The harlequinade, a type of pantomime in which Durang frequently played, was shaped by commedia dell’arte, classical mythology, fairytale figures, and contemporary British or – in the New World – American settings or allusions. The intermingling of serious (classical) and grotesque (commedia and fairytale) themes and movement were typically brought out in alternating acts of the harlequinade, rather than integrated into a through-line. These works were characterized by dance, acrobatics, sung and instrumental music, text, machine wizardry, and spectacular lighting effects, all focusing on the roguish Harlequin and his familiar commedia companions—Scaramouche, Pantaloon, Columbine, Punchinello, and so on—along with other comic, historical, or exotic figures. The form satisfied the public’s thirst for novelty and provided opportunity for political or social satire.
Durang’s skills in dance and acrobatics prepared him to play Harlequin in Robinson Crusoe; or, Harlequin Friday (Sheridan) and other such works in the course of his career. He depicted himself in unmistakable harlequinesque garb in a typical pantomime scene—posing as a statue about to come magically to life in Harlequin’s Animation; or, the Triumph of Mirth.
Durang’s early model for Harlequin interpretations was probably manager Lewis Hallam of the Old American Compay, but later, he was exposed to the more developed English pantomime that William Francis and James Byrne brought to Wignell’s Chestnut St. Theatre troupe. Byrne was a renowned Harlequin who shaped the choreographic interest, dramatic expressivity, and costuming of the harlequinade.
Pantomime declined as the nineteenth century proceeded and interest in other forms, such as melodrama, surpassed it. The manner of combining flat stock characters, predictable moral outcomes, episodic and sentimental plots, and music into the form of melodrama was realized first in France in Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion. Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s important Coelina was reworked by Thomas Holcroft for the English stage as A Tale of Mystery, and German authors such as August Friedrich von Kotzebue further contributed to the genre.
The nature of stock companies in Europe and the United States, with players assigned to various “lines,” lent itself to the casting of melodramas. Melodrama’s gothic settings fed audience expectations for spectacle, stimulated by pantomimes and harlequinades. The melodramatic plot focus on “ordinary” people, rather than on kings or gods, was a sure draw. Since players knew how to support the dancing or singing in theatrical works, the demands of melodrama were well within their powers, yet in melodrama, the union of acting, emotion, and music achieved a new pitch. Music signaled the precise emotions and intentions of the characters, the nature of the scene, the cadence of speech, and the quality of the action. Charles Durang, who was familiar with melodrama through his family’s work at the Chestnut St. Theatre in Philadelphia, criticized melodrama which, he argued, had “gradually undermined the legitimate drama in public taste, here and in Europe, till pure and old-fashioned entertainments are nearly, if not fully, dislodged from the theatre.” Yet these works drew audiences, kept theatres afloat, and continued to emphasize the role of movement in American drama.