Victorian Pantomime

Hurrah for the Pantomime! It has been truly said, that as well might the festive season find its way upon us round the annual calendar, without its snowy mantle, than that we should welcome Christmas without a pantomime

Leopold, W. (1881). The Pantomimes and All About Them. London: 7.

In Christmas 2015, the EFL held an exhibition showcasing a selection of contemporary material on British pantomime in the Victorian era. On display were items from both the English Faculty Library’s own collection, and books called from the Bodleian Library.

Detail from ‘Preparing for the Pantomime: a Dream of Chancifancia’, Illustrated London News, December 24 1870

Pantomime was an enduringly popular entertainment in the Victorian era, and counted Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, William Gladstone and John Ruskin among its fans. Pantomime evolved in form and content through the course of the 19th century, often reflecting wider Victorian cultural trends, and would continue to change during the 20th, but by the late Victorian period had developed many characteristics still recognisable today: a stable of fairytale plots, comedy, spectacle, music, Principal Boys, dames – and the Christmas association.

Pantomime in the early 19th century

‘Joseph Grimaldi as Clown’, from the frontispiece of Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, MacGibbon & Kee edition, 1968.

Eighteenth and early-nineteenth century pantomimes were a form of harlequinade, related to commedia dell’arte. Classical myth, and, later, folk-tales, provided a narrative ‘Opening’, after which the characters would transform into the classic harlequinade characters: Columbine, Pantaloon, Scaramouche, and Harlequin himself. There was little dialogue, aside from songs in Opening. Instead the emphasis was on spectacle, with chase scenes, ‘magic tricks’, special effects and slapstick comedy. These performances were frequently satirical, or even subversive, in nature.

A major development in the early 19th century was the character of the Clown, who initially appeared alongside the harlequin set in traditionally chaotic scenes. The immensely popular and influential comic performances of Joseph Grimaldi defined the Clown as an anarchic figure who mocked authority, punctured pomposity, and indulged in petty criminality. On display was a modern edition of the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi: the frontispiece shows an 1807 drawing of ‘Joseph Grimaldi as Clown, in the popular new pantomime Mother Goose’. The Memoirs, published in 1838, were edited by Charles Dickens as an early commission (he is credited as ‘Boz’).

The Golden Age of Pantomime

Other forms of contemporary entertainment came to influence pantomime (and vice-versa). Aspects of Victorian burlesques and ‘extravaganzas’ between them enhanced the spectacular, satirical, musical and raucous elements of pantomime shows. A law passed in 1843 which permitted spoken dialogue in previously unlicensed theatres also had an effect on pantomime, allowing songs, wordplay and punning to be incorporated into performances.

Detail from ‘Preparing for the Pantomime: a Dream of Chancifancia’, Illustrated London News, December 24 1870

This change also allowed playwrights to expand the narrative ‘Openings’, giving the mythological or fairy-tale plots increasing prominence. The harlequinade consequently reduced in length and prominence, though the association was retained in names of plays, and in popular imagery, such as the Punch cartoons included in the display. The satire became less fierce, and the anarchy waned.

It was from the mid-Victorian period onwards that other enduring aspects of pantomime also developed, such as the pantomime Dame (a male actor in drag), and the Principal Boy (a female actor in male clothing). Similarly, while earlier pantomime had not been specifically children’s entertainment, in the Victorian era an association with childhood was established; so too a connection with the Christmas period.

Costume design for ‘Babes in the Wood’ at Drury Lane Theatre, December, 1897. From the frontispiece of A.E. Wilson, Christmas Pantomime, 1934.

Images from the 1889 lithograph album The Christmas Pantomime reveal some of these trends. The album contains illustrations depicting what had become, and in many cases still are, traditional pantomime stories, such as Babes in the Woods and Jack and the Beanstalk; these familiar titles are also visible on the playbills in the front cover scene. Figuring in many of the images is the recognisable Clown, despite the character’s reduced prominence in later nineteenth century performances.

Also on display was a programme for an 1899/1900 production of Jack and the Beanstalk at the Drury Lane Theatre. Drury Lane had been central to the pantomime scene in Victorian London. Edward Leman Blanchard, a playwright who wrote many pantomimes for Drury Lane in the mid-nineteenth century was important in incorporating elements of extravaganza into performances. Augustus Harris Jr., general manager of the theatre from 1879-1896, made the venue the home of productions on a spectacular scale, with hundreds of cast members; he also cast Music Hall stars in his pantomimes as a way of bringing in larger audiences.

Other items on show included several cartoons from Punch, photographs of Victorian pantomime actors, and sketches of pantomime costumes.


Davis, Richard (2010). Victorian Pantomime: A Collection of Critical Essays. Basingstoke.

McWilliam, R. (2016) ‘Behind You!’ Journal of Victorian Culture 21:2: 261-4.

Mayer, David (2003). ‘Pantomime, British’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Oxford: 995-7.

O’Brien, J. (2007). ‘Pantomime’, in The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre, 1730-1830. Cambridge: 103-114.

Richards, J. (2014). The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England. London.

Victoria & Albert Museum. ‘Victorian pantomime’: Accessed 18/11/16.

Victoria & Albert Museum. ‘The origin of popular pantomime stories’: Accessed 18/11/16.

Wilson, A. E. (1934). Christmas Pantomime: The Story of an English Institution.

Wilson, A. E. (1946). Pantomime Pageant. London.

Wilson, A. E. (1949). The Story of Pantomime. EP Publishing reprint, 1974. London.