Chaplin and the Harlequinade

by Bryony Dixon

Characters from the Commedia dell' Arte

Commedia dell' Arte characters from Pollock's Characters and scenes in the Harlequinade


We all know that Charles Chaplin came from an English music hall background but our general cultural memory of music hall these days is so sketchy and specific to our age group that it is inadequate for the purpose of throwing light on Chaplin's particular genius for film comedy. Much more research needs to be done into the performance practices of the turn of the 19th/20th century comedy (Mike Hammond and Yuri Tsivian talked about a 'gag-ography')1 before we can fully trace the lineage of influences.

With all the difficulties of such research in mind, I would like to propose some thoughts on the pantomime harlequinade and its likely influence on Chaplin's film work. Although, the harlequinade is generally associated very much with an earlier Victorian period my researches suggest that it provides a missing link between ancient comedic forms of the stage and film comedy and more specifically the immediate Victorian/Edwardian influences on Chaplin himself. There are further specific connections between Chaplin and the harlequinade explained below.

Chaplin's theatrical influences

David Robinson has commented on Chaplin's experience of pantomime in some detail in his biography of Chaplin 2 and back in 1975, David Madden observed the similarities between the Harlequin of the commedia dell'arte and Chaplin's developing film persona but skipped over the more immediate influences on Chaplin himself of Victorian/Edwardian theatrical traditions.

The significant similarity between the three is in the use of improvisation to develop comedy. Comedic shows from as far back as ancient Greece and Rome were based on this method of working - performers, playing a particular character, were responsible for their particular comic business (they literally minded their own business) there was no script, no lines or stage instructions. Moreover, individual talent would drive the development of the piece and it could then evolve through repeated performance with minor variations, topical responses and improvements.

There are several good descriptions of the way in which this type of improvised comedy was developed by its practitioners, most of them fictional but based on sound research or knowledge

  • For the early diaspora of the Commedia, the descriptions of the development of touring plays in Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche are detailed and vivid and elucidate the effect of a genuine individual talent on such a form - one character begins to predominate and the nature of the play is changed (in the same way that Grimaldi raised the status of Clown in the classical Harlequinade).
  • For the later period, the description of Dan Leno's working method in the late 19th century pantomime in Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, is helpful in visualising the development of the scenario or 'script' through improvisation and exploitation of the artiste's 'business' [this would be a personal ragbag of physical comedy, patter, gags, prop work, and so on. This was probably, in part, inherited from previous comedians but never admitted to and nor would an audience consider this admission to be relevant or necessary at the time].
  • Compare these accounts with Chaplin's own description of the working method at Keystone (Robinson) and there is an evident similarity. Max Linder, quoted in Louis Delluc's 1922 study of Chaplin, notes the obsessive on-camera rehearsals and Linder states that this reflected a desire to take the chance element out of improvised comedy, which we know characterised his later work.

The sketch comedy

More immediate influences on Chaplin were the highly developed sketch plays, which have been reasonably well documented in relation to Chaplin's work. Frank Scheide's work on the Karno sketches trace an immediate and evident line from the Karno theatre comedy to Chaplin's film comedy and the films of other English comics such as Stan Laurel and Lupino Lane etc. Set pieces and scenarios as well as use of props and impedimenta were inherited from these sketch shows (think of incompetent paper-hangers, crazy football matches, living statues, barber shops, upsetting of apple carts, absurdist trials, haunted houses, self reflexive music hall spoofs, comic bailiffs). These scenarios and stories were copied and adapted and tailored to new audiences over the years. It is the stuff of classic comedy and can indeed be traced back to the British pantomime harlequinades. Karno himself was synonymous with the comedy of chaos and chaos was a specific feature of the harlequinade.

The pantomime harlequinade

The harlequinade was sketch comedy's immediate predecessor, another aspect of Victorian music hall/ theatrical tradition which formed part of Chaplin's cultural inheritance, older and more amorphous, but arguably just as important in understanding Chaplin's success. The Harlequinade was in modern terminology - a successful format - It was flexible enough to allow real talent to shine, it celebrated change and was driven by novelty which encouraged constant adaptation of its comedic elements by performers and between media. It had developed directly from the commedia, having a set of stock characters with specific attributes, costumes and behavioural patterns which didn't vary. Everything else did - the sets, the basic plot or scenario, the props and names were each time new. Topical events and issues of the day might be commented upon and every opportunity for spectacle indulged. Like the later movie business, exotic settings were a central attraction and would be manufactured or fantastical versions of them at any rate - not so much Chinese as Chinoiserie.

