Harlequin as Theatergram: Transmitting the Timeworn Black Mask, Ancient to Antebellum

  • Robert Hornback
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


The foolish Harlequin’s signature black mask links this initially dim-witted clown’s blackness with pan-European traditions of the “natural fool,” a rationally impaired butt often marked via blackface. It invokes traditions that can be traced from ancient theatre, where a comic typology of blackness passed from Hellenistic theatrical masks of smiling Africans to soot-smeared Roman phallophores, the humiliating first-century face-blackening episode of the Satyricon, and illustrations of dark-masked slaves in Terence codices housed in monastic libraries. Evidence of early blackface comic traditions and conventions being adopted in Christian iconography first appears in Augustine’s early fifth-century work The City of God. In drama, these influences ranged from face-blackening episodes in Hrotsvitha’s neo-Terentian drama to foolish devils like the popular Latinate devil Titivillus/Tutuvillus and other comic devils such as “Hellequine.” Far from being the product of any singular unbroken lineage, then, Harlequin was a cultural palimpsest of closely related tropes. He was portrayed as African by the first known Harlequin touring Europe from 1584 to 1621 and late seventeenth-century illustrations of “Dominique” Biancolelli through Cowardy, Cowardy Custard; or Harlequin Jim Crow and the Magic Mustard Pot (1836). Whether recognized as racial impersonation or not, Harlequin codified what would become proto-racist comic stereotypes about blackness, including laughable sartorial pretension and inept misspeaking.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Hornback
    • 1
  1. 1.Oglethorpe UniversityAtlantaUSA

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