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Pantomime transformations: genre, gender and Charley's Aunt.

It was by chance rather than by design that the London premiere of Charley's Aunt coincided with the pantomime season when it opened at the tiny Royalty Theatre in Soho on 21 December 1892. Yet in the central character of the cross-dressed male, Lord Fancourt Babberly disguised as Charley's aunt, the play shares its most salient feature of performance with pantomime. This investigation sets out to trace relations between the traditional pantomime Dame and his farcical double in Brandon Thomas's comedy.

During the latter years of the nineteenth century, conservative critics lamented the annual corruption of pantomime. Elements deemed offensive, introduced most notably in houses with a reputation for lavish production such as Drury Lane, were the bawdy music hall turns taken by star performers and the excessive theatrical display in lengthy processions and ballets. Equally deplored were adjustments made to what David Mayer has described as the 'five unequal segments of the pantomime typical between 1750 and 1870'. (1) Theatre critic for The Saturday Review of January 1884 fuelled debate by rehearsing the traditions of the genre before questioning which of the current London pantomimes measured up to them. He wrote as if common knowledge could no longer be assumed and his tone is elegiac:
   Pure pantomime is like poetry, in Mr Arnold's definition, in that
   it is a criticism of life; it is also like poetry ... in that it is
   an expression of life.... The scene is the Arcady of faery.... The
   essential is that here, on the one hand, are Youth and Beauty and
   Love; and that there, on the other, are Age and Ugliness and Greed,
   the eternal adversaries. All the rest is a parable of life's
   progress.... A touch of the Good Fairy's wand ('Good Fairy' is an
   Arcadian translation of 'Higher Power'), and Amandus (otherwise
   Youth) becomes Harlequin, a creature of generous magic, invisible
   by his mask, irresistible in his bat, gifted with strange and
   brilliant capacities, a paladin of virtue and right; another, and
   Amanda (otherwise Beauty) trips forth ... a visible

   Ideal--enchanting, elusive, unapproachable save of him she has
   chosen for her own. As for the ugly suitor and the Greedy Sire,
   they are not transformed, they are only revealed.... The one a
   Clown--bold, impudent, flagrant, a bundle of immoral qualities; the
   other as Pantaloon--a type of wicked and dishonourable eld. (2)

The reviewer then contrasts the relatively 'pure pantomime' of Red Riding Hood at Her Majesty's Theatre, though even this was chastised for processional display and for the even more heinous introduction of a Harlequina, with the gross adulterations of the classical form at Drury Lane's Cinderella where there are:
   quantities of pageants, ballets, and spectacles; there is an
   abundance of elaborate sets and clever changes; there is as much
   scene-painter, stage-carpenter, ballet-master, property-man and
   manager as possible, and as little dramatist and drama as can well
   be. We have a crowded hunting-scene which suggests, not Cinderella,
   but Drury Lane. We have a pageant of nursery heroes and heroines
   ... which seems inappropriate, and which, for all the lavishness
   with which it is produced, is certainly tedious and bewildering. We
   have a transformation scene which ignores the personages of the
   drama ... it is traversed by the tedious antics of Messrs. Herbert
   Campbell and Harry Nicholls. The vulgarity they contrive to import
   into their performance of the Wicked Sisters would go far to
   vitiate the best pantomime ever written. (3)

Cinderella at Drury Lane brought to the fore a triumphant display of theatricality, while the 'Arcady of faery' and 'the great allegory of the harlequinade' appeared as distorted vestiges of an outmoded tradition. (4) Yet the fragmentation and metamorphosis of the genre allowed its elements to be taken up and accommodated in alternative forms of theatre. Cecil Clay's one act comedy A Pantomime Rehearsal was one such alternative, and it affords an important link between classic pantomime and Charley's Aunt.

A Pantomime Rehearsal was the product of exigent circumstances which beset Rosina Vokes's newly formed 'London Comedy Company' on its debut tour of America in the autumn of 1885. Rosina Vokes had retired from the British stage on her marriage to Cecil Clay in 1877 so the embarkation for America was to launch a fresh career. She and her elder siblings Fred, Fauron, Victoria and Jessie had once been the celebrated 'Vokes Children', acrobatic dancers starring in pantomimes since the 1860s. Victoria and Fred continued their careers unbroken and had recently appeared as Red Riding Hood and Prince Pelerin at Her Majesty's Red Riding Hood in 1884, eighteen months before Rosina set out for America. Amongst the members of her new company was the character actor and fledging playwright Brandon Thomas. (5) Their reception in America was cool, and by December declining fortunes threatened an early return to England. To rescue the situation:
   Cecil Clay put forward the suggestion of a one-act play he had
   written for his wife some years before.... It was really evolved
   from A Bunch of Berries, a burlesque which had been played many
   years before by the complete Vokes family, and this in turn was
   based on a very ancient Italian vaudeville.

