The Harlequinade

Harlequinade is a type of theatrical performance piece, originally a slapstick adaptation of the Commedia dell’arte, which dates back to Italy in the 16th century. The story revolves around the lives of its five main characters: Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, Clown, and Pantaloon.


The British harlequinade, beginning in the 18th century, involved a series of scenes interwoven with scenes from a serious play based on a myth or folklore. The Harlequinade was first played in mime, with music, but later had speaking. It included lots of slapstick and silliness. The story of the harlequinade was reduced, by the 19th century, to a comic chase scene focusing on the story of Harlequin and Columbine. Also by the 19th century, the pantomime entertainment followed a long drama, and the pantomime itself ended with a Harlequinade as part of the bill. The pantomimes had double titles, describing the two unconnected stories such as “Little Miss Muffet and Little Boy Blue, or Harlequin and Old Daddy Long-Legs.” In an elaborate scene, a Fairy Queen transformed the pantomime characters into the characters of the harlequinade, who then performed the harlequinade. Throughout the 19th century, as stage machinery and technology improved, the transformation of the set became more and more spectacular.


In the plot of the British harlequinade, Harlequin had to perform a task, and he and Columbine would set out to perform it, pursued by Pantaloon (usually the girl’s father) and Clown (originally Pantaloon’s servant, but later the primary conspirator) and sometimes another lover who had Pantalone’s approval. Clown and Pantaloon try to keep Harlequin and Columbine apart. During the complicated chase scene, Harlequin would magically transform objects and the set by whacking them with his wooden bat or “slapstick”.

The harlequinade lost popularity by the 1880s, when music hall and other comic entertainments dominated the comedy stage. Vestiges of the harlequinade survive in the transformation scenes, slapstick (meaning physical humour) and chase scenes in today’s pantomimes.


Harlequin Character In Harlequinade

He is a servant and the love interest of Columbine. His everlasting high-spirits and cleverness work to save him from several difficult situations which his amoral behaviour gets him into during the course of the play. In some Italian forms of the harlequinade, Harlequin is able to perform magic feats. He never holds a grudge or seeks revenge.




John Rich brought the British pantomime and harlequinade to great popularity in the early 18th century and became the most famous early harlequin. He developed the character of harlequin into a mischievous magician. He used his magic batte or “slapstick” to transform the scene from the pantomime into the harlequinade and to magically change the settings to various locations during the chase scene.


Harlequin is generally considered to be the forerunner to ‘whiteface’ clowns, i.e. those that rely on slyness or trickery to amuse the audience, rather than buffoonery or physical slapstick.



~ by hanathebanana on January 14, 2009.

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