Bluebeard: a brief history

posted in: Age of the Beard, Events, Museum | 0

This December, as part of the exhibition events programme, we will be staging two performances of Bluebeard the Pantomime at the museum.

Though perhaps less well known in recent years compared to the likes of Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk, Bluebeard once frequented the British stage during the panto season.

The story of a tyrannical murderous pirate whose wives meet a sticky fate, Bluebeard’s origins can be traced as far back as the 15th century to a French folk story, passed down and eventually put to paper in the 17th century by Charles Perrault.

Drury Lane poster via Footlight Notes.
Drury Lane poster via Footlight Notes.


Bluebeard has been performed many times over the centuries, and in various guises. George Colman, in his 1796 version, Blue-beard; or, Female curiosity! A dramatick romance, took the story from France to the exotic East, unapologetically (and somewhat untactfully) stating “I feel nothing upon my conscience in having substituted a Blue Beard for a Black Face”. The popular Bluebeard: an extravaganza written by the prolific theatre writer and pun-enthusiast James Robinson Planché, alongside other classics such as Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood, re-established Bluebeard in France. In the script for the first performance at the Royal Olympic Theatre in 1839, Planché claimed his was the superior version, having been based on the ‘true’ account:

“At Nantes, in Brittany, is preserved, amongst the records of the duchy, the entire process of a nobleman who was tried and executed in that city, for the murder of several wives, A.D. 1440. In accordance, therefore, with the laudable spirit of critical enquiry and antiquarian research which distinguishes the present era, the scene of the drama has been restored to Brittany.”

Bluebeard’s history with the theatre is closely tied to that of the art of pantomime as a whole.

G. H. Macdermott via Music Hall Studies.
G. H. Macdermott via Music Hall Studies.


The panto as we know it, burlesque-style with innuendo and audience participation, can be said to have really begun life when the music hall star G.H. Macdermott took the stage at the Drury Lane Theatre, Covent Garden as Bluebeard in 1871. The merging of music hall with theatre performances had previously been frowned upon and began under the direction of the theatre’s manager Augustus Harris Senior to be continued by his son Augustus Harris Junior when he took over in 1879[1].

Here at the museum we’re glad he did, it’ll be puns-a-plenty this week when our very own Bluebeard takes to the stage. The show opens tonight and you can book tickets here.



[1] Jeffrey Richards, ‘E.L Blanchard and the Golden Age of Pantomime’ in Victorian Pantomime: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by J. Davis

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