General articles
Thursday, 27 May 2021

Harlequin Revisited

Written by

harlequin revisited

With the revival of Harlequinade by the Australian Ballet later this year, JUDY LEECH takes a look at the history of the Harlequinade, a tradition that has its genesis in the Commedia dell’arte, and served as inpiration for a ballet by the 19th century choreographer, Marius Petipa, who was responsible for some of classical ballet’s most enduring works, for example Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.  Lead on, Harlequin!

Later this year, within the 2021 Australian Ballet season, we will see a revival of the 1900 ballet Harlequinade—a ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa (1822-1910) and initially entitled Les Millions d’Arlequin and first presented at the Hermitage Theatre in St Petersburg. After meticulous research Alexei Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre, created Harlequinade for the New York City Ballet, and it premiered on the 4 June 2018, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. And now, finally and coronavirus permitting, it is Australia’s turn.

Based on Commedia dell’arte, with its origins in 16th century Italy, and in particular the city of Padua where the first professional company of players were legally incorporated, the Harlequinade was originally a slapstick adaptation of the form and was developed in England between the 17th and mid-19th centuries and defined as ‘that part of a pantomime in which Harlequin and Clown play the principal parts’. The basic plot: Harlequin loves Columbine, her greedy and foolish father Pantaloon tries to separate the lovers, and he is in league with the mischievous Clown and the servant Pierrot. Chaotic chase scenes would follow, often involving a bumbling policeman.

Masks, fashioned from leather, could almost completely hide the face of the player—could totally take over and transform the character. As recently as mid-20th century two men, France’s Jacques Lecocq and Italy’s Amleto Sartori, began a collaboration resulting in the creation and construction of these masks—an ancient manufacturing technique was reinvented, leading to a revival, last century, of Commedia dell’arte, which has led to the evolving of a new modern theatre practice that focuses on mask work.

Turning back several centuries, the performers were silent, although music and dance were involved, but later dialogue was introduced—but principally the Harlequinade was purely a visual spectacle. It was very popular as the closing segment of a longer and more serious presentation involving opera and ballet. There would often be an elaborate and magical transformation scene, introducing a fairy, quite unconnected with the preceding story—sometimes the most curious and unlikely of plots, but a method of transforming the characters into those of the Harlequinade.

Two rival theatres in London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, presented productions that began with classical tales but would conclude with a comic ‘night scene’. A Harlequin of the era, the early 18th century, John Rich (1682-1761), had the power to create all manner of magical tricks—with the help, of course, of offstage craftsmen. His weapon, a magic sword or bat, or ‘slapstick’, he treated as a wand, to bring about the scene changes and the transformation of objects.

Throughout the 18th century this format was presented in the London theatres and plots ranged from Greek and Roman mythology, British folk stories and popular literature, and by the start of the 19th, nursery tales. No matter what story had unfolded in the first part of the evening’s entertainment, the Harlequinade followed the same pattern, the ubiquitous fairy had spectacularly turned the pantomime characters into the obligatory Harlequin, Columbine, Clown, Pierrot and their fellows.

In 1800, enter Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the popular comic performer who turned the role of Clown from a ‘rustic booby into the star of metropolitan pantomime’. New costume designs were introduced and Clown was now sporting a flamboyantly colourful outfit. Harlequin became an increasingly romantic character who left all the mischief and chaos to Grimaldi’s inspired Clown—a Clown that now appeared in several different roles, ranging from a rival suitor to Columbine, to a Cook or a Nurse. His popularity was such that the balance of the evening’s entertainment was altered in that the first part dwindled to what David Mayer (Harlequin in His ElementThe English Pantomime1806-1836) calls ‘little more than a pretext for determining the characters who were to be transformed into those of the Harlequinade’. Productions often ran for four or more hours, pantomimes boasted double titles, describing two totally unconnected subjects or topics—for example, Harlequin and the Red Dwarf; or the Adamantine Rock (1812), Harlequin and Fortunio; or, Shing-Moo and Thun Ton (1815) and Harlequin Padmanaba; or, the Golden Fish (1811).

In early 19th century the Harlequinade came to dominate the evening’s fare and there were spectacular stage effects that it is hard to believe could possibly have been brought off—a whole cottage would disappear, a complete candle-lit supper would appear on a table at a touch, a letterbox turn into the head of a lion from which a diminutive postman would materialize, a sideboard become a beehive, the stage would be transformed into a lake—or a hot air balloon would advance through the proscenium and ascend over the heads of the audience. How was all this achieved?!