   He now asked Brandon Thomas to edit and if necessary re-write it.
   Brandon Thomas read it, added songs and turned it into a dainty and
   amusing skit on the amateur theatricals of the day, with Weedon
   Grossmith as the budding stage aspirant who insists 'that if you
   can't act when you leave Cambridge, you never will', and himself as
   the pompous cavalry officer who fancies himself in the part of the
   Demon King. (6)

This became A Pantomime Rehearsal, first performed in New York. It was directed by Brandon Thomas, and by January 1886 the success of the piece assured the company a prolonged American tour, assisted by excited press mythologising: 'Rosina Vokes has a real, live lord in her company. His name is Sir Charles Moreton and on the stage he poses as Brandon Thomas.' (7) The journalistic inversion of fiction and fact chimes with the method of the play, which is to turn the theatre-making process into the product for consumption. By focusing on this process, A Pantomime Rehearsal makes a virtue out of the vice identified by The Saturday Review at Cinderella in which the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was itself put on show rather than the fable the theatre purported to serve. Later critics recognised the piece as a vehicle for performers. An American obituary for Rosina Vokes declared: '[h]er personality carried everything before it, and made success out of such scant material as was afforded by such pieces as A Pantomime Rehearsal, a skit written for her by her husband Cecil Clay.' (8)

The play depicts an ill-assorted, ill-prepared group of amateurs at their last dress rehearsal for a performance of 'The Babes in the Wood'. They are unable to negotiate the set without bumping into things; they have learned neither lines nor moves. Incompetence is inscribed in the opening stage directions:
   Lights full up. As Orchestra stops, JACK DEEDES is discovered
   playing the piano, and SIR CHARLES GRANDISON on top of step-ladder
   C. painting scenery.

   The front cloth ... has been lowered down about half way ... the
   cloth is off the straight line, unnoticed by SIR CHARLES, who is
   discovered at the top of a step-ladder in full evening dress,
   wearing a much paint-bedaubed apron, and is attempting to paint the
   scenery. (9)

Deedes is the writer and director of the play within the play, a disguised alter ego for Brandon Thomas whose contribution to the manufacture of the piece has been occluded by Clay's published authorship. This character offers a bald exposition:
   Now look here old chap, it was like this; as Christmas time was
   coming on some friends asked me to write a pantomime for amateurs,
   just to amuse the children ... and a rattling good pantomime it
   is.... But look at the company I've got to deal with! There's Lady
   Muriel Beauclerc, she never knows when to come on or go off....
   Then there's Lord Arthur Pomeroy.... He thinks the art of acting
   lies in a 'make-up', and if he gets a blue wig and a cardboard
   nose, he thinks that's all that's necessary. And as for Captain Tom
   Robinson, he treats the whole thing with sublime indifference and
   says 'It will be alright on the night.' The fact is, none of them
   are impressed with the true solemnity of pantomime ... if I ever
   write another pantomime for amateurs, you may call me.... TOMPKINS
   (announcing). Captain Tom Robinson! (Enter CAPTAIN TOM ROBINSON)

Since Captain Tom Robinson was played by Brandon Thomas, the concealed author introduces himself in yet another guise. The stage begins to be populated by replicating versions of a single persona, foreshadowing the duplication of aunts in Charley's Aunt.

As the drama unfolds it is obliged to explain for the benefit of its American audience the conventions of the uniquely British entertainment which it burlesques. The narrative sequence of the internal play is questioned by the company at every turn, conveniently uncomprehending of 'the true solemnity of pantomime'. In a kind of liturgy Deedes is asked 'why have demons?', 'why have fairies?' 'why have babes?' 'why have a Baronial Hall?' to which the answer every time is 'Because it's a pantomime'. (11) The degeneration of the form is manifest in the inability of the actors not just to learn their lines, but even to understand them. Captain Tom Robinson does not realise that he has two roles, first as Demon King then as Good Robber, and he confesses that he has 'learnt them all as one'. (12) Furthermore, he alters the words to suit the limits of his understanding, for example, calling out as Demon King, 'Appear, BALD RUFFIAN-',to-be interrupted by Deedes:

One moment, please. (Rises and faces audience.)

CAPTAIN (irritated and shouting) What's the matter?

