Toy Theatres – Part III

“Sharing with People Brings Happiness”

In a reserved Danish way the famous Tivoli Gardens has moved with the times: modern midway rides, trendy boutiques, Danish and International pop and rock performers on the outdoor stage and at the Music Hall.  However in many ways it is still the “pleasure garden” imagined by Georg Caresten back in 1843 – flower beds, peacocks, fountains, pathways, kiosks, places of refreshment, nighttime illuminations and the famous Peacock Theatre.  I have written about my fascination with this little gem of a theatre and our recent visit there this past June.  But I thought I’d share a few more photos and a short video that highlights what is on display within the framework of its fantastical Chinoiserie proscenium.

At one time in the not distant past a live orchestra played for two daily performances; the first piece was always a pantomime and the second often a ballet.  Today, no doubt due to modern economics and possibly dwindling interest in the old-fashioned entertainment offered, the music is recorded and a single performance, either a pantomime or ballet, is schedule two or three days a week.  It would be sad if the tradition of Harlequin, Columbine and Pjerrot, which can be traced back as far as Plautus, were to be overtaken by the more raucous entertainments but for the time being, at least, there are still opportunities to catch the tale of two young people who overcome the objections and machinations of the foolish and the old to be united by the magic of love.

As they did with ballet the Danes took styles of pantomime from several sources and melded them into a hybrid that is uniquely Danish.  Drawing on the English traditions of conjuring, mechanical tricks and fairy intervention they then stirred in the slaps, pratfalls and acrobatics of the Italian commedia dell’arte.  Perhaps the character that evolved the most from this mixed-marriage is Pjerrot. In Danish pantomime he is never the white-faced melancholic beloved by Watteau and admirers of Les enfants du paradis; neither is he quite the dupe of Italian commedia nor exactly the sly trickster that was Joseph Grimaldi’s clown.  Rather he’s simple but clever – an overgrown child, curious and insatiable.  And though he may not be directly responsible for the union of the two lovers – it takes fairy magic for that to happen – he takes great delight in easing the path of true love if perhaps a greater delight in enraging his master Cassander.  And he is the only character with a voice which he saves until the end when he leads the audience in the traditional “Tivoli Hurrahs!”

The other characters too are a strange mix drawing from the commedia dell’arte, opera buffa and English fairy plays. In the original British pantomime the fairy scenes introduced and ended the Harlequinade but in Denmark Harlequin meets his fairy-savior only after Cassander has denied his consent to the romance between his daughter Colombine and the poor, but incredibly handsome and agile, hero.  This Harlequin is a long way away from his grotesque Italian cousin Arlecchino but Cassander is the duped old man of Goldoni and Gozzi; and the hapless suitor is every foolish, vain fop of theatrical tradition. 

Many of the pantomimes being performed go back to the mid-1800s though a few date from the mid-1900s.  Few of the pantomimes from the early years were written down but passed from performer to performer; in 1919 because of waning interest and war time restrictions ballet master Paul Hudd cut the performances down to 30 minutes, a practice that has continued to this day.  Since 2001 an attempt has been made to adapt and record the older works and include them in the rotating repertoire throughout the summer season.  The night we were there one of the older pantomimes was being presented: Pjerrots fataliteter (Pierrot’s Misfortunes) was first performed in 1864.  It was adapted by Niels Henrik Volkersen, the famous Pjerrot of the day, from an older work in the repertoire of the Casorti family troupe.

When ballets are performed they are often modern works – Queen Margrethe II designed the sets and costumes for a new version of The Tinder Box in 2007.  Often visiting dance troupes use the Chinese theatre as their venue – though apparently the slope of the stage, which is double that of most raked stages, can be a challenge for dancers unaccustomed to the surface.  Even the members of the Royal Danish Ballet have some difficulty adjusting on the evenings during the season when excerpts from the classical ballets of August Bourneville are presented.  As I mentioned Tivoli seems to evolve with the times and for All Hallow’s Eve they presented Kassander Loves Dollars, a hip-hop horror-ballet pantomime featuring all the traditional characters but with a twist.

Pjerrot leads the audience in the “Tivoli Hurrahs”:  he’s been up to his old tricks, Cassander has been thwarted, Colombine and Harlequin are united, all ends happily and its time for the Peacock curtain to close.

After the October performances the Chinese Theatre closed for the season but along with the rest of Tivoli Gardens puts on its finest for Christmastide and the annual Yule Fair.  The Peacock’s colourful tail takes on the palette of winter and remains – perhaps frozen – in place until once again Pjerrot and company return to “share with the people and bring happiness”.

Much of the historical information I gathered for this posting came from three sources:

The Pantomime Theater: life behind the peacock curtain in tivoli
Annett Ahrends and Henrik Lyding – translated by Pamela Starbird
Published by Forlaget Vandkunsten
Erik Ostergaard: Pantomime Theater – Theatrical History; Pantomime Plays at Tivoli

03 November -1793: French playwright, journalist and feminist Olympe de Gouges is guillotined.

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