Stage machinery and technology were evolving constantly over the 19th century—but having said that, descriptions of some of Grimaldi’s antics are quite beyond belief! His magic wand could turn a dog into sausages, a bed into a horse-trough—Clown could dive into a clock face, leaving no sign of entry, let alone exit. Magic indeed!

Toward the end of this century the Harlequinade lost popularity when music hall, Victorian burlesque, comic opera and its ilk dominated the British comedy stage. By the 1930s it had apparently disappeared, but not quite, as later will be revealed. Here in Australia we saw the form persisting well into the 20th century.

Mention must now be made of the 1943 ballet Harlequin, a ballet choreographed by Helene Kirsova (1911-1962) for her (albeit short-lived) company—and considered to be her masterpiece—seen here at His Majesty’s Theatre in January 1944, after opening in Sydney in late 1943. She used the music of Maurice Ravel and the decor and costumes were the work of Amie Kingston. Some, or even many of our readers will recognise a few of the dancers’ names—Paul Clementin (Hammond), Rachel Cameron and Peggy Sager, Thadee Slavinsky, Helene Ffrance, June Newstead and Strelsa Heckelman. The costumes were made by Peggy’s mother Rose. Harlequin and Columbine ask the Moon to reveal to them their future, with a disastrous result. Columbine has no future, and Harlequin loses the woman he truly loves—his future is a rich and gaudy woman of whom he soon tires. He unsuccessfully begs to be given back his Columbine, but he is drawn by his future and she is left to mourn her fate.

Close on this ballet’s heels, but in London, there emerged a Harlequinade that must be acknowledged and described in some detail. Within a children's musical play, based on the age-old tale of Cinderella (apparently the most popular of all pantomime plots), Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon, son and daughter of Benjamin and Margaret Jane (Jefferson) Farjeon, collaborated to create, in late 1944, The Glass Slipper. Other productions of theirs include Kings and Queens (1932), The Two Bouquets (1938) and An Elephant in Arcady (1939). Interestingly, their father Benjamin (1838-1903), a promising journalist and printer, emigrated to Australia at the age of sixteen in 1854 and worked on the gold-fields, moving to New Zealand in 1861, where he continued with journalism, and later became manager and sub-editor of the Otago Daily Times. In 1868 he returned to London, marrying “Maggie” Jefferson nine years later at the age of 39. He was a prodigious writer of novels, something inherited by three of his four children—the fourth was a composer. Eleanor’s collection of whimsical short stories The Little Bookroom inspired Albert Ullin, in 1960, to open a bookshop here in Melbourne devoted solely to children’s books. The shop’s logo is a delightful example of the work of Edward Ardizzone.

In addition to Cinderella’s three acts, the Farjeons devised, once Cinders had been claimed by her Prince, a Harlequinade where many of the cast were recast, or deconstructed, as participants in this ‘merry romp’, intended as the fulfilment of the wishes of the Prince and Cinderella. It was entitled Harlequin in Search of His Hearta Paradise in Nowhere. Ballet Rambert were very much involved for Hugh Stevenson, the company's principal designer, was responsible for the costumes and settings and Andrée Howard, another Rambert mainstay, for the choreography. Music was by Clifton Parker, the production by William Armstrong and presented by Robert Donat at the St James’s Theatre in December 1944. The cast included Audrey Hesketh, Rambert's daughter Lulu Dukes, Margaret Scott, Paula Hinton, Walter Gore, Sally Gilmour, Rex Reid, Brenda Hamlyn and Joyce Graeme.

Jump ahead to Christmas 1949 and we see several of these cast members appearing here at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. Following the Ballet Rambert tours here in 1947/1948 the dancers who decided to stay on were Margaret Scott (later Dame), Sally Gilmour, Reid and Graeme. And once again names familiar to many of us crop up within the production—Helen Franklyn, Amy Rochelle, June Jago, Justine Rettick, Leon Kellaway, June Wood, Marion Ward, Mary Duchesne, Marilyn Burr, Marie Cumisky, Alison Lee, Bruce Morrow, Max Collis, Barrie Irwin, Stefaan Haag ... The production was presented by Carroll-Fuller Theatres in association with the National Theatre Movement of Australia. The Hugh Stevenson sets were recreated by Max Martin, an Australian painter and set-designer, and Ann Church and Barry Kay designed the costumes. Reid and Graeme were responsible for the choreography, basing it on the original—which they were so familiar with! William P. Carr was the director, Harry Jacobs the conductor and the entire production was supervised by Garnet H. Carroll.

