For The Poltroon, Kenneth MacMillan recreated the characters of the commedia dell’arte, but with a twist. The characters are unromantically drawn and Columbine and Harlequin (Last and Jefferies) depicted as put-upon servants. The moonstruck Pierrot (MacLeary) becomes the vicious Poltroon of the ballet’s title wreaking a terrible vengeance on his tormenters. Chief among these is Pantaloon, the autocratic and miserly master, who scoffs sausages on-stage as part of his act (in a programme note Pantaloon was described as a businessman and Pulcinella as a fascist bully). Pierrot pines for what Peter Williams, writing for The Observer, described as a “real bitch of a Columbine”.
There are two sections, one onstage, the other offstage, where the players revert to their ‘real selves’. In the ‘stage performance’ Pantaloon becomes ill through over-eating. After a grotesque operation (sawn off limbs all over the stage), he survives and adds to the miseries of his household. They in turn prey on Pierrot. Columbine is no romantic heroine – she has had sex with every character except Pierrot. Harlequin offers Pierrot a drugged potion. This induces a dream duet in which he romantically pursues Columbine, who evades his advances. Pierrot awakes; the others mock him; the stage performance ends.
At this point, Thomas O’Neil’s set revolves to reveal ‘backstage’. It becomes clear that the actors are identical in personality to the characters they depict on stage. Pantaloon is a miserly actor/manager who pays his players a pittance and Pierrot nothing at all. Columbine plays Pierrot along in ‘real life’, just as she did in the earlier dream fantasy. Pierrot snaps. He kills Columbine in the course of a violently sexual pas de deux and continues to dance with her lifeless body. Finally, Pierrot kills the other characters.
The critics of the day blew cold on The Poltroon. Perhaps it was Mary Clarke, writing for Dancing Times, who had the truest instinct for MacMillan’s motives in making The Poltroon, for the real objects of his satire and for the ghosts he may have been attempting to exorcise.” Clarke’s review ended:
“It is a nasty ballet and some people have called it a sick ballet. It certainly is not vintage MacMillan but how can people expect vintage MacMillan when he has been subjected for nearly two years now to a new and very pernicious “criticism” – from both ends of the Atlantic? This is neither outspoken condemnation nor reasoned arguing. It is snide, personal and usually couched in such short, stinging phrases that it will cause the greatest possible hurt to the victim. I find it irresponsible and very short-sighted. It is one thing to criticise the director of the Royal Ballet – and the direction has come in for anti-Establishment blastings all its successful life. It is quite another thing to slaughter a creative artist. If MacMillan’s zest for choreography is killed, who in heaven’s name, have we got left?”
In her biography of Kenneth MacMillan, Different Drummer, Jann Parry quotes a member of the cast, Ashley Killar. “The tragedy is that the ballet’s real virtues – the masterful study of grotesquerie, insightful character choreography and inventive pas de deux – are now dismissed. They were part of a ballet that was produced in the wrong programmes at the wrong time.”