Harlequin, Scaramouch and The Emperor of the Moon

Another play with dancing that held the London stage for several decades was Aphra Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon. It was probably first performed in March 1687 at the Dorset Garden Theatre and was published the same year. Behn’s principal source was Fatouville’s Arlequin empereur dans la lune, itself first performed by the Italian comedians in Paris on 5 March 1684. I am not going to attempt an analysis of the relationship between the two plays. My interest, as ever, is dancing and – in this case – the roles of Harlequin and Scaramouch, as performed on the London stage.

According to the printed play, Harlequin was first performed by ‘Mr Jevon’ and Scaramouch by ‘Mr Leigh’. Thomas Jevon and Anthony Leigh were both comedians with the company. Jevon had begun as a dancing master and regularly added dancing to his stage performances, while Leigh was known for ad-libbing and his wide variety of roles. Both must have been able to give a good account of commedia dell’arte-style action, for Behn’s play includes several lazzi for the two, including a fight which ends in a dance in act 1 scene 3.

‘They go to fight ridiculously, and ever as Scaramouch passes, Harlequin leaps aside, and skips so nimbly about, he cannot touch him for his life; which after a while endeavouring in vain, [Scaramouch] lays down his sword’.

Admitting defeat as a swordsman, ‘Scaramouch pulls out a flute doux, and falls to playing. Harlequin throws down his [sword], and falls a-dancing. After the dance, they shake hands’. Both are, of course, speaking (as well as miming) characters.

Scaramouch is described in the stage directions as ‘dressed in black, with a short black cloak, a ruff, and a little hat’, his customary costume, suggesting that Harlequin also wore his traditional parti-coloured suit with a mask. Aphra Behn is thought to have seen Fatouville’s piece in Paris in 1684, but it is not clear where Jevon and Leigh learnt their action since there had been no Italian comedians in London since the late 1670s.

The Emperor of the Moon revolves around the usual pairs of young lovers, who employ Harlequin and Scaramouch to trick Doctor Baliardo into allowing them to wed. The Doctor is obsessed with the world in the Moon and the final scene of the play has an elaborate masque in which the two young men descend to earth as the ‘Emperor of the Moon’ and the ‘Prince of Thunderland’ and marry their sweethearts. The action of the play includes three ‘antic’ dances, the last of which comes in this finale and is probably performed by the attendants of the ‘Emperor’ and ‘Prince’. According to the cast list they are ‘persons that represent the court cards’.

Revivals of The Emperor of the Moon up to 1700 are difficult to chart. The play was given in 1687-1688 and 1691-1692 and perhaps also in 1699-1700, although its later popularity suggests that it was performed far more often. The first known performance after 1700 was on 18 September 1702 at Drury Lane, with another famous comedian, William Pinkethman, as Harlequin. He experimented by trying to play the role without a mask, but – as Colley Cibber recorded in his Apology of 1740, ‘Penkethman could not take to himself the Shame of the Character without being concealed – he was no more Harlequin – his Humour was quite disconcerted!’. The Drury Lane performance on 20 December 1704 advertised ‘All the original Dances which were perform’d, particularly the Card Dance’. In 1709-1710, a Night Scene with commedia dell’arte characters was advertised alongside The Emperor of the Moon but may perhaps have been performed within the play.

When the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre was allowed to open in 1714, it gave The Emperor of the Moon in competition with Drury Lane, finally taking over the play altogether from 1717-1718. Behn’s play was given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields nearly every season until 1731-1732, usually with William Bullock Sr as Scaramouch and James Spiller as Harlequin. Both were established comedians and Spiller also occasionally danced in the entr’actes. When the company moved to its new Covent Garden Theatre, The Emperor of the Moon went too.

The Emperor of the Moon was given a well-advertised revival at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre on 15 October 1735, with William Pinkethman Junior as Harlequin and James Rosco as Scaramouch. Pinkethman was following in his father’s footsteps, while Rosco was a leading actor in the company with a very varied repertoire. The bills announced that the play would be given with ‘the original Songs’ and ‘New Dances, adapted to the opera, particularly A Dance of Court Cards’. According to the advertised cast list, actors and not dancers performed this dance, while the company’s dancers gave ‘other dances’. The Emperor of the Moon was performed more than a dozen times at Goodman’s Fields in 1735-1736, but was not subsequently revived there.

The last revival of Behn’s play was during the 1748-1749 season, when David Garrick at Drury Lane vied for audiences with John Rich at Covent Garden. Both theatres advertised it as ‘forthcoming’ a few days before Christmas and both performed The Emperor of the Moon on 26 December 1748. At Drury Lane it was given as an afterpiece, with Henry Woodward as Harlequin and Richard Yates as Scaramouch. Both were comic actors and Woodward (trained by John Rich) would become London’s leading Harlequin. Garrick’s production included dancers, but did Rich’s? At Covent Garden, The Emperor of the Moon was the mainpiece, with a pantomime The Royal Chace (which did have dancing) as an afterpiece. There was no mention of dancing in the play, but the entr’acte dances included a solo Scaramouch and a Grand Masquerade Dance – or were they both given in The Emperor of the Moon?

Aphra Behn used commedia dell’arte at a period when it was still quite new to English actors and The Emperor of the Moon established a place in the repertoire some years before Joseph Sorin and other French forains came to perform in London. The tradition begun by Thomas Jevon may well have influenced some of London’s dancing Harlequins, while Pinkethman’s and Spiller’s performances may have contributed to the rise of ‘Lun’ (John Rich’s ‘Harlequin’ identity). The dances in The Emperor of the Moon didn’t make their way into the entr’actes, but the antics of Harlequin and Scaramouch must surely have played a part in the development of the English pantomime.

Claude Gillot’s various depictions of scenes from the Italian comedies given in Paris provide a flavour of performances there – here are Arlequin and Scaramouch fighting in Arlequin empereur dans la lune. What were the English like?

Gillot Arlequin Scaramouch combat

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