The clown figure has had so many meanings in different times and cultures. The jolly, well-loved joker familiar to most people is actually but one aspect of this protean creature. Madmen, hunchbacks, amputees, and other abnormals were once considered natural clowns; they were elected to fulfill a comic role which could allow others to see them as ludicrous rather than as terrible reminders of the forces of disorder in the world. But sometimes a cheerless jester was required to draw attention to this same disorder, as in the case of King Lear’s morbid and honest fool, who of course was eventually hanged, and so much for his clownish wisdom. Clowns have often had ambiguous and sometimes contradictory roles to play.
As I drifted along with my bodiless invisibility, I felt myself more and more becoming an empty, floating shape, seeing without being seen and walking without the interference of those grosser creatures who shared my world. It was not an experience completely without interest or even pleasure. The clown’s shibboleth of ‘here we are again’ took on a new meaning for me as I felt myself a novitiate of a more rarified order of harlequinry.
― Thomas Ligotti, The Last Feast Of The Harlequin
Arlecchino, in the Venetian version, wore a distinctive dress and make up. He had a pale face, with dirty marks smeared on it, shabby clothes plentifully patched with various colours, baggy breeches, also patched, big splay feet with ill-fitting shoes and he carried a staff. He was, of course, the “comic”. But in the English version – Harlequin was never a “comic”: He was a figure of magical romance and King of magic, too. Yet his dress evolved from that of Arlecchino. The dirty marks on his face became the black mask which every real Harlequin wears, and when that mask is turned up, he is visible to all, and when turned down he is invisible.
For many years the figure of Pierrot was there- not the cheery laughing Pierrot still to be met with at the seaside, but a rather sad, forlorn figure, breaking his heart for the love of the gay, fickle and capricious Columbine. Of course, Harlequin won her in the end. Who could resist him? Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon – those were the traditional figures who seemed immortal in Pantomime. There were others in the background, shop-keepers, policemen, all sorts of folk, but they were only there to be fooled by the Clown, and bewildered by Harlequin.
At first, Harlequin was King. Every real pantomime was prefixed by his name. “Harlequin and the Fairies of the Wood or The Shipwrecked Sailor”: “Harlequin Jack-a-Lantern or The Witches of the Dripping Well”: “Harlequin and the Merry Devil of Edmonton, or The Great Bed of Ware”.
In the early pantomimes, which were already Harlequinades, there was a little farce or Operetta played first – and then at the end, up through a trap-door would shoot Harlequin, his mask down – invisible. He would trip round the stage, beat his magic sword thrice on the ground, wave it in the air and – low and behold – all the characters in the little play were transformed into the characters of the Harlequinade – Clown, Pantaloon, Columbine –all of them. That first little piece was called “The Opening” and the Harlequinade was the main entertainment.
But by degrees the Harlequinade lost its hold. A world which disbelieved in Fairies no longer wanted the transformation scene, with its spangles, its tinsels, its constantly changing scenery – sometimes as many as thirty-five changes until at last the whole of the Kingdom of Fairies was revealed and then – a blaze of red and blue fire, a shrilling of trumpets and banging of drums and on ran the spirit of pantomime- Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon with a shout of “Here We Are Again!” – and joining hands rushed around in a mad, gay ring-a-ring-of-roses until they entered into the Harlequinade.
That has gone. The spirit of pantomime is changing, as it has always changed. It is very old, probably pre-historic as the mid-winter festival to cheer things up when the days were short and nights were long. But it keeps certain traditions still. It still links with the old Roman feast of Saturnalia – when everything went Topsy-Turvy, men dressed as women and women as men – from whence come the Principal Boy, always a woman, and the Dame, always a man – or nearly always.
And Demon Kings, when there are any, and Fairy Queens keep to the left and right of the stage respectively because those were the sides of good and evil in the medieval mystery and morality plays. Today pantomime is streamlined and very modern. But maybe one day the youngsters, whose Kingdom it really is, will demand the old magic back again, and once more we will see those true figures of Topsy-Turvy-dom take the stage and say, with every truth “Here We Are Again”. And when it happens may it be true for many years to come……
– W. Macqueen-Pope, The Rise and Fall of the Pantomime Harlequinade