PTB Letters (#29) Pantomime Engagements for the Holidays

Pantomime Engagements for the Holidays

On October 27, 1845, while on a brief trip to London, Barnum wrote to two gentlemen with the idea of setting up engagements for Gen. Tom Thumb to perform in December, during the holiday season. “The General’s” entourage was then currently in the south of France and expected to conclude the tour in Paris the following month, then return to England for at least one more season before going back to America.  Barnum, acting as “advance man,” had left Lyon and hurried to London for a few days to attend to business for the American Museum, in addition to making arrangements for the General’s tour in England.  It is fortunate for us, reading these letters 175 years later, that Barnum was seeking new opportunities, because his letters of inquiry had to describe the General’s performances with reasonable detail.  The two one-page letters provide some tantalizing descriptions, despite their brevity.

Barnum noted in his letter to a Mr. Webster, “I am here for 2 days only . . . but it has just struck me that perhaps it might be for our mutual interests to arrange for the General to appear in the Christmas Pantomime at your or the Adelphi Theatre.  If you think favorably of it, I should like to call on you at any hour you name tomorrow.”

To provide context on what Barnum was proposing, let’s take a quick look at the British definition of “pantomime” since it has a more specific meaning than in the U.S., where it is understood simply as an entertainment performed without words.  In England a pantomime is defined as “a theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, that involves music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy and is based on a fairy tale or nursery story, usually produced around Christmas.” (Oxford Languages)  This definition aligns well with Tom Thumb’s performances in France, which today we would probably liken to variety shows.  The entertainment included a play based on a fairy tale, plus music, comedy, various characters in costume, and even what could be called pantomime in the form of Tom Thumb’s “academic poses” mimicking classical sculptures.

Beginning with a description of the play, Barnum told Webster, “A simple translation of his French Play of Petit Poucet played 63 consecutive nights at the Vaudeville Theatre Paris, would be nearly  all that would be required.  It is a gaudy, taking piece, full of most laughable incidents and the music as we say in America is ‘first rate.’”  Barnum elaborated further in a letter to a Mr. Burn[?], telling him, “the music is capital, [and] the changes & transformations good rich & effective . . . . The play is by Messrs Dumanoir & Clairville—Paris.”

Impressing upon Webster and Burn that he, Barnum, would supply all the props for the Christmas Pantomime, Barnum told Webster that the “accessories” now being transported town to town in France weighed “a couple of tons.”  To Burn he stated, “We have all the accessories of the piece weighing 1 ½ tons and have taken them in a posting vehicle to Bruxelles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Rouen, Lyon & c where he has played with amazing success in the principal Theatres.”  The letter to Webster also included details about the accessories and acts:

Among the rest is his little palace and furniture, all including the candelabra, being of the most gorgeous description, the latter being Brass Gilt so as to do for service as well as show.  The General assumes several characters in the piece—among which is Frederick the Great in which he mounts his war steed (pony) and goes in pursuit of the ogre.  He also appears in a pie—in the Giants boot which he draws from the Giants foot while asleep—in a soup-pot on the stove &c &c &c &c.

Barnum noted to Burn that, “the little Generals Palace . . . [is] elegantly furnished” and added that “his Equipage [consisting of] 4 ponies carriage, coachee and footman are all quite the thing for a Christmas Pantomime.”  To Webster he explained, “His little Equipage also appears in the play, (carriage drawn by 4 poneys) with coachee & tiger in livery & c.” and assured him, “There is much acting by the General, and he cannot be beat by old or young great or small in pantomime or anything else appertaining to his business.”

Barnum named similar terms to both men, telling Burn, “The General would require £50 per night—or such a share as would give him that or more if he filled the theatre nightly which I am sure would be the case.”  He informed Webster, “I should want such terms as would give us about £50 per night, rather more than less provided the theater was jammed full during each night of his engagement—that part of the story I would be willing to risque.”

Since Barnum intended to leave for Paris the following evening, he asked both men to send him messages right away—”a single line addressed to me 25 Rupert Street Haymarket”—indicating interest, or not, in pursuing the proposal.  He added that he would be willing to meet “at any hour you name” but “if you do not think it an object I shall be just as well satisfied . . . .”

Having returned to Paris, on October 31st Barnum wrote a long letter to Sherwood Stratton who was at that moment in Lyon with his wife Cynthia and son Charles (“Gen. Tom Thumb”) as well as the nine or ten others that made up the entourage.  Among the several topics Barnum covered was the very practical issue of transporting and shipping the 1 ½ – 2 tons of accessories and equipment he had boasted of in his letters to Webster and Burn.  Certainly it could become a costly endeavor if a strategy and management plan were not thought through, so Barnum presented some options.

