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The Pantomime of Life

Before we plunge headlong into this paper, let us at once confess
to a fondness for pantomimes--to a gentle sympathy with clowns and
pantaloons--to an unqualified admiration of harlequins and
columbines--to a chaste delight in every action of their brief
existence, varied and many-coloured as those actions are, and
inconsistent though they occasionally be with those rigid and
formal rules of propriety which regulate the proceedings of meaner
and less comprehensive minds. We revel in pantomimes--not because
they dazzle one's eyes with tinsel and gold leaf; not because they
present to us, once again, the well-beloved chalked faces, and
goggle eyes of our childhood; not even because, like Christmas-day,
and Twelfth-night, and Shrove-Tuesday, and one's own birthday, they
come to us but once a year;--our attachment is founded on a graver
and a very different reason. A pantomime is to us, a mirror of
life; nay, more, we maintain that it is so to audiences generally,
although they are not aware of it, and that this very circumstance
is the secret cause of their amusement and delight.

Let us take a slight example. The scene is a street: an elderly
gentleman, with a large face and strongly marked features, appears.
His countenance beams with a sunny smile, and a perpetual dimple is
on his broad, red cheek. He is evidently an opulent elderly
gentleman, comfortable in circumstances, and well-to-do in the
world. He is not unmindful of the adornment of his person, for he
is richly, not to say gaudily, dressed; and that he indulges to a
reasonable extent in the pleasures of the table may be inferred
from the joyous and oily manner in which he rubs his stomach, by
way of informing the audience that he is going home to dinner. In
the fulness of his heart, in the fancied security of wealth, in the
possession and enjoyment of all the good things of life, the
elderly gentleman suddenly loses his footing, and stumbles. How
the audience roar! He is set upon by a noisy and officious crowd,
who buffet and cuff him unmercifully. They scream with delight!
Every time the elderly gentleman struggles to get up, his
relentless persecutors knock him down again. The spectators are
convulsed with merriment! And when at last the elderly gentleman
does get up, and staggers away, despoiled of hat, wig, and
clothing, himself battered to pieces, and his watch and money gone,
they are exhausted with laughter, and express their merriment and
admiration in rounds of applause.

Is this like life? Change the scene to any real street;--to the
Stock Exchange, or the City banker's; the merchant's counting-
house, or even the tradesman's shop. See any one of these men
fall,--the more suddenly, and the nearer the zenith of his pride
and riches, the better. What a wild hallo is raised over his
prostrate carcase by the shouting mob; how they whoop and yell as
he lies humbled beneath them! Mark how eagerly they set upon him
when he is down; and how they mock and deride him as he slinks
away. Why, it is the pantomime to the very letter.

Of all the pantomimic dramatis personae, we consider the pantaloon
the most worthless and debauched. Independent of the dislike one
naturally feels at seeing a gentleman of his years engaged in
pursuits highly unbecoming his gravity and time of life, we cannot
conceal from ourselves the fact that he is a treacherous, worldly-
minded old villain, constantly enticing his younger companion, the
clown, into acts of fraud or petty larceny, and generally standing
aside to watch the result of the enterprise. If it be successful,
he never forgets to return for his share of the spoil; but if it
turn out a failure, he generally retires with remarkable caution
and expedition, and keeps carefully aloof until the affair has
blown over. His amorous propensities, too, are eminently
disagreeable; and his mode of addressing ladies in the open street
at noon-day is down-right improper, being usually neither more nor
less than a perceptible tickling of the aforesaid ladies in the
waist, after committing which, he starts back, manifestly ashamed
(as well he may be) of his own indecorum and temerity; continuing,
nevertheless, to ogle and beckon to them from a distance in a very
unpleasant and immoral manner.

Is there any man who cannot count a dozen pantaloons in his own
social circle? Is there any man who has not seen them swarming at
the west end of the town on a sunshiny day or a summer's evening,
going through the last-named pantomimic feats with as much
liquorish energy, and as total an absence of reserve, as if they
were on the very stage itself? We can tell upon our fingers a
dozen pantaloons of our acquaintance at this moment--capital
pantaloons, who have been performing all kinds of strange freaks,
to the great amusement of their friends and acquaintance, for years
past; and who to this day are making such comical and ineffectual
attempts to be young and dissolute, that all beholders are like to
die with laughter.