DEEDES (suavely). Bellerophon--not 'Bald Ruffian' (13)

Other members of the cast are no better equipped to make sense of the mannered antiquities of their script:

LADY MURIEL. 'On the roses' fragrant petals. The early village cow.' (DEEDES listens amazed). 'Bold Chanticleer proclaims the morn.'

DEEDES (excitedly. Rising, and crossing to her C.). My dear Lady Muriel, how can an early village cow proclaim the morn? (14)

Punctuation makes the verse rhythm inaudible, and lexical substitution renders the meaning incomprehensible. The language of pantomime has become nonsense and, in the havoc which infects the transformation scene, the genre itself appears in terminal decline. The transformation scene is handled with a bathos that arises from botched magic:

(Song by LORD ARTHUR. Transformation scene at end of song. A bare batten with a string of roses, and two dolls.)

DEEDES. What's that?

SIR CHARLES. My transformation scene. (enter LADY MURIEL.)

LADY MURIEL. See here's my castle which I plant my flag on, Just as St. George did when he killed the dragoon.

DEEDES. No, not the dragoon--dragon!

LADY MURIEL. Thanks. Next let the babes at this command of mine Appear as Harlequin and Columbine.

(The BABES dance on and strike attitudes as Harlequin and Columbine and try and form 'cascade', Columbine standing on Harlequin's hands as he kneels to finish, but again they fail.) (15)

Lady Muriel as Good Fairy substitutes a soldier for a mythical beast in her failure to understand the rhythm and rhyme of transformation. A foreshortened and chaotic finale burlesques the traditionally measured dramatic sequence of the commedia figures as the play ends in an uproar of the Harlequinade in which the traditional tokens of sausages, perambulator, policeman and vegetables make flying appearances.

The elements of cross-dressing within A Pantomime Rehearsal are kept to a minimum. The brother and sister Babes are played by two women, but there is no Dame. However, Deedes the director, always keen to demonstrate, is egged on by the ladies to show off his fairy walk.

DEEDES ... It was very charming, but it was more like a person walking down the street than a fairy--fairies should trip on.

LILY. Well you see, Mr Deedes, I haven't much experience.... Will you please show me?

DEEDES. With pleasure. (Dancing business with wand, LILY laughing. Takes wand from piano, poses C., across front to R and poses, then back to C. with final pose, whistling air from 'Iolanthe'.) There. (Hands wand to LILY, who laughs all the time--severely) (16)

In the interplay of complex theatrical layering and dramatic irony, A Pantomime Rehearsal dismembers the genre it burlesques with a timely demonstration of self-reflexive theatricality. Deedes' impromptu impersonation of a fairy looks forward to Charley's Aunt when Lord Fancourt Babbery tries on the costume for his role in forthcoming amateur theatricals, only to find himself trapped in the part by the conniving of his student friends.

Brandon Thomas was keen to repeat the successes of A Pantomime Rehearsal on his return to England in 1886, but Rosina Vokes and Cecil Clay did not release their rights over the play until 1891, by which time he had written Charley's Aunt as a commission for the celebrity comedian W. S. Penley. During 1891, A Pantomime Rehearsal, with Thomas in the role of Tom Robinson, became an enduring attraction in London, eventually settling for a long run at the Court Theatre as part of a triple bill. It became a point of reference for critics reviewing Charley's Aunt, Punch commenting 'Mr Brandon Thomas has not given himself much of a chance as Colonel Chesney, who bears a strong family resemblance to the heavy dragoon in the Pantomime Rehearsal. (17) The resemblance between the two roles played consecutively by Thomas points to deeper consanguinity between these pieces, both of which deploy elements of the degenerating conventions of pantomime.

The legendary genesis of Charley's Aunt is described by Thomas's son as a chance encounter between Penley and Thomas on a train during 1890:
   To be asked to write for such an actor was in itself an inspiration
   and Brandon Thomas answered ... 'but ... where am I to find a
   character for you? You've played everything--a monk, a curate, a
   waiter, a sporting man ...'

   Penley looked so woe-begone sitting there with his big plaintive
   eyes that it was difficult not to laugh. Suddenly something in his
   large oval face reminded Thomas of a photograph of an elderly
   relative of his own, with hair in smooth bands, bowwindow fashion,
   wearing a bonnet and fichu.

'Have you ever thought of playing a woman?'

Penley burst out laughing.

