Pantomime

In Brief

The "pantomime," not to be confused with the silent gestures of mimes, was a popular theatrical form whose name indicated that the actors “imitate All.” In Dublin, pantomime shows like "Turko the Terrible" and "Sinbad the Sailor" were performed at both the Theatre Royal and the Gaiety Theatre.

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The pantomime originated in ancient Greece. Medieval England recombined many of the elements of the ancient tradition in the Mummers Play, and Renaissance Italy invented something very similar in the Commedia dell’arte. The pantomime of Joyce’s time arose from adaptations of the Commedia dell’arte in Restoration and early eighteenth century theaters, but it did not assume its definitive form until some time in the Victorian era. This popular but sophisticated art form was practiced not only in English and Irish theaters but also in Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, Jamaica, and other colonies of the British empire.

Victorian pantomimes were usually performed in the Christmas season, but they did not typically incorporate Christmas themes. They instead took their lead from children’s stories that everyone in the audience could be assumed to know, including northern European ones like Cinderella, Mother Goose, and Humpty Dumpty, and also exotic foreign tales like Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad, and Robinson Crusoe.

Using these familiar tales as a kind of canvas, the shows featured countless unrelated kinds of entertainment: dances, well-known popular songs set to new lyrics, cross-dressing roles, slapstick comedy, evil villains and good fairies, and guest stars, with frequent audience participation and heaping helpings of sexual innuendo. The story line ran very loosely through all these incidentals, and tended to be wrapped up quickly and unrealistically. British music halls and theaters have kept the pantomime tradition alive to the present day.

The "Turko the terrible" that Stephen thinks of in Telemachus and Bloom in Calypso was actually performed in Dublin. Thornton notes that William Brough’s pantomime Turko the Terrible; or, The Fairy Roses, first performed in 1868 at London's Gaiety Theatre, was adapted by the Irish author Edwin Hamilton for performance in Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, first in 1873 and then many times more in the remainder of the nineteenth century. Bloom thinks of Turko as he imagines himself wandering through the streets of a Middle Eastern city. In Circe, Molly’s father, Major Brian Tweedy, acquires this exotic aspect. "Old Royce," whom Stephen thinks of playing the role, was Edward William Royce, an English comic actor who often performed parts in pantomimes.

In Ithaca Bloom thinks of “the grand annual Christmas pantomime Sinbad the Sailor,” performed in 1892 and 1893. His language closely resembles the phrase "Grand Xmas Pantomime" on the theater program cover reproduced here. As he drops off to sleep at the end of the episode he is still thinking of Sinbad.

JH 2011

The Theatre Royal on Hawkins Street, Dublin. Source: www.census.nationalarchives.ie.
Illustration of a pantomime being performed on stage, in Blue Beard: A Pantomime Toy Book (ebook). Source: www.ebook3000.com.
Program for 1902 performance of Sinbad pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Exeter (not the one in Dublin). Source: www.exetermemories.co.uk.