These conventions will be examined
in Poppy to see to what extent the play makes use of or develops
the pantomimic form. Finally, Nichols's innovations will be studied in
more detail, emphasising the satirical attitudes to morality and commerce
of the Victorian empire.
Pantomime was one of the most popular
dramatic forms in the nineteenth century British theatre; it appealed to
a wide range of audiences from different social classes. With its plot
taken "from history, legend, folk story or fairy tale" (Booth 1991: 198),
and its visual effects created through dance, chorus, trick-work and magic,
pantomime could be said to offer a wide variety of entertainment in a single
evening, due to its flexible structure, pantomime gave the opportunity
for various styles of performance. As William Archer, a Victorian critic
suggested a century ago:
The element of subversion in pantomime recalls the primary form of human celebration -carnivals, feasts and marketplace festivities, which exist in contrast to the "official" feasts. As Mikhail Bakhtin in his research on Rabelais's work has observed: "The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of peculiar significance" (Bakhtin 1968: 10). In contrast to the reality of the everyday life, the carnival created a microcosm where there were no barriers of caste, property, profession, age and sex. In such an ideal world people were "reborn for new" with "purely human relations." This renewal and revival can be seen at the end of a pantomime as well, with the union of the lovers who start a new life. The most important characteristic of carnival is the participation of people in the action, as "carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people" (Bakhtin 1968: 7).
It is significant to observe in this connection that pantomime, by creating a world of fantasy for the spectators, was perceived as a means of escape from the strict moral rules of the Victorian period. Indeed, pantomime's extreme popularity in the nineteenth century may actually be considered as a silent protest against oppression, both against the state and its mechanisms. Christmas time was, and still is, the most essential and profitable season for the performance of the pantomimes. Russell Jackson believes that this is the time when the working class had enough time and money to attend (Jackson 1989: 16); in addition, the need to retreat from daily routine and the desire to escape from the overfamiliar nativity plays may be other factors in people's preferring pantomime. According to the Victorian code of manners, people were expected to take part in religious ceremonies, masses and nativity plays performed in churches, but pantomimes remained the most attractive form of popular culture. F.M.L.Thompson, the director of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in his work about "respectability" in Victorian society, points out that regular church - or chapel-going was very popular among the middle classes in the first decades of the Victorian era. Churches were immediately built in a new housing area "as an early priority, to ensure its respectable and middle-class character" (Thompson 1991: 251). But towards the end of the period this condition changed. The results of a "Religious Census" showed that the number of working class patrons of religious institutions was significantly fewer when compared to the middle and upper classes (Mann 1851: 39-45). Horace Mann, the assistant commissioner for the census of 1851, argued that one of the most important reasons for the labourers' distraction from the religious institutions was that they were separated from other social classes by pews and free seats in churches, which constantly reminded them of their inferiority- It is highly likely, therefore, that the labouring population, fed up with class distinction and oppression in society, isolated itself and retreated into the ideal world of pantomime.
The popularity of pantomime, in contrast
to the "official" culture in the nineteenth century, originates in carnival
which has undergone a. long process of suppression. As Peter Stallybrass
and Allon White suggest in their study on Bourgeois Hysteria and the
Pantomime creates a world of fantasy
for the spectators to enjoy and participate in. One of the major aims is
to break the "fourth wall" and make the audience take part in the action,
free its minds and forget about real life for a while. The actors and actresses
express their awareness of the audience's presence (Jackson 1989: 127),
through the conventional address of "boys and girls" as it can be seen
In Poppy the play opens with special effects: "During the orchestral overture, the front tabs rise to show a swirling mass of clouds and water, a place where gods and emperors can meet" (Nichols 1986: 413). Here Nichols is deliberately creating a pastiche of nineteenth century style; for instance the word "tabs," an abbreviation of "tableau curtain" is what we know as "curtains" today." The pastiche continues with the Chinese Emperor appearing "in a throne floating high above" and performing magic, while introducing himself hyperbolically as "Emperor of the Middle Kingdom, Son of Heaven, Ruler of the Four Seas" (Nichols 1986: 413). And finally, Queen Victoria is presented "in a cloud of smoke"; spectacle and language combine to create a sense of wonder. The main idea of the play, which is about the trade between the two countries, Britain and China, is introduced through the dialogue between the Queen and the Emperor. In this trade, one is sending "amusing toys," including opium and guns which "made rather too noise" (14ichols 414); the other, rather absurdly, tea and rhubarb (which is also a synonym for "chat" or "talk"). Apparently, the play is going to deal on a parodic level with a social and cultural contact between two totally different nations.
Another important element of the opening
scene is audience participation, which brings them closer not only to the
play's fantastic world, but also to the satire that follows later on. Through
the conventional "boys and girls" formula, discussed earlier, the audience
are encouraged to approve things that they might not approve of in reality;
regardless of their political opinions about the Opium Wars, they are told
they should be on the side of the British:
I'll need to know you're firmly on my side.