'Of course it must be a masquerade ... and the fun will be to see your inability to play a woman, though you may look like one.' (18)

Comic discrepancy between the actor and the role, the heart of A Pantomime Rehearsal, apparently inspired Charley's Aunt which was to become a more complex exploration of the ludic possibilities of the play within the play and the seduction of the audience by dramatic irony. The interaction between different levels of performance develops into a lesson in improvisation to showcase the actor constructing his character in medias res with cues spoken as dialogue:

LORD FANCOURT: What am I? Irish?

CHARLEY: No, English. Married a Portuguese abroad.

JACK: A widow. CHARLEY: From Brazil.

JACK: And a millionaire.

LORD FANCOURT (to Charley): I say, Charley, have I any children?

CHARLEY: No, you fool! ...

LORD FANCOURT: Well, one ought to know. That's all right. Now I can go ahead. Yes, it is wonderful weather, for England. (19)

As the farce develops the restraint of the early exchanges is abandoned:

JACK (rapidly, aside to Lord Fancourt): Change the subject.

LORD FANCOURT (to Donna Lucia): Change the subject.

LORD FANCOURT deliberately pours tea into Spettigue's hat on a chair of table, very neatly, without spillingany, all the time talkingover his shoulder to Donna Lucia.

JACK (aside to Lord Fancourt): No. Do you take sugar and cream?

LORD FANCOURT (to Jack): No. Do you take sugar and cream?

JACK (aside to Lord Fancourt, losing patience): Ask her if she takes sugar and cream (Noddingtowards Donna Lucia.)

LORD FANCOURT (to Donna Lucia, aloud): Ask her if she takes sugar and cream. (20)

Charley's Aunt teases the audience with the constant danger that this blatant lack of improvisational skills will reveal the underlying gender of the androgynously nick-named Fanny Babbs. The risk of exposure culminates in his rebellious striptease:

JACK: We'd be alright if the selfish donkey would only be reasonable and behave like a lady.

CHARLEY: I know all that, but he can't--he doesn't know how....

LORD FANCOURT listens to this abuse, looking hurt. Takes off fichu and flings it down in silence.

CHARLEY: I wish we'd asked Freddy Peel now.

JACK: At any rate, Freddy Peel would have stood by us like a man.

LORD FANCOURT undoing dress ... lets dress slip to the ground and steps over it

... takes off petticoat and steps over that, looking injured, with hands in his pockets

.... Stands grinning, hands in trouser pockets, facing boys--defying them. He is now in his shirt sleeves, waistcoat and trousers, but still wearingwig, bonnet and mittens. (21)

Lord Fancourt's undressing cranks up the tension of the dramatic irony of his identity. But this anxiety is immediately topped by the chase in which Jack and Charley pursue him with the discarded accessories of his assumed gender to force him back into the role of Charley's Aunt while throughout the chase Spettigue stalks the phantom aunt. The striptease and chase give the actor, Penley/Lord Fancourt, an opportunity to demonstrate acrobatic alacrity in the switching of roles and genders. At the same time these features seem to look back at the pantomime harlequinade and restore something of its original function as portrayed in 1884 by The Saturday Review in which it was lamented of contemporary pantomime that:
   From the harlequinade the essential idea of flight and pursuit has
   been completely eliminated; and nothing remains but a pageant of
   aimless ruffianism ... Harlequin recks not of the right uses of his
   bat and his mask; he leaps through clock-faces and letter-boxes not
   to escape, not to frustrate the knavish tricks of his ancient
   enemies, but to show his agility (22)

Brandon Thomas' use of the chase certainly celebrates theatrical agility but, at the same time, escape doubling as entrapment is motivated by the plot.

The scene concludes:

LORD FANCOURT turning, sees them holding dress horizontally, runs and dives into it, then shakes CHARLEY by the hand as his arm comes out of right sleeve.

When LORD FANCOURT gets his collar fastened, JACK speaks.

JACK: Just when we want old Spettigue in his best humour, you go and risk everything by this fool of a game.

LORD FANCOURT (doing up dress): What fool of a game? I'm not going to marry old Spettigue--I could never be happy with a man like that. (23)

At the last dress rehearsal for the London opening this scene sparked a row between Penley and Thomas:
   Penley in a sudden fit of prudery, objected to taking off the dress
   in Act II on the ground that the audience would resent it as
   'improper'. This in spite of the fact that he was fully dressed in
   ordinary men's clothes, all but his coat, underneath, and also that
   he had been playing this very scene for weeks in the Provinces.

