Silence and the Law
Although popular culture was suppressed during the puritan Commonwealth , Bartholomew Fair persisted and even resisted. The comedian Robert Cox evaded the law against theatre by performing his farces at the fair on a tight rope. Another incident of resistance inaugurated a carnival ritual known as Lady Holland's Mob. In 1656 the puritans attempted to ban the fair. On the night before the fair was to open a riot against the closure broke out at the traditional ceremony held by the Tailors Guild in Smithfield. The mob took as their name 'Holland' after Holland House where a secret theatre was operating during the suppression. This riot began a tradition in which a mob of thousands would assemble every year at midnight in Smithfield on the night before the opening of the fair and would then disperse and rouse the entire district proclaiming the fair to be open. 1 Over the next two hundred years, the numerous attempts conducted by the state to control and suppress Bartholomew were met with imaginative and sometimes violent resistance.
With the Restoration the State attempted to exploit popular culture as a celebration of the return of the hereditary Monarchic order; the law against theatre was abolished, music was revived in church, old festivals were restored , new festivals were established and Bartholomew Fair was increased to six weeks duration. Returning from exile in France the Restoration court also brought the fashion for female players and so legitimised women on the London stage.
But if the carnival was to be restored, it was also to be controlled and appropriated. The Restoration court monopolised the theatre by granting Royal Patents to only two London theatre companies : the Duke's Company and the the King's Company which became the company of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. 2 This monopoly was consolidated by increasing the legislative power of the Lord Chamberlain to censor both dramatic and printed material. The Patent theatres became the only 'legitimate' stages, all other theatres were forced to operate outside the law.
However, by the early 18th century the power of the state to suppress the illegitimate theatres had manifestly failed and so control was revised and consolidated by the Licensing Act of 1737 which amended the laws against rogues and vagabonds not only to eliminate the illegitimate theatres but also to censor and prohibit subversive work at the Patent theatres. The Licensing Act comprehensively prohibited all unlicensed performance of '..Interlude Tragedy Comedy opera play ffarce or other Entertainment of the stage ' , it required all licensed theatres to submit the texts of their performances to the Lord Chamberlain for censorship fourteen days before a performance, it gave the lord Chamberlain the absolute right to prohibit the performance of any play, it closed loopholes concerning free admission and the sale of alcohol, it instituted heavy fines against anyone who would break the Act and it deemed those who did break it to be rogues and a vagabonds. 3 It was subsequently used as a model for the legislation of censorship by most modern Western states and it was not fully repealed untill 1968. 4 Yet in spite of the Act the popular theatre found ways to abide and even vanquish suppression.
Throughout the late 17th and 18th century a complex interactive relationship was maintained between the legitimate theatre and the popular culture of illegitimate theatres, fairs and travelling players. The legitimate theatre during this period was not an autonomous institution , it was more precisely the most prestigious and official sector of an integrated industry in which performers, producers, plays, writers, genres and even audiences moved from sector to sector. However whilst the state permitted a licensed and censored serious drama based on spoken dialogue to be performed on the legitimate stage, the illegitimate theatre developed popular genres which evaded prohibition by adopting spectacular visual and musical forms in which spoken dialogue was either minimised or eliminated. This process is most discernible in the development of Pantomime in the 18th century, in the rise of Melodrama and the Music Halls of the 19th century.
In the case of Bartholomew Fair there are two critical areas of interest to us in the late 17th and 18th century, the first is the intimate professional transactions between the legitimate stage and the Fair and the second is the transference from the fair to the legitimate theatre of carnival forms, most specifically of forms which assemble a montage of diverse popular attractions.
In 1694 the fair was once more reduced to three days, in 1700 and 1702 plays at the fair were banned, but the popularity and profitability of the booth theatres proved irrepressible. During the St Bartholomew holiday the legitimate theatres were closed and so performers and productions would often transfer to the booth theatres for the duration, it was not unknown for a manager of one of the Patent Theatres to also run a booth theatre during the fair. 5
In 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln's Inn Fields under the management of John Rich who claimed the right to a Royal Patent since his father had purchased the Patent from the heirs of the Dukes Company. 6 A few months later the play was performed in a booth theatre at Bartholomew Fair by a company co-managed by the actor and dramatist Henry Fielding. Eight years later, Fielding's political satire the Historical Register for the Year 1736 was one of the primary theatrical attacks which motivated the passing of the Licensing Law.
