Originally a mime (silent) act with music and stylised dance, the harlequinade later employed some dialogue, but it 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 lost popularity towards the end of the 19th century and disappeared altogether in the 1930s, although Christmas pantomimes continue to be presented in Britain without the harlequinade.
During the 16th century, Commedia dell'arte spread from Italy throughout Europe, 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. First, instead of being a rogue, Harlequin became the central figure and romantic lead. Secondly, the characters did not speak; this was because of the large number of French performers who played in London, following the suppression of unlicensed theatres in Paris. Although this constraint was only temporary, English harlequinades remained primarily visual, though some dialogue was later admitted.
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 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's productions were a hit, and other producers, like David Garrick began producing their own pantomimes. For the rest of the century 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 the end of the century, 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 characters of the pantomime 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". The 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 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. Throughout the 19th century, as stage machinery and technology improved, the transformation of the set became more and more spectacular. Once the transformation was complete, Clown would announce: "Here We Are Again". The setting was usually a street scene containing several stage traps, trick doors and windows. The Clown would jump through windows and reappear through trap doors. He would steal sausages, chickens and other props which he would stuff into his pockets, later dividing these unfairly with an accomplice. He would grease the doorstep of a butcher's shop with butter to outwit his pursuers. Usually there was not much spoken dialogue, but much business with a "red hot poker". Harlequin would uses his magic wand or staff to turn a dog into sausages and a bed into a horse trough, to the surprise of the sleeping victim. Clown would dive into a clock face, which would show no sign of entry.
The harlequinade lost popularity 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 dwindled into 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 for a few decades longer but finally disappeared completely in the middle of the 20th century. The last harlequinade was played at the Lyceum Theatre in 1939.
The harlequinade characters consisted of the following five kinds of clowns, in addition to more minor characters like a policeman:
Harlequin is the comedian and romantic male lead. He is a servant and the love interest of Columbine. His everlasting high spirits and cleverness work to save him from several difficult situations into which his amoral behaviour leads during the course of the harlequinade. In some versions of the original Commedia dell'arte, Harlequin is able to perform magic feats. He never holds a grudge or seeks revenge.
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 of Harlequin into a mischievous magician. He 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.
A century later, Fred Payne and Harry Payne, known as the Payne Brothers, were the most famous Harlequin and Clown, respectively, of their day.
Columbine is a lovely woman, who has caught the eye of Harlequin. In the original Commedia dell'arte she was variously portrayed as a Pantaloon's daughter or servant. In the English harlequinade she is always Pantaloon's daughter or ward. Her role usually centres on her romantic interest in Harlequin, and her costume often includes the cap and apron of a serving girl, though (unlike the other players) not a mask.
Originally a foil for Harlequin's slyness and adroit nature, Clown was a buffoon or fool who resembles less a jester than a comical idiot. However, in the 19th century harlequinade, Clown became more important, embodying its anarchic fun. The great clown Joseph Grimaldi was responsible for building the character up from the country bumpkin fool of the Commedia dell'arte 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. The American George Fox, popularly known as G. L. Fox, became interested in pantomime and made Clown a popular character in the Humpty Dumpty story, with which he toured North America during the middle 19th century.
Originally, Pantaloon (or Pantalone) was a devious, greedy merchant of Venice – a typical character of the Commedia dell'arte. He is taken in readily by the various tricks and schemes of Harlequin. Pantaloon's costume usually includes red tight-fitting vest and breeches, slippers, a skullcap, an over-sized hooked nose, and a grubby grey goatee. Pantaloon 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 the English harlequinade, Pantaloon emerged as the greedy, elderly father of Columbine who tries to keep the lovers separated and assists Clown in his tricks.
Pierrot, or ‘Pedroline’ 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. Also in the 19th century, Pierrot troupes arose, with all the performers in whiteface and baggy white costumes.
The costumes consisted of the following:
- Originally, a black mask, which allowed the actor to lift it and reveal himself sometimes. Other times it is lowered to keep the actor from the audience's view. It has tiny eyeholes and quizzically arched eyebrows. Later, some characters wore whiteface, and the British pantomime characters originally wore masks that they then removed for the transformation to the harlequinade.
- Traditional diamond chequered trousers (usually alternating blue, green, and red diamonds)
- Peasant's shirt
- Batte, or slapstick (carried by Harlequin)
Although the original Commedia dell'arte characters inspired many stage works, novels and short stories, there are few works that draw on the characters of the English genre. They include Harlequin and the Fairy's Dilemma (1904), by W. S. Gilbert.