Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Manipulating Reader-Actors: Eighteenth-Century Printed Harlequinades 1

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Manipulating Reader-Actors: Eighteenth-Century Printed Harlequinades 1

Article excerpt

Eighteenth-century harlequinades, also known as turn-up or metamorphosis books, are early precursors to modern comic books. Each harlequinade is an engraved broadside, accordion-folded into four panels, each around four and a half inches wide by nine inches tall. Each panel has two flaps that meet in the middle and can be folded up or down. Printed between 1766 and 1816, they were designed so that as the reader flipped the flaps in response to the accompanying verses, a new scene would be revealed. George Speaight and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh have argued that these books reproduce the experience of staged pantomimes.2 Robert Sayers Harlequin's Invasion (1770), for example, is based upon David Garrick's pantomime, Harlequin's Invasion; or, A Christmas Gambol (first performed 31 December 1759). Though Garrick's work eventually reinstates the supremacy of British theatre over action-driven pantomime by having the figure of Shakespeare rise through a trap door as Harlequin falls through another, illustrated harlequinades devalue words and embodied action in favor of doggerel and two-dimensional images.

Analyzing the Newberry Library's six harlequinades, published between 1770 and 1798, I believe that the professionalism and naturalism of actors, championed most notably by Garrick, are devalued as unskilled reader-actors "play" their parts. The printed page distills and simplifies the actor's complex movements, making them easier for reader-actors to "perform." Part souvenirs, part replacements for repeated viewings of a pantomime, harlequinades directly competed with live performances: both colored harlequinades and plays were Is.-or 6d. if uncolored or the performance was already well advanced. Unlike the experience of watching a pantomime in the theatre, at home the reader could slow down the action, repeat Harlequin's dramatic transformations as many times as he or she desired, and even "read" the harlequinade out of order. Harlequinades thus convert corporeality into image and theatrical event into closet drama.

It is no accident that the printer Robert Sayers first harlequinade featuring Harlequin was based upon Garrick's pantomime, Harlequin's Invasion.3 As many scholars have noted, Garrick was loath to follow John Rich's lead at the Covent Garden Theatre and produce crowd-pleasing pantomimes. Garrick's prologue, spoken at the beginning of the 1750 season at the Drury Lane Theatre, makes clear his distaste:

Sacred to SHAKESPEARE was this spot design'd,

To pierce the heart, and humanize the mind.

But if an empty House, the Actor's curse,

Shews us our Lears and Hamlets lose their force;

Unwilling we must change the nobler scene,

And in our turn present you Harlequin .... (25-30)

Even though the end of Harlequin's Invasion essentially made the same point nine years later-that Shakespeare is more valuable culturally than pantomime-this did not prevent audiences from flocking to see it, despite the oddity of a speaking Harlequin.4 According to Percy Fitzgerald in his Life of Garrick (1868), Garrick had himself been associated with Harlequin since he was supposedly first on stage in the title role of Harlequin Student, or the Fate of Pantomime in March 1741, replacing the ill Richard Yates (1: 77-78).5 However, as John O'Brien remarks about eighteenth-century criticism of Garrick's new acting style, while "None of these accounts seem informed by rumor or speculation that Garrick had performed in the role of Harlequin, [. . .] they collectively recognize the way in which Garrick's much-heralded novelty and modernity derived in no small measure from his aggressive co-optation of the physicality that had been most prominently deployed on the eighteenth-century stage in pantomime," particularly through the character of Harlequin (214). Theophilus Cibber, however, certainly associated Garrick's "tricks" with those of the "young Men [who] cease to consider Acting as an Art," instead believing that "from the extraordinary Examples set 'em, a little Ranting or Mouthing, a Start or two, an outré [sic] Attitude, and a few harlequinade Tricks, are all the Requisites to make a compleat Actor" (58-59). …

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