The Beggar's Opera was phenomenally successful throughout the 18th century, it became a national sensation generating an industry of merchandising and literature, it toured Europe and America, it spawned a score of imitations and it made a vital financial contribution to the building of Rich's new Theatre Royal in Covent Garden which opened in 1732.
The play is a complex ironic satire on political and cultural pretension and corruption, it satirises the corrupt government of Walpole and the Whigs and it parodies the Italian operas which were then in fashion ; according to Dr Johnson its success drove the Italian opera from the London stage. 7 Crucially the Beggar's Opera takes both its form and the subject of its narrative from popular culture; the 'Opera' is a compendium of popular ballads, it is introduced by a fictional 'author' who is a ballad singer and it is based on the exploits of the notorious criminals Jonathon Wild the 'Thieftaker General' and Jack Shepherd the hero thief who were both celebrated in ballad and popular literature before the success of the Opera; when Jack Shepherd was executed in 1724 two hundred thousand people attended the gallows.
Moreover the Opera is is structured by the topsy turvy liberation of the carnival and the ambivalence of the folk drama. Instead of the mythical heroes and nobility of the Italian opera Gay substitutes thieves, sluts, informers, fences, pimps and whores, instead of orchestral pomp and recitative there is the song of the streets and the fairs. The low life characters of the opera speak in an ironic hybrid language which combines the manners of the genteel nobility and the slang of the underworld. The opera is a mesh of ironic, intertextual and self referential ambivalence which culminates in the famous intervention of the (fictional) author into the dramatic action to change the ending of the play and so save the hero Macheath from a public hanging.
Gay invokes the carnival to subvert the hypocrisy and cruelty of the social order, within the grotesque humour and parody there is a dark core of ancient utopian hope.
In accordance with Bahktin' s concept of grotesque realism as a defining feature of the carnival, it is significant that within his web of irony Gay exposes the inanity of classical mythology and symbolism by creating his drama from recognisable popular celebrities, contemporary characters and situations; the Beggar's Opera takes place in the real London where political office was bought and sold, where the law itself was corrupt, where human life was a commodity and the slums were mazes of poverty, cheap gin, disease and death. 8
The popular realism of the Beggar's Opera also appears in several key texts in the complex historical development of the English novel in the mid 18th century.
In 1695 the state had allowed the legislation which limited the number of trading printers to lapse and so there was a rapid increase in the establishment of printers throughout the country and in the production and distribution of popular material. By the early 18th century the reading public for popular literature had expanded significantly. The popularity of the unwieldy broadside had declined to be replaced by the dominance of the chapbook , a small paper covered pamphlet or book about 8.5 cm x 12 cm in size which contained between 4 and 24 pages of text illustrated with woodcut prints. Like the Broadsides, Chapbooks contained ballads, narrative strips, folk tales, romances, prophecy, political propaganda, sensational crimes etc. These were sold by travelling vendors known as Chapmen who would hawk their stock at public gatherings in the cities at fairs, public executions, alehouses and coffee houses or would travel to the market towns and more remote rural communities. 9
The influence of popular culture on the development of the English novel can be identified in the work of both Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding. Defoe began his career as a pamphleteer and a journalist editor in the developing newspaper industry. Crucially the inspiration for his novel Moll Flanders (1722) was the genre of popular rogue biographies which first appeared in the 16th century.10 Fielding was also influenced by the rogue biographies, specifically in his satirical biography of the thieftaker Jonathon Wild , already the inspiration for the Beggar's Opera. However the crucial influence of popular culture on Fielding's novels was the theatre. As I noted earlier it was Fielding who first staged the Beggars opera at Bartholomew fair, indeed he worked for nine years in theatrical booths at various fairs as a manager, writer, adaptor and actor. In his comedy The Author's Farce of 1730 Fielding like Jonson before him includes a puppet show into his drama. Despite Fielding's neoclassical pretensions it is clear that much of what is 'novel' about the narrative structure and style of Tom Jones is actually a product of Fielding's experience as a popular dramatist. 11 Significantly Fielding's career as a successful dramatist was terminated by the Licensing Act of 1737, he was forced into literature by legislation against popular culture.
Considering the interaction between the work of Defoe, Fielding and the popular carnival tradition I would suggest that Bahktin underestimated the continuity of the carnival tradition in literature and also its generative influence, for not only was it vital in the innovations of the Renaissance but it was a critical influence in the development of the English novel. The critical influence of popular culture on the English novel was realism.