The charge of impropriety was clearly at one level as ludicrous as Thomas' son makes it out to be. It was Penley's opportunity to bring to a head tensions which had been mounting between himself and Thomas since the author's discovery that the comedian had turned his carefully crafted ensemble piece into an opportunity for self-display during the provincial tour which had been running since February of 1892. Thomas had been unable to monitor the progress of Charley's Aunt through the provinces, owing to his continuing commitment to appear nightly at the Court Theatre in A Pantomime Rehearsal, and it was not until his friend Charles Hawtrey had dismissed the play's suitability for a London opening that Thomas realised the play being performed was not the one he had written. Penley's reason was 'When I go off the stage, I like the play to drop ... then when I return, the audience sits up and says, "Ah, here comes Penley."' (25) Thomas's response was to close down the tour until he could secure the lease of a London theatre, and to recast the play with himself tactically positioned in the role of Colonel Chesney.

The new company had a week's rehearsal under Thomas's direction, before it premiered at the Royalty. This was the personal context in which Penley downed tools on the eve of the London opening. The aesthetic context of his 'sudden fit of prudery' was more complex. The act of taking off the dress reminded the audience that it had been put on in the first place, highlighting the conceit of female impersonation. While in pantomime comedians enjoyed transvestite liberties, a play advertised as a farcical comedy and which was not pantomime, extravaganza nor burlesque, seemed to require different rules of engagement. Prejudice against cross-dressing had been strong amongst the antitheatrical lobby throughout the nineteenth century, with the prohibition of Deuteronomy on ready recall. (26) With heavy predictability the Pall Mall Gazette pronounced in advance of the London opening: '[t]he principal part will be played by Mr Penley as an undergraduate who takes the disguise of an old lady. Luckily we do not in this country like to see man in woman's dress, so he will have a delicate task.' (27) Yet the same paper was won over after the first night, declaring 'Mr Penley looked very funny dressed in heavy black satin ... he accomplished the really difficult task of being amusing and inoffensive in a woman's part, and was quaintly coquettish and skittish, and exceedingly droll ...' (28) The swift reversal of Pall Mall Gazette opinion about the propriety of the cross-dressed male may be indebted to family resemblances between Charley's Aunt and contemporary pantomime. These are evident in both surface embellishment and underlying structure, and may have encouraged the permissive response to the toying with gender in Thomas's new play.

The superficial corruptions of pantomime, identified by the Saturday Review as self-reflexive theatricality and the introduction of music hall turns, are abundantly manifest in Charley's Aunt. The precarious fashioning of Lord Fancourt's gender switch, its roots in his passion for amateur theatricals, put meta-theatre at the heart of the play. Also potentially borrowed from the degenerating pantomime genre may be the echoes from music hall entertainment heard, not just in Lord Fancourt's request to Amy that she should sing 'that charming little ballad--Ta-Ra-Ra-Boomdeay' (29) but also in his question to Spettigue 'Where did you get that hat?' (30) This invokes James Rolmaz's hit of 1890, its music hall singing rights reserved for J. C. Heffron, with its chorus:
   Where did you get that hat?
   Where did you get that tile?
   Isn't it a nobby one and just the proper style?
   I should like to have one just the same as that!
   Where'er I go they shout Hello!
   Where did you get that hat?

The tag is repeated in the play before it becomes a number not in song but in action when Lord Fancourt fills the offending article with tea. (31) Furthermore, Charley's Aunt generates its own quasi-music hall tag in what became the signature slogan of the play, 'from Brazil, where the nuts come from'.

These surface features, typical of modern pantomime, embellish an embedded pantomime structure. The setting is a latter-day Arcadia, the rarefied and exclusive atmosphere of an Oxbridge college garden based on Thomas' impression from his first visit to Oxford in 1885. This 'Arcady of faery' is described by Ela Delahay as 'these leafy shades, ancient spires and sculptured nooks--like silent music, a scholar's fairyland!' (32) and this provides the idyllic backdrop for what the Saturday Review of 1884 had called the 'great allegory of harlequinade.' Three of the four commedia figures are present in disguised form. Ela herself functions as Columbine, beloved of Lord Fancourt who occupies the role of Harlequin in pursuit of her. Spettigue features as Pantaloon. Donna Lucia takes on the role of Good Fairy before becoming enmeshed in the action as a second Columbine in the revival of her love for Colonel Chesney.

