[explanations in brackets]

"Harlequin [mute character invisible to clown and pantaloon], Columbine [female character],
Pantaloon [character teased by clown], and Clown [jester]!" There is an agreeable magic in these
words, although they carry us back to the most miserable period of our existence—early
childhood. They stand out in our recollection vividly and distinctly, for they are associated with one
of the very few real enjoyments permitted to us at that grim stage of our development. It is a
poetic fashion to look back with sentimental regret upon the days of early childhood, and to
contrast the advantages of immaturity with the disadvantages of complete mental and physical
efflorescence; but like many other fashions—especially many poetic fashions—it lacks a
common substratum of common sense. The happiness of infancy lies in its total irresponsibility,
its incapacity to distinguish between right and wrong, its general helplessness, its inability to
argue rationally, and its having nothing whatever upon its half-born little mind,—privileges which
are equally the property of an idiot in a lunatic asylum. In point of fact, a new-born baby is an
absolute idiot; and as it reaches maturity by successive stages, so, by successive stages does
its intelligence increase, until (somewhere about forty or fifty years after birth) it shakes off the
attributes of the idiot altogether. It is really much more poetical, as well as much more accurate,
to believe that we advance in happiness as our intellectual powers expand. It is true that maturity
brings with it troubles to which infancy is a stranger; but, on the other hand, infancy has pains of
its own which are probably as hard to bear as the ordinary disappointments of responsible men.

"Harlequin, Columbine, Clown, and Pantaloon!" Yes, they awaken, in my mind at all events,
the only recollection of unmixed pleasure associated with early childhood. Those night
expeditions to a mystic building, where incomprehensible beings of all descriptions held
astounding revels, under circumstances which I never endeavored to account for, were to my
infant mind absolutely realizations of a fairy mythology which I had almost incorporated with my
religious faith. I had no idea, at that early age, of a Harlequin who spent the day hours in a pair
of trousers and a bad hat; I had not attempted to realize a Clown with an ordinary complexion,
and walking inoffensively down Bow Street in a cheap suit. I had not tried to grasp the possibility
of a Pantaloon being actually a mild but slangy youth of two-and twenty; nor had I a notion that a
Columbine must pay her rent like an ordinary lodger, or take the matter-of-fact consequences
of pecuniary unpunctuality. I believed in their existence, as I did in that of the Enchanter
Humgruffin, Prince Poppet, King Hurly Burly, and Princess Prettitoes, and I looked upon the final
metempsychosis [migration of souls at death into other bodies] of these individuals as a proper
and legitimate reward for their several virtues and vices. To be a Harlequin or Columbine was
the summit of earthly happiness to which a worthy man or woman could aspire; while the
condition of Clown or Pantaloon was a fitting purgatory in which to expiate the guilty deeds of a
life misspent. But as I grew older, I am afraid that I came to look upon the relative merits of these
mystic personages in a different light. I came to regard the Clown as a good fellow, whom it
would be an honour to claim as an intimate companion; while the Harlequin degenerated into a
rather tiresome muff [bungler], who delayed the fun while he danced in a meaningless way with
a plain, stoutish person of mature age. As Christmases rolled by, I came to know some Clowns
personally, and it interfered with my belief in them to find that they were not the inaccessible
personages I had formerly supposed them to be. I was disgusted to find that they were, as a
body, a humble and deferential class of men, who called me "sir," and accepted eleemosynary
[charitable] brandy and water with civil thanks: and when, at length, I was taken to a rehearsal of
some "Comic Scenes," and found out how it was all done, my dim belief in the mystic nature of
Pantomimists vanished altogether, and the recollection of what thay had once been to me was
the only agreeable association that I retained in connection with their professional existence.

But although familiarity with the inner life of a pantomime may breed a certain contempt for the
organized orgies of the "Comic Scenes," it cannot have the effect of rendering one indifferent to
the curious people to whose combined exertion the institution owes its existence. They are, in
many ways, a remarkable class of men and women, utterly distinct from the outside public in
appearance, ways of thought, and habits of life. A fourth- or fifth-rate actor's conversation is
perhaps more purely "shoppy" than that of any other professional man; his manner is more
artificial, his dialogue more inflated, his metaphors more professional, and his appearance more
eccentric. At the same time he is not necessarily more immoral or more improvident than his
neighbours; and in acts of genuine, unaffected charity, he often sets an example that a bishop
might imitate. There are good and bad people in every condition of life; and, if you are in a
position to strike an average, you will probably find that the theatrical profession has its due
share of both classes. Now for our Thumbnail Sketches.

