Anna Cora Mowatt and Princess Zela

While researching for this blog, I found a newspaper advertisement that ran in the Sunday edition of The Era on January 13, 1850 for a bill of performances at the Theatre Royal Marylebone. The ad promised the evening would conclude with “the New Comic Fairy Pantomime, with the most magnificent scenery, wondrous tricks, and costly decorations… ” The title of the piece was “Harlequin Fairy-land ; or Princess Zela and Her Three Wishes.” 1 This year marks the 170th anniversary of the pantomime’s production. Its co-authors were R. Nelson Lee and Walter Watts.

R. Nelson Lee’s name may not ring a bell now, but to Victorian theater-goers, he was the master of the of the Christmas pantomime. In 1850, he was well-established in the middle of his thirty-year career during which he would author an estimated 200 entries in the genre. In that year alone, he wrote or co-wrote at least three of the Christmas pantomimes that were staged. If Watts wanted to learn how to write this type of play, he could hope for no better mentor.

Today, harlequinades seem to occur only in ballet and Batman comics. However for Victorians, they were a type of over-the-top theatrical that involved clowns, elaborate sets, fantastic costumes, and — to judge from the illustrations — characters wearing giant heads. A harlequinade was a special effects showcase composed of a series of scenes connected by spectacular transformation sequences presided over by fairies. The Christmas pantomime was a raucous affair that ideally combined fantastic story-lines, topical humor that lampooned current events, and bizarre sight gags. These productions were intended to end the evening with a bang and send the audience home dazzled, amazed, and with a smile on their faces. A writer for John Bull put it, “a Christmas piece ought to be about to make a child of twelve shriek with laughter, and yet be able to provoke a smile from a philosopher of fifty.”2

According to The Era, the plot of “Princess Zela and Her Three Wishes” ran as follows:

The story involves the history of the fair Princess Zela, who refuses to wed for wealth or station, and prefers to live in a cottage. She is taken under the protection of the Fairy Court, who proclaim the disposal of her hand on a certain day, and at a certain hour. Her suitors arrive and bid for the prize. The Prince of California bids high, but he is outbidden by the Demon of Gold. The Prince of Love and Knight of Poverty, who has nothing but his heart to offer, is, however, the favored suitor. The father of the Princess refuses his consent, and shuts her up; but she remembers the three wishes granted her by the kind fairies. They are transported to California and the “diggings,” and soon discover that gold alone will not procure happiness. Other scenes, with similar results, follow, and in the end, the father of the Princess consents to her union with the Prince of Love. The Fairy Queen then appears, and the magical transformations take place.3

Other publications describe these transformations — which are somewhat difficult to visualize and sound rather at odds with the pantomime’s romantic plot:

There are the usual and yet ever fresh scenes of street confusion. A parcel of clothes from Moses’ is turned to account to deck poor Pantaloon and Clown in the oddest costume. Nothing comes amiss to them. If a pair of skates is found, the one invites the other to a pas des patineurs. They eat all kinds of monstrous things, but cod liver oil serves to cure every disorder. Some of the “mechanic wit,” too, is amusing; as when the grotesques, plundering a poulterer’s shop, find themselves in an instant, at a blow of the light lathe sword of Harlequin, fast in a large strong hen-coop.4

An audience-favorite feature of the production mentioned by several reviewers — whose connection to the plot I also cannot fathom — was “Lilliputian Tom.”

One of the best parts of the piece was scarcely legitimate, but not lest deservedly applauded – an adult performer going through a wonderful series of balancings with a little fellow about two feet high, termed “Lilliputian Tom,” which terminated by the poising of a ladder on the elder performer’s chin, at the top of which the little urchin stood on his head.5

I have no idea what Tom and his companion had to do with Princess Zela and her wishes, but they do sound like characters Dickens might choose to drop into a narrative, don’t they?