Spettigue is easily recognisable as Pantaloon. His ward Kitty explains the role: he 'hurries us away from all our best friends directly we get to know anyone really well... Because he's a selfish, wicked old man.' (33) Spettigue throws impediments in the way of the young lovers, himself pursuing the Good Fairy, or rather her money:
   Situated as I am, a lonely widower, a mateless uncle--surrounded
   with grave responsibilities ... a good fairy has, I may say,
   tripped in among us, bringing with her unexpected light and joy!
   ... Under her influence I have consented. ... Furthermore, charmed
   by irresistible spells.... Our good fairy ... has consented to
   become Mrs Stephen Spettigue. (34)

Mocked and scorned throughout the play, Spettigue amply demonstrates the stereotypical moral ugliness of his allegorical double.

Ela Delahay figures as Columbine, 'the sweetest little girl you ever saw', (35) beloved of Lord Fancourt but lost to him after her father's death in Monte Carlo when she went into the care of 'a lady from South America'. (36) Ela/Columbine arrives in Act Two which is set in the college garden to compound the Arcadian tones, and she is accompanied by her fairy godmother, the Good Fairy Donna Lucia who in turn emphasises her role as asexual mother: 'I've grown to love the little orphan I met in such grief in a strange land so much, that I am not independent of her ... be my little girl and call me 'Auntie', will you?' (37) Donna Lucia fulfils her Good Fairy function of giving Ela/Columbine advice about how to secure her lover, before she herself slips into the role of a Cinderella. She describes the lost love of her youth: 'It was before I went abroad--to Brazil--I was very young and he was very shy.... Then he was ordered off with his regiment.... (with a slight touch of sentiment almost like a young girl): It was at a dance the evening before he went away.' (38) Donna Lucia's words act as a spell to conjure Sir Francis Chesney from the garden, initiating the fulfilment of her own romantic drama.

It may seem counter-intuitive to classify Lord Fancourt as Harlequin rather than as Dame, but he is throughout a lover rather than a mother. His love for Ela Delahay is announced before he is dressed up, as if in keeping with an early nineteenth-century pantomime tradition in which Harlequin disguises as a woman to evade his enemies. (39) Brandon Thomas' twist to the traditional chase narrative is that Lord Fancourt is only made attractive to Spettigue/Pantaloon, Harlequin's chief enemy, when he is dressed up as Charley's wealthy Aunt. However the manic logic of farce compels Lord Fancourt to allow pursuit by Spettigue in order to secure Ela/Columbine. Lord Fancourt has none of the distorted maternal qualities associated with the Dame role, except that his disguise is to impersonate the only maternal figure of the play, Charley's Aunt or the Good Fairy. David Mayer has seen the Good Fairy as an alter ego for the Dame, suggesting:
   to some extent the phallic mother complements the asexual mother in
   that both relate to anxieties about castration. Whereas the asexual
   mother, the Good Fairy, reassures through timely intervention and
   partisan assistance, the phallic mother has only to appear to
   answer a need. (40)

Fanny Babbs as Harlequin is equipped with a fan instead of a wand; even this is an androgynous accessory, phallic when closed and female when open. Despite the central conceit of the cross-dressed male, this is a play without a Dame.

In the occluded pantomime of Charley's Aunt, the Dame is manifest only as a chimera, a feature of the temporary transvestism of Harlequin. It seems that in the era of the New Woman, when powerful women threatened or rivalled the social status of men, Brandon Thomas felt compelled to write her out of the narrative altogether. David Mayer has identified four premises which underpin the 'fantasy function of the dame ... linked by man's deep ambivalence toward women':
   The first is that to dress as a woman is temporarily to become one,
   and in becoming a woman one both controls 'her' and briefly
   comprehends the mysteries of female psychology and anatomy.

   The second premise is that impersonation permits the audience to
   express its own hostility in sanctioning aggressive acts against
   women ... the third premise: the dame is a means of dispelling the
   threat implied by the mother's sexuality.... Finally, for some
   members of the audience, the dame ... is the embodiment of the
   'phallic mother', the mother who possesses a penis. (41)

Each of these functions is fulfilled by Harlequin standing in for the Dame. They seem even to be magnified by the theatrical self-referencing with which Lord Fancourt assumes his role as Charley's Aunt.

