Understanding this theatrical device is essential to understanding the harlequinade. Characters established in the main pantomime story (a young girl, her lover, father, the servant etc.) get into trouble, an impossible situation for which there is no solution, and are transformed by some benign spiritual agent (think fairy godmother, ‘the gods’, that kind of thing) into the characters of the harlequinade in a strange parallel topsy-turvy world. The purpose of this, dramatically was to introduce the comedy and to move the plot along by creating such chaos that the ‘powers-that-be’ would acquiesce to the union of the lovers just so that order could be restored. At that point the characters were transformed back and the drama proceeded with the full on happy ending, parades, fireworks, dancing girls, spectacles and general rejoicing.
Structurally, it is the act of transforming that is important to remember as this signals the move to the parallel world where things do not behave in the same way. Most comedy has to have an isolating device of this type to contain the strange goings on. The tool for effecting the change is another inheritance – Harlequin has his magic bat or slapstick, but it could be a wand, a magic lamp or a host of other things. Sometimes, the transformation is effected by falling asleep, or love potions, or drunkenness (a favourite of Chaplin’s). Chaos must be created (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the juice of the flower) in order that all are eventually brought to their senses.
– Bryony Dixon, Chaplin and the Harlequinade