted to introduce a kind of danced drama where a story was told only through the use of dance and mime, with no spoken word, and no singing. He made extensive use of mime; sometimes a whole scene would have not a single dance. Weaver wanted his ballets to express the passions of the soul. His first production, The Loves of Mars and Venus, 1717, was called “A Dramatick Entertainment of Dance, Attempted in Imitation of the Pantomimes of the Ancient Greeks and Romans”. 12 The Roman Pantomimi were “Imitators of all Things” – one person portrayed many different roles (although Weaver did use a different dancer for each of his roles). This production is often referred to as the first ballet d’action, that is, ballet where action replaces all words (although Weaver was not the first to propose the idea of such productions).
Weaver’s ballets had a modest success, but they were soon abandoned in favour of a rather different kind of entertainment, one that Weaver referred to as Pantomime “after the Manner of the Modern Italians” 13 (that is, commedia performers), rather than in Imitation of the Ancient Pantomimi. Weaver’s ideas however remained to influence other choreographers, and classical ballet as we know it was the end product.
The most popular type of Afterpiece was the Pantomime. What were these pantomimes? They were of course very different from pantomimes today, which are Christmas entertainments for children. In the 18th century, they were shows for adults, and they were not associated with Christmas (at least, not until the second half of the 18th century). The pantomimes used the same singers and composers who worked in the opera houses, and the best dancers and choreographers of the day worked for them. These pantomimes were a very important medium for the performance of dance on the English stage.
Pantomimes were basically a mixture of commedia dell’arte, ballet, opera and spectacle. There were usually two parts, a comic and a serious, and the mixture of these two parts came in almost any combination. The serious and comic parts were frequently interwoven, but not necessarily related to each other. The serious part was usually based on some mythological story, with Heathen Gods and Heroes. It could involve singing, with Italian-style opera arias and recitatives (but always sung in English), or dancing, with dances in the French belle danse style, or a combination of the two. The comic, or grotesque, part was an English adaptation of Italian commedia dell’arte; it usually portrayed the adventures of Harlequin, and often his courting of Columbine. Harlequin usually had some magical power, which enabled him to transform either himself, another person or his environment into something different – a lady’s bed-chamber could be transformed into a farmyard or an Eastern Palace at the wave of Harlequin’s baton (quite a handy attribute when you’ve got yourself into a compromising situation in a lady’s bedchamber!)
The comic part was played entirely in dumb show – just dance and mime, but no speech. It was this lack of speech in the English pantomimes that made them very different from their Italian counterparts, where speech was the mainstay of the show. In the English pantomime, Harlequin was a virtuoso dancer and a comic mime. He also had to be something of an acrobat, to make spectacular leaps through windows and trapdoors. Columbine was a dancer, and she could be very mischievous. There was usually a clown figure (Scaramouche, Pierrot or Punch), who did comic dancing and provided slapstick humour, a father figure, often Pantaloon, and a lover, as well as other characters inserted to order. There was music throughout the comic part, called the ‘comic tunes’, so the mime as well as the dancing was done to music. The pantomime usually ended with a grand dance for all the characters, often accompanied by singing; this scene sometimes had little to do with what had gone before – for example, Harlequin Teague, which was based on an Irish legend, finished with a grand ballet in Spanish characters.
The development of pantomime is closely associated with the name of John Rich, “God of Pantomimes, Jubilees and Installations” 14 and manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then Covent Garden theatres. He was the first to combine the serious and the comic, to add mute commedia performances to opera and ballet; he believed that “in spite of all the rhetoric…the pantomime is a kind of stage entertainment which will always give more delight to a mixed company than the best farce that can be written”. 15 Rich produced a large number of pantomimes in the early 18th century; in addition, he himself was a brilliant Harlequin and dancer, performing under the name of Lun. When Rich died, David Garrick wrote of him:
When Lun appear’d, with matchless art and whim,
He gave pow’r of speech to ev’ry limb;
Tho mask’d and mute, convey’d his quick intent,
And told in frolic gestures all he meant. 16
This eulogy from Garrick is significant, because Garrick was manager of the fiercely competing Drury Lane Theatre, hence an arch-rival of John Rich; Garrick was also a great dramatic actor, who might have preferred to do away with pantomimes altogether. But Garrick, being a theatre manager, knew on which side his bread was buttered – he knew he had to produce pantomimes – he even seems to have appreciated them, in their place, which was, of course, inferior to drama! Noverre, the great ballet composer from the middle of the 18th century, wrote a similar eulogy in praise of David Garrick: “He was so natural, his expression was so lifelike, his gestures, features and glances were so eloquent and so convincing, that he made the action clear even to those who did not understand a word of English”. 17 Might Garrick’s style of acting have benefited from the fact, little-known to most people today, that his very first performance on a public stage was as a mute Harlequin performer? And this might not have been the only trick he learnt from comic pantomime. Garrick was famous for playing Hamlet; when Hamlet’s father’s ghost appeared on stage, Garrick was able to make the hair on his specially-constructed wig stand on end.
