Review of Jack and the Beanstalk - 1889 Drury Lane

Belfort Bax bought the cultural monthly magazine Time at the end of 1889 and started it with a clean sheet in January 1890. He did not want to turn it into a Socialist journal, but rather into a broader and progressive cultural paper. He apparently closed it down in December 1891 (See Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol. 2, pp.442.) The only issues which appear to survive are those for 1890 and the first two months of 1891 in Cambridge University Library. It had regular comments on the Theatre, Literature and Music, and Eleanor Marx and her partner Edward Aveling, (his pseudonym was Alec Nelson) both helped to write the Literature and Dramatic notes, the latter regularly the former occasionally.

THE PANTOMIMES.

Between us we have seen part or the whole of all the chiefs. Drury Lane, Covent Garden, Her Majesty’s, The Grand, Islington, The Surrey, Mrs. Nye Chart’s at Brighton have all been visited, and are all worth visiting. Drury Lane, as the home to which the prodigal son, Pantomime, hits most frequently returned, may be taken as text, but the discourse is general.

For whom are pantomimes written? If they are written as all the world and his wife, and especially his family, believe for children, why are they not more child-like and less childish? If they are written for adults, why are they not more sensible? Why cannot they be both child-like and sensible, and so serve for the children of all ages, after the fashion of Grimm’s Märchen, the Arabian Nights, and, indeed, of all true, and therefore enduring, fairy stories?

With these questions we are ceaselessly brought face to face in Jack and the Beanstalk by Messrs. Harry Nicholls and Augustus Harris. And this, although they have an excellent cast, not less excellent because of its smallness. There are only sixteen principals – the procession of course would need a census officer to work out. And at the head of affairs are three past-masters in the act of fun-making – Harry Nicholls, Herbert Campbell, and Dan Leno.

One or two obvious reasons for the questions asked above thrusting themselves upon us, may be noted. There is still too much of the Music Hall element of the baser sort in the Drury Lane pantomime. There is too much slap and crash in it after the fashion of the variety shows that Americans call plays.

Children, especially boys, need no instruction in banging one another about, when another is the weaker of the two. Messrs. Nicholls and Harris at Christmas time are instructors of youth on the gigantesque scale. The holiday lessons learned in Drury Lane are a considerable factor in education, and too much giving and taking of the “slap” may produce unholy desires in minds that don’t know exactly how it’s done. Above all, there is too much alcohol in Jack and the Beanstalk and our pantomimes generally. The Surrey is the chiefest of sinners in this respect. Another outlying theatre, the “Grand,” is best upon this point, and indeed, taken altogether, is the best and healthiest of the Christmas shows. Oh yes, of course, Falstaff was a drinker – But he wore his rue with a difference. In the Henry IV. and V. you don’t laugh at drinking, but with Falstaff. In the Merry Wives, where, if the legend be true, Shakspere wrote to order, and to the order of Queen Elizabeth! – we have only a fat knight, not Jack Falstaff. The applause of the adults and the babbling laughter of the children in Drury Lane is not with the pantomime King Henry, but at the effects of drunkenness, and of the two the children’s laughter is far the more painful. Happily for them they do not laugh yet at Mr. Nicholls’ explanatory song as to the nature of the business that has detained him from the irate wife of his bosom. The children don’t understand yet the infinite potentialities involved in a gay king stopping out all night, nor in a bibulous monarch’s kissing and cuddling pretty market girls coram populo. Should not the holiday teachers consider with themselves carefully the wisdom, the justice, of casting this sort of food before those that love pearls?

For spectacle, Drury Lane is as ever magnificent. Messrs. Dayes, Caney, Perkins and Kautsky (a Viennese scene painter rapidly making way in this country) have done wonders. By all means let us have, and what is more important, let the children have, glitter, colour, harmony of colour, dancing, the unfolding of innermost heaven after innermost heaven of lights and curves and draperies and unfathomable distances. Especially let us have the new-old order of dancing dresses that Madame Kattie Lanner seems persistently striving after, i.e., the long clinging and infinitely more graceful skirts of the Taglioni days. Only one proviso. Let none of this swamp the story.

Nothing can be better than the Shaksperian procession – unless it be that of the gods. Here is teaching of the best, in the best form for children. For is not the best the embodiment of the ideals of nations and the creations of the ideal poet of all nations? Only don’t let us have the story overlaid, as children are by careless mothers. And that is just what the fathers of the pantomime have done to some extent. Among the expressions of beatific wonderment of the children streaming out from the theatre this question went up many times, “How did it end?” The poetry of the relations between Jack and the Princess – where is it? Vanished in the clouds of incense, the flutter of infinite draperies of spectacle.

Children are the most imaginative little folk, and the most idealistic. Those who see them at Drury Lane of an afternoon, with their clear faces and their bright eyes, those who hear the pure ring of their laughter will almost forgive Mr. Ilarris everything for his bringing together such an audience, a sight more wonderful than any on the stage. But his responsibility is very great, and one of these days he or some one else, neglecting none of the effects and resources of modern stage craft, will tell the children a simple fairy story right away through from “Once upon a time” to “happy ever afterwards.”

ALEC NELSON.

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