21 December 2016
It's pantomime time!
Come Santa Claus!
The children wait for thee.
Now's the season of the year,
Held by children very dear.
Now at your call,
Comes to gladden one and all.
Horace Lennard's lyrics for the opening number of the 'fairy pantomime' Santa Claus, staged at London's Lyceum Theatre from December 1894, are quaintly (or perhaps cloyingly, depending on your taste) late Victorian. Oscar Bennett's music perhaps even more so.
I found myself looking at it recently having recently visited the British Library's Victorian Entertainments: There will be fun exhibition (open until March 2017). A connection formed between pantomime (represented in the exhibition particularly by Dan Leno, music hall star and famous Victorian pantomime dame), and a large collection of manuscript music from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (where Leno regularly appeared).
Amongst that collection, now here at the British Library, are six boxes of music for the Santa Claus pantomime. Although the music that came from the Drury Lane theatre isn’t necessarily all from productions there, it includes a lot of material associated with the composer and theatrical producer Oscar Barrett (1847-1941). Barrett worked at the theatre as musical director for some time in the 1880s, but soon mounted rival pantomimes at the Lyceum.
Through the 1870s, the productions of Sir Augustus Harris (both senior and junior), began a trend in pantomime towards scenic spectacle, rowdy audience participation, and star turns by music hall performers of the day such as Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd (who would often bring their own songs and routines with them). Under Barrett, the music at least seems to have become more tightly controlled and 'tasteful' (a term that crops up in a lot of the newspaper reports of these performances).
Barrett had a critical hit in 1893-4 with Cinderella, his first production at the Lyceum, which was seen by some as returning to earlier models of pantomime. Interestingly, this in turns seems to have influenced subsequent productions at Drury Lane. (Jeffrey Richards, The Golden Age of Pantomime, 2010, details the various rival productions, their mutual influences, and context in broader changing fashions for pantomime through the 19th century.)
1894-5 was the season for Santa Claus. The plot mixed Maid Marion, Robin Hood, the story of the Babes in the Wood, a dog called Tatters (a collie specifically, played by a Mr Charles Lauri), Queen Mab, and Santa Claus himself. The Bury & Norwich Post, 22 January 1895, tells us that William Rignold, who played him, was "admirably cheery" and delivered his speeches suitably "ore rotundo". Musically, it looks as though it was a similar hotchpotch, albeit one with a noticeable tendency towards certain ‘respectable’ styles (a kind of Arthur Sullivan-lite operetta one in particular).
The manuscripts from the archive are fascinating for many reasons, but especially as testaments to a pragmatic and ephemeral world of music making – and a glimpse at the characters of the pit musicians themselves. (The most I could find about them was a brief mention of the "competent orchestra" in the Globe, 27 December 1894.)
Parts were clearly reused across different pantomimes, with various passages sometimes cut, sometimes reinstated; there are pieces of printed music by other composers (Mendelssohn at one point) that have been inserted and similarly reshaped as required.
There are also several doodles. The viola player in 'no.50 D', for example, has written 'sausage roll' and then a cryptic musical cipher!
The euphonium player for 'no.18' fancies himself a latter day van Dyck, and references the popular music hall song of the time "Where did you get that hat?"
And then there is one of the second violins in 'no.21', who has left us a pencil sketch of some kind of bird. (I'd like to think it might be a turkey, but a colleague suggested it could be a goose in a bonnet ... !)
The ephemeral nature of this music and the kinds of productions it was used for has often left us with a sketchy and selective record of music for pantomime (and theatre productions more generally). In some cases this may not matter, but the insight into life and working practices that the surviving sources provide is fascinating. A case in point is a letter from Oscar Barrett detailing his vision for the choreography for a particular dance. A telling amendment to the score doubles the number of dancing robins for that scene from 12 to 24.
Chris Scobie - Rare Books & Music Reference Service
Notes on resources:
- The Drury Lane Theatre Archive is digitised as part of the British Theatre, Music, and the Arts: High and Popular Culture module in Nineteenth Century Collections Online - a subscription database, but freely accessible in the British Library Reading Rooms
- Newspaper content in this article was found via The British Newspaper Archive - also subscription based, but freely available in the British Library Reading Rooms
- The Lord Chamberlain's Plays contain scripts (although not music) for plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing between 1824 and 1968
- A useful overview of 19th century pantomime can be found in Jeffrey Richards, The Golden Age of Pantomime: slapstick, subversion and spectacle in Victorian England, (London, 2010). British Library YC.2015.a.3620. ; and a collection of critical essays on the subject in Jim Davis (ed.), Victorian Pantomime, (Basingstoke, 2010). YC.2012.a.4426.