The line between Disney’s staging of the 2011 Aladdin production above and late-nineteenth-century fairytale pantomimes is an interesting one. It involves an important detour into musical comedy. The connections also relate to spectacular staging, electric-based technologies, but most of all it involves metaphors arising folk stories, fairy tales and religious symbolism. The performances were always localised which meant they were always created to relate to the geographic context in which they were staged. The pantomimes were synectic, that is, they had the ability to offer audiences a way of creatively solving huge problems and overcoming great anxieties.
The term ‘arrangement’ was used to describe how pantomime stories used the same myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore over and over again, arranged in different ways. The novelty of the arrangements was advertised in the long titles for productions, sometimes containing three or four subtitles. This, too, was part of the fun of making jokes for pantomime’s audience.
- ALADDIN AND THE WONDERFUL LAMP, New Theatre Royal, Middlesborough, 1900
- ALADDIN, OR, THE SCAMP, THE LAMP, THE TRAMP, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1885
- ALADDIN, Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1882
- ALADDIN; OR HARLEQUIN THE WONDERFUL RING, THE WONDERFUL LAMP, AND THE PRETTY YOUNG MAIDEN WHO LOVED A GREAT SCAMP, THE FUNNY OLD DAME, AND THE LATEST EDITION, OF THE MUSICAL, MODEL AND MYSTIC MAGICIAN, Theatre Royal, Adelaide, 1875
- ALADDIN OR, THE WONDERFUL SCAMP, New Albion Theatre, Poplar, 1873
- ALADDIN AND THE LAMP, OR, THE WIZARD, THE RING AND THE SCAMP, Theatre Royal, Hobart, 1870
- HARLEQUIN ALADDIN; OR, THE GOOD FAIRY AND THE MAGICIAN, The Royal English Opera, Covent Garden, 1865
- ALADDIN AND THE WONDERFUL LAMP, OR, HARLEQUIN AND THE FLYING PALACE, Royal Victoria, Sydney 1861
- ALADDIN, THE WONDERFUL SCAMP, OR, HARLEQUIN CHIN SING FOO! THE CHARM OF PEKIN! AND THE MAGIC LAMP! AND THE SLAVE OF THE ENCHANTED RING, Royal Victoria, Sydney 1858
- HARLEQUIN ALADDIN, AND THE WONDERFUL LAMP, OR THE GENII OF THE RING, Theatre Royal, Sydney 1837.
Aladdin was frequently staged as a pantomime subject throughout the 19th-century. The advertisement above shows an early Aladdin production in Sydney in the 1830s.
The Wikipedia entry on the tale informs us that it is in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (“The Arabian Nights”), but it was not part of the original Arabic text. Rather, it was added in the 18th century by the Frenchman Antoine Galland. He heard it from a Syrian storyteller in Aleppo. There are many puzzling mixing up of Asian and Middle Eastern references related to the story, but the central theme of the story remains unchanged: a young man who outwits conniving thieves who plan to send him to his death to rescue a magic lamp, the key to the entrance of a huge deposit of wealth and riches. Of course, he wins the riches for himself and proves himself as a street-smart Arlecchino… hence Harlequin Aladdin.
Challenging Gender, Race and Class
We should remember that Aladdin is played as a ‘pantomime boy’, that is, ‘he’ is a cross-dressed woman with shapely legs, who has the part because she is the star attraction for the production. For example, the image on the right is of Vesta Tilley, one of the UK’s most celebrated ‘pantomime boys’.
Pantomimes presented a ‘mythical’ and exotic ‘oriental’ setting. However, the characters, regardless of the ethnic origins, all pursued perfect wedded bliss and unlimited wealth. Productions of Aladdin usually began in a humble village with its cottages and the lowly domestic settings of the Widow Twankey’s laundry. The village contrasted with the opulence of the imperial palace which the poor Widow and Aladdin would one day get access to. Aladdin’s falling in love with the princess was the solution for the ambitious characters who wanted to find a way around class divisions. In this sense, it doesn’t matter that Aladdin is Chinese because what really matters more is that ‘he’ becomes fabulously rich.