Another contemporary compared the respective heroes of drama and pantomime, David Garrick and John Rich:
” … they may say what they will of the Hero of Drury Lane [Garrick]; he only imitates men, whereas the Covent-garden chief [Rich] converts himself into a wild Beast, a Bird, or a Serpent with a long Tail, and what not”. 18 “…his gesticulation was so perfectly expressive of his meaning, that every motion of his hand or head, or any part of his body, was a kind of dumb eloquence that was readily understood by the audience” . 19 Here is a picture of the man himself.
Perseus and Andromeda; in it, John Rich transforms himself into a dog
(front), and later into Mercury (on top of the dome).
The dancers are Francis Nivelon & Madame La Guerre
One reason for the great success of pantomime was its use of spectacular scenery, special mechanical and lighting effects, extravagant costumes, and tricks. We see a typical trick in Harlequin Dr Faustus, when a money-lender cuts off Faustus’s leg, and immediately legs of all sizes and shapes fly into the room, one of them coming over to attach itself to where Faustus’s missing leg was.
People were transformed into other people, into animals, or even into a vegetable or a wheelbarrow.
Scenes were transformed at the flick of a switch: a palace could be transformed into a prison, or a mechanics shop into serpents and ostriches.
Elaborate stage machinery was used to produce special effects: chariots were pulled through the air by dragons; all sorts of objects and people flew around the skies – usually the goodies flew around the skies, and the baddies emerged from down under (flying could be quite dangerous – people could fall and be seriously injured – usually the understudy, or stuntman, rather than the more ‘valuable’ performer); palaces were destroyed by fires and earthquakes, flames spurted out of mountains (this was quite risky, in an age when theatres frequently burned down); fountains spurted real water. Theatres advertised increasingly ambitious special effects, often to their financial ruin.
Popularity of Pantomimes
Pantomimes appealed to every class of society, from the King and Queen downwards. Receipt records indicate their enormous success. Ticket sales usually quadrupled on nights when a pantomime was performed as Afterpiece to the main play. Although the initial costs of production were much higher than for a play, this was usually recouped by extra ticket sales. In the ‘35/’36 season, Covent Garden had a pantomime playing on just over half of all evenings.
The smaller theatres, unlicensed for the spoken word, put on an even greater percentage of pantomimes. You got a rather strange combination at some of these smaller theatres; since they couldn’t officially stage dramas, they would advertise a concert or pantomime, with say Shakespeare’s Richard III as an interlude
together with other interlude entertainments of dancing. The
gentleman mentioned “Who never appeared on any Stage” is
Opposition by dramatists
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of opposition to pantomime from the playwrights of the day. They were galled by the popularity of pantomimes, and thought that the constant interruptions undermined the seriousness of their dramas. When you read an unfavourable account of a pantomime, however, you must bear in mind that the critics were usually also playwrights, and so biased against pantomimes. They were appalled by the fact that audiences preferred what Colley Cibber referred to as “monstrous Medlies” 20 to their worthy dramas. Henry Fielding wrote a piece satirizing this situation.
Tumble-Down Dick: or, Phaeton in the Suds.
A Dramatick Entertainment of Walking, in Serious and Foolish Characters.
Interlarded with Burlesque, Grotesque, Comick Interludes,
call’d Harlequin a Pickpocket.
As it is performed at the New Theatre in the HAY-MARKET
Being (‘tis hoped) the last Entertainment that will ever be exhibited on any stage.
Invented by the Ingenious MONSIEUR SANS ESPRIT
The Musick compos’d by the Harmonious SIGNIOR WARBLERINI.
And the Scenes painted by the Prodigious MYNHEER VAN BOTTOM-FLAT.
There is a scene involving Machine, a pantomime composer, Fustian, an author/poet, and a prompter.