The two poor old gentlemen who appear on the next page are "supers" [extras] of the legitimate
school. They are not of the class of "butterfly-supers," who take to the business at pantomime
time, as a species of remunerative relaxation; they are at it, and have been at it all the year
round since their early boyhood. Their race is dying out now, for the degenerate taste of modern
audiences insists on epicine [epicene = having but one form to indicate either sex] crowds, and
armies with back-hair and ear-rings. There was a goodly show of fine old regulation "supers" at
Astley's while "Mazeppa" was being played some time ago; and I confess that the sight of the
curious old banner-bearers in that extraordinary drama had more interest for me than the
developed charms of the "beauteous Menken." The deportment of a legitimate "super," under
circumstances of thrilling excitement, is a rich, and, I am sorry to add, a rare study. Nothing
moves him: his bosom is insensate alike to the dying throes of a miscreant and the agonized
appeal of oppressed virtue; and he accepts the rather startling circumstances of a gentleman
being bound for life to a maddened steed, as an ordinary incident of every-day occurrence—
which, in point of fact, it is to him. He is a man of few—very few—words, and he gives
unhesitating adherence to the most desperately perilous schemes with a simple "We will!"—
taking upon himself to answer for his companions, probably in consequence of a long familiarity
with their acquiescent disposition. He is, in his way, an artist; he knows that an actor, however
insignificant, should be close-shaved, and he has a poor opinion of any leading professional
who sports an impertinent moustache. Mr. Macready was for years the god of his idolatry; and
now that he is gone, Mr. Phelps reigns in his stead.

These two young ladies are to embody the hero and heroine of the piece. The taller one is
Prince Poppet; the shorter, Princess Prettitoes. The Prince will be redundant in back-hair, and
exuberant in figure (for a prince); but he will realize many important advantages on his
transformation to Harlequin, and a modification in the matters of figure and back-hair may count
among the most important. "Prince Poppet" is a bright intelligent girl, and is always sure of a
decent income. She sings a little, and dances a great deal, and can give a pun with proper point.
Her manner is perhaps just a trifle slangy, and her costume just a trifle showy, but her character
is irreproachable. She is a good-humoured, hard-working, half educated, lively girl, who gives
trouble to no one. She is always "perfect" in her words and "business," and being fond of her
profession, she is not above "acting at rehearsal," a peculiarity which makes her an immense
favourite with authors and stage-managers. The young lady, "Princess Prettitoes," who is
talking to her, is simply a showy fool, intensely self-satisfied, extremely impertinent, and utterly
incompetent. However, as a set-off to these drawbacks, she must be an admirable domestic
economist, for she contrives to drive her brougham, and live en princesse, in a showy little
cottage ornee, on three pounds a week. These young ladies are the curse of the stage. Their
presence on it does not much matter, so long as they confine their theatrical talents to
pantomime princesses; but they don't always stop there. They have a way of ingratiating
themselves with managers and influential authors, and so it happens that they are not
unfrequently to be found in prominent "business" at leading theatres. They are the people who
bring the actress's profession into contempt; who are quoted by virtuous but unwary outsiders
as fair specimens of the ladies who people the stage. If these virtuous, but unwary outsiders,
knew the bitter feeling of contempt with which these flaunting butterflies are regarded by the
quiet, respectable girls who are forced into association with them, they would learn how little
these people had in common with the average run of London actresses.

These two poor dismal, shivering women are "extra ladies"—girls who are tagged on to the
stock ballet of the theatre during the run of a "heavy" piece. It is their duty while on stage to keep
themselves as much out of site as they conveniently can, and generally to attract as little notice
as possible until the "transformation," when they will hang from the "flies" in wires, or rise from
the "mazarin" through the stage, or be pushed on from the wings, in such a flood of lime-light
that their physical deficiencies will pass unheeded in the general blaze. I believe it has never
been satisfactorily determined how these poor girls earn their living during the nine months of
non-pantomime. Some of them, of course, get engagements in the ballets of country theatres,
but the large majority of them appear to have no connection with the stage except at pantomime
time. An immense crowd of these poor women spring up about a month or six weeks before
Christmas, and besiege the managers of pantomime theatres with engagements that will, at
best, provide them with ten or twelve shillings a week for two or three months; and out of this
slender pay thay have to find a variety of expensive stage necessaries. Many of them do
needlework in the day-time, and during the "waits" at night; but they can follow no other regular
occupations, for their days are often required for morning performances. They are, as a body, a
heavy, dull, civil, dirty set of girls, with plenty of good feeling for each other, and an overwhelming
respect for the ballet-master.

