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Always-Already Lost: Pantomime and Childhood Nostalgia

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posted on 2021-05-23, 10:57 authored by Danielle Waite


“Pantomime, as it existed in late-Victorian Britain, was both beloved as a children’s holiday tradition and bemoaned for its adult vulgarities. It was celebrated by such English cultural heavyweights as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin and detracted from by the likes of George Bernard Shaw. For Dickens, pantomime was “a mirror of life; nay, more”, whereas for Shaw “modern” pantomime had become “a glittering, noisy void” (qtd. in Booth 84).Echoing Dickens, Ruskin in Fors Clavigera asks “which is the reality, and which is the pantomime” (Ruskin 164)? The rhetoric used by pantomime lovers and reviewers was never lukewarm, making it a compelling area for cultural dissection. Even across the channel, Charles Baudelaire conjured an intent portrait of English pantomime: “With the pen all this is pale and frozen. How could the pen compete with pantomime? Pantomime is the refinement, the quintessence of comedy; it is the comic element pure, detached, and concentrated” (qtd. in Hanoosh 47).Baudelaire may seem an unlikely detractor of the pen given his emotive and provocative wielding of that instrument—and yet such is the effect of the English art of pantomime that even his words risk becoming “pale and frozen”. The views of Dickens, Ruskin, Shaw, and Baudelaire offer a précis of opposing opinions of pantomime in the public and critical eye: pantomime mirrors the movement of modern life, making other art forms stale by comparison—yet the the glittering effect can be over-stimulating, leaving a void. From its inception pantomime, itself derivative of street theatre, was critiqued for succumbing to “modern” influences. Pantomime, as the above quotations reflect, was appraised for its corporeality and its authenticity. The nostalgic longing for an authentic and embodied experience of pantomime is both shared and divisive; pantomime was either praised as lively and pure or devalued as a feeble shadow of its earlier incarnations. Such appraisals are fueled by longing for a different time, whether measured by a collective clock ticking away John Rich’s reign and elaborate harlequinades, or private pasts when the pantomime smelled of potato-cans or “a touch of gas, a soupçon of orange peel, a dash of red fire, and a decided flavour of exploded crackers” (Byron 408).The structure of feeling that dominates pantomime is nostalgia, whether the past is coloured in Arcadian ambers, or the present—and the past on which it was founded—is eyed through a more critical lens.”





Master of Arts


Literatures of Modernity

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type


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