The development of the novel likewise influenced and effected popular literature as cheap pirate and plagiarised copies of novels began to appear in chapbooks. But if we return to the rogue biographies and the outlaw hero Jack Shepherd then it is possible to trace a current in the popular tradition that diverged from the realism of the novel, for Jack Shepherd first appeared as a character on the London stage in the same month as his execution. The play was performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and it was a pantomime called Harlequin Shepherd.
As the 18th century began the influence of the ancient Italian popular theatre of the Commedia Dell'arte on English popular culture began to produce new hybrid forms.
The Commedia was a form of popular comedy performed by professionals actors who given a basic plot and a role from a series of stock characters would then improvise a play. With the exception of the actors playing the two young lovers the stock characters of the Commedia wore half masks which left their mouths free. The most exalted and influential comic characters were the old fool Pantelone , the braggart soldier Scaramuccia and the servants: agile Arlecchino dressed in rags and patches, the pretty young Columbina , the childlike Pagliaccio and the hook-nosed hump-backed Pulcinella. 12 The plot of the Commedia was essentially constant and revolved around the romance of a pair of young lovers who must continually strive to overcome the interference of an aged guardian. The servants assist the lovers and the romance of the servants Columbina and Arlecchino provides a comic subplot. Critically the Commedia plays combined both verbal and physical comedy, dance, music and acrobatics. Italian Commedia players first visited England around the 16th century and it was in the Commedia that women actresses first appeared on the Elizabethan stage.13
Towards the end of the 17th century Pulcinella began to appear as Punch in the puppet booths, and adaptations of the Commedia appeared on the London stage translating the Italian names to Harlequin, Pantaloon, Scaramouche and later Columbine.
Up until the appearance of Punch the puppet booths of the fairs and street corners would often perform versions of the ancient mystery plays, principally The Creation of the World and Noah's Flood. The first records of Punch are as a character integrated into the mystery puppet plays, by the 18th century he appeared in a variety of puppet plays both fantastic and historical. The traditional Punch and Judy show which has survived into the present is perhaps closer to the original pagan/Christian folk drama of the Mystery plays, notably in the versions where Punch descends into hell and kills the devil.
Of the English adaptations of the Commedia the most significant in the development of the pantomime was the The Emperor of the Moon written around 1688 by the adventurer, spy and first professional English woman playwright Aphra Behn. But the principal influence on the English pantomime was the Theatre de la Foire ( The Theatre of the Fair ) a non-speaking version of the Commedia from the fair booths and travelling theatres of France.
In the Theatre de la Foire the traditional broad range of masks had become limited to only a few principal characters to suit small travelling companies of perhaps only three or four actors, and Pagliaccio was transformed into Pierrot.
In the late 17th century the popularity of the Commedia played by the Forains (Fair actors) provoked the French state to enact repressive legislation similar to the establishment of the English Patent Houses; by Royal Decree the Forains were forbidden to speak. In response they resisted by devising a mimed version of the Commedia and imaginative alternatives to dialogue :
' When first denied of speech, they resorted to writing essential lines of dialogue or twists of plot onto scrolls which they carried in their pockets and unrolled to exhibit to the audience at the appropriate moments. Later they changed to placards that were flown in from the stage roof and upon which, and perhaps in verse, they would inscribe their 'captions'. When these were banned, they tried handing out leaflets on which would be printed not only the necessary plot details , but also the words of the songs, so that audiences could join in. Another ruse was to enact only isolated scenes which enabled them to plead that they were not staging 'plays' as such, anyway. ' 14
The Forains brought their mimed Commedia to the fairs of England and eventually a French company performed at Drury Lane to unprecedented popularity. Inspired by this success John Rich who was later to produce ' The Beggar's Opera' , began to stage Commedia based entertainment after the headline plays at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre which integrated mime, slapstick comedy, dance, music and song. Rich himself played the mute Harlequin under the stage name Mr. Lun. In 1716 the classical term 'Pantomime ' was first used to describe a dance entertainment at Drury Lane which used mime, dance and music to enact scenes from classical pagan mythology, the term soon became fashionable as a description of the Commedia style afterpieces.
The expansion of the legitimate theatre bill to include both legitimate and commedia based performance was characteristic of a late 17th/early 18th century shift in the theatre towards longer shows, later openings and lower classes. Whilst the afternoon, three hour performances of the Restoration excluded those bound to the working day, by the early 18th century performances commenced at six, lasted up to five hours, and those who worked late would be let in for half price before the last act of the headline production.
