At the beginning of every pantomime season, we are brought up against two original discoveries. The first is that Mr. Arthur Collins has undoubtedly surpassed himself; the other, that “the children’s pantomime” is not really a pantomime for children at all. Mr. Collins, in fact, has again surpassed himself in providing an entertainment for men and women of the world.
One has to ask oneself, then, what sort of pantomime children really like. I ought to know, because I once tried to write one, and some kind critic was found to say (as generally happens on these occasions) that I showed “a wonderful insight into the child’s mind.” Perhaps he was thinking of the elephant. The manager had a property elephant left over from some other play which he had produced lately. There it was, lying in the wings and getting in everybody’s way. I think he had left it about in the hope that I might be inspired by it. At one of the final rehearsals, after I had fallen over this elephant several times, he said, “It’s a pity we aren’t going to use the elephant. Couldn’t you get it in somewhere?” I said that I thought I could. After all, getting an elephant into a play is merely a question of stagecraft. If you cannot get an elephant on and off the stage in a natural way, your technique is simply hopeless, and you had better give up writing plays altogether. I need hardly say that my technique was quite up to the work. At the critical moment the boy-hero said, “Look, there’s an elephant,” pointing to that particular part of the stage by which alone it could enter, and there, sure enough, the elephant was. It then went through its trick of conveying a bun to its mouth, after which the boy said, “Good-bye, elephant,” and it was hauled off backwards. Of course it intruded a certain gross materialism into the delicate fancy of my play, but I did not care to say so, because one has to keep in with the manager. Besides, there was the elephant, eating its head off; it might just as well be used.
Well, so far as the children were concerned, the elephant was the success of the play. Up to the moment of its entrance they were–well, I hope not bored, but no more than politely interested. But as soon as the hero said, “Look, there’s an elephant,” you could feel them all jumping up and down in their seats and saying “Oo!” Nor was this “Oo” atmosphere ever quite dispelled thereafter. The elephant had withdrawn, but there was always the hope now that he might come on again, and if an elephant, why not a giraffe, a hippopotamus, or a polar-bear? For the rest of the pantomime every word was followed with breathless interest. At any moment the hero might come out with another brilliant line–“Look, there’s a hippopotamus.” Even when it was proved, with the falling of the final curtain, that the author had never again risen to these heights, there was still one chance left. Perhaps if they clapped loudly enough, the elephant would hear, and would take a call like the others.
What sort of pantomime do children like? It is a strange thing that we never ask ourselves “What sort of plays–or books or pictures–do public-school men like?” You say that that would be an absurd question. Yet it is not nearly so absurd as the other. For the real differences of thought and feeling between you and your neighbour were there when you were children, and your agreements are the result of the subsequent community of interests which you have shared–in similar public-schools, universities, services, or professions. Why should two children want to see the same pantomime? Apart from the fact that “two children” may mean such different samples of humanity as a boy of five and a girl of fifteen, is there any reason why Smith’s child and Robinson’s child should think alike? And as for your child, my dear sir (or madam), I have only to look at it–and at you–to see at once how utterly different it is from every other child which has ever been born. Obviously it would want something very much superior to the sort of pantomime which would amuse those very ordinary children of which Smith and Robinson are so proud.
I cannot, therefore, advance my own childish recollections of my first pantomime as trustworthy evidence of what other children like. But I should wish you to know that when I was taken to Beauty and the Beast at the age of seven, it was no elephant, nor any other kind of beast, which made the afternoon sacred for me. It was Beauty. I just gazed and gazed at Beauty. Never had I seen anything so lovely. For weeks afterwards I dreamed about her. Nothing that was said or done on the stage mattered so long as she was there. Probably the author had put some of his most delightful work into that pantomime–“dialogue which showed a wonderful insight into the child’s mind”; I apologize to him for not having listened to it. (I can sympathize with him now.) Or it may be that the author had written for men and women of the world; his dialogue was full of that sordid cynicism about married life which is still considered amusing, so that the aunt who took me wondered if this were really a pantomime suitable for children. Poor dear!–as if I heard a word of it, I who was just waiting for Beauty to come back.
What do children like? I do not think that there is any answer to that question. They like anything; they like everything; they like so many different things. But I am certain that there has never been an ideal play for very young children. It will never be written, for the reason that no self-respecting writer could bore himself so completely as to write it. (Also it is doubtful if fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, would sacrifice themselves a second time, after they had once sat through it.) For very young children do not want humour or whimsicality or delicate fancy or any of the delightful properties which we attribute to the ideal children’s play. I do not say that they will rise from their stalls and call loudly for their perambulators, if these qualities creep into the play, but they can get on very happily without them. All that they want is a continuous procession of ordinary everyday events–the arrival of elephants (such as they see at the Zoo), or of postmen and policemen (such as they see in their street), the simplest form of clowning or of practical joke, the most photographically dull dialogue. For a grown-up it would be an appalling play to sit through, and still more appalling play to have to write.
Perhaps you protest that your children love Peter Pan. Of course they do. They would be horrible children if they didn’t. And they would be horrible children if they did not love (as I am sure they do) a Drury Lane pantomime. A nice child would love Hamlet. But I also love Peter Pan; and for this reason I feel that it cannot possibly be the ideal play for children. I do not, however, love the Drury Lane pantomime… which leaves me with the feeling that it may really be “the children’s pantomime” after all.