So if you are, shout 'yes' when I count three.
One - Two - Three -
Your Majesty! (Nichols 1986: 415)
This scene also reveals that the play is going to contain rather risque' humour, as demonstrated in the Emperor's words: "Without our tea and rhubarb your whole nation / will die in agonies of constipation" (Nichols 1986: 415). This is intended to entertain the adult audience, even if, in classical pantomime, such humour was considered beyond the child spectators' understanding. This style of expression is one of the characteristics of carnival as welt, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out: "... during carnival tune a special type of communication impossible in everyday life" was needed. "This led to the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other tunes" (Bakhtin 1968: 10).
The second scene introduces Jack Idle, the comic servant, whose name represents an inversion of a popular figure from panto: Idle Jack, normally found in Jack and the Beanstalk. He enters with his horse, Randy, a pantomime horse, and reveals his awareness of the spectators by coming to the front of the stage and introducing himself: "... Hello, boys and girls. My name's Jack Idle. Whenever I say 'Hello, boys and girls' I want you to say 'Hello Jack.' Can you do that?" (Nichols 1986: 416). He invites them to be part of the action (12). Then the Principal Girl, Sally, is presented with her mare, Cherry. According to the conventions of pantomime, the love of Jack for Sally and Randy for Cherry is described through songs, dances and choruses. The subversiveness of this pantomime is portrayed through the Pantomime Dame, Dodo, "a middle-aged woman played by a man, wearing black nineteenth century hunting gear" (Nichols 1986: 421), and the Principal Boy, Dick Whittington, "played by a beautiful young woman. He too is wearing black but it's a tight-fitting suit with high-heeled shoes and legs in tights reaching nearly to his shoulders" (Nichols 1986: 422).
Just as the sexuality of the characters
is subverted, so are the morals of the Victorian empire and its principles
of commerce. This kind of social criticism goes far beyond the conventions
of nineteenth century pantomime. Poppy exposes the corruption of the Victorian
opium economy, as explained by Sir Obadiah Upward:
The government's tax on tea paid for the war against
Boney [Napoleon] so we had to discover something
they wanted as much as we wanted their
tea. (Nichols 1986: 446)
DICK: With a spoonful of soothing
UPWARD: And another. Then another.
(Nichols 1986: 431)
Nichols continues his satire of the
Empire by showing how religion is debased. This is suggested by a cart
loaded with bundles of Bibles and hymn-books used for covering opium:
The last scene of the play focuses
directly on the destructive effects of opium, leading to the decay of social
values and morality in the Victorian period. Traditionally, in a pantomime
the "transformation" scene is supposed to depict the marriage of the Principal
Girl and the Principal Boy. In Poppy, however Nichols makes Dick
Whittington marry the businessman Obadiah Upward's daughter instead of
the loyal maid, Sally, whom we might have expected to become his wife.
Furthermore, Sally's appearance on the stage in a state of physical decay
demonstrates the destructiveness of drug trading:
Pantomime has been an unusual popular
genre, both for children and adults in Christmas time they are more or
less familiar with the world of fantasy created through the spectacle and
visual effects. In Poppy Nichols develops this side of pantomime
by making use of films and newsreel as commentary. Thus, he encourages
the audience to take part in this world and follow its conventions where
necessary. However, Nichols goes far beyond the conventions of this form,
to satirise the attitude of the British Empire. He reveals the destructiveness
of Victorian foreign policy, and by means of audience participation makes
the spectators feel part of the action, that they are somehow implicated.
In almost all of his plays, Nichols has a critical approach to the social,
political and religious institutions, like the National Health Service,
the Christian Church, the British army and the British Empire. The corruption
within these institutions seems to be of more concern to him than individual
happiness. In other words, the problems in his plays are not the fault
of a specific person, but the institution itself which is part of the dominant
culture, and which needs to be changed and refined.
Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais And His World, Trans. Helene Iswolsky, Cambridge: The M.I.T Press, 1968.
Booth, Michael, Theatre in the Victorian Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Briggs, Asa, "Victorian Values," in In Search of Victorian Values: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Thought and Socidty, ed. Eric M.Sigsworth, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.
Jackson, Russell, Victorian Theatre: A New Mermaid Background Book, London: A and C Black, 1989.
Mann, Horace, "From the 'Report on
The Religious Census' (1851)," in Culture And Society in Britain (1850-1890),
ed, J.M.Dolby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991..
Nichols, Peter, Plays One, London: Methuen & Co. 1986.
Nightingale, Florence, Cassandra (1852), in Culture and Society in Britain (1850-1890), ed. J.M.Golby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Stallybrass, Peter and White, Allon, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Thompson, F.M.L, Mastering Modern
British History, 2nd ed., London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1989.