In 1721 Rich and his company combined the Commedia, pagan mythology and contemporary satire into a form which is considered to be the first distinct Pantomime: The Magician; or, Harlequin a Director . This was first performed after 'King Lear' at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The 'Director' of the title is a reference to the speculation scandal of the South Sea Bubble.
The Pantomime show that developed in the 18th century combined classical allusion, pagan mythology, folklore and current events to produce a spectacle of ambivalence and allegory. The action was divided into two distinct but interwoven modes; a serious mythological drama which was sung and comic or 'grotesque' interludes in which Harlequin would court Columbine and perform a series of spectacular magical tricks and transformations. The sets, costumes, stage effects and actions of the pantomime were elaborate and fantastic. Although other companies developed Pantomimes and there were other Harlequins it was Rich as the celebrated Mr Lun who transformed the cunning motley rogue of the Forains into the indestructable magician, the 'speckled wizard' Harlequin who armed with a gift from the immortals , a magic wooden bat , could transform objects and characters. The bat replaced the original wooden sword of the Commedia, it was designed to produce a sharp crack when slapped, this was a signal to the stage crew and cast to perform substitutions and mechanical effects. One of Rich's most spectacular productions was The Rape of Prosperine; with, the Birth and Adventures of Harlequin (1727) . The serious narrative component of this Pantomime was a mythological epic set in ancient Italy and featuring earthquakes, the eruption of Mount Etna, thunderbolts, fire, chariots and battling gods ! In the comic interlude Rich performed one of his most celebrated mimes and illusions; in front of the audience an ostrich sized egg would gradually grow untill it cracked open to reveal a child Harlequin who in turn would grow to become the full sized Rich 15. In later pantomimes Harlequin was forged in a fire, emerged from a lake or was mystically resurrected from a corpse. By the late 1720s pantomime had gained phenominal popularity and both the Patent theatres competed for custom by devising rival productions, by the 1750s Pantomime had almost eclipsed the legitimate drama.
As the pantomime developed from the 18th to the 20th century it changed and renewed itself within a flexible but constant form. In the 19th century the mute Commedia based element of pantomime was phased out and replaced by elememts of burlesque and extravaganza, classical and pagan allusion were relaced by standardised ' fairy tales' and the performance of pantomime became limited to the Christmas season. But within these shifts Pantomime a core of carnival ambivalence, transgression and participation. This mercurial continuity lies in the ironic nature of pantomime as both the universal ancient carnival and the local contemporary actuality; like the Mystery plays and the Mummers, the pantomime takes place between the mythical past and the concrete.This inbetweeness is performed most strikingly by the the stars, the skin parts, the principal boys and the dames.
Towards the end of the 18th century the leading role of Harlequin was gradually usurped by the character of Clown. The Clown's act was spectacular and often violent and grotesque, red hot pokers would be stuck into constables, babies would be thrown around, heads would be lopped off, crowds would riot, people would be burned alive...... The most celebrated star of all pantomime played Clown; Joseph 'Joey' Grimaldi. Grimaldi first appeared on stage aged nine, his father had played both Harlequin and Clown, his son became a Clown, Joey played Clown for 28 years. He worked for most of his life at Sadler's Well which at the beginning of the 19th century was an illegitimate theatre frequented by the working classes. So popular was Grimaldi at the Wells that when he was replaced in a dispute with the management in 1817 there was a huge public outcry and graffiti appeared all over Hoxton , 'Joey Forever'. The theatre lost a fortune and Grimaldi was restored. 16
Grimaldi's act was silent except for the odd catch phrase, although he would sing, and his best loved nonsense song was 'Hot Codlins'. A speciality of Grimaldi's was the 'trick of construction' an absurd bricolage in which he would parody scenes of fashion and power by creating effigies from household objects, for example he would create an army from barrels, broomsticks, funnels, candles and tobacco pipes etc. Grimaldi was so celebrated as Clown that clowns became known as 'Joeys' , he died in 1837 yet decades later pantomime audiences would still bring the show to a halt by demanding that Clown sing ' Hot Codlins '. 17 After Grimaldi the clown worked somewhere between Clown, Joey and himself. In the late 19th century music hall stars such as Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd began to play in pantomime beginning a tradition of ambivalent celebrity which continues in the contemporary Christmas pantomimes which feature stars from television or sport. When television soap stars play pantomime the complex ironic identity of the star plays between their actuality as a celebrity, their character in the soap and their character in the pantomime.