Machine: Mr Prompter, I must insist that you cut out a great deal of Othello, if
my Pantomime is perform’d with it, or the Audience will be pall’d before
the Entertainment begins.
Prompt: We’ll cut out the Fifth Act, Sir, if you please.
Machine: Sir, that’s not enough, I’ll have the First cut out too.
Fustian: Death and the Devil! Can I bear this? Shall Shakespear be mangled to
introduce this Trumpery?
Prompt: Sir, the Gentleman brings more Money to the House, than all the Poets
put together. 21
A letter in The London Chronicle (1759) rated entertainments according to their degree of ” vigour, sense, taste, education, and intellect, from the lowest state of activity and reason, to the highest excellence of liberal accomplishment”. Athletics came bottom of the list and, perhaps not surprisingly, Pantomime shared second bottom place. A more surprising result is that it shared this low ranking with Opera! 22
Another feature of pantomimes disapproved of by some critics was its indecorum, said to be offensive to Polite Society. One reviewer explains: “The indelicacies I mean, are, the frequent and significant wrigglings of Harlequin’s tail, and the affront that Pierrot is apt to put upon the modesty of Columbine, by sometime supposing, in his search for her lover, that she has hid him under her petticoats… Another impurity that gives me almost equal offense is Harlequin’s tapping the neck or bosom of his mistress, and then kissing his fingers”. 23
For female dancers, there was a special problem: the increasing demands on their technical skills meant that when they held their legs up high, or did multiple pirouettes, their petticoats flew up, so you could see their legs. Unlike ladies in general at this time, the female dancers did wear drawers or breeches. The dancers often had a patron, whose garters they would wear to tie up their stockings; the dancers were instructed to turn quickly enough for their petticoats to rise above their knees, so the patron’s garters could be seen and identified by all. Words on garters were common at the time; a popular motto was: “My Heart is fix’t, I cannot range, I like my Choice too well to change”; another was the simple words: “No Search”. Hogarth drew a caricature of female dancers and their petticoats.
It shows La Barbarina and Desnoyer dancing in England
Combining the comic and the serious
A feature of many pantomimes of this early period was the combination of comic and serious elements. Henry Fielding, the satirist and playwright, who hated pantomimes, had an interesting take on the reason for the juxtaposition:
“The Serious [part] exhibited a certain Number of Heathen Gods
and Heroes, who were certainly the worst and dullest Company into which an
Audience was ever introduced; and – which was a Secret known to few – were
actually intended so to be, in order to contrast the Comic Part of the Entertainment,
and to display the Tricks of Harlequin to the better Advantage.” 24
Dryden, in his dedication of Love Triumphant, declared that the mixture of tragedy and comedy was “agreeable to the English Genius. We love variety more than any other Nation; and so long as the Audience will not be pleas’d without it, the Poet is oblig’d to humour them”. 25
The combination of the serious and the comic (or noble and grotesque) has a long history, which unfortunately I do not have enough time to go into here. I shall just mention the most obvious, the tradition of the Stuart masque. The heroic masque told a story through dance, song and poetry. This was performed by the courtiers, usually playing mythological characters, or roles representing the virtues. This heroic masque was often combined with a comic (or grotesque) anti-masque, performed mostly by professional dancers; one even finds a transformation scene in at least one these productions, and in another there is a dance for six Pantaloons in the anti-masque. 26
The juxtaposition of the serious and the comic has another advantage: the serious part gives legitimacy to the comic. People can enjoy their comedy, laughing at Harlequin, if they have already been edified by something suitably heroic.
Another feature of pantomime was parody. The pantomimists parodied everything, from The South Sea Bubble and current affairs, to productions at rival theatres. And in such parodies Harlequin always triumphed, despite his often outrageous behaviour, thereby allowing the audience to feel that they themselves were cocking a snook at authority figures.[There followed a video presentation of Harlequin and Columbine in a performance of dumb show and dance.]
Pantomime enjoyed considerable commercial and popular success throughout the 18th century in England, where it provided an important vehicle for the presentation of dance in its many forms – heroic, noble, comic and grotesque. This very success, however, may well have inhibited the Art of Dance from entering the Pantheon of ‘serious’ or ‘higher’ arts.
