For many families in Britain, Christmas is not Christmas without a trip to the theatre to see a pantomime, or “panto”. Children particularly love this form of festive entertainment—a stage show based on a popular fairy story or folk legend, with colourful, larger-than-life characters, lots of singing and dancing, magic tricks, special effects and audience participation. Many pantomimes are produced by small groups of amateur performers in local theatres. There are also huge entertainment companies that work all year long on pantomimes to be staged in different professional theatres around the UK. These large productions can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and you can see all sorts of famous people performing in them.
WHERE DID PANTOMIME COME FROM?
The word “pantomime” originally comes from pantomimus, a type of performer in Ancient Rome who used exaggerated masks and costumes to portray many different characters. The performer was supported by a chorus of actors who occasionally chanted parts of the story to music. In many parts of the world today, such as the United States, “pantomime” or “mime” now means acting out a story without speaking, using exaggerated gestures and expressions.
Performers in 15th-century Italy were inspired by this Ancient Roman type of pantomime to create theatrical entertainment known as the commedia dell’arte. They invented a range of comic characters who wore bright costumes and masks, such as the pompous Doctor, the cunning Brighella, Capitano—a big-mouthed but cowardly soldier—and the villain Pulchinello. These commedia dell’arte characters combined set speeches with singing, dancing and improvisation to tell their stories. At first the plays were performed in the street, then later in theatres. The commedia dell’arte was hugely popular and spread first to France, then to Britain.
In the 18th century in Britain, a special type of commedia dell’arte developed. This kind of comic play was called a Harlequinade after the main character, a servant called Harlequin. Other characters included a lively girl called Columbine and her miserly old father Pantaloon. Several professional theatres in London performed Harlequinades all year round, experimenting with different humorous storylines, scenery and costumes. These early pantomimes were so popular that the actors who performed in them often became stars.
In the early 19th century a new character developed, called Clown. The actor Joseph Grimaldi (1779–1837) became such a famous Clown that he made the character even more important than Harlequin. The shows began to include elaborate scenery, magic tricks and special effects, singing, dancing and hilarious “chase” scenes. Sometimes they featured speeches from a fairy queen too, and gradually they began to focus more and more on storylines from popular fairy tales and folk legends. Traditional characters such as Puss in Boots eventually took over from Clown and Harlequin.
By the 1870s, particular stories had emerged as clear favourites for pantomimes. These included Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose, Aladdin and Babes in the Wood. Pantomime producers tried to outdo each other in creating lavish theatrical spectacles, and leading parts were often given to the stars of Victorian music hall entertainment such as Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. When the popularity of music halls died out and variety shows and radio programmes took over, the principal roles in big pantomime productions were taken by new stars such as Arthur Askey and Tommy Trinder. Since the invention of television, pantomime producers have invited television stars to perform. Today, all sorts of famous people take part, from celebrity chefs and sports stars to disgraced politicians and their wives!
WHAT HAPPENS IN A MODERN PANTOMIME?
Modern pantomimes are loved especially by children—and troupes of children often perform in them too. The children are usually chosen from local dance schools and drama clubs. Alongside the adult performers, they sing, dance and take part in the traditional physical, rough-and-tumble type of comedy known as “slapstick”.
A pantomime always has a strong storyline of good battling with evil. Traditionally, the villain appears from stage left and the good fairy appears from stage right. This follows a custom in some medieval religious plays, in which the entrance to hell lay to the left and the entrance to heaven lay to the right.
Pantomime is one of the few types of modern theatre in which male actors play certain female characters and female actors play certain male characters. For instance, men traditionally play the parts of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella. And everybody loves the pantomime Dame—a character who is usually the hero’s mother, such as Widow Twankey in Aladdin. This hilarious role is traditionally played by a male star: famous “Dames” have included Dan Leno, Danny La Rue, John Inman and Les Dawson. In turn, the leading male character or “principal boy”, such as Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, is traditionally played by a female star. Famous principal boys in the 20th century included Barbara Windsor, Anita Harris and Cilla Black.
In Victorian times, music hall performers encouraged the audience to join in with their acts, teaching them to shout out phrases at certain moments in their routine or to join in the singing of a song. The music hall stars who went on to perform in pantomimes established a tradition of audience participation in these shows too. Audiences at modern pantomimes wait eagerly for a character to argue “Oh no he isn’t!” so they can insist “Oh yes he is!”, and they delight in shouting out “He’s behind you!” when a performer cannot spot the villain on stage. Set pieces of comedy like this are part of the long pantomime tradition.