Mother Goose – The Evolution of a Classic Christmas Pantomime

03 December 2015

This winter season, many of us will head off to the theatre to find some festive cheer at a Christmas pantomime. Looking for some Christmas cheer myself, I was delighted to come across a copy of, ‘Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg, Airs, Chorusses, &c., in’ whilst working on our upcoming project Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage. This pantomime by Thomas Dibdin and Charles Farley was first performed at Covent Garden Theatre on Boxing Day, 26th December, 1806. It was a huge success, running for ninety two nights and has long since become a quintessential Christmas classic.

Page from â€˜Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg, Airs, Chorusses, &c., in’ Â© The Huntington Library

The tradition of pantomimes in Britain is a long one, being first introduced as an adaptation of the ‘commedia dell’arte’ performed in continental Europe. At first they were largely visual pieces but gradually became comedic and musical with the development of the slapstick harlequinade. The harlequinade revolves around five central characters, Harlequin, his love Columbine, her father Pantaloon, Clown and Pierrot, a servant.

In Dibdin and Farley’s version of events, Colin is in love with Collinette, who, at the order of her guardian, is about to marry the hideous Squire. On their wedding day the Squire orders that Mother Goose, a local woman, be dunked for witchcraft. Colin defends Mother Goose from the Squire and in return she grants him a goose which lays a solid gold egg. With this the characters transform into their harlequinade equivalents, Colin becomes Harlequin, Collinette; Columbine and Squire the Clown. The plot becomes a quest for the two young lovers to marry.

Mr Gimaldi as Clown in Mother Goose Â© The Garrick Club Library

Mother Goose is seen as a turning point in British pantomime not only for its phenomenal success but for the fact that it was with this piece that the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi elevated the Clown from a supporting comic character to the star of the show. This was to set a trend, as from this point onwards it was the Clown not Harlequin that was the star of pantomime shows.

Mother Goose, 1902, © Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin

To see this document in the collection, click here.

However, the Mother Goose of 1806 little resembles the pantomime we know today. A search in our Victorian Popular Culture resource produces results for the 1902 Drury Lane winter pantomime Mother Goose. The advertisement above shows the development of the characters into the ones recognised in the modern show, and although the clown was still the star, that role was now the title character, Mother Goose played by the infamous Dan Leno. Ever since, Mother Goose and her golden eggs have been the star of the Christmas panto. 

Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage is due for release in Spring 2016. 

Documents regarding the 1902 Mother Goose can be explored in the Victorian Popular Culture portal. Full access is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a license. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Rosie Perry

Rosie Perry

Since joining Adam Matthew in April 2014 I have worked on a variety of projects including Mass Observation Online and American History 1493-1945. Previous to this I completed a degree in Art History and particularly enjoy exploring and discovering the rich visual content of our resources.