Take that old gentleman who has just emerged from the Cafe de
l'Europe in the Haymarket, where he has been dining at the expense
of the young man upon town with whom he shakes hands as they part
at the door of the tavern. The affected warmth of that shake of
the hand, the courteous nod, the obvious recollection of the
dinner, the savoury flavour of which still hangs upon his lips, are
all characteristics of his great prototype. He hobbles away
humming an opera tune, and twirling his cane to and fro, with
affected carelessness. Suddenly he stops--'tis at the milliner's
window. He peeps through one of the large panes of glass; and, his
view of the ladies within being obstructed by the India shawls,
directs his attentions to the young girl with the band-box in her
hand, who is gazing in at the window also. See! he draws beside
her. He coughs; she turns away from him. He draws near her again;
she disregards him. He gleefully chucks her under the chin, and,
retreating a few steps, nods and beckons with fantastic grimaces,
while the girl bestows a contemptuous and supercilious look upon
his wrinkled visage. She turns away with a flounce, and the old
gentleman trots after her with a toothless chuckle. The pantaloon
to the life!

But the close resemblance which the clowns of the stage bear to
those of every-day life is perfectly extraordinary. Some people
talk with a sigh of the decline of pantomime, and murmur in low and
dismal tones the name of Grimaldi. We mean no disparagement to the
worthy and excellent old man when we say that this is downright
nonsense. Clowns that beat Grimaldi all to nothing turn up every
day, and nobody patronizes them--more's the pity!

'I know who you mean,' says some dirty-faced patron of Mr.
Osbaldistone's, laying down the Miscellany when he has got thus
far, and bestowing upon vacancy a most knowing glance; 'you mean C.
J. Smith as did Guy Fawkes, and George Barnwell at the Garden.'
The dirty-faced gentleman has hardly uttered the words, when he is
interrupted by a young gentleman in no shirt-collar and a Petersham
coat. 'No, no,' says the young gentleman; 'he means Brown, King,
and Gibson, at the 'Delphi.' Now, with great deference both to the
first-named gentleman with the dirty face, and the last-named
gentleman in the non-existing shirt-collar, we do NOT mean either
the performer who so grotesquely burlesqued the Popish conspirator,
or the three unchangeables who have been dancing the same dance
under different imposing titles, and doing the same thing under
various high-sounding names for some five or six years last past.
We have no sooner made this avowal, than the public, who have
hitherto been silent witnesses of the dispute, inquire what on
earth it is we DO mean; and, with becoming respect, we proceed to
tell them.

It is very well known to all playgoers and pantomime-seers, that
the scenes in which a theatrical clown is at the very height of his
glory are those which are described in the play-bills as
'Cheesemonger's shop and Crockery warehouse,' or 'Tailor's shop,
and Mrs. Queertable's boarding-house,' or places bearing some such
title, where the great fun of the thing consists in the hero's
taking lodgings which he has not the slightest intention of paying
for, or obtaining goods under false pretences, or abstracting the
stock-in-trade of the respectable shopkeeper next door, or robbing
warehouse porters as they pass under his window, or, to shorten the
catalogue, in his swindling everybody he possibly can, it only
remaining to be observed that, the more extensive the swindling is,
and the more barefaced the impudence of the swindler, the greater
the rapture and ecstasy of the audience. Now it is a most
remarkable fact that precisely this sort of thing occurs in real
life day after day, and nobody sees the humour of it. Let us
illustrate our position by detailing the plot of this portion of
the pantomime--not of the theatre, but of life.

