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no. 427

Saturday, 19 November 2005

Pantomime in the United States.
by W.J. Lawrence, London, 1896

George L. Fox

George Lafayette Fox (1825-1877), American actor and clown

(photo: E. Gillett jr., New York, circa 1868)

'American Pantomime is dead, its life-blood drained by that vampire, Farce Comedy. Doubtless it was easy prey, for despite (perhaps because of) its distinctiveness it was sadly lacking in the elements of longevity. It might have acquired tenacity had it been given the droit annuel de cité - to borrow the phrase used by our contemptuous French neighbours in dealing with our own yearly outburst of clownery and pantaloonery. But the American playgoer never permitted the native article to assume a Christmassy flavour, and showered condign punishment on the heads of those who attempted to popularise that parochial entertainment of the flashy revue order so beloved of the Britisher. If therefore genuine Transatlantic Pantomime only enjoyed a brief existence of about a quarter of a century, still from first to last it was Pantomime, in the unvitiated sense of the term, and boasts a record of very considerable interest.
'The late Mr. E.L. Blanchard, one of the most punctilious as well as the most genial of historians, was guilty in his day of a singular error. He was wont to maintain that the first English Pantomime ever seen in America was the famous Grimaldian entertainment of Mother Goose, which, as performed at the Bowery Theatre, New York, with E.J. Parsloe as clown, in February, 1832, proved a shocking fiasco. Considering Mr. Blanchard's absorbing interest in pantomime history, it is surprising that he should have overlooked the fact that two such famous productions as Garrick's Harlequin's Invasion, and Sheridan's Robinson Crusoe, had been performed at the John-street Theatre, New York, in 1786. But if not the first English pantomime in America, Mother Goose was at least an epoch-making piece. Notwithstanding its early failure, it bore frequent revival for thirty years afterwards, and finally imposed its form, in the [eighteen-]sixties, upon the native school of pantomime. Down to quite recently, indeed, American productions of this class consisted of a short semi-pastoral "opening," performed almost entirely in dumb show, and a long trick harlequinade. The year in which Mother Goose was first produced in New York saw the advent there of the Ravels, a clever troupe of French mimes and rope dancers, who brought in their train the traditions of the celebrated Théâtre des Funambules, and by dint of their long-extended popularity succeeded in grafting French methods upon English forms, thus paving the way for an American school of pantomime. It was the gifted George Lafayette Fox, the Debureau from than the Grimaldi of the United States, who, thanks to the hint thus afforded him, reconciled the riotous, full-blooded comicalities of John Bull with the subtle diablerie of Johnny Crapaud, and, by an adroit fusion of the well-worn stage tricks of the Old World, evolved the humour of the New.
'Born in Boston, Mass., in 1825, Fox came of a theatrical family, and trod the stage from his childhood. Possessing pronounced ability as a low comedian, he soon found his way to New York, where he held his own in popularity with such artists as Burke and Joseph Jefferson. While enjoying great vogue at the Old National Theatre, early in the [eighteen] 'fifties, he became smitten with a taste for ballet-pantomime, and succeeded in persuading the manager to produce several Ravelesque pieces, such as The Red Gnome and The Schoolmaster, to gratify his hankerings. The venture proved in every way happy for the theatre. Luckily for himself, Fox had never received the primary training necessary for an acrobat, and in his miming was forced to rely upon his superabundant flow of quiet humour, which had for sluice-gate a marvellously expressive face. Perhaps the crowning feature was the nose, which seemed to have wandered there by mistake, and to have been fashioned for an altogether different type of man. In a woe-begone style it impressed upon you a sense of utter isolation, and of itself, in pantomimic pieces, spoke volumes of comic eloquence. Although best remembered now as America's representative clown, Fox was variously gifted man of remarkably plastic temperament. Even at a time when some degree of versatility was expected of an actor, his range went far beyond that of any of his contemporaries. Acceptable as a character comedian at either in Yankee or Irish parts, a sound melodramatic actor and mimic who, in burlesque, could reproduce the mannerisms of all the Hamlets of his day, he was also an artist in Shakspere, and ranked among the few Transatlantic Bottoms who satisfied the fastidious.
'The true American pantomime may be said to date from Fox's occupation as manager of the Bowery Theatre, about the year 1862. The distinctiveness of the school was shown in the make-up of the clown, who had the whitened face and bald pate of Pierrot combined with a dress similar in cut and colour to the orthodox Grimaldian Joey. Fox's crowning success, produced at the Olympic Theatre in 1868, was Humpty Dumpty, an elastic entertainment, capable of as many mutations, and enjoying as long a life as La Biche au Bois, or the Pied de Mouton. Achieving an initial run of 483 nights, it held its place in the bills there, on and off, until 1873, and was performed no fewer than 943 times at this one theatre, not to speak of representations at other houses and in other towns. Little wonder that the agnomen of "Humpty Dumpty" stuck to Fox to the day of his death, and that the name of the piece fastened itself in the public mind as a synonym for Pantomime! And thereby hangs a tale. For such, indeed, was the impress put upon Humpty Dumpty by its creator's genius, that very rarely has any pantomime produced since throughout the length and breadth of America been known by any other title. Poor G.L. Fox's taking off was as sad in its way as Joey Grimaldi's. He died of softening of the brain, in straitened circumstances, at Cambridge, Mass., on October 24, 1877.


Señor Donato (fl. 1860s), Spanish one-legged dancer

(photo: L. Haase & Co, Berlin, Köln and Breslau, circa 1865)

'Paramount among the elements contributing to the decline and fall of American Pantomime has been a woeful dearth of really funny clowns. Next in order, perhaps, to Fox came his quondam associate, Tony Denier, a pupil of the Ravels, who had that valuable Grimaldian gift denied to the great "Humpty Dumpty" - the faculty of inventing and manufacturing complicated harlequinade tricks. Descendant in the right line of some of the bluest blood in France (with a family tree bearing among other fruit a not unremote Ambassador to the Court of Spain), Mr. Denier landed at Boxton in 1852 with the proverbial half-crown, and experienced much hardship before arriving at fame and fortune. In his time a man of many parts, his most extraordinary one was undoubtedly that bestowed upon him by Barnum in 1863. Donato, the famous one-legged dancer, had just taken London by storm, and the great showman wished to bring him to America. Donato's agent asked 500 dollars a week; Barnum offered fifty. "Are you aware, sir?" said the middleman, "that it took Donato four years to learn to dance?" "I don't know about that," replied Barnum, "but I've got a man who can do it in four weeks." And in less than that time the public were once more gulled by the Prince of Humbugs, who gravely announced, "Tony Denier, the great American one-legged dancer." For fully a score of years from September, 1868, when he first plunged into management, Mr. Denier kept the torch of Pantomime alight by methodically touring the States as the leading light of his own Humpty Dumpty company. With his retirement into private life, to enjoy prosperous east at Chicago, American Pantomime may be said to have ceased to be.'
(The Theatre, London, 1 February 1896, pp.83-86)

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