Penley's facetious autobiography emphasises a misogynist conception of the role. Mocking the fashion for authenticity and respectability in the genre of actors' autobiographies which developed during the nineteenth century, Penley describes his method of acting as being founded on a system of 'Ideal-realism' by which he prepared for each of his stage roles by acting out the character in society first. The last chapter is called 'I Become a Regular Old Woman'. (42) He declares: '[w]hen I undertook to play Charley's Aunt I let myself in for a stupendous study. What were three months in which to master the complexities of woman?' (43) He invents three elderly aunts and sets out to meet them. The first is Aunt Tabitha who lives on Wigmore Street, whose hair is a wig and whose 'pearly teeth' are all false. With a female appearance manufactured by accessories, Penley granted himself a license to follow suit. He moves quickly to the second Aunt, Susanna the New Woman whom he visits at 'the Hatchet Club on Guest Day':
   She wore her hair cropped short like a man's and when she was
   sitting at the table her costume presented exactly the appearance
   of what the tailors call a lounge suit. Her stand-up collar and
   sailor's-knot tie were in excellent keeping with her voice, which
   was a fine baritone.

   When I first paid my visit to the Hatchet Club my aunt was in the
   smoking room. As it was Guest Day she was regaling herself with an
   unobtrusive cigarette.... I have no doubt, however, that when the
   restriction of guests was removed, the dear lady and several of her
   boon companions knew where to look for the briers and clays so
   carefully concealed at inspection time. (44)

Penley leaves after overhearing Hatchet Club members conducting 'violent discussion on the prospects of the utter annihilation of man' in the 'silence' room. (45)

He moved on to his Aunt Jane, 'a septuagenarian hypochondria', who offers him the ideal opportunity for his preparation. Within hours of arrival he confines her to her room with a nurse and a set of quack remedies:
   The next morning my aunt Jane was dead to the world, and W. S.
   Penley, carefully attired in her Sunday best, was interviewing the
   butcher's man, and ordering two chump chops.... The man's manner
   satisfied me that my disguise was complete. My aunt's favourite
   black lace and mauve ribbon cap, her nearly new 'front' and
   rustling black silk gown, were too remarkable in their ensemble to
   have been anything but genuine. No costumier in the world would
   have hit off such a combination. There was no exaggeration, no
   falling short of the perfection of make-up....

   The real danger began when I plucked up courage to sally forth into
   the open air.... I would just as soon have clipped that 'bus
   conductor across the head with my umbrella as looked at him, and I
   told him so. And when he said I was no lady I scorned the
   insinuation, for I knew that if I wasn't a lady I looked like one.

Penley's masquerade as Aunt Jane assimilates the ridiculing and hostile fables of his previous encounters. Aunt Tabitha demonstrated that even such apparently integral features of a woman's appearance, such as teeth and hair, were fakeable commodities. Hatchet-faced Susanna demonstrated that the mannerisms of one gender were already being aped by another, and licensed the imitation of female behaviour in revenge for the New Woman's posturing in male attitudes. Together they form the laced and rustling chop-ordering, umbrella-wielding Aunt Jane in whose impersonation Penley combines mockery of a woman with aggression against her. Like Arthur Pomeroy in A Pantomime Rehearsal, Penley shows the value of 'make-up' for the stage, where appearance is as good as reality, and like Deedes, he shows the necessity for improvisation.

Charley's Aunt addresses the changing culture of its day, and it deploys transitional theatrical conventions to do it. The plot depends on the etiquette that young women could only meet young men in the presence of a female chaperone. During the era of female emancipation in the 1890s, this reactionary premise became questionable. Thomas responds to these changing social conditions by deploying theatrical conventions which were themselves in flux. Lord Fancourt's drag appearance as Charley's aunt pays lip service to the need for a female chaperone, but simultaneously exposes the absurdity of this practice. His role both affirms a secure masculine identity but at the same time deconstructs it. He is, moreover, acting in two dramas at once. His friends nag him to play the Good Fairy/Dame to facilitate their romances, but he wants to play Harlequin to win his own Columbine.

This blurring, hybridisation, fusion and confusion of roles reflects the rapidly changing cultural status of women during the 1890s. 'Charley's Aunt' refers not to one but to two characters, Lord Fancourt Babberly and Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez. For all Penley'sefforts to turn the play into a one-man show both before and after the first London run, the play as written remains an ensemble piece with the dramatic significance evenly distributed between characters and poised between the male and female aunts. The aunts are reflections of each other, composite and distinct, familiar and strange. Harlequin (Lord Fancourt) looks in the mirror and sees the Good Fairy (Donna Lucia), she looks and sees the Dame (Lord Fancourt), he looks and sees Columbine (Donna Lucia), she looks and sees Harlequin (Lord Fancourt). They are alike, yet different. As Donna Lucia asserts: '[i]f I thought they intended that to be like me, I'd never forgive them.' (47)

