Most Christmas pantomimes have been cancelled this year because of the pandemic. However you don’t have to miss out completely. On the British Library website there is a digital version of the script of Babes in the Wood first performed at Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 26 December 1897. You can read through alone to amuse yourself, or share out parts amongst your loved ones. There are roles to suit everyone – the Babes Reggie and Chrissie, Prince Paragon, Baron Banbury Cross, the Spirit of Indigestion, a Bucolic Chorus, giants, gnomes, and jockeys to name but a few!
Front cover of Babes in the Wood performed at Theatre Royal Drury Lane 1897-1898 showing Dan Leno as Reggie and Herbert Campbell as Chrissie.
The leading roles were filled by performers well known to music hall and theatre audiences in the 1890s. Reggie and Chrissie were played by Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell, and Ada Blanche appeared as Prince Paragon.
The pantomime was ‘written and invented’ by Arthur Sturgess and Arthur Collins, with music provided by James M. Glover. Arthur Sturgess had been working as a stenographer in London when he sent James Glover a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan that he had written. Sturgess was introduced by Glover to Sir Augustus Harris, the manager of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and his career as a writer was launched.
Arthur Pelham Collins started work as a seedsman but joined the staff at Drury Lane at the age of eighteen as an apprentice to Henry Emden, the scenic artist. Harris was impressed with Collins and made him stage manager. Collins was associated with Drury Lane for over 40 years, becoming its successful managing director.
Sir Augustus Harris died in 1896 and Babes in the Wood was the first pantomime produced at Drury Lane by Collins. It ran for 135 performances, ending in April 1898. Sporting Life said the show was an ‘all-round triumph’. Other reports were more critical. Sussex Agricultural Express published a review describing Babes in the Wood as a hotch-potch music hall kind of pantomime, with the story subordinated to comic songs and ballets. St James’s Gazette said that cuts were needed since the evening performance had run beyond midnight, and commented that it was more of a musical comedy than a pantomime, with some content going over the heads of children in the audience.
So now it’s over to you to decide what you think of Babes in the Wood. There is an added bonus in the form of many interesting advertisements appearing throughout the text. You will be offered evening dresses for young ladies with ‘Slips and Knickers in Nun’s Veiling to Match’; self-adjusting trusses; artistic wigs; Albene for baking; whisky; a comic annual; jewellery; pianos; musical boxes; the celebrated C.B. Corsets; and Dr J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne for treating coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera, and many other ailments.
Seasonal Greetings from Untold Lives!
Lead Curator, East India Company Records
British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast) e.g. Penny Illustrated Paper 25 December 1897; Sporting Life 28 December 1897; St James’s Gazette 28 December 1897; Sussex Agricultural Express 31 December 1897; The Stage 31 August and 7 September 1922; The Scotsman 15 January 1932.