Informing Stratton that the props would not be needed for their next engagements in Paris, he suggested that what could reasonably be shipped should be sent from Lyon.  He wrote, “I think it can be done by Steam Boat to Marseilles, and from there by Ship to London,” noting “I am very confident that it would be better to burn the wagon & house & furniture than to pay the expense of posting all the way through Paris to Havre.”

Advising Stratton on what to keep and what to sell or dispose of, he wrote

. . . if you have not yet begun to have the old baggage wagon mended—I half think you had better sell it and throw away the little house, and ship the big box of furniture for London or perhaps ship the house also, unless the freight will cost more than the house is worth.  You can easily learn the best way to ship the stuff to London from Lyons. . . . [Mr] Pinte can go with you and learn the whole particulars from any large merchants in Lyons—indeed I expect any of the Yankees in your hotel can tell you.

Changing Horses to a Post-Chaise outside the ‘George’ Posting-house by Charles Cooper Henderson (1803-1877) This scene showing a post-chaise—the vehicle Barnum wished to sell in Lyon–was painted in England between 1830 and 1840. “Posting” as a way to travel distances developed in France in the late 1700s. (Collection of the Tate, UK; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Should disposal of the little house become necessary due to high shipping costs, Barnum planned to have another made in England.  He told Stratton they would also need to sell the vehicles.  He advised selling the Post Chaise in Lyon, and then selling the Posting Carriage in Paris, “for even on that we should have to pay duty in England and a d—d sight for freight.”  He did note one exception: “We will hang on to the pony wagon only . . . .” This was for transporting the four ponies that drew the miniature coach.

Preparing to wrap up the tour of France earlier than had been planned, though still keeping engagements in Paris, Barnum met with Mon. Roux in Paris, an agent whom he disliked but needed to work with.  In order to leave the country legally, not having fulfilled contracts for five other cities, Barnum would have to pay Mon. Roux to get the outstanding “treaties” settled.  In addition, the financial arrangement Barnum had with Roux regarding a play created for Tom Thumb, Le Geant, had to be settled because they had failed to perform it while on tour.  (You may recall that some of the theatre directors told Barnum it was not a good piece and thus would not have it at their theatres, a fact that Barnum rather gleefully reported to Roux—though it did not get him off the hook.  See August 14, 2020 blog.)  Surely it was with some relief that Barnum thus told Stratton,

I have also settled with Roux to give him 1000 francs if he settles all the treaties at present existing Strasbourg—Nancy—Hamburg—Anvers—Brussells & c and this also pays him for all loss which he suffered by his play of the Geant and also pays him all which he might have expected in the shape of a present from us for his agency.  So now all is settled.

But there is more to the story than this.  On the same day Barnum penned his letter to Sherwood Stratton from Paris, he also wrote to Mr. Sherman, who served as tutor to young Charles Stratton.  Beginning with the warning that he only had 10 minutes to write, he announced that he was running off “to sign a treaty with Salle Vivienne.”  Having that venue secured sounds promising, but the next lines are rather alarming: Charles was unwell and could no longer perform the play Petit Poucet.  Putting two and two together, however, this doesn’t add up because Barnum had been away from Charles for a very long stretch and would have no such knowledge of his health, whereas Sherman was actually with Charles.  This was a concocted story Barnum was “feeding” Sherman in order to provide a rational explanation for backing out of the contracts in the cities noted above.  He wrote to Sherman,

Photographic portrait of Albert R. Smith, late 1850s, by Herbert Watkins. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The General must not play Petit Poucet in France after Lyons, because his health is so bad that he cannot possibly play Petit Poucet, and on that account we shall not be able to go to the Theatres where we are engaged.  I am very sorry to disappoint the managers, but you know when a person is in such delicate health as the General is we must much against our wills give up the treaties.  I am thankful that he is able to do his other exercises, but that is not proof that he could play Petit Poucet, for that is much harder for him, besides the great cold Theatres, & the change of his costume give him such colds that we must give it up.  How sorry I am that we cant go to Nancy & Strasbourg & Anvers & Brussells & c!!

Echoing the shipping instructions he had given to Stratton (minus the question of casting off the little palace) and again suggesting that burning the wagon was preferable to bringing it to Paris, Barnum signed off with the mention of popular writer Albert Smith (1816-1860), who “is doing Petit Poucet for England.”  Presumably that meant Barnum had gone ahead and hired Smith to translate the play, in anticipation of the General being engaged to perform Christmas Pantomimes in London.  (Smith also revised the play Hop o’ My Thumb for Charles to perform a few months later, which he did in London in March and May of 1846.)  Had Barnum “sealed a deal” with the gentlemen in London, before he returned to France?  Yet another twist to the story!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator