Chapter 4. The Pantomime of Life

by Charles Dickens

Before we plunge headlong into this paper, let us at once confess to a fondness for pantomimes—to a gentle sympathy with clowns and pantaloons—to an unqualified admiration of harlequins and columbines—to a chaste delight in every action of their brief existence, varied and many-coloured as those actions are, and inconsistent though they occasionally be with those rigid and formal rules of propriety which regulate the proceedings of meaner and less comprehensive minds.  We revel in pantomimes—not because they dazzle one’s eyes with tinsel and gold leaf; not because they present to us, once again, the well-beloved chalked faces, and goggle eyes of our childhood; not even because, like Christmas-day, and Twelfth-night, and Shrove-Tuesday, and one’s own birthday, they come to us but once a year;—our attachment is founded on a graver and a very different reason.  A pantomime is to us, a mirror of life; nay, more, we maintain that it is so to audiences generally, although they are not aware of it, and that this very circumstance is the secret cause of their amusement and delight.

Let us take a slight example.  The scene is a street: an elderly gentleman, with a large face and strongly marked features, appears.  His countenance beams with a sunny smile, and a perpetual dimple is on his broad, red cheek.  He is evidently an opulent elderly gentleman, comfortable in circumstances, and well-to-do in the world.  He is not unmindful of the adornment of his person, for he is richly, not to say gaudily, dressed; and that he indulges to a reasonable extent in the pleasures of the table may be inferred from the joyous and oily manner in which he rubs his stomach, by way of informing the audience that he is going home to dinner.  In the fulness of his heart, in the fancied security of wealth, in the possession and enjoyment of all the good things of life, the elderly gentleman suddenly loses his footing, and stumbles.  How the audience roar!  He is set upon by a noisy and officious crowd, who buffet and cuff him unmercifully.  They scream with delight!  Every time the elderly gentleman struggles to get up, his relentless persecutors knock him down again.  The spectators are convulsed with merriment!  And when at last the elderly gentleman does get up, and staggers away, despoiled of hat, wig, and clothing, himself battered to pieces, and his watch and money gone, they are exhausted with laughter, and express their merriment and admiration in rounds of applause.

Is this like life?  Change the scene to any real street;—to the Stock Exchange, or the City banker’s; the merchant’s counting-house, or even the tradesman’s shop.  See any one of these men fall,—the more suddenly, and the nearer the zenith of his pride and riches, the better.  What a wild hallo is raised over his prostrate carcase by the shouting mob; how they whoop and yell as he lies humbled beneath them!  Mark how eagerly they set upon him when he is down; and how they mock and deride him as he slinks away.  Why, it is the pantomime to the very letter.

Of all the pantomimic dramatis personae, we consider the pantaloon the most worthless and debauched.  Independent of the dislike one naturally feels at seeing a gentleman of his years engaged in pursuits highly unbecoming his gravity and time of life, we cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that he is a treacherous, worldly-minded old villain, constantly enticing his younger companion, the clown, into acts of fraud or petty larceny, and generally standing aside to watch the result of the enterprise.  If it be successful, he never forgets to return for his share of the spoil; but if it turn out a failure, he generally retires with remarkable caution and expedition, and keeps carefully aloof until the affair has blown over.  His amorous propensities, too, are eminently disagreeable; and his mode of addressing ladies in the open street at noon-day is down-right improper, being usually neither more nor less than a perceptible tickling of the aforesaid ladies in the waist, after committing which, he starts back, manifestly ashamed (as well he may be) of his own indecorum and temerity; continuing, nevertheless, to ogle and beckon to them from a distance in a very unpleasant and immoral manner.

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