The Honourable Captain Fitz-Whisker Fiercy, attended by his livery
servant Do'em--a most respectable servant to look at, who has grown
grey in the service of the captain's family--views, treats for, and
ultimately obtains possession of, the unfurnished house, such a
number, such a street. All the tradesmen in the neighbourhood are
in agonies of competition for the captain's custom; the captain is
a good-natured, kind-hearted, easy man, and, to avoid being the
cause of disappointment to any, he most handsomely gives orders to
all. Hampers of wine, baskets of provisions, cart-loads of
furniture, boxes of jewellery, supplies of luxuries of the
costliest description, flock to the house of the Honourable Captain
Fitz-Whisker Fiercy, where they are received with the utmost
readiness by the highly respectable Do'em; while the captain
himself struts and swaggers about with that compound air of
conscious superiority and general blood-thirstiness which a
military captain should always, and does most times, wear, to the
admiration and terror of plebeian men. But the tradesmen's backs
are no sooner turned, than the captain, with all the eccentricity
of a mighty mind, and assisted by the faithful Do'em, whose devoted
fidelity is not the least touching part of his character, disposes
of everything to great advantage; for, although the articles fetch
small sums, still they are sold considerably above cost price, the
cost to the captain having been nothing at all. After various
manoeuvres, the imposture is discovered, Fitz-Fiercy and Do'em are
recognized as confederates, and the police office to which they are
both taken is thronged with their dupes.

Who can fail to recognize in this, the exact counterpart of the
best portion of a theatrical pantomime--Fitz-Whisker Fiercy by the
clown; Do'em by the pantaloon; and supernumeraries by the
tradesmen? The best of the joke, too, is, that the very coal-
merchant who is loudest in his complaints against the person who
defrauded him, is the identical man who sat in the centre of the
very front row of the pit last night and laughed the most
boisterously at this very same thing,--and not so well done either.
Talk of Grimaldi, we say again! Did Grimaldi, in his best days,
ever do anything in this way equal to Da Costa?

The mention of this latter justly celebrated clown reminds us of
his last piece of humour, the fraudulently obtaining certain
stamped acceptances from a young gentleman in the army. We had
scarcely laid down our pen to contemplate for a few moments this
admirable actor's performance of that exquisite practical joke,
than a new branch of our subject flashed suddenly upon us. So we
take it up again at once.

All people who have been behind the scenes, and most people who
have been before them, know, that in the representation of a
pantomime, a good many men are sent upon the stage for the express
purpose of being cheated, or knocked down, or both. Now, down to a
moment ago, we had never been able to understand for what possible
purpose a great number of odd, lazy, large-headed men, whom one is
in the habit of meeting here, and there, and everywhere, could ever
have been created. We see it all, now. They are the
supernumeraries in the pantomime of life; the men who have been
thrust into it, with no other view than to be constantly tumbling
over each other, and running their heads against all sorts of
strange things. We sat opposite to one of these men at a supper-
table, only last week. Now we think of it, he was exactly like the
gentlemen with the pasteboard heads and faces, who do the
corresponding business in the theatrical pantomimes; there was the
same broad stolid simper--the same dull leaden eye--the same
unmeaning, vacant stare; and whatever was said, or whatever was
done, he always came in at precisely the wrong place, or jostled
against something that he had not the slightest business with. We
looked at the man across the table again and again; and could not
satisfy ourselves what race of beings to class him with. How very
odd that this never occurred to us before!

We will frankly own that we have been much troubled with the
harlequin. We see harlequins of so many kinds in the real living
pantomime, that we hardly know which to select as the proper fellow
of him of the theatres. At one time we were disposed to think that
the harlequin was neither more nor less than a young man of family
and independent property, who had run away with an opera-dancer,
and was fooling his life and his means away in light and trivial
amusements. On reflection, however, we remembered that harlequins
are occasionally guilty of witty, and even clever acts, and we are
rather disposed to acquit our young men of family and independent
property, generally speaking, of any such misdemeanours. On a more
mature consideration of the subject, we have arrived at the
conclusion that the harlequins of life are just ordinary men, to be
found in no particular walk or degree, on whom a certain station,
or particular conjunction of circumstances, confers the magic wand.
And this brings us to a few words on the pantomime of public and
political life, which we shall say at once, and then conclude--
merely premising in this place that we decline any reference
whatever to the columbine, being in no wise satisfied of the nature
of her connection with her parti-coloured lover, and not feeling by
any means clear that we should be justified in introducing her to
the virtuous and respectable ladies who peruse our lucubrations.