These commedia figures were, however, becoming outmoded creatures of the stage during the very decade when Charley's Aunt enjoyed its most emphatic popularity. J. M. Barrie's 1905 curtain-raiser Pantaloon is a meditation on the decline of the harlequinade. His 1928 Preface states that Pantaloon and Columbine 'were figures in the harlequinade, which in Victorian days gave a finish to pantomime as vital as a tail to a dog. Now they are vanished from the boards; or at best, they wander through the canvas street, in everybody's way.' (48) An elegy for these figures, Barrie brings his puppets briefly to life, long enough for Pantaloon to acknowledge his fate: 'Pantaloon (bowing his head). Yes, that's it forgotten. Once famous--now forgotten. Joey, they don't know me even at the sausage-shop. I am just one of the public.' (49) A century later and this forgetting is complete. The 2006 production of Charley's Aunt by Timothy Sheader for the Oxford Playhouse yoked theatrical with social convention by locating the play at its point of origin in order to justify the convention of the chaperone on which the plot depends. The sets, designed by Jonathan Fensom, were framed by the proscenium arch of a life-size toy theatre, which proclaimed itself to be the 'Royalty Theatre, Soho, 1892'. Pastiche nineteenth-century flats were used to create interior and exterior spaces. In an era when no audience can be expected to be commedia literate, this Charley's Aunt was inevitably a postPantaloon production, confirming that Pantaloon and his companions have become indistinguishable from 'the public'.


(1) David Mayer, 'The Sexuality of Pantomime', Theatre Quarterly, IV.13 (1974), p. 56.

(2) The Saturday Review, 5 January 1884, p. 18.

(3) Ibid., p. 19.

(4) Ibid., p. 18.

(5) Jevan Brandon-Thomas, Charley's Aunt's Father. A Life of Brandon Thomas (London: Douglas Saunders, 1955), p. 102.

(6) Ibid., p. 105.

(7) Ibid., p. 106.

(8) Cecil Clay (ed.), Rosina Vokes (London: Rivington, Percival & Co., 1894), p. 59.

(9) Cecil Clay, A Pantomime Rehearsal (London: French's Acting Edition, 1931), p. 5.

(10) Ibid., pp. 7-8.

(11) Ibid., p. 11.

(12) Ibid., p. 12.

(13) Ibid., p. 19.

(14) Ibid., p. 30.

(15) Ibid., pp. 50-1.

(16) Ibid., p. 27.

(17) Punch, 28 January 1893, p. 40.

(18) Jevan Brandon-Thomas, ibid., p. 148.

(19) Brandon Thomas, Charley's Aunt (ed.) E. R. Wood (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1969), p. 35.

(20) Ibid., p. 81.

(21) Ibid., pp. 74-5.

(22) Ibid., p. 19.

(23) Charley's Aunt, ibid., p. 76.

(24) Jevan Brandon-Thomas, ibid., p. 176.

(25) Ibid., p. 173.

(26) Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 319-20.

(27) Pall Mall Gazette, 13 December 1892, p. 3.

(28) Pall Mall Gazette, 22 December 1892, p. 3.

(29) Charley's Aunt, ibid., p. 90.

(30) Ibid., p. 39.

(31) Ibid., p. 45.

(32) Ibid., p. 64.

(33) Ibid., p. 25.

(34) Ibid., p. 103.

(35) Ibid., p. 19.

(36) Ibid., p. 20.

(37) Ibid., p. 65.

(38) Ibid., p. 66.

(39) David Mayer, ibid., p. 60.

(40) Ibid., p. 60.

(41) Ibid., p. 60.

(42) W. S. Penley, Penley on Himself. The Confessions of a Conscientious Artist (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., 1896), p. 169.

(43) Ibid., p. 171.

(44) Ibid., p. 177.

(45) Ibid., p. 178.

(46) Ibid., pp. 181-5.

(47) Charley's Aunt, ibid., p. 88.

(48) J. M. Barrie, The Plays (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1928), p. 597.

(49) Ibid., p. 610.


Anne Varty is Reader in Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture. Her doctoral research on Walter Pater has developed into wide ranging interests in the development of Aestheticism, both in Britain and Europe. She also has strong interests in nineteenth-century theatre. Amongst her publications are A Preface to Oscar Wilde (Longman, 1998), Eve's Century: A Sourcebook of Writings on

Women and Journalism 1890-1918 (Routledge, 1999). Her recent book, Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain (Palgrave, 2007), was shortlisted for the 2008 Best Theatre Book by Society for Theatre Research and awarded 2009 Honorable Mention, George Freedley Memorial Prize, US Theater Library Association. Her current work focuses on fairy tales on the Victorian stage, and opium in British culture since 1800.
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