An Art torn between Heroes and Harlequins
In the early 18th century, dance as a theatre art was in its infancy; that is, dance open to the public at large, outside the restricted confines of the court. Despite its enormous popularity, however, it was struggling to define itself, and to be accepted as an art form, comparable to, say, opera, drama or painting. One reason lay in the conflicting roles of Heroes and Harlequins.
In the previous few centuries, courtiers had danced in private theatrical performances – the court masques. Included within the masque, but differentiated from the high status dances of the nobility, were dances that exhibited technical virtuosity and comedy. The latter had been performed mostly by professional dancers, performers of a much lower social status than the aristocratic courtiers.
At the end of the 17th century, however, with the opening up of dance to a more public audience, the professionals were also being trained to take over the roles of the upper classes, to represent the Heroes as well as the Harlequins. The combination, as we have seen in the context of early pantomime, was extremely successful in attracting a wide public audience. Not all the composers of dance, however, were pleased with this development, and many sought to prune the nascent art of its comedic and virtuoso elements.
As mentioned earlier, John Weaver was the chief proponent of theatre dance as a High Art in the early part of the century (followed by Hilferding, Noverre, Angiolini and others from the middle of the century). Weaver did not like dance that showed meaningless technique; he wanted to bring back the dancing of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, where dance was mixed with mime to express something meaningful. But maybe expressive meaning was not the only thing that he took over from the ancients. Both the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance Humanists thought that dance and music had to be elegant, because the “movements of the body were an outward manifestation of the movements of a person’s soul”. 27 So grotesque dancing not only suffered from low-class associations; it was also a sign that the dancer’s soul was “out of step with the movement of the cosmos that bound heaven and earth together”. 28 In other words, it was vulgar, and it would lead to immoral behaviour. So the meaningful expression that Weaver wanted to convey through dance movements had to be censored for its conformity to the ideals of classical harmony and proportion.
It could be argued, therefore, that the composers of the new art of dance were trying to maintain its status by including only that part of dance that had previously been associated with the nobility, with the old Heroes. Restricting the professionals to just these noble roles, however, meant jettisoning not only dance that we might think of as grotesque, or merely acrobatic, but all the technically demanding acts. Yet, maybe without some obvious show of high technical skill, dance could not be accepted as a proper Art – mere ‘meaningful expression’ and ‘nobility’ may not be enough.
It is often said that Weaver’s attempt to establish dance as a High Art was not successful because his ideas were ahead of his time, or because only foreign innovations could succeed, or because his good efforts were sabotaged by the parodies of his works staged by John Rich at the rival theatre, and so on. But perhaps Weaver himself was partly to blame, by trying to exclude too much from his definition of dance as art, by trying to keep the Harlequins separate from the Heroes. Virtuosity and amazing feats of dexterity could, after all, be seen in the fairground, which surely excluded them from the realms of High Art. This is the dilemma in which Weaver finds himself.
One can feel sympathy with Weaver’s attempt to develop an art of dance that did not rely too heavily on clowning around, on dance that was “so intermixt with Trick and Tumbling, that the Design is quite lost in ridiculous Grimace”. 29 But he wanted to exclude technical brilliance as well. To be fair to Weaver, part of the reason for this exclusion was that technical virtuosity got in the way of the unfolding of the narrative – in the expression of the dramatic meaning – an idea also held by Noverre and many other creators of ballet d’action in the middle of the century. Noverre asserted that “it is morally impossible to put soul, truth, and expression into movements, while the body is ceaselessly convulsed by violent and reiterated jerks”. 30
But their rejection of virtuosity was also partly governed by their adherence to the ideals of classical harmony. Weaver rejected movements that were “quite out of Nature”, “odd and unnatural Actions”. 31 Noverre wrote that “entrechats and cabrioles spoil the character of beautiful dancing”, 32 and elsewhere that “the practice introduced by dancers of employing cabrioles in the noble style of dancing has altered its character and deprived it of its dignity”. 33 Angiolini, discussing virtuoso jumps, said that “this style [of dance] is the slightest of all. It can excite in the beholder nothing but amazement mixed with fear in seeing the likes of them exposed to deadly danger at every moment”. 34 Statements pointing to the vulgarity of virtuosity abound, be it excessive capering, high jumps, high leg extensions or multiple turns. Movement that did not express “the Beauty of Imitation, and the Harmony of Composition and Motion” 35 had to be excluded from the true art of dance.
