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The Pantomimical Characters
by [?]

Il est des gens de qui l’esprit guinde
Sous un front jamais deride
Ne souffre, n’approuve, et n’estime
Que le pompeux, et le sublime;
Pour moi j’ose poser en fait
Qu’en de certains momens l’esprit le plus parfait
Peut aimer sans rougir jusqu’aux marionettes;
Et qu’il est des tems et des lieux,
Ou le grave, et le serieux,
Ne valent pas d’agreables sornettes.
Peau d’Ane.

People there are who never smile;
Their foreheads still unsmooth’d the while,
Some lambent flame of mirth will play,
That wins the easy heart away;
Such only choose in prose or rhyme
A bristling pomp,–they call sublime!
I blush not to like Harlequin,
Would he but talk,–and all his kin.
Yes, there are times, and there are places,
When flams and old wives’ tales are worth the Graces.

Cervantes, in the person of his hero, has confessed the delight he received from amusements which disturb the gravity of some, who are apt, however, to be more entertained by them than they choose to acknowledge. Don Quixote thus dismisses a troop of merry strollers–“Andad con Dios, buena gente, y hazad vuestra fiesta, porque desde muchacho fui aficionado a la Caratula, y en mi mocedad se ne ivan los ojos tras la Farandula.” In a literal version the passage may run thus:–“Go, good people, God be with you, and keep your merry making! for from childhood I was in love with the Caratula, and in my youth my eyes would lose themselves amidst the Farandula.” According to Pineda, La Caratula is an actor masked, and La Farandula is a kind of farce.[1]

Even the studious Bayle, wrapping himself in his cloak, and hurrying to the market-place to Punchinello, would laugh when the fellow had humour in him, as was usually the case; and I believe the pleasure some still find in pantomimes, to the annoyance of their gravity, is a very natural one, and only wants a little more understanding in the actors and the spectators.[2]

The truth is, that here our Harlequin and all his lifeless family are condemned to perpetual silence. They came to us from the genial hilarity of the Italian theatre, and were all the grotesque children of wit, and whim, and satire. Why is this burlesque race here privileged to cost so much, to do so little, and to repeat that little so often? Our own pantomime may, indeed, boast of two inventions of its own growth: we have turned Harlequin into a magician, and this produces the surprise of sudden changes of scenery, whose splendour and curious correctness have rarely been equalled: while in the metamorphosis of the scene, a certain sort of wit to the eye, “mechanic wit,” as it has been termed, has originated; as when a surgeon’s shop is turned into a laundry, with the inscription “Mangling done here;” or counsellors at the bar changed into fish-women.

Every one of this grotesque family were the creatures of national genius, chosen by the people for themselves. Italy, both ancient and modern, exhibits a gesticulating people of comedians, and the same comic genius characterised the nation through all its revolutions, as well as the individual through all his fortunes. The lower classes still betray their aptitude in that vivid humour, where the action is suited to the word–silent gestures sometimes expressing whole sentences. They can tell a story, and even raise the passions, without opening their lips. No nation in modern Europe possesses so keen a relish for the burlesque, insomuch as to show a class of unrivalled poems, which are distinguished by the very title; and perhaps there never was an Italian in a foreign country, however deep in trouble, but would drop all remembrance of his sorrows, should one of his countrymen present himself with the paraphernalia of Punch at the corner of a street. I was acquainted with an Italian, a philosopher and a man of fortune, residing in this country, who found so lively a pleasure in performing Punchinello’s little comedy, that, for this purpose, with considerable expense and curiosity, he had his wooden company, in all their costume, sent over from his native place. The shrill squeak of the tin whistle had the same comic effect on him as the notes of the Ranz des Vaches have in awakening the tenderness of domestic emotions in the wandering Swiss–the national genius is dramatic. Lady Wortley Montagu, when she resided at a villa near Brescia, was applied to by the villagers for leave to erect a theatre in her saloon: they had been accustomed to turn the stables into a playhouse every carnival. She complied, and, as she tells us, was “surprised at the beauty of their scenes, though painted by a country painter. The performance was yet more surprising, the actors being all peasants; but the Italians have so natural a genius for comedy, they acted as well as if they had been brought up to nothing else, particularly the Arlequino, who far surpassed any of our English, though only the tailor of our village, and I am assured never saw a play in any other place.” Italy is the mother, and the nurse, of the whole Harlequin race.