Easter at the Theatre

The Bower of Spring title page

The Bower of Spring, from a manuscript book of Pantomimes & Comic Scenes, Birmingham Theatre Royal collection, 1803 (Ref: MS 2899/1/1/1/DibC/1)

‘Behind you!’
Pantomimes have been popular for hundreds of years, but their nature has changed through the centuries. In the early nineteenth century they were often described as harlequinades, as a harlequin character played the main role. Christmas was a popular time for pantomimes, but theatres also put them on at other times of year. ‘The Bower of Spring and Harlequin Labor’ is an example of an Easter pantomime. It was one of many pantomimes and spectacles written by Charles Dibdin, in 1803, one of the new owners of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Sadler’s Wells was licensed to open as a summer theatre on April 11, Easter Monday. Easter was an important date in the calendar, and Easter Monday performances were very popular.
 The Bower of Spring extract
‘But now our Masque with moral fit to end
Behold what blessings Industry attend’

The ‘Opening’ and ‘Finale’ introduce the story and give it a conclusion. In the central scenes the main characters are transformed into the fantasy characters Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon. They act out a farce, with various supporting characters in different settings. There are many scene-changes – here ‘Mansion and Lawn’ ‘View of Padddington Canal’ ‘Docks at Blackwall’ ‘Richmond Hill’, for example. There was little dialogue. In the central part of ‘The Bower of Spring and Harlequin Labor’ actions are described in detail but the only language is in songs, and on a few placards. This is pure entertainment, with music and slapstick. However through the actions the moral of the tale is portrayed.

This pantomime portrays the eternal debate between the ant and the grasshopper, here between industry with work characterised by Labor, and Spring with the joy of life, a fitting subject at Easter.  In the Opening Spring is joined by Youth, Sport, Health and Joy. But Labor appears, and when Spring asks him to join them he retorts: ‘Your Mirth is Folly – Folly I disclaim’. Spring calls Folly, who ‘performs a Buffoon Dance.’ Labor tries to remain stern, but in the end he laughs until ‘his face changes to black.’ He is then transformed into Harlequin – traditionally Harlequin wore a black mask – and the comic scenes begin. But just before the end his trials are rewarded when Spring cries ‘Behold what blessings Industry attend.’ and Harlequin becomes Labor again, ‘a splendidly dressed Character with white Face.’

The Bower of Spring - end

In the Finale all is resolved. The moral is in Latin, Spring saying ‘In Labore Voluptas’ [pleasure in work]. This suggests an educated audience, but Harlequin translates immediately for more universal appeal ‘… Their meaning is “Labour who’d have its Reward”.’ The director has the choice of two endings. In the first Labor then the Chorus plead for the approval of the audience:

‘Then grant us your smiles, as a Recompense due,
To our Labours impell’d by the Hope to please you.’

The second ending echoes a song sung by Spring in the first scene. Even at the beginning there is ‘a perspective of the last scene of the pantomime’, when she urges Harlequin

‘Merry Sprite, yield delight, OnHoliday!’;
Now Spring has a message for a wider audience:
‘Merry Band, Joys Expand, OnHoliday.’

At the end stands Grimaldi’s monogram. Recently he had taken over the role of Clown at Sadler’s Wells from the older and more experienced Dubois. Charles Dibdin had introduced the now traditional white baggy decorated costume for the Clown, Grimaldi developed new make-up. Harlequin had also been changed in Dibdin’s pantomimes to become a slimmer, more romantic figure, thus leaving the field clear for the Clown – Grimaldi – to be the ‘Lord of Misrule’ with all the comic tricks and effects. He would become so famous as a clown that clowns are still called ‘Joey’ after him.

Maggie Burns


Leave a comment here or send enquiries to archives.heritage@birmingham.gov.uk

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.