Operas, Musicals, and Pantomime

In the eighteenth century the outlaw hero appeared on stage in a series of comic operas and farces. The highlight of the 1730 ‘comic opera’ Robin Hood (‘An Opera, As it is Perform’d at Lee’s and Harper’s Great Theatrical Booth In Bartholomew-Fair’) was the farcical scene in which the Pinner of Wakefield chased Little John under the table and into a cradle for seducing his wife.(1) Twenty years later Robin Hood made regular appearances in a ‘musical entertainment’ at Drury Lane, where he was presented as the promoter of the love-affair between Leander, a love-sick youth, with his true love Clorinda who is promised in marriage to a young fop named Glitter. In this production Robin is also the singer of a popular song entitled ‘As blithe as the linnet sings in the green wood’.(2) Most popular of all was Leonard MacNally’s comic opera, Robin Hood or Sherwood Forest, with music by William Shield. It opened at Covent Garden in 1784 and by the end of 1800 it had seen a spectacular 96 performances in London – 64 as a three-act mainpiece and 32 as a two-act afterpiece – with additional performances in Dublin, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. Drury Lane revived it in 1813, with additional music by John Addison, and it was still being performed in Bath in the 1820s. MacNally announced in the preface to the printed edition that his plot derived from ballad material, he could have found most of the material in Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, or Thomas Evans’s 1777 Old Ballads, but his libretto is not really derived from the traditional sources. There is however, some recognizable elements; Robin is the Earl of Huntington in exile, there is an encounter with a tinker, who ends up joining the band, and Little John and Friar Tuck make their first entrance on stage fighting with quarter staves. Robin has a romantic interest in Clorinda of the ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage’, but the traditional material ends here. Clorinda is Robin’s betrothed and niece of Baron Fitzherbert. On the eve of his marriage to Clorinda, Robin is banished from court and Clorinda is locked in a room by her uncle. She manages to escape and joins Robin in exile in Sherwood Forest. Accompanying her is Cousin Angelina, disguised as a male pilgrim, and Angelian’s maid Annette, is also in male costume. There are several other plots with no ballad sources; Allen a Dale’s sister Stella is torn between her two lovers, Little John and Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck (actually Baron Fitzherbert, Clorinda’s uncle and Angelina’s father) in disguise, has come to the forest to spy on Robin Hood, turn the Merry Men against him, and unlease the Bishop of Hereford’s 500 archers against him. By the end of the play, Robin is the perfect country gentleman, a suitable figure of  ‘national identity’ for the eighteenth century.(3) The comic opera afterpiece Marian by Frances Brooke, opened at Covent Garden in 1788 and ran for forty-one performances. It is more in the vein of Adam de la Halle’s musical pastourelle Robin and Marion from the thirteenth century. Marian’s father wants her to marry someone better than Edward, and he has his eye on Robin. The Robin in this production is not an outlaw, but a lad who runs a lucrative ferry business, owns several acres of land and four cows, and has a vote in the country. After several twists of plot, Edward inherits a fortune and reveals his true rank of gentleman, Marian gets the man of her dreams, and Robin marries a lass named Patty. William Shield was again responsible for the music.(4) The last Robin Hood theatrical event of the eighteenth century was the Christmas pantomime afterpiece of Covent Garden’s 1795-6 season entitled Merry Sherwood, or, Harlequin Forester by William Pierce with music by William Reeve and lyrics by John O’Keeffe. Many familiar Robin Hood ballad characters and plot devices appear in Merry Sherwood along with some variations: Robin receives a magic horn from the Witch of Nottingham Well, who also assigns Harlequin to be his guide. We meet the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Prince of Aragon, Maid Marian – now daughter of the Sheriff of Nottingham – the tinker, the pindar, the tanner, the beggar, the curtal friar, Will Scarlet and Allen a Dale. Well-known settings also appear in tableaux: Wakefield, Nottingham, Robin Hood’s Bower, Fountains Abbey, Barnsdale, and Kirksley Monastery. Near the end of the pantomime, Robin Hood dies, but fortunately he undergoes ‘renovation’ at the hands of the Witch of Nottingham Well, and all is well again. The pantomime concluded with a ‘Grand Scene’ representing ‘The Triumph of Archery’: fabulous, ancient, British and modern. The British pantomime of the eighteenth century was different from those performed today. First a myth, literary work or current event formed the basis of the plot and fairy-tale material was not used. The main character was always a clever clown with an assistant named harlequin and there was neither principal boy nor dame. There was no spoken dialogue, only singing dancing, and mime, with some performers doing vocal characters and others specializing in the pantomimic ones. The plot was a string of about twenty self-contained, topsy-turvy incidents instead of a coherent whole, with spectacle, scenic transformations, and elaborate costumes the most important elements. Like the modern pantomime it did aim at both adults and children.(5)

1. Robin Hood, An Opera, printed for J. Watts, London, 1730; Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, p. 45.

2. Robin Hood, A New Musical Entertainment, printed by M. Cooper, London, 1751; Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, p. 45.

3. Robin Hood Musicals in Eighteenth Century London, Linda V. Troost, in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, first published 2000, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge; The London Stage, Part 5, 1776-1800, ed. C.B. Hogan (Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), III, PP. 1481, 1555, 1583, 1597, 1693; Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, p. 45.

4. Robin Hood Musicals in Eighteenth Century London, Linda V. Troost, in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, first published 2000, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge; Lorraine McMullen, An Odd Attempt in a Woman: The Literary Life of Frances Brooke, Vancouver, 1983, pp. 208-11.

5. Robin Hood Musicals in Eighteenth Century London, Linda V. Troost, in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, first published 2000, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge; Playbill for Merry Sherwood, or, Harlequin Forester, reprinted in The London Stage, 4 January 1796. No Libretto survives, but the vocal score was published (London, 1795) as were several songs.