The set of commedia characters were very adaptable and could be re-purposed in every new situation - Columbine, a young girl (pretty of course); Pantaloon, her father or authority figure; Harlequin the lover, the dancer in love with Columbine of course; Clown, the mischief maker who is servant to Pantaloon but really supports the lovers and usually; Policeman, the venal official there only to heighten the action by threat of punishment and impose society's conventions. The plot is simple - Columbine flees unkind Pantaloon and meets Harlequin, they fall in love and are pursued - the chase supplies the structure of the piece. Clown intervenes and creates a diversion to slow up Pantaloon and at this point his diversionary tactics supply most of the real comedy and the lovers merely dance in and out to remind us they are there. A crisis point develops at some point and Pantaloon has to be persuaded to accept the union of the lovers - happy ending.

The transformation device

There is another element to the classical harlequinade that is relevant to our understanding of the way in which Chaplin worked. Although it formed a discrete part of the pantomime play and could even be performed separately, the harlequinade was more commonly inserted into the main production by use of the transformation scenes. Understanding this theatrical device is essential to understanding the harlequinade. Characters established in the main pantomime story (a young girl her lover, father, the servant etc.) get into trouble, an impossible situation for which there is no solution, and are transformed by some benign spiritual agent (think fairy godmother, 'the gods', that kind of thing) into the characters of the harlequinade in a strange parallel topsy-turvy world. The purpose of this, dramatically was to introduce the comedy and to move the plot along by creating such chaos that the 'powers-that-be' would acquiesce to the union of the lovers just so that order could be restored. At that point the characters were transformed back and the drama proceeded with the full on happy ending, parades, fireworks, dancing girls, spectacles and general rejoicing.

Structurally, it is the act of transforming that is important to remember as this signals the move to the parallel world where things do not behave in the same way. Most comedy has to have an isolating device of this type to contain the strange goings on (sitcom would be the most common today). Likewise, the chase is an obvious and useful structural device. And most early film comedies used it some form. The tool for effecting the change is another inheritance - Harlequin has his magic bat or slapstick, but it could be a wand, a magic lamp or a host of other things. Sometimes, the transformation is effected by falling asleep, or love potions, or drunkenness (a favourite of Chaplin's). Chaos must be created (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream with the juice of the flower) in order that all are eventually brought to their senses.

The harlequinade and Chaplin

So much so interesting, but how does all this relate to Chaplin? I am making no claims for these reflections as I have not yet been able to carry out in-depth research but I have noticed some interesting parallels. We know that Chaplin played in pantomime and worked extensively in music halls and theatres of Britain and that he was imbued with British theatrical tradition and practice. We know that he developed his early comedies by improvisation and rehearsal rather than by writing scripts. We know that he referenced the harlequinade clown directly in his (1915) Essanay film A Woman in which he effects a classic harlequinade transformation from the woman's costume (Chaplin, very fetching in drag) to a parody of a Grimaldi style clown costume, almost as if he were folding down the cardboard flaps of a child's pantomime trick.

Furthermore, Chaplin's famous essential ingredients for comedy, the 'policeman, park and a pretty girl' would have been widely recognised analogous features of the harlequinade for contemporary audiences. If you compare A Woman with the Harlequinade for Pollock's Toy Theatre you can see the analogies - the settings of the park, the street and the parlour, the young girl for Columbine, the father (Pantaloon), Charlie as a combined Harlequin and Clown, the chase, the use of props and the pastiche of the clown-like clothes for comic effect, even the tableau ending. These stock ingredients would reinforce in the audience's mind, the comedy's zany, chaotic, quality and site it firmly in familiar territory.

