CC 3.0
Millfield Theatre Christmas pantomime of Mother Goose via CC 3.0

With the holidays upon us, the pantomime season has taken over in the United Kingdom and is growing with increasing popularity across the world, particularly in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. There are traditional pantomimes, rock ‘n’ roll pantomimes, modern retellings of traditional pantomime fairy tales…the list goes on! While you might be familiar with the traditional dame character, the principal boy and girl, and the comical songs and dances, where do these traditions come from? And if these stock characters are completely alien to you, then read on! How did the traditional pantomime entertainment come into being?

So, in the spirit of the season, let’s take a fun look at the history of one of the theater’s most entertaining genres and how it has evolved today.

Where Did Pantomime Come From?

Pantomime is not just a popular modern entertainment–its roots date back to classical theater and these influences can still be found in pantomime today. The first British pantomimes had their basis in the early Italian genre of commedia dell’arte. This popular form of theater was found in Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century and featured a group of masked actors performing improvise-based sketches. Like today, there were exaggerated stock characters that featured regularly in each sketch. These included the Pantalone (the old man), the innamorati (young lovers) and, later on, the comical Harlequin. The English version of this entertainment was called the harlequinade, featuring a clown, the pantaloon, eloping lovers, and the emergence of what we would now identify as slapstick. The word pantomime was used from the early 1700s but these short productions were silent mime shows and not recognizable as the panto we know it.

By the Victorian era, the modern pantomime emerged as a popular theatrical genre and extravagantly successful productions at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, featured some of the most popular performers of the period. The theater’s famous manager, Augustus Harris, produced and wrote shows that became the most popular holiday entertainments in London during the late 1800s, and shaped the pantomime we know and love today.

Traditional Pantomime Stories

Although pantomimes are traditionally performed at Christmas, most pantomime plots have no direct relevance to Christmas at all! Instead, they are usually based on traditional children’s stories, with fairy tales being the most popular choice. In more recent years, Cinderella and Aladdin have battled for top panto choice, with Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Babes in the Wood, Dick Whittington, and Peter Pan being popular choices also.

These stories work really well in the pantomime format as they follow the basic plot progression:

  • The hero or heroine is under threat!
  • The threat gets worse!
  • A possible savior is introduced!
  • A battle between good and evil takes place!
  • The evil is dispersed and the hero/heroine is reunited with their true love!

Who’s Who in the Modern Panto?

There are several stock pantomime characters that we have come to expect to see on the pantomime stage. The first one most people think of is the Dame. Normally played by a man (but not as a saucy ‘drag’ role), she is over-the-top, quick witted, and has a questionable taste in clothing. The Dame carries the comedy in the pantomime and interacts extensively with the audience. Indeed, you are positively encouraged to shout out and participate vocally as loudly as you possibly can!

Victorian actor Dan Leno in an early panto of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Next there are the principal boy and principal girl, who are either the title role or their star crossed lover. They are attractive, brave, kind, and ALWAYS succeed in the end!

Adding to the comedy, and supplying many of the one-line gags, is the Simple Simon role. He is friendly, not particularly bright, and often hankers after the principal girl. Popular roles of this kind are Buttons in Cinderella and Wishee-Washee in Aladdin. Finally, there are, of course, the villain and the goody! How can you have a pantomime without a wicked stepmother or an evil sheriff? Or indeed a fairy godmother to make everything ok!

Fun Facts About Pantomime Traditions

Did you know……..

  • Traditionally, the last lines of the pantomime are in rhyming couplets and should only be spoken for the first time on opening night!
  • One strict pantomime rule–the villain must enter and exit stage left, and the goodies from stage right. This tradition has its roots in medieval mystery plays, where the left of the stage represented hell and the right was heaven.
  • The tradition of a male playing the Dame first appeared in the early 1800s. The famous clown, Joseph Grimaldi, is the first to be recorded as playing the Baron’s wife in Cinderella in 1820.
  • A popular gag in modern pantomime is the ghost routine. This usually involves the Dame and one or more other characters being left on stage in a lonely situation (imagine a haunted forest or a dark castle). A ghost appears (“It’s behind you!”) and scares the characters offstage one by one. Ultimately, the Dame is left to face the ghost, but this time the ghost flees in terror!
  • A ‘slosh scene’ is a popular comedy scene that involves making a mess–custard pies, wallpaper paste, and water are all popular choices. However these scenes are more difficult to stage than they sound, as they require perfect comedic timing to be effective. Not to mention cleaning the stage straight away afterwards!
  • Recognize traditional elements of pantomime in popular shows today? The Mystery of Edwin Drood draws extensively on the British pantomime traditions with the cross-dressing hero, the bad guy, and fool! One Man, Two Guvnors also makes the most of pantomime’s interactive elements, inviting audience members up on the stage and interacting with the audience to keep the plot moving along. Which other ones can you think of?

So there we have it, a whistle stop tour through the history and evolution of the modern day pantomime. All that remains is to get into the festive spirit, sit back, and prepare to join in boos, hisses, and cheers!

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