We take it that the commencement of a Session of Parliament is
neither more nor less than the drawing up of the curtain for a
grand comic pantomime, and that his Majesty's most gracious speech
on the opening thereof may be not inaptly compared to the clown's
opening speech of 'Here we are!' 'My lords and gentlemen, here we
are!' appears, to our mind at least, to be a very good abstract of
the point and meaning of the propitiatory address of the ministry.
When we remember how frequently this speech is made, immediately
after THE CHANGE too, the parallel is quite perfect, and still more
singular.

Perhaps the cast of our political pantomime never was richer than
at this day. We are particularly strong in clowns. At no former
time, we should say, have we had such astonishing tumblers, or
performers so ready to go through the whole of their feats for the
amusement of an admiring throng. Their extreme readiness to
exhibit, indeed, has given rise to some ill-natured reflections; it
having been objected that by exhibiting gratuitously through the
country when the theatre is closed, they reduce themselves to the
level of mountebanks, and thereby tend to degrade the
respectability of the profession. Certainly Grimaldi never did
this sort of thing; and though Brown, King, and Gibson have gone to
the Surrey in vacation time, and Mr. C. J. Smith has ruralised at
Sadler's Wells, we find no theatrical precedent for a general
tumbling through the country, except in the gentleman, name
unknown, who threw summersets on behalf of the late Mr. Richardson,
and who is no authority either, because he had never been on the
regular boards.

But, laying aside this question, which after all is a mere matter
of taste, we may reflect with pride and gratification of heart on
the proficiency of our clowns as exhibited in the season. Night
after night will they twist and tumble about, till two, three, and
four o'clock in the morning; playing the strangest antics, and
giving each other the funniest slaps on the face that can possibly
be imagined, without evincing the smallest tokens of fatigue. The
strange noises, the confusion, the shouting and roaring, amid which
all this is done, too, would put to shame the most turbulent
sixpenny gallery that ever yelled through a boxing-night.

It is especially curious to behold one of these clowns compelled to
go through the most surprising contortions by the irresistible
influence of the wand of office, which his leader or harlequin
holds above his head. Acted upon by this wonderful charm he will
become perfectly motionless, moving neither hand, foot, nor finger,
and will even lose the faculty of speech at an instant's notice; or
on the other hand, he will become all life and animation if
required, pouring forth a torrent of words without sense or
meaning, throwing himself into the wildest and most fantastic
contortions, and even grovelling on the earth and licking up the
dust. These exhibitions are more curious than pleasing; indeed,
they are rather disgusting than otherwise, except to the admirers
of such things, with whom we confess we have no fellow-feeling.

Strange tricks--very strange tricks--are also performed by the
harlequin who holds for the time being the magic wand which we have
just mentioned. The mere waving it before a man's eyes will
dispossess his brains of all the notions previously stored there,
and fill it with an entirely new set of ideas; one gentle tap on
the back will alter the colour of a man's coat completely; and
there are some expert performers, who, having this wand held first
on one side and then on the other, will change from side to side,
turning their coats at every evolution, with so much rapidity and
dexterity, that the quickest eye can scarcely detect their motions.
Occasionally, the genius who confers the wand, wrests it from the
hand of the temporary possessor, and consigns it to some new
performer; on which occasions all the characters change sides, and
then the race and the hard knocks begin anew.

We might have extended this chapter to a much greater length--we
might have carried the comparison into the liberal professions--we
might have shown, as was in fact our original purpose, that each is
in itself a little pantomime with scenes and characters of its own,
complete; but, as we fear we have been quite lengthy enough
already, we shall leave this chapter just where it is. A
gentleman, not altogether unknown as a dramatic poet, wrote thus a
year or two ago -


'All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:'


and we, tracking out his footsteps at the scarcely-worth-mentioning
little distance of a few millions of leagues behind, venture to
add, by way of new reading, that he meant a Pantomime, and that we
are all actors in The Pantomime of Life.


Charles Dickens

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