Jill A. Sullivan

Pantomime Libretti and the Reading Audience

Pantomime Libretti and the Reading Audience

The early nineteenth century pantomime comprised two parts: the Opening in which spoken couplets told stories from legend and fairy tales, adapted to portray the story of Harlequin and Columbine, and the second part – the Harlequinade – in which the comic pursuit of the lovers by Pantaloon and Clown was shown in mime. The same actors played characters in both sections and the central transformation was achieved by the shedding of oversized costumes and masks.  The hero’s costume for example fell away to reveal the traditional multi-coloured costume of the Harlequin.

The large masks worn in the Opening often muffled the lines spoken by the actors and, for that reason, a libretti – more commonly known as the book of words – was on sale to the audience at the performance. After the 1840s, the structure of the pantomime changed and, gradually, the Opening became the dominant feature of the genre. The actors of the Opening no longer became the figures of the Harlequinade, who were played by a different cast, and the masks were no longer worn by the lead players, being employed instead as decorative features for the extras in the cast.

Although the spoken words were no longer difficult to hear, the book of words continued to be produced by theatre managements. Available on sale for a few pence, the book of words had become a tradition and remained so until the early twentieth century. Its format could vary, from simple paper to satin and perfumed copies produced for aristocratic patrons, or highly decorated with colour illustrations, or with the text surrounded by advertisements.

But, with no essential purpose, the continuing existence of the book of words raises crucial questions regarding the place of a text in an auditorium. Not only could it define sections of an audience by literacy and economics, but the acquisition of a book of words and the act of reading it, either before the curtain went up or during a performance, divided the reading and viewing audience. Pantomime was (and still is) an extremely mutable art form. Productions were not only rigorously changed and cut prior to the opening night, but also afterwards and during the run. By contrast, the book of words was printed prior to the first night and although it could be reprinted during a run, archive evidence shows that the format and text were not updated. The book of words therefore represented the text of a production that could be very different to the performance viewed; arguably positing an ideal audience for a static text, preparing them for jokes and scenes that may or may not take place.  Furthermore, in appealing to a literate audience, the book of words depended on those who could understand and appreciate the topical and satirical writing rather than the visual slapstick humour, and enabled the subtler words plays, puns and satirical quips to be savoured long after the curtain came down.

This paper, then, explores the tradition of the book of words, of how the publication created and defined reading audiences within and beyond the theatre environment, and questions the perceived need to create a saleable text for such a highly visual theatrical genre.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.

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