These first pantomimes appeared in different forms from the late 1600s onwards. Usually performed as ‘after-pieces’ following more serious theatre productions. They were available at a reduced admission so became popular with the working classes who could not escape from their jobs in time for the more serious plays. At the time they were accused of ‘lowering the tone’, an accusation that continues even today.
These shows were comedies in which a simple plot was communicated through slapstick and dance, rather than dialogue. These first shows would be unrecognisable to us today as pantomime, but they created a theatrical tradition that would eventually transform through several stages into today’s comic creations. They generally included some misunderstanding or confusion which would eventually lead to a large staged, comic brawl.
It was at this time that the popular character of the Harlequin or clown appeared as a major player. A character that has now vanished from today’s productions. It was largely due to Joe Grimaldi (1802-1832) that the clown was so popular. He was so successful that he used to appear at Sadlers Wells theatre and then run the three miles to Covent Garden in time for his performance there. He never appeared in the circus ring, only ever theatre, but his name ‘Joey’ became a synonym for circus clowns everywhere.
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