There may always be a tension in dance, or indeed in any art, between craftsmanship (which is technical virtuosity in dance), and some notion of creativity. Weaver was taking dance in the direction of creativity, away from technique without meaning. But wasn’t comic pantomime dance full of meaning? On these criteria, should it not also have been included in the new creative art of dance? Indeed, the descriptions cited earlier of the pantomimic abilities of John Rich playing Harlequin, particularly his ability to change himself into any character at will (and not just through costume changes), recalls Weaver’s own descriptions of the ancient Pantomimi, where one character was able to portray every role, something which Weaver himself did not attempt in his dance revivals of the Ancient Pantomimes. If meaningful expression had been the only criterion, then comic pantomime dancing would certainly have been included in Weaver’s ballets; it was not, because it offended the rules of classical harmony.
Sadly for Weaver, 18th century audiences seem to have really enjoyed watching dance that revealed technical virtuosity. A writer in The Spectator in 1712 remarked that “Capering and Tumbling is now preferred to, and supplies the Place of, just and regular Dancing on our Theatres”. 36 Even Weaver admitted, to his sadness, that the English are extremely fond of “ridiculous senseless Motions, insignificant Cap’rings, and worthless Agility”. 37
Audiences don’t seem very different in the 21st century. If you go to a classical ballet today, it is the dancer doing her 32 fouettés who always gets the biggest clap of the evening, or the man doing a repetitive series of grand leaps or entrechats around the stage. These were the tricks of the grotesque dancers in the 18th century, tricks which, according to the ballet composers, inspired nothing but ridicule and fear. It’s almost obligatory for dancers nowadays to take their legs up to their ears – think of Sylvie Guillem, who represents the height of theatrical integrity – this would have offended the rules of classical harmony in the 18th century. Nowadays, the ballerina who jumps around while on pointe, a feat that is technically very difficult (and, I think, also very grotesque!), gets thunderous applause. Compare this with a description of a Scaramouche from 1710, dancing a gigue on the tips of his toes: “He jumped so high in the air and with such frequency, alighting each time on his toes”. 38 Nijinsky’s final grand leap out through the window at the end of Le Spectre de la Rose was never considered in bad taste – unlike Harlequin’s grand leaps through windows (perhaps because he was usually doing this to escape his pursuers).
A grotesque dancer from the pantomime Robinson Crusoe – Mr Delpini “Shooting the Spaniard” 1781. (Although this picture is from rather late in the century, there are numerous accounts from the first half of grotesque dancers with their legs around their ears.)
Sylvie Guillem in classical ballet mode
Sylvie Guillem in modern dance mode
_____________________________________________________________________[There followed a video clip from a relatively recently choreographed opera of the time, showing dancers doing many capers, entrechats, multiple turns etc. Would Weaver have dismissed this fine virtuoso performance as “ridiculous senseless Motions, insignificant Cap’ring, and worthless Agility”?]
John Weaver made an enormous contribution to the art of dance. But it does seem a pity that he saw such antagonism between the Heroes and Harlequins. Had he been willing to integrate virtuosity and comedy into his productions of serious danced drama, then this emerging art form may have gained more exposure in the theatres, and developed into something that was not only extremely popular, but also a worthy contender for admission into the Pantheon of the Arts. Weaver himself, being an excellent grotesque dancer, would have been ideally suited to bring about this integration. Maybe it was only in the Age of Enlightenment, later in the 18th century, with its emerging belief that all men were created equal, that technically difficult movements, the province of professional performers, could lose their association with low status and become accepted into the repertoire of the Heroes.
Entry into the Pantheon of the Arts
One problem peculiar to the art of dance in its bid to gain entry into the Pantheon was its ephemeral nature. The introduction of a notational system at the end of the 17th century offered hopes of countering this problem. In 1714, Richard Steele reported some degree of progress in this direction:
“I am mightily pleased to observe, that the Art of Dancing is, of late, come to take
Rank in the Learned World, by being communicated in Letters and Characters, as
all other parts of Knowledge have for some Ages been”. 39
This notational system later proved inadequate for capturing new styles of dance, but at the time it was seen as valuable in promoting dance to a higher status. Another factor seen as contributing to this was John Weaver’s theoretical writings on both the history of dance, and the anatomy of the body. Even a century after its publication, a writer remarked that Weaver’s Essay “displays reading and good sense on a subject to which they have not generally been thought applicable”. 40
i. establishing independence
To establish itself in the Pantheon of the Arts, each discipline starts by ridding itself of association with other disciplines. As we have seen in the field of dance, the choreographers wanted dance to stand alone, unencumbered by singing or speech. In the late 20th century, even music as accompaniment was being jettisoned by the avant-garde.
