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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: "Humpty Dumpty" (1868)


(Illustration by Thomas Nast from the Humpty Dumpty clipping file at the New York Public LIbrary for the Performing Arts)(Illustration by Thomas Nast from the Humpty Dumpty clipping file at the New York Public LIbrary for the Performing Arts)Within the world of music theater there are many sub-genres — pop opera, juke-box musical, concept musical, and so on — that go in and out of style as generations transition and audience tastes change. At present, the juke-box musical and musical comedies are very popular; 18 years ago — when I first fell in love with musicals — pop operas like Evita, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera filled out the season schedule at most regional touring houses. The Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style “integrated book musical” seemed shockingly innovative in the 1940s, became a joke in the 1970s, and today The Book of Mormon, using more-or-less the same form, has sold out until sometime next year (of course, I can’t be absolutely sure of this until I see it myself, so if anyone has tickets... ).

Some sub-genres, though, have gone so far out of style that they have been almost entirely forgotten. In the United States, pantomime is one of those forms. Although in England, especially around Christmastime, pantomimes are still very popular, most Americans (myself included until several years ago) think only of the the work of street performers in white makeup leaning on imaginary countertops when they hear the word. In fact, pantomime is a complex and stylized form of musical story-telling that, in the late 19th century, helped to pave the way for the musical theater we know today. August's Musical of the Month, Humpty Dumpty, represents one of the most popular American pantomimes of the 19th century.

Illustration by Thomas NastIllustration by Thomas Nast

Although pantomime has its roots in a form of popular theater in ancient Greece, the style found in Humpty Dumpty emerged in France when a legally-enforced monopoly allowed the Comedie-Francaise the sole right to perform plays with spoken dialogue. Other theater companies attempted to get around the ban by singing their lines or else using gesture to communicate silently. As the Charlie Chaplin's silent films demonstrate, slap-stick is a form of humor that works particular well when accompanied only by music, and so physical comedy flourished in this legally enforced silence and became a defining characteristic of pantomime. By the 19th century in England and America, spoken dialogue was no longer legally banned, but the form itself preferred broad gesture to words. George L. Fox popularized the form in New York in the years after the Civil War, but it faded away in the States around the beginning of the 20th century.

Pantomimes would often begin, as in Humpty Dumpty, with a short scene of spoken, rhyming couplets, but this would be followed with silent slap-stick, songs, dance, and spectacular stage effects. The audience could count on a plot taken from a traditional fairy tale or nursery rhyme and a cast of characters that almost always included a matronly “Dame” played by a man in woman’s clothing, two young lovers, and a clown whose physical comedy drove the action. 

Illustration by Thomas NastIllustration by Thomas NastAll of this does not translate terribly well to text, which is perhaps why I have been unable to locate a complete 19th century script for Humpty Dumpty. The text linked below is a 1910 reconstruction by an actor, John Denier, who once performed with George Fox. When compared with an original program (also linked below), the Denier text seems somewhat abbreviated. The Humpty Dumpty performed at the Olympic Theater in 1868 had 16 scenes including songs, ballets, and “Grand Transformations.” Denier’s reconstruction, part of a series of “Acting Dramas,” was probably intended for amateur, regional theaters with relatively small budgets. Further, these smaller companies would probably have felt some freedom and even obligation to interpolate their own scenes to showcase the skills of particular cast members. By 1910, though, pantomime in the U.S. would probably have seemed a relatively archaic form, and it’s not clear Denier’s reconstruction was ever terribly successful. 

Today, pantomime in the U.S. is probably most visible in the sketch comedy of Saturday Night Live, in some children’s cartoons (especially those that follow the model of Tom & Jerry), and in amusement park shows at Disney World, Six Flags, and Branson, Missouri. Its contribution to the forms of American popular musical theater today is, perhaps, minimal, though it does represent a sub-category that, if now obsolete in the United States, remains hugely popular in much of the rest of the English-speaking world.

If you're interested in learning more about pantomime, I've found Millie Taylor's British Pantomime Performance a good place to start.

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Bill Irwin paid tribute to George L. Fox and "Humpty Dumpty" in a marvelous play "Mr. Fox" A Rumination" in 2004 at Signature Theater. The reviwer at THE NEW YORK TIMES did not get it. Although he did illustrate two picture books of Fox in "Humpty Dumpty," Thomas Nast probably did not draw the pictures reproduced above.

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