From the days of our youth we have always had a kindness for Drury Lane Theatre, and, above all, for Drury Lane pantomime. The theatre has an individual atmosphere, the pantomime is not like the pantomime one sees anywhere else. In order to appreciate the size of the place it is necessary to put on a very small pair of knickerbockers and gaze upwards from the stalls between the chocolates and the ices. It is like looking into the deeps of heaven, though here the gods suck oranges and make cat-calls—those fascinating sounds that our youthful lips would never achieve. Drury Lane is the only theatre that preserves the old glamour. We never enter its doors without thinking of Charles Lamb, and it would hardly astonish us if Mistress Nell Gwynn came to greet us with her basket of China oranges, wearing that famous pair of thick worsted stockings that the little link-boy gave her to save her pretty feet from the chilblains. Outside, the image of Shakespeare p. 215leans on its pedestal, sadly contemplative of the grey roofs of Covent Garden. The porters who carry about bunches of bananas unconsciously reproduce the pictures of Mr. Frank Brangwyn. If Shakespeare ever slips down from his perch to watch a scene or two of the pantomime from the shadows of the auditorium, he must wonder a little at our twentieth-century masques. Like the children, he would probably appreciate the splendid colour and brightness of the spectacle, and, having been an actor himself, he would perhaps pardon the actors’ cheerful neglect of the rights of the dramatist. For modern pantomime is a business of strongly contrasted individualities rather than the product of blended and related effort. This is especially true of Drury Lane, whose stage at this season of the year is always crowded with vaudeville Napoleons and musical-comedy Cleopatras. In detail the pantomime is excellent; as an artistic entity it does not exist.
At first sight this seems rather a pity. Given a wonderfully appointed stage, gorgeous mounting, a fine orchestra, and a p. 216number of gifted performers, it is natural to expect that the result should be more than the mere sum of these units. But, as a matter of fact, pantomime is essentially formless. Those critics who clamour for straightforward versions of the old nursery stories would be vastly disappointed if they got what they wanted. The old stories are well enough when told by firelight in the nursery after tea of a winter’s evening. But they lack humour, and are not, as a rule, dramatic. (“Bluebeard,” of course, is a striking exception.) twenty minutes must be expanded to last four hours the story is bound to suffer. When, in addition, all the characters are played by performers whose strength lies in their individuality, it will be surprising if any part of the illusion created by the original fable survives at all.
At a season of the year when children invade both the stage and the auditorium of many theatres in unwonted numbers it would be at least topical to speculate as to the philosophy of pantomime and the artistic merits and defects of child actors and actresses. But while juvenile mimicry of adult conceptions of drama is entertaining enough, it is more to our purpose to consider the dramatic spirit as it is actually present in children themselves. Pantomimes certainly do not reflect this spirit, and, in spite of the sentimental, but hardly more childish influence of fairy-plays, are still aimed exclusively at adult audiences who grant themselves no other opportunity of appreciating the humours of the music-halls. Probably the ideal children’s play would have the colour of pantomime, the atmosphere of p. 218“Peter Pan,” the poetry of the “Blue Bird,” and, most important of all, a downright melodramatic plot. It is this last that is invariably lacking in entertainments nominally provided for children; it is the first consideration in the entertainments they provide for themselves.