Opera in the early 18th century was going through this same process. Until the end of the 17th century, opera was a mixture of songs, dances and speech, a tradition inherited from the Stuart masques; most of Purcell’s operas followed this model. By the early 18th century, opera was striving to gain its independence, by replacing all speech with singing and recitative.
ii. the purging of comedy
Once the art has purified itself by breaking free of other disciplines, it has a further problem to contend with. This is the tension between the serious and the comic. Can a serious intellectual art form accommodate the comic within it? Can comedy enter the Pantheon? We have seen that this tension created serious problems for acceptance of the Art of Dance. Comic dance had always been associated with low class professionals and fairgrounds, strictly differentiated from a noble Art of Dance.
Similar tensions existed in the field of drama. That the struggle was viewed even on the mythic level is reflected by the well-known image of David Garrick, in the role of Hercules torn between Virtue and Pleasure (or Tragedy and Comedy in Garrick’s case).
Joshua Reynolds 1762.
With its classical reference to the “Trials of Hercules”, one wonders
whether there is a sub-text here: Garrick torn between Theatre as High
Art & Theatre as Entertainment?
iii. the eternal tension between craftsmanship and creativity
And finally, there is the eternal tension between craftsmanship and creativity. In order to be accepted into the Pantheon, both must be demonstrated. Once accepted, an art seems to be given free rein to veer from one extreme to the other. It is hard to believe that contemporary conceptual art would have been accepted on its own merit; but once the art has already gained entrance, extremes may be tolerated within the Pantheon.
With the romantic movement of the 19th century, the veneration of the artist in the Pantheon reached new heights – artists were elevated to the ‘priesthood’ – and serious drama, along with poetry, music and painting, was raised to the position almost of religion. By the 20th century, even dance had been accepted into the Pantheon.
Postmodernism, however, throws a whole new slant on the matter, for it calls into question the very idea of such a Pantheon of Higher Arts; in fact, the very notion of Art itself. We end up with a situation not unlike that of the early 18th century, where the nature of art and the place of the artist in society were still very much in question.
Enter the Postmodern
In the Postmodern world, it is the subversive element, the art that breaks all the conventional prescriptions, that has now become accepted as High Art, and venerated by the religion’s followers. Postmodern art subverts conventions, mixes up the comic with the serious, and high art with the commonplace and the kitsch. In many ways this subversive element might be seen as analogous to the role of comic pantomime in the early 18th century.
In the age of Duchamp’s urinal, André’s notorious pile of bricks, Tracy Emin’s bed or Damian Hirst’s shark, I see the artist as a pantomime character – as a Harlequin – subverting the conventions of High Art as Religion. In this sense, Postmodernism represents the Triumph of Harlequin.
Anecdote: One can just imagine a typical 18th century Commedia scene – Harlequin has a pile of bricks in front of him. He tells the Doctor that this is a great work of Art. The Doctor ponders for some time; finally, he’s impressed, and there ensues an outpouring of flowery and fanciful prose in praise of the great work of art. The Doctor then endeavours to sell the creation to a very sceptical Pantaloon.
The same subversive element can be seen in contemporary dance. In line with the other arts, dance too has progressed to the world of the Postmodern – technique has been subverted, or even totally abandoned – sometimes even movement itself has disappeared, making one wonder what makes a piece qualify as a dance performance at all.
Interestingly, the 18th century pantomime itself seems to be being re-invented. Dance groups like those of Matthew Bourne, Mark Morris, Maguy Marin and others have produced what might be thought of as pantomimic subversions of the classic 19th century ballets – Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Cinderella – in much the same way as the 18th century pantomimists subverted the theatrical conventions of the time. Moreover, these modern productions have returned to the idea of choreography, and have mixed this with both comedy and special effects.
Here is a preview of a performance at the South Bank next week:
“The Australian Dance Theatre hurls a home-made Exocet missile called The Age
of Unbeauty at our sensibilities… Dancers run up and down walls, bodies hurtle
through the air parallel to the floor, with only one painful way to go. You have
seen The Matrix do it with special effects, ADT does it for real”. 41
Haven’t we heard similar words before, in descriptions of 18th century pantomime? In a recent performance of Elizabeth Streb’s Breakthru, a dancer even had to crash through a pane of glass, much as Harlequin crashed through walls. Even the name, The Age of Unbeauty, seems apt, with its connotations of a parody of Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty.
