Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 4. New developments: Pantomime and Ballad Opera: John Rich

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 4. New developments: Pantomime and Ballad Opera: John Rich

To the adverse factors which threatened the ascendancy of formal tragedy and comedy must be added two theatrical developments of great significance. The second decade of the eighteenth century marks the introduction of English pantomime; the third, that of ballad-opera. The elements of pantomime had long been present on the English stage before John Rich fused them into an extraordinarily popular type of theatrical entertainment. “Dumb-shows,” introduced as early as Gorboduc, scenic and mechanical elements in masque and the spectacular accessories of restoration opera anticipate salient features of Rich’s productions. Yet, even if Cibber’s suggestion be accepted that the “original hint” for pantomime is to be found in Weaver’s Drury lane production of The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717), John Rich was the dominant factor in establishing the popular type. He had none of Cibber’s scruples about catering to “the vulgar taste.” A remarkable mimic, but without the gift of stage speech, Rich cleverly turned his limitation to advantage. The speaking harlequin, familiar on the Italian stage and already introduced on the English, now became dumb; but Rich made actions speak louder than words. To a theme usually drawn from fabulous history or classical myth, the pantomime added the comic courtship of harlequin and columbine, heightening the effect with spectacular transformations, elaborate scenery and music. The patent theatres vied with each other in producing pantomimes; for the receipts from them doubled those from regular drama. Henceforth, pantomime had to be numbered as one of the stock attractions of the eighteenth century stage.