The smart, confident, but discontented-looking man on next page, with the air of a successful
music-hall singer, is no less a personage than the Clown. His position is not altogether an
enviable one, as pantomimes go, now-a-days. It is true that he has the "comic scenes" under
his entire control; but comic scenes are no longer the important element in the evening's
entertainment that they once were; and he is snubbed by the manager, ignored by the author,
and inconsiderately pooh-poohed by the stage-manager. His scenes are pushed into a corner,
and he and they are regarded as annoying and unremunerative impertinences, to be cut off
altogether as soon as the "business" wanes. He undergoes the nightly annoyance of seeing the
stalls rise and go out long before he has got through his first scene. The attraction of a
pantomime ends with the "transformation," and the scenes that follow are merely apologies for
those that go before. The modern Clown is a dull and uninventive person: his attempts at
innovation and improvement are limited to the introduction of dancing dogs, or a musical solo
on an unlikely instrument. As far as the business proper of a Clown is concerned, he treads
feebly in the footsteps of his predecessors; and he fondly believes that the old, old tricks, and
the old, old catchwords, have a perennial vitality of their own that can never fail. He is a dancer,
a violinist, a stilt-walker, a posturist, a happy family exhibitor—anything but the
rough-and-tumble Clown he ought to be. There are one or two exceptions to this rule—Mr.
Boleno is one—but, as a rule, Clown is but a talking Harlequin.

This eccentric person on the chair is the Harlequin and ballet-master. He is superintending the
developing powers of his ballet, addressing them individually, as they go wrong, with a curious
combination of flowers of speech, collecting terms of endearment and expressions of abuse
into an oratorical bouquet, which is quite unique in its kind. He has the short, stubby moustache
which seems to be almost peculiar to harlequins, and his cheeks have the hollowness of
unhealthy exertion. He wears a practising dress, in order that he may be in a position to
illustrate his instructions with greater precision, and also because he has been rehearsing the
"trips," leaps, and tricks which he has to execute in the comic scenes. His life is not a easy
one, for all the carpenters in the establishment are united in a conspiracy to let him break his
neck in his leaps if he does not fee them liberally. He earns his living during the off-season by
arranging ballets, teaching stage dancing, and, perhaps, by taking a music-hall engagement.

We now introduce the Manager, who probably looks upon the pantomime he is about to produce
as the only source of important profit that the year will bring him. Its duty is to recoup him for
the losses attendant upon two or three trashy sensation plays, a feeble comedy, and a heavy
Shakespearian revival; and if he only spends money enough upon its production, and
particularly upon advertising it, he will probably find it will do all this, and leave him with a
comfortable balance in hand on its withdrawal. He is a stern critic in his way, and his criticisms
are based upon a strictly practical foundation—the question whether or not an actor or actress
draws. He has a belief that champagne is the only wine that a gentleman may drink, and he
drinks it all day long. He smokes very excellent cigars, wears heavy jewellery, drives a phaeton
and pair, and is extremely popular with all the ladies on his establishment. He generally "goes
through the court" once a year, and the approach of this event is generally shadowed forth by an
increased indulgence on his part in more than usually expensive brands of his favorite wine. He
has no difficulty in getting credit; and he is surrounded by a troop of affable swells whom he
generally addresses as dear old boys.

The preceding sketch represents the "property man"—an ingenious person whose duty it is to
imitate everything in nature with a roll of canvas, a bundle of osiers, and half a dozen paint-pots.
It is a peculiarity of most property men that they themselves look more like ingenious
"properties" than actual human beings; they are a silent, contemplative, pasty race, with so
artificial an air about them that you would be hardly surprised to find that they admitted of being
readily decapitated or bisected without suffering any material injury. A property man whose soul
is in his business looks upon everything he comes across from his professional point of view; his
only idea is—how it can best be imitated. He is an artist in his way; and if he has any genuine
imitative talent about him he has plenty of opportunities of making it known.

Now comes the Author. I have kept him until last, as he is by far the most unimportant of all his
collaborateurs. He writes simply to order, and his dialogue is framed upon the principle of
telling as much as possible in the very fewest words. He is ready to bring in a "front scene"
wherever it may be wanted, and to find an excuse at the last moment for the introduction of any
novelty in the shape of an "effect" which any ingenious person may think fit to submit to the
notice of the manager. From a literary point of view his work is hardly worth criticism, but he
ought, nevertheless, to possess many important qualifications if it is to be properly done. It is
not at all necessary that he should be familiar with the guiding rules of prosody or rhyme; nor
is it required of him that he shall be a punster, or even a neat hand at parody; but he must be
quick at weaving a tale that shall involve a great many "breeches parts." He must be intimately
acquainted with the details of stage mechanism, and of the general resources of the theatre for
which he is writing. He must know all the catchy songs of the day, and he must exercise a
judicious discrimination in selecting them. He must set aside anything in the shape of parental
pride in his work, and he must be prepared to see it cut up and hacked about by the
stage-manager without caring to expostulate. He must "write up" this part and cut down that part
at a moment's notice; and if one song won't do, he must be able to extemporize another at the
prompter's table; in short, he must be prepared to give himself up, body and soul, for the time
being, to manager, orchestra leader, ballet-master, stage-manager, scenic artist, machinist,
costumier, and property-manager—to do everything that he is told to do by all or by any of these
functionaries, and, finally, to be prepared to find his story characterized in the leading journals
as of the usual incomprehensible description, and his dialogue as even inferior to the ordinary
run of such productions.

London Characters