Of recent shows, one that has come very close to an 18th century pantomime is William Christie’s production (with Les Arts Florissants) of Rameau’s opera Les Paladins at The Barbican, London, where a ‘serious’ heroic opera was mixed with dance of every description, from classical ballet and modern dance to break-dancing, bottom wiggling and puppetry (Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu), together with a kaleidoscope of special visual effects (in the form of projection onto a backdrop); all these elements were present in the 18th century pantomime (yes, they did use back projection in the 18th century). It was not, however, to everyone’s taste – though the audience sounded unanimous in its approval, a few critics were aghast.
The issues of concern in the arts today (and of dance, in particular) are not new. Tension between the serious and the comic is still with us. It sometimes seems to me, after seeing yet another depressing or violent contemporary production, that there is still a fear that a comic element will undermine the ‘seriousness’ of a work – will turn it into, that horror of horrors, a ‘family entertainment’.
And the tension between craft and creativity is still alive and well. Conceptual artists deride conventional art as mere craft, while the traditionalists accuse the conceptualists of being bullshit-artists, totally devoid of skill. The concerns that John Weaver had about virtuosity are still relevant today:
“The display of technical virtuosity…no longer makes any sense…. Like a romantic, overblown plot this particular kind of display….has finally in this decade exhausted itself”. 42
This was written in the 1980’s. Yet classical ballet, modern dance, and even more importantly, many Postmodern dance productions display virtuoso technique. The old dog refuses to lie down and die.
How similar were the concerns in the 18th century. The comedy of the commedia characters subverted the serious drama of the heroes. Displays of technical virtuosity were derided, or rather, assumed more appropriate to the circus-like skills of the fairground entertainers. And the context of pantomime, in which dance usually found itself, was dismissed as mere spectacle.
And what of the audience – the paying public? To quote Samuel Johnson:
“… we that live to please, must please to live” 43.
The general public, then and now, seems to like a bit of everything: They like comedy mixed with tragedy – craftsmanship mixed with creativity – and they are not at all averse to a bit of beauty and spectacle. Such art will find a ready audience, as witness the full houses for ballets by such as Pina Bausch. Here, dance has progressed to the resolutely Postmodern – there’s a conflation of different dance techniques, even abandonment of technique altogether – the boundaries between the serious and comic are blurred – all is fragmentation – ideas and forms are jumbled up – parody, irony and playfulness abound – there is even spectacle, along with cross-dressing and animals (both real and of the human variety). It is all so very reminiscent of 18th century comic pantomime!
For the ‘serious’ artist, on the other hand, wedded to some higher notion of artistic purity or integrity, the problem remains today as always – how to make it pay. This age-old dilemma is neatly summed up in David Garrick’s prologue to the 1750 season at Drury Lane:
For tho’ we Actors, one and all, agree
Boldly to struggle for our — vanity,
If want comes on, importance must retreat;
Our first great ruling passion is – to eat. 44
1 Fielding, Henry – Pasquin. A Dramatick Satire on the Times. Dublin ,1736.
2 Milhous, Judith – The Economics of Theatrical Dance in Eighteenth-Century
London. Theatre Journal, 2003, 55.3, pp 481-508.
3 Guest, Ivor – The Romantic Ballet in England, Phoenix House, 1954, p. 14
4 Fairfax, Edmund – The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Scarecrow Press,
USA, 2003, p.239.
5 Miesle, Frank Leland – The Staging of Pantomime Entertainments on the London
Stage: 1715-1808. Unpub. PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 1955, p.25.
6 Avery, Emmett L. – Dancing and Pantomime on the English Stage, 1700-1737.
Studies in Philology 31, 1934, p.419.
7 Hogarth, William – The Analysis of Beauty, Yale University Press, 1997,
8 See Edmund Fairfax op. cit.
9 Hogarth, op. cit., pp.110-1
10 Fairfax, op.cit. p. 28
11 Lambranzi, Gregorio – Neue und curieuse theatralische Tanz-Schul. Peters,
12 For an account of Weaver’s life and works see: Richard Ralph, The Life and
Works of John Weaver, Dance Books, London, 1985
13 Weaver, John – The History of the Mimes and Pantomimes, London, 1728. p.43
14 Warner, Richard – A Letter to David Garrick, Esq. – on his conduct and talents as
Manager and Performer. London, 1770, p. 36. Quoted in Paul Sawyer: John
Rich’s Contributions to the Eighteenth-Century London Stage. In Essays on The
Eighteenth-Century English Stage, ed. K. Richards and P. Thomson, Methuen,
15 Davies, Thomas – Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq., London 1780,
p. 131 – quoted in Sawyer (see note 7), p. 90.