Thanks to my later association with Reid, I now possess the vocal score for The Glass Slipper plus the book that was published, with the entire script and Hugh Stevenson's artwork (with a dedication to Rex), by Allan Wingate Publishers in 1946. No doubt both these came in very handy for the recreation of the production in Australia.

Returning to London, in 1951 John Cranko (1927-1973) created Harlequin in April for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. Scenery and costumes were by John Piper, the English painter and designer, and Richard Arnell was the composer. Columbine is Harlequin’s love and the representation of the ideal he aspires to, but Pierrot stands between the two—he is the perpetual fool and ‘we laugh at him until he interferes too much’. The title was suggested by lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which began:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain …

More than a decade later George Balanchine (1904-1983) presented his Harlequinade, using the original score by Riccardo Drigo, and his designer was Rouben Ter-Arutunian, an American of Armenian parentage and a designer of remarkable range. The company, the New York City Ballet, and this Harlequinade a modern reworking of Les Millions d’Arlequin, telling how Harlequin, helped by a Good Fairy, succeeds in releasing his beloved Columbine from her wealthy father’s domination. Others over the years, including the Russian Alexander Mishutin, have recreated or reconstructed versions of Les Millions, using Petipa’s as an inspiration or as a basis.

So it can be seen that Harlequinade and/or Commedia dell’arte have appeared in countless plays, pantomimes and ballets over the last five centuries, since the first was documented back in 1571 when a troupe of Italian comedians took their traditional native farces to Paris. Almost a century on the Italian composer and dancer Jean Baptiste Lully collaborated with France’s Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere—to create Le Mariage Force, combining Commedia dell’arte with French court dancing.

Closer to home and our times, the Harlequinade appeared at the close of pantomime after pantomime—in Viola Tait’s wonderful book Dames, Principal Boys ... and all That there are eighty appearances of Harlequin in the titles—although not necessarily indicating a following Harlequinade. In 1833 Sydney was treated to this character’s first appearance in the production The Three Wishes; or, Harlequin and the Black Pudding. Ten years later in 1843 George Buckingham presented Melbourne with Robinson Crusoe, a reproduction of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s (only) 1781 pantomime—for London’s Drury Lane—Robinson Crusoe; or, Harlequin Friday.

Harlequin, a difficult character to pin down, dancing, cavorting through the centuries—now you see him, now you don’t: but we are assured, he and his trusty companions are about to pop up again, and are ‘wide awake and ready to charm ballet lovers of all ages’.



The Australian Ballet, ‘A New Era’, brochure for 2021 Season


Australian Variety Theatre Archives

George Balanchine's Festival of Ballet, Hutchinson/W.H. Allen London, 1978

Peter Bellew, Pioneering Ballet in Australia, Craftsman Bookshop, 1945

Clarke &Vaughan, Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet, Pitman, 1977

V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, To Study a Long Silence, Victor Gollancz, 1970

Gadan, Maillard, Crichton & Clarke, Dictionary of Modern Ballet, Methuen, 1959

Arnold Haskell, Gala Performance, Collins, 1955

John Hood, Peggy Sager: Prima Ballerina, Southwood Press, 2004

David Mayer, Harlequin in His Element, Harvard University Press, 1969

Andrew McConnell Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, Canongate, 2009

Viola Tait, Dames, Principal Boys ... and All That, MacMillan, 2001

Frank Van Straten, National Treasure, Victoria Press, 1994

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The Story of Pantomime,


Last modified on Monday, 28 June 2021
Judy Leech

Judy has had a twenty-two year career at the ABC Television Studios as a graphic designer, with occasional forays into children's book illustrations. This was followed by ten years working with the Rex Reid Dance Company on costume, set and props design. Since the late 1990s Judy has been closely involved, in a design capacity, with many of the annual musicals presented by Melbourne High and Mac.Robertson's Schools.