Interestingly Donald McCaffrey in his 1971 collection of critical essays on Chaplin, considers that several of the identifiably harlequinade-like elements (One A.M., the dream sequence in The Kid, the happy ending of The Gold Rush) were structural faults. This is perhaps because he has a model in his head of what a good cinematic film should be, which doesn't take account of conventions transferred from other entertainment forms. He is nevertheless prepared to admit Chaplin's supreme skill as "a clown who could exhibit the slapstick of Harlequin with the moonstruck sadness of Pierrot... The comedian was able to make us laugh and still feel sorry for this pathetic little man. The twentieth century after The Gold Rush seemed to house the reincarnation of the famous eighteenth century French clown Jean Gaspard Deburau, a renowned Pierrot, blended with all the rollicking good spirit of the Clown created by the English music hall's favourite comedian, Grimaldi" . In the same volume one Winston Churchill observed, "It is the supreme achievement of Mr Chaplin that he has revived in modern times one of the great arts of the ancient world... pantomime is the true universal tongue"

I hope to interrogate the analogies between the various stage forms and filmmaking in the development of comedy in future articles. The parallels may be superficial so far but future research will assess the balance struck between scenario setting and improvisation and the reliance on well-established comedy and slapstick routines, and the commonality and lineage of gags and props. The skills of generations of pantomimists seem to have been condensed into Chaplin. As Ben Hecht observed in 1916 "He is absurd; unmanly; tawdry; cheap; artificial. And behind his crudities his obscenities, his inartistic and outrageous contortions his divinity shines. He is the Mob God. He is the child and a clown. He is a guttersnipe and an artist... He is the mob on two legs. They love him and laugh."3 He could have been talking about Joey Grimaldi nearly a century earlier.

So Chaplin, and others took with them to the new world the cultural baggage of the pantomime and the harlequinade. We know furthermore, that when Chaplin set off to New York for a second US tour of a Karno show in 1911, he and his Karno troupe produced a Christmas special, just as the British film comedians were doing back home, 4 called A Harlequinade in Black & White, performed in silhouette (a device to which he would return in his films). This contained all the characters of the harlequinade, Columbine and Harlequin, Pantaloon and Clown and the usual comic business that now exists almost solely in the realm of Children's entertainment, kept alive by middle class parents buying Victoriana for their children in the form of reproduced toy theatre plays, with their cut-out characters and trick sheets.

Characters from the Commedia dell' Arte

Commedia dell' Arte characters from Pollock's Characters and scenes in the Harlequinade

It is no wonder at all that Chaplin chose to incorporate the harlequinade into Limelight, his tribute to the music hall, and appropriately he does so in yet another style, the ballet, appropriately the surviving non-talking theatrical form. Appropriately too this is sited within the show within the film story as a harlequinade would be to the main pantomime. The design exploits all the attributes of the stage harlequinade; the exaggerated perspective and reduction of elements to their iconic or cartoon level are all entirely in keeping with its spirit. Chaplin though, has chosen to play it as tragedy in keeping with the mood of the film. A sombre swan song for a dying art.


  • Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography Penguin Books 1964
  • David Robinson,Chaplin: His Life and Art. Penguin Books 2001
  • Frank Scheide, The History of Low Comedy and Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century English Music Hall as basis for examining the 1914-1917 films of Charles Spencer Chaplin. Unpublished PhD thesis for University of Wisconsin-Madison 1990
  • David Mayer, Harlequin in his Element (1969)
  • Pollock's Characters and scenes in the Harlequinade
  • Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)
  • Louis Delluc, Charlie Chaplin (1922)
  • Rachel Low History of the British Film 1896-1906
  • Bryony Dixon, Music Hall and British Cinema before 1930 - a survey of moving image sources AHRB website
  • Bryony Dixon, A Catalogue of Music Hall Related Films held by the National Archive 1895 to 1930
  • David Madden, Harlequin's Stick, Chaplin's Cane: a comparative study of commedia dell'arte and silent slapstick comedy (1975)
  • Richard Abel, The CinĂ© Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914
  • Donald W McCaffrey (ed) Focus on Chaplin (1971)

1. We also thought that a 'prop-ography' would be useful

2. David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art. Penguin Books 2001. Ch 3 p74 -104

3. Quoted in David Robinson op. cit.

4. e.g. Fred and Joe Evans, Hepworth, Harold Shaw amongst others produced Christmas specials for children, which were always harlequinades. Stoll was still producing them in the 1920s.