With strange prescience, one reviewer in 1850 found something peculiarly fitting about the author’s inclusion in the introduction of a non-Christmas American tune that’s going to bellow “Christmas!” to almost every U.S. resident reading this quote:

There is something peculiarly fine in the opening scene, which presents an Arcadian bower by moonlight, most beautifully presented and richly put upon the stage. The distant chorus is heard behind the scenes –

“Fairies, won’t you come out to-night –
Come out to-night – come out to-night?
Fairies, won’t you come out tonight,
And dance by the light of the moon?”6

Some writers, using modern Broadway and London’s West End as standards, have cited the short runs of Watts’ plays to indicate that they were flops. This rubric for measuring success is particularly misapplied in the case of “Harlequin Fairy-land.” All Christmas pantomimes had limited runs. Judging from contemporary reports, “Princess Zela” was a hit with critics and audiences. It ran from Boxing Night until the end of January. That seems to be a very healthy life span for this type of show. The only complaint that appears in reviews was that the “gallery gods” were so anxious to get to the special effects “goodies” and slap-stick comedy in the transformation scenes on opening night, the dialogue that reviewers assumed was composed by Watts was nearly inaudible.

Covering the Christmas pantomimes was a big event. On Boxing Night, everyone went to the theater. The London papers seemed to have dispatched a squad of reviewers to cover all of the playhouses. The Adephi debuted a spectacular adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At the Lyceum, Madame Vestris was making a come-back performance. Walter Watts chose this night for his grand opening of the newly re-furbished Royal Olympic. Crowds at Astley’s Theatre had to be called down repeatedly by the manager before the noise there subsided enough for the show could continue.
Despite all this excitement elsewhere in the city, the Marylebone was packed with enthusiastic attendees. The reporter from John Bull relayed that the house on Boxing Night was crowded with both the pit and the galleries “densely packed.”7 The critics had nothing but compliments for the productions, such as the following:

The performances of the whole of these parties was active and highly efficient throughout. Mr. Lee’s “hits” at popular topics of the day were excellent, and astonishingly well received, as they certainly deserved to be. Their piquancy was evidently well relished by all, the gallery “gods” evidencing their approbation by “thunders” of applause. The entire amusement consisted of a multiplicity of excellent arrangements carefully made, and the whole being well-acted caused the pieces to be well worth seeing and the efforts of all parties “to please” deserving of being crowned with success.8

Of course, Watts had set himself up for success. Arranging to write a Christmas harlequinade with R. Lee Nelson, who had been writing popular pantomimes since 1836, was a little akin to a playwright in the mid-1980s arranging to write a Broadway comedy with Neil Simon. The headlines for the reviews could have read “Novice Manages Not to Screw Up Hit-Maker Scoring Yet Another Hit.”

Watts may have been having some good-natured fun with the fact that everyone knew he had mined the talent of his American stars for all the gold they were worth when he chose a distinctly American theme for his harlequinade. January of 1850 followed January of 1849 when James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill and the California Gold Rush began. Not too far away, the Royal Grecian Saloon also was playing a Gold Rush themed pantomime. Astley’s, the theater whose pantomime almost turned into a riot, was running “Harlequin and Yankee Doodle Come to Town Riding his Little Pony.” The U.S. was a popular topic that Christmas.

This is the point in my essays where, if has not already become apparent, I usually make clear the connection to Mowatt. In my original draft of this blog, I didn’t explore much further than the Gold Rush theme. However, I happened to be re-reading Mowatt’s Mimic Life and noticed, somewhat jarringly, that the climactic scene of “The Prompter’s Daughter” is set in a Christmas pantomime that gives several indications of being based on that production of Watts and Lee’s “Harlequin Fairy-Land” that ran from Boxing Day in 1849 through January 1850.

That, my friends, calls for a part two.

1. The Era. Sunday, January, 13, 1850. Vol. XII, no. 590.
2. “Christmas Entertainments.” John Bull. Dec, 31, 1849. Page 824.
3. “Marylebone.” The Era. December 30, 1849, page 12.
4. “Marylebone.” The Weekly Chronicle. December 30, 1849. Page 7.
5. “The Christmas Pantomimes and Burlesques.” Bell’s Life in London, Dec. 30, 1849. Page 4.
6. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Sun, London. Thursday Evening, December 29, 1850, page 3.
7. John Bull, p. 824.
8. The Sun, p. 3.