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John O’Brien, Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690-1760 (Baltimore and London, John Hopkins University Press, 2004) 304 pp., 13 halftones, 6 line drawings, ISBN 0-8018-7910-8, £33.50, $49.95, hdbk

Emma McEvoy

Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690-1760 is a scholarly work aimed not at the general reader, but at the eighteenth-century or theatre specialist. Its main focus is the pantomime—in itself and as object of discourse. One of the problems, as O’Brien reminds us, is that very little is known about actual stage practice in pantomime; we do not have much idea how John Rich managed, as Harlequin, to transform himself into a dog on-stage, to the astonishment and gratification of his audiences. However, as O’Brien points out, “if pantomime is elusive as an object of study, as an object of discourse, pantomime is ubiquitous from 1720 until at least mid-century” (xx). Harlequin Britain has many and varied points of enquiry; it investigates ideas about the nature of theatre and the function of drama in relation to the state, the concept of the English stage, the expansion of an entertainment culture, the function of entertainment, the nature of the relationship between entertainment and modernity, the conceptualisation of the spectator, and the development of new types of drama. To the scholar of London, the work offers a detailed portrayal of the London theatre scene in the first half of the eighteenth century, capturing well both the sense of newness and innovation that characterised the beginnings of the entertainment industry and the inherently conservative drives underlying commercial theatre.

The work is indebted to Habermas’s theorisation of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ and positions itself as a contribution to our understanding of that sphere. O’Brien, however, interacts with a variety of theorists—Habermas, Jameson, Hockheimer, Adorno, Foucault, Freud, Artaud, Bakhtin, Raymond Williams, Homi Bhabha and Laura Mulvey to name a few—as well as displaying considerable knowledge of the state of eighteenth-century theatre scholarship.

The form of pantomime with which O’Brien is mainly concerned is the afterpiece to the five-act play. It has, as he tells us, a

paradigmatic two-part shape that typified the form throughout the 1720s, 1730s, and 1740s. First, there were ‘serious’ sections, retelling a story that was usually drawn from classical mythology (frequently Ovid’s Metamorphoses) and containing songs in an operatic style, though, unlike those in most operas performed in the early eighteenth century in Britain, these were sung in the vernacular. The serious sections alternated throughout the performance with ‘comic’ or ‘grotesque’ sections, which were organized around the escapades of Harlequin, who used all the resources of stage trickery, most crucially the ability to disguise himself and to transform objects and persons, in order to pry Columbine from the grasp of her father or husband. (4)

In the early part of the work, O’Brien is interested in the radical pleasures to be found in the new entertainment ‘pleasure attendant on viewing rapid changes of scene, extreme disruptions in narrative logic, and the great disparity between classical and commedia modes’ (17) and the ambivalences that characterise audience response to it, a project that involves his theorising the unconscious of pantomime.

O’Brien situates his discussion of pantomime and the harlequin amidst a more general discussion of early eighteenth-century theories of drama and the stage. He investigates eighteenth-century criticism of pantomime which primarily focussed on its effects on its audiences. He is interested in the construction of the idea of the English stage and its relevance to concepts of national identity. O’Brien’s contention is that, at this point in history, the English stage was perceived as having a past and thus discussions over the present and future of the stage engage with a concept of tradition. One of his significant moments is that of the oft-discussed reform of manners of the eighteenth-century drama. He examines Jeremy Collier’s part in the controversy in terms of its relationship to Stuart absolutist ideology and his desire to see theatrical expression controlled by the interests of the state. But, O’Brien claims, two decades later, the arguments that Collier successfully applied to the English stage and which led to it being considered ‘as a kind of genre or thing in its own right’ (99) are re-negotiated in the interests of Whig writers so that British theatre is seen as ‘an institution to be evaluated by a wholly different set of norms’ (99).

O’Brien uses the rhetorical figure of chiasmus (suggesting that in terms of the Walpole administration we see politics become theatre and then theatre become politics) to structure his discussion of both the theatre of state and the state’s relation to theatre in the 1730s, making extensive reference to Whig censorship and the Stage Licensing Act of 1737. The later chapters in particular prove his point about the extent to which ‘the imaginative scope of theater had spread over the course of the early eighteenth century’ (180). In the latter part of the work, he stretches his material to discuss harlequin as the ‘problematic’ figure of the apprentice, the use of the figure of the harlequin to discuss the preaching of Wesley and Whitfield, and also, in what he calls an ‘entr’acte’, why harlequin’s black mask doesn’t signify racial blackness. The general effect is to provide a satisfyingly full and detailed sense of eighteenth-century London life and culture, though occasionally one feels that O’Brien has strayed from the object of his research.

Sometimes O’Brien’s minute and scholarly approach leaves the reader awash in a sea of detail. Some of his more interesting arguments and provocative readings (as well as the sense of structure) are overwhelmed by the flatness of his writing. He also strikes a strange course between abstruseness and suddenly informing the reader of historical circumstances known to any educated person. Some of the problems with tone are doubtless related to the fact that the fragile, evanescent nature of the material he is dealing with is somewhat bizarrely surrounded by the bulwarks of academic argument and the big guns of historical criticism.

One of the strongest points of this work, which could have been highlighted more, is the amount of original research that has gone into it. As it is, it is rather downplayed and becomes the subject for O’Brien’s theoretical musings. Some of the analyses of individual works are disappointing. One gets the sense that certain expected critical tools and concepts are being wielded to extract preordained results, the right theory being applied merely to elicit the requisite responses, and thus the work too often reads as an application of various theories to a chosen arena. O’Brien has recourse to a wide range of theorists and whilst some of these work well, others are less successful. Terms such as nature, tradition, the folk, which he uses to describe some of the debates about culture, seem applied anachronistically. The way he uses Artaud in his discussion of seventeenth and eighteenth-century drama theory illustrates his preference for theory at the expense of context.

The work is more successful in terms of its ability to subsume and reorder a vast amount of research and present an, at times, compelling picture of the theatre scene in early eighteenth-century London. One is grateful for O’Brien’s extensive research and his use of interesting detail. His discussion of the exchanges between public utterance and theatrical practice, and his positioning of the stage not only in the context of, but also as contributing to a sense of the bourgeois public sphere are amongst some of the most convincing and significant aspects of the book. Also of interest is the curious debate that he resurrects about the possibility of pantomime re-creating the classical pantomimi and conveying a universal language of gesture. O’Brien gives us the sense that pantomime was, at one point, at a juncture at which it might be claimed as either the most elevated or the most debased of modes. The discussion of Garrick with which O’Brien ends, is similarly interesting and persuasive. He points out that Garrick’s relation to pantomime was complex. Garrick, who had played Harlequin, liked to dismiss pantomime as a low form and yet instigated the tradition of staging pantomimes at Christmas. O’Brien argues that Garrick, rather than repudiating pantomime, could be said to have incorporated its corporeality and traditions into his own innovative acting style. The discussion of Garrick’s acting style and his production of Harlequin’s Invasion is well chosen as a coda for this book, illustrating as they do O’Brien’s chosen themes of the body, the audience, public taste, and the creation of tradition and a sense of British nationhood in relation to the English stage.

To Cite This Article:

Emma McEvoy, ‘Review: John O’Brien, Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690-1760’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access]