16 Harlequin’s Invasion, or A Christmas Gambol, 1759. Quoted in Chapman, Clive
G. – English Pantomime and its Music 1700-1730. Unpub. PhD thesis, University
of London, 1981, p.149.
17 Noverre, Jean Georges – Letters on Dancing and Ballets – trans. Cyril W.
Beaumont. Dance Horizons, New York, 1930, p. 82 (originally pub. 1760).
18 Murphy, Arthur – Gray’s Inn Journal, September 1753. Quoted in Paul Sawyer –
The Popularity of Pantomime on the London Stage, 1720-1760. In Restoration &
18th C Theatre Research, 1990, 5,2, p. 5.
19 Davies, Thomas – Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq., new edition,
London 1808, p. 368-9 – quoted in Paul Sawyer – John Rich’s Contributions to
The Eighteenth-Century London Stage. In Essays on The Eighteenth-Century
English Stage, ed. K. Richards and P. Thomson, Methuen, London, 1972, p. 91.
20 Cibber, Colley – An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Written by
Himself, ed. Robert W. Lowe, London 1889. Quoted in Roger Fiske – English
Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century. OUP, 1986, p.74
21 Fielding, Henry – Tumbledown-Dick: or, Phaeton in the Suds. London. 1744
22 The London Chronicle; or, Universal Evening Post, 1759, June 26-28. Quoted in
Brent Chesley, Comic Fable or Dolphins in the Skies: Understanding Eighteenth-
Century Pantomime. Restoration and 18th C Theatre Research, 1994, 9, 2
23 “Adam Fitz-Adam” writing in The World, October 1753. Quoted in Paul Sawyer
– The Popularity of Pantomime on the London Stage, 1720-1760. In Restoration
& 18th C Theatre Research, 1990, 5,2
24 Fielding, Henry – The History of Tom Jones a Foundling. Quoted in Roger Fiske
– English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century. OUP, 1986, p. 77
25 John Dryden – Love Triumphant, 1694. Quoted in Peter Ackroyd – Albion – The
Origins of the English Imagination. Chatto and Windus, 2002, p.319
26 See Brent Chesley – The Faces of Harlequin in Eighteenth-Century English
Pantomime. Unpub. PhD thesis, Univ. of Notre Dame, Indiana, 1986, p. 56.
27 Nevile, Jennifer – The Eloquent Body – Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth
Century Italy. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2004, p. 91.
28 Nevile, op. cit. p.91.
29 See Ralph, op. cit., p. 50
30 Noverre, op. cit., p. 106.
31 See Ralph, op. cit., p. 50
32 Noverre, op. cit., p. 106.
33 Noverre, op. cit., p. 50.
34 Angiolini, Gasparo – Dissertation sur les ballets pantomimes des anciens.
Trattern, Vienna, 1765. Quoted in Fairfax, op. cit., p. 126.
35 Weaver, op. cit., p 2.
36 Fairfax, op. cit., p. 63.
37 Weaver, John – An Essay Towards the History of Dancing. London, 1712, p. 139.
38 Avery, Emmett L. – The London Stage 1700-1729, Illinois, 1968, p. cxxxv.
39 Steele, Richard – The Lover, No. 4, 4, 1714, quoted in Ralph, op. cit., p108.
40 Owen, Hugh and Blakeway, John – History of Shrewsbury, London, 1825, II, p.151,
quoted in Chapman, op. cit., p. 114.
41 South Bank Magazine, March 2005.
42 Rainer, Yvonne – Post-Modern Dance. In What is Dance? Ed. Roger Copeland
and Marshall Cohen, OUP, 1983, p. 328
43 Quoted in Paul Sawyer – The Popularity of Pantomime on the London Stage,
1720-1760. In Restoration & 18th C Theatre Research, 1990, 5, 2
44 Garrick, David – Occasional Prologue, in The Poetical Works of David Garrick,
Esq. London, 1785; reprint New York, 1968, I, p. 103. Quoted in Chesley (note 24).